The Fork in the Road: “Will Worship”

When we in the Churches of Christ disagree over how to conduct the Sunday assembly, at some point someone will inevitably accuse the other side of “will worship.” And will-worship is sin.

The assumption is that “will worship” means worshiping as you please versus worshiping as God pleases. Indeed, when the discussion centers around designing a worship that is “relevant” to or speaks in the “heart language” of today’s culture, the accusations of “will worship” are guaranteed, because it sounds as though we’re concerned about the feelings of the congregation, when we should be solely concerned about God’s feelings.

Of course, there is no guarantee that doing it the way we used to do it isn’t itself will-worship, is there? I mean, there’s no presumption that tradition isn’t will-worship. Rather, the test is what the Bible says — a test that is given great lip service but rarely actually applied.

The language of “will worship” is found in the KJV translation of Col 2:23 —

(Col 2:23)  Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.

It’s clear enough from the passage that Paul opposes will-worship. Wayne Jackson, the Christian Courier, defines “will worship” as “capitulating to human desire,” saying further,

If there is not a prescribed worship ritual for the Lord’s day, then one is free to do nothing at all, or, if he elects to worship, he has the license to improvise his own procedures. He thus would be allowed to practice an “arbitrary” worship. But this is exactly what the Bible condemns as “will-worship” (Col. 2:23).

J.H. Thayer comments on the Greek term that is rendered “will-worship” (ethelo-threskeia). He says it denotes “worship which one devises and prescribes for himself” (Greek-English Lexicon, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1958, p. 168). This is precisely what our erring friend argues in favor of in the article sited above.

F.W. Danker defines “will-worship” as a “self-made” or “do-it-yourself religion” (Greek-English Lexicon, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000, p. 276; cf. NIV; ESV).

Jackson’s argumentation is entirely typical of the 20th Century Churches of Christ, and it has two major flaws.

First, it proceeds from a false dichotomy: either there is a prescribed ritual or else you are “allowed to practice an ‘arbitrary’ worship.” But there are ways to worship that are neither arbitrary nor based on a prescribed ritual.

I mean, I ate supper with my wife last night. There was no prescribed ritual, and yet neither was my behavior permitted to be arbitrary. Rather, my behavior was dictated by my love for my wife, for the other patrons of the restaurant, the waitress, etc., and by the purpose of my being there (to eat and enjoy a night out with my wife). Therefore (you’ll be shocked to know), I did not throw my food at the other people at the restaurant and I used my knife and fork. My behavior was not arbitrary and yet it was not ritualized.

Jackson’s other mistake is to ignore the context. Let’s see what the passage is really telling us.

(Col 2:16-23 ESV) Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

20If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22(referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? 23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Let’s start with v. 16. Paul’s first point is that we aren’t to allow others to pass judgment on us regarding our refusal to honor their opinions about how to worship. Of course, he’s obviously using “worship” in a much broader sense than the Sunday assembly, as he includes questions about food and drink — likely a reference to the commands of the Law of Moses regarding clean and unclean food — in his list. “Worship” is therefore really more about living in obedience to God — not what happens on Sunday morning.

Paul’s concern is broader than Judaism. The worship of angels was hardly typical of a First Century Jew, and so the commentators are inclined to conclude this was a practice pecular to Colosse. And there was something about this practice that led to asceticism — a Grecian approach to religion that later came to typify Gnosticism.

Now, asceticism is a fancy word for despising created things because they are material or because they provide physical pleasure. And even today, Christianity has been corrupted by the notion that we please God by making ourselves miserable. It’s as though the sum total of happiness in the universe were finite, and so by being happy, we deny God happiness! Or that God takes pleasure in our misery. And these are gross insults to our Creator and Savior.

(1 Tim 4:3-5)  They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

What God created he created for us — provided we use it consistently with the truth (the gospel) and with thanksgiving.

Now, in Col 2:22, Paul makes an intriguing argument. He says the commands not to handle, taste, or touch can’t be true because they deal with things that “perish as they are used.” These are earthly things that will not last, and therefore they cannot be inherently evil. Anything can be used for evil, but it’s not evil just because of its temporal (time-limited) nature. Indeed, the fact that God made it demonstrates that it is good.

Paul concludes by noting that true wisdom is in preventing the indulgence of the flesh, not in “self-made religion, asceticism, and severity to the body.” Obviously, the last two items in the list are of a kind. Both speak to denying oneself pleasure — or even inflicting pain — on the theory this somehow pleases God. It doesn’t.

Now, then, what is “self-made religion”? Well, plainly Paul is speaking of something much more fundamental than whether we say a closing prayer before the Freed-Hardeman chorus sings. He talking about misunderstanding what Christianity is all about. You see, his point is that binding rules does not solve the problem Jesus came to solve. Rules don’t stop “the indulgence of the flesh.”

In the New International Commentary, F. F. Bruce explains,

The term which Paul uses [will-worship or self-made religion] suggests that these people thought they were offering God a voluntary addition to His basic requirements — a superogatory devotion by which they hoped to acquire superior merit in his sight. Far from being of any avail against the indulgence of the flesh, as its proponents claimed, it could and often did coexist with overweening self-conceit, making it extremely difficult for those who accepted it to admit the truth that in God’s sight they were sinners in desperate need of His salvation.

In short, what Paul condemns is adding commands that God didn’t make. He’s especially critical of banning the enjoyment of things that God gave us to enjoy. And Paul warns us against practices that lead to pride.

Does Paul therefore declare that there is a prescribed ritual? Certainly not. He says, instead, that we should be careful not to impose rules on one another, especially rules than tend to make us feel superior to others.

You see, the 20th Century Churches of Christ were guilty of will-worship or self-made religion. Rather than focusing on the truly spiritual and important, we tried to prove ourselves superior to all other believers because we had the best and the most rules for how to worship.

Now, if Jackson were right — that Paul is saying there must be a “prescribed worship ritual for the Lord’s day” — you’d think that Paul would have followed his instructions in 2:16-23 with corrective guidance, telling the Colossians what they should do instead. And indeed he does —

(Col 3:1-14 NIV)  Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

“Earthly things” is a reference back to “things that all perish as they are used” in 2:22. He’s not saying earthly things are wrong — far from it! — but that the focus of religion is “things above.” Whether we are worshiping God correctly depends more on heavenly considerations than on earthly considerations. It’s not about what we eat or don’t eat.

3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Rather than thinking as earthly people, we should realize that we’ve been united with Christ. We should think in heavenly terms.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices …

True worship, therefore, is setting aside our earthly nature —

… 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

— and alllowing our new self to be renewed (passive voice!) in a deeper understanding of God, restoring us to the image of God in which we were originally created.

This is deep stuff, and it tells us that the goal is for us to be like God — not for us to obey a bunch of manmade rules that have nothing to do with how much like God we are. It’s about a change in heart and mind, not whether you pick up a guitar when you worship. It’s about the profoundly spiritual, not the temporal, earth-bound things that we obsess over.

11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. 12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

It all comes down to love and unity. Jesus was really big on those, too, as I recall. He said they’d know whether we’re his disciples by our love and our unity. How on earth did we interpret that to mean that our discipleship will be manifested by “a prescribed worship ritual for the Lord’s day”? We have totally missed the point.


10 Responses

  1. Maybe I’m wrong, but it hit me the other day that “will worship” sounds like worship of one’s own willpower – doing things because they demonstrate your own discipline but otherwise have no connection to the kingdom of God. This would cover pointless asceticism, certainly, and possibly a host of other practices intended to demonstrate “faith” simply by being difficult, rather than doing anything God cares about. Yeah, it’s nice that you’ve had perfect Sunday school attendance / read a chapter of the Bible every day / eaten granola instead of bacon / tithed a tenth of your mint and rue, but have you neglected justice?

    Will-worship seems to be defined by its result – self-justification rather than God-justification.

  2. Chris,

    I think you’re exactly right. The roots of the word support that conclusion. It’s about self-imposed religion — adding commands to God’s word in an effort to be safe or especially holy. Paul’s point is that it just doesn’t work because it misses what God really wants from us.

  3. Jay,
    Another four-bagger! (With Spring-training about to begin down here in Florida, a baseball expression is timely.)

    A few months ago, I blogged on this passage in Colossians as a part of my series on Acceptable Worship. You may read it here.

    Grace and Peace!


  4. When I define love the way I want it – it’s will worship. When I let God’s word define love – it’s true worship. Reasonable?

    For instance, in the Colossians passage: the commands of kindness, humility, gentleness, etc. define love.

  5. John,


  6. Another great observation, Jay – thanks.

    @Jerry – I enjoyed your article too, and have bookmarked your site. Thank you.


  7. Vicki,

    Good to hear from you. I hope the winter’s not been too hard on you in Scotland.

  8. […] considered this passage just a few days ago. “Self-imposed worship” in 2:23 is “will worship” in the KJV. And this is […]

  9. […] Sanders declares that bad theology is outside 1 John 1:7, which includes “self-made religion” (which we covered in this earlier post). […]

  10. According to Strongs “ethelothreskia”, the term to which these writers refer to as self-willed worship, is a combination of two terms which are better translated “self-willed religion” as they are in the NASV. This concept certainly encompasses much more than worship, especially given the other statements in the context regarding avoidance of food, drink and even marriage.

    Your recent writings have really hit home with me. Keep writing.

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