The Nature and Purpose of Corporate Worship: Biblical, Not Unregulated
For the past month, I have been tracing Paul’s argument about spiritual gifts in corporate worship in 1 Corinthians 14, drawing out important implications including the fact the corporate worship is corporate, not individual, for believers, not unbelievers, is primarily for edification, not merely expression, and must be orderly, not disorderly.
The preceding two principles lead to an important additional implication: Corporate worship should be biblically-regulated, not unregulated. In other words, if corporate worship is God’s work upon us to make us into mature Christians, then we must be sure to use those means that he has prescribed in his Word to do so. Paul stresses the importance of biblical authority in the context of corporate worship in verses 36–38″
Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.
Paul was inscripturating direct revelation from the Lord here; carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), Paul was contributing to that “prophetic word more fully confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19), the written Word of God, which always carries the final authority. Paul highlights this as well in the fact that prophecy given in a corporate worship service had to be tested (v. 29), a standard that was exactly the same for prophecy in the OT (Deut 13:1–5, 18:15–22). The written Word of God is always the final authority.
And so, if our corporate worship is going to properly form our relationship with God, then we must be sure that the elements of our worship come from the Word of God. And God has given us the elements of worship that he has designed to best build our relationship with him.
Paul commands Timothy, in the context of teaching him how to behave in the house of God, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim 4:13). Second, Paul also commands Timothy to “devote yourself . . . to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). Paul commands that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and for all who are in high positions (1 Tim 2:1). Third, He commands the Colossians to “continue steadfastly in prayer (4:2), and to the Ephesians he admonishes, “praying at all time in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication . . . making supplication for all the saints” (6:18). Fourth, in both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, Paul commands gathered believers to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, thereby “singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:19) and “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col 3:16). Fifth, Paul commanded the Corinthian church, “On the first day of the week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come” (1 Cor 16:2). Sixth, Christ commanded in his Great Commission to the disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And finally, Paul told the Corinthian church that he passed on “the Lord’s Supper” to the church, having received it from the Lord himself (1 Cor 11:20, 23).
These are the only corporate worship elements given to the church in the NT for the purpose of building up the body into mature disciple-worshipers. To add or subtract from these God-ordained elements would be to distrust the sufficiency of God’s Word in giving us what we need to equip us for every good work (2 Tim 3:17).
The content of our worship elements must also be regulated by the Word of God. Clearly what we teach and preach, what we pray, and what we sing must contain the Word of God, or at very least express sentiments consistent with the Word of God.
Third, the forms of our worship should be regulated by the Word of God. We must remember that the Bible is not simply a static collection of theological propositions. Rather, Scripture is a collection of God-inspired literary forms that express his truth, and all of Scripture, including its aesthetic aspects, carry the weigh of divine authority. Therefore, as we choose artistic forms of expression in our modern cultural context, we must be sure that the way in which those forms communicate truth correspond to the way in which Scripture itself aesthetically communicates truth.
Fourth, the order of our worship should be regulated by the Word of God. If the primary purpose of corporate worship is the edification of believers—God forming us into mature disciple-worshipers, then even the structure of our services should follow what God has given to us in Scripture. This is why each week our service follows the biblical pattern of acting out God’s gospel work for us: Revelation, Adoration, Confession, Forgiveness, Proclamation, Dedication, Supplication/Communion, Commission.
And so, through an argument mostly about the priority of prophecy over tongues in corporate worship, Paul gives us important principles for corporate worship that still apply even though both of those gifts have ceased. In our corporate worship services, God has given us the primary way to cultivate daily relationship with him, which is our first priority. But in order for our corporate worship services to accomplish the goal for which God designed them, we must make sure that our corporate worship services follow the central principles Paul provides in this central text:
1. Corporate worship is corporate worship, not individual worship.
2. Corporate worship is for believers, not unbelievers.
3. Corporate worship has the primary purpose of edification, not merely expression.
4. Corporate worship accomplishes edification through order, not disorder.
5. Corporate worship should be biblically-regulated, not unregulated.
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.