Is there cultic vain repetition in Church worship? Jesus warned us against it. There certainly seems to be a lot of repetition in today’s music, is this what Jesus meant? If there is ‘vain repetition’ we will never know it unless we define it. So the first question to answer is ‘what is it?’.
A few years ago I spoke with a friend whose associate had visited a church down the road from him. He was familiar with hymns and a service lasting a little more than an hour from start to finish. To his dismay this particular church had a lengthy worship portion. From his perspective it was insufferable. Unaccustomed to more than a couple of songs sung once or twice through, he impatiently counted the fact that one chorus had been repeated 12 times. He lamented the fact as he recounted his visit in utter consternation.
If we were to ask him this question, he would likely affirm the existence of vain repetition. To him this was a perfect example of pointless cyclical ritual. But is this really what Jesus was identifying?
What Jesus Said!
I suppose a good place to start would be revisiting these words spoken by Jesus. Here they are:
“And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words” – Matthew 6:7.
To begin with it is clear Jesus is referring to encounters with God. It would not be unfair to include both prayer and worship in this context. But what specifically is He forbidding? He references ‘the heathen’ without identifying a particular pagan practice. We could spend a lot of time researching pagan ritual, but that still may not tell us what it is we seek to avoid. Actually, Jesus defines His intent right here in this same passage in two different ways.
The first identifier is in the word ‘vain’. Vain is defined as ‘useless and producing no result’. It has as synonyms: futile, pointless, to no purpose and hopeless. The key word is futile or pointless repetition, and not simply repetition. Some, like our frustrated friend, might infer Jesus is decrying ‘repetition’ in general, but He is not. If that were the case, then repetition would be universally condemned, which it is not. If it were Jesus would be condemning the very worship of heaven.
A Heavenly View
Consider this! John’s revelation describes the four beasts worshipping before the throne of God who repeat day and night the identical phrase. They do not rest saying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” – Revelations 4:8. This is clearly repetitive… it is, however, not vain.
The second facet of Christ’s warning is also very telling. He qualifies vain repetition as having an essential confidence is numerics. Specifically, ‘For they think that they will be heard for their many words’. The source of their repetition is a belief that some threshold magically unlocks the favour of God. Clearly, this could not be the motivation of the four beasts of revelations. Neither is it automatically part of a chorus being sung 12 times.
The heart of what we are saying is we need not fear we have entered into vain repetition. Rather, and perhaps most importantly, is the fact that cyclical repetition is part of heaven’s worship. This tells us that not only does ‘vain repetition’ exist, but so does the alternative ‘functional repetition’.
‘Functional repetition’ is a term I have coined here to distinguish between the real and the false. That is, there is repetition with purpose, as well as pointless repetition. There may be some degree of superstition in the worship of our fellow saints, but it is impossible to identify through superficial measurements. Instead of fearing what others might be doing, we should make it our aim to enter into ‘functional repetition’. The call to worship requires we enter into what was exhibited by the four beasts before God’s throne. They were simply captivated by the glory of God. Besides the best deterrent to false worship is heavenly worship.