This is a series to further explain the articles of “A Conservative Christian Declaration.”
We affirm that the worship of God is regulated through his Word. Innovation, however well intentioned, is “will worship” (Col 2:23), violates the free consciences of individual Christians (Rom 14:5, 23), and is therefore displeasing to God (Matt 15:9). We affirm that the circumstances of worship are matters of prudence, informed by the sound judgment that comes through ordinate affections (Prov 9:10).
We deny that God desires or is pleased by innovation in matters of faith. We deny that silence from God’s Word on the circumstances of worship renders them amoral, or their implementation a matter of indifference.
The foundation of the Christian church is found in the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt 17:1-8; 28:18). Jesus owns the church (1 Cor 3:11, 23). He designated his apostles and prophets to be those men who spoke to his followers his words as revealed by the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19; Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor 2:10, 13). Today, since these men are no longer living, Christians regard the writings of these men, canonized in the New Testament, as the authoritative teaching of Christ himself (Matt 10:40; John 13:13-15, 20; Acts 1:2; 1 Cor 15:3; 1 Thess 2:13). In this sense, the apostles and prophets serve as the foundation of the church (Eph 2:19-22; Eph 4:11-16; 1 Cor 12:28; cf. Matt 16:18; Rev 21:14). On this ground, Paul told believers to hold fast to the apostolic tradition (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15; 1 Cor 15:1-3), for this tradition is from Christ himself. Paul commanded the Corinthian church, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). This doctrinal foundation, given to Christ’s apostles, is the “good deposit” of apostolic teaching that Timothy was to guard (1 Tim 6:20; cf. 2 Tim 1:14; Jude 20). Although apostles were not perfect (see, e.g., Gal 2:11-14), disobedience to an apostle’s commands was (and is) the essence of apostasy (2 Thess 3:14-15).
It is on the ground of this robust understanding of the authority of the Word of God that we assert that Christian churches must follow the worship of God regulated by God through Christ’s apostles and that they may not innovate in worship.1 When Paul saw some trying to lay new regulations on the Colossians in their worship, Paul called this “will worship” (Col 2:23, AV). The translation of this phrase in the English Standard Version is even more striking; the regulations promoted “self-made religion.” The faith we profess is not self-made. God has designed it. As he has prescribed our doctrine, God has prescribed our worship.
We can ascertain what activities or elements God wants a church to use in worship by observing both New Testament commands and practices. The act of exalting God through the proclamation of (and hearing) the Word of God is commanded by Christ Jesus himself, Paul, and Peter (Matt 28:20; 2 Tim 4:2-5; 1 Pet 4:11). We see preaching in the actual assembles of early Christian churches (Acts 6:2; 14:7, 21-22; 15:35; 18:24, 27; 20:7-9, 26-32; cf. 1 Cor 1:17; Eph 4:11ff; Col 3:16; 1 Tim 4:13). Second, Paul commanded the public reading of Scripture in the churches (1 Tim 4:13; cf. Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27).
Third, prayer is both commanded and practiced (Acts 1:14, 24; 2:42; 3:1; 4::31; 6:4; 12:5; 13:3; 16:25; 20:36; etc.; 1 Cor 11:4-5; 14:15-16; Eph 6:18; Phil 4:6; Col 4:2; 1 Thess 5:17; James 5:13; etc.). One way that the church prayed was by singing to God (1 Cor 14:15). Once again, Christ’s churches are specifically commanded to sing (Col 3:16; Eph 5:17-20; James 5:13; cf. 1 Cor 14:26). Sometimes the early church accompanied its prayer with fasting (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23; cf. Matt 9:15).
Even monetary collections could be easily understood as an act of worship. After all, Paul calls the monetary support churches give their spiritual leaders an “offering,” which has distinct liturgical overtones (Phil 4:18). Paul commanded churches to care for needy believers, and to take up the collections for them when they were gathered (1 Cor 16:1-4).
Jesus himself commanded Christian churches to partake in the Lord’s Supper, as did Paul (1 Cor 11:23-26). Jesus and his apostles also commanded believers to be baptized (Matt 28:19; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom 6:1-4), and this is also an act of worship, primarily for the person baptized, but also for those who, while observing it, are reminded of the work and perfections of God represented in that holy sign of the profession of our faith.
This is the pattern that is authoritative to us. To introduce some other practice is in essence to ask Christians to go beyond what they have been authorized to do by the apostles (Matt 15:9). We believe that adding other practices outside this set violate the consciences of sincere Christians whose souls are bound to their Lord as Master (Rom 14:5, 23). We urge those who so desire to worship God with elements outside what Christ has prescribed to consider carefully what is at stake; they may be building on the foundation with combustible materials or, even worse, doing damage to Christ’s temple (1 Cor 3:10-17).
At the same time, we do not believe that following the apostolic pattern means that we must do what they did under the same circumstances. The actual practices Christians use to worship the Triune God are prescribed by the apostles in the New Testament. These activities, which I just listed and explained above, are typically called the “elements” of worship. Yet, how Christians go about those elements or practices (typically given the technical term “circumstances”) is not prescribed. For instance, we certainly cannot meet with first century Christians (at this time)! This itself already begins to put upon us flexibility in how we go about worshipping God in our gatherings. For example, there is no prescription to use a certain language, to gather under certain lighting, to amplify our voices through certain architecture or other technologies, or to order our services a certain way (other than the separate apostolic command that our services actually be done decently and in order; 1 Cor 14:40).
So while Christians are told what they may do in worship, they are not specifically told how they are to do it. At the same time, there are many (often overlooked) Biblical teachings that inform how we go about worshipping God with the prescribed elements. It is incumbent on all Christian leaders that they carefully and wisely choose how they apply these passages and thus lead their churches to worship the true and living God (Prov 9:10). Even though the circumstances of worship is a matter of prudence, it still matters. The lack of prescription does not make a matter amoral or indifferent. Christians are still called to use discernment in how they go about worshipping God.