Proskuneo and latreian (4)

This post is the 4th (and probably the last, for a while) in a series about worship and service.  Proskuneo and latreian are two key biblical words (Greek antecedents) that can aid our understanding.

A new friend has recently commented, suggesting that Jesus’ depiction of worship in spirit and truth (John 4) is not exactly a positive highlighting, viewed through New-Covenant lenses.  If I’m reading him correctly, he believes that the inner faith-response to the singular act of Jesus on the cross constitutes the only “worship” indicated under the New Covenant.  I’ve never heard this shading before but have been thinking about it.

It appears to me that Jesus, as reported by John, was calling the woman to something a) not bound by location and b) genuine, true.  Both aspects may stand in contrast to Jewish worship of the time, but especially so in the first case.  Since as a Samaritan she was not exactly in the “in” crowd, perhaps Jesus was suggesting to her, by saying “in spirit,” that she could worship despite her lack of Jewish access to the temple.  This worship would not consist in temple service or in Jerusalem at all.  It would be, said He, homage-communication of the spirit, and it would be true — not feigned or dissociated from reality.

The genuine/authentic/true component of Jesus’ statement could also be conceived of as contrasting with then-current Jewish corruptions.  I’m not saying this is THE way to read it — only one possible way to read it.  Subjunctively stated, then, it would sound something like this:

“Woman, your worship doesn’t have to be like that of the Jews:  it could now exist regardless of Jerusalem, and could be engaged in more authentically than is typical, in the midst of the Jewish stuff these days.”

(Aside:  no matter whether I’m on target here, or how much any reader might disagree with me, we must all categorically reject the idea that the “in truth” part of the phrasing has anything directly to do with the CofC’s [or any other group’s] views on “correct” acts in the church assembly.  Not that “correctness” isn’t important, but this text has nothing to do with it.)

There’s really not much about worship in the gospels or the letters.  I take it that the early Christians just worshipped and didn’t find the need to write about it so much, but I acknowledge that it’s logically possible for worship to have been less a priority in, or almost absent from, Christian gatherings.  Possible, but not likely, I’d say.

On the horizontal, “priestly service” side, Hebrews certainly seems to corroborate that Jesus’ sacrifice is the true, central replacement for the latreuo or leitourgeia of the Old Covenant.  (No more animal sacrifices!  Jesus — once and for all!)  But this unique honoring of our Lord’s offering doesn’t negate the offering of ourselves described in Rom. 12.  Hebrews passages — taken separately or conjoined with the entire New Covenant corpus — do also place Jesus at the core, philosophically and theologically.

Connections with 1st-century synagogue practices have been used to justify some elements of Christian worship that I don’t find valid in the New Covenant.  Coincidentally, I’ve just reviewed an issue of Worship Leader magazine in which so many assumptions are made along the lines of the “history of Christian worship” that I couldn’t keep up with my own question marks in the margins.  It’s hard to trust the thinking of public leaders and venues when so few seem to be able to distinguish between biblically implied/suggested/commanded things and historically, traditionally practiced ones.

As an example:  there is no biblical blueprint for a corporate assembly, despite the supposed plan propagated by, e.g., the late guru Robert Webber.  According to him and many others, the “authorized way” is something along these lines:

1 – gathering in (or the call into) the outer courts

2 – hearing the Word in scripture and sermon

3 – responding to the word

4 – going out to bear witness

I find no such pattern stated in scripture; to infer it is to superimpose mankind’s tradition. Moreover, some of those items are laden with baggage, and the layout emphasizes acts that are not, strictly speaking, worship.  The actual subject treated seems to be “the service,” as developed by institutional Christianity, ant not worship per se.  The four-point structure deals more with overall conceptions for Christian responses and the living of life.  It’s not wrong to use such a pattern for a corporate so-called “service,” but it smacks of the Old Covenant to legislate said pattern.

To any who think worship is contra-indicated in NC scripture (younger believers, these people do exist, and many of them are quite sincere), I would say this:  I don’t see that vertical worship communication (the proskuneo variety) was snuffed out with the cross.  It further seems that some expressions of, e.g., the Psalms are enduring, not obsolete.  Furthermore, doxologies such as those found in Philippians 2, Ephesians 1, and 1 Timothy 1 strongly suggest that first-century Christians were giving vertical, reverent, adoring attention to the Christ.  In addition, the example of the woman of Luke 7:36 appears as a striking example of a very literal act of spontaneous worship (proskuneo is, roughly, bowing and “kissing toward”) honored by Jesus.  Although shedding tears and wiping one’s feet with long hair should not be viewed a paradigm for all time, it is certainly presented positively in the narrative.  If this example were to be scoffed at, I would think Jesus, or Luke (ca. 40 years later) would have framed the woman’s action negatively.

In sum, at this juncture, I believe proskuneo is both assumed and indicated under the New Covenant.  I believe the same about latreia(n).  One is vertical, involving reverent homage shown to a greater being; the other is horizontal, effectively substituting service acts toward others for Old-Covenant animal sacrifices and various Levitical acts.  While there is certainly a spiritual connection between the two (proskuneo and latreian), the concepts are distinct, and we do a disservice to both the ideas of worship and service by amalgamating them.  This is obviously an oversimplification, but I trust that it helpfully delineates.

Below are links to some previous posts on worship and/or service.  Especially if some of the above is muddy, I would invite you to read past essays on related topics, and comment where you find me off-track (or where you agree).

Synagogue Worship as Model

Proskuneo and latreian (3)

I’m thinking still about worship and its Koine Greek antecedent word-concepts.  From Roy Lanier of yesteryear, fast forward a few years.  [This post continues thoughts from two days ago.]

Max Lucado once exhorted, “Live your liturgy.”¹  In reading that, the high-church liturgists may feel validated, and we all may feel somewhat justified in continuing our patterns when we read Lucado’s words.  After all, pretty much all of us have liturgies.  Yet I think the point was that discipleship through the week is also significant.  If we could be more consistent, things would be better.  Here’s my extrapolation on Lucado’s admonition:


If you’re going to do worship in Q style, live in that style.  Or if you worship in Z style or Y style, live in that style.

You might think there would be more connection between life and the unimportant (in some cases, silly) liturgies pretty much all of us experience on a weekly basis.  From mountain church to sea-level church to rolling-hills church — it doesn’t matter how “high” or “low” your tradition is — our corporate patterns are, way too often, just so much fluff.

And we fiddle while Rome burns.  Our lives are pathetic.  We really don’t live “up to snuff” (that’s redneck for “consistent with standards”) with any of our would-be-transformative Sunday “worship” activities.

Something needs to be re-calibrated.  We could either cease trying to engage in so-called worship activities, or we could try to bring the other 117.5 waking hours a week into harmony.

Essentially, some cognitive consonance in this sphere would be nice — and highly advisable from the eternal perspective.

Now, to move from the inspirational-yet-human to the specifically God-breathed . . .

Romans 12 tends to come up in worship discussions among enlightened Christian-types.  Romans 12, however, does not deal with worship, strictly speaking.  The noun here is not “proskuneo.”  It’s “latreian,” a cognate of “latreuo” which speaks of sacrificial ministry (think animal sacrifice, then transfer that to the NC).  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (“Little Kittel”) reports these bits:

  • latreian is used 9x in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and “refers generally to cultic worship”
  • a connection exists with OT priestly service and douleuein (general service)
  • in the ancient Philo’s writings, this word is said to “embrace the ministry of virtue and spiritual service to God” — wonder if the oft-cited Philo is why some English versions translated “logiken” as “spiritual”?

Etymologically related to the above, the root latron means, roughly, “to work for reward” and “to serve.”  This, friends, is an idea quite distinct from the meaning carried in the word proskuneo, which means “kiss toward.”   Proskuneo connotes bowing, obeisance, and reverential homage shown toward another, greater being.

The expression in Rom. 12:1 is logiken latreian; logiken is a relatively uncommon biblical word and could be said to have spawned our word “logical.”  Latreian is also uncommon in this particular form.  Its basic meaning is “service rendered for hire, ministration,” and it further is said to be related to the likes of Levitical priestly service.

Robertson’s Word Pictures  gives this further insight:

Which is your reasonable service (ten logiken humon latreian). “Your rational (spiritual) service (worship).” For latreia, see on Romans 9:4 . Logiko is from logo, reason. The phrase means here “worship rendered by the reason (or soul).”

I think Robertson may be affected by church tradition here in linking “service” with “worship”; I do not not see anything directly vertical, i.e., human-to-God, in Rom. 12:1.  I rather think Paul is suggesting that offering ourselves becomes, rationally (or even figuratively?) speaking, the New equivalent of Old priestly service.  Logiken ≈ logical ≈ rational, and latreian ≈ horizontal service, not vertical worship.  Assuming I’m right, this verse is not about worship per se but is about Christian living more generally.  Worship, after all, was never halted, but animal sacrifices were.

Paul is saying, I am convinced, that when we offer our whole selves to God, the resulting “sacrifice,” so to speak, becomes the equivalent of the priestly service that is no longer a part of how we approach God.


¹ Here, although I highly doubt Lucado had this level of zing in mind when he wrote his phrase, I’ll acknowledge my bias against the high church.  The disconnect between corporate worship and life is exaggerated when the corporate worship is in a dead language.

By the way, the term “high church” is inherently questionable, as though other ways and means exist on a lower, undignified plane.  This reminds me of another inherently questionable term:  “Reformed.”  Yeah, I know that things needed drastic reforming in the time of Luther and Calvin, but the use of “reformed” today seems to imply a progress, a development, a reformation that no longer reflects the situation.  Today, there is not just one church institution that is reforming, or that needs reforming.  We all need reforming — certainly including the “Reformed” ones — and many other groups at least make efforts at reforming along the way.

Truly “catholic” (and other labels)

Names and labels often pique my interest (as do grammatical things and words — which reminds me that an older friend once paused to ask me, in a Bible-class setting, whether the spelling of the word he had just used were “p-e-a-k” or “p-e-e-k,” to which I replied “p-i-q-u-e,” but this is all beside the point).

For instance, a “sanctuary” often isn’t one, really, so that’s a misnomer; “pope” and “narthex” and “sacristy” are just silly words devoid of substantive meaning.  And what about this one — the piece of furniture in which a baby can be ceremonially, un-biblically sprinkled may be labelled “baptistry” or “baptismal font,” but those are both misnomers.  Presbyterians often have those (not-)baptismals, and so do Catholics and others.

There are commonalities all ’round, and sometimes they unite people you wouldn’t expect to be united.  Leroy Garrett, a respected scholar and writer now in his mid-90s, wrote this of a recently unifying experience at an institutional church building in New Mexico:

What particularly caught my eye at the Chapel was a notice that the Independent Catholic Church of Antioch at Santa Fe conducts Mass there each Sunday afternoon. It bills itself as neither Roman, Orthodox, or Protestant, but just Catholic. But it is high-church, with a rich liturgy, with priests, including women, in colorful vestments conducting Mass at what was once a Roman Catholic altar. It calls itself “a love church” that reaches out to all humanity, and as for such social issues as abortion and birth control it leaves it up to each person to decide for himself. They emphasize that Jesus rejected no one, and they seek to be like him. One of their “Spiritual Principles” is: “We affirm that we are a truly Catholic Church in the most universal sense. Our altars and Priesthood are open to all humanity.” It is one more example of the diversity of Christendom.

I would call into discussion the implications of certain capital letters in the above description, as well as the extent of the “universal” acceptance to which this unique NM group aspires.  (The “rich liturgy” often appeals to non-liturgists until they experience “richness” over a period of months or years, at which point they finally realize that pretty much every liturgy is just another overblown human creation.)  Still, that particular liturgy in — which I presume amounted, at one point to a departure from a-biblical restrictions of the Roman Catholic institution — is laudable at least for said departure!

On the sidewalk recently, I overheard two students talking of what I took to have been a reference to, or a congregational recitation of, one of the so-called “creeds.”  They were taking exception to the appeal in this “creed” to the “holy, catholic church”–a designation that is for me at once inspiring and off-putting.  I only heard two or three sentences, but I think one of the two students had no idea, as yet, that the meaning of the word “catholic” is “universal.”  The other student, I think, was about to start explaining this.  I wonder, though, whether even after hearing the explanation, the first student would have been left, like me, unconvinced that the expression “holy, catholic church” should be recited by believers today.

Words are, after all, symbols and communicators.  Communication scientists make all sorts of studies of linguistics and semiotics, and they doubtless have a lot to say about such things.  I am but a closet observer of, and participant in, communication, but I do have the distinct feeling that using the term “catholic” is not appropriately communicative in a protestant church.

And the term is all the more a barrier for a neo-Protestant such as myself.  (There is so much to protest; vive la rebellion!)

If you need a change, go to Moe’s

I get bored very easily.

By the third repetition of a pattern — whether a route I drive, warm-up etudes in an ensemble rehearsal, protocols in meetings, a television series, or in church — I’m heading to la-la land.  This anti-routine trait is why I spent hours preparing varied programs for the Symphonic Winds tour last April, why I study maps to find different ways to go places I frequent, and why I put myself through a good deal of stress recently — over what I viewed as a relatively minor, yet purposeful, change in the order of our church assembly this morning.

Change has long  been a hot topic for discussion in organizations.  Those who don’t like change may label those who do, and vice versa.  I’ve been lumped with those derogatorily dubbed “change agents,” and I willingly, though perhaps not gleefully, accept that label.  I love the light bulb joke that goes like this:

Q:  “How many church elders does it take to change a light bulb?”
A:  “Change?   Change??!!”

After a tough week+ of needless church illogistics that ultimately led to a God-honoring, if only moderately inspiring, time of worship this morning, we took off for Moe’s, a great little fast-ish food chain that provides a spicy change from Burger King.  Moe’s offers tofu bowls, burritos, tacos, etc., with tofu, organic chicken, beef, and pork.  But the reason we go is for the salsa and pico de gallo offerings.  Stupendous.  Spicy.  And a nice change.  Change is good.

The salsa/pico cups we drained today

God vs. humans

Again I would — this time, primarily through the apt words of another — call attention to the tendency of the human to put himself in the place of God:

John Brooks of the Church of God (Holiness) argued that human law in the church was “not only unnecessary, but presumptuous.” The Divine Church (Columbia, MO.: Herald, 1891; rpt., New York: Garland, 1984), 27. The flyleaf of Brooks’s book describes its contents: “a treatise on the origin, constitution, order, and ordinances of the Church; being a vindication of the New Testament Ecclesia, and an exposure of the anti-scriptural character of the modern church of sect.” Church of sect is Brooks’s term for the denominational system. – Susie C. Stanley, “‘Bumping’ into Modernity,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 136.

Why would we want to codify church discipline, creedalize beliefs, and legislate liturgies? Part of me wishes I could get into the “Church Year” stuff, because it might indeed help to balance topics for the sake of the masses. But I just haven’t been able to lend my support yet. Systematizing such practices seems to correspond to what the Pharisees had done with the Torah.

On a more personal note, I confess that I have to fight the tendency to turn my brain and heart off at the mere suggestion of liturgy. Even in low-church settings, where I find myself most often, the simplest and most harmless of habitual behaviors can irk me, requiring me to expend energy just to hurdle the thing so I can get something out of it. I’m not asking for compensating methodologies to be offered … merely expressing feelings that are not likely to change in the near future.