It has been common for Baptists to describe what the church does on Sunday mornings at the customary hour of eleven as "worship." The gathering of the church at this hour is referred to as the "morning worship service." Baptists regard this ritual as one hour in the week that the church formally and corporately revers or pays homage to the deity,1 or as Gaines S. Dobbins, the imminent Baptist educator, said it is an hour the church recognizes the "worth-ship" of God. Be that as it may, whatever else this gathering is, it is clearly a Baptist ritual or rite. Ritual is defined as "any formal and customarily repeated act or series of acts." A rite is defined as "a prescribed form or manner governing the words or actions for a ceremony."2 The word that describes such rituals in the New Testament is sebomai, which means the expressing in gestures, rites, or ceremonies an allegiance or devotion to deity; that is to say worship in a corporate sense.3
In my experience virtually all protestant and catholic churches follow similar rituals (Quaker services, I have read, are more spontaneous4). Until recently the Baptist Church that I currently attend follows, in general, a basic ritual for Sunday morning worship that varies a bit depending on emphasis or the season. The following elements seem regularly standard, however:
Welcome; Call to worship; Hymn/Praise song; Opening prayer; Hymn/Praise song(s); Prayers of and for the people followed by the Lord's Prayer; Reading of the text for the day; Special Music; Preaching/Sermon/Lecture; Prayer; Song of Commitment/Dedication; Benediction, Postlude.
Ritualistic language introduces aspects of the various parts, particularly in the benediction. A short meditative video is generally used in various parts of the service.
Describing this Sunday morning ritual as "worship" led me to ponder two questions: (1) how does what Baptists do on Sunday morning compare to the earliest gatherings of Jesus followers? (2) how is it that corporate ritual can be construed as worship?
The early Jesus followers (not yet Christians) did gather together (1 Cor 11:17-33) for encouragement (Heb 10:25), to gather contributions for mission work (1 Cor 16:1-4) on the first day of the week (1 Cor 16:1-4; Acts 20:7). They also gathered to break bread (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 11:17-22). Music, teaching, admonishing one another, and giving thanks to the Lord were also a part of their gatherings (Eph 5:19-20; Col 3:16). The only extended passage I know, describing a gathering of Jesus followers, is 1 Cor 14:1-40. This passage is unlike gatherings in the mainstream churches that emerged from the Protestant Reformation (Anabaptist, Anglicanism, Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic, Orthodox). It focuses on speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, and prophesying. None of which, in my experience, have been a part of Baptist gatherings for worship. Paul tried to order the confusion in the gathering with this comment: "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification" (1 Cor 14:26). Yet he concedes that prophecy and tongues should continue to be a part of the Corinthians' gatherings (1 Cor 14:39-40). But I do not find in any of the passages I mentioned that these early followers of Jesus described their gatherings as worship.5 The word worship is derived from Old English and Middle English rather than from Greek. In the writings of the earliest New Testament writer (Paul) five words have been translated as worship in modern translations: proskuneō (1 Cor 14:25); latreuō (has the sense of carrying out of religious duties of a cultic nature; Rom 1:9, 25; Phil 3:3); sēbazomai (Rom 1:25); latreia (Rom 12:1; 9:4); leitourgeia (2 Cor 9:12; Phil 2:17, 30). The lexicon Danker-Bauer translates only three of these words using the English word worship: proskuneō, sebazomai, and latreia. It appears to me that Paul uses two of these words to describe individual worshippers (1 Cor 14:25; Rom 12:1; 9:4). He uses latreia once (Rom 9:4) describing worship in a corporate sense when writing of the worship of the ancient Israelites (as does Heb 9:1).6 In Romans 12:1 he appears to address my question when he describes worship as an individual act rather than a corporate act:
I therefore appeal to you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship (logikēn latreian).
The heart of the issue seems to lie in the following question: are cultic acts to be considered worship or is worship only characterized by an inner attitude of awe? No doubt many Baptists on a Sunday morning only formally carry out cultic acts of a ritual nature, for who never dozes or finds their minds wandering during prayers or sermons. And if that is the case how can a corporate act be worship if all are not completely engaged?
Missouri State University
1The deity that is the focus of the service is increasingly changing from God to Christ under the influence of the Trinitarian dogma, which is not reflected per se in the New Testament.
2Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s. v., ritual, rite.
3F. C. Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.; Chicago and London: University of Chicago, 2000).
5Except, perhaps, for Eph 5:19.
6It is worth mentioning that at least two of the prophets report that Yahweh was repulsed by the corporate worship of the ancient Israelites: Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8.