The reformation of the Church is one of my great passions, and there are several areas in which I believe reformation to be absolutely essential. It is, for instance, necessary that the Church of today reform in her understanding of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology). For too long, the Church at large has embraced a man-centred, rather than a God-centred, view of salvation. A second area of necessary reformation is that of ecclesiology; that is, the doctrine of how church is to be “done”–church government, church purpose, etc. A third area in need of reformation–amidst a host of others–is that of worship. By worship-reformation, I do not mean that the Church must return to tradition or to a 16th-century style of worship, but that she must return to worshipping God’s way.
The need for reformation in worship is not unique to our day; God’s people have failed throughout the ages to worship Him as they should, and have had to reform accordingly. A case in point is set forth for us in 2 Chronicles 34:
Now in the eighteenth year of his reign, when he had purged the land, and the house, he sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, and Maaseiah the governor of the city, and Joah the son of Joahaz the recorder, to repair the house of the Lord his God. And when they came to Hilkiah the high priest, they delivered the money that was brought into the house of God, which the Levites that kept the doors had gathered of the hand of Manasseh and Ephraim, and of all the remnant of Israel, and of all Judah and Benjamin; and they returned to Jerusalem. And they put it in the hand of the workmen that had the oversight of the house of the Lord, and they gave it to the workmen that wrought in the house of the Lord, to repair and amend the house: Even to the artificers and builders gave they it, to buy hewn stone, and timber for couplings, and to floor the houses which the kings of Judah had destroyed. And the men did the work faithfully: and the overseers of them were Jahath and Obadiah, the Levites, of the sons of Merari; and Zechariah and Meshullam, of the sons of the Kohathites, to set it forward; and other of the Levites, all that could skill of instruments of music. Also they were over the bearers of burdens, and were overseers of all that wrought the work in any manner of service: and of the Levites there were scribes, and officers, and porters. And when they brought out the money that was brought into the house of the Lord, Hilkiah the priest found a book of the law of the Lord given by Moses. And Hilkiah answered and said to Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord. And Hilkiah delivered the book to Shaphan. And Shaphan carried the book to the king, and brought the king word back again, saying, All that was committed to thy servants, they do it. And they have gathered together the money that was found in the house of the Lord, and have delivered it into the hand of the overseers, and to the hand of the workmen. Then Shaphan the scribe told the king, saying, Hilkiah the priest hath given me a book. And Shaphan read it before the king. And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the law, that he rent his clothes. And the king commanded Hilkiah, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Abdon the son of Micah, and Shaphan the scribe, and Asaiah a servant of the king’s, saying, Go, enquire of the Lord for me, and for them that are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that is found: for great is the wrath of the Lord that is poured out upon us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the Lord, to do after all that is written in this book.
(2 Chronicles 34:8-21)
The king spoken of in the verses above–King Josiah–came to the throne at the tender age of eight. God used him in a great way to return Israel to His own ways, as commanded by Him through Moses. In the account above, Hilkiah the High Priest finds a copy of God’s law during repairs to the Temple. It is somewhat astounding that they should find it, for they should never have lost it in the first place! According to Deuteronomy 17:14-20, a new king was supposed to copy out the book of the law with his own hand, and proceed to read it regularly “that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them.” For many years, however, the people of Judah had gone without the book of the law.
Finding the book, Hilkiah immediately delivers it to the scribe, who reads it to the king. Upon hearing the things that God had commanded, Josiah is gripped with remorse because Judah had neglected to obey the Lord all those years. God, says the king, is angry with the nation because they had not worshipped Him according to His book. Thus begins his efforts to reform the nation back to the things off God.
As with Josiah, our passion in worship ought to be to return to the book. Our goal is not to fit ourselves into the tradition or culture of men, but to align ourselves with the infallible Word of God.
In preceding studies, we considered the definition of worship. Worship, we have concluded, is the reverent and rational response to the revelation of God. Our duty, we saw, is to worship God in spirit and in truth. The design of worship, we have noted, is to be exaltational (i.e. to exalt the Lord our God), edificational (i.e. to build up our fellow believers in the faith), and evangelistic (i.e. to impact any unbelievers in the worship service with the gospel of Jesus Christ). The only way that our worship will match this design is if it is evangelical (i.e. gospel-based and -centred). We then spent some time considering some major distortions of worship in today’s professing Church: embellishment, ecstatic-ism, entertainment, exhibitionism and emulation.
In this study, we will consider the essential elements of worship, which will lead us quite naturally to the biblical expression of worship (emotions, clapping, hand-raising, dancing, etc.). As we consider these things, I trust that we will be further enabled to worship our great God in spirit and in truth.
The Elements of Worship
We have established in prior studies that our worship is to be 24/7: “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). We might divide worship into three basic spheres: (1) private worship (personal prayer and Bible study etc.); (2) public worship (in our daily interaction with society, family worship, etc.); and (3) corporate worship (when the church gathers to worship the Lord together). Our focus is the third area: corporate worship.
Corporate worship is perhaps where most of the debate finds its centre. Many today want to add to the church’s corporate worship, in various ways. Most of the questions asked about worship today concern corporate church worship: how does drama, dancing, lifting hands, music styles, testimonials, etc. fit into the corporate worship of the church? Many of the things that people would have added to corporate worship are not bad in themselves, but I question the place that they have in corporate worship.
There are some important questions to ask. What are the essential elements of corporate worship, those worship elements that no Christ-centred church can do without? When is a gathering considered a corporate worship service? Should all church gatherings bear the same rules of worship? These are some of the questions we will seek to answer in this study.
The Challenge: Examining Scripture
The challenge that we face when seeking to answer these questions is that there is no specific Scriptural text detailing the essential elements prescribed for a corporate worship service. If there were such a text, the debate would be easily settled. Since there is no such text, we must be careful of being too dogmatic about a specific liturgy.
I have read hundreds of pages on worship since the outset of these studies (from authors such as R. Kent Hughes, D.A. Carson, Mark Ashton, Timothy Keller, Michael Horton, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Peter Masters, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Frame, James Montgomery Boice, Derek Thomas, Al Mohler, J. Ligon Duncan III, John MacArthur, and Terry Johnson). These are all good men. Each is an astute student of God’s Word. Yet they all have differences of opinion when it comes to some aspects of worship! I am sure, however, that they would all agree with what I am going to set forth in these pages. For though they differ in specific practices in their worship, but they all agree to the essential elements that must be involved in the church’s worship.
The Considerations: Examples in Scripture
If we, therefore, will discover the essential elements of worship, we must examine the Scriptures and consider Church history. In examining the Scriptures, we must look for two things: (1) examples of worship; and (2) emphasis in worship.
Old Testament Worship: The Tabernacle
The first corporate worship with which we are familiar in the Old Testament is the worship at the Mosaic Tabernacle. In Tabernacle worship, sacrifice was paramount. These sacrifices were pictures of the Person and Work of Christ. A second element of Tabernacle worship was confession of sin. Along with the confession, there was an implied element of repentance (for this is why the sacrifice was brought). Another element often involved was a priestly benediction upon those who had brought sacrifices.
Today, we no longer bring animal sacrifices when we gather to worship. Instead, we gather to worship because of the Sacrifice of the Lamb of God. In a sense, sacrifice is still paramount in our worship for, as the Old Testament worshippers brought sacrifices looking forward to Christ, we look back to Him as we gather to worship. The reason we gather is because Jesus Christ gave His life as a sacrifice for us.
Old Testament Worship: The Temple
Since the Temple was essentially a permanent “Tabernacle,” much of the worship was the same. But there were some essential elements in Temple worship that are not so prominently seen in Tabernacle worship. Solomon dedicated the completed Temple with a lengthy prayer in 1 Kings 8. In the prayer, the concept of praying toward the Temple is used no fewer than six times. Later, God Himself referred to His Temple as “my house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7). And so the element of prayer became essential in Temple worship.
A second element of Temple worship, which is not evident in Tabernacle worship, is that of singing (1 Chronicles 15:16-22; 2 Chronicles 5:11-14; etc.). Though the Temple itself was only constructed during Solomon’s reign, David was the one who initially had the desire to build the structure, and he introduced singing to Israel’s corporate worship. David, of course, wrote many of the Psalms that would eventually form the hymnbook for Israel’s worship.
Old Testament Worship: The Synagogue
The Old Testament as we have it does not deal with synagogue worship (it is mentioned 43 times in the New Testament), but I refer to the synagogues as Old Testament worship because they were instituted during the Babylonian captivity referred to in the Old Testament. The Jews were carried away from their land, and so could no longer worship at the Temple. In order to continue their worship, they formed synagogues, where why could gather to worship the Lord. A synagogue could be established anywhere, provided that there were at least ten Jewish men (thirteen or older) in the area who would regularly attend the synagogue worship.
That God accepted synagogue worship is clear from the fact that Jesus was often found in the synagogues during His ministry. The sacrifices continued to take place at the Temple (which was built soon after the return from exile), as God had commanded, but the synagogues became the location for Israel’s weekly worship.
Scripture does not tell us much of what went on in synagogue worship, but it is well documented in extrabiblical literature. Synagogue worship involved reading the Word, expounding the Word, prayer, singing, and confession of sin, as well as a benediction from the ruler of the synagogue.
New Testament Worship: The Church
The early Church adopted much of Old Testament worship, and included some of its own worship elements. Consider the record of an early worship service, as recorded by Dr. Luke:
Then they that gladly received his word were baptised: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.
Notice the elements that Luke mentions in this early worship service: preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer (all in the context of fellowship and praise). The Word of God is still central in worship, but it is no longer bound exclusively to the Temple.
An added element of worship in the New Testament Church was that of offering (Acts 4:32-37; Acts 5:1-11; Acts 6:1-4; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; etc.). Singing continued as an essential element in New Testament worship (Ephesians 5:18-21; Colossians 3:15-16). Reading and preaching the Word were essential elements, emphasised in God’s Word (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 4:1-2). Acts 20:7 shows the Lord’s Supper to be an essential element in corporate worship, as well as exposition of God’s Word at length. (It should be noted that this service may well have begun around 10pm, since most of the church members back then were slaves and were forced to work during the day on a Sunday. To argue from this passage for 4-hour long sermons is an exercise in exegetical acrobatics.)
The Considerations: Emphasis in Scripture
Apart from the clear-cut examples in Scripture, there are some things that are given great emphasis in the Scriptural teaching on worship.
The Bible emphasises the Aaronic benediction, which would be pronounced upon those who had come to worship the Lord. This would remind the worshipper that he had the blessing of God in his worship. Doxology is also given emphasis in the Old Testament. There is an emphasis in Scripture on the greeting of one another (for there is always a horizontal element to worship: if we love God, we will love our neighbour). There seems possibly to have been a confessional element (1 Timothy 3:16)–not confession of sin, but confession of corporate belief.
The Conclusion: Essential Elements in Scripture
If we consider the biblical evidence of corporate worship, we see at least the following elements: (1) reading the Word of God; (2) preaching the Word of God; (3) singing the Word of God; (4) praying the Word of God; (5) demonstrating the Word of God in baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and (6) responding to the Word of God in stewardship. You will notice that the Word of God is central in all this:
- Reading the Word of God is the plain, uninterrupted reading of the biblical text (perhaps a chapter, or a portion thereof in the case of exceptionally long chapters), whereby God speaks directly to His people through His Word. In the early Church, few believers had a Bible (or Scripture portions) of their own, and many could probably not read anyway. The only exposure they had to the Word was when it was read in public worship. Revelation speaks of those who heard the things written therein (Revelation 1:3; 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 20, 22; 13:9; 22:18), for that is the way that most believers would have exposure to the book.
- Preaching the Word of God involves the clear explanation and application of the biblical text to the congregation by the minister of the Word. Nehemiah 8:8 says it this way: “So they reading the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.”
- Singing the Word of God includes the singing of the Psalms, as well as other hymns and “choruses” that are filled with biblical language and theology. In Colossians 3:16, the “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” flow from “the word of Christ.” In Ephesians 5:18-19, the “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” are the first evidence of being “filled with the Spirit.” The songs we sing in worship must be loaded with solid theology.
- Praying the Word of God means that our prayers must be filled with allusions to the Scriptures. The prayer of the early Church in Acts 4:23-31 is a wonderful example of this, being filled with allusions to Scripture. Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the whale is the same (Jonah 2:1-9).
- Demonstrating the Word of God is precisely what takes place in the ordinances. The Scriptures make it clear that both baptism and the Lord’s Table are visible representations of gospel truth (Romans 6:1-4; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
- Responding to the Word of God takes place as we willingly give during the collection in the local church. The collection is God’s ordained means to meet the needs of the Body. Our stewardship is our response to God’s command in His Word.
These, at the very least, are the elements that we must include in our corporate worship.
The Choices: Examples and Emphases in Scripture
John Frame has written a book on worship entitled Worship in Spirit and Truth. In it, he details the many things that he includes as elements of corporate worship. Mr. Frame is a brilliant theologian, but I had to take issue with some of the things he included in the worship of the church (this is always safe to do when he is thousands of miles away, and he doesn’t know me!). He included many of the horizontal elements and expressions of worship as essentials in worship. But I don’t believe that we can include all expressions of worship as essentials for public worship. There are things that are fine to do in private worship, but that are out of place in corporate worship.
You can, for instance, play cricket to the glory of God. But that does not mean that we should construct a pitch in the middle of the auditorium and hold a match when we gather on the Lord’s Day. In the same way, things like dancing are wonderful expressions of private worship, but I am not sure that it is always fit for public worship. I am not sure that the “dancing before the Lord” mentioned in Scripture is in the context of public worship. Even drama has a place in the ministry of the church, but it ought never to replace preaching as an essential element of worship. (The problem with drama is that the audience becomes the interpreter. Thus, there is no absolute interpretation given. When God’s Word is preached, however, ‘thus saith the Lord’ becomes the absolute standard by which we are to judge ourselves.)
Since there is no clear Scripture passage telling us what we may and may not include in the corporate worship of the church, we must consider the examples and emphases of the Bible, and then make some intelligent choices as to how we will worship. Clearly, God emphasises the Scriptures in corporate worship: that is, His Word must be central in the worship of the local church.
In all of this, we must be careful. We cannot neglect that which God has emphasised. At the same time, we cannot add to what He has said and make our views legally binding on others. There are wonderful churches that are strong on the fact that when the church gathers, they should quote a particular creed (the Baptist Confession of Faith, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Apostles’ Creed, etc.). There is much benefit in this, but I am not sure that there is biblical support for insisting on this practice in the corporate worship of the church. Whilst it is certainly allowable in the church, I am not sure that we can argue that it is commanded.
A word must be said in defence of the creeds. They are wonderful statements of faith, which have much benefit for the believer. Post-modern man is often guilty of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” [C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961); pg 73]. That is, we are guilty of thinking that we are modern man, we have arrived, and there is nothing for us to learn from past generations. We forget that we live on a timeline, and that those before us have learned valuable things that we must understand. We would be very wise to pay close attention to the creeds and confession that have, for centuries, remained faithful to biblical truth and given good explanations of that truth for believers to understand. They are often most wonderful summaries of those truths most surely believed among us.
We must also be charitable when we consider these things. The members of Brackenhurst Baptist Church should follow the elders in the inclusion of what we believe to be the essential elements of worship. At the same time, we are to be charitable toward those churches that do things differently. There are many good churches that love and worship God, which do things a little different in the corporate worship than we do them. Should we decry those churches as not properly worshipping God? Certainly not! As long as they include the clear essentials of Scripture, we are to be charitable toward them.
D.A. Carson has edited a book entitled Worship by the Book. The book comprises the specific liturgies of three different men: R. Kent Hughes (pastor of a church of the “Free Church” tradition), Timothy Keller (a Presbyterian minister) and Mark Ashton (an Anglican minister). All three men hold to the same essential doctrine, but worship is practised differently in the three churches. Each man gives charitable liberty to other churches to do things differently, as long as the church in question emphasises the essential elements of worship.
Each church, then, must make a choice concerning their specific liturgy. The choice of Brackenhurst Baptist Church is simplicity and predictability. Simplicity in that we read the Word, we preach the Word, we pray the Word, we sing the Word, we demonstrate the Word, and we respond to the Word. There may be other elements that we add at times and, at times, some of these elements may be emphasised more than others. Nevertheless, this is the simple “liturgy” that we choose to follow.
By predictability, I am not referring to rote repetition. I am saying, instead, that the church knows what to expect when we gather. This is not a popular concept in our world today, for most are on a wearisome quest for the novel. We are used to being entertained in novel ways, and so churches put themselves under pressure to do things differently every week in order to maintain the attention of those attending their worship. It is a television mindset. Television keeps our attention by changing scenes every 10 or 15 seconds; churches are trying to match this. But there is greater security in predictability. If you come to our church, you pretty much know what to expect. Again, we may do things differently every now and again but, for the most part, you know how worship will be practised in our church. You can be sure that we will sing God’s Word. You can be sure that we will read God’s Word. You can be sure that God’s Word will be preached. You can be sure that God’s Word will be prayed. You can count on regular demonstrations of God’s Word through the sacraments (we baptise as often as necessary, and observe the Lord’s Table on a biweekly basis). You can be sure that you will have opportunity to respond to God’s Word in the offering.
Predictability, by the way, does not mean boredom. Allow me to illustrate. South Africa is very much a rugby-loving nation. When we watch a game of rugby, there is a certain degree of predictability. We know that the rules are (or should be) the same every game. Those who know the rules can predict when the whistle will be blown for players offside, for collapsing the scrum, or for a forward pass. We can predict that the game will comprise two halves of forty minutes each. But that does not necessarily mean that it is a boring game (though some games may be more exciting than others). Whether the Johannesburg-based Lions are playing the Pretoria-based Bulls, or the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs are playing Cape Town-based Western Province, you can count on the same rules being exercised. But you cannot always predict the outcome. Though you know the rules that will be exercised, you can still enjoy an exciting, action-packed game of rugby each week (in fact, the most exciting games are the ones in which the rules are consistently exercised).
Though there is predictability in the worship of our church, this does not mean that every service must be boringly repetitious. God may choose to move sovereignly in some services in a greater way than in other services. We must beware of thinking that predictability is necessarily lifeless. There is nothing wrong with predictability–excitement comes within the boundaries.
One further question must be dealt with before we move on: should every gathering be considered a formal worship service? My answer is a resounding, “No!” This is perhaps somewhat obvious when we consider midweek versus Lord’s Day gatherings. But what about different Lord’s Day gatherings? Is there any difference between the morning and evening service? I can only speak for our church when I say there is. Our morning service is without a doubt the main worship service of the week. Certainly, when we gather for the evening service, the essential elements are there: Bible reading, Bible preaching, biblical prayer, biblical singing, biblical demonstration and biblical response. Nevertheless, our morning service is usually that time of the week when we gather for a more intense and transcendent time of meeting with God. Our Sunday evening service is normally more relaxed; our midweek gatherings are far more relaxed than our Lord’s Day gatherings. This does not mean that we don’t worship at our midweek or Sunday evening gatherings (for worship is 24/7), but our Sunday morning service is usually a far more intense time of worship than any other church service.
The Expression of Worship
This is perhaps the point that raises more debate than any other in today’s “worship wars.” There are some important practical questions that we must answer when considering the church’s legitimate expression of worship:
- What about lifting our hands?
- What about uttering “Amen”?
- What about public confession and repentance?
- What about music? What type is permissible? Preferable? Prescribed? What about musical instruments? What types of musical instruments can we use? What about the tempo of our music? What about choirs and solos? What kind of songs do we sing? Psalms only? Hymns only? Praise choruses?
- What about drama in our worship?
- What about dancing in worship?
- What about corporate (congregational) participation in worship (responsive reading, etc.)?
These are some of the questions we must answer in our consideration of corporate church worship. In answering them, there are some principles to keep in mind. I will limit myself to stating these principles at this time, and we will consider them more deeply in later studies.
First, they are not new challenges; they have been around for as long as the church has existed. Paul answers several questions surrounding worship in his first letter to the Corinthian church. Debates have raged throughout Church history. Many such debates are healthy, for help to bring our mind into captivity to the Word of God.
Second, when we seek to interpret Scripture in terms of worship, we must consider the historical, cultural and literary context in which the particular passage is given. And Scripture must always be our final authority in all matters.
Third, we must realise that we are all “children of our times.” Thus, we need the long look at history. We cannot assume that we have arrived and have no use for history (Lewis’ “chronological snobbery”). We would do very well to consider the annals of history and learn from men and women of the past. I have a great passion that Christian men be readers. We didn’t just appear in the 21st century with all the answers; reading good Christian literature will help us to understand the course of Christianity throughout history and will guard us against adopting every novel development in the worship environment.
Fourth, we must beware of prejudice and mere traditionalism. Though we must certainly learn from men and women of the past, we ought not to assume that they had all the answers. We must not think that we are to line up our worship with Luther’s, or Calvin’s, or Zwingli’s. Our worship must align with the Scriptures, not with the traditions of men. There is a danger of prejudicial traditionalism: “We don’t like the worship songs of today–that’s just noise!” It may not appeal to your taste, but does it align with Scripture? I am not speaking of changing the essential elements of worship, but of differing expressions of worship. We must understand that biblical worship can be expressed variously, and always seek to align ours with Scripture.
Fifth, there is a litmus test in our expression of worship: does it exalt God, edify the saints, and evangelise unbelievers because it is evangelical? If our worship is Christ-centred (evangelical), exaltation, edification and evangelism will take place.
Sixth, we must draw a distinction between private and corporate worship. There are things that are perfectly suitable for private worship that do not fit the context of corporate worship. Some things are wonderful in private worship that will cause a major distraction in corporate worship. Will the lifting of hands distract others during worship? Will clapping cause a distraction during the singing? These are important issues with which to wrestle.
There are several things to guard against in corporate worship: (1) we must guard against distracting others from their worship; (2) we must guard against distorting the biblical picture of worship by making ourselves the centre of attention; (3) we must not be destructive to the spirit of worship in the assembly (like a man I once knew, whose “amens” were so shrill that attention was drawn to him rather than the preaching of the Word). At the same time, we must remember that spontaneity can attend Scriptural worship. God may move spontaneously upon the congregation at times more than at others.
What, then, is our responsibility in worship? It is to practise the essential elements, and to ensure that our expression, though it may change, aligns with Scripture. We must make sure that worship is practised in spirit and in truth.