One way to discuss what is appropriate in worship or church practice is by asking about the role of typology in worship.
On the one hand, because God created the world, there is an inescapable typology to the universe and therefore worship. This would be a place where one would argue for the predominant leadership of worship and teaching in worship be by men. Paul appeals to the creation order for the leadership of men in worship, and this is typologically related to the fact that Jesus is a man. But types are types which means that they are not exhaustively symmetrical. Women can represent Christ, and they do and they must. But when Paul says that a woman should not teach in worship, he means that this creation typology is to be ordinarily represented in worship.
Another example would be the sacrament of baptism. There are at least two elements of typology regarding baptism in the context of worship. First, there is no explicit command to have baptisms in the worship service. We know baptism is commanded, but most of the NT baptisms seem to be on the fly, in the middle of the night, wherever water is available. And maybe there is good reason to get back to some of that immediacy and urgency. But there is nothing in Scripture that explicitly condemns baptisms in worship, and the fact that baptism is a covenant ordinance it makes sense to do baptism in the context of the gathered assembly of saints, even if it’s before worship or after or at another designated time. Regardless, the point is that a baptism in a worship service is a typological event, not explicitly commanded in Scripture, but it seems fitting to do so for typological reasons. It represents and enacts the glorious rebirth and union with Christ that worship is.
And the other element of typology would be found more obviously in infant baptism. I say “more obviously” since Jesus says that anyone who desires to enter the kingdom must come as a little child and therefore implies that all baptisms are actually infant baptisms. But when it is a newborn being baptized the typology is even more underlined. Not only do we have no explicit command to baptize in worship, we have no explicit command to baptize babies, period. We have the words of Jesus that seem to imply it, we have household baptisms that suggest it, we have the echoes of the covenantal language of the Old Testament in Peter and Paul that nearly demand it. But at the end of the day, we’re arguing for the authority of typology. The types of the flood and the crossing of the Red Sea and circumcision all point to baptism in the New Covenant, and therefore an infant that is carried by her parents to the baptismal font is a typological enactment of those Old Testament types. And more broadly, it represents the reality of salvation in Christ which is all of grace, all the work of a sovereign and loving Father who saves us and carries us without our consent, without asking what we think about it.
But one reason for exploring this angle of worship is for asking about other elements in worship. What about a Christmas wreath in the sanctuary or children waving palm branches on Palm Sunday or foot washing during Holy Week or ashes on Ash Wednesday? Or what about the pastor wearing a robe, for example? One way of arguing for the legitimacy, even the preference for the minister wearing a white robe to lead worship is from the typology. And this is highly pedagogical, and this was brought home to me in my own family. Once during family worship when we were reading the first chapter of Acts, and the two men in white appeared after Jesus had ascended into heaven, I asked my kids, who were they you think? And without missing a beat, one of them blurted out, “pastors!”†There are several layers of typology there regarding angels and ministers and anthropology and eschatology, and of course my kid couldn’t go into all of that, but just that basic association is a biblical category that will be ingrained in their assumptions from their earliest memories.
But since God created the world, typology is inescapable, and since the advent of sin in the world, sinful men and demonic forces have been at work subverting God’s typology and reinserting distortions of the truth. One obvious popular form of this is abuse of the rainbow. The rainbow was and is God’s sign of His covenant of peace, His promises of forgiveness, and certain rebels have sought to twist and pervert this sign. Ironically, the sign remains what it means even in their attempts at violence. The fact that a life raft full violent oppressors might be floating around in a later, localized flood flying a rainbow flag would only prove the point. A pedaphile priest with a rainbow stole is almost exactly right.
This doesn’t mean that every biblical symbol should or must be taken up immediately by everyone all the time. Biblical wisdom can and must exercise patience and care for the weak and guard against causing others to stumble into ruin. But typology is inescapable, the only question is ‘whose typology?’ Do we embrace the language of the world or is the worship of the Church an enormous translation project? In this sense, the Church is almost the exact reverse of the glorious work of Wycliffe translators and others. Our job is not to find the cultural equivalents of biblical categories and symbols. Our job is transform and translate cultures into the biblical categories and symbols. And in this sense, all of the diversity of world in various types and signs finds a place in worship.
One last thought: all symbolism and typology is a derivative of the sacraments. They are what we might call ‘sacramentals’ — these are signs or patterns or types that are not required by God’s word (like Sacraments) but which mimic the impulse and intent of sacraments. But the only way these can be God honoring is if they flow from hearts of love. A poser priest who wears robes to cover up his guilt and insecurity is only furthering his guilt and insecurity. Same for the hip and trendy church planter who wears jeans and a t-shirt and does his best Mark Driscoll impersonation every Sunday. Same thing for the church that uses guitars in worship, same thing for the church with the organ and snazzy choir. Insecurity only begets insecurity.
But covenant faithfulness is full of love. And just like God commanded the Israelites to put that love everywhere: on their door posts, hands, foreheads, and blogs, so too God loves the faithful who adorn their love and gratitude with words and signs and glory.
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