The hard line Churches of Christ, a cappella, believe that the Sunday morning worship service is the most important part of being a Christian. They believe they have found Christianity and all others have lost it. They base this idea on the fact that they can find biblical authority for each act of worship they do on a Sunday morning, and other worshippers do not have such authority. “We speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent where the Bible is silent,” is one of their battle cries.
They scare their constituents, and those they evangelize, with the stories from the Hebrew Bible: Nadab and Abihu struck dead for offering strange fire in worship to God at the beginning of the tabernacle worship (Numbers 10). At the inauguration of the tabernacle of worship, instituted by Moses and Aaron in the wilderness as the journeyed out of Egypt toward the land of Canaan, instead of taking coals of fire from the altar of sacrifice, Nadab and Abihu took coals of fire from their own campfires in front of their own tents, and offered incense to God with that fire. Fire from God struck them dead, because they had used unauthorized fire.
This story, and a few similar to it, are used to scare believers into making sure they have authority for all the worship practices they use on a Sunday morning in church.
So this blog addresses these two questions:
- Do we need specific authority in the New Testament for each act of worship in our worship assembly?
- Is the Sunday morning worship assembly format the mark of the true Christian?
Nadab and Abihu were the oldest sons of Aaron, the top two priests after the high priest, Aaron. In this story God is portrayed as feeling it was very important to use the fire that God had provided in the altar of sacrifice. The story indicates that the people prayed and God lit the altar of sacrifice, then the people kept the fire going, a metaphor for how God initiates the power of our relationship. Fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit throughout the wilderness story, from the burning bush through which God spoke to Moses to go free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, to the burning pillar of cloud that led the people through the desert and rested upon the tabernacle. In the new covenant, Jesus’ body and blood is the sacrifice, and all our power as believers, comes from that sacrifice and forgiveness.
Nadab and Abihu, in taking fire from their own fire pits in front of their own tents, were saying, metaphorically, that they didn’t need God’s Holy Spirit, or God’s sacrifice to forgive them, truly a strike at the essence of the message of Jahweh.
In the first weeks after the resurrection of Christ, there is a parallel story. (The books of Luke and Acts consciously parallel the story of the Exodus of Israel.) In the book of Acts the story that parallels the Nadab and Abihu story is the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Just as in the Nadab and Abihu story, two worshippers are struck dead, two worshippers are struck dead in the early church. This time, instead of breaking a command, they are guilty of hiding and lying to the Holy Spirit. The people were living communally, selling their property and laying the proceeds at the apostles’ feet.
The death of Ananias by Raphael
Ananias and Sapphira sold some property and laid a portion of the property’s proceeds at the apostles’ feet. Peter confronts both Ananias and Sapphira, on separate occasions, asking each if they were lying to God about the price they had obtained for their property. “It’s the whole thing,” they both replied. Peter said they had a right to keep their property, they had a right to devote a portion of it to the church, if they wished, but they did not have a right to lie to the Holy Spirit in their hearts. Notice the big difference between the first story in the wilderness and the second story in the early church: Nadab and Abihu broke a rule that had a big symbolic meaning; Ananias and Sapphira demonstrated that God could not read their hearts. Wow! What a difference between the two covenants: the first was a set of symbolic rules, the second was a covenant of the heart.
The writer of the book of Hebrews (ch. 8) confirms this picture by quoting from the old prophet Jeremiah:
5 They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” 6 But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is a mediator superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.
7 For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8 But God found fault with the people and said:
“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant…
10 I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.”
So instead of worrying about getting the worship service right lest we be struck dead, Luke, the writer of Acts, believes we should be worrying about getting our hearts right lest we be worthy of death.
This is the reason there is no instruction in the early church writings about how to conduct a worship service in the church. Yes, there are a few passages, especially I Cor. 11-14 and James 2, which mainly emphasize principles:
“Let everything be done for edification,”
“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love…”
“But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.”
“Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.”
“26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”
All of these passages point to one principle: encouraging one another to believe that God has moved in our lives through the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
None of the these passages point to rules that we need to stick to in order to show we are the true believers in Jesus. None of these passages indicates that God is remotely interested in the format of our worship services, beyond the principle of what builds up or tears down our faith in the forgiveness of Christ for our wrongs.
What is the mark of the Christian? Is it the worship format, as the hard line Churches of Christ believe? Is it the organization of the local congregation?
After Jesus took off his robe and washed the disciples’ feet John records him as saying:
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
James said that if we treat a rich visitor at church differently from a poor visitor, then we are guilty of denying the good news that converted us to Christ: we are freed from all our wrongs as a gift.
So, the format of singing, and worshipping, was of no consequence, per se, to the early church. What was of consequence was the purpose of each act, and the rules that have been written in our hearts by the sacrifice and mercy of Christ.
This concept terrifies people who need an easy touchstone. If we are left to rely on the sacrifice of Jesus, rather than a “Thus saith the Lord…” for our authority in our worship formats, then what will happen? People will run amok? Anything goes? Or not. Maybe we will have to focus on our hearts. Our worship service on Sunday morning, or whatever time or day, will have to focus on encouraging each other to live out the sacrifice and gift of Jesus toward other people. What a concept!
Does instrumental music qualify as strange fire before the Lord? It does not for three reasons:
- There was no clear transition from the worship with Psalms and early church worship.
- There was no worship format outlined for the synagogue in the Hebrew Bible.
- There was no worship format outlined for the early church.
1. The early church was instructed by the apostle Paul to worship by singing the Psalms. The Psalms of David are replete with references to worshipping God with cymbals, trumpets, lutes and lyres (guitars). There are also references to worshiping God with sacrifices. Sacrifices are specifically mentioned in the early church writings as having ceased, stopped and fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice. No such pronouncement is made about instruments of music.
2. There was no worship format outlined for the synagogue, in fact there is no authority for the synagogue at all. It was a tradition of humans that grew out of the exile in Babylon. The purpose, interestingly enough, was to build up and encourage the Israelites to keep the Law of Moses and to believe in Jahweh.
3. The early church did not have a set worship format. They just followed what they were familiar with, especially the synagogue organization and format. Their format was governed by the apostle Paul’s rule that all things be done to build up the church, specifically to trust in the sacrifice and mercy of Christ.