What is Worship?

My last post mentioned the dispute as to whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and suggested some reasons why the answer is not obvious.  These in particular have to do with the range of meanings given to the verb “to worship,” and the difficulty of determining precisely the object of worship when that object is unseen.  I think the result is that Christians who believe the same theology may nevertheless answer the question differently, depending on the contextual meanings of the words and the philosophical underpinnings.  Therefore I suggest we should avoid being dogmatic on this question.  I am not opposed to dogma on other questions, such as the “three-ness” (Trinity) of God or the deity of Christ, but it seems to me that whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is not a question which admits of a single correct answer, nor is it a question whose answer is essential to the maintenance of Christian faith.What is Not at Stake

Some people have asserted that this is a vital question.  While I am all for practical application of theology, I think the relevance of this question is rather more limited.  Lydia McGrew is correct to say that missionaries who interact with Muslim need to decide what to say on the subject, but I do not see how this issue changes the gospel that Jesus died for human sins so that we may repent, believe in him, and be saved.  Wrongly worshiping the right God does no one any good apart from faith  in Christ, in whom alone we have redemption.  There is no danger that Christianity will lose its identity in Islam or vice versa, regardless of the answer to this question.  (If Christianity is in danger of losing its identity in Islam, it is because people water down the doctrine of Christ.)  Islam and Christianity are different and irreconcilable religions.  While Christians who disagree on this issue (such as Wheaton College and Prof. Hawkins) must decide how to interact with it, as in all disagreements the nature of the subsequent interaction is a question of Christian love, both for truth and for one’s neighbor.

The Ways of Worship

The term “worship” has been used with a variety of meanings, in English and in other languages.  Some churches avoid the term, while others use it to refer to all that the church does on Sunday morning (“Sunday worship” or “worship service”).  Some Christians seem to restrict it to congregational singing (led by a “worship leader”), while among many Pentecostals “worship” seems to mean getting very excited as a group (sometimes the excitement is tied to notions of Christ being specially present).  More dour Calvinists regard “worship” as what sinful humans naturally do to everything they value; to Calvin is often ascribed the notion of a human heart as an “idol factory.”  A reader comment on my last post reminded me of the English idiom, “He worships the ground she walks on,” which frankly seems difficult to construe except as a fixed formula.  More comprehensible, perhaps, is the ongoing English usage of “hero worship” to refer to adulation directed at people who are “idolized.”  Christians agree that God alone is to be worshiped, and the worship of anything else is idolatry, but what is it that is prohibited if directed toward others is not clear, as public lectures, group singing (such as at birthdays), and collective excitement can be directed at people other than God without committing idolatry.

Biblical Worship?

Of course, we should allow our use of religious terms to be guided by biblical usage, but here the matter gets even more complicated.  The most common word translated into English as “worship” is the Greek verb proskuneo.  The term can indicate ritual practices, as in John 12:20 and Acts 8:27.  Yet it can also mean prostrating oneself in front of someone, as in Acts 10:25, to which Peter objected (cf. 1 Cor. 14:25).  Similarly, the angels whom John worshiped in Revelation 19:10 and 22:8-9 objected and redirected John toward God.  In Revelation 5:14 and 7:11, the act of worship is coupled with the verb “to fall” or “to fall at his feet,” indicating a physical prostration.  Revelation 13-14 repeatedly describe worshiping the Beast, and in particular 14:9-11 warns of the judgment against anyone worshiping the beast.  John 4:24 indicates that worship can and ought to be “in spirit and in truth” (perhaps, sincere and correct), yet perhaps it also hints that it isn’t always.  Indeed, John 4:22 indicates that the Samaritans “worship what [they] do not know,” implying that worship can be directed at an object which is misunderstood.  On the other hand, the action of prostration described by proskuneo was also used toward mere humans.  While some might argue that this is always idolatry, the risen Christ himself used the verb in Revelation 3:9 to say that he would make people prostrate themselves before the Christians of Philadelphia.  So while the verb proskuneo can describe worship, it does not exclusively describe worship.

Other Greek words are sometimes translated as “worship,” such as sebomai (“to revere, feel awe”), eusebeo (“act reverently toward”), latreia (“service”) and the related verb latreuo (“to serve”), and threskeia (“religion, cult”).  In the New Testament, these are all used with regard to God, idols, or (false worship toward) angels, and indeed, in Matthew 4:10 Jesus quotes Deuteronomy, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only,” indicating an exclusivity.  Yet according to the Lidell and Scott dictionary, the verb latreuo was sometimes used in common Greek to refer to service of other humans without a religious connotation.

In Hebrew, the matter is no more clear-cut.  Like the Greek proskuneo, the Hebrew verb most commonly translated “worship” (hishtahaweh) typically indicates the act of prostration.  And like proskuneo, hishtahaweh also refers to prostration directed toward human beings, as when David did so to King Saul in 1 Samuel 24:8.  In other cases, the verb ‘avad is translated by “worship,” although it more commonly means “to serve.”  The same verb is often used in a non-religious sense with regard to serving other humans, and in Genesis 2:15 God even placed Adam in Eden to “serve” the ground (i.e. to farm) using the same verb.

Back to the Question

Of course, this range of meanings for the English word “worship” and the Greek and Hebrew words which we generally translate as “worship” does not mean that we can worship whatever we want, however we want.  Christians agree, from biblical revelation, that God alone is to be worshiped, and worship of anything else is to be shunned.  But the slipperiness of words does mean that we must be careful to avoid fighting about the words, rather than the meanings.  There isn’t any particular physical action reserved for God alone, although many such external actions and internal emotions are termed “worship.”  At its best, worship is an orientation of life, soul, mind, and love that is to be centered upon God alone.  To center one’s life around anything other than God is idolatry, and we all do that all the time.  Yet by God’s grace, we are forgiven through the victorious death of Jesus the Christ, and his Holy Spirit is at work within us teaching us to worship God in Spirit and in truth.  This highest worship is only possible for those whom God is redeeming, and yet the Bible and common speech refers to non-Christians worshiping.

So what do we mean by Muslims worshiping?  And given this range of meanings, do Muslims worship the same God that Christians do?  Muslims don’t sing the same songs or gather on a Sunday morning.  But some of them (especially Sufis) get very excited in groups and claim a sincere spiritual connection to the Creator God.  (Just because they claim it, of course, does not mean they are correct.)  They do prostrate themselves (more than most Christians do), but they prostrate in the direction of Mecca, whereas Christians who prostrate themselves tend to orient themselves facing east.  Does the direction matter?  God is omnipresent, and Christians have interpreted direction in worship (if they considered it at all) as symbolic.  Some Muslims also speak of reverence for God and awe, though that does not answer the question whether they are revering the same God as Christians.  In other words, most of the same actions and emotions which Christians do and feel toward God, Muslims also do and feel toward their Allah.  Does that mean when Muslims say they worship Allah they refer to the same God as Christians?  Not necessarily, but different people will have different intuitions, and here it is far too easy to be arguing about words rather than realities.  And when we consider the possibility of worshiping something “you do not know,” as Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, it becomes more important to consider how we might discern the object of worship.  Given how long this post has become, the object of worship must become the subject of a future post…


One comment

  1. This is largely irrelevant to the definition of terms, but I would argue that substantial “collective excitement” directed not towards God is almost certain to be problematic; taken to extremes, it is likely to resolve into a witch hunt or mob, if negative, or into some degree of serious idolatry or misappropriation, if positive. Lesser degrees of what might be termed collective excitement may or may not be a problem (as in the instance of clothing fads, mildly trending hashtags, or some popular causes), but may, as with most of the rest of life, provide additional opportunities for temptation or maladjusted priorities.

    I have no objection to singing Happy Birthday, however – especially now that it’s in the public domain. I’m not quite that dour.

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