As Christians, we fight a battle every day of our lives. We don our spiritual armor, securing the breastplate of righteousness, buckling our belt of truth around our waist, the helmet of salvation on our head, and our feet are strapped with the shoes of the gospel of peace. In our left hand, we hold the shield of faith and in our right, the sword of the Spirit. With our armor shined and shimmering, we are ready to enter the battle that faces us every day – the battle against sin. We gather with our fellow comrades in arms every week to hammer out the dents in our armor and re-shine it to its previous glory. We become strengthened from each other knowing we all fight the same battle together and that we are not lone soldiers struggling against all odds to defend our fortress. We lay down our swords, take off our packs and resupply ourselves with spiritual food and encouragement as we prepare ourselves for another week on the battlefield. For two-thousand years, Christians from every region, culture, and background have fought the same battle under the direction of the New Testament.
Gone are the animal sacrifices, religious feasts, and temple worship which enslaved the Israelites. We went from a ministry of death to a ministry of life; from a ministry of condemnation to a ministry of righteousness; from a covenant written on stone to a covenant written on the heart of man; from a covenant whose glory was fading to a covenant whose glory continues to shine; from a covenant destined to be done away with to a covenant destined to last forever.1 Worship lost its geographical significance for Jews with the abolishment of the old law and can now be found in the hearts of Christians as we worship in spirit and in truth.2 The old law was fulfilled by a Jewish Rabbi from Nazareth, named Jesus, who came to wipe out our debt and in doing so set us free from its bondage. Our lives are to be emulations of his as we endeavor to follow in his footsteps. Likewise, our assemblies are gathered to praise him while giving us strength in order to carry on in our daily fight for righteousness. As soldiers for Christ, we are to live our lives in the service of our King, worshiping him in both our individual lives and while assembled together – only then is our spiritual worship whole.
As Christians, we have entered into a covenant with God. God has granted us eternal life and in exchange we no longer live for ourselves, but dedicate our lives to serving him. Paul declared that we are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship.”3 Therefore, every moment of every day should be dedicated to him. Even if all we are doing is nothing more than eating a meal we are told to do all to God’s glory.4 Our individual worship then is to be more than a prayer said at dinner time, but an entire lifestyle. Imagine if we paused in the middle of a fierce firefight to hang up our armor, find a tree to lie down beside and take a nap. Would our enemy do the same or take advantage of the opportunity we’ve just given him? Our spiritual armor is worn to protect us while we are out in the world facing the hurdles of sin as they are placed in front of us. It is meant to become dented and tarnished, otherwise we are not truly in the fight.
This covenant also requires that we obey Jesus’ commandments. He did not present a list of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not’s” during his time here on earth as was given to Moses under the old law, rather he presented his life as an example for us to imitate. Author Marcus Borg wrote:
“Jesus is also a model for the Christian life. The notion is expressed in the gospels with the image of discipleship. To be a disciple of Jesus meant something more than being a student of a teacher. To be a disciple meant ‘to follow after.’ Whoever would be my disciple, Jesus said, ‘Let him follow me.’ What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? It means to take seriously what he took seriously, to be like him in some sense. It is what St. Paul meant when he said, ‘Be imitators of Christ.’”5
Jesus showed us how to live, by living the example himself. He taught his disciples what it meant to live as God wanted us to live. Even so “Jesus’s New Testament Commandments are not to be obeyed/observed as a way to reach Heaven, but as an act of obedience, love, and reverence for our Savior, and because He said, ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments.’”6 Yet of all the commands he gives in the gospels, Jesus explained the two greatest commandments from which all the rest follow: “‘…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’… The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”7 All of Jesus’ commandments rest upon this idea of love, while loving someone requires more than telling them we love them, but requires that we show them through our deeds. The totality of our Christian lives focuses on this one concept. It is this idea of love that is also meant to transfer into our assembly worship.
What we do not find in the new covenant is a formula for worship in an assembly. In a sermon regarding worship, John Piper states:
“Let’s begin with a startling fact, namely, that in the epistles of the New Testament there is very little instruction that deals explicitly with corporate worship—what we call worship services. . . . Why are the very epistles that are written to help the church be what it ought to be in this age almost totally devoid of … explicit teaching on the specifics of corporate worship? … In the New Testament there is a stunning indifference to the outward forms and places of worship. And there is, at the same time, a radical intensification of worship as an inward, spiritual experience that has no bounds and pervades all of life.”8
So why aren’t we given the blueprint for how to conduct worship in the assembly on Sunday? The simplest reason is probably because one does not exist. Our assembly worship is based upon examples that were practiced in the early apostolic churches of the first century. In turn, that gathering resembled the synagogue worship that the Jews of Jesus’ time were used to attending.9 The apostles then used the pre-existing synagogue worship format as a template for what then became the pattern for Christian assembly for both Jews and Gentiles.
Worship under the old law was centered around the nation of Israel, but the new covenant was to be preached to all nations, from all backgrounds. Paul’s mission was to evangelize to the diversity of the Gentile nations and so he became all things to all men in order to win some.10 One example of this is a letter Paul wrote to Philemon, a slave owner. While Christianity does not condone slavery, Paul worked within the bounds of Gentile culture to send the runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his master and be in subjection to him. The idea of culture acting as an expression of worship then enters into the equation. Christopher Ellis of the West Bridgford Baptist Church notes:
“The question of culture cannot be avoided, for everything done and said in worship, as elsewhere, is expressed through cultural means. There is no culture-neutral essence of worship-only the encounter with God through the lens of one’s own culture or those cultures that have been adopted or imposed. Many worship conflicts are about style-yet opponents claim to argue about substance.”11
Culture, and thereby tradition, play a role in how we conduct our assembly worship. The traditional American idea of worship typically follows what came out of the reform movement in the mid 19th century. Yet, another culture exists in America that, because of its roots, differs in how God is worshiped. Reynolds Chapman reflects on his experience in a black assembly:
“The hymnals I was familiar with were, by default, “white heritage hymnals.” This hymnal, [the African American Heritage Hymnal], was one record of the story of God’s faithfulness in the black church over the years. I also began to see how the songs we sang in worship told our current stories. During our Wednesday evening services, we have a sharing and testimony time, when we take turns telling of God’s work in our lives. I noticed that sometimes instead of speaking, church members would simply begin to sing—and everyone else would join in after the first line. After the song was over, whoever chose it would say, ‘That is my testimony.’”12
Such a service in another culture may seem out of sorts to those that hold the traditional reformed view, yet even Paul encountered these differences in style. It required him to alter himself, instead of altering the people to fit the message of Christ.
It is our human nature that wants to draw a black and white line of what is permitted for us to do in worship services. However, the Bible does not dictate the process in which we worship, only its components. While there isn’t a recipe for assembly worship, what we have instead are examples of what is to be done “decently and in order,”13 namely instances of praising God, praying, singing, scripture reading, preaching, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper. God has left the formulation of these elements to our careful assemblage.
More important than formulation, assembly should be seen as a welcomed respite for the weary Christian. Sunday worship should be the high point of a Christian’s week, a time to take a break from the scourge of the world and relax with like-minded Christians. It’s a time for the Christian soldier to let their guard down, debrief, resupply, and become encouraged as they prepare to go out again into the world for another week. Our human desire for relationships is central to the idea of assembly worship.
“Mutual indwelling demands company. Continuous outpouring demands fellowship. The corporate assembly is where love and mutual indwelling congregate; it is where believers have each other within eye and earshot, within kindly embrace. If there were no such things as church buildings and regularly scheduled services, Christians would, out of necessity, seek each other out for the sheet pleasure of finding Christ in each other, hearing different stories about his work in them, enjoying the ordinary and the exceptional, and perhaps only then gathering around what we call a liturgy. In such a gathering there would be little need at some point to say, ‘Now let us worship,’ because no one would be able to locate the dividing line between ‘now’ and ‘always.’”14
This common ground brings us together, but where we sometimes go wrong is when love for our fellow Christian is absent. Jealousy, bitterness, and disdain for our brother or sister stands in the way of proper worship. “Christ called us to be one, as he and the Father are one, but Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. Our divisions compromise our faithfulness and our witness to Christ.”15 A lack of love can lead us to being guilty of interpreting to the point of division and new congregational denominations are born. This is not what Jesus wanted when he prayed for unity. We must remember who our worship is intended to glorify – not ourselves, but God.
As Christians, we are to worship God with our whole being. We are to imitate the example that Jesus left for us, that being his very life, and to follow the commandments he has laid out for us, love being the chief of these. While the style of the assembly may vary, we are to hold true to the guidelines we see expressed for us on the pages of the New Testament. For only “when there is true worship the worshippers are truly edified.”16 With God as our King, Jesus taking the lead, and our fellow Christians at our side, we are able to stand firm together against our enemy the devil. May we be victorious!
1 “2 Corinthians 3:3-18, (NASB),” Biblegateway.com, accessed November 21, 2012, http://www.biblegateway.com.
2 “John 4:24, (NASB),” Biblegateway.com, accessed November 21, 2012, http://www.biblegateway.com.
3 “Romans 12:1-2, (ESV),” Biblegateway.com, accessed November 21, 2012, http://www.biblegateway.com.
4 “1 Corinthians 10:31, (NASB),”Biblegateway.com, accessed November 21, 2012, http://www.biblegateway.com.
5 Marcus J. Borg, Jesus A New Vision, Spirit, Culture, and the life of Discipleship, NY: HarperCollins, 1991, 192-193.
6 Samuel Mills, “The Commandments of Jesus,” Trusting in Jesus, accessed Nov 19, 2012, http://www.trusting-in-jesus.com/Commandments-of-Jesus.html
7 “Matthew 22:37-39, (NASB),”Biblegateway.com, accessed November 21, 2012, http://www.biblegateway.com.
8 Michael A. Farley, “What is “biblical” worship? Biblical hermeneutics and evangelical theologies of worship.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 51, no. 3 (September 1, 2008): 591-613. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 10, 2012).
9 John Atkinson, “The Synagogue and the Kingdom,” CMJ South Africa, accessed Nov 19, 2012, http://www.cmj-sa.org/Sermons/Yeshua-Synagogue1.pdf
10 “1 Cor 9:19-23, (NASB),”Biblegateway.com, accessed November 21, 2012, http://www.biblegateway.com.
11 Christopher J. Ellis, “Who is worship for? dispatches from the war zone,” Perspectives In Religious Studies 36, no. 2 (June 1, 2009): 179-185, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 10, 2012).
12 Reynolds Chapman, “Worship in black and white: racial reconciliation happens when we not only sing each other’s songs but learn the stories embedded in those songs,” Christianity Today 55, no. 3 (March 1, 2011): 26-28, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 10, 2012).
13 “1 Cor 14:40, (KJV),”Biblegateway.com, accessed November 21, 2012, http://www.biblegateway.com.
14 Harold M. Best, Unceasing Worship, Biblical Perspectives On Worship and the Arts, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003, 62.
15 Reynolds Chapman, “Worship in black and white: racial reconciliation happens when we not only sing each other’s songs but learn the stories embedded in those songs,” Christianity Today 55, no. 3 (March 1, 2011): 26-28, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 10, 2012).
16 Christopher J. Ellis, “Who is worship for? dispatches from the war zone,” Perspectives In Religious Studies 36, no. 2 (June 1, 2009): 179-185, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 10, 2012).