The Scandal of Pagans Leading Worship

Collin Hansen has a fascinating series of interviews on the Gospel Coalition today asking a variety of pastors whether they allow those who make no Christian profession, who regard themselves as non-Christians, non-believers, those we used to call “heathen” or “pagans” to lead worship through leading or playing musical instruments. The responses vary from yes (Scotty Smith, a PCA pastor), to “No” (Mike Cosper, and Jonathan Leeman), and “maybe” (Zach Nielsen). This discussion was stimulated by a post by Bob Kauflin. Collin draws attention to the arguments made by Tim Keller (a PCA pastor) in favor of including self-identified non-Christians “in our services” in musical ensembles on the grounds that it fits with Redeemer’s version of the “Reformed world and life view.”
The first problem, however, which Collin’s post doesn’t address, is the very existence of a “praise team.” Before we ask “who should serve on a praise team?” we need to ask and answer a more fundamental question: Has the God that revealed himself in Holy Scripture, whom we worship, required us to create and constitute “praise teams” in corporate worship? Some who knows a little about Reformed worship might reply, “but a praise team is just a circumstance and therefore we don’t have to answer that question.” Really, is having a praise team morally and logically equivalent to whether we meet at 10AM or 11AM or whether we speak French (in a Francophone congregation) or English (in an Anglophone congregation)? Is a praise team morally indifferent (adiaphora) and purely a matter of Christian liberty?

I’m not sure it is. A praise team is essentially a version of the choir. The choir sings for the congregation. Sometimes the choir leads the congregation in singing. The praise team performs both of these functions. When the Reformed churches subjected the western liturgies to the scrutiny of God’s Word, by asking the sort of questions I asked above, they did not regard choirs as adiaphora.  Rather, they concluded that God’s Word does not command the creation of a special class of Christian worshipers to lead worship.

There’s nothing wrong with having musically (in the generic sense, not specific only to instruments but able to read music, able to sing on key) gifted and skilled people in the congregation. It’s a great blessing. There’s nothing wrong with having those people teach the rest of us to sing on key and in time and even to read music, but the existence of “praise teams” in Reformed churches deserves examination. If the use of “praise teams” in Reformed churches is without authorization from God’s Word then we have solved the problem of pagans leading worship (by serving on “praise teams”).

Embedded in the existence of “praise teams” is also the question of the use of musical instruments in public worship. Where has God commanded his new covenant people to take up the typological and shadowy and bloody musical instruments (covered with the blood of bulls and gentiles)? Sing praise? Yes! With musical instruments? If the original young, restless, and Reformed folk have anything to say to us, they examined the medieval introduction of musical instruments into Christian worship and rejected it, in Calvin’s words, as “stupid imitation” (of the Mosaic epoch). My experience strongly suggests that, even if there is a case to be made that the praise team is a circumstance, the musical instruments being used aren’t a mere circumstance. Church members don’t split congregations or go to war over mere “circumstances” (e.g., a 10AM service or 11AM service) but they will if you try to take their musical instruments away.

It’s striking that two of the people cited by Hansen as those advocating the employment (in the generic sense and in sense of “we pay them”) are ministers in Reformed churches. It’s long seemed to me to be a little scandalous that Reformed churches hire self-conscious non-Christians (pagans) to lead worship. I’ve seen it done in “conservative” congregations on the grounds that “we need an organist” and it is justified by more upwardly mobile congregations on aesthetic grounds or even as a form of evangelism.

If we’re going to use Mosaic forms (e.g., harps and lyres and choirs) in our worship then hadn’t we better ask the Old Testament what it thinks about hiring Canaanites to lead in the worship of Yahweh? If, however, we accept the older Reformed notion that the Mosaic (old) covenant expired (WCF 19) with the death of Christ and that (Hebrews 7-10; 2 Cor 3; Gal 3-4) we are new covenant Christians and that the Mosaic ceremonies (types and shadows) have been fulfilled in Christ, then let us also ask what would Paul do? Would Paul ask self-identified pagans to help conduct Christian worship services? Can we really imagine that?

We have a fairly clear witness from Paul himself as to how he viewed the role of self-identified non-Christians in public worship. In 1 Cor 14 seems clear that Paul envisioned that “outsiders or unbelievers” (ιδιωαι η απιστοι – 1 Cor 14:23 – “unbelievers” and “outsiders” are two ways of describing same group) would find their way into Christian worship services. He did not, however, seem to imagine that they would be invited by the pastor and elders to lead the service! Rather, Paul envisioned that, when an unbeliever (and outsider) finds himself in a rightly ordered Christian worship service, the unbeliever would be convicted of his sins, come to faith and repentance and fall down before God.

We should also observe how Paul thinks about “unbelievers” and the distinction he regularly makes between them and Christians. The latter are not to take internal disputes (which happen!) among Christians before “unbelievers” (1 Cor 6:6). A Christian spouse shouldn’t divorce a pagan spouse simply because they are an unbeliever, but if the unbeliever leaves the Christian isn’t obligated (1 Cor 7:12-13). Speaking in foreign languages are not a sign for believers, but a sign of God’s judgment on unbelief (1 Cor 14:22). Unbelievers are those whose minds are “blinded” by “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4). Believers are not to be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14) because there is a fundamental spiritual antithesis between belief and unbelief ( 2 Cor 6:15). If a Christian man fails to provide for his household, he’s worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim 5:8).

What in these verses would cause one to conclude that Paul would support the employment of unbelievers as part of a “worship team” in Christian services? What in these verses would cause one to conclude that the cultural mandate (transformationalism) is such that a session (elders and pastors) is free to employ non-Christians in leading sacred worship? Doesn’t Tim Keller’s invocation of the “Reformed world and life view” signal show subjective the “Reformed world and life view is,” that it is a license to baptize anything one will?

Rather, it seems as if the argument in favor of employing non-Christians as leaders of Christian worship makes common what Paul makes sacred. The antithesis that Paul teaches is a spiritual antithesis, not a cultural antithesis. As a matter of divine revelation and providence we have a common culture with non-Christians. We’re not commissioned to create a distinctly Christian language (e.g., Greek, Latin, English, French, and “Christian”). No, we express the Christian faith, using a sometimes distinct vocabulary, in whatever language is to hand. We share with unbelievers methods of farming.

There are, however, things we do not share. The things not shared are sometimes described as belonging to the “anthesis” between belief and unbelief. The antithesis is spiritual and epistemic. The epistemic aspect of the antithesis simply means that believers begin with God’s self-revelation and they interpret God’s self-revelation in the world and in the Word in submission to Christ. The spiritual aspect of the antithesis is in the forefront of Paul’s mind and writing. Believers belong to Jesus in a special way as his redeemed people. They’ve been bought with a price. The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon them. None of that is true of unbelievers. They do not belong to Jesus in the special, redemptive sense of “belonging.” They do not have his Holy Spirit. They have not been accepted (justified) by God for the sake of Christ’s righteousness imputed and received through faith alone. Unbelievers are under God’s wrath. Believers are under God’s peace.

Nowhere does the spiritual and epistemic antithesis come to a clearer expression in Holy Scripture than when it considers public, corporate worship. We live in the world, under God’s common providence, with unbeliever’s sharing (Matt 5:48) in God’s common gifts to humanity but when we gather, on the Sabbath, for Christian worship, we withdraw from the common into a special, sacred space and time. It is not a time to celebrate our common humanity with non-believers, it is not a time for cultural, artistic expression and achievement. It is a time to bow before the face of our Holy Triune God and worship him as he as commanded (WCF 21.1). In this sense, holiness is about distinction (antithesis) between belief and unbelief. To make something sacred is to set it aside. That’s what we are, in corporate worship, God’s holy people, his holy priesthood (1 Pet 2:5), a holy temple. It is then that we express our status as a “holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9).

This is why Paul speaks of unbelievers as “outsiders” because he was distinguishing between that which is common and that which is sacred, between culture and worship. In light of that distinction, in light of what we confess that God’s Word teaches about worship, let us worship God in the way that he has commanded. Let us enjoy and revel in the common as appropriate but let us enjoy and revel in our holiness when that is appropriate too and God has not commanded that his holy people should be led by self-conscious unbelievers in sacred worship.

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