“God is much bigger than… your style [of worship] or mine.”


I recently posted the image above from my professional page on Facebook, and it drew this response:

I guess King David worshipped incorrectly then. You know, the whole leaping and dancing and shouts of joy thing? Totally got it wrong. Tambourines? Lyres? If you know anything of Israeli culture, liturgical worship was not the norm until much later.

My response:

King David’s ecstatic dancing before the Lord, etc., was essentially a private act. He did not immediately command that it be used to change the norm of worship in the Tabernacle, nor did one see it represented in the liturgy of the Temple built by Solomon.

Liturgical worship, instituted by God, was indeed the norm in Judaism (a quick review of Leviticus will reveal that). It’s true that musical instruments were used throughout much of the OT period, but by the time of the Apostles, Christians raised the bar and said that only the human voice was truly worthy of use in worship. Many things were elevated with the advent of Christ, also including, for instance, morality (e.g., adultery isn’t only actual intercourse, but even thinking about it lustfully).

Another comment:

And yet, while some argue the correctness of liturgical vs. modern, people are dying. Anything that turns my thoughts towards God’s sovereignty and holiness and draws me to Him is worship.

And my response:

Is it really? I would certainly think that anything that draws thoughts toward God is good, but that doesn’t make it worship. Worship actually has an objective meaning in both Jewish and Christian tradition—one primarily centered on human sanctification through identification with a sacrifice (in Judaism, repeated sacrifices, but in Christianity, with the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ).

There is a difference between good thoughts, praise, etc., and worship. To worship God is to be united to Him through the sanctification from sacrifice. In Judaism, sacrificed/sanctified blood was sprinkled on worshipers, while in the Church, worshipers partake of the sanctifying Body and Blood of Christ.

Addressing the bigger picture, another poster added this further up in the thread:

Since God made music, I can imagine wonderful worship with African drums, Chinese erhus, European pipe organs, and all sorts of things from electric guitar to accordians and tubas. I also think He enjoys the chanting and responsive worship just as much. Fortunately, God is much bigger than your culture or mine, your style or mine. Why must we denigrate others’ style of worship? Let us instead celebrate the kaleidoscope of God’s people, as we worship the King of Kings.

The sentiment behind that comment is of course laudable (God is “big”), but there are many assumptions there that make its conclusions problematic. Here’s my response:

Historically, Christian worship, although in some ways shaped by human culture (Christian liturgical worship is actually a rather vast “kaleidoscope”), is not actually a product of human culture. That phenomenon doesn’t happen until the radical break made from liturgical worship by the revivalist traditions of Protestantism. Rather, liturgical Christian worship is something actually given by Christ to the Apostles (the reason He appeared to James, as mentioned by St. Paul, giving us the earliest version of the Liturgy of St. James). The Apostles passed on liturgical worship to their disciples, who in turn passed it on to the next generation, and so on. Thus, we have a form of worship that was actually practiced by the Apostles themselves, who were given the authority to govern the Church by the God-man Jesus Christ.

Centuries later, a relatively small proportion of Christians decide to break with nearly two millennia of unbroken liturgical worship history and make up something almost entirely new. How is that actually warranted either in the Scripture or in subsequent Christian history?

The question really is not “denigration,” but rather a serious engagement with what is right. Our personal opinions, preferences and tastes are not really that important. What is important is that we are joined to what Christ gave the Apostles.

I myself was raised in churches where “contemporary” music was the norm, but in reading Christian history, I discovered that that was an aberration, that the Apostles and their disciples worshiped liturgically with a worship life centered on the Eucharist, not on sermons (though of course they had them, but not at the center). And once I learned that, I realized that I could not remain in what is, historically speaking, a deviation from the norm that Christ Himself set.

Yes, God is bigger than any kind of worship that we can concoct, but we are not bigger than the worship He Himself has given.


  1. Fr. Andrew, thanks for sharing some of these comments with us. They reflect larger trends in American religiosity that are useful for us to engage. Hopefully people will learn from these exchanges.

  2. I’m not Orthodox but I’m an Anglican who currently attends a church that uses the 1928 Prayer Book. The church doesn’t have much of a youth group so we also attend a “church” in town with the band, lightshow, big TV’s on the wall for videos…etc.

    It does feel like to me like participating in something that is fully Christian. I say that because the focus is solely on Jesus. That’s not a bad thing but there’s never mention of the Trinity. God is portrayed as far off and needing his anger satisfied. Jesus is everything. The Holy Spirit is barely mentioned. Rather then Father, Son and Holy Spirit it’s God, Jesus and the Bible. The story of the Church of course is irrelevant. I consider it to be para-church ministry almost.

    They do draw quite a crowd though. Baptize tons of people which turns out to be a problem later on when its’ discovered that some of these people who are now working in the church are living together and not married and other things. It’s hard then to go back and tell them that they should get married or move out.

    1. I believe this demonstrates a modern instance of an ancient confusion between the prophetic as style and the prophetic as content. In Apostolic Christianity, the prophetic is always the (proper) content of what is spoken. In many early Christian groups, and in much of low Church Evangelicalism, there was a focus on the style in which content was delivered. Invariably, the latter group always believes they have the same content as the former. And, invariably, they are incorrect.

  3. It is true that the musical forms used in early Christian worship were Jewish, but the language of worship became almost universally Greek (the language of the Roman Empire) so the result is a composite of Jewish and Greek forms. I disagree totally with your assertion that Christian worship is not actually a product of human culture. In fact, it is a little troubling to me that the Orthodox church essentially disregards any other musical expression other than Greek, or Russian chant. I’m not advocating the use of pop music or secular sounding music. Nor am I suggesting that the liturgy be changed in any way. I love the Liturgy and don’t find it to be boring or antiquated, but vibrant and moving, every time.

    Rather, I’m specifically curious to know why the Orthodox church has the expectation that its churches in the middle of South America, or Africa, or Asia (or pick a country or continent) should ignore their indigenous musical forms in favor of Greek or Russian chant. It seems arrogant to me. If I speak out of ignorance, I humbly ask you to educate me.

    1. I disagree totally with your assertion that Christian worship is not actually a product of human culture.

      Your arguments seem to suggest that you think I asserted that Christian worship is in no way influenced by human culture. I didn’t say that. I said that it’s not a product of human culture. That is, humanity didn’t invent it. It was given by God. And from what was given by God, certain elements of human culture were subsequently baptized.

      In fact, it is a little troubling to me that the Orthodox church essentially disregards any other musical expression other than Greek, or Russian chant.

      Be troubled no longer! We also endorse Romanian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Alaskan, Gregorian, Galician, Mozarabic, Ambrosian, Carpathian and Kievan chants, as well as others!

      The regions you mention are different from all these other places in that Orthodoxy is relatively new to them. Traditionally, when Orthodoxy moved into a new area, the liturgics and music of the missionaries was transplanted, and over time they took on their own local color. The process is already happening in the places you mention. There are distinctly American, African and Asian colors already taking musical shape in the Orthodox churches in those places. Ever seen a video of the liturgy in Japan? The music sounds Russian, yet there is something of a samurai’s quickness and precision to it one won’t find in Russia. Ever hear Byzantine chant in California? If the chanter is born locally, he probably is using even-tempered scales rather than the microtones that characterize Byzantine chant around the Mediterranean. Ever see videos of Pascha in Africa? You hear Byzantine melodies and yet cannot distinguish the overall ethos of the music from joyful African communal music.

      So I don’t think you have much to worry about, if only you’ll wait a few hundred years to watch the process more fully play out. 🙂

      1. I’ve also seen videos of Orthodox liturgy in Africa where percussive clapping (and maybe even drums? — I’m not sure about this) was used. Would you say that is acceptable in those cultures? Would it be acceptable in America?

        1. I honestly don’t think it would work in America. Such things have a different meaning here than they do there. In any event, this is really up to each bishop to determine in unity with his synod.

      2. Thank you Father. Your reply was most encouraging to me. I love the worship of the local Orthodox parish church (Serbian) that I visit frequently because it is 100% God-focused. It is a far cry from my Pentecostal upbringing but I try to attend the catechumen classes and I still have lots of questions. Not doubts, just honest questions. Pray for me in my journey.

      3. “Ever hear Byzantine chant in California? If the chanter is born locally, he probably is using even-tempered scales rather than the microtones that characterize Byzantine chant around the Mediterranean.”

        That is going to be more of a function of the teaching resources made available to that particular cantor by his/her respective jurisdiction (or parish) than being born in or near California. It remains to be seen if the Anglophone reception of Byzantine chant involves elimination of the traditional scale tunings in favor of Western equal temperament.

      4. Completely fair. I bring it up only because the very thing you mention is a significant point of disagreement in the conversation about what constitutes legitimate adaptation. To put it another way, it is a case where what one might ascribe to “adaptation” another might ascribe to “being taught wrong”.

  4. “There is a difference between good thoughts, praise, etc., and worship.”

    I would love to see a full blown essay or post explaining this topic by anyone — I think this is one of the key misunderstandings made by those who utilize contemporary music as their form of worship.

  5. “The question really is not ‘denigration,’ but rather a serious engagement with what is right. Our personal opinions, preferences and tastes are not really that important. What is important is that we are joined to what Christ gave the Apostles… Yes, God is bigger than any kind of worship that we can concoct, but we are not bigger than the worship He Himself has given.”

    In Ultimate Judgment, it is narrow-minded and arrogant to believe, in the face of all that been given to us by Source, that one knows “what is right” for anyone other than one’s self. We have been given countless ways to worship: ways for each of us; ways for each moment. “Our personal opinions, preferences and tastes” are irrelevant beyond our individual spiritual paths, except in such ways that they might, without any hindrance whatsoever, inspire and encourage others on their paths towards the One. The ways of worship, of experiencing one’s intimate relationship within Source, are unlimited.

    “God” is bigger than any of us, bigger than all of us, bigger than all ways of worship, yet the human heart, when opened and expanded in Love, has the capacity to embrace all and everything – it can embrace Source and all that Source provides, without judgment. What is important is that we learn to embrace Source and Creation more fully, as constantly as possible, and live this experience more clearly, to help manifest Heaven on Earth through our unity.

    1. Okay, given what you say here, I suspect that you’re approaching this from a non-Christian standpoint.

      That said, isn’t it internally contradictory to say that it is “narrow-minded and arrogant to believe, in the face of all that been given to us by Source, that one knows ‘what is right’ for anyone other than one’s self”? That is, if there really is no such thing as authority (which is the essence of your claim here), then on what basis is even that claim made (to say nothing of the rest of the claims)? Isn’t it saying that you know “what is right,” that the rest of us are therefore wrong? How can there even be an “Ultimate Judgment” if there is no authority?

      Anyway, I’m not sure what/who “Source” is, but it sounds suspiciously like an authority figure. 🙂

      1. If you suspect “Source” is “an authority figure,” then why do you assume that “the essence of [my] claim here” is that there is “no such thing as authority?” I don’t claim to know “what is right” but I do know what is not right: it is not right to limit Source (“God”) by your or anyone’s limited concepts of who or what “He” is. The One who is Source, Sustenance and Destination (and much more) is, in Reality, not an “authority figure” in any anthropomorphized sense, which seems to be the way most Christians conceive of “God.” Instead, I find it more helpful to envision Ultimate Judgment as manifesting through the Law of Reciprocal Maintenance, a.k.a. The Golden Rule.

        You are correct in suspecting that I am “approaching this from a non-Christian standpoint” IF you limit Christianity to some particular beliefs about what that means regarding creed and liturgy. On the other hand, I quite openly and willingly embrace the essential teachings of Christ that are not limited by the creed of any organized, self-limiting church, just as I embrace the essential teachings of other major and minor religions, but outside of any limitations by any set creeds. This essence can be expressed as Love; Love in all its manifestations and with all of its implications.

        Fixation on any concepts of the One is self-limiting and stymies the possibilities for one’s personal evolution towards the highest ideals of human potential. Clinging to creeds and liturgies is self-limiting and divisive, creating and perpetuating artificial distinctions and differences that divide us, which is contrary to the essential intent of religion; the intent that we are to be inspired and assisted in our quest to realize our soul’s longing for unity, both here on Earth and ultimately in the One.

        1. In terms of a claim to authority, how is asserting “what is not right” actually any different from asserting “what is right”? There are still positive truth claims being made here, and it is reasonable to ask on what basis those claims are being made. That is, how do you know “what is not right,” and why should we believe you?

          Here’s the thing: Orthodox Christians (which is who we are who run this site) agree that God is not in any way limited, and indeed there is a strongly apophatic tradition of theology within the Orthodox Church—theology that proceeds by “negations,” e.g., that God is infinite, incomprehensible, boundless and so on, even that we may on the one hand say that He is “good,” but not by any human measure of goodness, etc. But if that is all that may be said about God (what He is not), then there would be no basis for any knowledge of God, and we must also conclude that, if there is a God, He doesn’t really care enough about us to initiate contact.

          But Orthodox Christians believe that the Creator and Source of all, the Holy Trinity, chose in His Second Person, the Son of God, to become incarnate as a real, flesh-and-blood human person. What that means is that there has been a revelation from the Source, not that some group of people sat down and imagined what they thought God wanted or what He is and then set about oppressing other people with their personal opinions to divide and conquer humanity. One may deny that revelation occurred, of course, but one should at least get to know what one is denying rather than characterizing it as simply being a groping about in the dark by a group of otherwise Nietzschean supermen.

          And further, since that revelation has actual content such as the possibility of the incorporation of all human persons into Christ—the incarnate God-man—what divides humanity is actually not creeds and liturgy, but rather the failure to respond to that invitation and come into communion and oneness (union without fusion) with God Himself. The Divine Liturgy and the Creed which is included within it are expressions of and God’s ministry to a humanity that has been deified, i.e., saturated with the divine presence of the one God.

          The numerous ways that Orthodox Christians live out their faith (most especially our liturgical life) are not “self-limiting” nor “divisive,” but rather constitute a divinely-given spiritual therapy, a healing and athletic training regimen that not only do not limit but actually strengthen the human person, making him capable of far more than he otherwise would be if he remained outside communion with his Creator. And the Church, far from being some kind of merely human organization, is actually given by God so that we may all partake of the divine communion of the Holy Trinity. The Church includes God Himself, since Christ is the Head, in the famous phrase of St. Augustine, totus Christus, caput et corpus (“the whole Christ, head and body”).

  6. Is it possible that in zeal for “Orthodoxy” , we are exalting legalistically the form over the Spirit and overplaying the whole “we are Orthodox and you are not” bit with possible illogical limiting of worship with musical instruments or expressive hearts physically to “only for David alone” since worship in Heaven even now along with prayers includes “I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps and they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders….” Revelations 14 and 5 “when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”

    For examples of worship with dancing and drums or other musical instrumets, visit western liturgy worship in Orthodox Churches using St. Tikhon worship, or even better look at all these faithful Orthodox brethren in OCMC mission trip and Orthodox Bishop dancing with them http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPvcFQ1Yb4k

    While the Orthodox Scriptures rightly commends worship decently and in order (1 Cor 12-14), we should also remember to not try to limit where and how God The Holy Spirit the third person of the Holy Trinity can work for our LORD rightly told Saint Photine that we should be more focused on right relationship with God in the Spirit than whether we are following a certain outward form with elaborate garbs that are not always conducive to the more important area Christ revealed in John 13–> humility towards those we are called to serve and bending down as a servant/slave to wash their feet from time to time.

    John 4 Samaritan woman (Saint Photine) said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.”

    Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.

    But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

    1. It’s not “limiting” God nor “legalistic” to be faithful to what He gave us. The worship “in spirit and in truth” is precisely the vast tradition of Orthodox liturgical worship given by Christ and then elaborated within the Church. To worship in spirit and in truth does not mean that that deposit from Christ is abandoned in favor of the whims of modern taste and secular culture. Christ Himself kept the Jewish calendar and participated in synagogue and temple liturgy, so interpreting His words in such a way as to draw condemnation of His own actions doesn’t really make much sense.

      As for what’s in that video, that’s rather a far cry from rock-n-roll bands on stages, and it’s also in a cultural context entirely different from the one in which I am speaking.

      1. My apologies if you misunderstood… I did not condemn anyone for worshiping with certain cultural Liturgical forms, so not sure why you got that idea? Simply said that it’s obvious from the Orthodox Scriptures OT and NT as well as many Orthodox worship forms in western and African Liturgy, that we have a lot more freedom in Worship style than we assume in some of our parishes often. In one antiochian Orthodox Church, the parish choir directors forbid even 4 part harmony (Russian style) because supposedly they did not think it was “true Orthodox” that is only ancient byzantine.

        I do think our LORD is much more concerned with our hearts to be filled with love with one another and I know several very loving humble pious Christians who happen to be much more comfortable in Rock bands than I would ever be; therefore, I simply not choose to judge their hearts or worship but allow our LORD to be God in our hearts so we can focus on what is more important in the Spirit rather than on the “letter of the law” which our LORD often rebuked the priests in his day for.

        1. Who’s judging? It’s not judgmental to discern right from wrong and truth from error. I make no claim to know what’s in other people’s hearts, but it’s fairly clear to anyone who studies Church history what constitutes the norms of worship and what is a departure.

          As for the particular musical issues of your parish, well, that’s not really what we’re talking about. 🙂

  7. Pardon if this was asked/discussed here before(TLDR) But what is your view on instruments being used in the liturgy? I know most are purely vocal but I’ve heard of some Greek churches that started using organs for their liturgy.

  8. Would anyone be able to tell me the name of the artist who made the above painting? I can’t find any signature or link. Thank you!

  9. One of your fellow AFR priests, I’ll leave his name out for fear of getting it wrong, pointed out that; in the west we have yet to have any hymnographers… so if the liturgy seems too “greek” it may very well be because we are the ones to blame not Christ’s Church or his ministers…. Russia had Rachmaninov, the Levant had “the sweet-voiced nightingale of the Church” St. Joseph the Hymnographer, Our father among the saints Andrew of Crete, and the list goes on and on… so as to tember, color, dare I say tastes… we need look no further than the end of our noses to see a future Hymnographer for the spoiled English tounge…

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