Worship is where heaven touches earth.
In worship, we are brought before God in a unique way, a way that has been designed and ordained by God Himself through His Word. Worship is the point at which believers are brought into contact with the means of grace, such as the preaching of the Word, the ordinances, and the fellowship of the saints. I am a Christian who enjoys worship because I, more than anyone else, need God’s grace provided through Christ by means of His church.
I am also a caucasian German man who has a distant family tree stretching back years and years and years. There is and has been a culture associated with my family, and this culture has––at times––been taken very seriously. In fact, being German, my family hails from the Lutheran tradition. If you’ve ever witnessed the Lutheran community or have been a part of this tradition, you know just how German it can get. Culture carries into the church to one extent or the other and in light of the Regulative Principle of Worship I’ve started asking: to what extent is my culture involved in eternity?
What is the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW)?
Briefly stated, the RPW is just that principle which states that God has ordained a right way to worship Him. All Christians agree that God’s Word is sufficient; but because of the sufficiency of Scripture, those who hold to the RPW understand the instructions for worship in Scripture to also be sufficient for God’s people.
These instructions, or means of worship are enough for God’s people and so to add to them would actually be a subtraction. If one were to add something to that which is already said to be sufficient, one would essentially be admitting that that something is not sufficient, but rather must be supplemented with something else. We might call this subtraction by way of addition.
RPW Christians obviously differ as to what they see prescribed for worship in the New Testament and so the RPW is not necessarily a monolith. But one thing is agreed upon: God’s Word, especially in terms of worship, is enough for God and His people.
What does culture have to do with worship?
There is no express or necessary command in Scripture for God’s people to transfer the cultures of their past into the context of worship. Of course, this side of glory, culture does make it into the church. But often times, cultures actually represent a distraction from the Gospel.
Moreover, not all cultures are consistent with God’s way of doing things. For example, my own culture contains things that do not necessarily belong in the church, especially within the context of worship. German culture is often associated with national-historical pride; Germans are also pretty happy about the material goods they design and produce (cf. BMW). This is true with American culture as well. It is often in American culture that we choose to assert the supposed dominance of American culture! But surely, this type of boasting has no place in the church.
Now, to be sure, we are unable to ditch culture completely. It’s part of who we are as societies. For example, it’s normative in American culture for customers to tip waiters an waitresses after receiving quality service and tasty food. In Japan, for example, this is the complete opposite response one wants to give a good service provider. In some of the orient, tips are thought to be offensive. Moreover, in America, we like to clean our plates at the dinner table. In Japan, especially in Okinawa, this sends a poor message to the cook!
Surely, these opposing cultural norms do not belong in the church.
Culture is inescapable. It’s almost one and the same with our respective geographical and ethnic contexts. However, it must also be admitted that not all aspects of our respective cultures are compatible with a New Testament church model.
The Gospel solution
In heaven, these divergent ways of doing things will be eliminated. There will be no cultural barriers across which we must crawl and climb in order to know and get along with one another. Our oneness with Christ will finally become a fully actualized reality.
On this side of glory, we experience something of heaven already. If cultural barriers are broken down in heaven, however, so should they be in the church (to the best of our ability). For we are all one in Christ and this translates to every single aspect of human experience.
Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).” Jews and Greeks were separated not only in terms of religion, but most of all in terms of culture. After Jews and Greeks had become believers in the earliest years of the New Covenant administration, it was their commitment to culture causing much of their division (Gal. 2:12-14). This is not to say culture is a bad thing––in heaven we will live in a heavenly culture, now typified by the New Testament church. But our commitment to earthly culture often causes riffs in otherwise pleasant relationships.
It was not religion causing a division among Gospel believers in the first century, it was cultural-traditional commitments which undermined the unity found in Christ. In the New Covenant church, God’s people are to be one in mind––one in purpose. Cultural backgrounds often undermine this oneness which most characterizes Christianity.
All of the above is not to be taken as me telling everyone else to ditch their culture. As I’ve already mentioned, this is impossible to an extent. However, while not every aspect of worldly culture is sinful, our overcommitment to it can be unhelpful and even destructive.
The centrality of our worship is Christ, and to undermine Christ in order to bring certain cultural tendencies (or conversations) into the church is to set aside the Gospel in pursuit of worldly things. As Christians, we are to do the exact opposite and focus on our true citizenship, which is in heaven, hidden in Christ. A right focus has the power to heal wounds brought about by division driven by cultural divergence and sinful overcommitments. In glory, we will celebrate a new culture where Christ is supreme and distractions are utterly absent from our heavenly experience.
God, in Scripture, commands us––His church––to recognize and practice this future order now.