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What is "worship," according to the scriptures?

(Garth D. Wiebe, December 2014, λειτουργια and δουλεια references added April 2015, σεβομαι added Dec. 2016, slight refinement to literal translation of John 4:23-24 made April 2018, video added and a few changes pertaining to video script October 2018)

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Now, let's get one thing straight: "Worship" is not synonymous with "music." That may be what the contemporary meaning and jargon has evolved to, but "worship" and "music" are two different terms entirely. In fact, there is no place in the New Testament where "worship" is connected with "music" at all! Not one place! Let me repeat this: There is no place in the New Testament where "worship" and "music" are connected in scripture. Not one place. There are scriptures which speak of musical expression for the purpose of praise and thanksgiving, and there are other scriptures that speak about worship in different contexts, but never the two together.

In pointing this out, I am not saying that the two concepts are somehow incompatible or in conflict. That is not the point. The point is that the notion that "worship" = "music," and "music" = "worship" has now become ubiquitous and is a sacred cow. The danger of the sacred cow is that it causes people to rally around musical expression (particularly contemporary musical expression) as being the epitome of godliness and spirituality in "worshiping" God, assuming it as the highest virtue in the Christian faith.

Oh and, by the way, did I mention that there is not one place in the New Testament where "music" and "worship" are mentioned in connection with one another?

Now don't worry -- I've been involved in music ministry in church services and other events, live and recorded music production, I've recorded and produced Christian music CD albums, I've done live sound for musical theater, and other things. If you've seen my "Be like Jesus" video, I composed, arranged, and generated all that background music myself. I am not anti-music. In fact, I require all my children to become musically literate as part of their education. Since music is 100% spiritual in essence, I don't believe there is any value whatsoever in secular music, that all Christians should be musically literate, and that all music should be for the purpose of glorifying God one way or another.

With that out of the way, let us investigate what "worship" actually means, and how it applies to us as Christians.

The word normally used for "worship" is προσκυνεω (Strong's G4352, "pros-kuneo"), which is a compound of προσ- (Strong's G4314, "pros"), which means "toward," and κυνεω ("kuneo"). κυνεω might seem at first to be the verb form of "dog." However, the root κυς ("kus") means "kiss," though not found in the Bible, but in other Greek texts, and this is considered the more likely root.

This is all a bit awkward. Language does not always have a perfect algorithmic logic to it. James Strong himself makes what he describes as a "probable" connection between "dog" and "kiss" in his definition, but that seems a stretch, and is obviously speculation on his part.

If the base were "dog," the combination of the compound word would imply something to the effect of "towards dog-ging," i.e. leaning towards a dog's behavior. It would not be hard to imagine this, given what we know about how domestic dogs act toward their human masters. A dog has an attitude of unquestionable devotion to its master.

On the other hand, dogs are viewed with disdain in the Bible, and are never spoken of in any positive light. They are considered vermin, dirty scavengers.

For reference, the word "dog" itself is κυων (Strong's G2965, "kuon," plural κυνες, "kunes"), used a number of times in the New Testament, and in the Septuagint, the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.

κυναρια (Strongs G2952, "kunaria") is a diminutive of "dogs" (i.e. "doggies," as we would say), cited by both Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman to each other in Matt 15:26-27 and Mark 7:27-28. (Obviously, translators will refrain from using such an informal word as "doggie" in translation.)

In the Septuagint, the noun/verb κυνηγειν/κυνηγεω ("kunegos/kunegeo") is used meaning to hunter/hunt (with "hounds"?). But this is translated from a different Hebrew word for "hunt" that has nothing intrinsically to do with a dog, and therefore is not helpful to us.

In the Septuagint, the word κυνομυια ("kunomuia") is used, meaning "dog-fly," such as when the plague of flies covered the land of Egypt in Exodus 8. But this is translated from a different Hebrew word that only means "swarm," has nothing intrinsically to do with a dog, and therefore is not helpful to us.

The "kiss" etymology has the backing of reputable Greek scholarship, and seems reasonable as well, the key point being that the ν ("n") is a connecting consonant, not a part of the root, and that κυνεω is therefore a contraction, dropping the sigma (σ, "s"). Those "worshiping" in ancient times or in modern idolatrous practices would bow low to the ground, as if to kiss the ground, or perhaps kiss the feet of the one being worshiped. So then προσκυνεω would mean "kiss toward," which is also a straightforward derivation.

On the other hand, the word "kiss" is used a number of times in the New Testament, but it is always the word φιλημα (Strong's G5370, "phile-ma"). That word is based on the root/prefix φιλ__ ("phil__"), meaning "fond," which is the basis for a whole group of words (Strong's G5358 through G5391, over 30 words). The -μα ("-ma") ending denotes the effect or manifestation of something. Putting those two together gives us "fond-effect" or "fond-manifestation," and that is the word used in the New Testament that is translated "kiss."

I think that's all that can be said about the word roots. Regardless of the "dog" or "kiss" component's relevance to the etymology of the word, it is clear from the contexts that the word for "worship" simply refers to an act of deep reverence, which can then be seen in a person's resulting behavior toward the object that he is devoted to.

The word προσκυνεω can also be translated using the word "obeisance," which is not as common a word in English, but has more of a tangible meaning.

If you look through the New Testament, the places where "worship" is used fall into some predictable categories. One is where people "worshiped" Jesus in response to his performing a miracle, or having to do with recognizing who he was. Another is in reference to the Old Covenant, where people worshiped at the temple, for example. Another is where pagans worshiped pagan gods.

There is actually only one place where "worship" is discussed in terms of the New Covenant, and that is in the dialog between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. There Jesus defined what it would be to us.

The woman said,

"Our fathers worship in this mountain and you[plural] are saying that the place where it is necessitating to be worshiping is in Jerusalem."
Jesus responded,
"Woman, believe me that an hour is coming when you will be worshiping to the father neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You are worshiping what you have not understood; we are worshiping what we have understood, that salvation is out of the Judeans. But an hour is coming and now is when the true worshipers will be worshiping to the father in spirit and truth, for also the father, the God, is seeking such, worshiping same spirit* , and it is necessitating to be worshiping, the ones-worshiping same, in spirit and truth."
That last sentence, which I rendered very literally, is a little bit awkward. But the point of the above should be obvious. The woman is asking whether it is "here" or "there," and Jesus says that it is going to be "neither." The answer isn't "here" or "there" but "in spirit and truth." So, the issue of "where" is "neither here nor there," as the modern idiom goes. "In spirit" refers to being in the Spirit, and "in truth" refers to being in truth, according to the Word of God. So, New Covenant "worship" is a life devoted to God in spirit and truth, not "here" or "there," not a method, an action, a ritual, a routine, a ceremony, a special observance, or music, or anything like that.

That is the only place in the New Testament where Christian "worship" is discussed.

Now, we know that by being "in Christ" we are devoted to the Father because Jesus is devoted to the Father. It is a matter of who we are "in Christ," not what we do, so it is a matter of identity, not performance. Our actions, our life "in the spirit" are an outgrowth of that identity; it is not our actions (such as worshiping "here" or "there") that are the basis or cause for that identity.

So, you should begin to see how far the status quo has strayed from the truth. It is not merely that the idea of "worship," in the New Covenant understanding, is almost completely absent from today's thinking. Indeed, it is worse than having an "Old Covenant" or pagan concept by which you specify a time or place or ritual to be set aside as "worship." Now it has gotten to the point that when people say, "It's time for worship," or, "That was a good time of worship," they are referring to the music. A "worship team" is now a "music team." The logical implication of this is that there can be no "worship" without the music, and that if other kinds of "teams" are formed, that they are not "worship teams" if they have nothing to do with music, or that a Christian only "worships" in participating in musical expression.

But "in spirit" is not a place or a time or a method. Neither is "in truth" a place or a time or a method. That is why New Covenant "worship" has nothing to do with such things, and that is why you will not find "worship" and "music" connected to each other anywhere in the New Testament.

There is another word that bears some similarity in meaning, and that is the word σεβομαι (Strong's G4576, "sebomai"), which is often translated "worship," but refers to one's devoting themselves to something, being devout, reverent. But, alas, this word is not seen in connection with music or some actual "act of worship," either. Besides several pagan and negative uses of this word in the New Testament, there are simply several references to Christians being devout.

Another word that needs to be examined is the word λατρεια (Strong's G2999, "latreia"), which means "service." This is "service" as an obligation, in contrast to διακονια (Strong's G1248, "diakonia") which speaks of voluntary service. διακονια is where we get the religious transliteration "deacon," and the root word from which the religious term "ministry" is translated, but it is a generic word that means "service" or "dispensation" ("dispensation," as in something "dispensed," not the religious eschalogical term), and is not itself a religious term.

The word λατρεια is the word used in Rom 12:1, where it says, "I am entreating, then, you brothers, through the mercy of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy well-pleasing to the God, your logical service." In some English translations this is translated "worship," but it isn't really "worship," but has to do with service, and again is very general.

Rom 12:1 also contrasts the Old Covenant principle to the New Covenant principle, just as Jesus did when discussing "worship" with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. The word λατρεια is used in the New Testament and the Septuagint Koine Greek translation of the Old Testament very frequently in reference to how people "served" in the rituals and obligations of the Old Covenant. In Rom 12:1, the "logical" corresponding "service" is for us to offer our bodies as "living sacrifices," in contrast to the animal sacrifices and other designated acts of "service" offered in the Old Covenant.

To illustrate that the word προσκυνεω and λατρεια are two different words and concepts, though related, the text of the first of the "Ten Commandments" in Exodus 20:5 has both words in the Koine Greek Septuagint translation. It says, "There shall not be to you other gods besides me. You shall not make to yourself an idol, nor any representation, as much as in the heaven upward nor as much as in the earth below, nor as much as in the waters underneath the earth. You shall not do obeisance (προσκυνησεις, "worship") to them, nor shall you serve (λατρευσεις) to them." (ABP interlinear).

A similar word to that is the word λειτουργια (Strong's G3009, "leitourgia"), in its various forms, from which we get the English transliteration "liturgy," a religious/ceremonial term. It was originally a secular Greek term referring to public service, but in the New Testament it refers to spiritual duty. Although there is again no direct connection in the New Testament scriptures to "worship," it can be confused with the modern definition of "worship," in that it is something that a modern "worshipper" does.

Another word having to do with service is δουλεια (Strong's G1397, "douleia"), in its various forms, which refers to slavery, meaning service that one is irrevocably bound to. But this is connected neither with the scriptural nor any modern use of the word "worship."

Interestingly, we also have the modern term "worship service." It is a very fitting label from a language point of view, but actually illustrates the tradition of men and the sacred cow. You "go" to a place called a "church," on a set time, and perform a religious duty ("service") where you "worship" God. When the "worship service" is over, then your religious duty is completed for perhaps a week, during which time you do whatever else you want, the obligation for the week having been fulfilled. This corresponds to either an "Old Covenant" mentality or a "pagan" mentality. It is not an "in Christ" mentality.

This is not to say that it is wrong to meet, even weekly if you want, even Sunday morning if you want, for a set program or routine, in a building that you call a "church," run by a supporting organization of men. It is just that such meetings and programs tend to become the focus of Christian expression and duty, rather than who you are in Christ and your bodies as "living sacrifices." Such programs, institutions, and buildings ought to serve (λατρεια) you and the body of Christ. You ought not to serve (λατρεια) them.

Ironically again, the term "worship service" predates the more recent shift to identify "worship" as equated with "music." So, now we have in popular religious jargon that a "worship service" is the whole Sunday morning program, which includes, but is not limited to, a time of "worship" (i.e. music).

New Covenant "worship" transcends all that, and is instead simply our devotion "in spirit and truth." Our "logical" act of "service" is to offer our bodies as "living sacrifices." Once you understand these things, then the principle of "worship" and "service" transcends and defines everything that you do, rather than being some thing that you do. You are then set free to be who you are in Christ, at the same time obligated 24/7/365 to your fundamental devotion and service in Christ.

And again, this is not meant to disparage spiritual musical expression in any way, or even the extent to which that musical expression has evolved in recent times. The mistake people often make is to produce or participate in musical expression in order to "get pumped up" in the spirit, in other words, to manipulate God. This is putting the cart before the horse. Since you cannot manipulate God, such people are really just manipulating their emotions, will experience a let-down soon after the music stops, and will not be able to optimally function without music, to the extent that they become emotionally addicted to it. Rather, if you understand who you are in Christ, that your "worship" is "in spirit and truth," then with that as a basis you will enter into times of praise and thanksgiving as a result, including using music, and the basis for it will not fade when the music stops. Understand that this basis for "worship" has nothing to do with "music" or any other action that you might perform.

In conclusion, "worship" is not only not music, it isn't anything that people generally have been saying that it is. It is your timeless, fundamental devotion to God in spirit and truth.

*πνευμα, used in John 4:24, has the same spelling in the nominative and accusative cases, and αυτον literally means "same" (habitually translated as an English third person pronoun by most English translators with little further thought given), which can also be used adjectivally. I thus avoid the awkward rendering with the implied verb that is not explicitly in the text (traditionally, "God is spirit" or "God is a spirit"). The overall meaning and intent of Jesus' words are unchanged, as his response to the woman was concerning the nature of worship, not the morphology of God.

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