In the wake of an unfortunate situation that I encountered a little while ago, I started once again studying this topic that, for so long, has had me baffled. Though I have been very uncomfortable with much of what takes place in the name of worship, I couldn’t quite place my finger on how to justify such an attitude (and, just to let you know where I’m coming from: I am a person who likes my Casting Crowns and has written a Christian “rock” song or two in my life. I am not someone who had some life-altering “coming to the Lord” experience who is now bitter about my past life). But then a young lady at one of my churches – all of 14 years old – recommended that I read a book on drums, rock, and worship. Someone had sent me this book a little while back and I had never read it.
So I decided to pick it up and give it a read. Some of what the author said was interesting and I could agree with, but there was a lot of it that didn’t seem to make sense to me. There were some missing pieces. So I decided to e-mail the author, who I went to Andrews University with, and asked him to clarify some things. In response, he referred me to some presentations he did last year that are a lot more developed than his book. The presentations were given in 2008, while the book was published back in 2002 or 2003.
To put it mildly, his presentations are extremely convincing. And what he shared in them is something that makes all the sense in the world. They totally bring all these things together and I’m not sure why I didn’t see it before.
I will summarize what he said in his presentations, but let me just give you a little background – and shout out – to this gentleman. His name is Karl Tsatalbasidis and he is getting his PhD in systematic theology at Andrews University – specifically focusing on this whole issue of worship forms. He is no dummy. He used to be a very accomplished jazz drummer before he came a Seventh-day Adventist. His book, Drums, Rock, and Worship, is available here, and his audio presentations are available here. I would strongly recommend listening to his audio presentations because his ideas are a lot more developed there (though it is not “light listening” for most people). Please note that the first presentation on the web page is the presentation, “If the Foundations are Destroyed, What Can the Righteous Do? Part I,” and then it moves back from there. In other words, the presentations are listed backwards.
So here is a basic summary of his ideas on this subject, with a few extra insights from yours truly.
1. Worship is a theological issue. This idea is almost anathema to many people, of course. They would like to maintain that worship styles are merely subjective. But this is not the case. The style we use for worship is a reflection of our theology.
2. The way we worship should be informed by the sanctuary and its services. If we do not utilize this as our hermeneutic, then we will be adrift at sea. As Psalm 11:3 asks, “If the foundations are destroyed, What can the righteous do?” The Psalmist answers his own question in the very next verse when he says, “The Lord is in His holy temple.”
The sanctuary must be foundational when we approach this subject, otherwise we are merely addressing symptoms. This is especially helpful for Seventh-day Adventists, who understand the sanctuary as, according to Ellen White, “a complete system of truth.” Thus, the idea of the sanctuary informs all of our theology, how we dress, the attitude we have, how we eat, and, yes, the way we worship. The sanctuary, as I said above (and I will repeat many times more before I die), is foundational to any discussion we have.
And, as more and more people turn their backs on the sanctuary truth, there is less clarity on how we worship. This is not a coincidence. As the sanctuary concept continues to be diminished among our ranks, so, too, will there be a loss of the one thing that can anchor our judgment of what is, and what is not, proper worship styles.
3. When God instructed Moses to build the sanctuary, He showed him a pattern that he was to fashion it after. He showed him not only the dimensions of the sanctuary and its furniture, but also the services that were to be implemented. When David came along and made plans to build the Temple, God told him which instruments were to be utilized in the services. And, when King Hezekiah brought about reform in Israel years later, he reestablished the instruments that were to be used in the Temple service, in accordance with David’s instructions. We are told that Hezekiah “set the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with psalteries, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, and of Gad the king’s seer, and Nathan the prophet: for so was the commandment of the Lord by his prophets” (2 Chronicles 29:25).
In other words, Hezekiah used only those instruments that God instructed David to use in the sanctuary service, and they did not include drums (in those days, the only “drums” that were used at all were timbrels/tambourines). And we must remember that God never does anything arbitrarily. He always has a reason for doing what He does. And if He was very specific in which instruments were to be used in the sanctuary service, there must have been a very good reason behind that.
4. If the earthly sanctuary is merely a copy of the heavenly sanctuary (see Hebrews 8:1-5), we can therefore conclude that these instruments are the instruments that are utilized in the heavenly sanctuary. And no drums are involved. (The question will naturally come up: so are we to use only harps and psalteries, etc.? No, that is not what we are saying. We must search for the principle behind these instruments, and use those ones that stress the same things in our contemporary context. The instruments that God instructed Israel to use stressed melody and harmony, whereas drums stress rhythm – to the diminishing of melody and harmony.)
5. Israel always slid into apostasy and Baal worship when they turned their back on God’s sanctuary (see 1 Kings 12:26-28 as an example). Reform always came when they cleansed the sanctuary and re-introduced the worship of God the way He designed. The same holds true for us. When we turn our backs on the sanctuary – which is happening to a great degree today – then we lose our context for proper worship. It is only when we go with Christ into the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary that we can find a foundation for our worship.
It is little wonder, then, that as many of our young people within Adventism have no idea what the sanctuary doctrine is all about, they are not able to determine – or even care about – an objective criteria by which to judge worship styles.
6. Platonic philosophy has us, whether we recognize it or not, buying into the idea that heaven is not a spaciotemporal place (meaning it is not comprised of time and space), and that God, Himself, is spaceless and timeless. Thus, any spaciotemporal representations on earth of heavenly realities are culturally conditioned. So there is no real sanctuary in heaven, and there was no real, literal pattern of worship that God has shown (and any talk of there being stringed instruments, etc., in the heavenly sanctuary is folly in their mind). Moses and David were merely expressing these timeless realities in the way that their culture could facilitate. (This idea that God is timeless will also creep into our views on the Sabbath, by the way. Because, if God and heaven are timeless, why is it important if we keep a specific day?)
So anything that they set up in the Old Testament as a representation of the way to worship is peculiar to their culture, and is not binding upon us. We are allowed to worship God in whatever way our culture allows, because this is how we express these spaceless and timeless realities.
7. The only occasions that timbrels were used in the Old Testament was when Israel was victorious in war (this is true about dancing as well). They were never used in worship or in the sanctuary service. And, though Christ has certainly paid the price for our victory and won the battle on the cross, the war is not over yet. The conflict between Christ and Satan still continues. And so why should we be celebrating as if God has beaten Satan?
I raised this point this past weekend when I was in Arkansas, and a lady responded by saying, “Yes, but Christ has won the victory for me. He won salvation for me on Calvary. The atonement is complete. And that makes me want to just raise my hands and my voice in gratitude and thanksgiving to Him.” But I like to think of it this way: if you fell off a pier into some dangerous waters, and someone jumped in to save you, and he was able to help you out, but he was still in the water, would you go all out and hold a victory celebration, or take great concern for the fact that he was still endangered in the crashing waters? You would, no doubt, be grateful that you have been saved, but you would also be terribly concerned that he now needs to get out of the water.
And this is the reality of our current situation. Christ has saved us, yes, but the Great Controversy with Satan still continues. He still needs to get out of the “water,” in some ways. And this concept, by the way, only really works for those who have an understanding of this Great Controversy, and an understanding that Christ could, in fact, lose. (In light of this, Tsatalbasidis asks if we are going to watch and pray, or dance and play. Most of us want to do the latter, ignoring the fact that God is “in the dock,” as C. S. Lewis says.)
It also fits in with our understanding of the antitypical Day of Atonement, which finds its explanation in the truth of the sanctuary. We are living in that Day of Atonement, which was a time of incredible solemness, humility, and concern for the work of the High Priest. Christ is in the Most Holy Place right now, trying to finish His work of atonement. Only after it is over and we are in the Feast of Tabernacles (which followed the Day of Atonement in the yearly Hebrew calendar) can we celebrate.
8. God is not arbitrary when it comes to choosing the instruments for worshiping Him. It is in our best interest to follow His instructions. And God’s last day people are identified as those who “keep the commandments of God” (see Revelation 14:12). This includes doing our best to follow natural law, and the drum set, for one, is a polyrhythmic instrument that contradicts the body’s natural rhythms.
Now, unfortunately, most people will not understand all of these points, or agree with them. And this goes back, for the most part, to the fact that they do not understand the sanctuary and its implications. And they think that there is far too much thought and theology that has gone into this. Can’t we just worship God in whatever way we want to, and not put so much thought into it? It is almost heretical to stand in judgment of someone’s worship style.
But doesn’t God ask us to come and reason with Him? And didn’t He tell His people to worship Him in a very specific way (Cain and Abel comes to mind)? He wasn’t being merely arbitrary when He did this, either. It was for our own good. He wants to protect us from spiritualism, emotionalism, and fanaticism.
Thus, shouldn’t we have good, biblical reasons for doing what we do? Is the attitude that it “feels good” or “sounds nice” the best criteria for determining whether a particular type of music or worship is acceptable or not?
There are other ideas that Tsatalbasidis addressed in his presentations, but these are the main points, as I understand them. There are naturally questions about the details that come up, and he doesn’t claim to have all the answers. But I think what he has shared is very foundational to any discussion on these issues and provides a very good framework for the topic.
For me, the bottom line is that confusion about worship has arisen because we have turned our backs on the sanctuary. And when that happens, anything and everything goes.