As I have explained many times before, Christian worship should be defined in terms of the believer’s relationship to God through Christ, and thus worship understood this way applies to the entirety of a Christian’s life. This may give the impression, however, that there is nothing distinct or sacred about corporate worship. Indeed, this is exactly what many evangelicals today appear to believe. They emphasize all of life as worship, but for them the Sunday morning gathering of the church is in essence no different from what goes on the other six days of the week.
Several problems with this perspective exist, however, deserving careful consideration. First, the nature of the church must be defined biblically. While it is true that “church” in the New Testament sometimes refers to the universal number of believers in Christ,1 it most often refers specifically to a local gathering of such believers. For example, Paul addressed letters “to the church of God that is in Corinth (1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1), “to the churches of Galatia” (Gal 1:2), and “to the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thess 1:1).
This raises at least two important points: first, a church is an identifiable group of believers in Christ; unbelievers are not part of churches.
Second, a church is a gathering of believers in Christ; a church does not exist except when it is gathered. In other words, most of the discussion of “church” in the New Testament refers to “church as institution” rather than “church as organism” (to use Abraham Kuyper’s terms). Furthermore, one cannot really speak of the “church as organism” except in the sense of the “universal church”; Christians are not “the church” as described in most New Testament cases when they act outside the regular workings of the local church. Thus, discussions of the “mission” of the church or whether worship in a gathering of the church is distinct from worship as Christian living must take this into account.
Understanding the church to be a distinct, gathered group of believers in Christ, recognition of the various terms used in the New Testament to describe this gathered church is quite instructive. For example, Paul tells Timothy that he is writing so that “you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim 3:15).2 The term “household of God” (oikō theou) is used throughout Scripture to refer to a special place of God’s presence. For example, Jacob calls the place where he met with God “Bethel, “or “house of God” (Gen 28:10–22). Likewise the tabernacle is often called the “house of God” (Judg 18:30, 1 Chr 9:25–27), as is the temple (2 Chr 3:3, Ps 52:8, Ezra 4:24, Neh 13:11, Matt 12:4, Mark 2:26, and, Luke 6:4). The church is also called specifically the “temple” (naós; 1 Cor 3:16–17, 2 Cor 6:16, Eph 2:19–22).
Thus when believers gather as the church, they exist in some special way as the dwelling place of God—the sanctuary of worship—so that, as Jesus promised, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:20). Although individual believers are also called “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19–20), the context and plural pronouns in each of the aforementioned cases clearly refer to when individual believers gather as the church. So there is a special sense of being the sanctuary of God that exists only when the church is gathered, rather than at other times. This alone should give indication of something sacred and distinct for the gathered church, with strong emphasis upon worship signified by the use of Old Testament worship terminology.
Finally, Paul indicates to Timothy that there is a certain way “to behave in the household of God” (1 Tim 3:15). Something about the assembled church requires particular behavior that is set apart from behavior in the rest of life. So while an individual Christian is the temple of God’s spirit and ought to behave in ways that are pleasing to him, the church gathered is, in a special and distinct way, the sanctuary of God’s presence, wherein God’s people behave in worship differently than in any other circumstances. For this reason, behavior in the church must be regulated by God’s clear instructions in a way more explicit than for behavior outside the church.