Should unbelievers lead Christians in worship in a church service?

by Matt Slick

This question should never arise in the Christian church, but unfortunately, it needs to be addressed because there are churches in America, who are forgetting the purpose of the church, and are paying unbelievers to lead Christians in worship during Sunday morning services.

First of all, worship can only be rightly performed by believers who have been justified and sanctified by the blood of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:9, "But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light."

Only blood-bought believers have the right to "proclaim the excellencies" of God because only they have been cleansed by the sacrifice of Jesus, through whom they approach the throne of God in praise and adoration.  Only Christians have a mediator by which their worship may be acceptable to the Holy One (1 Tim. 2:5). The unbeliever has no cleansing of sin.  He has no mediator.  He has no High Priest who lives for ever to make intercession for them (Heb. 6:20; 7:25).  He has no access to God. Unbelievers do not have that right to praise God for His goodness and mercy because they are in a state of rejecting that goodness and mercy as well as rejecting God.  They are unbelievers. They are unclean before God!

It is hypocritical for an unbeliever to stand in the presence of believers who have been bought and cleansed by the blood of Christ and lead those same believers in the worship of the true and living God, when those unbelievers are slaves of sin (Romans 6:20), who can do no good (Romans 3:10-12), whose hearts are deceitful (Jer. 17:9), who are dead in their sins (Ephesians 2:1), and love darkness rather than light (John 3:19).

Is it right to then offer money to those same lost souls to lead true believers in worship of the true and living God?  How can it ever be right?

Consider this. If there were a Christian on a worship team and he fell into adultery, that Christian should be removed from that worship team and counseled until full repentance and healing is achieved. Only after such loving restoration occurs can he again be considered to lead God's people in worship. After all, those who lead in the adoration of Christ, ought not to be living in sin and rebellion against Christ.  This is hypocrisy and it has no place in the adoration of God.

How much more should we avoid having unbelievers leading Christians in worship who are living in unrepentant sin?  Do we want those who are in rebellion against God to lead God's people in adoration of the true and living Savior - for money? After all, such unbelievers might then go out that very same day and fornicate, watch pornography, steal, or do whatever ungodly habit they participate in only to return a week later, and be paid money, to lead the Lord's people in praising God and confess their turning from sin.  This is gross hypocrisy.

Jesus said to the Pharisees and Scribes, "You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, 'This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me,'" (Matt. 15:8). Are the unbelievers any better off than the Pharisees and Scribes? No. They are, like the Pharisees, under harsher judgment.

The Church should never assist the unbeliever in carrying out his hypocrisy and making it comfortable for them to do so?  Where is the preaching of the repentance from sin and God's judgment upon those who reject Christ?

May it never be that unbelievers are assisted by the Church to feel comfortable enough to enjoin the believer in worship yet not repent!  "But to the wicked God says, 'What right have you to tell of My statutes, and to take My covenant in your mouth?" (Psalm 50:16). Can the unbeliever praise God with the following words and not be a hypocrite? "Come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand," (Psalm 95:6-7). No. He cannot! For unbelievers to sing such praises is a mockery to God. Therefore, they are in the same state as those who are condemned by Christ on the Day of Judgment:

"Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’  "And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness,'" (Matt. 7:22-23).

Hypocrisy is saying (singing) one thing and doing another. It is a display of a behavior of falseness. And that is exactly what a pastor is encouraging when he knowingly has unbelievers lead believers in praises to God. The unbelievers' words are singing praises of trust and adoration to God when in their hearts they do not believe it. How is this right? How can this be justified?  This is hypocrisy, and pastors who encourage unbelievers to worship God and lead Christians in that worship are providing the opportunity for that hypocrisy to exist - in the church!  Woe to him who leads the church in such hypocritical worship and encourages sinners to sin.

According to the Scripture...

We find in Scripture that only believers lead in worship and are involved in true worship - never unbelievers:

  • "These things I remember, and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival," (Psalm 42:4).
  • "Ascribe to the Lord, O sons of the mighty, Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to His name; Worship the Lord in holy array," (Psalm 29:1-2).
  • "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light," (1 Pet. 2:9).

We find no place in the Scriptures where unbelievers lead believers in worship. It is not in the Bible, and it should never happen in the Christian church.  As the Bible says, do not exceed what is written (1 Cor. 4:6).

What of the benefit to the unbeliever?

What about the benefit of exposing an unbeliever to the Gospel by getting him into church to participate in worship? After all, it has probably led to conversions.  And, weren't there unbelievers in the church as Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 14?

First of all, the unbelievers in the Corinthian church were not leading in worship.

Second, the ends do not justify the means. If God so chooses to save someone in spite of a sinful situation, that is God's business. But, the pastor is to make sure that worship honors God because proper worship can only occur through the sanctifying blood of Christ  - which applies only to believers.

To the pastor

If you are a pastor who has unbelievers leading believers in worship, then please reconsider. You are responsible for shepherding your church in truth, honor, and sanctification before God. You are responsible for the worship before the Holy Lord. This is not the realm of the unregenerate. I strongly urge you to lovingly dismiss the unbeliever from worship, and invite him to attend the church service, confess his sin to God, ask forgiveness, and continue in humility before men and before God.  If he refuses, then what was he doing there in the first place?

It is far better that worship in the church be less than perfect from the human perspective, but it be acceptable by God's standard.  Look to God and worship him truth in the house of God.

Psalm 100:1–5, "Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth. 2 Serve the LORD with gladness; Come before Him with joyful singing. 3 Know that the LORD Himself is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture. 4 Enter His gates with thanksgiving And His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him, bless His name. 5 For the LORD is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting And His faithfulness to all generations."