A biblical view of gathered worship

Towards the end of the last of my three part critique of Charismatic theology, I sketched out the idea that the Bible teaches a fundamentally different view of Christian worship. This approach, were it better understood in Evangelicalism, would probably have prevented the disappointments of Charismatic teaching long ago. David Peterson’s Engaging with God examines this in a very thorough, and biblical, way, which I think is worth summarising here. You do, however, need to be aware that I can only hint at the extensive scriptural evidence that Peterson brings to bear, so you’ll either have to take my word for it or buy the book!

There are fundamental differences between the Old Testament “cult” (by which I mean the various regulations regarding the tabernacle and temple, priests, sacrifices and so on) and every pagan religion. But they do share many of the features that make up “religion” as it was understood before Christ transformed it.

And so the overall aim of the ritual system was for the worshippers of God (which means Israel, of course) to be made worthy to come before God and find acceptance and blessing from him. And so, in the first place, they needed a place where God represented his presence to the gathered people, and this was of course the tabernacle and then the Jerusalem temple. They needed holy mediators in the form of the levitical priesthood, who would present the authorised sacrifices in order, first, to deal with sin and ritual uncleanness, then to propitiate the favour of God, and lastly to enjoy fellowship with him.

Added to this, the festivals, processions, singing, dancing and so on provided the same kind of social cohesion we see in pagan societies. But in Israel’s case, the community that was being strengthened was one based on a unique Covenant which had an ethical dimension entirely lacking from pagan cults. Whereas in Greece or Rome, performing the rites correctly was all that was needed, whether or not you actually believed in the gods, both Moses and the prophets emphasised the need for heart-devotion to Yahweh, and for genuine ethical behaviour both towards each other and to outsiders. It was the failure of this heart-religion (aka “faith”) that led to the need for a new covenant, announced by the prophets and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Peterson points out how the advent of Christ transforms that whole picture more radically than we imagine (and how we ought to have realised it because it is so clearly taught in the New Testment!).

Most crucially, Jesus taught (as in the episode of the woman of Samaria, or the cleansing of the temple in John) that the locus of God’s presence is no longer a place, whether in Jerusalem, Samaria or Bethel, but himself. Furthermore, as is most clearly taught in Hebrews, he is both the perfect once-for-all sacrifice, which renders all other sacrifices obsolete, and the perfect high priest who, having offered himself, now interercedes for his people at the right hand of God, making any sacerdotal priesthood obsolete.

The New Testament also teaches that, by saving faith in Christ’s cross through the Holy Spirit, not only are believers “made perfect forever,” (Hebrews) “holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (Colossians), but the risen and ascended Jesus actually positions himself within every believer, because they are all “given one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians). Everyone who belongs to Christ has the Spirit of Christ (Romans).

A little thought shows that, according to the New Testament teaching, Jesus Christ himself achieves for us most of what communal worship at the temple sought to achieve. So what point is there, in the Church age, for gathering to worship? Indeed, Peterson demonstrates how most of the actual “worship language” in the New Testament relates not to religious gatherings at all, but to everyday life, in which we glorify God by praise and thanks as we address each other, and by sharing the gospel message with those we meet, and by demonstrating the holiness of life that the Mosaic rituals were “intended” to produce (though God always knew their inadequacy). “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world,” teaches James – and there is neither a temple nor a chapel in sight.

In fact, Peterson suggests that even the teaching on the Lord’s supper, primarily in 1 Corinthians, primarily envisages Christians, as the body of Christ, sharing in informal table fellowship together, but sanctifying that fellowship by associating it (like the Passover meal) with a commencement by breaking the bread of Christ’s broken body, and a final blessing in the cup of the covenant of his blood.

Perhaps the best summary of this “worship is life” teaching is Romans 12:1: “Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship.” What? Not singing in the Spirit at a praise meeting?

That is by no means to say that meeting together “as church” is not essential. But unexpectedly, language associated with such meetings seldom comes from the “worship” vocabulary. Instead, all the emphasis is on meeting to edify (=”build up”) each other by the manifestions of the Spirit of Christ, represented in the “portions of grace (charismata),” “service” and “working” given to each and every one.

I don’t believe the Bible differentiates between “spiritual gifts” and “natural gifts” the way the Charismatics do. Instead, as people are brought from the various corners of the kingdom of darkness “into his glorious light,” what they were before is transformed by the Spirit of grace into a particular organ in the body, a unique manifestation of the Spirit. And so the converted prostitute brings a strong testimony of the depth of God’s forgiveness, and perhaps the kind of street-knowledge that makes them an effective evangelist to the poor. Another (like Paul) might bring a theology degree whose dry knowledge is transformed by the living Word into the beginnings of a teaching ministry. And so on for accountants, musicians, solicitors, waitresses, etc.

Furthermore, the Spirit enables new giftings, whether simply by inculcating a new love that makes someone become the go-to counsellor, or a supernatural ministry of prophecy… though there is also no reason why God may not choose anyone to deliver such a revelation as a one-off for the current need. All of these, though, are (I believe) what Paul intends by charismata, service and working in 1 Corinthians.

The fundamental difference in this from our common view of worship is this: we no longer come to Sunday service primarily to be blessed, or to hope that God will show up and reward our faith by sight (of miracles, deep emotions or the like). Instead, as people whose whole lives are lived out as “worshippers in Spirit and in truth” we will be spending our week in gathering reasons to thank and praise God, and will bring what we have with us with the expectation of building up others. Those reasons might include a particular blessing, a trial, an insight from our Bible reading, a hymn that’s been going round our head, a personal revelation of Christ’s immanence in spring flowers, or anything, in fact, that might edify others. that would not exclude sermon-writing, band rehearsals, Sunday school lesson preparation, flower rotas and so on.

And in that way, rather than coming to church wondering why singing the hymns doesn’t make us ecstatic, and why the sermon seems self-evidently true rather than inspiring, we’ll come together as the apostle actually directs us to come:

When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation… for the strengthening of the church.

(1 Corinthians 14:26)

Since everyone, under that rubric, will be consciously bringing a small manifestion of the Spirit of Christ to the pot, this will by definition be a church “moving in the Holy Spirit,” and if some re-run of Pentecost is going to happen anywhere, surely it is there more than in a tarrying-meeting held on the very basis that the Spirit isn’t here yet.

In such a setting, too, the Holy Spirit can be about his primary work not of working miracles for unbelievers who demand a sign, but of being Christ to us as the Paraclete. He brings us to Christ first of all, convicts us (continually) of indwelling sin, and sanctifies us by causing us to respond to such conviction – all, in fact, by bringing to our minds and hearts the teaching of Jesus in Scripture. His work, in short, is to make us more like Christ. And the more like Christ we are, the more we have of Christ to bring to church to build up everyone else.

“There must be more than this,” says the song of someone dissatisfied with “ordinary” Christianity, if I read the sub-text aright. Well yes, there is – but aside from the return of Christ and perfection, we already have it, if we would only live it out in the Truth of Christ.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to A biblical view of gathered worship

  1. Ben says:

    Thanks for this Jon. It’s a word from God for me, in any case, because it puts words to – and explains – some of the things that don’t sit well with me, but where I was leaning more to thinking I was/am the problem.

    And here I am, all caught up with your blog (for the moment).

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