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The church assembles for worship, part 3

November 7, 2007

In this series, I have been attempting to show that the New Testament teaches that the church assembles for worship. Some deny this teaching because the New Testament no where specifically commands the church to gather for worship. I agree with this last observation, but I believe it to be poor theological method to insist that the Bible give the statement of proof for a particular point under our own artificial test and false demands. In the previous two entries (part 1/part 2), I said the implication of the teachings concerning the gathered church that it is the “house of God” and the New Testament “temple” both point to the truth that the church assembles for public worship. These two titles, both names of the places for public worship in the Old Testament, say that the church is the divinely appointed locale for public worship in this era.

My final article on this matter intends to be, at least in part, a more a posteriori argument. If we can establish that the descriptions of the normal business of the gathered church in the New Testament are the descriptions of acts of worship, then I believe we can further demonstrate that the church today gathers for worship.

So what do we see the primitive church doing when it gathers together as described by the New Testament?

Preaching. Perhaps many do not consider preaching worship, but it, in fact, very much an activity of worship. The preacher is (or should be) exalting Christ and the gospel through his words. The congregation is (or should be) hearing the word with attentiveness and worshipping while they hear the Word proclaimed. Preaching is very much an activity of worship, one seen first in the synagogue (Lk 4:14-21; Acts 9:20), and one we see characterizing the early Christians. If worship is, at very least, feeling and ascribing love, awe and wonder to God,* then biblical preaching both generates worship in the hearers, and is an act of worship by the preacher himself.

  • Jesus commanded his disciples to teach converts “all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:20)
  • The early church was marked by its attendance to preaching (Acts 6:2; 14:7, 21-22; 15:35; 18:24, 27; 20:7-9).
  • The fact that Paul forbids women from teaching or preaching in church, assumes that he desires men to preach and teach. (1 Cor 14:33-35)
  • Paul told Timothy to preach and teach the word of God, and to do so even people no longer want to hear sound doctrine. (2 Tim 4:2-5)
  • Faithful preaching is rightly considered the oracles of God in the church. (1 Pet 4:11)
  • Through preaching the Lord uses the pastor and teacher to proclaim the teachings of the Lord received through the apostles and prophets for the edification and building up of the body of Christ in the mature man in the knowledge of Christ. (Eph 4:11ff)
  • The way the flock is fed is through faithful preaching and building them up on the defense against false teachers. Preachers are to proclaim the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:26-32)
  • Paul told Timothy to give attention to teaching. (1 Tim 4:13)
  • Paul wanted the word of Christ to dwell richly in the churches, chiefly through teaching and admonishing. (Col 3:16)

Reading and Hearing Scripture. We also see the early church reading the Scripture, not merely through preaching, but in its being read publically. Paul told Timothy to give attention to the public reading of Scripture. (1 Tim 4:13) We know that this refers at least to the Old Testament. But the New Testament must be read as well, since Paul indicated that he wanted his own letters read in the churches (Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27). The mandate for the reading of Scripture in public worship is ancient, dating all the way back to the prophet Moses (Ex 24:7; Deut 31:9-11; Josh 8:34; 2 Kgs 23:2; 2 Chr 34:30; Neh 8; 9:3; 13:1; Acts 13:14-16). The main point here is that we see the early church reading the Scripture in their assembly, an act of public worship.

Prayer. We see the early church gatherings marked by prayer, another act of worship. Prayer has been a mark of Christian gatherings since the earliest gatherings of the disciples (Acts 1:14, 24). The book of Acts records that the gathered church was a praying church (Acts 2:42; 3:1; 4:31; 6:4; 12:5; 13:3; 16:25; 20:36, etc). In the New Testament epistles, the primitive church is depicted as an assembly of prayer (1 Cor 11:4-5; 14:15-16; Eph 6:18; Phil 4:6; Col 4:2; 1 Thess 5:17; James 5:13). Paul tells Timothy that one of the ways that he desires that people behave in the church is in praying (1 Tim 2:1-4, 8; cf. 3:14). 

The importance of prayer in the early church is seen, only only in prayer proper, but also in its singing, which is a kind of prayer (1 Cor 14:15). One of the ways the word of Christ dwells richly in the church is through singing to God with thankfulness in the members’ hearts (Col 3:16). The church is filled with the word of Christ by the Spirit is through their singing with thankfulness to God (Eph 5:17-20). Singing is to be done, like everything else in the church, decently and in order (1 Cor 14:26, 40). Paul commands the church to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19). Singing is way for the church to express Christian joy (James 5:13).

Corporate fasting is also an aspect of Christian prayer and worship. Jesus said his disciples would fast once he was taken away from them, and the early church is seen corporately fasting on several occasions. (Matt 9:15; Acts 13:1-3; 14:23) This act of worship too, seen being practiced corporately in the early church, points to the fact that the church thought of itself as a body for worship.

To reiterate, the fact that prayer and singing and corporate fasting marks the early church gatherings further demonstrates that their gatherings were times devoted to public worship.

The Lord’s Table. The early church is worshipping through its observance of the Lord’s table. This is, of course, something Jesus himself told his disciples to do (Matt 26; Mark 14; Luke 22), but we also see it being practiced in the early church (Acts 20:7; 27:35; 1 Cor 10:15-17; 11:17-33).

Finally, the gathered church is described in very plain terms as “worshipping” in Acts 13:2-3.

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

As if the other points I have listed were not enough, this is for me the most firm proof of the argument at hand. Here is a passage where the early church is plainly declared to be worshipping. For those who deny the necessity of public worship, or that the gathered church does any such thing, here is the most conclusive proof to the contrary.   

One assumption running throughout this third part is that the different elements I listed above are properly considered the activities of worship. All of these elements can safely be considered biblical elements of public worship, not only by strict adherents to the Regulative Principle, but also by those who take the broadest understanding of what constitutes acceptable worship to God. They are all ways of suitably expressing the feeling of awe, wonder, and love that epitomizes true worship.

Perhaps some object to this inductive way of proving my thesis. The truth is that sometimes the best mechanism we who insist on the necessity of biblical authority in the church have to understanding our biblical responsibility in given areas is through observing the record of the early church’s behavior. As much as we would all rather have a verse that reads point blank, “the church gathers for evangelism,” or “the church gathers for worship,” the Bible does not come to us in this way. Often such matters are assumed and described in the New Testament. And the nature of the activity of the gathered church is not the only matter of church order we must ascertain in this matter. We do the same thing with respect to the proper mode of baptism, the proper manifestation of church government, the amount and nature of church offices, how the Lord’s Supper is to be observed, and so on. For those who deny that a proper understanding of the purpose and nature the gathered church can be found by observing its activities as described in the New Testament, all these other matters are put in limbo as well. The normal apostolic pattern is authoritative for the church. The elements of public worship I have listed here were not only commanded by our Lord and the apostles, but we see the early church itself practicing them. This ought to be enough to tell us something of the nature of the gathered body, and what it assembles to do.


*I prefer Tozer’s definition of worship: “To worship is to feel in the heart and express in some appropriate manner…a humbling but delightful sense of admiring awe and astonished wonder and overwhelming love in the presence of that most ancient mystery that unspeakable majesty, which philosophers have called the mysterium tremendum, but which the prophets call the Lord our God.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2007 3:27 pm

    Great series, Ryan. Thanks.

  2. Kevin 3 permalink
    November 8, 2007 10:40 am

    I’m very happy with Ryan’s work here. There is much to commend an approach based on the practices of the New Testament church, and an approach that uses exegesis to build practical theology. Further, I believe there is much to be gained by investigating what the church did/does when it gathers. This approach may well help us in our search for unity over worship and music issues.

    So by asking two more questions, I’m not offering a direct criticism of Ryan’s exegesis, which I liked quite a bit.

    Are we willing to build a case for evangelism in church music and evangelism in the gathered church by using these same methods? This was my original concern when I started thinking about this a number of years ago. To my ears, some seem too eager to rule out elements of evangelism—basing their arguments on a lack of direct commands or the supposed NT “silence” on the issue. But we take umbrage when this “silence” method is used to criticize our all-encompassing theories of NT corporate worship. So can we go back and reconsider how the whole music/evangelism/gathered church thing might be developed using the same method Ryan used when approaching corporate worship?

    My other question relates to the “elements” Ryan has identified. My personal preference is to not use this word around my RP buddies, because it means something different to them, but I sure like the idea of finding out what these aspects were/are.

    Have we correctly identified all of these aspects? For instance, in the passage Ryan cited above, shall we prescribe corporate fasting (and if not, why not?) And there’s probably a half-dozen more things we could consider adding to Ryan’s list (yes, I believe evangelism/testimony is one!). Maybe we can keep working on this. [and a sub-question: have we fully demonstrated that the NT calls these all of these elements/activities “worship?” I’m okay on viewing the world through worship-colored glasses…I’m just warning that this could turn into circular reasoning if we aren’t careful]

    Please do not view these questions as criticisms of Ryan’s work–Just more things to explore. Some of you know that I have been working on a series of articles about this for my day job. We’ll have to put Ryan in the bibliography somewhere.

  3. November 9, 2007 3:47 pm


    Interesting series. It makes me think of how many of today’s worship services actually center on evangelizing the unbeliever. Therefore, the worship service is not really geared towards God worshipers, but potential God worshipers. This “method” certainly doesn’t lend itself to discipling believers and growing them to move from milk towards meat. Many have bought into this which has basically reduced evangelism to inviting someone to church.

    To Kevin’s point, there may certainly be evangelism in worship service through the preaching of the Gospel. Evangelism is just not the primary reason we come together corporately.


  4. Kevin 3 permalink
    November 9, 2007 9:43 pm

    I’m with you, John Mark. But I’d sing the Gospel, too.

    And my radar starts pinging, in general, when folks claim one aspect of a service is “most important” or another aspect is “not the primary reason we come together.” In the tribe in which I was raised, my people used to say evangelism was most important, then they said Bible teaching was most important, then they said worship was most important. I think “discipleship” might be most important right now, but it’s too soon to tell. Maybe we could balance all of these NT claims somehow, and stop referring to it as a “worship service.” The church gathers.

    I dunno. Maybe Ryan would be willing to tackle our lack of balance between transcendence and immanence next. Or world peace, one or the other.

  5. November 14, 2007 1:30 pm

    Kevin asked:

    Are we willing to build a case for evangelism in church music and evangelism in the gathered church by using these same methods?

    I certainly willing to do this, if the passages you have in mind demonstrate this principle. I am curious which passages you have in mind. We all know 1 Cor 14, but what others are you thinking of?

    Then he asked:

    Have we correctly identified all of these aspects?. . . And there’s probably a half-dozen more things we could consider adding to Ryan’s list.

    There may be others. I again would like you to list the elements you have in mind with their supporting passages. Perhaps holy greetings? You said evangelism, and to that you can see my question above. 🙂

    I realize the danger of circular reasoning, and I tried to touch on that in the post. I have not made the case for the RP in this post, but was merely trying to establish the case that the NT gathers for worship.

    Thank you for your comments, Kevin.

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