What does the Bible tell us about corporate worship?

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Talking about the connection between church context abuse and a shallow view of worship the other day, I mentioned a debate about whether corporate worship was primarily a corporate activity, addressed to God or a horizontal activity addressed to one another. I would like to investigate that question a little further with a quick look at what the Bible says on the matter.

The Puritans argued, and included in their catechisms the statement “The chief end (or purpose) of man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.”  Worship from their perspective was about glory and enjoyment.  We declare the honour and majesty of God, we praise him and exalt him. We find great enjoyment in this. God becomes our delight.  John Piper has argued that the reference to “end” rather than ends means that only one purpose is named not two so that we glorify God by enjoying him for ever. I would suggest that we can reverse that, we enjoy God by glorifying him in other words the statement could be modified to say “the chief end of man is to glorify God and so enjoy him for ever.”

Creation Mandate

It is worth therefore looking at the first instructions to humanity, these will give us a sense of what glorifying and enjoying God looks at.  So in Genesis 1:26-28, we are told that when God made the first humans, he told them:

“28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

We enjoy God by allowing his blessing to bear fruit in our life and by obeying his command.  This is our worship. Similarly in Genesis 2, Adam is set to work with the task of tending and keeping the garden. This work of tilling and guarding, of providing and protecting is as we’ve seen in our studies on Creation the same phrasing used to describe the work of the Levites in the Temple. It’s worship language at the same time as being work language. That’s the basis for the argument that worship is about the whole of our lives.

In the context of this, Adam is told not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This is part of his responsibility to guard the garden.  It will mean saying no to the evil one when he seeks entry into the man’s world and life (Genesis 3).  And in the context of being given commands to obey, God says that it is not good for the man to be alone. This points to the importance of togetherness in worship. It is a corporate thing, not an individual thing.

The other thing to observe about Genesis 1 and 2 is that at the end of creation, God rests on the seventh day. Rest is not about ceasing from activity and sleeping, God continues to sustain  his creation but it is about effortless enjoyment of the fruit of his labours. If later, God’s people are commanded to observe a sabbath rest day then that suggests they are to set time aside from day to day work to also enjoy the fruits of their labour together and in God’s presence.

The Creation Mandate of filling and subduing the earth is mirrored in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19ff). Our concern that God is maximally glorified and enjoyed means that we want to see the earth full of worshippers of him.  This also suggests that if OT sabbath rest nd worship included the enjoyment of the fruits of creation mandate labours then our Sunday worship should in a similar way be about enjoying together the fruit of Gospel labour.

A people gathered

Quite often when talking about the church as ecclesia or assembly, people suggest that Deuteronomy 31:12 is an important passage for understanding what we are about

Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law

There is a Biblical image of God’s scattered people being assembled. It is important to pick up that these OT gatherings were vertical rather than horizontal but for the purpose of hearing God’s word proclaimed to the people not for the purpose of them addressing their praises to God.  So looking back we see a model where God’s people gather to hear him speak to them together at the same time. There is something to be said about this in terms of local churches hearing from God’s Word together as a shared experience. It’s one reason why although it is possible to watch back online services later, I would still prefer to see people aiming to be together to preferably hear something live.

Looking forward, the imagery of a gathered people finds its fulfilment in Revelation 7:9-12

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

If our corporate gatherings look back to Deuteronomy and represent a people gathered to hear God, then it is also right to see them as looking forward in hope and anticipation for the day when all of Gods people will gather in praise. In this context, the gathering clearly has a vertical focus with the purpose being to give praise to God. This is of course the ultimate sabbath rest as we enjoy eternity together.

Instructions to the churches

What instructions do we actually have for coming together?  Well, I want to highlight three NT passages about the local church, 1 Corinthians 11-14,  Ephesians 5:18-21 and Colossians 3:12-17.  Each of these passages point to the importance of God’s people coming together so that we cannot simply talk about all of life worship without seeing the importance of the local church gathering. At the same time, it is worth noting that Ephesians and Colossians move seamlessly between the gathered church and the life of the believer in the home and the workplace so we should not create too large a gap between corporate worship and whole of life worship. Similarly, there is a vertical focus with songs sung, prayers offered and prophecy declared. God’s people gather to speak to God and to hear God speak to them.

However spot this:

18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.[1]

And this:

16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.[2]

Notice the one another dynamic here. We are to submit to one another, we are to teach and admonish one another. Our songs and hymns are as much addressed to each other as they are to God.  The horizontal dynamic is not a lesser aspect, it is certainly no after thought. Rather it is is central and essential to the nature and purpose of the local church gathering.

There shouldn’t be a surprise in this. After all, and 1 Corinthians 11-14 would seem to have this in mind, it is by our love for one another that people know our love for God. In other words, this one another work does two things. First of all we are exhorting and encouraging each other to be better worshippers in our corporate gatherings and in the whole of life. Secondly we are worshipping through our one-anothering. Our love for one another is an act of loving worship bringing honour and glory to God.

Conclusion

I want to suggest that the dichotomies we have created are unhelpful.  Worship is both about our whole of life enjoyment of and glorification of God but at the heart of that is a distinctive, weekly coming together of God’s people.  Both need each other. Our corporate worship is the summit and goal of our daily service and in turn it refreshes us and equips us for the week ahead.  Our corporate gatherings are both horizontal and vertical. The two are integral.  We might define out gatherings as follows:

We gather to glorify and enjoy God together. We do this by singing praise and praying together to God. We also hear God speak to us all together through his word.  We encourage and exhort one another as an act of love so that by doing so we are both exhorted to praise God and these acts of love, care and encouragement are themselves an act of corporate worship. This should lead to a high view of our times together. They should be characterized by anticipation, excitement, wonder, reverence, joy and awe.


[1] Ephesians 5:18-21.

[2] Colossians 3:16