It’s the final battle in a bitter civil war. One side, a powerful army of well-trained soldiers from an oppressive regime, stand armed with the best weapons and death-dealing gear their scientists and engineers have to offer.
The other side, a ragtag bunch of outcasts and rebels, has come together to resist this corrupt and oppressive government. Rumour has it that they have a new weapon, capable of bringing all of the power of the regime to a crashing end.
The lines are drawn. Warriors gaze at each other across the battlefield, prepared for the struggle of their lives. The time has come. The rebel commander cries out “Draw your weapons!”
To a man, the rebel army pull out from behind them not swords, nunchucks, or rifles, but placards covered with all kinds of angry emojis. “Alright, men – it’s time to show these loyalist scum exactly what we feel about them!”
The battle begins, and you know what happens next. Completely unprepared and disarmed, the rebellion is soon crushed.
Of course, this never happened. Such a thing would go down as one of the greatest blunders in military history. However, it is a scene that plays out in many Churches around the world every week; believers are encouraged to go into the battle against the world, their own flesh, and the Devil armed with pithy platitudes and shallow theology.
Recently, a controversy was ignited by video of a ballet performance that took place at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. I’ll preface my comments by saying that I don’t enjoy watching ballet, but I do appreciate the discipline and skill that it takes to do it well.
Many have sought to defend the dance by saying something along the lines of “Dances like this help people to connect to God by communicating in a medium that they understand and feel.” In a sense, the ballet is just like Emoji – they are images that communicate in a way that words cannot. We could call this line of reasoning ‘The Emoji Defence.’
Certainly, it is important for believers to understand and feel what goes on in a Church service. For too long, services (particularly in my own tradition) have been dreary affairs, with preachers presenting lectures with all the emotive power of a soggy noodle to the face.
The problem with the Emoji Defence is that it betrays an underlying premise that completely undermines the foundations of the Christian faith, and will ultimately diarm believers in their battle with an increasingly hostile world, weaken their struggle with sin, and whiteant the health of the Church as a whole. The rebellion will be crushed.
In Ephesians 6, God commands Christians “In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”
This is the responsibility of all Christians, everywhere, at all times. At all times, we must be sitting under the authority of the Scriptures, faithfully defending against the attacks of the devil, living out our salvation in prayerful submission to God. No change, no compromise. The stakes are dire.
Key here is that the passage tells us that the sword of the Spirit is the Bible. The living, breathed out Word of God. When a believer hears the Word read and preached, prays the Word, and sings the Word, the Spirit is armed and ready to do His work in his or her life, and in turn, the believer is armed for battle. The Spirit, speaking only in the Word of God, is the one who can effectively communicate to a believer. The Bible is sufficient.
Why, then, should we include practices in our Church gatherings which distract from or undermine this truth? When someone says “This dance will allow the brothers and sisters here to really feel the message of God’s Word,” the underlying assumption is that the Spirit speaking is not enough. Is that really a message we want to pass on?
In a wonderfully pastoral section of 1 Timothy, Paul commands his young ministry partner:
Command and teach these things.Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.
Notice the bolded sections here – Timothy is to be devoted to the public reading and preaching of Scripture, and to continue practicing these things, to the point where our English translations say he is ‘immersed’ in them. Paul rounds out this section by giving the reason for continuing in this public emphasis on the primacy of the Scriptures: “Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” This is an issue of life and death.
So the question we should be asking when we include something in a worship service is “How does this communicate not only the content of the Word of God, but also that the Word is completely sufficient in the lives of believers? Am I disarming the Spirit? Am I undermining the congregation’s love for the Word? Am I showing that the Christian life is one which is ‘immersed’ in God’s Word? Does this element of our worship teach them to love the Bible, or to treat it as ‘good, but not best’?”
Regular meetings of God’s people where we read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, and sing the Bible are very ordinary. They’re not flashy, clever, or ‘beautiful’ by worldly standards. But it is there that the power of the Spirit will be unleashed to equip Christians, not with ‘Emoji’, but the real thing – the very Words and power of God. Then they can stand and rebel fruitfully against the forces of the Devil. What could be better than that?
“Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart,
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.”