We often call the Christian assembly “worship” or “worship service.” But is the congregation a forum for worship and service to God, or is it to strengthen and build up believers? Is it for Him or for us? These are two very different philosophies that lead to two very different conclusions about church practices. I have long been in the former camp, looking to decipher the New Testament pattern of the assembly with a microscope for fear of offering “strange fire” as Nadab and Abihu did. I once argued that the “service” was not for us, but for Him. While not entirely untrue, it is certainly not so cut and dried.
There is not one reference to our corporate gathering as a “worship service.” We can, of course, deduce that worship can take place within the assembly of the saints:
Hebrews 13:15 – Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name. (NKJV)
We can reasonably determine that a sacrifice constitutes accepted worship, so when we praise God in the assembly, we are worshiping Him. Fair enough. But the writer of Hebrews goes on:
Hebrews 13:16 – And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (NKJV)
So doing good in all forms and sharing with others also constitute acceptable sacrifices, or worship toward God. This does not have to be done in a group setting or by the group corporately. It can be. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s worship in either case.
Is teaching one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs an act of worship? I think it can be in an individual sense, since Paul wrote to the Christians at Ephesus to sing and make melody “to the Lord:”
Ephesians 5:18-21 – And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, 20 giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another in the fear of God.(NKJV)
But the worshipful singing and making melody to the Lord could also take place absent from the assembly, whereas the instruction to speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs could not. If our assembly fails to edify the Christians participating in it, I would conclude that it was not effective at meeting the spirit of these verses. Acceptable worship may have been offered in the heart of the individual who participated worshipfully, but if the brethren weren’t edified, it could just as easily have been done at home in one’s personal devotion. Paul implies as much when he says:
1 Corinthians 14:26 – How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. (NKJV)
There is no purpose in doing anything as an assembly unless it edifies. This is why Paul told Corinth:
1 Corinthians 14:28 – But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.
This brings us to the Lord’s supper. Surely this is a pure act of worship–a “sacrament” as some call it–that must be administered according to a fixed pattern, right? Some might return to Paul’s letter to support this idea:
1 Corinthians 11:16 – The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? 17 For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. (NKJV)
If the cup is the fellowship of his blood, and the bread is the fellowship of his body, reasonable people can conclude that to partake of them is an act of worship. I would agree. But note that our participation together as a congregation is what makes a congregation “one bread” and “one body.” We are one body because we partake of that one bread. So communion with Jesus’ body and blood is for the purpose of solidifying our communion with each other. To fail to commune with our Lord in this activity is to fail to commune with our fellow brothers and sisters, so it is evident that the Lord’s supper is as relevant to our own strengthening as it is to our worship toward God. Other scriptures add another facet to the picture:
Luke 22:19 And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” (NKJV)
It is true that anytime we follow the Lord’s instructions with a heart of humble obedience, it is worship. But note that Jesus tells the disciples the reason for the Lord’s supper: “do this in remembrance of me.” The Lord’s supper is an activity designed for us to remember the Lord’s sacrifice, and by that remembrance, it should invigorate us anew to serve Him. It is not a rote “sacrament” to check off of our to-do list. We love him because he first loved us, and it is a memorial of that love, intended to spur us to respond in kind. This is further borne out by Paul:
1 Corinthians 11:23-25- For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 25 In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (NKJV)
But there is an additional purpose to the Lord’s supper that Paul mentions in the next verse:
1 Corinthians 11:26 – For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes. (NKJV)
Each time we commune with our Lord and with each other in this manner, we are proclaiming, or preaching, His death. To whom are we preaching, to God or men?
The conclusion of all of this is that no part of our assembly is to be done with the exclusive goal of worshipping our Creator. This may sound shockingly sacreligious and postmodern at first. It is not. No doubt, we ought to assemble to worship our Creator, but we should never let the goal of edifying the brethren escape our highest aspirations. It is possible for individuals to come together to worship the Lord as individuals without edifying the brethren, but I think that’s better left to our personal devotion. In the assembly, it is better to edify each other while also bringing a worshipful attitude toward our Creator.
If worship is our only purpose in meeting together, we are constrained by the lessons of Nadab and Abihu, and Cain and Abel to offer to our Lord an assembly, appropriately patterned in every last detail according to His blueprint. But when we do that, we’ve mistaken the tool for the thing that the tool is intended to accomplish. The point of the assembly is not the assembly itself, but the edification of the saints, just as the point of the Lord’s supper is not the pattern for doing it, but the doing of it.
It is impossible to pattern the assembly after an exact blueprint, because we don’t have an exact blueprint without resorting to doubtful deductions and opinions. Should the Lord’s supper be practiced in an upper room? That is the only discernable pattern in the scriptures. Should it be done in the evening? That was most certainly the pattern of the New Testament church. Should we stop meeting in church owned property? The New Testament church met in homes, not church buildings.
But fortunately, we are not under a law of patterns and blueprints, but a law of liberty. The patterns we see for the assembly have not been handed down as “the pattern in the Mount,” but as loving examples intended to edify and build us up in our common faith. We are to use what practices we do have exemplified in various scriptures as tools to accomplish our primary task as a body–to edify each other, and in so doing, glorify our God. So is our assembly a “worship service?” I suppose it can be, but perhaps a better term is “edification service.” Next time we go to edification service, let’s worship our God in spirit and in truth while we’re there.