Posted by: Billy Marsh | March 8, 2009

Theology and Worship: A Qualitative Relationship

St. AugustineCountry Church  

Growing up in church, especially in the rural south in a Baptist context, you hear all kinds of things and all kinds of theologies. On the other hand, there is always the great possibility of hearing no theology while still hearing all kinds of other things. I remember being told on more than one occasion that seminary would ruin me because “all that theology isn’t necessary. The Lawd wants ya to keep thangs simple.” On other occasions, people have told me that they liked their pastor because “he preaches practical stuff, and not all that theology. Ya know, the practical stuff for us simple folk.” One more example comes from the last place where I served as youth pastor, where a few of the main figures in the church came to the pastor and requested that he quit preaching the heavy theological sermons, and return to just a simple gospel message. Note that this pastor’s “heavy theological” sermons were his attempts at preaching expositionally through books of the Bible. What was it that Paul said about preaching the whole counsel of God? Hmmm.

In his bright orange book, The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin J. Vanhoozer says that “The quality of our worship is therefore an index of the quality of our theology(and vice versa). The priority, however, lies with worship. Dogmatics both begins in and leads to doxology. The drama of doctrine directs us to worship and glorify God in all that we do (410).” Vanhoozer’s entire work could be summarized as one grand attempt at reversing and reforming the aforementioned mindsets. He observes that doctrine is ever-increasingly disappearing from the North American church scene, and in his assessment, part of the cause of the phenomenon is a faulty perception of what doctrine actually is and how it is meant to serve the body of Christ. As I read over the quote above in Vanhoozer’s book, it occurred to me that this idea is essentially where the breakdown begins and ends. All in all, it’s a false dichotomy, and a dangerous and destructive one at that; one that could very well have eternal repercussions.

Whoever came up with the idea that theology isn’t practical could not have been speaking of Christianity. That kind of notion could not be any more anti-Christian. Just a basic reading of the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) will give you more than enough support for the priority of the role of sound theology for living rightly before God. Moreover, Christ put it very plain and simple for the Woman at the Well–and for all of us–that the true worshippers of God are those who glorify him in both spirit and truth (Jn 4:24). Another obvious admonition from Scripture is found in the greatest commandment which calls for believers to love God with their whole being, including the mind. So to think that theology, or rather Christian doctrine, bogs down one’s walk with the Lord is nonsense.

In the Vanhoozer quote above, three things stick out worthy of further reflection. Here I’m going to speak of these aspects in light of a local church setting, not simply an individual’s faith.

First, the quality of a church’s worship ought to be an indicator of the quality of its theology. Let me begin by saying out front that the quality of worship in this case must not be measured solely by its intensity or emotional involvement. We’re talking about “quality” here, not good intentions. I believe what Vanhoozer has in mind by setting up this inter-relationship is that a church’s worship should be expressed through an ever-increasing and maturing knowledge of God. Therefore, a church whose theological state of being is nothing more than infantile and selective, so will its worship and praise of God. Here you will find churches that refuse to sit under the Lord’s total authority in Scripture, giving him glory only in a works-based system, and pick and choose which doctrines they wish “to know about” that best fit their daily lives. I may be wrong, but this type of church most likely will talk very little of the seriousness of sin and the fight against the flesh. This is also the place where The Shack is welcomed with open arms as the new Wednesday night Bible study.

Second, dogmatics leads to doxology. You can test the quality of a church’s theology by its worship because the worship should be overflowing out of the well of its doctrine. This is the place where so many churches get it wrong. Doctrine’s aim is not primarily knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Doctrine serves the same purpose as that of its source: the revelation of God. God has revealed himself to this world so that we might in turn ascribe to him the glory due his name. Doctrine strives to make sense of God’s revelation in order to enable people to worship God rightly, in spirit and in truth (note that this is God’s requirement, not the theologian’s). A church that takes the task of theology seriously is one that is actively striving to better magnify the One, True and Living God. So when I hear statements like those sampled in the first paragraph of this post, I hear more than just someone who doesn’t have an appetite for reading or studying; I hear someone who lacks an unquenchable appetite for tasting and seeing that the Lord is good (by the way, this is not an inexhaustible task . . . which is good news). Just a quick test: Does the Word of God taste like honey to your lips? It should. And it should because of the glorious one it proclaims to you.

And third, doctrine is meant to direct, not only to inform. The end goal, as we have already discussed, is worship. But what does deep doctrine have to offer us in this regard? When people speak of wanting to discard the heavy theology for more practical preaching, what they are saying is that they want more examples, stories, illustrations, and tangible applications rather than substantial commentary on a text or an in depth explanation of a doctrine. This point is one of the downfalls of most Christian living books. They offer well-articulated and concrete methods of how to be a Christian, but they avoid showing you how doctrine itself is relevant in that process. This is one of the reasons why I became hooked to John Piper’s books. He was one of the first Christian writers that I had read who took doctrines of the faith and showed how they affect one’s daily life. For instance, in Counted Righteous in Christ, in chapter one Piper shows the manner in which the doctrine of justification by faith alone impacts and guides his relationship with his family, both with his wife and his children (27-30). In another place, in one of his more popular works, Don’t Waste Your Life, Piper demonstrates how the doctrine of the atonement has ramifications for how he views and responds to the totaling of his family’s car, an old Dodge Spirit (53-54; Vanhoozer himself in The Drama of Doctrine also uses the atonement as a case study of his directive theory of doctrine). Not many people write like that.

Each of these three points are all saying the same thing in nuanced ways: Doctrine directs people to worship God with their whole lives. So for instance, the doctrine of adoption as a part of salvation is intended for more than simply just to describe and communicate to you that you have been adopted in the Son of God by the Father as one of his children. The doctrine of adoption is meant to serve as a directive and guide for you in terms of how you live out your new position in Christ, as a child of God, in relationship with this world. Specific applications and stories are not necessarily important at this point because the doctrine itself is meant to be a vehicle through which God does a transformative work in your life by means of the Word and the Spirit, causing your habits and instincts to be those of Christ’s; we have a new nature where being a Christian becomes a natural thing. But ultimately, the doctrine is meant for you to stand in awe of the Holy Father who has brought you, a rebellious and wayward son, into the family of God, all because of his choice to show mercy and compassion on an undeserving sinner. But how will you be able to allow this doctrine to direct you in your sonship if your knowledge of it is slim to none?

Does Christian doctrine founded upon the Word of God direct your worship of Lord? If not, then what does? If it is anything else, then most likely what you’re doing towards God is not worship at all.

What are some doctrines that you think have been neglected in churches today that have caused the “practical” lives of church members to suffer the most? I’ll kick it off with my own submission: The Doctrine of The Trinity.

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