From Jesus to Religion Chapter 8 Distancing Through Icons

Chapter 8
Distancing Through Icons
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation”   (Col 1:15)

In the incarnation of the Word (Jesus), we see the divine entering into the level of the ordinary. He entered the world and took His place among the poor (ordinary) people and entered into their experience completely. In this, we see the scandal of His cross-prefigured in the incarnation. However, the incarnation is unthinkable for the religionist, for His God would never lower Himself to the level of the ordinary or even the physical. Therefore, God must be removed and put in His rightful place, which is the sacred. He must be shrouded in the pretentiousness of the world in all of its glory. He must be taken out of the ordinary and everyday, away from the ordinary people and placed in the hands of the great orators, philosophers, and the artists who can give Him the honor He is due. He must be turned over to those who can express Him adequately in image, word, and thought. In this, He is imaged through sacred art, theology, or philosophy. Moreover, a new language must be created to explain and converse about this noble god of the sacred. The ordinary language of the common people is no longer adequate. God must be spoken about with the language of the philosopher or theologian. So we have the creation of what I call “God talk.” In all of this, the simplicity of the gospel is lost and the common people are distanced from God. Through icons, philosophy, and God talk, the ordinary person is thrice distanced from God. For God is taken out of their world and put in the world of the sacred, a world that can only be explained and imaged by the highly educated or skilled professionals who have a knowledge of the holy language.

Distancing and Subversion Through Icons

To begin with, we need to raise the question as to what an icon or image is. Is it an idol? But what is an idol? Is it simply a false god of wood and stone who was worshiped by ancient people? In a purely physical sense, an idol is a physical image intended to reflect or symbolize God or some characteristic of the divine. However, we must go beyond the physical to have a clear understanding of icons and idols. We must go to the root of the problem, which is the human heart. The apostle Paul hints at this when he says that all greed is idolatry (Col. 3:5). Idolatry is a problem of the heart that manifests itself in the making of icons and idols. But this still does not tell us what an icon or idol is. I suggest an idol or icon is a symbol of an ideology, a way of thinking that is contrary to the mind of God. In this, we are saying a physical icon or idol is only a reflection of the true false god that a group or individual has built-in their minds and hearts.

Let me give a few examples of the icons or symbols of an idolatrous mind. In the ideology of communistic materialism, the physical idol or icon is the state or government, which is raised up and given the status of God. One Marxist refers to the state as “God walking on the earth.” In many religious ideologies, the holy man or institution is the physical icon of the body religious. In paganism, which has as its highest value pleasure, the human sex organs become the symbol of their idolatry. All these ideologies and their symbols are a reflection of a mind that hates the true God, a mind which is contrary and hostile to God, a mind that cannot please God. It is only in Jesus Christ that we can see the true and pure mind of God. Therefore, any icon other than Jesus Christ is a symbol of man’s hostility and ignorance of the true God.

Why Idols?

Iconicism is the way certain men reduce the true God to a manageable size. They do this because they cannot tolerate standing before the immensity of the true God, which leaves them with a sense of helplessness. Therefore, they reduce God to an idol. The God of heaven must be brought down to earth by imaging Him with something in the creation, or by putting Him into a system of thought that reduces Him to the opinion of a man or a group of men. In essence, the building of systems is very much like the making of idols; both make God small and mankind larger in their own eyes. When God gave the commandment that His people were not to make images or to worship them, He also revealed Himself as a jealous God. We gather from this, God is jealous in protecting His true image; very similar to how a man is jealous to protect his own name, which is a symbol of the man. When men make icons or systems, they can only tarnish God’s real image, for no icon or system can adequately image the true God. When men deface God’s image by making icons and systems, God’s wrath is upon them and their idols. His turning them over to their idols and ideologies; this turning over to their false god is a manifestation of the wrath of God upon them. In essence, they become the plaything of their own imagination or the image they have created. They seek life in their image or system, but find only death because there is no life in idols or systems, but only death (Gal. 3:21). Life is only to be found in the true image of God, who is Jesus the Christ. “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (John. 5:11-12).

Today’s moderns like to think idols were a problem of the ancient and that modern man has outgrown the problems of idols and idolatry. However, this belief comes more from modern man’s pride than from any evidence. In fact, the evidence seems to be growing that ancient man was not as primitive in his thinking as today’s moderns would like to think. In many areas, ancient man’s thinking was superior to ours. For the most part, ancient man did not believe that the icon or image was actually a god, but rather he believed it to be a likeness or symbol of his god, which is not unlike many modern men who claim icons help them focus on the spiritual things behind the icon.

When the Israelites made a golden calf and worshiped it, they understood the image itself was not the God who brought them out of Egypt. They realized it was just an image or an icon of the God of heaven. In making the icon, they were simply attributing to the God of heaven the characteristics of the icon, which was in this case a young bull that symbolized power and strength. From a human point of view, one might think God would be pleased with this honor. However, from the response of Moses, it was obvious God was not pleased with this honoring of His power or strength through a visual image. The reason is that God and His characteristics cannot be symbolized with anything in His creation other than His Son Jesus the Christ. Even here we must hasten to point out that we are not talking about the physical form of Jesus the man, but rather His spiritual and moral character as reflected in His life and resurrection.

The Early Christians’ View of Icons

It is known today; like its Jewish roots, primitive Christianity was inimical to all icons, and for that matter, all religion. Bernard J. Cooke, a Catholic theologian, in his book The Distancing of God gives two reasons for this hostility. He explains, “Earliest Christianity had been wary of religious images, influenced no doubt by the Mosaic proscription of graven images. In addition, the overall tendency to accept the basic experience of daily life as the sign of God’s presence in their midst meant that there was no need to seek iconic symbols for the divine presence. Paul stressed that Christians themselves were the sign of the Spirit’s activity in history-and undoubtedly early centuries listened to him” (page 97).

In other words, it was their Jewish roots, as planted in the Ten Commandments, which created their hostility toward icons of all kinds. They simply took the Scripture at face value when they said; “You shall not make for yourself an idol [image] in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4). The reason for this restriction is that man can never image God with anything physical, and there is nothing tangible that can adequately image any aspect of God’s character. When imaging God, the sensible can only be misleading and will always make God small. In view of this, humans should not even attempt to image the true God in their minds for God cannot be imaged by the human mind. Any image of God we have in our mind, at best, can only be an idol or image of a false god we have created with fragments of reality we have pieced together with our human imagination.

Effects of Icons

The subconscious power of symbols and images are just beginning to be understood by psychologists, and the findings are alarming. Modern man is just beginning to realize the power of symbols to shape his beliefs and behavior at a subconscious level without him even being aware of it. This alone should reawaken our concern about the uses of icons in Christian worship and teaching. We should be very much aware of the danger of the visual for it was the visual that deceived Eve.

I believe we can see the link between the visual and the ethical behavior of many Christians by observing the contrast in their behavior when they are with other Christians or in a sacred place in the secular world. It becomes obvious that many are different people depending on the location and the people they are with. Could there be a link here between their ethical behavior and the visual? What image of God do these people have in their minds? Does their God resemble the God of heaven who is a living, seeing, and omnipresent God, or is their god like a dumb idol locked away in a sacred place that neither sees nor hears? Where did this image of God come from? Does this image operate on the conscious or subconscious level? I suggest it works at the subconscious level and it comes from the visual stimulus that religion uses to deceive men into believing God is present in their sacred places, which on the subconscious level leaves the impression He is not present in the everyday world of the common man. This belief then leads to the idea that what is done in the secular is not seen or heard by the God who is locked up in the sacred. All of this reduces the living God to nothing more than a lifeless idol. So, here we charge religion with reducing the true God to the status of a dumb idol. We include in this indictment the Christian religion.

The Lord Himself pointed out the connection between the visual and the ethical life when He said; “The eye is the lamp of the body, if your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness” (Matt. 6:22-23). In another place He said; “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (John 9:41). From the words of Jesus, I suggest that everything we see has a subconscious impact on our very being, and that the visual forms shape our moral and ethical lives. Thus, it is the visual that warps and distorts one’s inner life. Here we can see the danger of pornography of all kinds including icons, which are nothing more than religious pornography and propaganda. I base this radical statement on the fact that the visible can only give a distorted image of the true God.

The Incarnation and Icons

Even a greater deterrent to icons than the ones listed above was the early Christians belief in the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus and His Spirit-filled people. Only God can image God and He did this when He created man in His image as a living soul (Gen. 1:26). Though we see this image being tarnished in the fall, we also see Him completing and perfecting it in Jesus the Christ, who is said in a number of places, to be the image of God (Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3, 2 Cor. 4:4). In this current age, God is now transforming every Christian into the image of His resurrected Son. Though that image at the present time is hidden in Christians, those who have the Spirit can still see it with an eye of faith. The work of transforming Christians into the image of Christ, who is the image of God, will be completed in the final resurrection when we all share totally in the image of Christ. We must concur with early Christians in the belief that if God is present in the person of His Son and His Spirit-filled people, there is absolutely no need for icons or images of any kind in the Christian faith. The living symbols of Christ and His people are the only symbols that can image the living God, for they are the only images created by God and they are the only living symbols God has given to man. They, and they alone, have the life of God in them. Any other icons must be viewed as a departure from the faith and a form of distancing of God from the common people and their everyday experiences. Idols and icons are in a sacred place: the living Christ. His body (Christians) is in the entire world and those who are a part of it are alive with the living God inside of them. Therefore, Christ is being reflected by them through the power of the Spirit that lives in them (2 Cor. 3:18).

God’s True Icons

When we use the words idol or icon, we usually use them in a negative way, as when we refer to a pagan or false God. However, the words idol and icon basically mean an image that represents something we reverence or worship. With this in mind, we can refer to the Christ of God as God’s icon or idol. The writer of the book of Hebrews borders on this when he says of Christ; “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3). Of course, the writer is not talking about seeing the Christ with a fleshly eye, but rather he is talking about seeing the Christ with the spiritual eyes of one’s heart. When one sees Christ this way, he also sees the Father’s mind and heart, for the Father’s mind and heart is filled with Christ and Christ’s heart and mind is filled with the Father. Therefore, to see the Son is to see the Father and to know the Son is to know the heart and mind- of the Father.

The apostle Paul tells us that Christians are now reflecting the image of Christ to the world and angels (2 Cor. 3:18). In fact, he says we are being transformed into the likeness of His Son. In a sense, we could say that Christians, like their Lord, are God’s living icons and are filling the world with the image of God. In fact, they are filling the whole universe with the image and presence of their Lord. When people look at Christians, they are to see a reflection of the Christ, who is the image of the living God. I propose that if God has living icons in the person of His Son and His Spirit-filled people, why in the world does He need dead lifeless icons and images that neither see nor speak?

How then did icons get into the Christian movement and why were they introduced? The answer is, they could not get in until the movement had been subverted and its main or master symbols had been changed. As we have seen in previous chapters, this subversion did not happen overnight, but gradually took place over a number of centuries as the symbols of law, holy men, institution, and rituals were added. However, I believe the addition of these symbols alone could not explain the radical departure and subversion that took place when icons were added to the Christian faith. I believe one can trace the beginning of this subversion to a church that had already been distanced from its radical root and had developed a lust for respectability. In order to win this respectability, it would have to compromise with the pagan masses, their religions, and with their culture. It found that with some compromising, it could attract the masses and with the multitudes came success and power. This was too much of a temptation for a group that up to that point had experienced nothing but rejection and persecution. So, failing the temptation to a will to power, a temptation that its Lord had rejected, it opened its doors to hordes of unconverted pagans who brought with them numerous superstitions, fetishes, and a lust for images into the church. (Note Cooke, page 98)

When the church, in its institutional form, found itself filled with multitudes of unregenerate pagans who were addicted and accustomed to the visual stimulus of pagan images and pretentiousness, it found itself with the problem of how to keep and teach this group of people who did not have the Spirit of Christ, nor a love for the Word spoken or written. The answer was simple; change the menu, but not the diet. In other words, continue to use the visual, but simply change the icons to reflect the story of Christ and the Christian movement. Though their intention may have been good, the outcome was disastrous. The icons soon degenerated into magic and superstitions, further subverting the faith and distancing the common person from the living God. We might say that the institution, along with its mass numbers of unconverted members, opened its doors to symbols, which before this time, would have been an abomination to the Christian faith. Their act not only opened the doors of the church for icons, but also to all forms of visual stimuli that were so common in pagan religions. In this, the lust of the eye was made respectable in the church and remains that way to some degree in much of what is called the Christian church (1 John. 2:16).

A quick inventory of pagan religion, and for that matter, all organized religion, will show that religionists have the propensity for taking God out of the ordinary and placing Him back in the sacred. In order to do this, a sacred place must be created. Then the sense must be created that the deity is somehow present in the sacred place in a way that it is not in the unholy or ordinary. Using the visual to create a sense of other-worldliness does this. This sense of other-worldliness is created through a host of other world symbols: the burning of incense, mystical ritual, mystical language, emotional music [sacred], lighting (usually the lack of it), the ostentatiousness of the structure itself, and, of course, the images or icons of the deity or other heavenly beings. Western Christians easily see all this in pagan religions, but we are not talking about pagan religions. We are talking about that which calls itself Christian. It is quite obvious from just a casual reading of the New Testament that all of this religion has no place in a movement that was started by a carpenter with the help of a few fishermen, amidst a group of ordinary folks with little money or power, a group that gathered mainly in the homes of its members for over two hundred years.

Iconoclastic Movements

We should not be under the impression that the addition of icons to the faith went unchallenged in the earlier centuries of the church. To the contrary, there were numerous men in the church who spoke out boldly against icons. However, they were too few and not powerful enough to keep the will of the masses of unconverted pagans from ruling the day.

In spite of this, God continued to raise up men throughout the history of the church who have spoken out against the use of images in the Christian movement. There also have been a number of iconoclastic movements that rose up in protest against the use of icons. These restoration or reformation movements, by and large, had little or no influence on the institutionalized church. Their call for the church to forsake the visual was generally completely ignored. This is not surprising seeing that the institutionalized church depends on the visual for its very existence, for without the visual it would soon crumble and turn to dust like all idols. Unfortunately, history bears out that iconoclastic movements can and often do degenerate into idolatry themselves. This happens when an iconoclastic movement loses sight of its purpose and subsequently is overcome by the visual and its own lust for success. Then their preaching against icons, images, and the visual takes on a form of legalism, which itself is a form of idolatry. In legalism, an ideology, or a system, becomes the idol replacing the original icons that were being attacked by the movement.

Most of these movements begin in protest to the institutionalization that has grown up in the mainstream church: in other words, to the form, structure, and institutions of religion. But given enough time and success, they seem to mutate into what they were originally trying to destroy. Those involved in iconoclastic movements should remember what Nietzsche said in Beyond Good and Evil: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

Once a movement has turned into what it was trying to reform, it becomes an impossible situation to correct. For the only course to correct it is institutional suicide. Though this may be possible, it is not likely. Institutions do not die easily. It is very unlikely that the infrastructure of any organization would allow the institution benefiting it to die, much less participate in destroying it. This is why a clerical system is the first warning sign of a subversion of an iconoclastic movement. Clergymen are symbols of institutionalism and are more protectors of the institution than proclaimers of the faith. The infrastructure of religious institutions is usually made up of seminaries, Bible schools, and colleges that train the professional religionists for the institution. These in turn become guardians of the institution; of course to the astute, this represents nothing more than a highly structured form of censorship that would hit right at the pocketbooks of all dissenters.

Here may lay the obsession with the religious professionals being so highly educated or the most educated in a given group. Their education represents or is a symbol of their power over the group. This power is desperately needed by the institution in order to survive. Seeing that our culture will no longer accept an ex cathedra power, the institution must impose a new form of authority and power. Like most institutions of the last few centuries, the church has turned to the power of the knower. Even though the knower has the power in this situation, the institution reserves the right to determine who the knower will be. Of course, all institutions have determined that the true knower is the one who will accept and teach everything that the institution wants him to teach. All this is done in the name of protecting the truth. The truth is, it is done to protect the authority and infrastructure of the institution with the bottom line being financial as much as a love for the truth. Unfortunately, many good men are caught up in this system of the world without even being aware of it.

Icons: A Wall of Hostility

There is also another problem with icons that has never really been given the consideration it should have, and that being the mediating effects icons have among believers and even between the believers and unbelievers. Since the introduction of icons into the Christian movement, they have represented a dividing wall or a mediator between believers in Christ. They have also hindered any dialogue between Christians and the rest of the seed of Abraham, namely Jews and Moslems, who simply refuse to accept any religious icons. In fact, both Jews and Moslems view the uses of icons as nothing more than a form of pagan idolatry. It would seem in view of this, that Christians who love Jesus Christ and share the mind of Christ, who wants all men to be saved, would be willing to refrain from the use of icons for the sake of Christian fellowship, so that others who are of the seed of Abraham might be saved.

Icons as a form of mediation are also distancing Christ and the Christian movement from the general populace, who because of modern science, have in themselves become iconoclastic in their thinking. Most educated people, even though they are not Christian, now view all icons as superstition. I find it somewhat ironic that it is now pagans who are breaking down the idols of Christians instead of Christians breaking down the idols of pagans. This is not to say that non-Christians do not have their own idols. They are just more clever at hiding them. However, I do feel that the humanists stand justified in their criticism of Christians for their religious icons and their ostentatiousness, which is more of a model taken from paganism than from the Man from Galilee.

Idols Today

The majority of people today, both Christian and non-Christian, believe idols were a problem in Biblical times but are no longer a problem for modern man. However, this is only true when one uses the term idol or icon in their most restrictive sense as an image made with human hands. In its broader sense, an idol could be anything that is exalted to a place of being one’s absolute or anything that would form or shape one’s values (Col. 3:5). In his book, Radical Monotheism and Western Civilization, H. Richard Niebuhr points out that our true God is the thing that forms our center of value and holds our loyalty. Our faith-in these gods then takes two basic and dominant forms according to Niebuhr, “a pluralism that has many objects of devotion and a social faith that has one object, which is, however, only one among many” (page 18). By the expression “social faith,” he means that one has put his faith in a group or society of people making them the center of one’s values and making them the absolute of his loyalty. Social faith can be directed toward a family, tribe, nation, or a religious group. This social faith turns these groups into his absolute or his god. When this happens, men have created their idol. Probably the most obvious examples of a social faith is the faith of a member of a cult, or political party whose faith, though not recognized by the individual, is centered in the group and not God.

It is here that we find the icons or idols of the contemporary church. The modern church has made itself into an idol in that it has exalted itself in the eyes of many to the point it has become their absolute. In exalting itself and making itself larger in the eyes of its members, it has made Christ small and has distanced people from God. In this, the church itself has become a symbol of mediation, an idol that distances people from the true God. This happens whenever the church takes an institutional form and sets itself apart as the absolute authority (God) in the eyes of the people. In doing this, it confuses the body with the head and exalts the body to the place of the head. In an institutional form, the only way the church, if it can still be called the church, can keep its members is by making itself the absolute and setting itself up as the mediator between God and man. Once this is done the institution has tremendous power over its members, for to leave or disobey the institution is to leave or disobey God, for the institution is God.

Of course, Christians are not the only ones who are guilty of making a group or movement their absolute. There are all kinds of systems, causes, and movements that men have made their absolutes and in turn given their loyalty to in various degrees. Probably the most common one outside the religious realm is nationalism. Nationalism is making an absolute out of one’s nation or society; in other words, making one’s nation and culture the highest authority and the measurement of all things. It is here we find the idolatry of the Western church, and especially those who claim to be evangelical and fundamentalist. The betrayal of this idolatry is seen in the presence of the American flag in many of their places of worship along with the Christian flag. How can two nations that are completely antithetical to one another, as symbolized by their symbols (flags), one being an eagle and the other a slain lamb, be reconciled? The truth is they cannot be except by reducing the God which is above the many to a God who is just one among the many.

A Land Filled with Idols

There are so many systems, causes, and movements today, that hardly a day can go by without someone soliciting one’s loyalty and support for some cause or ideology. These range from Americanism to Communism and have so cluttered the landscape of people’s minds that it has become difficult for many to sort it all out. However, the landscape today is not unlike the landscape that the early church encountered when it entered the world for the first time with the gospel of Christ for the very purpose of breaking down the idols of the world and turning people to the living God. The reason the early church was so successful was that it carried with it no idols of its own. Here lies the terrible failure of the modern church. We cannot call the world to turn from its idols when we have our own to deal with first. Let us take the log out of our own eye before we try to take the speck out of our brother’s eye. Let us destroy the idols in the Christian movement before we try to destroy the idols of the world.

It is my opinion that the Christian Church, for the most part, has failed so miserably in breaking down the idols of the modern world that God has actually had to raise up some secular disciplines to break them down. There is little doubt in my mind that God is using many worldly disciplines to destroy that part of His church that has slipped into idolatry. This should not be surprising for God has frequently used pagans to do His will even though they were not aware of it at the time. Like many of our secular disciplines, they often went too far, and God in turn ends up destroying them (Isa. 10:511). Before the church sends its white knights out of the city to slay the dragons of secularism, maybe it should have them stay at home inside the city of God and kill its own dragons. I really believe God is fully able to take care of our secular friends and all their twaddle (1 Cor. 5:12). It is enough for us to simply become a light on a hill. If we can accomplish that, God will be well pleased and the church will again become the light of the world. However, this cannot be accomplished until Christ is made the center of the church’s faith. In order to make Him the center, all this religion along with its idols and systems must be removed from the center so that Christ might be all and all.

In all of this, God is calling us to be a people who are to live without idols until our Lord returns from on high. This is not an easy task when you consider that our culture and even the religions of that culture are persistently making idols of all kinds. We must remember that faith by its very nature is iconoclastic. When it ceases to be iconoclastic, it is no longer the faith of Christ. Therefore, let us prepare our minds for the battle against the idols of this world and the icons of the church. Let us cast down the religious, political, and cultural ideology that stands opposed to God. Let us throw them down and grind them into dust as Moses did with the golden calf. Let the world begin to fear and hate those who have the power to destroy idols (Rev. 11:1-6). “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1John.5:21). Amen.

Models of Thought and Worship

Models of Thought and Worship

Throughout the history of the Christian church there has been debate and division over the subject of worship. Both Catholics and Protestants have fought between themselves and with each other over what constitutes true worship.  The reformers among them usually wanted to go back and restore what they saw as the ancient order of worship as seen in the early church. However, even here there was no agreement as to what actually constituted that order.  In fact, it seems the more they sought that order the more the division multiplied, but why did these good  men see things so differently?

I once was told by an old preacher that these reformers all saw the Bible through different glasses.  Of course, in the context of our discussion I quickly realized that the old preacher had said this with the full intent of convincing me that his sect had on the right glasses.  Little did this old preacher know that in his religious rhetoric, he came very close to the truth.  It is true that each of the reformers looked at the Bible with a set of glasses on, but the problem was, and is, much deeper than the old preacher every dreamed.  For you see, the reformers all basically had on the same glasses.  They all had the same Bible, but more important for our discussion is the fact they all looked at the subject of worship through the same model or paradigm—that model being the institutional model.  It is here that the problem begins to surface, since the institutional model of worship does not exist in the New Testament.  So the question arises: How do you reform or restore something that never existed in the first place?

We are saying in essence that the reformers looked at the Bible and the early church through a model that did not even exist in the minds of primitive Christians.  Therefore, because the reformers start with a presumption that is not found in the Bible—namely, that the first century church was much like or somewhat like the institutional church of their own day, they actually were blinded to the fact that the early church was nothing like the institutional church of their age.  Of course, this presumption was fatal for it locked their thinking into an institutional model that has contributed to much of the division and chaos of the sects until the present day.  In view of this, we can begin to see that the logic of the reformers, though often correct in the model in which they thought, could not take us or them to where the Bible would have us go.  Why? Because they were thinking outside of a Biblical paradigm or model.

To capsulate this point, we could say that the reformers could not reform or restore the model they had in their minds because such a model did not exist in the Scriptures.  Therefore, there was no authority to appeal to other than a model created out of the traditions of men.  The reformers forced the Scriptures into supporting the institutional model of the church that they had in their minds.  The only model of the church in the Bible is not a model of an institution, but rather of a man.  There is no institutional model in a man nor is there any proscribed list of rules to be found in a man.  What is found in the man is the image and likeness of God

This helps us to understand why the church can only move toward completeness as it conforms to the image of the man, which is Jesus Christ.  Most restorations and reformations have failed and have only caused more division in the body of Christ.  At their very best, these movements have only been able to restore the institutional church to its earliest beginnings, which would date to the second or third century, for it is about that time that the early church began to take on its institutional form.  This is the reason the churches which involved in the restoration and reformation movements resemble the third or fourth century church more than they do the first century church.  I dare say that it is impossible for a people who have an institutional model of the church in their minds to imagine what the first century church would look like, much less be able to restore it.

Models of Worship

Before we begin our discussion of models of worship we should clarify what we mean by a model.  By this expression we simply mean a  way of thinking—a way through which we look at a thing or all things.  This idea is often expressed with terminology such as “world view” or “ideology.”  All of these expressions mean simply a certain way of looking at a thing that has become a habit of thought to the extent that one does it subconsciously.  Here, the difference between a point view and model surface.  A point of view is conscious and is in many cases chosen.  On the other hand, models are subconscious and are seldom chosen but rather are inherited from one’s culture.  Models are the things that we presume to be true.  They form the framework on which we build all of our thinking.

We might gather from this that one might be conscious of many points of view on a subject, yet never perceive the model that lies beyond one’s conscious perception.  In view of this one might argue that there is no such thing as an open-minded person.  For all people are influenced and biased by their models or paradigms or what we have called habits of thought through which they view not some, but all things.  It is also important that we recognize that these habits of thought form barriers that keep us from seeing things that do not fit into our paradigm or model.  We will speak more of these barriers later.

But what does this have to do with the subject of worship? It has everything to do with worship because the model of worship we hold in our minds will determine how we view worship.  Have you ever considered that there might be more than one model of worship?  In other words, could there be more than one way of looking at worship?  Let me submit to you that there are a number of models of worship, and the model we use will determine how we worship and what we have determined to be worship.  In fact, our model of worship many influence the very way that we view our religious devotion and life itself.

Institutional Model

There seems to be at least two basic models of worship set forth in the book that we call the Bible.  They are the institutional model and the service model.  The institutional model is the model that most westerners think within when they think of worship.  It is this model that seems to dominate the thinking of most Christians and religious people.  We might say that the institutional model is the religious way of thinking about worship.  This model is so entrenched in the minds of most religious people that it extremely difficult for them to think of worship through any other model than the institutional model.  For these people true worship is made up of acts directed to God in a sacred place at a sacred time, by a sacred people.  They often speak of separate acts of worship, and what they call worship services.  They spend a great deal of time arguing and debating over the details that make up what they call true worship, which amounts to arguing over the details of rituals and how they must be performed to please God.  This all seems perfectly logical and is logical for those who are viewing worship through an institutional model.

Where did the institutional model come from, and how was this model of thinking developed?  It would be impossible for us to pinpoint a historical time when this model began to be developed, but we do believe that it is safe to say that it comes from a very small view of God and is one of many things that points to the great destiny between the true God and mankind.  As we have said elsewhere, this model of worship was no doubt the product of dualism and was created by religious men to worship a small tribal god whom they thought was in need of their services and, who was impressed by their ritual and form.[i]

Of course, the above view of God and worship is totally inadequate to image the true God who is made known in Jesus Christ.  The apostle Paul emphasized this in his address to the Athenians, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.  And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:24-25). And may I add that He is not impressed with our ritual, pomp, and ceremony.  What He is impressed with is men and women who are being conformed to the image of His Son.  We will see that conformity to the image of His Son is one of the true models of worship that is pleasing to the Father.

Service Model

The service model of worship is what we have chosen to call the model set forth in the New Testament and seen in the life of Christ.  We believe that the service model is the primary model set forth in the New Testament with its roots reaching back into the Old Testament.[ii] In essence, what we see in the Bible is the idea of worship starting out in seed form and growing and reaching its highest form in Jesus Christ and his body, which is the church.  In contrast, the high churches of Christendom have reverted back to the institutional model proclaiming that model as the highest form of worship.  In this, the institutional church has imaged the declension of worship as the perfecting of worship.

What is the service model? The service model of worship looks at ministry and service to the body of Christ and one’s fellowman as the highest form of worship.  In this view of worship, a faith that works or expresses itself through service and ministry is the highest form of worship.  Paul refers to this kind of worship as faith expressing itself through love (Gal. 5:6). Under the service model God is worshipped through serving and ministering to one’s brother.  Some might respond by saying that there is nothing said about worship in Paul’s remarks and that he is talking about faith and love and not worship.  A remark like this exemplifies the thinking of a person locked into an institutional model of worship.  Though this remark is logical within the institutional model of worship, it is a far too narrow a view of worship to reflect the high view of worship set forth in the New Testament.

It is so obvious that it is the service model operating in the New Testament and in the life of Christ that it need not be argued.  It is clear that the gospel writers emphasize the teaching and the example of service of our Lord and border on indifference when it came to his involvement with the ritual and forms of religion (Acts 1:1).  There seems to be no real evidence in the gospels that Jesus puts any emphasis on cultic worship, nor is there any real evidence the first century church put any emphasis on it.  It was not until the church slipped into an institutional form (a return to religion) that it began to emphasize its cultic worship.  In fact we find our Lord saying very little about any forms of cultic or institutional worship.  His emphasis was on a living relationship with God that was manifested in ones service to one’s brother (Matt. 5:23).

Barrier of Thought

Of course this raises the question, “If the service model is so obvious, why do the churches continue to look at everything through the institutional model?”  Habits of mind or models, whether in science or theology, are very difficult to see and even harder to change.  The reason for this is that the very models we use to help us to see also blind us to new information that does not fit into our models.  So in the process of building models, we also build barriers that will keep us from seeing new truths.  An example of this can be seen in many of the Jews who rejected Jesus as the Christ.  They rejected him because he did not fit the model of the Christ they had in their minds.  They expected a conquering king, not a suffering servant.

What are some barriers that would prevent one from moving from the institutional model to the service model?  One barrier is the inability to form or see an alternative model of worship. The reason for this is that as a person begins to move from one paradigm or model to another, there is a period of uncertainty and confusion.  Therefore, the journey from one model to another is a painful journey few are willing to make (Jn. 12:42).  Of course, the institution itself is a second barrier, for all institutions will resist change and that seems to be a very part of their nature.[iii]  Still another barrier that blocks people from seeing is the men who are benefiting from existing models.  In the case of religion, it is the clergy that benefits and guards the existing model.

The chief barrier that keeps men locked into an institutional model is that the institutional model itself is worldly and appeals to the flesh.  Therefore, men love it more than they love God (1 Jn. 2:15-17).[iv]   They love the institutional model for it allows a person to feel righteous or good about themselves while being in a state of complete alienation from his fellowman.  For some, as long as they have gone through the ritual and form of their cultic worship, they can feel that they are pleasing to God even though they live “like the devil” the rest of the week.  In this, we see that religion is mankind’s highest form of self-righteousness.

In view of this we must ask the question, “Could it be that the acts of religious devotion that Paul is talking about when he says, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-NOT BY WORKS, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9)? Is Paul saying here that acts of love directed toward another has nothing to do with salvation or is he saying that acts of cultic worship have nothing to do with salvation?  It is a misunderstanding of what Paul means by works that has caused some to believe that Paul and James contradict one another.  But to the unbiased person, it is obvious that Paul is talking about the ritual and form of religion while James is talking about acts of faith done toward one’s brother.

If the above is true, it raises some serious questions. Is the institutional model Biblical? What about the relationship of the institutional model to the Old Testament religion of the Jews? How did the institutional model become the primary model in the Christian Church?  What is true worship?

In replying to the question as to whether the institutional model is Biblical, we would have to say the answer depends on how one looks at it.  If we were to mean by this question that there is now some proscribed list or acts of worship binding on God’s people, the answer would have to be,  “No, it is not Biblical.”  However, if you meant by Biblical that the idea or concept of the institutional model of worship can be found in the Bible, the answer would be “yes.”  If we rephrase the question and ask whether the institutional model is a part of the will of God for His people, we would come up with still a different answer.  The answer would be “yes and no.”  In order to understand this answer, we would have to go to the Bible and understand the relationship of two covenants and the institutional model of worship.

When we go to the part of the Bible which we call the Old Testament, we actually find a number of covenants.  The two predominant covenants were the covenant of promise which was made with Abraham and the covenant of law which was made with the nation of Israel through Moses. In the covenant of promise there were no stipulations made concerning proscribed acts of worship.  The only thing that would remotely resemble a proscribed act of worship would be God commanding Abraham to offer a sacrifice.  However, this act of worship does not in any fashion reflect an institutional model of worship for a number of reasons.  They were done spontaneously or by a direct word from God and were not a part of any organized or cultic worship service.  Under the covenant of promise there were no holy places, holy men, holy times, or holy books.  There was simply a living relationship.

As we move along in time, we find God making a different kind of agreement or covenant with the Hebrew nation.  This covenant had as its foundation the Ten Commandments with a number of other laws to clarify the Commandments.  The reason for the giving of this covenant is stated by the Apostle Paul very plainly in the Book of Galatians, where he points out that the reason for the giving of the law was that the people were too immature at that time to enter into a living relationship with God (Gal. 3:15 – 4:11).

It seems that the Hebrew’s immaturity posed somewhat of a problem for God, for without a relationship with Him they surely would not have been able to survive as a people.  But they were not ready for a personal relationship with God.  So God gave them a system by which to live, a system that was similar to the ones they were accustomed to in the land of Egypt.  In other words, He gave them a religion which was not wholly different from the religions of the people around them.[v] A part of this religion, like the religions around the Hebrews, reflected the institutional model of worship which reflects the mediating effects of all religion.  The difference between the religion given to the Jews and the religions of their neighbors was that the religion that God gave them was perfect as far as religions goes, (Heb. 8: 1-13).  God’s intent in giving them this religion was to teach them the need of a living personal relationship with Him. However, the people perverted the covenant of law and used it as a means to achieve self-righteousness.  The problem was not with the law, but rather with the peoples’ hearts.  Therefore, the covenant of law is weak and unprofitable because it does not have the power to change the human heart (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 7:18).

From this we can gather that the institutional form of worship is Biblical for it is found in the Bible and in fact was given to the Jews by God.  Does this then mean that it is a part of God’s will for people?  As pointed out by Paul in the section sighted above (Gal. 3:15 – 4:11), it was given by God and therefore was God’s will for the Hebrews who received it.  However, from the same text we learn that it is no longer God’s will for those who have entered into a living relationship with God through the man Jesus Christ.  God’s will for them is that they live by faith as their father Abraham did, “The righteous will live by faith” (Hab. 2:4).  Remember that Abraham lived before the law and before the cultic worship of the law was given, and yet he was saved and was called the friend of God apart from all organized religion and cultic worship.

We have seen two of the models of thought that are at work in the minds of people which influence the way they worship and what they believe about worship.  We have also seen at least one reason why former reformation and restoration movements have failed in their efforts to reform and restore primitive Christianity.  They failed because they changed the form without changing the model.  In order to achieve a true reformation there must first and foremost be a paradigm or model change in the minds of the people, which is much more difficult than simply changing some of the doctrines and forms of religion.  Because of the difficulty involved in a model changes, those involved in a new reformation should not expect the mass to join them. The mass will always think and live in the institutional model for it is one of mankind’s chief forms of self-righteousness.

Acts of Worship

We have seen that paradigm changes are difficult because there is simply not an alternative view of how a thing ought to look.  Everyone knows how a worship service in organized religion looks.  Though some of the rituals may be different or the structure may change somewhat, most people would automatically recognize a religious worship service.  But what would happen if someone was told to come up with a totally different form of worship.  What would it look like?  For instance, would most people feel that they had worshipped when they got together with a group of friends and family for a meal and simply rehearsed what God had done for them?  However, was this not the model of the early church? (Acts. 2:42-47)

This raises a question that was touched on above, “Is there a description of a Christian worship service in the New Testament Scriptures?  The answer to this question would again depend on which model of worship one is looking through at the New Testament.  If you approach the New Testament Scriptures through the institutional model, then one would have the tendency to think of every gathering of Christians recorded in  the Bible to be a worship service and think of them very much like our present day cultic worship conducted in our church buildings on Sunday morning, or at best one might think of the them as a primitive form of what is practiced today.  With this mindset or habit of thought, it would be easy and even natural to come up with a proscribed list of acts of worship done by the first century church.

However, if one looks at the New Testament through the service model, he will tend to see worship differently.  People who have the service model in their minds will not be as apt to see a cultic worship service in every meeting of Christians recorded in the New Testament nor would they be as prone to come up with some list of proscribed acts of worship.  They will be more prone to look at their gatherings as times of edification where each member is encouraged to grow and prepare themselves for works of services which is their spiritual worship.  In contrast, those who hold the institutional model in their minds will look at their [1]gatherings as a duty to be fulfilled, fulfilled by performing certain acts or rituals.  When they leave their so-called worship services, they will feel that they have completed or fulfilled their duty in  worshiping God

We understand that the material in this essay may be alarming to those who have an institutional model of worship in their minds.  For they would be correct to conclude that we are inferring that many of their rituals and forms of worship are meaningless to God.  However, we are not saying that these rituals or forms are sinful.  But we are warning that these ritual and forms of cultic worship can become sinful when they become forms of mediation through

which one believes he and others must approach God.  In addition, when one make these rituals and forms doctrines that mediate between them and other Christians,[vi] they have also sinned.  In essence, when one does this he rebuilds the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14, 15).


[i] Reflection Vol. I Number 11.

[ii] Isa. I:11-19; Ps.51:16,17; Ps. 40:6-8

[iii] Reflection Vol. 1  Number 6  Subversion and Distancing through Institution.

[iv] The institutional model is worldly because it reflects the power structure of the world and it systems (Matt.20:25-28).

[v] God’s goal in giving the Hebrews a religion was not to make them religious for they were already religious.  His goal was to give them a religion that would lead them out of religion into a living relationship.  A perfect religion is one that causes one to mature to the point that they no longer need religion.  This is why Jesus is the end or goal of the Law to all those who believe.

[vi] In the institutional model of worship all the prescribed acts of worship have a mediating effort. In essence, this model says that if you are going to approach God in an acceptable manner, you must approach Him through these acts of worship.  In this, the acts of worship become the mediators through which the worshipper approaches God.  This may be fine for the religious person, but how can a person who believes that Jesus Christ is the ONLY mediator believe in any proscribed acts of worship which mediate God’s favor?