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Ordering in Corporate Worship

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series

"The Holy Spirit's Work in Worship"

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Last week, we saw that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are for the purpose of building a “holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:21-22). This metaphor of the Spirit building believers into a temple for God narrows the focus of the Holy Spirit’s work specifically to corporate worship. The temple metaphor is not coincidental; the gathered NT church is the dwelling place for the Spirit of God in this age in the same way that the temple was God’s dwelling place in the OT economy.[1] In this temple, built by the Spirit of God and indwelt by him, worship takes place. In fact, it is the Holy Spirit of God who makes worship possible. Christians come to enjoy communion with God through the person and work of Jesus Christ, but this happens “in one Spirit” (Eph 2:18).

This also may be what Christ meant in John 4 when he said that God is seeking those who will “worship the Father in spirit and truth” (v. 23). Since “God is a spirit” (v. 24) and does not have a body like man, true worship takes place in its essence in the non-corporeal realm of the Spirit, which is why it is essential that the Holy Spirit dwell within the NT temple—the Church—in the same way he dwelt in the temple of the Old Testament. And while in the Old Testament, worship was specifically localized to that physical, Spirit-indwelt temple, “the hour is now here” (v. 23) that worship takes place wherever two or three Spirit-indwelt believers gather together, for there he is “in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20).

Furthermore, characterizing the Holy Spirit’s work as one of ordering comes even more into clarity when narrowing the focus of his work to corporate worship. The key passage for this focus is 1 Corinthians 14:26–40.[2] Apparently, Christians in the church at Corinth had similar expectations about the Holy Spirit’s work in worship being extraordinary experience as contemporary Christians do. As D. A. Carson notes, “At least some Corinthians wanted to measure their maturity by the intensity of their spiritual experiences.”[3] Yet Paul corrects their expectation by emphasizing that even if the Holy Spirit works in extraordinary ways in worship, like with tongues or prophecy, “God is not a God of confusion”—in other words, disorder—“but of peace” (v. 33). The meaning of εἰρήνης here “is much the same as that of the Rabbinic shalom”—a state of completeness, soundness, and harmony.[4] It is a God of peace who is at work in corporate worship. On this basis, Paul provides clear principles for order in a worship service, fully consistent with the Holy Spirit’s ordinary activity. The purpose of prophecy, Paul contends, is the “upbuilding” of the church (vv. 3–5). “Only two or at most three” people may speak in tongues in any given service, “and each in turn” (v. 27). If there is no one to interpret the tongues, “let each of them keep silent” (v. 28). Only two or three prophets should speak, others should weigh what is said (v. 29), and they should do so one at a time (v. 30). Far from expecting the Holy Spirit to sweep through the congregation, causing worshipers to be overcome with his presence, “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (v. 32). As Gordon Fee notes, “The Spirit does not ‘possess’ or ‘overpower’ the speaker. . . . It is indeed the Spirit who speaks, but he speaks through the controlled instrumentality of the believer’s own mind and tongue.”[5] Far from quenching the Holy Spirit, order within corporate worship is exactly how the Holy Spirit works, desiring that “all may learn and all be encouraged” (v. 31). There is a strong case to be made that foundational gifts like tongues and prophecy have ceased now that the Church has complete, inscripturated Revelation, but even if the Holy Spirit continues to work in that way today, he does so through order and for the purpose of sanctifying believers, and nothing of how the New Testament describes his work in worship comes near to the notion of creating an “emotional atmosphere.” Thus in corporate worship, exactly because of how the Holy Spirit ordinarily works, “all things should be done decently and in order” (v. 40).

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.