Strange Fire Conference – Some thoughts

I started this post some time ago and was going to drop it because I had ‘missed the boat’ of opportunity. But thanks to a comment by James White I realised that it might be better not to worry about that. If it’s worth doing it’s worth doing even though a bit late in the day. Ones things for sure, this is a topic that will not be going away any time soon – if at all. So onto the post.

It’s a funny thing given my interest in this, I wasn’t even aware of this conference. There had been so much going on at a personal level that even the use of ‘Strange Fire’ as a tagline passed me by. Just before the conference I had thought about revisiting my dissertation about worship (‘Public Worship within Independent Reformed Evangelicalism’) and turning it into a book, but wondered if it still had any traction (see how I avoided the word ‘relevance’ there). I was personally convinced the topic of worship will always be current. The ‘Strange Fire’ conference then shows how the topic still really manages to touch a nerve. If I put my Historian / Sociologist hat on it’s of immense interest to me and confirms the value of studying worship. As Christians though, it is central to all we do – of that I have no doubt. And, it doesn’t matter where you stand on the subject, any discussion always raises the temperature! I can guarantee the subject of worship causes more discussion and disagreement than almost any other topic because it touches on so many areas – differences in theology and of course, personal preference! That fact, in and of itself, is worth thinking about! Why is this so? Worship is not just a case of turning up, singing a few songs, listening to a ‘message’ and then going home. Sadly, it can seem like it at times. But when the Church gathers for worship something extraordinary is going on – and it doesn’t need music either.

Strange Fire (or unauthorised fire) comes from the passage in Leviticus 10 and the best book (IMHO) on this passage is by Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs called ‘Gospel Worship’. I remember well my very first reading of Leviticus 10:1-3 and was (still am) especially struck – stunned even – by Aaron’s reaction to the death of his sons and what had just taken place. ‘So Aaron held his peace’ – there’s a sense of awe in the face of God’s judgement.

There are going to be an awful lot of people  around the world wishing JM et al had kept quiet on this. But, having said that it will probably disappear into the mists of time, only to be remembered by those interested in the topic. Like me. Anyway, I have very slowly worked my through the ‘Strange Fire’ audio and thought a few broad comments could be worthwhile.

1. To have a bunch of people clapping at several points in the message really grated on me. A very good elderly (in his 80’s) friend of mine was a member of Westminster Chapel when Dr Lloyd-Jones was the minister. One of the things that marked a service of worship was the reverent silence. I’m told the Dr would enter the pulpit and say the exact same phrase every time and this ‘Reverent Silence’ would be present. My experience is that when God makes His presence known there is reverence and awe. Maybe the odd ‘Amen’. To have a conference where the theology and practice of Charismatic worship is put under the microscope and then have in that same conference applause for the speaker is to me problematic. Maybe it’s my English sensibility.

2. I haven’t always appreciated the tone of the messages, they have come across as hyper critical, even arrogant at times and in places have really made me wince. Having listened to them, this style I felt was only in the first couple of messages and not representative of them all. However, the more involved in the conference as it were, the more I have found myself either nodding in agreement or saying ‘that’s right’. So the longer I’ve listened, and perhaps because it’s taken a while to get through the audio, and listening at a distance, the more appreciative I have become. BTW. The ‘Strange Fire’ book arrived in the post today – 30/04/2014. I was surprised at the absence of Burroughs in the index: maybe it will be in the text somewhere.

3. Comment on the presentation. The audio quality is excellent. It does make a difference when listening. The website and the availability of the audio and video is very much appreciated. And hat’s off to whoever organised and did the transcribing of the messages – monumental! Big thanks for this.

4. The content, that is the theology, has been first-rate. I’ve listened to them all now, but to single out a two messages, Dr Steve Lawson’s presentation (except for a lot of clapping and playing to the gallery – I am English) on John Calvin and his message on Sola Scriptura were excellent. Also listened  with much profit to Phil Johnson on ‘Throwing out the Baby with the bath water’.

I really appreciated the first Q & A session. I only heard the audio but the clips played were ‘jaw-dropping’ . John M’s comment on ‘turning the music off – all of it!, and changing the lights bulbs and to try selling that’ was not only brilliant but fundamental to all our Churches. If the preaching of the Gospel ALONE is not enough there’s a big problem!

So here’s a question for Grace Church and many other Churches. If it were decided to do away with the music – the orchestra or music group – what would the reaction be? Would members be banging on the Pastors door; ‘we want our music back! Or would there be ‘we have the Gospel, it’s enough’. For example when John Bunyan met secretly in the woods did he need to bring his praise band or learn to play the lute to worship? NT worship is markedly contrasted to the OT by its simplicity.

The change from Old Covenant worship to New Covenant worship is from shadow to reality. Old Testament worship was as elaborate and complex as it was bloody and the simplicity of New Testament worship is a million miles away and unnecessary. It might seem a bit odd to be using an OT passage to justify doing away with OT Worship, but the message of the passage in Leviticus is that we don’t come to God any old way we choose. To have a NT understanding of this read the passage in Hebrews coming to Jerusalem. NT worship is even more awesome (I use that word in the way it should be used!) The Lord is a consuming fire. See Hebrews 12:18-29. We worship then with reverence and awe with some understanding of where all the OT ceremonies and sacrifices were heading – to The Lord Jesus Christ.

If I don’t post this now it will never happen, so I’ll leave it there and come back to this topic another time – as I said, it’s not going away.

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5 thoughts on “Strange Fire Conference – Some thoughts

  1. This subject is vitally important because false worship is called idolatry.

    We have a great piano player in our church, a lovely Christian , but she is away for a while right now so we sing without instruments. Even when the number attending is low, the singing is much better than when there is a piano simply because no one needs to listen out for the piano. The people sing together naturally, in time and in tune and with more heart when there is no instrument to keep the time or set the key.

    Although I love music, including piano, drums, electric guitar, saxophone and various styles of music and singing, I think all of them are out of place when it comes to worshipping God.

    Let the people sing their praises!

  2. Thanks for the visit and comment.

    It is a huge issue.

    I have experienced worship without music but it has usually been by accident. I’d like to see how it goes by design. I’m for it in principle. Certainly like to try it.

  3. It has happened here more or less by accident, and is temporary I am sure. I think it is easier for Europeans to think about Christian worship without instruments and entertainment than for Americans.

    Having read a few books on the subject over the years, I think there are some useless strategies employed by various churches. One way is to attack modern forms of music, especially rhythm and syncopation as though the music itself is evil. This is an attempt to create a divide between good music and bad music such that the bad music can be kept outside the church but the good music kept inside. It is important to keep the good music or what else will all the worship focussed graduates from Bible college have to do in the churches.? Then what about all that good music that is trashed because someone says it is not Christian to play drums or electric guitar, or listen to rock n roll etc. Classical music is okay though – the plants like it so it must be harmonious and good even if an occultist wrote it.

    Another approach is to try to stay away from repetitive melodies and hypnotic songs. Here, the idea is to be able to sing sentimental songs without getting into a trance, or getting psyched up – a very fine line. Modern simple songs, because no one understands the heavy theology of the older hymns!

    Another way it to invoke the regulative principle versus the normative principle. This locks worship down to what God has said is acceptable rather than anything being acceptable unless it was specifically forbidden. The Reformed Christians choose this option, but those from more Lutheran or Anglican traditions are happy to worship with anything – especially with those gifted as clowns.

    This issue has been an agony for me ever since I became a Christian in the 70s. I have learned to switch off, go into standby mode whenever it starts. “As the deer pants for the water” is an immediate turn off signal! But wait, isn’t it based on the Psalm? Yes, and it is a good example of how music can be used to make the Bible seem to say the exact opposite of what it really says.

    I think, in the end, we don’t know the difference between entertainment and worship, though we do know it is not the same. When someone plays a guitar and sings a nice song in the church, we don’t applaud because it was not entertainment, it was worship – no popcorn allowed. So many Christians today, even young people, feel forced into a Christian entertainment culture every Sunday, but it has to be called worship. It is living a lie, but somehow it doesn’t seem to matter any more. The older generation just put up with it because they see that the young people will rule the world, not them, their day is over (and they said the same thing when I was a teenager a long time ago).

  4. Thanks for the comment again.

    You (USA) are successfully exporting the entertainment style worship over here. Generally in what I would call Bible Believing churches those extremes do not happen. But things are moving.

    I like it when you say: ‘I think, in the end, we don’t know the difference between entertainment and worship, though we do know it is not the same.’

    This speaks to the transcendence of God and that we are and always will be creatures not the Creator. We know it as true.

    Out of curiosity – how old are you. I became a Christian in 1979. I was 25.

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