Deuteronomy 12:5-9 – 5 But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, 6 and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. 7 And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you.
8 “You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes, 9 for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance that the Lord your God is giving you.
In Deuteronomy 12, we see God give the people of Israel a command to worship him, not in the ways or even in the locations of the nations they will drive from the land, but in a place of God’s choosing. A quick, non-thorough search of Deuteronomy in the ESV shows me that at least 20 verses in Deuteronomy refer to a place that God will choose for Israel to be the central place of the worship of the Lord. Thus, I think I can safely say that this issue mattered to God. As we see in verse 8, the people are not allowed to do whatever seems right in their sight (cf. Judg. 21:25). They are to worship where and how the Lord commands.
Mentally step out of Deuteronomy and into modern church life. How many of us do not consider at all what the Lord commands his people to do or how he commands them to do it? How many of our churches question whether or not any particular section of the worship service is in keeping with the commands and ways of the Lord? What is our standard for determining the purposes and practices of the church, especially in the area of gathered worship?
Note, by the way, that the first response that you are likely to have is to assume that, yes, churches should consider this stuff and, obviously, your church is doing it right. In truth, worship is not as easily defined in the New Testament as it is for the nation of Israel in Deuteronomy. Orders of worship are not given us as examples. We know that God commands the gathering, the preaching of the word, the celebration of Lord’s Supper, the singing of multiple kinds of spiritual songs, and the public reading of Scripture. Unlike Deuteronomy, there is no particular location limitation, and many of the acts of worship are not so strictly prescribed.
With that said, god has something for us to learn from Deuteronomy. God had every right to tell Israel exactly where they could worship him and where they could not. His limitations may have made no sense to many a human mind. What makes one town better than another town for meeting God? Why can we not just worship God on any hilltop we choose. Of course, some of it has to do with how the Canaanites worshipped the evil pagan deities of their imagination. But, and we must not miss this, God prescribed a place for his worship because he wanted us to know that he has the right to do so. God determines how we worship him and what is acceptable. Our best ideas, things that are right in our own eyes, are not what make worship acceptable.
If it was true in the Old Testament that God has the right to say what will worship him and what will dishonor him, the same is true in the New Testament. We should be very careful not to assume that, just because something makes us feel spiritual, it is therefore acceptable worship. Nor should we assume that whatever the church down the street has done which seems to be bringing people into their building is a right and God-honoring practice.
Examine yourself. Examine your church. Are you doing the things that God commands you to do in worship? Also, examine to see if you are doing things that God forbids. And carefully examine things that are neither commanded nor forbidden. Is it really wise to bring practices into the worship of God which have no basis in his word? After all, God told Israel they were not to have each person doing whatever was right in their own eyes.
Of course I’m not here suggesting that we embrace a legalistic form of the regulative principle that would have us refuse to use electricity, microphones, or even a display screen. I’m not suggesting we do away with modern instruments and the like. What I am suggesting is that everything we bring into the service which we think will enhance the experience, everything we do which we call an act of worship, everything we do should be held closely to the light of Scripture and examined. Has God commanded this? Has God affirmed this? Has God allowed this? Is this a thing that matches biblical command and wisdom? Or are we feeding our flesh instead of our souls? Are we magnifying ourselves and our emotions instead of magnifying the Lord? Are we aping the world? Are we bringing into the practice of worship a thing that we enjoy, but which God has never sanctioned for his worship? After all, God, not man, is the determiner of what right worship is.