Is the model for the church’s worship today the temple or the Jewish synagogue?


Is the model for the church’s worship today the temple or the Jewish synagogue?

What an excellent question. There are those who would suggest that the Bible doesn’t give us a model at all, and we are therefore free to do whatever we please. Thankfully, your question—and the Bible—leaves no room for that option. So let’s consider the other two.

On the opposite side of the spectrum of the “do what you want” crowd are the heirs of the Puritans who adopt what we call “the regulative principle of worship” (RPW). It takes the view that we can only do in worship what is expressly commanded in Scripture. Broadly speaking it’s a wonderful affirmation and one of central importance to our Puritan fathers. Narrowly applied it can lead us into some odd places, the first of which is the Jewish synagogue.

Most churches that take a more narrow view of the RPW end up adopting worship modeled after the synagogue rather than the temple. The double irony is this. First, synagogue worship is nowhere proscribed for us in the Bible. The Bible gives no instruction whatsoever either on how to do this or even whether we are to do this. The second irony is that despite this, Jesus participated in synagogue worship. So we have friends shouting “the Bible alone,” doing what the Bible doesn’t say, and worshipping a Jesus who did what the Bible doesn’t say.

This begins to make sense when we understand the distinction between the synagogue and the temple. The synagogue was essentially a place of teaching, basically a Bible study. (This is why hard-core RPW services often devolve into a few somewhat dreary songs followed by a footnote thick “sermon.”) Now teaching and Bible study are wonderful and important things. I’m in favor of them, just like I’m in favor of evangelism. Such doesn’t mean, however, that either is what we ought to be about when we gather on the Lord’s Day for worship. Worship is less about winning the lost, or even informing the found, and more about renewing covenant with the great God of grace in Christ.

Worship modeled after the temple is ironically more faithful to the RPW, precisely because God gave us precise guidelines for temple worship. Now the danger on this side is that we will fall into the Galatian heresy, or the error addressed in Hebrews—that we will fall back on the shadows, forgetting the once for all sacrifice of Jesus. This we must not fall into. What we want instead then is a bloodless reflection of temple worship. What we want is to renew covenant, which is just what they did in the temple. We want to confess our sins, as our Hebrew fathers did. We want to hear God’s forgiveness, as our Hebrew fathers did. We want to sing Psalms, as our Hebrew fathers did. We want to pray, as our Hebrew fathers did—their prayers symbolized in the burning of incense. And we want to feast with our Lord, as our Hebrew fathers did, at the Lord’s Table. Covenant renewal worship is like temple worship sacrificial through and through. But it is bloodless through—for Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.

We end up with synagogue style worship because we are caught in a trap. We don’t want to deny that Jesus changes everything, but we want direction from the Bible. The better solution is to affirm that Jesus does change everything—removing the blood from temple worship but continuing to derive our direction not from what merely happened in the Bible (synagogue worship) but from what God commanded in the Bible (temple worship).


First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.