Worship Theology 101: What’s in a Word?

25 04 2011

The most commonly cited definition of the word “worship” is based on the etymology of the English word: “Worship” is derived from the Old English word “woerthship.” So, when we worship God, we are proclaiming (or giving him back) his worth.

The variety of individuals who use this as their functional definition of “worship” is staggering. When I searched for blogs on the topic of worship, the most common title I came across was “Worship Is…” and nearly all of these blog entries finished that sentence (eventually) with “giving God his worth.” Plenty of worship practitioners use this definition. Most “theology of worship” books make reference to it. Even N.T. Wright, in his book “For All God’s Worth” uses it.

In some ways an etymology-based definition can be a helpful start. God’s worth is infinite, so we can never give back enough – a fact that leads us toward the glimmer of a biblical (rather than etymological) definition: a life given in service of God.

The study of the history of words, however, can only get us so far as we strive to understand what it means to worship a triune God. It might be a good place to begin, but leaving the definition of “worship” in the old English is, at best, problematic for both understanding and practice.

Yes, “worth-ship” can lead us toward the glimmer of a biblical understanding. It does so, however, without reference to any biblical text, and therefore cannot answer any of the questions the definition raises: how do we know that God is worthy; assuming that he is, what is his worth; and what is the appropriate way to give it back to him? Old English, beautiful as it may be, can only stare at these questions blankly.

Not only does this definition fail to answer the questions it raises, it also fails to add much at all to our understanding of the word. Most of us have already been reading the word “worship” with tacit understanding of the word as “giving honour and praise to God.” I’m not sure the phrase “giving God his worth” adds anything at all to that meaning; it’s simply a trendier way of phrasing it. The word honour, at its root, means glory, dignity or reputation; the difference between giving God honour and giving him worth, therefore, seems at most a very short hop. I can give him what is due his dignity, reputation, or glory; or I can give him what is due his worth. Surely, in the case of a God who abhors dishonesty, these amount to the same thing. I have a hunch that our fascination with “worth-ship,” then, is nothing more than the search for a fresh pat-answer; a quick and shallow understanding that doesn’t take much effort, but allows us to feel like we’re getting a big pay-off.

Not only is it a shallow and unbiblical definition but, if we actually take the etymology seriously, we discover that it is also a stagnant definition. Worth-ship is a state of being (like friend-ship). When we apply the word “worship” to God, we simply affirm that he is of worth. There is no sense of movement, of interaction, of relationship with God. There is no sense of the narrative that underlies scripture; of the call and answer that enriches our lives before God; of the patterns and forms of approach that God has set in place. It’s a definition that would easily lend itself to a deist stance: my worship of God admits to his existence and his worth, but does not really infer any interaction between us. God might have set things in motion, but he has now stepped away, and I can admire him from a distance.

Furthermore, what does it mean to say that God is worthy? Worth is usually determined in relation to function. A vase, for example, is considered worthy if it holds water, displays flowers to advantage, and has a pleasing shape, form, and colour. None of these virtues would cause you to proclaim a colander worthy. So it is useless to talk about “giving God his worth,” unless we are able to first articulate what makes God worthy. Some who use the definition take the time to biblically examine the character and person of God in an effort to understand what it means to “give God his worth,” but many more do not.

So, if this definition of worship is as woefully inadequate as I paint it, where should we turn for a better one? I would suggest that we begin with biblical languages, admittedly not my strongest skill-set, but no less essential because of that.

In Hebrew, there are a myriad of words used to describe the act of worship. Besides multiple words for dancing and singing, and various other rejoicing and mourning-type movements and noises, there are at least ten other words that are frequently translated worship. These ten words carry the following connotations: bowing down, falling down, service, labour, making, inquiring, seeking, fear, awe, ministering, and supplicating. Do you notice anything? Every single one of these words has a very physical, very active meaning. There is no “state of being” in this definition, but a very real and visceral description of the ways in which we are to act toward God. These words infer movement, action, interaction, and relationship.

The Greek is similar. Again there are multiple words devoted to rejoicing and mourning-type movements and noises. In addition, there are about thirteen words that are translated as “worship,” most of them indicating the following actions: bowing or prostrating oneself; ritual service; and acts of service toward God. Again, there is a physicality here (although less so than in the Hebrew) that specifies not just our attitude toward God or a vague understanding of him, but our actual day-to-day movements. And this doesn’t even include the countless subtle references to Hebrew worship that are woven through the New Testament text.

I hope it is apparent that even this over-simplified biblical word-study yields us more fruit than that of English etymology. But even in-depth Hebrew and Greek word studies, while they help, will not get us to a full biblical definition of worship. Scripture communicates far too actively for that. It is narrative, poetry, prophesy and rhetoric that we need to study in order to push aside stagnant, shallow, and unbiblical definitions and move toward the full knowledge of what it means to worship a triune God. I have only begun to move toward this type of definition. I could study for fifty years and still say I had only begun. But, with your help and company, I would like to continue to (in the words of C.S. Lewis) move “further up and further in.”


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13 responses

25 04 2011
Gordon Tisher

It strikes me that trying to define “worship” is like trying to define “courtesy”: as you say, it’s about actions: courtesy is what courteous people do, and worship is what worshippers do.

Worship then, may vary from culture to culture just as courtesy does. We must look, then, at why we worship, and what results expect.

The priests of Quetzalcoatl were certainly truly worshipping when they ripped out the still-beating hearts of their captives, and with good results: the sun continued to shine and the crops continued to grow.

So our worship may be sincere and indeed produce the fruit we expect, but we must keep asking ourselves whether or not we have understood the desires of our deity and formed our expectations reasonably.

25 04 2011
Stacey Gleddiesmith

Very interesting point Gordon. So, because the character of the deity we worship changes the character of our worship, in order to arrive at any sort of definition we need to look at why we worship, what results we expect, and most of all what or who it is we worship.

The problem is, our expectations of God are often quite “reasonably” formed by the patterns around us, rather than by an understanding of the desires of our deity. Thus the need for a solid scriptural understanding of the character of our God, and the boundaries and patterns he has set up for our worship of him. I’m seeing definite shades of Romans 12 (my next post) here.

26 04 2011
Rod

this is great… I too think Hebrew solves many problems we currently have with how we “understand” of our faith. The Hebrew faith, with its focus on action, and participation is a constant challenge for us to embody worship.

Two great Hebrew words are abad and shamar. We are reminded of these in the creation narrative “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work (abad) it and take care of (shamar) it.” These same words are the words used to describe the priest’s duties in the temple. (see Numbers)

What I love about this is the implication that our worship is about cultivating, working, performing, and serving the created world. Not only that, but we are to attend to it, protect, guard, watch, keep, and preserve what has been handed over to us.

The connection between creation and the temple is something I have been meaning to look more into – perhaps I can tempt you to look at that? At any rate I see worship in light of theses ideas to be about noticing life, cultivating life, guarding life, keeping life, creating environments for life.

. . .worthship does seem to fall a bit flat

26 04 2011
Stacey Gleddiesmith

Rod: For temple/tabernacle/creation connections you might want to start in Revelation and work your way back. Certainly, creation is the first “temple” in that it is the venue of God’s meeting with humanity. Interesting stuff!

I wonder if the connection you note is also intended to portray the priests as shepherding God’s people in his place – certainly they were frequently blamed by God when the people got off track.

I do plan to write about temple/tabernacle eventually – but don’t let that stop you from looking in to it! Better to have two perspectives than one!

9 05 2011
James Matichuk

Stacey,

thanks for a thought-provoking article. I have always thought it odd that we should use an Ole English definition for worship. But as I was reading your critique on the flatness of ‘ascribing God’s worth’ the Revelation language of ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.’ kept playing in my mind. Perhaps the problem is less the language of worth, so much as that we have failed to let a biblical imagination shape our conceptions about words mean.

9 05 2011
Stacey Gleddiesmith

Hey James – I definitely would not want to take the “worth” out of worship (so to speak). My difficulty is when we use that as the only definition, and then expect to function well as a church (and, more specifically, within our gathered worship). We can all manage to go deeper than that – exactly what you’re getting at (I think) with letting “a biblical imagination shape our conceptions about what words mean.” We need the richness and story of the biblical text to drive our concept of worship, rather than mere etymology. (Hint of a book title there: Mere Etymology?)

15 05 2011
Paul Clark

You are spot on with your hesitancy to allow English etymology of “worship” to be the starting point of biblical worship. Harold Best asks who we are to begin to pretend we have the capacity to ascribe worth to God? David K. Peterson’s definition is rooted in biblical reflection. He says worship is an engagement with God based upon terms He proposes and in a way only He can provide. (Engaging with God). That is a strong definition in that it begins and ends with God on His terms and in His way.

It is exciting to see more people taking pause at the etymology based definitions. Thank you for your reflections.

15 05 2011
Stacey Gleddiesmith

Thanks Paul. I haven’t read any David K. Peterson yet. Is there a particular book you would recommend?

11 01 2012
The Place of Humans in Worship Life: Chapters 7-8 of Joan Chittister’s “The Liturgical Year” « thinking worship

[…] liturgical year) would be helpful. Worship is a wonderfully complex concept (as I say in my post What’s in a Word, I could study for fifty years and still only be able to say that I had begun to approach a […]

5 02 2015
Steve Sileo

Glad you wrote in this, Stacey. It’s “worthy!” :) Anyone who has studied and taken the original biblical languages should steer clear away from English definitions, except to point out how Hebrew or Greek word definitions and culture come into play in our modern context (especially if you teach the Bible or pastor a church). To define a biblical word (or any ancient word) with a modern lexicon results from shallow thinking and is often fraught with error. I love your article. Maybe it’s time to repost it!

16 11 2015
Mitchell Malloy

Thanks for writing this… especially appreciate the quote: “God’s worth is infinite, so we can never give back enough”.

10 02 2016
theperkster

As I have been writing my book on identity, the idea of worship has come up. The Bible refers to worship of God and of idols. I agree with you wholeheartedly that God does not need an affirmation of his worth, for He is not insecure. Worship is related to where you are seeking your worth (where your identity is rooted). So, pairing that with the worship postures in your blog above, every one of those postures shows surrender and humility toward the one true God. Just brief reflections, I don’t want to take up too much space. Thank you for your blog that has helped me crystallize my thoughts.

10 03 2016
Ms. Jackson

Though provoking to say the least, as i read your article it heightened my awareness of the reasons i worship the true and living God. As i sit at my computer at work I find myself worshiping the creator, in my automobile, as i walk on the trial and see his glory, the sun, the trees and all of nature it evokes a well spring or his worth. I so appreciate the time and effort to took to share your deep perspective with us. May the peace of God rest and abide with you forever. We as humans can’t fathom his worth, its beyond our human imagination, all we can do is put forth an effort. Worthy is the lamb who was slain for the sins of the world. That’s huge….

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