Even in our hyper-individualistic culture, there are times when we stand united. In 2019, “we” defeated England in the rugby World Cup final to earn “our” third trophy. The corporate identity is sometimes rolled out to speak of nationalistic pride or political identity, and sometimes to speak of a united protest against poor service delivery or rampant injustice. The New Testament, on the other hand, applies the corporate identity to but a single reality: the Christian church.
“We South Africans” or “we Springbok supporters” would be completely foreign to New Testament Christians. “We the church,” on the other hand, would be quite natural. The church is a body, a temple, and a family. We are united in the most meaningful sense of the word.
Nowhere is this corporate identity seen more than in the gathered worship of the church. While there is certainly a good and necessary place for private and family worship, in the gathering of the church, the unity of the body is emphasised as perhaps nowhere else. In answer to the question, “What happens when we worship?” Jonathan Landry Cruse answers, “We commune with the saints.”
Corporate worship emphasises dual aspects of the unity of Christ’s people.
First, in corporate worship, the church is separated from the world. When Peter preached his first sermon on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, the people were cut to the heart over their sin and wondered what they should do. Peter instructed them to repent and be baptised to “save yourselves from this crooked generation” (vv. 37–41). Repentance and baptism created a distinction between the repentant and the “crooked generation” from which they were saved.
This theme of separation between the church and the world is all over the New Testament. We are called to avoid conformation to the world but to instead to pursue transformation (Romans 12:1–2). In Christ, we are crucified to the world and the world to us (Galatians 6:14). We must not love the world or the things of the world (1 John 2:15). Nowhere should this distinction be more obvious than when we gather for worship.
Corporate worship is God’s provision for his people, not for the unbelieving world. This is one reason that we must be so careful not to innovate in worship. Our temptation may be to gear our gatherings toward entertainment to draw people in. But worship is designed to set us apart from the world, not to make us look like the world. It should be evident in corporate worship that the people gathered belong to God and not to the world.
When we gather with our brothers and sisters for worship, it should be a reminder that we are not of the world. We have come out of a week of spiritual warfare, but now we gather as the people of God for rest and restoration before heading out into the war anew.
This brings us to the second emphasis of unity in worship: In worship, we recognise that we are not only separated from the world but are also united to each other. In vv. 42–47, Luke writes of the early Christians being wonderfully united. They “were together and had all things in common,” so much so that “they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” These statements are set in the context of worship (v. 42). Their unity was evident in their worship.
Each member of the church is a part of the body, a stone in the temple, and a member of a gospel-produced family. We need each other to function properly. When one member is detached from the body, the body is the worse for it.
As we gather for worship, therefore, let us remember that something deeply significant is happening in our relationships with one another. Worship reminds us that we have been separated from the world and highlights our unity in Christ. It is a foretaste of the glory of the eternal unity that we will experience in the resurrection life. Let us gather with those to whom we have been united and stand together against a corrupt world that would draw our affections from Christ.