There’s a tendency among many evangelicals—at least many of those with whom I’m familiar—to take Rom 12:1 as the basis for arguing that the Bible tells us that all we do should be described as “worship.”1 As a corollary to this, the point is often also made that referring to parts of a church service as “worship” is unbiblical. Indeed, many years ago I preached just one such sermon!
But there are problems with this. For starters, “worship” in contemporary English has specific connotations that do not easily accord with the broader meaning many evangelicals and many English Bible translations try to invest in the term. More significantly, however, it glosses over clear distinctions in the Greek text of the NT which we’re trying to understand. So let’s take a quick look at the Greek terms.
- What is ‘worship’ (προσκυνέω)?
Underlying this term is the notion of prostrating before a ruler or deity. It is thus an expression of submission motivated out of respect/fear and/or gratitude.
These issues are discussed in David Peterson’s book, Engaging With God. Peterson does engage in a generally useful study of the terminology. When it comes to the meaning of προσκυνέω, I think the title to the section which examines the term is perhaps a useful definition in itself: “Worship as homage or gratefull submission” (although I would add the notion of fear/reverence as well.) I think this is correct:
In the Old Testament, bowing down or bending over could simply be a respectful greeting, but more often than not it was an expression of inferior status and subservience to another person. Sometimes this obeisance was an indication of gratitude and sometimes it was associated with supplication or entreaty. Whatever the situation it was a recognition of the total dependence of one party on another for the provision of some need.2
ISTM that this defines what we do when we ‘worship’. Being so restrictive, however, is not to say that this description defines all aspects of our relationship with God. Other aspects of our relationship, however, are better described with different terminology.
- What is ‘service’ (λατρεία)?
In the LXX the term is not common, but is usually tied to some form of cultic (in the technical sense) action, so the rehearsal of the passover is λατρεία, for example. As Peterson says:
… the Septuagint gave it special prominence, using it to refer exclusively to the service rendered to God or to heathen gods, and especially service by means of sacrifice or some other ritual.3
As such, Paul’s use of this term in Rom 12:1 in association with being a ‘living sacrifice’ is eminently appropriate. This is our equivalent of the OT service which took place in the precincts of the temple. The word is also used in Rom 9:4 which the NASB nicely translates as ‘temple service’ (contrast the ESV and its predecessor the RSV which simply use ‘worship’ in this instance).
There are only 3 other uses of λατρεία in the NT. Heb 9:1, 6 refer to service in the temple, and John 16:2 uses the term in reference to a perceived ‘service’ to God, again probably in a technical sense.
In summary, all uses of λατρεία are technical and refer to service of a deity (often in the specific context of the temple or high place or whatever), and in the NT when not applied to OT cultic activity, it remains tied to the sacrificial language. So perhaps the translation ‘service’ itself is too vague for this term, and it should be translated along the lines of the NASB in Rom 9:4 with ‘temple service.’
The danger in collapsing distinct terminology, terminology which is not strictly synonymous, into a single English term is that it obscures the meaning of the different texts. If ‘service’ and ‘worship’ are different in meaning but we translate them using the same term, we lose sight of the distinction and can feel free to import the meaning from one context into another.
This is, in fact, basically one of the arguments the ESV employs in favour of its approach (although it does not employ the methodology when it comes to this terminology!).
It is also at this point where I depart from Peterson, who writes:
‘Bowing down’ to God in the Old Testament, however, is ideally an expression of one’s desire to ‘serve’ him. It is therefore necessary to recognize that, from a scriptural point of view, worship involves specific acts of adoration and submission as well as a lifestyle of obedient service. To make this point, it may be helpful to translate words indicating service to God as ‘worship’. There is always a danger, however, that readers of the English text will then understand such worship purely in cultic terms! The problem for translation and for theology is that the English word ‘worship’ is generally used too narrowly.4
While I would not suggest a complete disjunction between notions of ‘worship’ and ‘service’ in biblical terminology, I would not want to associate them quite so closely as Peterson. His identification of texts where השתחוה and עבד appear together seems to imply they function almost as a hendiadys, but he fails to note that they frequently appear as part of a list of different actions associated with relating to God, such as making oath (cf. Ex 23:24; Josh 23:7). This observation means that the case for such close identification of these two aspects of relating to God from various possibilities is weakened (IMHO).
It is surprising that he is able to conclude that English uses a word too narrowly when the Hebrew and Greek used terms equally narrowly and did not themselves have a single term which encompassed all the meanings Peterson would like ‘worship’ to encompass. According to his own observation, English ‘worship’ is a good semantic match for προσκυνέω and השתחוה, but does not inherently encompass λατρεία. Surely the logical conclusion is that English translators should seek other English words for other terms which are currently (mis)translated as ‘worship’.
So, Peterson at least acknowledges that the common English understanding of ‘worship’ works best only as a translation of the terms השתחוה/προσκυνέω, which is essentially my point. On further reflection, I don’t think this can be reduced to a subset of ‘service’, at least when that service is reflective of the semantic range of λατρεία.
I think these are all aspects of how we relate to God. My beef is with the practice of conflating distinct meanings into one overarching term so that the distinctions are lost. I do not think this enhances our understanding of the text, but instead obscures or confuses it.
1. For example, Don Carson writes “[y]ou have Romans 12:1–2, for example, where cultic sacrificial language is used to say that the offering of our whole selves is at the heart of Christian worship” (see here). See also The Sola Panel article by Sandy Grant.
2. David Peterson, Engaging With God, 63.
3. David Peterson, Engaging With God, 64.
4. David Peterson, Engaging With God, 70.