Christians in past epochs defined public worship as the corporate gathering of Christians for the worship of God. Private worship then is our informal times of worship, including both personal “devotions” and family worship.
Undoubtedly both are commanded in Scripture and exemplified in the lives of the saints in those pages. When we think about our responsibility to worship both publicly and privately, we are sometimes tempted to pit one against the other. The truth of the matter is that they are not opposed, but complementary. We cannot forego private worship because we are faithful in attending the public services of worship with our local church. Nor should we ever dream that our private worship alone is sufficient such that we must not attend public worship. Both of these extremes clearly violate Scripture.
But if one were to receive the logical and scriptural priority, I believe, with men like David Clarkson and Benjamin Keach1, we must give it to public worship. There are several reasons for this, and I’d like to offer some of those reasons over a series of posts.
The first reason corporate worship is to be preferred to private worship is that God has established in the New Testament the things churches do in corporate worship for their spiritual benefit (like singing, praying, teaching and preaching, the Lord’s Supper) and the New Testament itself emphasizes corporate worship.
We see more examples of the gathered church worshipping than individuals doing it on their own. That is not to say that believers should not worship on their own, but, again, that corporate worship has more of an emphasis in the New Testament.
This is how David Clarkson (1622-1686) explains it:
There is more spiritual advantage to be got in the use of public ordinances than in private, ergo they are to be preferred. Whatever spiritual benefit is to be found in private duties, that, and much more, may be expected from public ordinances when duly improved. There is more spiritual life and light, more strength and growth, more comfort and soul refreshment. When the spouse (the church) inquires of Christ where she might find comfort and soul nourishment, food and rest, he directs her to public ordinances2: Cant. 1:7-8, “God by the footsteps of the flock,”3 walk in the path of God’s ancient people. And feed the kids beside the shepherds’ tents. Shepherds are (in the phrase of the New Testament) pastors or teachers, those to whom the Lord has committed the administration of his public ordinances. To them is the church directed for food and rest, for spiritual comfort and nourishment; and it is commended to her as the known way of the whole flock, that flock whereof Christ is chief shepherd.4
The second reason we should prefer corporate worship is the praise of the congregation is better. The praise of corporate worship is better than personal devotions in that it is congregational, with one voice, altogether. God delights in praise, and he delights in many people giving him praise. He does not need our praise, but he delights to be glorified by the praises of his saints. Our praise builds as we do it together corporately. One horse pulling a cart is not as effective as many horses pulling the cart together. Thus the Psalmist cries to his fellows in Psa 34:3, “Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together.” Baptist pastor Benjamin Keach wrote, “Brethren the Church in her publick Worship is the nearest Resemblance of Heaven, especially in Singing God’s Praises” (Glory of a True Church, in Polity, 89).
- See Benjamin Keach’s Glory of a True Church and its Discipline Displayed in Mark Dever’s Polity. [↩]
- Note that many Christians in the 17th and 18th centuries called all the commanded elements of corporate worship “ordinances.” You can see my posts on Baptists and ordinances at Immoderate beginning with this post. [↩]
- I left the Song of Solomon reference in despite the suspect interpretation, and I think Clarkson’s general point stands nonetheless. [↩]
- Public Worship to be Preferred Before Private, in vol. 3 of The Works of David Clarkson (1865), 192. [↩]