How should Christians worship, contemporary or traditional?


Many Christians continue to debate over the question of which form of worship is best, traditional or contemporary. And, as some point out, what is traditional today may once have been considered contemporary when compared to some of the worship forms described in the Bible.

For example, a reading of the Scriptures reveals a variety of instruments used in worship. Psalm 33:1-3 says: “Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous! For praise from the upright is beautiful. Praise the Lord with the harp; make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings. Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully with a shout of joy.” Psalm 150 speaks of praising the Lord with trumpet, lute, harp, timbrel, dance, flutes (translated as organs in the King James Version but not referring to the more-modern pipe organ with multiple pipes), loud cymbals and clashing cymbals.

If we truly wish to speak of traditional worship, we might wish to look at the worship described in the Bible. And, if we look at the hymnal of the Old Testament Church, the Book of Psalms, we see directives for singing the psalms accompanied by music played on a variety of instruments. For example, Psalm 4 includes the instructions for the psalm to be sung with accompanying stringed instruments, Psalm 5 was to be played with flutes and Psalm 6 was to be accompanied by stringed instruments and an eight-stringed harp. Psalms 8, 81 and 84 were to be played on “the instrument of Gath” (Gath was a pagan city in Philistia, and I can just imagine that some might have complained about the use of such a “pagan” instrument in Israel’s worship).

Old Testament worship included choirs and singers, as well as those who played stringed instruments, harps and cymbals (1 Chronicles 25). 2 Chronicles 5:12-13 describes Israel’s worship at the temple: “And the Levites who were the singers, all those of Asaph and Heman and Jeduthun, with their sons and their brethren, stood at the east end of the altar, clothed in white linen, having cymbals, stringed instruments and harps, and with them one hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets – indeed it came to pass, when the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the Lord, saying: ‘For He is good, for His mercy endures forever….’”

We read of worship in Israel under Hezekiah in 2 Chronicles 29:25ff.: “And he stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with stringed instruments, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, of Gad the king’s seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for thus was the commandment of the Lord by His prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded them to offer the burnt offering on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord also began, with the trumpets and with the instruments of David king of Israel. So all the assembly worshiped, the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded; all this continued until the burnt offering was finished. And when they had finished offering, the king and all who were present with him bowed and worshiped. Moreover King Hezekiah and the leaders commanded the Levites to sing praise to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. So they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads and worshiped.”

And so we see that traditional worship in Old Testament times included singing of the psalms and a variety of songs of praise accompanied by a wide-array of musical instruments and musicians — all to give glory to the Lord God for His mercy and goodness shown to His people.

And what about New Testament worship? Again, no organs or specific liturgical forms are commanded. In fact, the first Christians continued to worship and teach God’s Word at the temple, with the Lord’s Supper (or the breaking of bread) observed from house to house. Acts 2:42,46-47 (following the baptism of 3,000 souls on Pentecost) tells us: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers … So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

And where did the Apostle Paul go first to preach that Jesus was the Messiah and Savior who had died for the sins of all and risen again? He went to the synagogues and preached there until the Gospel was rejected (read of his missionary travels in the Book of Acts). And the New Testament churches were organized in much the same way as the Jewish synagogues, with the reading of Scriptures, teaching from the Scriptures, prophecies, prayers and psalms of praise. Elders were appointed to teach God’s Word and to oversee what others taught and shared in the services (cf. Titus 1:5ff.; 1 Timothy 3:1ff.; Acts 14:23; 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1ff.; Hebrews 13:17).

Perhaps the most detailed descriptions of church meetings in the New Testament are provided in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 14:26 says: “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification….” While the pastor or elders certainly read the Scriptures and taught the people from the Word (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-2; Titus 1:9), it was also clear that other men were allowed to share with the congregation of believers truths and applications of God’s Word and psalms of praise. In fact, Christians are commanded: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16). Instructions for the observance of the Lord’s Supper and for the gathering of offerings can also be found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.) describes the Christian worship service in his First Apology, saying that on Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, Christians gathered together, the writings of the apostles and prophets were read, the president of the assembly gave instruction and exhorted the believers to live in accord with the Scriptures just read, all rose and prayed together and, when the prayers were complete, the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist was observed and administered to those who believed the truths confessed and taught in the church and who were baptized, and offerings were gathered to care for those who were orphans or widows or sick or in need for other cause. Also of note is Justin Martyr’s writing about the teaching that Christ gives His true flesh and blood through the consecrated bread and wine.

Until Constantine, in the early 300s, Christianity was subject to persecution and worship was restricted and probably less formal. Following Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, a number of liturgies began to emerge, leading up to the more formalized liturgies used by the churches in both the East and the West for centuries, and still used today in many liturgical churches.

There is certainly a richness in the ancient liturgies which should not be overlooked or discarded. The liturgies include elements of Old Testament worship at the temple and emphasize man’s sinfulness and unworthiness before God and God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ — Biblical truths often overlooked in more contemporary styles. And, if a person takes the time to truly consider what is said and proclaimed in the liturgies, they are rich in worshipful theology.

At the same time, those who are quick to condemn all modern forms of worship and use of instruments and styles different from what is now called traditional ought to consider that stringed instruments, flutes, horns and even drums and cymbals were used in Old Testament worship and the singing of the psalms.

Which is the right way to worship? While some would argue for the use of the liturgies used in the churches for centuries and others would argue for the more contemporary styles of our day, the real answer to the question goes back to Jesus’ words in John 4:23-24 “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” True worship is not vain repetitions or the recitation of certain orders or forms (Matthew 6:7); it is true and sincere worship which flows from the heart of one who trusts in Christ as His Savior, and it is worship motivated by the Holy Spirit of God.

Therefore, if worship is in accord with Scripture — the words and message being in agreement with the Bible’s teaching — and is genuine worship prompted by the Spirit of God, it is true worship whether offered up in an ancient liturgy accompanied by a pipe organ, a new song accompanied by a praise band or songs of praise sung a capella. But, at the same time, if Scriptural words of praise do not flow sincerely from a heart which trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation, they are only empty words, vain repetitions and a misuse of God’s holy name.

God has not prescribed a specific form of worship but desires our sincere worship and praise and gives us the freedom to choose how best to express our thanks and praise for all He has done and continues to do for us for Jesus’ sake. Therefore, let your praise be Scriptural, genuine and true!

[Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]

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