[Before we get started, I’d like to ask you to do something: Get yourself a pen and paper and write down what you understand “worship” to mean. Don’t consult a dictionary. Just write down whatever comes to mind first. Please don’t wait to do this after you read this article. It may skew the result and defeat the purpose of the exercise.]
I recently received a series of challenging emails from a well-meaning, but doctrinaire brother. They began with him asking me, “Where do you worship?”
Even a short while ago I would have responded reflexively: “At the Kingdom Hall, of course.” However, things have changed for me. The question now struck me as odd. Why did he not ask: “Whom do you worship?” Or even, “How do you worship?” Why was my place of worship his main concern?
A number of emails were exchanged, but it ended badly. In his final email, he called me an “apostate” and a “son of destruction”. Apparently he is unaware of the warning Jesus gave us at Matthew 5:22.
Whether by providence or coincidence, I happened to be reading Romans 12 about that time and these words of Paul jumped out at me:
“Keep on blessing those who persecute; bless and do not curse.” (Ro 12:14 NTW)
Words for the Christian to remember when being tested by those one would call brother or sister.
In any case, I hold no resentment. In fact, I am grateful for the exchange because it got me thinking about worship again. It is a subject that I felt needed further study as part of my ongoing process of clearing out the cobwebs of indoctrination from this old brain of mine.
“Worship” is one of those words I thought I understood, but as it turns out, I had it wrong. I have come to see that in reality, most of us have it wrong. For instance, did you realize that there are four Greek words which are translated into the one English word, “worship”. How can one English word properly convey all the nuances from those four Greek words? Clearly, there is much worth examining on this crucial subject.
However, before going there, let’s start with the question at hand:
Is it important where we worship?
Where to Worship
Perhaps we can all agree that for all organized religion there is an important geographical component to worship. What do Catholics do at church? They worship God. What do Jews do at the synagogue? They worship God. What do Muslims do at the mosque? What do Hindus do at the temple? What do Jehovah’s Witnesses do at the Kingdom Hall? They all worship God—or in the case of Hindus, gods. The point is that it is the use to which each edifice is put that causes us to refer to them generically as “houses of worship”.
Now there is nothing wrong with the idea of a structure dedicated to the worship of God. However, does that mean that to worship God properly, we must be in a particular place? Is geographical location a critical component in worship that pleases the Creator?
The danger of such thinking is that it goes hand in hand with the idea of formalized worship—the mindset that says we can only properly worship God by performing sacred rituals, or at the very least, engaging in some collective, prescribed activity. For Jehovah’s Witnesses then, the place we worship is the Kingdom Hall and the way we worship is to pray and sing together and then study the publications of the Organization, answering according to the information written therein. It is true that we now also have what we call “Family Worship Night”. This is worship at the family level and it is encouraged by the Organization. However, two or more families gathering together for “Family Worship Night” is discouraged. In fact, if two or three families were to regularly gather to worship in a home as we used to do when we had the Congregation Book Study arrangement, they would be counseled and strongly discouraged from continuing to do so. Such an activity is viewed as a sign of apostate thinking.
Many people today mistrust organized religion and feel they can worship God on their own. There is a line from a movie I watched a long time ago that has stuck with me through the years. The grandfather, played by the late Lloyd Bridges, is asked by his grandson why he didn’t attend the funeral in the church. He responds, “God makes me nervous when you get him indoors.”
The problem with confining our worship to churches/mosques/synagogues/kingdom halls is that we must also submit to whatever formalized methodology is imposed by the religious organization that owns the structure.
Is this necessarily a bad thing?
As to be expected, the Bible can help us answer that.
To Worship: Thréskeia
The first Greek word we will consider is thréskeia /θρησκεία/. Strong’s Concordance gives the short definition of this term as “ritual worship, religion”. The fuller definition it provides is: “(underlying sense: reverence or worship of the gods), worship as expressed in ritual acts, religion.” NAS Exhaustive Concordance simply defines it as “religion”. It occurs in only four verses. NASB Translation only renders it as “worship” once, and the other three times as “religion”. However, the NWT renders it “worship” in each instance. Here are the texts where it appears in the NWT:
“who were previously acquainted with me, if they would be willing to testify, that according to the strictest sect of our form of worship [thréskeia], I lived as a Pharisee.” (Ac 26:5)
“Let no man deprive you of the prize who takes delight in a false humility and a form of worship [thréskeia] of the angels, “taking his stand on” the things he has seen. He is actually puffed up without proper cause by his fleshly frame of mind,” (Col 2:18)
“If any man thinks he is a worshipper of God[i] but does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he is deceiving his own heart, and his worship [thréskeia] is futile. 27 The form of worship [thréskeia] that is clean and undefiled from the standpoint of our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their tribulation, and to keep oneself without spot from the world.” (Jas 1:26, 27)
By rendering thréskeia as “form of worship”, the NWT conveys the idea of formalized or ritualistic worship; i.e., worship prescribed by following a set of rules and/or traditions. This is the form of worship practiced in houses of worship. It is noteworthy that each time this word is used in the Bible, it carries a strongly negative connotation.
Even in the last instance where James is speaking about an acceptable form of worship or an acceptable religion, he is mocking the concept that worship of God must be formalized.
The New American Standard Bible renders James 1:26, 27 this way:
26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
As a Jehovah’s Witness, I used to think that as long as I kept my field service hours up, went to all the meetings, refrained from practicing sin, prayed and studied the Bible, I was good with God. My religion was all about doing the right things.
As a result of that mentality, we might be out in field service and near the home of a sister or brother who wasn’t doing well physically or spiritually, but rarely would we stop to pay an encouraging visit. You see, we had our hours to make. That was part of our “sacred service”, our worship. As an elder, I was supposed to shepherd the flock which took a good deal of time. However, I was also expected to keep my field service hours above the congregation average. So often, shepherding suffered, as did personal Bible study and time with the family. Elders do not report time spent shepherding, nor doing any other activity. Only field service is worthy of being counted. Its importance was underscored at each semi-annual Circuit Overseer visit; and woe betide the elder who let his hours drop. He would be given a chance or two to get them back up, but if they continued to lag below the congregation average on subsequent C.O. visits (save for reasons of ill-health), he would likely be removed.
What About Solomon’s Temple?
A Muslim might disagree with the idea that he can only worship in a mosque. He will point out that he worships five times a day wherever he may be. In doing so he first engages in ceremonial cleansing, then kneels—on a prayer rug if he has one—and prays.
That is true, but it is noteworthy that he does all this while facing ”Qibla” which is the direction of the Ka’ba in Mecca.
Why must he face a specific geographical location to carry on worship he feels is approved by God?
Back in Solomon’s day, when the temple was first built, his prayer revealed a similar sentiment was prevalent.
““When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because they kept sinning against you, and they pray toward this place and glorify your name and turn back from their sin because you humbled them,” (1Ki 8:35 NWT)
“(for they will hear about your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm), and he comes and prays toward this house,” (1Ki 8:42 NWT)
The importance of an actual place of worship is demonstrated by what happened after King Solomon died. Jeroboam was established by God over the breakaway 10-tribe kingdom. However, losing faith in Jehovah he feared that the Israelites who traveled three times a year to worship at the temple in Jerusalem would eventually return to his rival, King Rehoboam of Judah. So he set up two golden calves, one in Bethel and one in Dan, to keep the people from becoming unified under the true worship Jehovah had set up.
A place of worship can therefore serve to unify a people and to identify them. A Jew goes to a synagogue, a Muslim to a mosque, a Catholic to a church, a Jehovah’s Witness to a Kingdom hall. It doesn’t stop there, however. Each religious edifice is designed to support rituals or practices of worship unique to each faith. These buildings together with the rituals of worship practiced therein serve to unify the members of a faith and to separate them from those outside their religion.
It can therefore be argued that worshiping in a house of worship is based on divinely established precedent. True. But it is also true that the precedent in question, the temple and all the laws governing sacrifices and festivals for worship—all of it—was a ‘tutor leading us to Christ’. (Gal. 3:24, 25 NWT Rbi8; NASB) If we study what a tutor’s duties were in Bible times, we might think of a modern day nanny. It’s the nanny that takes the kids to school. The law was our nanny taking us to the Teacher. So what does the Teacher have to say about houses of worship?
This question came up when he was by himself at a watering hole. This disciples had gone off to get supplies and a woman came up to the well, a Samaritan woman. The Jews had their geographical location for worshiping God, the magnificent temple in Jerusalem. However, the Samaritans were descended from Jeroboam’s ten-tribe breakaway kingdom. They worshiped in Mount Gerizim where their temple—destroyed over a century before—once stood.
It was to this woman that Jesus introduced a new way to worship. He told her:
“Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…Nevertheless, the hour is coming, and it is now, when the true worshippers will worship the Father with spirit and truth, for indeed, the Father is looking for ones like these to worship him. 24 God is a Spirit, and those worshipping him must worship with spirit and truth.” (Joh 4:21, 23, 24)
Both the Samaritans and the Jews had their rituals and their places of worship. Each had a religious hierarchy which governed where and how it was permissible to worship God. The pagan nations also had rituals and places of worship. This was—and is—the means by which men govern over other men to control their access to God. It was fine under the Israelite arrangement as long as the priests remained faithful, but when they began to turn away from true worship, they used their office and their control over the temple to mislead God’s flock.
To the Samaritan woman, we see Jesus introducing a new way of worshiping God. The geographical location was no longer important. It appears that first century Christians did not build houses of worship. Instead they simply met in the homes of congregation members. (Ro 16:5; 1Co 16:19; Col 4:15; Phm 2) It wasn’t until the apostasy set in that dedicated places of worship became important.
The place of worship under the Christian arrangement was still the temple, but the temple was no longer a physical structure.
“Do you not know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that the spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him; for the temple of God is holy, and you are that temple.” (1Co 3:16, 17 NWT)
So in answer to my erstwhile email correspondent, I would now answer: “I worship in the temple of God.”
Where to Next?
Having answered the “where” of the question of worship, we are still left with the “what and how” of worship. What is worship precisely? How is it to be performed?
It’s all well and good to say that true worshipers worship “in spirit and truth”, but what does that mean? And how does one go about it? We will address the first of these two questions in our next article. The “how” of worship—a controversial issue—will be the topic of the third and final article.
Please keep your personal written definition of “worship” handy, as we’ll be making use of it with next week’s article.
[i] Adj. thréskos; Interlinear: “If anyone seems religious…”