stop calling it public

One of the biggest contributors to fuzzy thinking around the exclusive use of psalms in worship is, I think, inadequate terminology. I’ve lost count of the times that discussions have got hopelessly muddled because people got so hung up on defining “public” worship as opposed to “private” worship. So, the conundrum goes, if you think it’s okay to sing hymns in “private” worship, what suddenly changes to make hymns unacceptable in “public” worship.

But the scenario leads you up two separate garden paths. One is that the distinction isn’t really public vs private. It’s nothing to do with the numbers of people involved or what kind of building you’re in or how widely advertised your meeting has been. In fact, you could just about plausibly imagine somebody having morning devotions with their family of seven (“private” worship) then going off to church in some rural congregation of six (“public” worship). The numbers have nothing to do with it.

The distinction behind the public/private terminology is actually more like private vs corporate, or individual vs ecclesiastical. It’s the difference between what you do as an individual (or as a family) and what you do as the church. Christian believers are meant to gather together to worship God together – ‘meant to,’ in the sense of divinely required to: it’s what God expects his people collectively to do. A worship service doesn’t exist to let people socialise, or let people keep up a weekly routine, or give people the chance of a religious experience, or or or. Instead, it’s the church assembling as such to worship as such. It’s the church meeting as the church to do churchly things. That means confessing what the church confesses, submitting to the church’s authority, and benefitting from the church’s ministry, oracles, and ordinances, as these have been instituted there by Christ.

The other false scent in the “Well, you sing hymns at home” scenario is that it assumes that what you’re doing when you’re singing hymns at home really is worship. This is the murky, foggy, shapeshifting outcome of the principle piously formulated as “all of life is worship”. This assumes that anything you do, and especially the more overtly religious it is, should be regarded as worship (and affirmed and respected as worship). But the principle is too pious to be true – the kind of thing that’s designed to dissolve you into a little puddle of gloopy sanctimoniousness before you can direct so much as a critical thought towards it. All of life (eating, drinking, whatever you do) should be devoted to the glory of God, but not all of life is worship. All of life includes doing the dishes, doing the photocopying, going for messages, being on Facebook, changing nappies, taking phonecalls, and all the endless trivia of the everyday. All of these can and should be done to the glory of God – but they are not worship. It doesn’t matter how many Christian graces you exercise in these activities or to what degree – your devotional input, or the devotional impact they have on you, is never going to make them into worship.

That also means that doing an everyday thing in a religious context also doesn’t make it worship. Toilet cleaning doesn’t become a worship activity just because it’s the church toilets. Writing poetry doesn’t become worship just because it’s poetry about some theological proposition or some religious experience. Singing a song doesn’t become worship just because it includes the words “Jesus” or “grace”. In fact, the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and limited by his own revealed will in such a way that he may not be worshipped according to human imaginations and devices, or any way not prescribed in Scripture. That means that strictly speaking, if God doesn’t prescribe it, it doesn’t count as worship. Including singing hymns plus or minus instruments, on your own or with your family. Direct extrapolation from ‘good thing to do’ to ‘legitimate in corporate worship’ is wholly inappropriate. If you’re going to call it worship, it needs divine prescription.

Public worship is church worship. Rather than things being okay in “private worship” which aren’t okay in “public worship,” it might actually be more accurate to think of ‘private worship’ as including only a subset of things which belong to ‘public worship’. It’s only in a corporate, church, context that the element of worship called preaching can ever be experienced. Ditto for the administering and receiving of the sacraments. On your own, in private, as an individual, or in your family, the most you can do by way of worship is read the Scriptures, not preach from them – you can pray, and sing psalms, but receiving the sacraments privately is an irregularity at best. Armed with the twin convictions that ‘public worship’ is church worship, and that anything needs scripture warrant before it can properly be regarded as worship, people would be in a much stronger position to withstand the slushy, subjective, individualistic approach to “worship” that continues to harrass the church scene.

11 thoughts on “stop calling it public

  1. When reading this from a Catholic point of view, I found myself thinking of the word ‘liturgy’ which comes from the Greek leitourgia , originally meaning a public duty (such as financing a trireme or a theatrical performance). So liturgical worship is that worship which is prescribed in a certain form as a public duty.

    Which leaves open all the other ways of responding to the ‘worth’ of God (which I take is the root of ‘worship’).


  2. There’s a lot of baggage around the term liturgy, because people associate it with the Episcopalian if not Roman forms that the Presbyterian church invested so much in resisting in the past. Unfortunately that does leave us at something of a disadvantage when people start innovating, because we aren’t used to thinking of worship in those terms – either the ‘public duty’ aspect (all of life is worship innit) or the ‘structured’ aspect which we *think* is what we object to in Anglican/Catholic liturgies but isn’t really.


  3. Just thinking aloud, so bear with me. Take for instance, Josiah Conder’s hymn, ‘Thou art the everlasting Word’ – it seems to me to be edifying, reverent, doctrinally clear, etc. It tells forth the worth of Christ the Redeemer and every line of it to my mind has the full backing of scripture. Now, if that hymn were sung in sincerity by one possessed of a heart in which there was grace – would we not be pushing things abit too far to say that it would not be worship?


  4. Seceder – I’m not sure. I guess I don’t know why hymns get such special treatment in the whole discussion. Does the same thing apply if you’re not singing? Take an edifying, reverent etc theological treatise, – if you read it meditatively and sincerely, does that count as worship? Or take a beautiful bit of scenery and sincerely admire the power and wisdom of the Creator – is that worship?

    The most I can see my way to saying is that it’s worship in the sense that you’re responding with adoration to some revealed truth about God [as you should], but that isn’t the same sense as the Confession uses the term when it says that God institutes the acceptable way of his own worship and may not be worshipped according to human imaginations and devices.

    If the two senses are confounded, the criterion for “worship” becomes just ‘i feel edified by it’, which is all very well when it happens to be a hymn that keeps close to the Word, but doesn’t give any principled way of ruling out flower arranging/ lighting candles/ underwater basket weaving/ interpretative dance/ etc if that’s what makes other devout believers feel edified.

    If God doesn’t get to set the terms for his own worship, the danger is surely that we give conventional, cultural privilege to some particular activities, which get so spiritually and devotionally charged that nobody can challenge whether they really deserve the status we give them?


  5. Jonathan – a whole other essay worth of material neatly encapsulated in just one sentence!
    – Where did this idea come from? that worship consists of nothing more than human activities directed towards God? as if worship is always us doing something and doesn’t also include receiving (listening to the word preached, receiving the sacraments). So that you need special “worship leaders” whose sole job is to lead the praise, when it’s actually the preacher who is the worship leader from start to finish.


    • C.S. Lewis says books of theology make the best devotional reading. Certainly I found studying theology and even metaphysics reached the heart more often and with greater effect than most sermons. Would your rule of thumb say rather that lectures are intended to reach the mind (without excluding the poss. of reaching the heart) and sermons are intended to reach the conscience.

      What does “reaching the conscience” mean?


      • Fair enough – intended to. Whatever truth a lecture conveys should make its own impact on the conscience even if it belongs to a sermon to make the implications for conscience unavoidable.

        Suppose conscience is where guilt and forgiveness are registered, which is what sermons are meant to be all about. Guilt as in offence against God, forgiveness gratuitous for the sake of another. A conscience unconscious of guilt has no interest in forgiveness, a conscience assured of forgiveness is the driver for thankful Christian living. Etc. Which the deliverer of the sermon has the thankless task of making pointed and unavoidable, as distinct from stating general truths and leaving it to the hearer to apply for themselves. Roughly speaking. (And what does it mean for you? :-)


  6. Cath, in giving expression to worship – would not the text – ‘Take with you words’ – ‘the calves of our lips’ – Hosea 14.2 – ‘words’ from one with a ‘new heart – preclude all other so-called forms of worship which are essentially false – such as dance, mime, puppetry, etc. which are but unacceptable ‘strange fire?’


  7. Interesting verse, Hosea 14.2, because there the words to take are thesmelves provided! ‘Take with you words, and say …’

    Good point about mandated forms of worship being predominantly word-y rather than anything else (including the sacraments). Dance etc not only not warranted, but the wrong format altogether!


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