Subjectivism (III): Emotional in Worship

C.G. (Colly) Caldwell, III
Temple Terrace, Florida

Almost invariably one of the first signs of what I have chosen in this series to call "subjectivism" is a definite dissatisfaction with the generally accepted worship practices of the brethren. It will not be uncommon among these brethren to hear the following objectionable words applied to our worship: "liturgical," "orthodox," "traditionalistic," and "ritualistic." The general charge is that our worship is without feeling. The motion is made that change in the "forms" is required and various emotional stimuli should be added. A vital ingredient in the break with "traditionalism" is spontaneity or "unstructured worship" (which usually becomes "structured spontaneity").

Subjectivism at this point is a difficult problem to approach because we all realize that to some Christians worship has become meaningless. It is also difficult because many times the innovations called for are not unscriptural in themselves. It is important, nevertheless, to see symptoms of departure where they begin and they often begin with an attitude of dissatisfaction with existing forms. You have seen that in society and we are seeing it in the church. I believe that the problem is two-fold: environmental materialism and dependence upon emotionalism. Both are subjective and foreign to true Christianity.

Environmental Materialism

By "environmental materialism" I mean the need for physical stimuli to worship properly. This might be expressed in many ways. Some think they can better worship in a large church building than in a private home or schoolhouse. Others try to create atmosphere for worship through mood-music, lighting candies, turning the lights down low, getting out closer to nature, holding hands, et al. We all admit that environment can stir emotion but something is very wrong when one supposes that his environmentally inspired worship is more pleasing to God than the humble, simple worship of other Christians who do what they have been doing for the past thirty years.

I affirm that such an attitude is nothing short of egotistical idolatry. Two things are wrong. First, materialism is a form of idolatry. I ought to be able to set my heart right with God and my mind into an attitude of worship without artificial or materialistic stimuli. I do not need to burn incense or have a statue before me to think about Jesus. I do not need candlelight or out-of doors atmosphere to worship properly. Notice again, being out-of-doors is not wrong itself, but our motivation in being there may well indicate an improper attitude. The second thing wrong is egotism. It is a dangerous thing to presume that others have lost their spirituality because they continue to say many of the same words in their public prayers or because they always have two songs, a prayer, and another song before the sermon. There is nothing wrong with what they do, nor does it necessarily show lack of spirituality. Only God knows the hearts of other worshippers. When one begins to think that his worship is better than that of others because his is different in some physical way, his own is defiled because of his attitude.


The other part of the problem is dependence upon emotionalism. We have long argued that emotionalism is not the test of salvation. One does not know that he is saved because he feels good in his heart. He is to feel good because he knows he is saved (Acts 8:39). Many need to apply that concept to worship. Adherents to the Islam faith are stirred within their mosques and Roman Catholics in their cathedrals. Their emotions say, "we are pleasing to God," but the Bible says that their worship is vain (Matt. 15:9). My spirit can only bear witness that I have served God when the Holy Spirit has witnessed that my worship is acceptable to God (Rom. 8:16-17). 1 feel exhilarated and edified as I worship because I know I am worshipping as God wishes. I feel good afterwards because I know I have done rightly. I may be emotionally stirred by doing either right or wrong, but the Biblical edification God is interested in comes through the knowledge of having obeyed God. The Corinthians were to be edified, not by the external emotionalism produced through Spirit inspired unintelligible tongues, but through the interpretation of the Spirit revealed rational message in those languages being spoken (1Cor. 14:6-33). We are mistaken if we think the atmosphere is the important factor in worship. If I am not being edified by my worship when I meet with brethren doing the authorized things, it is because I am not giving myself to a concerned effort to realize that I have pleased God.

One other element should be considered. It is very unrealistic to imagine that each time one worships lie will reach the same fever pitch of excitement. If my worship depends upon emotionalism, it has no objective standard and I will not know when I go to worship whether I will please God or not. The reason I say that is because my emotions differ from those of others and because my emotions differ within myself. Can I assume that each time I worship week after week, year after year, that my emotions will be stirred to the heights at each service? Did God expect Israel to have the same emotions each day at the morning sacrifice that they did when Sinai shook or when David returned with the ark? Certainly not, but he was pleased with their daily worship so long as they loved him and were concerned with doing his will.

The fact that emotions do not reach the same peak at each worship session has led many to conclude that the Holy Spirit specially provides these feelings. (And incidentally, I have not met many subjectivists who are believers in the Holy Spirit Is operating through the word and not through some direct means upon the heart of he believer). No, the fruit of the Spirit is not supernaturally imposed feelings. It is a life filled with submission to God, peaceful and content in the knowledge that God is pleased with our hearts and actions. Jesus said to the seventy who rejoiced over miraculous ability, "Nevertheless in this rejoice not. That the spirits are subject unto you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:20). We should listen to him!

Now, before we stop let us all understand our purpose. We called attention before to the fact that this is a difficult topic and one on which it is easy to be misunderstood. We all warn of falling into such a habit of worship that it has no meaning. Prayer, the Lords Supper, and singing, can become meaningless and thus damnable (1Cor. 11:29). We are not calling for a religion without feeling. But neither will we go to the other extreme of basing the acceptability of our worship and that of others upon the subjective criterion of our own emotions.

December 21, 1972