What Is Worship?

What is “worship?”  How does one define “worship?”  Is worship something that, according to Christianity, should only go to God?
In Christianity, “Worship” is often used synonymously with “Christian music.”  Is worship a form of music?
You get conflict even within Christianity: many Protestants consider praying to saints or revering Mary as “worship” that is due God, and thus idolatry; Catholics and Orthodox, on the other hand, do not consider such things idolatry.  The concept of idolatry is very much tied up with the concept of worship.  What constitutes idolatry, according to Christianity?

1)  Let’s Get Saxon, It’s So Much More Exciting

I’m a words guy.  And when I run into trouble, I like to go back to the original form and meaning of the word and then work my way forward.  In this case, to understand “worship,” we have to go back to the Saxon “weorðscipe.”

“Worship”originally meant “to consider worthy.” In essence, to hold something in reverence or regard.  The marriage vows from only a hundred years ago included the phrase “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship,” including the idea that a husband or wife “worships” (reveres) their spouse.  “Worship” doesn’t exclusively mean in a religious or deity-related sense.  (It wasn’t even ever used in that sense until around 1300.)

With that understanding, then yes, one can worship a field of inquiry or a body of knowledge, and yes, just about everyone worships something.  Whatever things take priority in your life–whatever you consider “worthy” of your time, possessions, talents, etc.–is what you worship, whether that worship takes the “traditional” form of prayers and chants and bumper stickers or not.

But that’s English.  If we’re talking about “worship” in a religious sense, what we’re really talking about is some word in Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew.

2)  It’s All Greek To Me

The first translation into the English word “worship” in Scripture is in the Old Testament  The Hebrew word is “shachah,” literally “to bow down in homage to.”  And it’s not just applied to God:
–Abraham bows down before three strangers before he knows that two are angels and one is God
–Lot does likewise with the same two angels later
–Moses shachahs before his father-in-law
–Ruth shachahs before Boaz
–David shachahs before Saul
It seems to be some sort of respectful greeting as well as being a vehicle for revering the divine.  However, the same word is used in:
–Exodus 34 “Thou shalt worship (shachah, bow in homage to) no other god…”
–Deuteronomy 34 (when God warns against shachahing or serving the sun or the moon or the stars)
–Deuteronomy 8:19 (again about other gods)
so we do get this sense of “worship/homage” presented to beings other than God as to deity being considered idolatry.  (You get the same sense in Daniel with the equivalent Aramaic word “cegid.”) So there is a level of shachah that belongs only to God, and a shachah that can be presented (at the very least) to other respected persons.

There supposedly is a similar duality with the Greek word proskyneō: a token of reverence, either kissing the hand towards or kneeling with the forehead touching the ground.  Supposedly (unlike the specifically religious-worship “thrēskeia“) this could apply either to worship of God, or to reverence of a revered figure such as the high priest.  (So the fact that Jesus received “worship” from people doesn’t necessarily mean, from a cultural aspect, that they understood that he was deity–it’s not the same understanding as in Hebrews 1:6 or Philippians 2:10)  But in the New Testament, the only times we see the word used is in reference to Jesus, to God, or to something evil (like the image of the Beast).

Notably, it is in the New Testament that several characters start to refuse proskyneo as something they are not worthy of:
–Peter stands Cornelius up after Cornelius started to bow down to him, saying “I am just a man.”
–The angel refused to let John proskyneo him, saying “I am your fellow servant.”
–Paul specifically says that angels are not to receive thrēskeia, specifically-religious worship, in Colossians 2:10.

3)  WorShip Of Fools

So, let’s draw some conclusions from the data we’ve gathered.

–“Worship,” historically, means reverence or respect–be it for a person, an ideal, or a deity.
–“Worship” is often linked with service or with sacrifice in the Bible, though not equated.
–Perhaps service/sacrifice stems from worship?  You serve what you consider worthy of your time.

–“Worship” doesn’t necessarily look religious; prayers, songs, chants, and rituals are not necessary.  All that is required to meet the definition is an attitude of reverence for the object of worship.

–Nowhere have we seen that worship (reverence) is necessarily something that ONLY God can receive.  In several places we see good men giving other good men reverence, and it passes unremarked.  While Jesus (in Luke 4:8) quotes Moses (Deuteronomy 6:13-15) about how “you shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve,” the ‘only’ is paired with ‘serve,’ not with ‘worship.’
–However, we have also seen that there is a level of worship (homage) which is considered due to God, and which he apparently doesn’t want addressed to God stand-ins (sun, stars, statues, other gods, angels, etc.)
–The exact distinction between the two isn’t exactly clear.  Boaz accepted reverence but Peter refused it.  Presumably it is a matter of degree.
–How proper “worship” (worth-ship) is depends on the worthiness of the one being worshipped.
–Only God is supposed to be all-worthy, according to Christianity, and thus only God is supposed to receive the highest levels of reverence, allegiance, and homage.
–God-level worship addressed to not-God is considered idolatry.

–Yes, everybody worships something, unless there is someone out there who has no reverence for anything.  As far as I’ve experienced, everyone has something that they consider “worthy,” be it another person, an ideal, a philosophy, a way of life.
–Whether someone’s reverence is considered “idolatry” or not by Christianity depends on whether it is worthy to receive the level of reverence it is receiving.  (Again: worth-ship.)


That last one, of course, leads to the question, “Who decides what is worthy, or how worthy it is?”
(“God?” says the Christian.  “It’s subjective and opinion-based; the term idolatry therefore becomes meaningless,” says the postmodern.  “No, I think it’s God,” the Christian replies.)

Answering this question has really just spawned a dozen more.

My favorite kind of topic.


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