Why Everything Is NOT Worship

“Everything we do is worship.”

That sounds admirable. And, to be honest, we are faced with a problem of vocabulary. The meaning of whatever people mean by “worship” can be pretty fluid.

But, at least in the sense the word might have been used in reference to the temple sacrifices or the praises of the synagogue, the statement is an absurdity—a self contradiction.

Like a husband announcing, “Everything I do is loving my wife.” Think about, for example, insisting everything is holy. A person who says such things doesn’t begin to understand the biblical meaning of holy. The Bible can talk about a holy day, a holy place, a holy set of garments and holy objects like the furnishings of the temple. This doesn’t mean all other times, places or objects are somehow sinful or wicked. The opposite of holy is simply being common or ordinary.

Many things we do every day are ordinary. That does not make them wrong or sinful. They are just mundane. Therefore, they are not holy. I mow my lawn. My neighbor mows his lawn. Just about everybody in my neighborhood mows their lawn (a few hire it done for them). I once had a neighbor who put lights on his riding mower so he could mow at midnight. But, God had mercy, and he moved to another state. But, the point is, lawn mowing is an ordinary activity. Perhaps what I am thinking while mowing the lawn is not ordinary, but lawn mowing (behavior) certainly is. The behavior itself is ordinary. That is to say, in the world but not of the world.

“Holy” actions, gatherings, words and places are set apart from the ordinary flow of daily living for the use and glory of God. In fact, such actions will usually serve no purpose other than the glory of God. There may be an appearance of logic in suggesting identifying the gathering of believers to break bread as worship in a unique way leads to disjointed lives (saint on Sunday, devil on Monday). The reality is the “worship is everything” idea has only served to hasten the rapid secularization of an increasingly secular American church.

Let me draw an analogy from marriage:

A husband might insist everything he does, from work to deer hunting, expresses his love for his wife. He certainly is aware he is married. Since he takes his marriage seriously, activities such as having an affair or spending money wildly on himself are excluded. He works, hunts, eats and sleeps as a “married man.” But, unless he recognizes the value of planned times alone with his wife for intimacy and lovemaking, his marriage is not going well.

Living and working as a married man in no way replaces intentional “set-apart” (read “holy”) times of love-making. Mowing the yard doesn’t replace the bedroom. Yard mowing is optional.  Planned set-apart times of intimacy are not.  A marriage is not “weakened” by these, it is strengthened. To insist that everything a spouse does is the same thing as romantic intimacy is to undermine the relationship and, paradoxically, to promote a loveless marriage.

On the other side, intimacy and romance are grotesque if the husband is unfaithful, uncaring, and abusive in all the other (ordinary) times. Unless the set-apart times are in concert with the ordinary times the whole marriage is a sad charade. Isn’t it obvious helping around the house and romantic intimacy are two distinct categories of activities? One is ordinary (you may help other people clean up around their houses), while the other is uniquely set apart for marriage (things you should do only with your spouse).  One accomplishes something everyone can see (cleaner house), the other does not accomplish anything, it just affirms the love of the relationship.

In the common proof text behind the worship-is-everything idea, Romans 12:1. I covered this in an earlier post. But, to put it briefly, the words would be better understood as, “And so, because of God’s mercies, present your bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular), this is your heartfelt (reasonable, logical, soul-ful, mindful) act of service-to-God. The word translated worship in 12:1 (latreia, not the expected word proskuneo) can refer to service to God or civil service. The emphasis, in either case, is on service.

It would be clearer, of course, if we had a separate English word for carrying our generally ordinary activities on behalf of God (latreia) and a different word for things like prayer, songs of praise, the Eucharist, and such. These are activities that have no real value as acts of service (in the ordinary, day-to-day sense).

For the follower of Jesus, I want to make it clear, the labors of ordinary, day-to-day living should be done consistently with our faith and our wonder at God’s grace. The day-to-day actions are still ordinary. The Christian factory worker does the same day-to-day work as the unbelieving factory worker. Christians feed the poor. Agnostics also feed the poor. Only the motivations of the Christian might be different.

In worship, the actions themselves are also holy. By that I mean they are not a part of ordinary, day-to-day human behaviors. They are special behaviors (the root meaning of holy) as much out of the ordinary as the motivations behind them. The Christian will give God words of praise. The agnostic will not. Of course, that holy activities done without holy intentions are offensive to God.

In Isaiah 1, God’s call for the temple worshippers to abandon their prayers and festivals was rooted in the gross marriage of holy behaviors with unjust lives. But please note, God is not saying that seeking justice, defending the widow, caring for the orphan and practicing right moral living will somehow replace temple worship. After all, the biblical answers to the questions, “Who required of you this trampling of my courts? These sacrifices? These prayers?” is, “You did, God” (Isaiah 1:12).

Jesus urged his followers to do their good works before others so they may see the good works and glorify God. That is, the good works lead people to glorify God. The two are still separate.

The same mindset that insists everything is worship often seems equally ready to embrace the idea that we can somehow pray constantly.  This, in spite of the fact that Jesus specifically describes prayer as something done in intentionally set apart time and in a set apart place (in your closet or, by the example of Jesus, alone on a mountain or apart from others in a garden). I can be aware of God in day-to-day living.  Based on that awareness, I can act and live in ways that are ethical and moral and caring. The awareness, however, is not the same as prayer any more than it is the same as worship.

Yes, in one sense, all of Christian living may be seen as a grace-response to the love of God in Christ. Believing the assembly is worship does not eliminate that call to do “everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” We must live in a way consistent with our faith at all times. The life of faith is a lifelong expression of praise and gratitude toward God. Those who see our “good works” may, indeed, be prompted to “glorify God.” We live as those whom God has called out of darkness and into His marvelous light.

The rhythm of the ordinary intersected with the extraordinary and holy has marked human worship and interaction with God from times of Abel to the visions of John on Patmos on “the Lord’s Day.”  

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Tom has taught in Christian higher education for 25 years, with a focus on the theology and history of Christian worship. Tom, along with his wife Linda, serves on the faculty of Ozark Christian College (Joplin, Missouri, US). Tom grew up among the Primitive Baptists of the Appalachian mountains. Through his adult life, he has served in churches and taught at schools associated with the Christian Churches (of the Stone-Campbell Movement).