Bloodshed at the Altar: The Genesis of Worship Wars

A common quip is that someone went to a fight and a hockey game broke out. All too often, things do get quite heated out on the ice. Tempers flare and fists fly as athletes become assailants. Though a highly organized sport, governed by rules and played by professionals, hockey seems but one small step removed from the battlefield.

Based on their own experience, many Christians might wryly remark that they went to a fight and a liturgy broke out! It is true, that battles aplenty have erupted over questions of worship. Though sometimes the issues are petty, oftentimes they are not, for they get at the core of what the liturgy is and does. They force us to ask and answer what and who worship is all about. It ought not be surprising, then, that so-called “worship wars” are far from a modern phenomenon. Their genesis is actually in Genesis itself, exemplified in the “Cain liturgy” and “Abel liturgy”, as we might term them. Compressed into this brief narrative about two radically different liturgies is every story about the liturgy.

Cain and Abel were born east of Eden, whither their parents were exiled after heeding Satan’s seductive lies. Judging by the names this mother and father gave their sons, they thought the world of their firstborn while they thought nothing (literally) of his younger brother. Abel, you see, means “nothingness” or “vanity”, whereas Cain means “acquisition”. As Eve exclaims, “I have gotten [or ‘acquired’] a man with the help of the Lord,” (4:1).

Upping Cain’s standing in his parents’ eyes is the fact that, more than likely, his mother thought he was the Messiah. A straightforward rendering of Eve’s words is, “I have gotten a man, namely, the Lord.” Thus, Eve surmised that she had just birthed the Seed promised by God, indeed, YHWH himself (3:15)! Eve was dead wrong, of course, but if that was her opinion, then the way she and her husband treated (or even spoiled) Cain might go a long way towards explaining why he acted toward Abel (and God) the way he did. Children long-accustomed to being pampered can throw quite a fit—even a violent one—when they feel rejected.

Cain experienced this rejection in the context of the liturgy. Moses writes that “in the course of time” both brothers brought an offering to the Lord. We don’t know when this “course of time” was. Perhaps already at the dawn of history this first family was following a kind of liturgical calendar, regulated by the seasons of the year. Cain, being a farmer (like his father), brought “an offering of the fruit of the ground” and Abel, being a shepherd, brought “of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions,” (4:2-4). What did the Lord think of their respective offerings? We are told, quite simply, that “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard,” (4:4). Cain was incensed and crestfallen at this rejection. And thus began, around the blood, shed at the altar, the bloodshed in the field. Because of what happened in the liturgy, Cain became the killer, not the keeper, of his brother.

The question that concerns us is this: Why did the Lord approve of Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s? Some have argued that it was because Cain did not sacrifice animals but vegetables. But later, in the liturgy given to Israel, the Lord not only accepted offerings of the fruit of the ground but commanded them to be placed before him (e.g., Deut 26:2). Why would God reject from Cain what he later accepted from and mandated of his people? So as far as the material itself, neither Cain’s nor Abel’s offering was superior.

The book of Hebrews pinpoints the reason: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts,” (11:4). Those two words, “by faith”, deserve to be written with golden ink. It was not that Abel’s sacrifice was better than Cain’s; it was not even that Abel was better than Cain. It was the Messiah, in whom Abel trusted, that made the difference. By faith in the coming Savior, Abel was reckoned to be righteous. God showed his approval of Abel by approving of his sacrifice. The “Abel liturgy” was not about Abel or about what he gave God, but what God gave him through his faith in the Messiah.

Cain, on the other hand, neither lived nor worshiped by faith. St. John writes of him, “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous,” (1 John 3:12). He was “of the evil one” and “his own deeds were evil.” So who he was and what he did were polluted by evil. The “Cain liturgy” was about Cain, about what he did, about “wowing” God and others by his actions.

The Lord rejected, and still rejects, the “Cain liturgy” and those who practice it. It is sham-worship, doubly damned, for not only does it fail to praise God from whom all blessings flow, but it succeeds only in self-exaltation of the worshiper. It is centered around the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I.

The chief “act” of worship is really no act at all; it is a gift of God. It is faith. Faith receives the blessings that the Father desires to give for the sake of his Son. And, having received them, faith “offers up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name,” (Hebrews 13:15).

There is more than a little Cain inside all of us. We practice his “liturgy” whenever we seek heaven’s applause for our sacrifices of prayer and praise. To trust that our actions are pleasing to God because “we are better than others” or “we give more to the church” or similar boasts is, like Cain, to “worship” under the influence of the evil one.

The “Abel liturgy” is the liturgy of Christ, his saving action for us, received by faith. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Matthew 20:28). That was and remains his liturgy for us. As long ago, God promised Israel, “I will come to you and bless you” in the liturgy, so today he still comes to serve us, bless us, and ransom us in Jesus, whose blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel,” (Hebrews 12:24).