Foundations: No.65 Autumn 2013

Gathered Worship: Personal Preference or Sacrificial Service?

Disagreement continues to surround the issue of style in gathered worship, and yet Christians are called to love and serve one another sacrificially. This essay examines Jesus’ call to footwashing and statement of the two great commandments, applying them to gathered worship. Such language is not heard strongly within current disagreements, and provides a much-needed corrective. Many areas of church practice are not issues over which Christians should divide, yet they remain divisive. Into this context, all Christians need to hear Jesus’ call to wash each other’s feet, and to be reminded that worshipping God is worked out in love of others. 

Those saved by Christ are called to love and serve others for his sake. That is the substance of Jesus’ command that his disciples wash one another’s feet and has always been the shape of worshipping God; loving him is to be worked out in loving others. This article asks whether we have lost this focus in our thinking and speaking about gathered worship. On his way to crucifixion Jesus gives a picture of the cross in washing his disciples’ feet, and hence calls them to do likewise for each other (John 13:12-17). How sad if those meeting to focus on and sing about the cross were not interested in the needs of other disciples around them. How tragic if people called to love God with their whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and their neighbours as themselves (Mark 12:29-31) were to come to a meeting focussing on their personal preferred way to do the former without thinking of the latter.

This essay therefore explores one aspect of the Bible’s teaching on worship: that worshipping God is always worked out in serving others, applying it to our gathered worship. The truth of this logic can be summarised simply: if any of us have made gathered worship into anything approaching “getting our fix” or “having our needs met” then what we are doing in those gatherings may well not be true worship at all. True worshippers, precisely because they worship God wholeheartedly, will care so deeply for the needs of fellow worshippers that others’ needs trump their own. If we are there primarily for ourselves, then we are worshipping ourselves and not God.

The logic of this thesis means that current discussions (and dis-agreements) as to whether the Christian Sunday gathering can rightly be called worship are immaterial. The Puritans were happy to publish a paper on the Christian gathering called The Directory for the Publick Worship of God [1]  and Acts 13:2 seems to apply the term “worship” (leitourgein) to a Christian gathering. That said, the Bible’s uses of the worship words hardly focus on the gathering, and generally have a whole-life orientation. Trivially, if worship has our whole lives as its primary referent, then church must be worship, since it is a part of our lives. Hence one’s opinion on the issue has no bearing on this article’s thrust. We all agree that what we do when we gather as Christians for church must be worship. The question this article examines is whether or not we are succeeding in worshipping God sacrificially during our gatherings, or whether a craving for personal preference has crept in.

One possible criticism of this approach is to ask why one would focus in on the Christian gathering. Don Carson notes that in Engaging with God David Peterson, while writing a book to argue that the words translated “worship” in our Bibles are primarily focussed on our whole lives, ends up applying this truth to gathered worship. [2]  Carson’s point is not without merit, and there appears to be a hint of irony in his making such an observation. Yet surely gathered worship must be worship, and therefore the logic of worship may be applied to it – just as it may to behaviour in the office, on the sports pitch, at home or on holiday. Applying broad principles to the gathering does not imply that they have no further application. I cannot discover who originally said that “praise is re-calibration” – that the act of praising God recalls the wandering compass-needle of our idolatrous minds and hearts to the true north of God in all his splendour. [3]  Given that we gather in our services to focus on God, they should be the time of all times when, focussing on God, we are called to and encouraged in that true worship which is to characterise our whole lives, and in which we are to put him first, others next and ourselves last.

Peterson argues convincingly that the Bible’s use of words translated as “worship” do primarily focus on whole-life discipleship and do not speak chiefly about gathered worship, so that “worship in the New Testament is a comprehensive category describing the Christian’s total existence”. [4]  It is sad, however, that some have ended up minimising the worship aspect of the gathering. In Vaughan Robert’s excellent True Worship he pens a memorable phrase: “A friend of mine has put it like this: ‘To say, “I’m going to church to worship” is about as silly as saying “I’m off to bed to breathe for a while”.’ Worship should define the whole of my life.” [5]  Roberts’ main point is that worship is a whole-life activity, as he emphasises at the start of his next chapter, and that is right. Yet since the Christian gathering is a meeting the Bible prioritises, he could be re-phrased slightly. Better, perhaps, to say that “going to church to worship is like going to the gym to exercise” since one can and should exercise elsewhere, and our whole lives will display (or not) our commitment (or not) to exercise, but we gather at the gym to focus on our exercise and to be encouraged in that by others. In other words, the Bible locates the Christian gathering right at the heart of the life of worship, and the language we use for church must reflect that. Arguably, it is one of the key times of worship in our lives of worship.

This article proceeds in four sections. The first examines Jesus’ setting us an example to follow, as the footwasher of John 13 calls us to footwashing; the second takes a wider view of the whole Bible, seeing that God sets us a pattern to model, that loving God is to be expressed in love for others. The third section asks whether there any limits on our loving others; the fourth raises a number of practical issues within our gatherings to which the call of footwashing applies, exploring some attitudes we are to prayerfully develop.

I.  An example to follow: Jesus the footwasher calls us to footwashing

In the history of famous last words, Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse in John chapters 13 to 17 must feature highly. Here is Christ in his final hours with the disciples, just before the crucifixion, and what he does is astonishing: he washes their feet. Having done that, he calls his disciples to wash each other’s feet. This offers a paradigm for discipleship: we need to be served by Jesus, and he calls us then to respond by serving others. Hence Carson: “the episode of the footwashing is turned in two directions. On the one hand it is symbolic of spiritual cleansing (cf. especially vv. 8-10); on the other, it serves as a standard of humble service.” [6] 

1. Context

John emphasises that Jesus knew “the time had come” (John 13:1). [7]  The first half of John’s Gospel has been building to this point, ever since Jesus had explained to Mary at Cana that “my time has not yet come” (John 2:4). Chapter 12 has been clear what this time means: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit” (12:23-24). So the “hour” or “time” in John’s Gospel is Jesus’ death, and this is the hour in Jesus’ mind at the start of our chapter. In this context, Jesus’ footwashing of the disciples is to be seen as a picture of his sin-washing all of his followers at the cross.

2. Jesus’ footwashing 

The twin issues of familiarity and lack of historical contextual awareness dull our twenty-first century minds to the shocking nature of Jesus washing feet. Perhaps a moment’s consideration of the likely state of those feet may help. Can we imagine cleaning those toenails? As one excellent Bible-study guide to John makes clear “the initial reaction to the footwashing – that Jesus should take on the task of a slave – is one of horror” [8]  and many of us fail to experience that horror.

A few years ago Channel 4 ran a programme called “The Worst Jobs in History” in which Tony Robinson tried out the worst jobs associated with various periods of history. [9]  He invites us to consider the horror of serving as Groom of the Stool to King Henry VIII, the perils of a junior sailor in Nelson’s navy, and the reality of life as a chimney sweep. It is hard for most of us to imagine doing those jobs ourselves – why not pause and try to imagine one of those roles as a way of life? It is harder still to conceive of the God of the universe humbling himself to do them.

Understanding that Jesus washing his disciples’ feet points to the cross must serve to deepen our revulsion. The passage makes clear our need to be washed (John 13:8) and we must not lose sight of that – especially since the time had come for Jesus to show the full extent of his love at the cross. That is the price paid to wash us from our sins. Jesus washing his disciples’ feet would have shocked and revolted them. Jesus going to the cross for us must likewise shock and revolt us – that the Son of God would do such a thing!

3. Disciples’ footwashing 

Our focus must not be centred on the shock of Jesus doing such a menial task, just as our focus at the cross should not be on Jesus’ physical sufferings. However, the fact that Jesus carries out such a task gives weight to the command that follows: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). Jesus is clear that being served by him will lead to a life serving others. His sacrificial actions are models for his disciples, examples for us to follow.

Jesus’ explanation is simple: “a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16). If, during a work trip to a hotel, your boss were to stay in a corner suite, you would not expect to be given the penthouse. If your boss is provided with a BMW or Audi for his company car, you may expect a VW but not a Jaguar or Ferrari. But if your boss were to ride a broken skateboard, what would you expect? Jesus, who is our Lord and Teacher, washed feet and went to the cross. I sometimes wonder what I expect in following such a Lord.

One of the beauties of this passage is that the command to follow Jesus’ example comes with a promise of blessing: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17). To know these things and not do them is, whilst perfectly comprehensible on a human level, to doubt God’s word of promise. To hear this command and obey it is to trust God’s word of promise. When we struggle to obey, we do well to remember that the one who promises is faithful.

4. A common objection

Teaching this truth in a number of contexts has thrown up a repeated issue: are we not called to be ourselves, and hasn’t God made us the way we are for a reason? The answer is a qualified yes – and the qualifications really matter. Are we not called to be ourselves? The yes is qualified in two ways: First, we are called to be our re-created selves and not our dead-in-Adam selves. Second, we are called to be ourselves as servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor 4:5). Did not God make us the way we are for a reason? The qualification is simple yet profound: yes – to serve.

A few years ago now I invited a church youth worker to run a section of the monthly prayer meeting. He included great content, but presented in a style suited to 11-18 year-olds. Given that the majority of prayers at that church are aged 50 or 60 or 70, my question for him (when we met to review a few days later) was why he had chosen that style and language. His answer was, basically, it is right to be myself, and God made me how I am. We spent some time reflecting together, and I encouraged him to think that God had made him how he was so that he could serve others. That is one of the inescapable messages of John 13:1-17.

Tease out the logic that says: “I am called to be myself because that is how God made me” and consider placing it in Jesus’ mind. God the Father eternally generates the Son so that he might be ruler over the kingdom his Father has chosen to give him. Knowing this, Jesus washed feet. Knowing this, Jesus went to the cross. Jesus truly knew who he was – the Father’s chosen King. Knowing this, he chose to serve. In Philippians language, having humbled himself to become human, he humbled himself to death on a cross (Phil 2:7-8). Hence Bruce Milne’s summary of Jesus’ call in John 13:17: “Humility is a universal Christian virtue to be expressed through sincere and costly service of others in Christ’s name. Christian churches and fellowships are possible only where this attitude is expressed.” [10] 

5. Summary

Jesus’ paradigm for discipleship in John 13:1-17 reminds us all that we need to be washed by him, and the cost of that washing should shock – not just because footwashing was menial, but because it was a picture of the cross. Having been washed, we are called to serve each other after the pattern Jesus modelled. This principle has broad application across the whole of our Christian walk, and therefore must have application to our Christian meetings. [11]  Hence Calvin: “We may infer from this [v 17] that, until a man has learned to yield to his brethren, he does not know if Christ be the Master. Since there is no man who performs his duty to his brethren in all respects, and since there are many who are careless and sluggish in brotherly offices, this shows us that we are still at a great distance from the full light of faith.” [12] 

The question this passage must leave us with is whether any action is too menial, too embarrassing, too un-enjoyable for a Christian to perform in the service of a fellow Christian. We will return to this.

II.  A pattern to model: loving God expressed in love for others

There is a huge and tragic irony in our (natural) human ability to be selfish about gathered worship. Perhaps the best way to see this irony is in the two greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” [13]  In other words, true worship of the Lord (which is a vertically-focussed activity) has always been and must always be integrally linked to a deep concern for the needs of other human beings, all of whom are our neighbours (which is a horizontal activity). This section demonstrates that love for God shown in love for others is patterned across the whole Bible.

1. The greatest commandments

Mark and Luke both record versions of Jesus’ engagement with an expert in the law in which the greatest commandments are stated. In Mark’s version, Jesus himself is asked which commandments are the greatest and states the famous summary; in Luke’s account Jesus’ interlocutor states the summary (and reverses the ordering of “mind” and “strength”) before Jesus endorses it. Thus the fact that these are the two greatest commandments cannot be in doubt. There is not just one greatest command that we love God; there are two, that we love God and neighbour. If ever a clear statement of the fact that love for God is rightly expressed in love for others was needed, here it is. As Bob Kauflin puts it helpfully, “you can’t claim to fulfil the greatest comm-andment in song while neglecting the second greatest commandment in life.” [14] 

2. The Ten Commandments

It is well known that the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:2-17 and Deut 5:6-21) fall into two tables: 1-4 focus on God and 5-10 on other people. Hence commands to worship God alone, make no idols or images of him, honour his name and respect his day are followed by commands to honour parents, others’ lives (by not murdering them), others’ marriages and spouses (by not committing adultery), others’ possessions (by not stealing them), and others’ justice (by not giving false testimony against them). [15]  Hence the Ten Commandments model the fact that love for God is expressed not just in honouring God but also in loving, serving and honouring others.

John Frame’s lengthy and outstanding exposition of the Ten Commandments strengthens this argument further, since he demonstrates that each Commandment contains within it commands not only to love God but also to love each other. Here is one of his summaries: “The fourth commandment covers everything. Like the others, it is equivalent to the command to love God and one another. Although it focuses on our attitude towards God, it also governs our attitudes and actions towards one another.” [16] 

3. Other biblical evidence

The pattern of love for God worked out in love for others is across the whole Bible. It is there in Gen 1-2, where the three interwoven human relationships are upwards towards God, horizontal towards each other, and downwards towards creation. Thus the prelapsarian world models relationship with God affecting relationship with others. Genesis 3-4 makes that explicit, as a broken relationship with God radically disrupts the mutuality of human relationships (leaves are found and then skins given to hide nakedness, and then murder is committed). God’s curses on humanity and the serpent express the effect of failure to love God, and those effects are horizontal.

Ephesians 2:1-10 focusses on the vertical or God-ward aspects of salvation: objects of wrath (1-3) made alive in and raised up with Christ (4-7), saved by grace through faith (8-9). To what does Paul immediately turn? Ephesians 2:11-22 focusses on the horizontal effects of that salvation. In Christ there is no separation between Jews and Gentiles, and all sociological barriers are broken down. There is one new humanity in Christ, since “through him we both [all] have access to the Father by one Spirit” (2:18). And this new humanity have (individually) been saved to do good works (2:10) so that we are (corporately) a dwelling place for God by his Spirit (2:22). As Paul turns from a focus on the church’s calling (chapters 1-3) to examine the church’s conduct (chapters 4-6) his first exhortation is that we “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (4:1-2).

Examples have been shown from the prelapsarian world order, the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ own teaching and that of the New Testament which all demonstrate that love for God is to be shown in love for others. This is the pattern of any true worshipper, and will be pursued and developed in any true worship. This article is not the first writing to make this point. Such a pattern is explored by Vaughan Roberts in his chapter on “The Purpose of Christian Meetings” in True Worship and by John Frame in his discussion of participation and love during the gathering. [17]  Mike Cosper’s 1-2-3 of worship also locates much of this very helpfully: one object of worship, the Triune God; two contexts, scattered and gathered; three audiences, God, the church and the world. [18] 

4. Potential issues

The first issue might run as follows: there is a call to love others, so we should do whatever it takes to love those who are not yet in our gathering. Whether or not that statement is helpfully biblical depends on what one understands by “whatever it takes” and what limits one intends to place on it. Many of us will have heard versions which continue, “let’s make it more like a disco, and cut down the length of the sermon – that’ll bring them in.” At its worst, this line of thought could ignore the Word of the very Lord for whom we are to love the lost. It is God who calls us to love the lost, and we are not free to throw away his other commands in seeking to obey that one. We are to love the lost his way. So the Bible will stay a key part of any gathering, and the music (and any other contents) will be defined by and designed to serve the Word of God.

This issue is easier to answer logically than it is to detect honestly in ourselves. Proponents of “your service should be no longer than an hour” and “we won’t use any words which wouldn’t make sense to a poorly-educated non-Christian” are not hard to find. Of course those two statements are not theologically wrong, but neither are they theologically necessary, being stated explicitly in Scripture or forming logically imperative correlates of the Bible’s teaching on the Christian gathering. In other words, the command to love can become an excuse for pragmatism – and that is always dangerous for anyone aspiring to think as an Evangelical. If we are people of the Book, then every single thing that it says will be more important than any pragmatic “wisdom” found outside of it.

The second issue is more contentious, as it relates to the homogenous unit debate. If you think that the best way to reach 45-year-old mums is through other 45-year-old mums, there are certain things you will never do at your gathering because you are trying to reach a specific group of people (although you will affirm that all Christians are joined in glorious unity-in-diversity forming one new humanity). It bears noting that Paul regularly writes to congregations from mixed backgrounds; this seems to be (at least part of) the occasion of Romans, can be seen in Colossians and is clear in Ephesians. What Paul does in each context is explain the gospel to show how united the diverse sociological groups are. What Paul never does is say “well, why not have two congregations, a Jewish and a Gentile one – that way you can each enjoy a gathering which suits your personal sociological backgrounds and inherited tastes”.

Colossians shows that the very fact of sociological diversity leads Paul to teach all the Christians to love each other: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Col 3:11-12). One of the reasons such attitudes were necessary is that it was a hugely diverse church. Imagine picking the songs one night. The Jews grew up knowing the Psalms, and probably learnt to speak from the Old Testament. Many of the Gentiles would not have even heard of the Old Testament, the Psalms, or maybe even of Yahweh himself. So the Jews would presumably love to sing some of their favourite Psalms, and the Gentiles wouldn’t even know one of them. How would you pick the music? Would you split the congregations? Or would you teach everyone to grow in “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience… and above all these put on love” (Col 3:12-14)? It seem that we can be clear what Paul would have done. [19] 

5. Summary

Worship of the one true God has always been a vertically-focussed activity, and has always been expressed horizontally in love for others. Hence Bock, commenting on Luke 10:25-28 says that “at the heart of believing in God is loving him and one’s neighbour. In fact, life is found in loving God and one’s neighbour.” [20]  Thus worship, which is vertical, is always to be shown horizontally.

III. Some limits to avoid: when should we say no to footwashing?

Imagine that your local church is one where few, if any, members tend to raise their hands during the singing. Then, on Sunday, a new family walk in, sit at the front and raise their hands during most of the songs. How could you serve them? I take it some answers are obvious: don’t stare, don’t mention the hand-raising, and so on. But wouldn’t one of the best ways to serve them be to join in raising your hands? Most of us feel pretty self-conscious when we stick out like sore thumbs. Of course you shouldn’t raise your hands if you think it is sinful, but otherwise, what would stop you? Or imagine the opposite, that most people in your local church generally raise their hands, dance and clap during much of the singing. On Sunday a new person walks in and remains seated for all the singing. On the same basis, should someone should go and sit with them? As Bob Kauflin has it: “our highest priority when we gather with the church is not our own personal expressiveness but the privilege of serving others”. [21] 

Before we tease out the logic of acting to wash others’ feet, we need to be clear whether there are any limits on such activity. Presumably there are things that, as Christians, we would be unwilling to do. So what are those limits? The three main ones are compliance, conscience and context.

1. Compliance

There are numerous commands that Christians obey the laws of the land (Rom 13: 1-7, 1 Pet 2:13-17, Titus 3:1) and their employers (Eph 6:5-8, 1 Pet 2:18-21, 1 Tim 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10). Likewise, footwashing does not trump commands that children obey parents (Eph 6:1-3), church members submit to their leaders (Heb 13:17, Titus 1:9) and wives submit to their husbands in the Lord (Col 3:18, Eph 5:22-24, 1 Pet 3:1-6). The temptation for many of us with such passages is to start exploring the exceptions – which tells us some-thing fairly sobering about ourselves. The Bible’s focus is on a general habit of obedience and submission to appropriate authorities, since we know that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1). Since God is sovereign over all the authorities that exist “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (Rom 13:2).

Are there contexts in which disobedience to authorities may be acceptable for a Christian? Of course! And if (when?) a government forbids preaching the gospel, we must prayerfully and gently refuse to submit in that (whilst still obeying their speed limits, and being willing to accept whatever punishment that government metes out for our preaching). [22]  At first glance this truth may seem to have little effect on the logic of this article. In the above example of raising hands or remaining sitting during singing, are many of us likely to be in contexts where fathers, husbands, employers, pastors or governments forbid either of them? So compliance will not have a large impact on this thesis.

Yet the rubber hits the road when pastors (or parents) teach against certain ways some Christians behave during the gathering. Spurgeon is said to have condemned the organ as “Satan’s wind-pipe” and there are church leaders today who will warn against or even condemn the guitar, the drum kit, or the singing of anything other than Psalms. Care will need to be taken in encouraging other Christians to continue to submit to those the Lord has placed over them. In fact, we must pray for strength to serve those God has put over us, being willing to wash their feet. If your pastor or parent has forbidden something, you must take that seriously. The command to footwashing does not trump those other commands. Yet the next section will help too.

2. Conscience

As Christians we must both obey and educate our consciences. For any of us to disobey our conscience is a sin, so that “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is a sin” (Jas 4:17). Thus none of us should go against our consciences in washing others’ feet. However, the fact that we are to obey our consciences does not mean we are right! This explains the Bible’s double requirement that we both obey and educate our consciences. [23]  To be willing to educate your conscience is to be willing to learn that you were wrong. To educate your conscience is to bring it back to the perfect Word of God to be taught, rebuked, corrected or trained. It is precisely the belief that the Bible is God’s perfect Word that both calls us to educate our consciences, and enables us to do so.

There is a subtle distinction here. No one should encourage a brother or sister in Christ to disobey their conscience, since all of us must care for other’s consciences. At the same time, each of us must not only educate our own, but encourage each other to educate theirs. I take it this must impact the tone and focus of any debates and discussions between brothers and sisters on debatable matters. The tone will be warm and gentle because we are recognising a fellow believer and would not be trying to persuade them to go against their own conscience. The focus will be Scripture, as that will be our final authority in all matters of faith and conduct, and the only reason for any of us to change our consciences.

I know of an evangelical church in England where the senior minister was opening up the pulpit for women to preach. Leaving aside whatever one’s view on that issue may be, his request to the congregation was that they all tried it out for a bit, they “taste and see” if it was OK. Now that might be a good approach for those who were opposed because they were culturally conservative and change-averse. But there were a good number in the church who had serious questions about the Bible’s commands in this area, and such a request does not take those consciences seriously. Hence, the way change is discussed or introduced will be affected by a high view of the importance of others’ consciences.

Applying this to gathered worship probably means that many of us need to educate our consciences to be a little more relaxed about issues such as style. There is little in the Bible to command or commend certain musical or sociological styles. We have the words of the Psalms but not their tunes – implying that the tunes are less important than the words. [24]  Wisdom will have its place, but those of us who claim conscience issues over every little thing are really making sure that we get what we want. The Lord’s desire is a people who, loving him, serve each other. Church leaders will want to develop a congregation who are sacrificially serving each other, and will seek to be careful not to force people against their consciences.

3. Context

Paul is very clear that context may define whether an action is right or not: “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor 14:18-19). Hence something can be a blessing in one context and wrong in another. In this specific instance, Paul describes something that is a blessing in his personal relationship with and worship of God that he deems inappropriate in gathered worship at church.

Clearly there will be a number of footwashing activities that would be appropriate in private but not public (as well as some appropriate in public but not private). Paul says praying in tongues is one such, but many deeds of mercy fall into this category: financial generosity, praying, fasting and so on. We must do our own Bible study and prayer at a time and in a way that works for each of us, getting into the Word, clear on the gospel and joyful in Christ, ready to bring all our praise, lament, confession, thanksgiving and requests to the throne of grace. Following our own preferences in that context is absolutely right. But we must never bring that mindset into the gathering – we come there as part of a new humanity called to love Jesus and serve others for his sake.

So there will be footwashing opportunities that we notice and think “that would be a good thing to do, but not here, or not now” – that is right. The call to footwashing does not trump the need to be appropriate to context. To give a hard example, I have heard the story of Western missionaries arriving at an African tribe where all the women went topless, except for the prostitutes who wore blouses. If you were that husband and wife missionary team, what would you do? And would you recognise that doing something in one context for the sake of serving a given tribe does not mean that it would always be appropriate? So it will always be for those committed to wash feet – context will sometimes say “no” and sometimes “yes” – so context can be a reason not to perform a certain footwashing activity.

4. Summary

The purpose of this section is to be clear that, other things being equal, we are called to be footwashers. There may be rare occasions and specific reasons that make certain acts inappropriate, but the general call to sacrificial service for others is clear. The three major limits to whether and when we could or should perform certain footwashing activities are compliance – that we obey those Christ has put over us; conscience – that we neither offend our own conscience nor encourage others to go against theirs; and context – that some activities are entirely appropriate in private but not public, and vice versa. We now turn to examine some of the many practical ways this impacts our Christian gatherings.

IV. Some attitudes to develop: what issues must we relax about?

We are considering gathered worship in the context of Jesus’ command to wash each other’s feet, and the fact that those truly worshipping God always show that in love for others. We now turn to consider the issues within gathered worship at this moment in the twenty-first century that cause the most discussion or distress amongst UK evangelicals. Let us first recall where we arrived at the end of our consideration of John 13:1-17. Our summary included the following: “The question this passage must leave us with is whether any action is too menial, too embarrassing, too un-enjoyable for a Christian to perform in the service of a fellow Christian.”

Here is a list of some current issues, to which we may each wish to add:

  • service style – extended times of singing or music spaced out?
  • musical style – led by organ or piano or guitar or band (or even CD)?
  • song style – hymns or Townend or Redman or any of the other stables?
  • congregational expression – hands raised or not, dancing or not, weeping or not?
  • set liturgy – Lord’s Prayer and creeds, some pre-written confessions, or not?
  • children – welcomed for the first bit, or whole service, or straight to their groups?
  • sermon length – 10 minutes, 25 minutes, 45 minutes, longer?
  • music played under the reading of God’s Word or not?

All of these are theological issues – matters that require us to think theo-logically and apply the whole Bible to them – but they are hardly up there with God as Trinity, the doctrine of the cross and Christ as the only way to be saved. Yet it often seems that the majority of people either choose or leave churches over the above list. It is a sad truth for many churches that, as ministers know, changing the time or style of your meeting is more likely to see people leave than changing one of your core doctrinal beliefs.

Have a look at the above list, with Jesus’ footwashing in your mind’s eye, and the call to serve others ringing in your ear. Which of the above items are too much to ask of yourself as a footwasher? We will all have opinions – that is fine – but this issue is deeper. Which parts of the list would you say “I could not do that to serve someone else because ______”? Let’s examine a few of the issues in turn.

One of the biggest superficial distinctions between evangelical churches in the UK today is musical style: whether our service includes extended times of singing or not, what instruments we use or don’t use, the type of songs we sing, and who they are written by. I cannot personally see many of those things mandated or condemned in Scripture. There are good and wise and appropriate ways of deciding many of them – so that the words we sing need to be true and comprehensible, for example. So if your church changes to do a little more of this and a little less of that, it would certainly be hard to claim compliance or conscience issues as a reason to disagree. Hence Frame: “The younger generation should learn to sympathise with… the spiritual needs of their fathers and mothers in Christ. But the opposite is also true: if the older do not bend somewhat, the younger will be deprived of their own language of worship.” [25]  In fact, if you personally prefer guitar music but a hymn is struck up on the organ, that’s an opportunity to serve those you are worshipping amongst, and sing up as best you can for their encouragement. To do otherwise is to place your personal preference over Jesus’ call to wash feet. The same argument applies if you prefer organ music and the next song is guitar-led. Our cultural preferences are opportunities to wash others’ feet.

It could be noted that Jesus only commands the disciples to wash the other disciples’ feet, and thus this command should not apply to the serving of non-Christians. There are diverse views within the evangelical constituency as to the intended audience for gathered worship, but the Bible gives sufficient calls that we love and seek to win the lost that a degree of giving up our own preferences on their behalf does not seem to extreme a logical jump – even though it does not flow directly from John 13.

The issue of context is likely to affect some of the options on our list. Where I currently serve, some of our older members struggle to remain standing for too long, and even a pair of songs can be too much if they are lengthy. So those of us who enjoy longer times of praise are serving them by remaining in this fellowship despite missing such times, and when we do occasionally have such times of extended singing, the older members are serving us. Of course, it was very sad when a local family visited us for a couple of weeks, enjoying the preaching and fellowship, but did not stay because we did not have such extended times of singing. Perhaps we need to equip people better to look for churches where they can serve and not just churches where they are served?

I take it context is both personal (should I do that here and now) and geographical/sociological (we are here to reach them and them), and is thus driven both by who is in our gathering and who we pray will join our gathering. This brings added complexity, but the thought process is the same: I am here to serve; we are here to serve. So context may determine sermon length (those in old-people’s homes cannot generally last through 45 minutes) and musical style (many of those older people would know the great hymns by heart, so you would want to use them). Geographical or sociological context will certainly play into how we plan services (if you are trying to reach people who generally smoke a lot, you will want to think about building in a cigarette break, probably disguised as a coffee break) and how we run them. There are many gospel essentials we must never give up, and there are many stylistic preferences that we must always be ready to give up.

Take liturgy as another example. Is saying the Lord’s Prayer together each week really that bad? After all, Jesus does say that when we pray we should pray like that! Is repeating a summary of what we believe every week, or every now and then such an awful thing to do? We should recite the creeds with joy and resolution, remembering those who have died for the truths in them. Is it such a bad idea to have some prayers written in advance, so that they are well phrased, clearly focussed and memorable? I know that many of my Free Church brothers and sisters can struggle with these things. Tim Keller has written of the great benefit that the Anglican collects (weekly set prayers) have been to him, both in private devotions and in public prayer. [26]  For me to use one of Cranmer’s prayers of confession is for me to admit that God gifted that man in theology and poetry, and that not all of us have such gifts. Is that so hard to admit? And it is certainly hard to make the case that the Bible commands all prayer to be extemporary. So maybe we Anglicans need to include and enjoy extemporary prayers (as many of us do), and maybe some Free Church members need to relax about liturgy!

I used to preach regularly in a Free Church before I went to Theological College. It was close to my sending church, and they were without a full-time minister for about 18 months, so I would fill in fairly regularly. They were all strongly opposed to any liturgy, and insisted on things being spontaneous and extemporary. What I noticed after a few months was that certain elders would always pray in certain ways for certain things, and that each elder had their preferred Bible passage for the Lord’s Supper. They had a liturgy through such habits – it was just an unexamined liturgy. For myself, I know that the less I plan, the more I tend to do the same thing each week. This is why I tend to plan services in groups of at least a month – and preferably even longer – so I can plan diversity. That is one of the benefits of set prayers and pre-written confessions; they ensure that things don’t get into a rut.

In the last 20 years or so there has been a growing habit in some circles to play music under the reading of God’s word. Often this is simply extended chords from a keyboard, and generally sounds extempore and un-prepared. Theologically there is little if any difference between this practice and that of singing a Bible passage (such as Psalm 23, versions of which many of us will sing regularly). Each is accompanying the Bible with music, and the fact that one is read by one person while we all sing the other only draws a parallel with solo as opposed to congregational singing. So what issue might there be with the practice of accompanying words with music? If done poorly it could be distracting, but so can singing. Another would be that older or weaker ears may not pick up the words of Scripture so well, which is, of course, a much stronger argument. I have heard this done very well and very poorly, have experienced it mixed well so that the words were clear and mixed badly so that the reading was inaudible. Graham Kendrick’s Crown Him Tour included a spoken creed for which music had been specially written, which was brilliant – probably the most up-lifting recital of a creed I have ever heard, giving a much greater sense of the words’ meaning and importance than the average congregation manages.

Take the issue of learning new songs. Each of us will have our own appetite for new songs; some would like to learn a new song practically every week, and some would rather we almost never did. New songs can keep our gatherings fresh, help us see different aspects of the old truths, express truth in diverse musical styles, and have all sorts of benefits. Likewise, since worship is an attitude of heart, to the extent that learning new words and trying to follow an unfamiliar tune is distracting, new songs can actually impede the worship of those to whom they are unfamiliar. Hence the learning (or not) of new songs is an opportunity for footwashing, a chance to learn to prioritise others’ needs over my personal preferences.

This article is not seeking to argue or imply that such volumes as Worship by the Book [27]  and Perspectives on Christian Worship [28]  are useless, or in error by their very existence. [29]  There is an important place for historical and theological reflection as to what structures and styles of gathered worship are the most faithful to the Bible’s sufficient witness. This article has demonstrated, however, that those volumes’ failure to exalt the serving of others above any personal stylistic preferences we worshippers might have is a significant weakness, and would have made an outstanding introduction or conclusion to their otherwise helpful endeavours.

Presumably not all of the issues on the list fall into categories of personal preference for all of us. There will be issues on which we all need to take prayerful and lovingly gracious stances in our desire to follow the Bible’s teaching, and some of yours may be on that list. But I am concerned that the question of how we best serve others is rarely heard. Ministers may speak of a desire (which may well be pragmatically-driven) to be accessible to the congregation. Congregation members may voice concerns that we remain faithful to our traditions or relevant to our friends. Each of these issues has its place – and its place it defined by the Bible’s call that loving God always be worked out in living to love and serve others.

V. Conclusions

Who will look after my preferences? Everyone will be worrying about you, just as you’ll be worrying about them. Imagine a business with 300 employees. In that context each of you would generally have to fight your own corner – that is 1 versus 299, and how often do we win with those odds? In a church of 300 there will be 299 people fighting your corner for you, so that you won’t have to – and will be freed to fight all of their corners for them. That is the joy of being at a church where we all gather to serve. I don’t have to worry about my preferences – you are already prioritising me!

I worry that too many of our conversations about gathered worship can come down to “I like to _______” as opposed to “I can love God by serving these people and doing _______” as it were. I am sure this is not true of all of us at all times, but the extent to which it is ever true is the extent to which we are idolaters (worshipping ourselves and prioritising our own preferences) as opposed to true worshippers of the living God. You see, there is no opposite to “worship” in the Bible. All of us are always worshipping. The question is this: who or what are we worshipping?

This truth that we are all worshipping all of the time is both sobering and encouraging. In Greg Beale’s stimulating We Become what we Worship he has a summary sentence that “what people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration”. [30]  So those of us truly worshipping the Lord will (by the power of the Spirit) become more like him, and will become more and more wholehearted footwashers. Those of us worshipping self or worshipping the buzz of experience, or whatever, will also change and develop – but not into Christlikeness. Here is Beale:

People will always reflect something, whether it be God’s character or some feature of the world. If people are committed to God, they will become like him; if they are committed to something other than God, they will become like that thing, always spiritually inanimate and empty like the lifeless and vain aspect of creation to which they have committed themselves. [31] 

This is easy to see. Those who worship money become hard and impersonal, since people matter less. Those who worship others’ approval become plastic and changeable, since truth and honesty will be of reduced importance. Such examples can be multiplied. Here then is both warning and encouragement: warning that we must take wholehearted worship of the living God seriously by pursuing our own idolatries and running them to earth in the power of the Spirit; encouragement that as the Holy Spirit equips and strengthens us to do that for Christ’s sake, we will be being transformed into the likeness of the one we worship, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

We have seen that Jesus calls his disciples to follow him in washing feet, and that biblical worship is always worked out in loving others. Although there are a few specific situations in which certain acts of footwashing may be inappropriate, due to compliance, conscience or context, the general call remains clear throughout Scripture. Whether or not our gatherings are “worship” in a narrow sense, or key parts of our lives of worship, they must be worship. Therefore our own preferences will not matter to us, since as worshippers we will be putting God first and serving others, knowing we are called to wash feet. Can singing to an instrument one doesn’t like really be compared with footwashing? Does our putting hands in the air (or not) really bear comparison with Christ’s great act of washing at the cross? Jesus has set us an example to follow, an example of living for others. Many of us will find some of the conclusions here hard, often for sociological reasons such as habit and background. John 13:17 is a great promise from our Lord who calls us to wash others’ feet: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”