A New-Testament-only approach to the regulative principle invariably ends up advocating an overly inward, rationalistic approach to worship. The inward, spiritual, non-material movement of the mind is more important that the movement of the body (tongue or knees or hands) in worship. So anything material detracts from the true “spiritual” worship of the New Testament.
Here's an illustration of this: A long time ago in a church far, far away a seminary professor of mine, after participating in worship at our church, commented to me about how much he appreciated the times of silence in the service. “That was true spiritual worship!” he said. Now, I think times of silence in the worship service are fine, but they are definitely not more “spiritual” than when the congregation is belting out a vigorous hymn or Psalm. In the Bible the adjective “spiritual” means “of the Holy Spirit,” not something non-material or inward or mental as opposed to the material, physical, and outward.
This “spiritualizing” of the regulative principle of worship is the fourth distortion to analyze. It is often justified by a misreading of Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman in John 4. Jesus’ assertion in John 4:24 is often lifted from its context and dangerously misconstrued to function as a warning against all “outward” and “external” liturgical worship. A more literal translation, however, will help us understand what Jesus means by worshiping in “Spirit and truth”:
The [Samaritan] woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our Father’s bowed down [proskuneo] on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to bow down.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will your people bow down to the Father. Your people bow down to what you do not know; we bow down to the one we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming and is now here, when true worshipers will bow down to the Father in Spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to bow down to him. God is Spirit, and those who bow down to him must bow down in Spirit and truth.” (John 4:19-24).Jesus is not saying that God is non-material, so therefore his worshippers must unite with him by means of their spirits or souls. He is not disparaging the body in worship or advocating some sort of "immaterial" worship, whatever that might be.
The NIV study Bible is quite wrong in its explanatory note: “The place of worship is irrelevant, because true worship must be in keeping with God’s nature, which is spirit.” Jesus is not redirecting genuine worship to inward, sincere worship. This follows from two considerations: 1) the meaning of the word proskuneo, often translated “to worship,” and 2) the redemptive-historical context of Jesus’ remarks.
First, the Greek verb proskuneo (used 9 times in 6 verses in John 4:20-26) means “to bow down,” “to kneel,” or “prostrate oneself.” Even though my translation of this passage is awkward, I have tried to bring out the ritual dimensions of the conversation by consistently translating proskuneo as “bow down.” One must remember the very concrete meaning of proskuneo in the ancient world. Doing “obeisance” means bending your body and placing yourself “under” another. When you proskuneo-ed before someone, you bowed down in their presence, even at their feet.
The English word “worship,” especially as it is used in modern times, is not a very helpful translation. One of the problems with our word “worship” is that it now refers to all sorts of activities, both physical and mental. In fact, a recent fad is to stress that all of life is “worship” and that genuine worship is mental and happens every day and all through the day in our minds and hearts. In some sense this is true, but only in a very loose sense. When used in this sense “worship” denotes a mental disposition.
But this is not the sense in which this word proskuneo or “bowing down” is ordinarily used in the Scriptures. If you want to say that all of life is “bowing down,” that is fine; but this can only be so in a very abstract or metaphorical way. If you are working hard on a painting job, for example, you may, indeed you should mentally give thanks and praise to God while you do so, but . . . you are not bowing down at that time with others in a congregation to offer praise and thanksgiving to God.
The woman and Jesus are not talking about this kind of mental attitude. Jesus is addressing the question of where one should bow down to the Father. It's all about the proper location. Jesus is talking about the ritual act of bowing down or kneeling before God in order to honor him and express one’s proper devotion.
The Samaritan woman asks, in effect, “Where is the place, the location, where we should bow down to God?” We will see how Jesus answers that question in a moment, but for now simply attend to the kind of devotion in question. The activity in view here is what we might call “special” as opposed to “general” devotion. It is special in the sense that it happens at a known location and it involves the people of God in acts of embodied ritual devotion before God. Furthermore, the bowing down in question has to do with corporate or public worship, not private worship.
Bowing down, then, is a kind of synecdoche for everything the people of God do when they gather together in corporate worship. It simply has to be this. Everyone, both Jews and Samaritans knew that one could pray and praise and petition God, one could even get down on one’s knees anytime or place. Individual bowing down was never restricted to the Temple or Jerusalem or in Samaria, to Mt. Gerizim. Individual, private, mental worship had no restrictions in the Old Covenant.
Please, pay careful attention to this point. The big point being made by Jesus in this passage cannot be that now in the New Testament individuals can individually bow down, pray to, or mentally worship God wherever they want. That had always been the case. The controversy here is about where the people of Samaria should gather to bow down in special corporate worship. All special, corporate worship in the Bible is external and bodily and involves the biblical ritual (among others) of kneeling or bowing down.
So what did Jesus mean when he said that the time is coming when people would "bow down in Spirit and truth"? I'll deal with that in the next part.