What is acceptable worship in the church?

Question
What is acceptable worship in the church? Are we just to sing the Psalms that are in the Bible, or can we use hymnals, overheads, choirs, etc. too?
Answer

My personal answer below is rather brief, so I would suggest an in-depth study of the Bible and the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America (which I believe provides a more complete exposition of Scripture on the topic of worship), for a more complete answer. IIIM also has a complete section devoted to Worship (see "The Worship Project" below).

Jesus stated in John 4:24 that, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." Not only is God omnipresent, but He desires to be with His covenant people, so "where two or three are gathered in [His] name, there [He is] among them" (Matt. 18:20). Whatever the church does should be to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

To this end I enjoy the way the Southern Presbyterian Review 36.2 (April 1885, pp. 343-366) summarizes the limitations on public worship:

The great principle, defining the limitations upon public worship, is, that whatsoever is not either explicitly commanded in the word of God, or cannot be deduced from it by good and necessary consequence, is forbidden. A divine warrant must be furnished for every element of the public worship of the Church. All else is the product of human wisdom and taste, and is reprobated as will-worship; which, as it is condemned by God, should be rejected by the Church.

Public worship is for the praise and glory of God (cf. Psa. 18:3; 22:22; 35:18; 145:3; 150:1-6; Rev. 19:10, et. al.). It is also for the building up of the saints (cf. Eph. 4:12). It is not for the entertainment of the congregation or the praise of man (cf. Prov. 12:15; Amos 5:21-24; Gal. 1:9-10). To this end, the saints should diligently prepare themselves for public worship by continuous prayer, meditation upon God's Word, personal praise and obedience (Phil. 4:8; Col. 3:1-2; 2 Thess. 1:11-12; 1 Pet. 1:15; 2 John 1:6), so they may properly meet their Maker in unity with other saints on the Sabbath (Psa. 92:1-2; Heb. 10:25; cf. Heb. 13:15), and at other appointed times. Remember also that God is a God of grace, when His people mistakenly sin (Tit. 2:11-12; 1 John 1:8-2:4).

A review of the Scripture reveals that prayer, intercession, thanksgiving, confession of sin, singing, praise, adoration, the reading and the preaching the Word of God, making offerings for the care of the poor, the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, and the exercising of proper discipline are all part of proper public worship acceptable to God.

Choirs are seen in the Old Testament, so they are acceptable today. Singing the Psalms is proper. Using of designated instruments is scriptural. Songs read from hymnals and overheads, as much as their wording and the music are in keeping with the proper teaching of Scripture are acceptable forms of public worship. So, as long as these things are done decently and in order, they are not forbidden in proper public worship (cf. 1 Cor. 14:40). In essence, the exercise of biblical discernment and judgment on what is and is not true to Scripture, as to "words" and what is appropriate for the worship of God, as to "music" are imperatives in public worship (cf. Jas. 4:4). We should remember that genuine worship is not the attempt of some Oscar winning "performance" or "exotic orchestration" of a song (1 John 5:21), but of the spirit of just men and women in Christ genuinely communing with their beloved Savior! While the church should endeavor to do all things well, God is concerned about the genuine heart of worship, not mere fleshly offerings of the same - which is no worship at all (cf. Gal. 1:7).

As Paul wrote to the church of Colossae, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Col. 3:16).

Related Topics:

The Worship Project

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).