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Biblical Worship

Biblical Worship (March 2003)


With all the tension and confusion surrounding the matter of worship in evangelicalism, one wonders how long it will be before a little black and yellow book appears entitled, “Worship For Dummies!” This paper is not that book. In fact, maybe some of our problems have been caused by thinking that such a book would not be that hard to write! After all, this is “worship” we are talking about – the central activity of Christian living – what could be so hard about that?

For one thing, the New Testament has decidedly little to say about worship, at least in the categories we often think about it. This leads many to foist massive presuppositions onto the text and then wonder why no one else sees what they see. For another thing, there is so much being published on this topic that it is nearly impossible for a busy pastor to intelligently interact with the various streams of thought. Lastly, it is a topic so profoundly wrapped up in the incomprehensible God that we serve, that it will take years (in my opinion) of careful exegesis and meditation to understand His desires.

All this being said, here am I wading into the middle of this crucial issue and offering my two cents worth. As I do, I have to admit that I have not fully engaged the jam-packed collection of data on this subject – there is simply too much out there. Instead I have attempted to focus on several key sources (on top of the Bible) as representatives of the main streams of thought. Also, I have found myself having to leave many of my own presuppositions undefended. I have made an effort to identify where I have done this, although I am sure I have missed many places that will, d.v., be brought out in our discussion. Finally, I am beginning to think my life motto is, “The more I study, the less I know!” I started this paper thinking I had resolved many issues concerning worship but have found I need to pray more and think more than ever before.


Part one of the paper begins with an attempted definition of worship. In part two, I will proceed to examine the foundational components of what Carson et. al. have dubbed, “corporate worship” (i.e. examining its time, location, purpose, means, experience, participants, content and structure). The “content” of what takes place in corporate worship will receive the most attention since it is the most debated issue. The paper’s third section is the risky part – moving from the realm of biblical principle into application to our culture and era. I will conclude with a caution and an encouragement.

There is an intended progression in this outline. I want to drive us to biblical principles first, and then follow with the application of these principles. Far too much that I have read in the preparation of this paper does just the opposite – form is decided on first, followed by a mad scramble to defend it from the Word. I believe this unfortunate mistake is made with equal consistency by all sides. It is my prayer that I am not making it today; however, it is an easy trap to fall into.1



Trying to Define the Indefinable?2

Robert Shaper asserts that worship, like love, is characterized by intuitive simplicity (everybody “knows” what worship is, just as everyone “knows” what love is) and philosophical complexity (the harder you press to unpack love or worship, the more difficult the task.” I agree! A child can explain love to you and a child can explain worship to you, but at another level the concepts are so profound (reflecting the infinite nature of the God who is the author of both) that they defy definition. I wish someone had told me that 10 months ago at our FRPS planning meeting!

If we try to proceed without definition, however, we will undoubtedly run into all sorts of problems not the least of which will be thinking we are all talking about the same thing when we are not. Thus, we cannot let the sheer size of the concept we are trying to define allow us to be obscure.

Worship is Life

First of all, what part of life is not worship? The catechism rightly answers that our “chief end” is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Paul writes to the Corinthians, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (10:31); to the Colossians, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17); and to the Romans, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1-2).

It hardly needs defending to this crowd that, at one level, worship is the activity of our entire life – from eating to washing the car to private prayer. Even the first century slave is told that his work is “unto the Lord” and Paul commands him, “You serve the Lord Christ!” This act of worship was clearly to be rendered in the day to day tasks commanded by his earthly lord.

Not surprisingly, the activity of heaven is taken up with worship and the song of the elders teaches that our very purpose in being created is so that we might worship God: “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’ And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created’” (Revelation 4:8-11 italics mine).

This is what Carson helpfully distinguishes as, “all-of-life-worship” (AOLW). Admittedly, this is not a biblical term and not (even) an entirely accurate biblical concept (i.e. its overuse would quickly lead to a false bifurcation of the NT concept we call “worship”). Yet, it provides us a convenient way of talking about some aspects of worship that belong primarily to the realm of day to day life.

Worship Intensified – the Gathering of the Lord’s People

The flip side of AOLW worship might be called, “Corporate Worship” (CW). CW, as it used in this paper, refers to those activities that are unique to the people of God when they come together.

While it is true that a car club made up of Christians may involve worship on the part of its members, it is equally true that such a meeting is not the same thing as what we are calling CW. The difference lies in the activities of each meeting. Unquestionably, there are some activities that only occur in CW – and not at the car club. Preaching, for example, and the Lord’s Supper and the reading of the Word are activities of CW. Not only that, the purpose is each meeting is distinct. I want to suggest that even though our entire life is an act of worship, this worship is intensified when the Lord’s people gather together to bring Him glory. It is this experience I am calling CW.

Thus, for the purposes of this paper, I will be trying to unpack the major components of CW. If you do not agree with this AOLW / CW distinction, then I am afraid the rest of this work will be frustrating!



The Time of Corporate Worship: When does the Lord Desire to be Worshipped?

I am not a Sabbatarian (so now you know my presupposition)! I also agree with Tom Wells when he writes, “NT revelation, due to its finality, must be allowed to speak first on every issue that it addresses.” In my approach to this question then, I am seeking to ask of the NT data first and foremost when it is that God desires the church to meet for the purpose of CW. I am approaching the question with an understanding of the flow of the meta-narrative, but with an eye to finding final principles in the NT.

In the early days of the Jerusalem church, CW appears to have taken place nearly every day (Acts 2:42-47 “And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul… And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.”) The church in Antioch appears to have kept up this brisk schedule (Acts 11:26). In other places, the churches are described as meeting (with elements of CW included) on uncertain days of the week (Acts 4:23-35; 14:26; 15:30). In another instance, the church meets on a Sunday night (Acts 20:7 “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.).

Outside of Acts, the references to church meeting times are sparse. Paul offhandedly includes reference to meeting times in his letter to the Corinthians: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus…” (5:4); “when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse” (11:17); “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation…” (14:26). These times are not day-specific, but indicate that corporate worship took place whenever the church came together.

This makes sense out of the commands to assemble with one another for the purpose of mutual encouragement and mutual approach to God. The church was not bound to wait until the next Sunday to do this: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Without going into a lengthy discussion the Sabbath / Lord’s Day I am merely trying to stress the “continual” nature of church meetings in the NT.

This fact is confirmed (in my view) by the other NT references that urge us to not pay much attention to Old Covenant days and forms of worship: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17)10. In other words, our intention in CW is to worship God, not our date book.11

I conclude then, that the time of CW is any time the church has gathered for that purpose, regardless of the day of the week.

The Location of Corporate Worship: Where Does the Lord Desire to Be Worshipped?

There is very little disagreement among Calvinistic Christians as to the location God desires CW to take place. We understand that “the church is the people, not the building” and we preach it with joy. We are happy to turn to John 4 and recount Jesus’ discussion with the woman from Samaria, especially verses 21-24: “Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”12

Thus, to worship “in spirit and truth” (the two nouns controlled by the one preposition ) is a proclamation by Jesus that a day is coming (“and is now here”) when worship will be freed from a physical location and moved into the realm of the supernatural (“spirit” referring to that which is invisible, but real – “truth” referring to that which is Christ-centered). Therefore, CW is not bound to any location, building, sanctuary, temple, or “church” (in the way that most people use the word, “church”).14

The Purpose of Corporate Worship: Why Does the Lord Want Our Worship?

With time and location of CW being settled, at least in my mind, we move on to the very pertinent question of purpose – why do we worship? A common answer to this question is taken from 1 Corinthians 14:26 “Let all things be done for building up.” “Edification,” it is suggested, is the ultimate purpose of CW.

Some people quote this verse and use it as a defense to their cerebral lecture-fests. This betrays a huge lack of understanding as to the meaning of the Greek word oikodomen which is essentially a compound word from oikos (house) and demo (to build). “To edify” is, in this sense, “to edifice” or, “to build up, to construct.” In the context of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is addressing a church where the charismata have gained too prominent a place in CW. The goal of their coming together needs to shift from wild self-promotion to increasing the spiritual strength and maturity of each other. The psalm, teaching, revelation, tongue, and interpretation are all to be done for “building up,” not personal gain.

Is this the final goal of all worship, though? For, if this is all CW is about, then CW is all about us… whether we understand what the word “edification” means or not! The purpose of CW must be more than filling our minds or just building each other up. If it is not, then the word “worship” itself loses all meaning.

I would suggest the purpose of CW is to bring glory to God by fulfilling our proper response to the Person of God. Psalm 95:6-7 “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; / let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! he is our God, / and we are the people of his pasture, / and the sheep of his hand.” Psalm 100 “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! / Serve the Lord with gladness! / Come into his presence with singing! / Know that the Lord, he is God! / It is he who made us, and we are his; / we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. / Enter his gates with thanksgiving, / and his courts with praise! / Give thanks to him; bless his name! / For the Lord is good; / his steadfast love endures forever, / and his faithfulness to all generations.”15

The purpose of CW is to respond to the sheer greatness, goodness, majesty, creatorship and splendor of God. The only suitable response is to worship Him – to ascribe His worth to Him. Obviously, the purpose is not entertainment!”16

The Means to Corporate Worship: How Does the Lord Want Men to Worship Him?

We worship God by delighting in Him. Carson writes, “What we must strive for is a growing knowledge of God and delight in Him – not delight in worship per se, but delight in God… Pray then for a massive display of the glory and character and attributes of God!”17 It seems to me that this sentence captures the essence of the biblical data on the means to God-honouring CW. Our goal, both personally and corporately, is to “engage with God,”18 to be “satisfied in Him.”19The way to delight in Him could be the subject of 75 more pages – thus, I will spare you! Suffice it to say that the Scriptures are replete with commands to find our life in Jesus. Piper and others have done a service to the church at large by pointing us back to this truth.

The Experience of Corporate Worship: What Does the Lord Expect us to Feel When we Worship Him?

The fact that I am asking this question at all may be a surprise to some, but I think it is a question that begs the asking. For one thing, we live in a culture that is consumed with “emotions” and living by feeling, and the people in our churches are bombarded with misleading messages that elevate “experience” above everything else. We cannot swing the pendulum, though, and turn CW into intellectual gymnastics – we need to engage the discussion of “emotion” or “desire” biblically.

Secondly, I think the Bible has a lot to say on this subject. Jonathon Edwards’ classic treatise On Religious Affections list scores of references to justify that the true worshipper must be affected in the worship of God. In prayer20, singing21, “the sacraments”22 and preaching23 the expectation is that we will certainly be affected and that such affectation will move upon our “feelings” or “emotions.”

Hence, Edwards concludes “For although to true religion there must indeed be something else besides affection; yet true religion consists so much in the affections, that there can be no true religion without them.” (I. III. 1.)24

All this to say, that genuine CW must engage the whole “person” of each participant. We ought to expect to be moved in our affections in worship. Fear, hope, hatred of sin, godly desire, joy, gratitude, mercy, zeal, and love are normal experiences to genuine faith. They can be faked by unbelievers, but they cannot be absent in true believers.

These affections, however, are “mediated through the personality” of the individual25. The very animated and outgoing person may find he expresses his joy in very loud and verbal ways! The calmer, more reserved person may express an equal joy through a tranquil smile! We should all be seeking to live zealously for Christ in a way that is true to ourselves. Tozer writes, “We can express our worship to God in many ways. But if we love the Lord and are led by His Holy Spirit, our worship will always bring a delighted sense of admiring awe and a sincere humility on our part.”26 because this is what the Bible clearly teaches, not just because what someone is doing “bothers” us.27

In the same breath, guarding the orderliness of CW may demand that we curb certain behaviors (Edwards had to deal with affected souls shaking bodily and crying out as he preached) and promote certain others (perhaps more through modeling – not demanding – increased, genuine joy or love in our own demeanor, prayers, preaching, etc).28

Yet, there is a danger here in that much of this is shaped by the individual and thinking too much about ourselves is never healthy. In a discussion on this very topic at Grace Fellowship Church several weeks ago, I sensed a drift towards an “individualism” that abandons the greatest commandment. Somehow we need to find a balance that permits individual experience yet maintains corporate unity.29

The Participants in Corporate Worship: Who Does the Lord Want to Worship Him?

The question is a little tricky. In one sense, God wants all men to worship Him: “…God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3, 4). It is the purpose of all creation to bring Him glory, “Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!” (Psalm 96:9). “And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God's angels worship him” (Hebrews 1:6 and see Romans 1 and Revelation 4). As Tozer says, “…worship of the loving God is man’s whole reason for existence.”30

Sin, however, is the great worship interruption. Therefore, only those who have been born again “to the glory of God” (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14) are capable, by God’s grace, of truly worshipping. Only these have turned aside from worshipping gods of their own making (even if they call that God “Jesus”) to the worship of the One True God through the resurrected Christ (see Acts 17:22-34).31

The Content of Corporate Worship: What Does the Lord Tell Us to Do in Worship?

There is no question this is the most disputed component of CW. I think it has to come at this place in our discussion, however, since so much of our thinking will be affected by what we have decided so far.

Historically, there have been three positions taken on this question. First, there is the Do Whatever You Want Principle (DWP) (or, Inventive Principle) which suggests nothing one does in worship can be displeasing to God as long as it is done with good intentions, or using His Name, or directed toward Him. Although the principle is never stated in these terms (nor given a distinct name) the Lord’s opinion of such an approach to worship can best be seen in the Golden Calf event of Exodus 32. Aaron “received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord (YHWH)” (32:4, 5). The Lord’s response to this was not one of approval! “And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…” (32:9,10).

Paul confirms that the human heart is bent toward idolatry: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (1:19-23).

All men are worshippers, but God does not permit us to worship Him however we please. Some forms of worship are condemned and other forms of worship are commanded. It is just this observation that led to the formation of the Normative (Hooker) and Regulative Principles.

The Normative Principle (NP), expounded primarily by Anglican bishop Richard Hooker, states that Christians must worship God in the way He commands; however, where the Bible does not condemn or command, Christians are free to worship in ways that promote good order.

The Regulative Principle (RP) held by the framers of the Westminster Confession, restricted worship to the realm of “only what is commanded.” Anything not prescribed by God in His Word was forbidden.

To be quite frank, I do not think any one of these positions (DWP, NP, RP) is altogether Biblical. It is easy to see that the DWP is a joke (no one here argues with that), so the debate focuses on the NP and the RP – which of these is correct?

Before moving to that discussion, let me first outline three complaints I have against both the NP and RP:

Both the NP and RP are interpreted very differently. Some Christians that hold to the RP are non-instrumental, Psalms-only worshipping churches (Free Presbyterian of Scotland). Others, who hold to the same RP (from the same confessions), use contemporary bands and drama (New Life Presbyterian Churches PCA). In between these extremes are a spectrum of others; the point is, they all cling to the RP. The same inconsistency of application is true for those who hold to the NP.

Thus, neither position is entirely consistent with itself. Of course, each “subscriber” believes that what they hold to is entirely consistent, but how can one engage a position that maintains such a broad range of interpretation?!32

This conundrum is only intensified when one notes that both principles “have bred staunch traditionalists” and those who are more contemporary!33

Add to this the evident fact that there is a HUGE amount of overlap between the two positions in practice, even though they often paint one another as worlds apart.

I don’t want to use these three issues as a reason to avoid engaging each principle… in fact, I really do want to actively engage each principle! Yet, before I do that, I want to first attempt to explain my own view and how I got there. Yes. I am suggesting that we are not limited to these two options, as if they represented the only two positions available to Christendom. Thus, I propose the following for your consideration.