[box]RVWD is my abbreviation for Religious Vocabulary Word of the Day. (You can read my introduction to the RVWD series here.) I do not intend for these word investigations to be exhaustive, but I hope they stimulate some thinking about assumptions. Possibly they will help with honest evaluations about what is truth and what is unnecessary baggage in life. [/box]
Has anyone ever accused you of worshipping your television or your car? Have there been implied judgements because you are not thought to worship at all? Or maybe you have felt guilty because you questioned if you were performing worship fervently enough? Possibly, I can put your mind at ease and help you to deal with these social pressures. It turns out that the word worship has some things in common with the word humility, in that it is a condition of attitude that exhibits itself throughout life. It is not an act that can fulfill a supposed duty to worship. Even in the Bible, the degree of importance attached to the word depends on context and comparison.
Let’s start with the definition in the English dictionary (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th edition). There are three basic definitions of worship:
- reverence or devotion to a diety
- extreme devotion or love
- honor, usually of position, but it doesn’t have to be governmental; it is specifically relational
You can see that the second and third definitions leave plenty of room for the concept to be applied to other than religious situations or attitude toward God. Even the Old English roots of worship indicate that it was coined to designate when something or someone was worthy of honor. The first part of the word, wor-, evolved from the Old English weorth, equivalent to our current word worth.
It gets a little trickier to try to understand the suffix -ship, because even though it is used on a variety of other current English words, it’s use in worship is apparently a holdover from more obsolete structures that used words like goodship and drunkenship, for which we now use goodness and drunkenness. Adding -ship to a word does seem to basically mean “in the shape of” the word it is attached to. It is thought to derive from Old English (-scipe), and be related to German (-schaft) and Dutch (-scap) words, that are strongly associated to the ideas “to create, shape, to have the quality of.” (I suggest this article if you are interested in more discussion of the suffix -ship.)
All of this means that worship is having the attitude of recognizing the worth of someone or something. Thus, to worship is to know the worth of things or persons which will impact how you live your life. You cannot fake worship, because it is something from your heart, that really only you know if it is there. You can misunderstand, if you misunderstand the nature of worship, but you worship by default that which you find of worth.
This is where verses like James 1:27 begin to make more sense. His words in the Greek are making the point that the outward attempts at worship by people, often with the goal of making themselves feel more spiritual, are empty unless they come from the heart; and if they come from the heart, the actions inspired will be caring for others and living a life free from the things which harm (you and others). That is what is meant by “keep oneself unstained from the world.” It is not about a lists of do’s and don’ts. It is desiring that which is good, and hence joyful, because you know what is of real worth. The rest of the letter makes it clear he is writing to those who have chosen to follow Jesus Christ, which means they are not expected to do these things with human fortitude. They are to give in to God doing good through them.
The Greek word that James uses is by itself a word that means “religious” in a rather derogatory way. It implies “outward show”, or pretension. It is put together with another Greek part and used as ethelothreskeia in Colossians 2:23 in a similarly negative fashion. It could be translated as worship, but usually when indicating rote ritual, according to man-made religion.
The other Greek words translated to the English word worship, both verbs and nouns, have the same range of meaning as found in the English definition.
- Proskuneo is from pros-, meaning “toward”, and -kuneo, meaning “to kiss.” It is defined as “to revere, to respect, to show homage.”
- Sebomai, stressing awe in reverence
- Sebazomai, to honor in a religious manner, used negatively in Romans 1:25
- Latreuo, to serve in the sense of doing what is asked, to render homage
- Eusebeo, to act piously toward, found in Acts 17:24, where Paul is referring to the Greek altar to the Unknown God
- Sebasma, indicating there is an object of worship, and used in the 2nd letter the Thessalonians, chapter 2, verse 4, of somone accepting worship very specifically in the place of the true God.
It seems it is more a matter of giving God the recognition He is due, rather than not showing respect to anyone else. What I mean is, there are plenty of places in both the Old and New Testaments where various people are honored because they are respected and/or loved. It is only when that respect is obviously in the tone of honoring a false god that it is declared wrong. Many of the New Testament letters end with instructions to give so-and-so a kiss. Children are told to honor their parents. Ruth bows in respect to Boaz. David does the same to Saul. It does not appear that these were cases of treating them like gods. But when Daniel and his three friends are asked to bow down, it is clear that the statue is being treated as a god, thus they decline. Bowing, kissing, or even praise are not the issue. It is whether either the worshiper or the worshipee are putting something or someone in the place of God in order of worth.
You can’t accidentally worship something or someone, by positioning it a certain way in your living room, or by enjoying it. You can’t worship by being in a certain place at a certain time. There is no formula for creating appropriate fervor of emotion or what exactly to do or say. You worship pretty much incidentally (liable to happen as a consequence of), because you know Who He Is.