“The Early Church and Today,” by Everett Ferguson, Part 6 (The Argument from the Nature of Human’s Service to God)

EarlychurchWe continue to consider Ferguson’s arguments in chapter 21 of his The Early Church and Today, vol. 1 and vol. 2, edited by Leonard Allen and Robyn Burwell. This chapter is titled “The Case for A Cappella Music in the Christian Assembly.”

Ferguson next presents “The Argument from the Nature of Human’s Service to God.”

God is a spirit, and a person is linked to God by his or her spiritual nature. Therefore, the New Testament emphasizes that the Christian’s service to God proceeds from the highest part of his nature—his spiritual , intellectual, rational nature. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4: 24). “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12: 1). “Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2: 5). These verses draw on terminology and concepts used in early Christian times to express a worship that was non-sacrificial, non-material.

(Kindle Locations 5006-5011).

Ferguson argues that these verses argue for a “non-sacrificial, non-material” worship. I disagree. In fact, I find the argument a bit Gnostic, and certainly foreign to the scriptures he cites.

(Joh 4:23-24 ESV) 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Jesus uses “spirit” in the sense of “God is spirit.” He is referring to the essential nature of God himself. Therefore, to worship “in spirit” is to worship by the Holy Spirit.

That the Holy Spirit is in mind is clear from the preceding discourse between Jesus and the Samaritan woman regarding “living water,” which is about the coming Holy Spirit, as John makes clear in John 7:37-39.

To worship in the Spirit has nothing to do with instruments or no instruments but what or who prompts the worship. If it is the Spirit within us who moves us toward worship, it’s worship in Spirit.

(Rom 12:1 ESV) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

In Romans 8, Paul had extensively discussed the influence of the Spirit on the believer. “Therefore,” Paul argues, we should surrender our bodies to God. It’s not just our minds and our intellects. It’s not just our emotions. It’s our whole beings that must be sacrificed.

If this is worship, then worship is a whole-body event. It’s physical. Indeed, this passage is, if anything, a celebration of our physicality. God has given us bodies, which we in turn give back to him in living sacrifice.

So what’s the complaint with instruments? That they’re too physical? Too tangible? That they’re played with our bodies? That to play an instrument can be a whole-body experience rather than the merely intellectual experience of singing?

You see, Ferguson has it exactly backwards. Because instruments are played with the body, and the body belongs to God, the body should be involved in our worship.

Of course, the playing of an instrument is not the only way that we may worship physically, but it certainly doesn’t contradict Paul’s teaching.

(I should add that Paul has much more in mind here than the Sunday morning assembly as “worship.”)

(1Pe 2:4-6 ESV)  4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious,  5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  6 For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

Peter declares that we are “living stones” — parts of God’s temple! — being built together as a “spiritual house” in which we are to offer “spiritual sacrifices.”

Well, if we assume that instruments lack spirituality, then we could argue from this passage that instruments aren’t proper because they aren’t spiritual. But that requires that we assume our conclusion. We must “beg the question,” as the debaters say.

But there is nothing here that says the playing of instruments in celebration of God’s work lacks spirituality. Indeed, “spiritual” here in pneumatikos, which N. T. Wright has shown to mean something like “coming from the Spirit” rather than “made out of spirit.”

Wright explains,

Greek adjectives that end in -kos do not describe the substance out of which something is made. They describe the force that is animating the thing in question.  It’s the difference between saying on the one hand, “Is this a wooden ship or a steel ship?” and saying on the other hand, “Is this a nuclear-powered ship or a steam-powered ship?”

Thus, we are to offer Spirit-powered sacrifices, not ethereal, intangible sacrifices. Peter makes this very plain in the next few verses  —

(1Pe 2:11-15 ESV) 11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.  12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.  13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme,  14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.  15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.

What are our spiritual sacrifices? Well, to abstain from fleshly passions, to conduct ourselves honorably, to do good deeds, to submit to human institutions, to do good. These are, of course, behaviors that the Spirit prompts within us. But these are not limited to the intangible and ethereal. Our good deeds may well be very physical.

(1Pe 2:20-21 ESV)  20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.  21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.

Indeed, our “spiritual sacrifice” may be submitting to a very physical beating of our bodies for the sake of Christ.

Ultimately, Ferguson has slipped unconsciously into a form of Gnosticism, treating the tangible and physical as unholy, whereas Judaism and Christianity celebrate both the physical and mental, the emotional and intellectual, as given by God.

This happens because, I imagine, Ferguson’s theological roots come from a heritage that minimizes the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he unconsciously takes passages that are all about the work of the Spirit and reads them in terms of the intangible and ethereal.

And that mistake inevitably leads toward Gnosticism — the notion that the physical is corrupt and unholy — a teaching that is very far removed from Christianity. Indeed, these passages teach us the opposite — that our bodies are worthy offerings to God.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to “The Early Church and Today,” by Everett Ferguson, Part 6 (The Argument from the Nature of Human’s Service to God)

  1. John says:

    Ferguson’s logic could easily be carried to the conclusion that the only acceptable worship would be out under a tree. After all, What are church houses? What are pews and pulpits? What are communion tables with “Do this in remembrance of me” engraved on them? What are steeples? What are hymnals? What are these if not of the “material”?

    What I still see within the conservative Restoration Movement, whether it be of the main line congregations, the non-cooporation groups, or the churches that are thought of as on the fringe, is the claim of “We know how to rightly divide the word of truth; so that enables us, more than others, to understand church history and determine what is to be kept for the kingdom and what is to be discarded or rejected”. I can understand how people think this way. I have been there. When this has been one’s diet from infancy the idea of giving it up can FEEL like religious starvation and suicide. After all, I personally know of individuals who have great minds, who have earned high degrees of learning, yet have not changed their thinking on a single point of religion, simply because, to them, that would be a total fall, death itself.

    The only way out of that “boxed in” thinking is to challenge and to allow one’s self to read and to listen to those who have never been a part of the Restoration Movement; even to those who have never been a part of our religious culture. We have to allow ourselves to be stretched. We have to allow ourselves to trust the judgement that God has given us as individuals, to believe that God’s grace embraces our “Yes” and “No”, and to live with the peace that God’s kingdom is larger than the stone tablets that were hung around our necks at birth.

  2. David Himes says:

    Personally, I find John 4:24 to be very liberating, as it relates to worship. In my view, just before verse 24, Jesus contrasts temple worship with what really counts. Temple worship was very constrained, very procedural, liturgical. But Jesus says, true worship is by in spirit and truth.

    To me that says worship comes from my heart. I truly worship God, when that worship springs from my inner self, and may manifest itself in any variety of physical acts … singing, dancing, prostration, playing.

    What counts is not the physical form, but the heart … and isn’t that they way it is with everything before God … he looks at our heart!

  3. Thanks, John, well said. When we embrace a theology which teaches us that doctrinal error gets the death penalty, it has the power to paralyze us intellectually. We cannot risk taking that mental side-trip into a different point of view, for fear of falling from the “narrow way” and into the abyss.

    For many of us, the simple revelation that “Your Father loves you, and he is not going to kill you,” opened the windows for all sorts of thoughts to be considered. Some things we tasted turned out not to be healthy, but far more things we touched for the first time were delights from the Father’s table. Not only does he not give us a scorpion when we ask for an egg, the spiritual smorgasbord is more vast than we had imagined.

  4. Ferguson actually thinks the spiritual and the intellectual/rational are the same thing. Perhaps he could come back when someone has helped him correct this fundamental misunderstanding. It’s no wonder he has so many erroneous ideas. Wow.

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