Corporate Worship and Its Elements

The purpose of this writing is to address the symbols and practices that are included in corporate worship. It will be argued that only those elements which are explicitly commanded in Scripture ought to be incorporated into the corporate worship context.

MANUSCRIPT/OUTLINE

Is this a new discussion?

            The discussion of the appropriate practices of corporate Christian worship in one way predates the Christian Church (see: Leviticus). However, for the sake of this discussion it should be understood that the parameters for appropriate Christian worship are certainly and clearly established in the New Testament. Some relevant passages include:

  • Gospels (Baptism and Communion); Matthew 18:15-20; Acts 2:42; Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 11:2-14:40; 16:2; Ephesians 4:11-12; 5:18-21; Colossians 3:16-17; 1 Timothy 2:8-3:16; 4:13-16; 5; 2 Timothy 4:1-5; Titus 1:5-2:10; Hebrews 10:23-25; James 2:1-13; 5:14-16; 1 Peter 5:1-5; 3 John 5-8

These verses alone only address the New Testament. Yet, even these verses do not exhaust the New Testament witness of what corporate worship among the New Testament Church should look like. But even if we do take an exhaustive look at what is and is not appropriate for corporate worship, we will still find that certain topics are not directly addressed. For example, 1 Timothy 4:13 makes clear the importance of the public reading of Scripture, exhortation, and teaching. It would be hard to deny that a church that neglects these things in its corporate gatherings is neglecting a clear command of Scripture. However, in regards to which Bible translation to use we are not told whether we are to read in the Hebrew, in the Greek, in the Latin, or even an English rendering of the Scriptures. Nor are we told whether we are to sit or to stand during the reading. Further, if we are to stand, should we stand every time a biblical text is quoted, or only during an extended reading? In other words, even though we know that certain practices are to be present in corporate worship we are still left with questions about what is and is not permissible.

What is and isn’t permissible?

The discussion of whether or not a certain practice is permissible in the corporate worship context is often used in connection with the term’s normative principle and regulative principle. The normative principle refers to the idea that any thing that is not excluded by Scripture is permissible. While the regulative principle refers to the idea that only that which is explicitly commanded in Scripture is permissible.

For the application of the normative principle a church studies Scripture to see if anything is specifically included or specifically excluded. These two categories become the boarders by which the church integrates practices or even symbols into the Corporate Worship setting. Everything in between is left up to the church’s desire. In the most generous light, this principle will leave the church to modify its worship practices to meet the various needs of the local context. In a negative light, this principle leaves people free to incorporate new forms of pagan practices.

Meanwhile, to apply the regulative principle a church studies the Scriptures to identify those practices which are explicitly commanded in the Scriptures. Anything not explicitly command should be avoided just as much as anything explicitly condemned. From this standpoint there is nothing left up to invention. In the most generous light, this principle seeks to keep all its forms of corporate worship pure and undefiled. In a negative light, this principle neglects to account for those things which Scripture is silent on but possesses significant weight on modern concerns. Like the use of hymns written after 90 AD.

It should be noted that the regulative principle goes on to make further distinctions. First, the regulative principle makes a distinction between the elements and the circumstances of worship. The elements are required and commanded. While the circumstances are those things which assist to mediate the elements. Elements of worship clearly commanded in the New Testament include: the preaching of the word, the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), singing, and prayer. However, these elements of worship require various circumstances to facilitate or administer. For example, preaching the word is the element, while the English language is the circumstance needed to administer the element. It is with the distinctions of elements and circumstances that the regulative principle has a superior standing in identifying what is proper for corporate worship.

Ultimately this discussion revolves around the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. Are the Scriptures sufficient for providing a biblical framework for corporate worship? The Scriptures argue for themselves that yes, the word of God is the sufficient rule for guiding proper worship instead of man’s invention (Leviticus 9-10). Since worship is ultimately for the magnifying of the Holy and Living God it would seem wise to ensure that every form and symbol which is incorporated into worship is not mistaken as idolatry. This is why one ought to stay close to the regulative principle but understand the difference between the elements of worship and the circumstances of worship. As an example, 1 Timothy 4:13 teaches that Scripture reading and teaching must be central to the Church (element), but it does not prescribe an exact form, length, time, or location (circumstances). Instead we are left to wrestle with these circumstantial issues in each local context. For example, some churches gather on Sunday mornings to accomplish all of these elements of worship in less than an hour. Meanwhile, other churches gather on Sundays to accomplish these elements over the course of a few hours. Still other churches are limited by laws from gathering in a large group or from gathering at all, so they meet under the cloak of night for as long as they can manage. Nevertheless, in all three circumstances, the element of preaching the word is still central to the worship.

These examples are not provided to show that the normative and the regulative principles are both right. Because that is a contradiction. Rather it is to show that, first and foremost, the Scriptures must direct the corporate worship practices of the Church. To incorporate a worship form, practice, or symbol that is not a response to the Scriptures is going to result in flippant worship at best and idolatry at worst. Further, it is not enough to codify liturgies and worship practices since each generation must again look at its practices and symbols to see if they are consistent with the commands for worship laid out in the Scriptures. On the Day of the Lord every believer of every age will quickly realize all of the pagan and ungodly worship practices they participated in during their earthy life.

Testing the Regulative Principle

            In the American context many churches have an American flag prominently positioned in their corporate worship gathering. Many churches also participate in patriotic services which included singing patriotic songs. Therefore, the question must be asked, is a flag, or these patriotic elements a commanded element of worship? No, they are not. If it is not an element, then is it a necessary circumstance to facilitate the elements of worship. Again no. For a flag or patriotic song is not needed to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, sing, or to pray. In fact, it would be a clear sign of idolatry to incorporate a flag into these elements. This is not to say that the church should despise the government.

The Scriptures are clear that Christians are to be the best citizens, but they are in no way to allow this excellency to become a gateway to idolatry (this subject was dealt with in another writing entitled Patriotism and the Kingdom of God[1]). So how does a church fulfill the command to honor those in authority (Romans 13) while keeping her times of corporate worship pure? It would seem the most appropriate way would be to keep the distinction clear between the purposes of corporate worship and the obligations of a Christian in his or her daily life. For example, just because a Christian ought to be an excellent employee, that does not mean that Christian should arrive to corporate worship dressed in a way that honors his boss, or according to his company’s dress code. It would be odd if a Christian came to worship the living God dressed in such a way as to intentionally pay tribute to his boss.[2] Instead it would be best to dress in a way that seeks to honor and glorify God, the one for whom the Church has gathered to worship.

In a similar fashion, just because Christians ought to honor those in authority, that does not necessitate the presence of symbols of those in authority. In fact, the presence of those symbols would create a division of purpose for gathering. The gathering of the Church for corporate worship must be and always remain focused on God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ. To divide the worshiper’s attention between God and anything else is to lead a worshiper into idolatry. This of course, is going to strike a deep nerve for those who have grown up with a notion that God has a unique relationship with America, or who have spent many years praying to God for the safety of countrymen who have lived and died for American ideals. There is no way to avoid the certain emotions that might come when saying flags and patriotic services have no place in the corporate worship service.

Would you encourage a Church in another Country to participate in this same action?

Would you encourage a Church in another country to participate in the same action? Whether that includes flying a county’s flag, or singing a patriotic song, or any other practice or symbol that is of similar bearing.[3] Should we rebuke Chinese Christians for resisting the Chinese flag being flown in their churches? Or should we criticize their resistance to being expected to participate in the singing of patriotic songs? Romans 13 teaches that the same God that established those in authority in Rome also established democratic and communistic governments; as well as dictatorships, and monarchy’s, and every other form of governance. But even Romans 13 cannot be used to condone patriotic symbols in worship.

Is this the best time or place?

            It is clear that emotions can run high when addressing certain topics. Especially topics of worship that address the long-held traditions of faithful Christians. But this can never be the reason for failing to seek obedience in worshiping the Holy God, in whom rests our final and ultimate allegiance. It is through the Scriptures that we assess what is and is not proper to include in corporate worship. When we include the commanded elements of worship, we are putting theology into practice. This applies to the circumstances of worship too. Every practice and symbol included in corporate worship is teaching everyone something about what it means to worship and what is appropriate for worship. So, it is necessary that we hold firm to those elements that the Scriptures explicitly necessitate. We must also reject those practices which the Scriptures explicitly forbid. Therefore, every circumstance of worship must be carefully inspected before it finds itself integrated into the corporate worship services of the Church.

 

[1] https://musicatheologica.com/2019/02/11/patriotism-the-kingdom-of-god/ – Retrieved December 3, 2019

[2] This is not to say that a Christian should be prohibited from dressing in work clothes due to his schedule.

[3] https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/coe/chinas-worship-places-face-obligation-to-fly-national-flag/ – Retrieved December 3, 2019