The Nature and Purpose of Corporate Worship: Order, Not Disorder
Sometimes people comment that the New Testament gives us very little instruction regarding corporate worship, but this is not true. There are many NT passages that help define corporate worship, and some of the NT epistles were written specifically to help believers know “how to behave in the household of God” (1 Tim 3:15), not to mention the fact that NT Christians would have assumed the value of Old Testament teaching regarding corporate worship as well.
In fact, as we have seen over the past few weeks, there is one particular chapter in the New Testament that is entirely about corporate worship—1 Corinthians 14. Paul wrote this chapter specifically to address problems with the corporate worship services of the church at Corinth, and the specific point he makes revolves around the superiority of prophecy over tongues, but in the course of his argument, Paul reveals some fundamental and essential principles about corporate worship that should impact our corporate worship today.
Already we have seen that corporate worship is corporate, not individual, that it is for believers, not unbelievers, and that its purpose is primarily edification, not expression.
Fourth, Paul also tells us exactly how this kind of edification in corporate worship takes place: edification in corporate worship takes place through order, not disorder.
Apparently, Christians in the church at Corinth had similar expectations about corporate worship as contemporary Christians do—true worship will be spontaneous, and too much structure stifles the Holy Spirit. They were apparently extending this expectation beyond the miraculous gifts of tongues and prophecy to even singing and teaching (v. 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.
But Paul is emphatic in verse 33: “God is not a God of confusion”—in other words, disorder—“but of peace” (v. 33).
And remember, Paul is dealing here with Holy Spirit given miraculous gifts; yet even in that context, Paul insists that confusion and disorder are evidences that the Holy Spirit is not working. Arguing from the greater to the lesser, if the Holy Spirit works in corporate worship through order even when he gives miraculous gifts, certainly his work is orderly once those gifts have ceased. 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 giving of miraculous gifts. “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). 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).
Thus in corporate worship, exactly because of how the Holy Spirit of God works and the purpose of corporate worship to form disciple-worshipers who will properly bring glory to God, “all things should be done decently and in order” (v. 40).
Structure and order within a worship service does not stifle the Holy Spirit’s work; he works through the structure and order. Structure and order within corporate worship does not hinder our relationship with God, it builds our relationship with God. It is through structure and order that the Holy Spirit sanctifies us, edifies us, forms us into worshipers of God.
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.