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The Nature and Purpose of Corporate Worship: Edification, not Expression

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series

"Decent and Orderly Worship"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Paul’s central argument in the only full NT chapter addressing corporate worship is that for corporate worship, the spiritual gift of prophecy was to be desired more than the gift of tongues. Even though this core argument may not be directly applicable in a day when tongues and prophecy have ceased, I have been demonstrating the past couple weeks that the reasons Paul gives for his argument reveal central principles about the nature and purpose of corporate worship that apply in all times.

So far I pointed out that since tongues was a gift meant as a sign to unbelieving Israel, and prophecy is direct revelation from the Lord for the edification of believers, Paul’s central argument elevating prophecy over tongues reveals that corporate worship is primarily for believers, not unbelievers. I have also shown that since speaking in tongues would be beneficial only for the one speaking, Paul’s argument reveals that corporate worship must be corporate, not individual.

Third, Paul’s discussion of tongues and prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14 helps us to understand that the purpose of corporate worship gatherings is edification, not merely expression.

We should certainly be expressing worship toward God in a church service, but Paul’s discussion here reveals that expression is not the primary purpose of a corporate worship service; rather the primary purpose of a corporate worship service is edification.

This is a big difference between tongues and prophecy. As we saw in Acts, the content of speaking in tongues was the exultation and praise of God. That’s clear in this chapter as well: Paul says in verse 2, “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God,” and he describes the content of tongues speaking in verses 16–17 as giving thanks to God.

Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.

So speaking in tongues was certainly an act of individual expression toward God that brought him glory, and yet Paul indicates that in corporate worship, we should be primarily concerned about corporate edification rather than only corporate expression. Just survey briefly with me through the chapter and notice how much emphasis there is here upon the edification of the whole congregation in corporate worship:

On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation (v3).

The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church (v4).

Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up (v5).

Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching (v6)?

So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air (v9).

So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church (v12).

For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up (v17).

Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue (v19).

And this point really all climaxes in verse 26:

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.

In other words, one of the core reasons Paul insists that the gift of prophecy is to be desired over tongues in corporate worship is that tongues is primarily a gift of individual expression toward God, while prophecy is a gift that better fits the formative purpose of corporate worship. This is a passage about corporate worship services, and yet the emphasis is not upon expression of worship only but rather on edification.

Now this is a point that may seem to be a bit counter-intuitive. This is worship after all, isn’t it? Isn’t worship supposed to be for God? Isn’t the whole problem with much evangelical worship today that it is focused on people instead of God? Isn’t it correct to say that in corporate worship there is an audience of One and that our purpose here is to express worship toward him?

Well, while I do believe that the recovery of a God-centered focus in corporate worship is a welcome and necessary corrective to the man-centered, entertainment focus of much of contemporary worship, it is actually incorrect to say that corporate worship is just about expressing praise and thanks to God. Yes, God is the focus of corporate worship, God is the center of corporate worship, and the adoration of God is the goal of corporate worship, but as is clear from what is likely the central text on corporate worship in the New Testament, everything about this service is primarily for the building up of the body. Edification, not just expression.

Worshiping God—glorifying him, valuing him above all else—is certainly the reason we were created and the goal of the Christian life, and we do express that worship toward God in a church service. But the corporate worship services of a church has a particular purpose that fits under the commission given to that church, namely, to make disciples. Our goal as churches is to build up disciple-worshipers who will bring God glory with the entirety of their lives, but that does not happen without intentional discipleship, and one of the primary means that God has given us to form and build those kinds of disciple-worshipers is the corporate worship of a church. In and through corporate worship, we are built up, formed, and discipled to be Christians who love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and mind. Corporate worship is not simply a gathering of a group of individual Christians who express praise and thanks to God individually or even corporately; corporate worship is the method through which God takes people—from the smallest child to the most seasoned adult—and creates mature worshipers through the means that he has ordained.

You see, in a corporate worship service, we are not the primary actors; corporate worship is not us performing for God—that is paganism. A theology of worship that says corporate worship is about us expressing adoration for God is still man-centered—it’s about what we are doing. A properly God-centered theology of worship will recognize that in a corporate worships service, God is the primary actor. It is God who calls us to draw near to him; we do not invite him to come down to us. It is God who speaks to us first; only then do we respond back to him. And even our responses should be based, not on the natural, authentic expressions of our hearts, but rather our responses should be framed by the words, forms, and affections ordained for us by God in his Word. Our natural, “authentic” responses are often immature, undeveloped, fickle, sometimes even sinful, and in need of reform. Corporate worship is the means through which God forms our image of him and matures our responses toward him.

And so our primary concern in a corporate worship service should not simply be the authentic expression of worship toward God but rather how the service is edifying us, how it is cultivating our relationship with God and forming us to be the kind of mature disciple-worshipers Scripture commands.

We need to be careful not to have individualistic perspectives regarding corporate worship, as if everyone else around us is a distraction to our own personal, authentic expression of worship. No; in corporate worship, we should be concerned about the corporate edification of every individual in the congregation as our singing, prayers, Scripture readings, confession, praise, the sermon, Communion—everything molds and shapes us into the kinds of people who will worship God each and every day of the week.

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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.