Do Christians meet together to worship God in the NT, or only to encourage each other?
It really ought to need no arguing — given that Bible is so full of worship, and given that we agree we ought to be reading the Bible at all our meetings, we can hardly be in tune with God if we are not meeting for worship. Indeed, it is difficult to find throughout history anyone who even bothers to argue the point — the argument is always about how we should worship, not whether, at our meetings. This is, of course, not sufficient proof, but we usually do well not to start by assuming that all the believers in the 20 centuries who came before us were numskulls. The reason it is impossible to find a systematic theology which takes time to debate this point is that it is too basic and obvious to require much space. Wayne Grudem, for example, states, without even mentioning an opposing view, that “the primary reason that God called us into the assembly of the church is that as a corporate assembly we might worship him.”
Unfortunately, some people disagree.
And they are managing to convince other people too. So, instead of just implying that such people are crazy fools — an approach which has the twin advantages of having been favoured by many theologians throughout the centuries and also being rather enjoyable — I'm going to have to supply some arguments :-) . Since I agree with Grudem, this is a very important issue that goes right to the heart of what the church is about. (Disclaimer: quite a bit of what follows is built on ideas borrowed from my pastor, Tim Mills).
1 Corinthians 14, especially v15, 25
1 Corinthians 12-14 is a very important passage on this subject, since it deals most closely with the specific issue of what goes on in a NT church service, and to what purpose.
First, we have to understand what the context is that Paul is writing to. The church clearly have meetings which are very 'God focused', in the sense of being completely taking up with the 'vertical'. It is obvious that the gift of speaking in tongues, even in the absence of any interpreters, was highly prized, even though in that context the tongue-speaker does not speak to men at all, but to God only (14:2), speaking mysteries and giving thanks to God (14:16,17).
The fact that this situation was even possible tells us something — somehow these people have got the idea that church meetings are for worshipping God. If Paul had never given them this idea, where did they get it from? However, this does not prove as much as Paul's reaction to it...
Paul does not condemn or poor cold water on their desire to worship God. In fact he approves it — “you may be giving thanks well enough” (14:17). But he wants to tell them that their giving of thanks must be edifying as well as worship. His conclusion is found in 14:15 “What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit [meaning, in this chapter, in worship towards God], but I will pray with my mind also [apparently meaning, in this chapter, in a way that will build others up]; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.” Paul, when saying that everything must be done for edification, is not saying that it is done for no other purpose, but rather he is saying, to a church totally preoccupied with the 'vertical', that all elements of church meetings must be edifying as well.
Paul goes on to pull out a trump card. He knows that these Corinthians are interested in worshipping God, and he wishes to convince them that they should be focusing on edifying gifts such as prophesy. So he tells them that if they prophesy instead of speaking in uninterpreted tongues, then an unbeliever who comes in will be convicted of his sin — “the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” (14:25). His point is clear — an unbeliever starting to worship God, joining in for the first time with the worshippers in the congregation, is exactly the result that both he and the Corinthians approve of and long for. If the Corinthians ensured that everything was done for edification, this would be far more likely to happen. Paul is saying “if you want more worship, you need more edification, not less” — hardly the clearest or wisest thing to say if his message is actually “you're not supposed to be meeting to worship God at all”.
Paul's use of OT praise passages here shows that they are particularly fulfilled in NT church. The passages chosen envisage a time when Jew and Gentile will worship God together. That did not really happen at all in the OT, but Paul is quoting it to show that it is now happening (or ought to happen) in the NT church.
We must also remember that this is part of the big thrust of Romans. Clearly there are big tensions and divisions between Jewish and Gentiles believers in Rome — this is hinted at all the way through, with the repeated "first for the Jew, also for the Gentile" mantra, “are we better than they” etc., and it is addressed most practically in chapter 14. One could argue that this problem is the single unifying theme of the book, and the reason it was written. In chapter 16, Paul goes to great lengths to get the various divided groups, most of whom he cannot call churches, to greet each other. His aim is uniting them. In that context, Romans chapter 15 is unmistakable: he wants these different groups to visibly express the unity they have in Christ by meeting together to worship God — “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v6) (and obviously, to edify each other too — the two always go hand in hand).
This means that when Christians quote the many, many OT praise passages (e.g. the entire book of Psalms) and (often unthinkingly) apply them to NT meetings, they are quite right to do so.
Indeed, it is difficult to know how else to apply Psalm 35:18 and many other similar passages if we are forbidden from thinking that the gathered church meeting is intended for the worship of God. Certainly we can have no doubt how the 1st century reader of the Septuagint (commanded as he was to edify himself by singing 'psalms, hymns and spiritual songs') would have interpreted that verse — the word for the 'congregation' that the Psalmist wanted to worship and praise God amongst is none other than the word 'εκκλησια' (ekklesia) i.e. church. For other examples of almost exactly the same sentiment, also using the word εκκλησια, see: Psalm 22:22, Psalm 22:25, Psalm 26:12, Psalm 35:18, Psalm 40:9, Psalm 68:26, Psalm 89:5, Psalm 107:32, Psalm 149:1 — these cover 9 out of 10 uses of the word in the book of Psalms, the final instance being Psalm 26:5, "the assembly of the wicked", a deliberate contrast to v12 in that Psalm. Thus it is not an exaggeration to say that, according to the book of Psalms, "εκκλησια" equals "the place where we bless the name of God". I would love to hear the conversation in which we tried to convince such a 1st century believer that all those verses should not be taken as encouragement to worship God at church.
Notice v18-24 - this is the climax of the epistle.
This epistle is in fact a sermon — it is clearly the most sermonic of all the letters — so these verses are the climax of a sermon.
This sermon is, of course, meant to be read out at church — it is not primarily intended for private study (people did not have copies of the scriptures), but for public reading at the meetings.
Note v25 “See that you do not refuse him who speaks”: this is the application and the whole point of v18-24 — the author wants to ensure that the people do not ignore the sermon they have just heard.
In this context, the point of v18-24 is unmistakable. The gathered congregation could not have failed to understand that they were being told that their current meeting, where the letter was being read out, was a “coming to the heavenly Jerusalem”, and for this reason (as well as others) they had to pay attention to what was being said. This is the ‘acceptable worship’ that must be offered to God (12:28) — worship which is certainly not limited to what goes on in our meetings, but it centres there. Verses 18-24 therefore describe the majesty and awefulness of NT meetings, which make even the terror of that great worship service at Sinai pale by comparison — Christians at church are caught up with the worship of heaven itself.
Note also that the only time (or at least the main time) a NT Christian heard God “speaking” in the sense of v25 was at the gathered assembly — they did little do private Bible study, because the scriptures were not available to them like that.
It must be noted that the most important element of worship is not singing, but paying attention to God's word. This is how it was in the Old Testament (for example, notice Exodus 7:16 etc, then Exodus 10:26, then Exodus 19,20, and many other passages), and so also in the NT. So the emphasis of teaching over singing in NT meetings is not an emphasis of edification over ‘worship’. Both teaching and singing are both edification and worship.
Ephesians 1:3, Romans 11:33-36, Romans 16:25-27, 2 Corinthians 1:3, Galatians 1:3-5, Philippians 4:20, Hebrews 13:20-21, 1 Peter 4:11, 1 Peter 5:11, 2 Peter 3:18, Jude 1:24,25, probably others. These are all doxologies — praise passages. The epistles they are taken from were meant first of all for public reading at gathered worship, and they are littered with praise passages. This is what Paul, Peter, John, Jude, and the author of Hebrews all wanted to be read out when God's people met together. (There are also doxologies in the pastoral letters, not included above, and there are many reported prayers, again designed for public reading, which have a strong element of praise. Some would describe the whole of Ephesians as more of a song than a letter).
Revelation — so much of the book of Revelation is full of worship language. Again, this book is especially meant for public reading at gathered worship (Revelation 1:3) — it is impossible to believe that the assembled church, listening to God being praised by all of heaven, isn't meant to be imitating and joining in with those worshippers. Even if you manage that feat, ignoring the connections made by Hebrews 12:18-24 (see above), there remains the fact that these passages clearly teach that the destiny of the church is to be gathered round God worshipping Him forever. This is what God's people have always met to do, and will always meet to do — in that context, we would surely need the NT to explicitly deny that we meet for worship if we wanted to come to that conclusion, and it never comes close.
It is argued that since the temple is the place where the OT church met to worship God, and the temple is fulfilled in Christ, that we no longer meet to worship God. This argument is flawed on so many levels:
The temple was also the place where people met to pray. The same logic, then would lead to the conclusion that in the NT Christians should not meet to pray, which is easily refuted.
The temple was the place where God's work of atonement was declared — visually in the form of the sacrifices. But you could hardly argue, again, that in the NT Christians do not meet to declare God's work of atonement. The point is made — the temple had more than one purpose, and the fact that some are fulfilled and are never to be repeated due to the work of Christ does not tell us about the others.
Christ is not the only fulfilment of the OT temple. It is also fulfilled in individuals and especially in the church — see below.
Even after the completion of Christ's work of death, resurrection and ascension, we are explicitly told of believers meeting to worship God and even using the temple building for the purpose (see immediately below). The idea that, because of Christ's death, this aspect of meeting together was no longer necessary would have been as alien to them as it is to all Christians since. In fact, the knowledge of what Christ had done immediately led to increased frequency and increased fervency in their gatherings for worship (Luke 24:52,53), and this trend is not reversed after Pentecost — on the contrary, it is expanded first in massive numerical growth and also in including meetings of various sizes (Acts 2:46,47), not just in the temple, and it is later expanded in the inclusion of Gentiles too (Acts 10:44-46 — note v46 especially). All of heaven agrees — it is especially the fact of Christ's atoning work that leads to the climax of praise in Revelation 5:5-14. The picture given to us by the NT is of an uninterrupted, ever expanding river that becomes an ocean, a universe of praise.
1 Peter 2:4-9 — the church is the fulfilment of the temple (the place where God's praises were especially spoken and heard). According to these verses it was created as a people for the purpose of declaring the excellencies of God. The most obvious expression of this is when they meet — when else do we talk so much about God? Indeed, every passage which links the church to praise applies to public gathered worship, since that is what 'church' means — assembly. Of course, the church remains a church when it is not gathered, but, unless our hermeneutic is that God has chosen the terminology of the NT at random, it needs no argument to establish that the church is at its most church-like when it is gathered — an assembly is, quite obviously, at its most assembly-like when it is assembled. So, since the 'assembly' exists for the praise of God, coming to the conclusion that we do not assemble in order to praise and worship Him is...well, it is quite extraordinary! If we had stuck with Tyndale's excellent translation of εκκλησια i.e. 'congregation', instead of using the non-translation 'church' unfortunately supplied by the KJV, it would be almost impossibly confusing to even hold this debate — how could you argue that the 'congregation' (meaning, the body of people) exists for the purpose of the praise of God, but the 'congregation' (meaning, the congregation actually congregated) does not?
Finally, it is argued that Romans 12:1 redefines worship in the NT, so that it is now entirely about holy living, and not about lifting up the name of God with our voices and words. While I do not, for one minute, want to downplay the importance of life-worship, the claim being made on the basis of this evidence is quite amazing. It means that all of heaven has got it wrong (Revelation 4,5). It means that the apostles, with their constant eulogising, also got it wrong. It makes much of the Bible impossible to understand: if the church was created to declare the excellencies of God (see above), which is clearly worship language, does that actually mean that instead of talking about God or preaching Him we are actually meant simply to live in a way which demonstrates those things? Does this mean that we actually interpret 1 Corinthians 14:25 (the unbeliever falling down on his face and worshipping God) as an unbeliever who just happens to trip up as he leaves the building in order to demonstrate by his life that God is great? What on earth do we do with the Psalms? This really is an impossible hermeneutic to apply to the rest of the Bible — rather, the verse has to be understood as saying that we also worship God by the way we live our lives. This truth is extremely important, but it does not mean for one minute that we can neglect word-worship, the vertical purpose which is the very raison d'etre of the church and its gatherings.
In view of this overwhelming Biblical evidence, it is difficult to even account for the view that says that worship takes a secondary or even non-existant role in the meeting of the God's people in the NT. There is not a hint of a valid doctrinal reason that would support it, no suggestion of when this seismic shift could have taken place, nothing in the example of the NT assembly or the instruction given to it that leads us to this view. The NT in fact teaches exactly the opposite — never was word-worship so vital and central as it is now, for us who have received the fullness of what God has done for us in Christ, along with the knowledge of what he has done. God authored salvation specifically so that we might be "to the praise of his glory" (Ephesians 1:6,12,14), and he has now told us so much more of what that salvation cost and includes — this has to mean that every form of worship, both life and word, must be elevated to new heights.
In attempting to account for the existence of this view, I can think of only two explanations:
First, perhaps edification is being played-off against worship. There is, indeed, a massive emphasis in the NT on the need for our meetings to be edifying. If these two elements are seen as being in competition with each other, I can see how one might conclude that worship is taking a less dominant role. But there is no Biblical reason for seeing these two as competitors — in fact, they are best of friends! They are explicitly linked together in verses such as 1 Corinthians 14:15, 1 Corinthians 14:24,25, Colossians 3:16 and Colossians 2:7. Since word-worship, by its very definition, is full of truth about God, it will almost inevitably be edifying. True edification almost inevitably leads to worship — when we are equipped to live lives that honour God, it happens through truth, truth that causes us to cry out “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!”. I say “almost inevitably” — the example of the Corinthians shows us that things can go wrong.
The second possible explanation is to do with our own experience. Have we found that our own hearts are rather slow to say “I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you”?. Perhaps we have enjoyed the strong doctrine of Romans 1-11, been excited, even, on the intellectual level by grappling with its truths, but found that our own souls do not follow Paul so readily into falling on our knees in heartfelt adoration before God (Romans 11:33-36)? Is it perhaps our own poor level of love and joy that has led us to remove from our understanding of church meetings the one thing that we cannot make up for with good organisation and sound doctrine — hearts that are white-hot with burning love and adoration for Jesus Christ? I preach to myself first of all in quoting Lloyd-Jones:
Perhaps the greatest danger of all for the Christian people is the danger of understanding the Scripture in light of their own experiences. We should not interpret Scripture in the light of our own experiences, but we should examine our experiences in the light of the teaching of Scripture...People come to the New Testament and, instead of taking its teaching as it is, they interpret in the light of their own experience, and so they reduce it. (Joy Unspeakable, ch 1, pg 17,19)