Worship Wars: When did they start? Is it really worth it?

I have commented before about the Bible reading program that I use- reading a chapter a day in ten different places- and how it can alert you to connections between passages of Scripture you may never have noticed before. Today, my readings included the following passages:

You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Luke 21:16-19)

So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh. And he said to them, “Go, serve the LORD your God. But which ones are to go?” Moses said, “We will go with our young and our old. We will go with our sons and daughters and with our flocks and herds, for we must hold a feast to the LORD.” But he said to them, “The LORD be with you, if ever I let you and your little ones go! Look, you have some evil purpose in mind. No! Go, the men among you, and serve the LORD, for that is what you are asking.” And they were driven out from Pharaoh’s presence.
Then Pharaoh called Moses and said, “Go, serve the LORD; your little ones also may go with you; only let your flocks and your herds remain behind.” But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God. Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must take of them to serve the LORD our God, and we do not know with what we must serve the LORD until we arrive there.” But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go. (Exodus 10:8-11, 24-27)

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. (Jude 1:3-4, 17-21)

After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, and advanced him and set his throne above all the officials who were with him. And all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and paid homage to Haman, for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage. Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you transgress the king’s command?” And when they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would stand, for he had told them that he was a Jew. And when Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage to him, Haman was filled with fury. But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone. So, as they had made known to him the people of Mordecai, Haman sought to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus. (Esther 3:1-6)

There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated. And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. (Daniel 3:12-23)

But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.” (Acts 18:12-13)

A common criticism of Christians is that they can be contentious, petty, quarrelsome. I am not sure how many churches have split over the color of the carpet, the curtains, or the pew cushions; whether we sing from a hymnal or screen; whether there is a piano and organ or praise band; whether to use whipped cream or whipping cream on desserts (and yes, I have actually heard of this); but the very first church to split over such matters was one split too many. Nevertheless there are some things worth fighting for.

We used to hear a lot about the “worship wars” within American Christianity. They certainly are not over, as evidenced by issues of Christianity Today in the past several months, but the furor seems to have more or less subsided. Now, we usually hear things along the lines of “agreeing to disagree,” or “is this worth ‘fighting’ over?”

What struck me in today’s readings was that worship has been fought over for thousands of years and will continue to be fought over until the end of time. The reason for the Exodus was not liberation from an oppressive government: it was worship. God rescued Israel to make his name known (Ex. 6:7; 7:5, 17; 8:22; 11:7; 14:4, 18). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were put into the fire because they worshipped God and not Nebuchadnezzar. Haman hated Mordecai because Mordecai only reverenced God, not man. Jesus warned that his followers would be hated by the world because the world would hate Jesus. Paul was brought to court by the Jews because of worship. Jude warned his readers that persecution and scoffers were not something relegated to the end times, but were present now. The faith, therefore, is always in need of Christians who will contend for it. There have always been, and always will be, those who would seek to undo the right worship of God.

Whether or not “worship wars” was the right term to use; whether or not the war was fought honorably; whether or not the “right” side “won”; worship is worth fighting over.

John Calvin gave two fundamental reasons for the Reformation: “a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is obtained.”[i] If you are unfamiliar with that rather well-known quote, you should probably stop, go back, and read it again. The most important thing in the Christian religion is the right worship of God. The second most important thing is the salvation of man.

In reply to Roman Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto who was trying to bring Geneva back into the arms of Rome, Calvin wrote, “…there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God. The primary rudiments by which we are wont to train to piety those whom we wish to gain as disciples to Christ are these; viz., not to frame any new worship of God for themselves at random, and after their own pleasure, but to know that the only legitimate worship is that which He himself approved from the beginning.”[ii]

Worship is not a philosophy. It is not an attitude or feeling. Worship is not a tool. It is not a method. Worship is life or death. Just ask Moses and Pharaoh; Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and Nebuchadnezzar; Mordecai and Haman; Jesus and Satan; Paul and the Jews; Jude and apostates. Worship is worth fighting for.


[i] John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1544; repr. Audobon, N.J.: Old Paths, 1994), 4.

[ii] John C. Olin ed., A Reformation Debate John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993), 59.