It is becoming increasingly popular today to assume that since the essence of worship is the language of the gospel, then it follows that worship is all of life, and there is nothing distinct or significant about corporate gatherings of worship.
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. This is evident by the underlying Greek term, ekklēsia, meaning “assembly.” In other words, Christians are not “the church” as described in most New Testament cases when they act outside the regular workings of the local church–a few Christians gathering for dinner or even prayer is not a church. Most of the time, “church” refers to a gathering of a local assembly of Christians to do what such assemblies are called to do.
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). The term “household of God” 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” (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.
One of the ways this takes place is that corporate worship is the public acting out of the spiritual realities of worship; it is a weekly dramatic re-creation of drawing near to God through Christ by faith. This is why most of the historic liturgies of the past have reflected the basic order of Adoration, Confession, Assurance of Pardon, Thanksgiving, Instruction, Dedication, Petition, Communion, Charge and Blessing. This is the shape of the gospel, and by re-enacting this each week, Christians are reminded that corporate worship is not a time to “call down God” or a religious “experience”; rather, it is an invitation by God himself for his people to draw near to him in communion through Christ by faith.
This is why the climax of this gospel-shaped worship is communion around the Lord’s Table. Throughout Scripture (and, indeed, history), the ultimate expression of free and open access is being invited to sit at the table. This is illustrated throughout the Old Testament, it is pictured with the Table of Showbread in the Temple, and it is one of the beautiful images depicted by the Lord’s Supper. A Christian worship service pictures that believers are accepted through Christ, and now sitting around his table both commemorates the sacrifice that made that possible and expresses our unity with him and with other Christians as the body of Christ. It does not accomplish peace with God, as Rome teaches; rather, it is a beautiful expression of peace already achieved through the sacrifice of Christ. This is why the Table is the ultimate climax of any gospel-shaped worship service. In the Table, Christians are enabled to sit in full communion with their Sovereign Lord because of Christ. The Lord’s Table is the most beautiful earthly enactment of the complete fellowship made possible by union with Christ.2
- See, for example, Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 1:22–23, 3:10, 3:21, 4:4, 5:23–27, 1 Corinthians 10:32, 11:22, 12:28, Colossians 1:18, 24, and Hebrews 12:23. [↩]
- Cf. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, 23. The other notably missing element of worship is baptism. Since this is an initiation rite, however, it is not necessarily part of weekly liturgy. [↩]