Corporate worship is the single most important human activity in our lives for Christian growth and sanctification. It is, in fact, more important than personal Bible study and private prayer. While these should never be neglected, and their importance never attenuated, the corporate worship of God’s people should have the preeminence in the lives of God’s people. Why is this? In corporate worship God has given us the means of grace whereby we grow in Christ. The means of grace are the preaching of the Word, prayer, and the sacraments (baptism and Communion).
While many Christians neglect the importance of these means, it is God’s normal method for saving His people and giving them persevering faith whereby they will not fall away, and therefore, endure to the end. Today we hear of new approaches to personal growth, the need for some new method, or some new mechanics or twelve step process for spiritual growth, while God’s means of preaching, and the sacraments have taken a back seat. Many Christians who get excited about the latest book on spiritual growth are the first ones to skip the Communion service. God has given us corporate worship as a means for our spiritual growth as we come to glorify Him in His presence each Lord’s Day.
While the Christian’s life is itself a life of worship (Romans 12:1-2), the corporate worship of believers on the Lord’s Day is a foretaste of the eternal glory to come, and therefore, is a climatic time for those in Christ. Jesus said to the woman at the well that God is seeking true worshipers (John 4:23). Jesus also said in Luke 19:10, that He seeks and saves that which is lost. Putting these two truths together, we find that the primary reason God saves us is to worship Him. Corporate worship should have a priority in the lives of all God’s people.
The Lord’s Day
The Lord’s Day is a Sabbath rest for God’s people. Unlike many others, we believe that the Sabbath commandment is a perpetual ordinance that began before the fall in creation (Genesis 2:1-4), and finds its consummation in eternity. While some may argue that the Sabbath was an Old Testament law and we no longer observe the Sabbath, we at Heritage see God’s revelation differently. While we do not observe the Sabbath in the manner of OT law, the ordinance still continues for our observance. Hebrews 4:9 says, “There remains therefore a rest [literally: Sabbath-rest] for the people of God.”
God gave the Sabbath as a creation ordinance in the Garden of Eden, like marriage and work. After the fall He reiterated these ordinances to His people. Before the giving of the law in Exodus 20, God reminded His people of the Sabbath principle as they gathered manna (Exodus 16). When God gave the summary of His unchangeable moral law in Exodus 20, we find the Sabbath ordinance included (Fourth Commandment). Christ declared in Matthew 5:17-19 that He did not come to change the law but to fulfill it. Therefore, Christ did not abrogate any part of His moral law. The Sabbath principle was also included in the ceremonial law (cf. Leviticus 23). While the ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Christ, the Sabbath ordinance has never been abrogated. Christ certainly exposed the Pharisaical abuses of Sabbath-keeping which were not according to the Word of God, but of their own traditions. However, He never changed the ordinance from a morally binding precept among His earthly creatures.
The Sabbath is said to be a perpetual covenant among God’s people (Exodus 31:16). Because the Old Covenant has been passed into the New, the observance of the day has changed from the seventh day to the first day of the week. The theology that is rooted in the Sabbath principle is a theology of creation and redemption. This theology comes to surface in kernel form in a comparison of the giving of the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Notice that the Commandment is this: “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” The rest of the context surrounding the Sabbath commandment helps illustrate its underlying theology which will be expanded upon throughout the remainder of the Scriptures. Much of this theology finds greater expression in the third chapter of Hebrews, as a theology of “rest” is unfolded, and particularly in chapter four where we are told that, “There remains therefore a rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). In context with this, verse 10 says, “For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His,” is a key reference for understanding why the day has been changed from the seventh day to the first day of the week.
We certainly want to steer away from Pharisaical abuses and hypocrisy that skewed the meaning and application of what the Sabbath Day meant for the people of God. However, we also do not want to neglect the commandment of God and misinterpret God’s law to live as though we no longer have a Sabbath rest.
Regulative Principle of Worship
From the Reformation, two schools of thought resulted in what is proper in corporate worship: 1) the normative principle; and 2) the regulative principle. The normative principle of worship declares that all things that are not expressly forbidden in the Scriptures are acceptable forms of worship. The regulative principle of worship declares that only those forms expressly revealed in Scripture are acceptable for true worship. Both the Westminster Confession and our Baptist Confession hold to a regulative principle of worship, and for good reason.
Fallen man does not know properly how to worship God. God must tell us how He wants to be worshipped. After He delivered His people from bondage in Egypt, one of the first things He did was to instruct His people how to worship Him. He gave very explicit details to the design and building of the tabernacle, sacrifices, and the priestly garments, all of which was revelation about how to worship a holy God. God did not leave it up to us to choose from our own devices how to worship Him. In fact, when God’s people did choose their own way to worship Him, they made for themselves a golden calf and tried to worship God through it.(1) Since worship reveals truths and characteristics about God Himself, we need to apply careful diligence lest we malign our thoughts about God.
After Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, God gave very specific instructions on how He is to be worshiped (cf. Exodus 25-31; 35-40). God must be worshiped according to His own nature (John 4:24), and apart from God’s specific revelation of Himself, we do not know what is acceptable to God and what is an abomination. Left to ourselves to figure out how to worship God, we would always approach Him in an abominable fashion.
In Leviticus 10:1ff, the Bible reveals to us that Nadab and Abihu, offered strange fire to the Lord which the Lord had not commanded them. Because these two did not worship God in the way that He prescribed, God judged them for their presumption. Because we worship God according to His Person and nature, all forms of worship reveal something about Him. When we worship Him in forms not revealed in Scripture, we pervert or distort something about God.
Under the New Covenant, the physical forms of worship under the Old Covenant (i.e. the ceremonial law) have been fulfilled in Christ, so we now worship in ways prescribed in the New Testament. New Covenant worship revealed in the Bible centers around Christ-centered preaching (Romans 10:14-17), so preaching is a primary aspect of worship. Also the singing of Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are prescribed (Ephesians 5:19) as proper forms of worship. Corporate prayer and the reading of Scriptures are other important elements of biblical worship (Acts 2:42 ;1 Timothy 4:13). God has given us two forms of worship that involve visible symbols, and both are temporary in their nature: the Lord’s Supper; and Baptism. Both of these sacraments are intended to be used in the corporate worship of God’s people, and are the only visible elements employed in true worship. All other forms, preaching, reading of Scripture, music, and prayer are aural in their nature. Therefore, we must take great care in how we worship.
Many churches today take away the biblical emphasis of the preaching, or other prescribed elements of worship such as singing the Psalms, and substitute them with other elements in their place. Forms of worship that are often employed but are not regulative, and hence improper would include dramas, films, and use of images, pictures, or other objects to aid in worship. There may be a place for some of these things, but not in the corporate worship of God. As more and more of these “alternate methods” of worship are being employed, the true prescribed elements are diminishing in their importance. In the book of Hebrews, the Bible warns us to serve (worship) God acceptably with reverence and godly fear (Hebrews 12:28-29).
Characteristics of Corporate Worship at Heritage
1. Our Demeanor is a Spirit of Reverence and Godly Fear
All true worship is offered in heaven and is mediated by Christ. Hebrews 12:18-24 contrasts Mt. Sinai with Mt. Zion regarding where God’s people come.
For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: “And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.” And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.”) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18-24)
When God’s people gather for worship, we come into a glorious company who are already worshiping, and we merely join in with them in their glorious activity. When a sinner is saved to be a worshiper of God, Christ seats the believer in the heavenlies with Him (Ephesians 2:6). It is from here we offer all our worship to God. All true worship given to God by us must be mediated by Christ. Hebrews 8:2 calls Christ the “Minister of the Sanctuary.” The term minister is literally “Liturgist” from where we get our term “liturgy,” referring to worship. Therefore, as we meet together in His name to worship God, Christ mediates our worship before God’s throne where our worship is received. While too often we have a low and earthly view of worship, the corporate worship of God revealed in the Bible is grand and glorious where Christ is present among His people. In Hebrews 2, we read,
“For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You.’” (Hebrews 2:10-12)
Christ saved His people through His work on the cross to bring them into glory with Him. This passage quotes Psalm 22 which Christ claimed as His own while hanging on the cross. A cursory reading of Psalm 22 reveals this Psalm is referring to Christ. Scripture here reveals that in using Psalm 22, Christ Himself declares God’s name to His brethren, and Christ Himself is the One leading our praise. When God’s people gather for worship, Christ is the true preacher, and Christ is the true worship leader. Christ is the One leading God’s people in heavenly worship before God’s holy throne. This is why true worship is so lofty, grand, and God-centered. This is also the reason we take care in how we worship, that the reverence and godly fear are maintained so our worship is acceptable to God (Hebrews 12:28-29).
The key question for us to ask is not whether we like what is going on in the corporate worship of God, but rather does God like what is going on there. If God is pleased with the worship, then we need to square our minds and hearts up to His desires and not bring worship down to cater to our carnal appetites.
2. We View our Corporate Worship as a Time of Covenant Renewal (2)
God only relates to man by covenant. Scripture reveals that God related to man before the fall in terms of a covenant. A covenant may be simply defined as an agreement between two or more persons. God established the terms of fellowship with man in Genesis 2:16-17 which says, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” Some have referred to this “agreement” as the Covenant of Works. As long as man perfectly obeyed, he could live and do so in God’s paradise. Man however, broke God’s covenant and had to face its penalty—death. Hosea 6:7 testifies that man before the fall was under such a covenant, “But like men [or “Adam”] they transgressed the covenant.” After man had broken fellowship with God in sinning against His Word (Genesis 3:1-6), God establishes His covenant of grace to redeem fallen man. God reveals Himself to man throughout all of Scripture in terms of His covenant. Only through a covenant does man have communion with God. God’s covenant with man finds its focus in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the Covenant.
Therefore, central to a biblical understanding of worship is the notion of covenant. As Michael Horton so aptly puts it, “Whenever we gather for public worship, it is because we have been summoned. That is what ‘church’ means: ekklesia, ‘called out.’ . . . We gather each Lord’s Day not merely out of habit, social custom, or felt needs but because God has chosen this weekly festival as a foretaste of the everlasting Sabbath day that will be enjoyed fully at the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (3)
God is the One who has made His Covenant with His people. In one sense, the Covenant is a unilateral covenant where God has obligated Himself to its fulfillment. While the Covenant is unilateral in nature, it still consists of two parties, God and man. God speaks and gives to us His promises, we respond in faith and repentance. “Yet, faith and repentance do not constitute ‘our part’ in this covenant in the sense of providing some ground for our participation in it. God grants even the faith and repentance. And God does call us to respond, to grow in grace, and to persevere to the end. The triumphant indicative concerning God’s action in Christ establishes a safe foundation on which to stand as we seek to obey the divine imperatives. That’s why worship is dialogical: God speaks and we respond.”(4) Each Sabbath, which itself is a perpetual covenant (Exodus 31:16), as God’s people gather to worship, God reminds His people of His Covenant, and God’s people respond in faith and repentance, in praise and adoration. This is the essence of the worship and covenant renewal.
God has given to us the Lord’s Day which sets the frequency of our corporate worship. The Sabbath itself has already been noted to be an everlasting covenant between God and His people. In the New Covenant, Sabbath observance has been changed from the seventh day to the first day of the week. Likewise, Christ has instituted the Lord’s Supper which is the Covenant meal of the New Covenant worship to replace Passover which was the Covenant meal of the Old. Regarding the cup of Communion, Jesus said in Matthew 26:27-28, “Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’” The Lord’s Supper is an important element in New Covenant worship. In Acts 2:42 the Bible reveals to us the practices of the early Church, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, in breaking of bread, and in prayers”. The breaking of bread is a common phrase referring to Communion. In Acts 20:7, we see again an apostolic pattern for corporate worship, “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread . . .” We see the public gathering of God’s people to worship being on the first day of the week (the Lord’s Day) and one of the things they did each Lord’s Day in corporate worship was to receive the Lord’s Supper. It makes sense that if worship is a covenant renewal ceremony, then the covenant meal ought to be present. In the Old Testament, no one ever came before God to commune with Him without sacrifice and the conscious awareness of their need for atonement for their sins. Likewise, in the New Testament, no one can rightly come before God without reference to a sacrifice for atonement. This sacrifice is found only in the Lord Jesus Christ. When we commune with God in the sacrament of Communion, we by faith remember Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:24-25) as our sole necessary atonement for our sins. We identify ourselves with His Person and Work by faith. And by faith through the work of the Holy Spirit, we meet with Christ at His Table and receive the benefits of His redemption and saving grace. Therefore, as part of our weekly Sabbath worship, we partake of Communion as an important element of our corporate worship.
3. Our Music Must Be Set Apart (5)
Music is an important element in worship, and also one of the most controversial subjects today in the discussion of corporate worship.
Corporate worship music consists of two elements: the text we sing; and the music itself. So much emphasis today has been placed upon the style of the music with little regard for the text. The text we sing to the Lord must be theologically accurate and be relevant to the worship. “Do Lord” is hardly suitable for public worship. The subject matter of our singing is God Himself, and therefore, the truths we sing are weighty, lofty, and transcendent. Since the only acceptable worship is in spirit and truth (John 4:24), we should take great care in what we sing to ensure it accurately reflects truth.
Ephesians 5:19 says, “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Greatly neglected today in Christ’s Church is the singing of Psalms. The Bible clearly prescribes to us that we are to sing the Psalms. Psalms are inspired text that are in themselves patterns for biblical worship. In singing the Psalms, we will sing truths we have never sung before anywhere else. The metrical Psalter is a compilation of the Psalms arranged in a meter that can be sung in such a way that the meaning of each Psalm is retained. Since the Reformation, the Church has sung the Psalms as an integral element of corporate worship. Today, however, many of God’s people have never realized their importance in the place of corporate worship and have all but neglected them.
While the text we sing is vital to our worship, what about the music? Is music a mere matter of personal preference, and style a matter of choice? Without getting too deep into the controversy, I will expound the principle of the “sacred.” In Leviticus 19, the Bible gives us regulations for Israel that were for setting them apart unto Himself. The term “holy” (or “sacred”) means to “be set apart.” Sanctification also carries this same idea. To be sanctified means to be set apart and made holy. When God sanctifies His people, He sets them apart from sin and the world to Himself as holy and sacred. Throughout Leviticus, its theology reveals holiness. When something common in everyday life was taken and sanctified, it then became “holy.” In other words, it was now set apart from being common unto being sacred. The same principle applies in the worship of God. The music that carries the weighty themes of God and His glory ought to be “set apart” form the “commonness” of the world. While it may be entirely appropriate to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch at the Atlanta Braves baseball game, it is entirely inappropriate to do so in the place of corporate worship. At the same time, we would not sing of God’s holiness, wrath and justice to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Not only does the tune smack of commonness, but it has not the “gravity” to carry such weighty subjects in our corporate worship. The tunes with which we sing our texts must themselves be “set apart” from the commonness of the world.
To help illustrate this point, I will use a slice of another portion of worship. For each Lord’s Day Communion, my wife bakes the communion bread. It really is a very simple recipe that she tailored from a common pie crust recipe. We use that recipe for nothing else except our communion bread. There is nothing magical or special in and of itself. What makes it special is when we take the bread and bless it in our Communion service. Upon the blessing of the bread (cf. Matthew 26:26; 1 Corinthians 10:16) we are asking God to take this common bread and set it apart (i.e. make it holy) for the sacred purpose of Communion in the sacred meal He has given. This is not a magical transformation as the Roman Catholics (or even Lutherans) believe, but an acknowledgement that this is no longer common bread for common use. The bread has been set apart for holy Communion. As a practical application of this implication, we do not take “doggie-bags” of the leftovers home to give to Fido. The same principle applies to other elements of worship including music. Our worship music needs to be “set-apart” for sacred purposes and needs to conform to the weightiness and glory of our great Subject matter.
While some folks from the Reformed background hold to exclusive Psalmnody (the Psalms are the only appropriate text to sing) or to the position that requires no use of instruments in corporate worship, we at Heritage do not believe the Bible restricts us to this degree. Old Testament worship was further developed under David when musicians and singers were given a permanent position in the corporate worship of God. There is no indication that the use of these musical forms was any part of the ceremonial law that passed away in the Old Covenant. The establishment of choirs and musicians was some 400 years after the giving of the law, and are good patterns for us to follow in our New Covenant worship.
4. The Place of Women in Worship
One question some visitors have as they visit our ministry is, “What’s with all the hats?” According to the teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, it is the conviction of the leadership of this ministry that ladies should have their heads covered in the place of corporate worship. While this is not a membership requirement for the ministry, we do ask that if a woman is to lead in any portion of the corporate worship, she should do so with her head covered. What we mean by leading are activities like accompanying on an instrument, singing special music (e.g. solo, duet, etc.), sharing a testimony, or teaching a children’s Bible class. We believe the Bible is clear that women are not to teach men, preach the Word, have authority over man in the Church, or lead the corporate worship in any formal sense (1 Timothy 2:11-15; 1 Corinthians 14:34-35). By covering her head, a woman testifies that she is deferring to the rightful authority in the place of corporate worship.
We understand that our conviction cuts against the grain of most modern churches today. Most people have never really studied the issue or the passage from 1 Corinthians 11. The teaching of headcovering is often quickly dismissed as something cultural to first century Corinth and does not apply today. Others claim that the woman’s hair is her covering for worship. The passage itself ties the teaching of headcovering, not to anything in the culture itself, but to creation, and therefore applies today.
While we understand the great difficulty this can be in the context of the modern Church whose practice most often is to the contrary, we strive to have a gracious spirit with those who may disagree. Within Heritage, we pray this issue never becomes one of pride or condescension on the one hand, or rebellion on the other. We strive to have a gracious spirit in all things and not use a headcovering for a spiritual barometer. For those interested in studying this topic in more detail, please get the booklet written by Marion Lovett on “Headcoverings in the Place of Corporate Worship.”
It is obvious from Scripture, that women are not to teach men in the church, nor to exercise authority over men in the church (1 Timothy 2:11-12). 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 tells us to let the women keep silent in the church. While this is in the context of the chaos going on in Corinthian worship regarding prophesies and speaking in tongues, it does not mean exclusively that women are not to ever open their mouths in corporate worship. In fact, the only place we have for this allowance is from 1 Corinthians 11 that says if a woman prays or prophesies in the church, she ought to have her head covered. This certainly implies that she is doing so in the presence of other men, and the context suggests that the setting is in corporate worship. Women are included in the public singing (cf. Ephesians 5:19ff). Women, likewise, are included in prophesying and praying in 1 Corinthians 11. Therefore, women can contribute in corporate worship even to the extent of praying aloud in corporate worship and in other forms of worship that are not the ministry of the Word. We see evidence of this in Acts 1:14 and Acts 12:5,12-15.
In summary, women at Heritage are not required to wear headcoverings to be a member of the church, but are required to do so if they participate in any form of public ministry. Likewise, we feel the same passage offers to women the opportunity to pray aloud in corporate prayer in mixed company so long as she has her head covered.
(1) See Exodus 32. Both the grammar and the context reveal that God’s people were not merely worshiping the calf as an end in itself, but they were worshiping the true God through a forbidden means. The Second Commandment prohibits us from worshiping God through objects of worship. For more information, listen to the sermon tape on the Second Commandment.
(2) For more information on this topic, listen to the message preached on January 19, 2003 entitled, “A New Perspective in Corporate Worship.”
(3) Michael Horton, A Better Way, Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship, p.24
(4) Ibid, p.25-26
(5) For more information, please hear the sermon tape on “Corporate Worship Music”