Question: What does worship do for the church?
Answer: Unto this catholic visible church, Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does by his own presence and Spirit, according to this promise, make them effectual. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.iii)
In previous articles we looked at the church, first to underscore its other-worldly character, and then to see its mission in the light of the Great Commission. The point of these studies was that we can only worship with a proper understanding of the church. But we have not yet finished with the church and the centrality of worship to the people of God. If we need to know something about the church in order to have a proper conception of worship, so we can also say that without a proper understanding of worship we will have a flawed conception of the church. For worship constitutes the church. Another way of putting this is to say that the things that believers say and do in worship are essential to being a part of the church of God, the household of faith.
SAVED TO WORSHIP
If we had any doubt about the centrality of worship for the church Exodus 15 furnishes us with a poignant reminder of the intimate relation ship between corporate worship and the life of the church. Immediately after the Exodus, God through His inspired servant, Moses, interpreted the significance of the Israelites’ trek through the Red Sea. Moses led the Israelites’ in singing the following:
I will sing to the LORD, for He is exalted;
The horse and rider He has hurled into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my song,
And He has become my salvation;
This is my God, and I will praise Him;
My father’s God, and I will extol Him (15:1–2).
The Israelites rightly responded to their deliverance from the bondage of Egypt with a song of praise to the God of their salvation. Not only did the Exodus elicit an act of worship, but this song of Moses also showed that God had worship in view when He delivered His people. As the nation set off into the wilderness, the Israelites learned that liberation from Egypt was not the end of God’s purpose for them. The people were liberated in order to be gathered as God’s treasured possession.
Thou wilt bring them and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance, The place, O Lord, which Thou hast made for Thy dwelling, The sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy hands have established, The Lord shall reign forever and ever (vss. 17–18).
Here at the end of Moses’ song we understand the reason for Israel’s deliverance. God brought Moses and the people out of Egypt to plant them on the mountain of His inheritance, a reference to Mount Zion, the place where the Temple would one day be erected. In other words, God’s people were gathered out of Egypt (the world) in order to be brought into His temple (the place of worship where God was present). The purpose of salvation then, is worship. The Exodus was the means, and gathering in worship was the end.
The same pattern is true in the New Testament but is heightened because of the mediatorial work of Christ. In the Old Testament only the priest could pass through the outer rooms of the Temple into the holiest of places, the Holy of Holies. As Psalm 24 says, “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in his holy place? Hewho has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, and has not sworn deceitfully” (vss. 3–4). But now thanks to the finished work of Christ, all who trust in Him may enter into the Holy of Holies to give Him glory and praise. Paul writes in Colossians 1 that Christ has reconciled us “in order to present [us] before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (v. 22). This is why the writer to the Hebrews tells the New Testament church that in worship we go to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22). The holiness that the church now experiences because of Christ’s saving work is further emphasized by the metaphor that Paul uses in 2 Corinthians to describe the church as “the temple of the living God” (6:16). The purpose of salvation is worship because worship is what the people of God are called to do.
THE MARKS OF THE CHURCH AT WORSHIP
Another way of illustrating how worship molds the church is to consider the marks of the church. The doctrine of the marks of the church is precious to Protestants because it asserts fundamental differences between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation. By the marks of the church, according to the Belgic Confession, we can discern the true from the false church. The Belgic Confession goes on to define the marks of the church in the following manner:
The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in chastening of sin in short if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself (Art. 29)
The marks of the church indicate where the true church may be found. Wherever we see and hear preaching, the sacraments and church discipline truly performed, we know we are in the presence of the true church.
What is important to notice about the marks of the church is that they are bound up with corporate worship. We might even go so far as to summarize the doctrine of the marks of the church by saying that the true church can only be found when she is at worship. Of course, the preaching of the Word and the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are obviously central parts of worship. Worship is where ministers preach the Word and administer the sacraments. Discipline is harder to discern in corporate worship since the believers who gather on the Lord’s Day for worship do so not as a court of the church (consistory, session, classis or presbytery) but rather as a congregation. Still. preaching itself is a form of discipline, in its manifestation of the ministerial and declarative power of the church (i.e., the keys of the kingdom, Mt.16:18, 19; 18:18; and Heidelberg Q&A 83–85). Furthermore, churches fence (or at least should fence I the Lord’s Supper as an act of discipline. Even the man who preaches and administers the sacraments may do so only after he has passed the scrutiny of the church’s courts. So the mark of discipline is part of worship even though not obviously on display.
Together, the marks of the church constitute the true church. Which is why the Westminster Confession of Faith states that “unto this catholic visible church, Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God.” In the same way that the marks of the church tell us how to find the true church, so also corporate worship helps us identify the church. Worship is essential to the church’s identity. If our Reformed confessional standards are correct. the church cannot be seen or known apart from worship that is Reformed according to the Word of God because worship is comprised of the ordinances that God has given to His church.
GATHERING AND PERFECTING THE SAINTS
Worship is not only something that marks the true church but also an activity that disciples God’s people. As the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18–20) teaches, discipleship is not a one-time quick fix but rather a constant and gradual process that is to last either until death or until Christ’s return. And because worship is regular (it occurs every week) and consists of the ministry of the Word (i.e. preaching and sacraments) the means that Christ gave to His church for discipling the nations, worship is crucial to the work of making disciples. Worship, then, not only consists of the marks of the institutional church but is also at the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
Such an understanding of worship and its importance to the gathering and perfecting of the saints involves a different understanding of the Christian life than the one that prevails in contemporary evangelicalism. Of course, believers need to worship because God alone deserves all praise and glory. But Christians also need worship for their spiritual well-being. The church in this world is a pilgrim people, in complete dependence on God for protection and sustenance as they wander through the wilderness of this world to the promised land of the world to come. Believers need the manna of eternal life that only the “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God” can provide. Here we need to remember how similar our circumstances are to those of the Israelites at the time when Moses sang praise to God for deliverance from the house of Egypt.
The wilderness narrative was written for the church, Paul writes (I Cor. 10:6), and in worship Christians must see themselves as a wilderness people of God. just like the Israelites, we have been saved, and we enjoy now the benefits of salvation. But we have not reached our final destiny, the promised land, which is to be with jesus Christ in glory, to live and worship in the heavenly Jerusalem. We are in a spiritual sense, therefore, just like the Israelites. We live in the “in-between times,” what theologians describe as the “already/ not yet” Hebrews makes the connection between the Old Testament and New Testament church explicit. The Old Testament saints, who were “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb. 11:13), waited for a heavenly city (11: 13–16). Christians, too, wait for the city which is to come (Heb. 13:14). Similarly, when Peter calls the church God’s chosen people, he also recognizes that New Testament believers live in a spiritual wilderness by referring to them as “aliens and strangers” (I Pet. 2:9–11).
In this pilgrimage of being conformed to the image of Christ, believers find themselves in a condition like that of the Israelites. They are weak and frail, tempted and threatened by the hardships of the journey, and constantly tempted to give up. Here the account of the Exodus is again very instructive. What follows the narrative of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea in chapter fourteen, and Moses’ song in chapter fifteen are instructions in chapter sixteen for the provision of manna, including the practice of Sabbath-keeping, reinstituted after centuries of neglect under slavery. Israel had to master these rules and follow God’s commandments precisely. In Exodus 16:28 the Lord expressed His displeasure with those Israelites who violated the Sabbath by going out to gather manna on the seventh day. It would not be easy to be a part of God’s people, for His instructions were new and unusual to that generation of Israelites. Those who failed to prepare for the Sabbath would go hungry. They would also eventually grumble at Moses because the diet seemed monotonous. But this was the pattern that God designed to sustain His people throughout the wilderness. As the Bible records, “And the sons of Israel ate the manna forty years” (v. 35). Here too, are lessons for worship because the gathering of the saints in worship is the means that God has established to gather and perfect the church until united with her Lord in the new heavens and new earth. Like the Israelites, we need to masterthe rules for worshiping Him. Like the Israelites, we avoid worship or ignore God’s instructions for worship at the peril of growth in grace.
Understanding the Christian life as a pilgrimage, and worship as manna in the wilderness, reminds us who live in an industrial culture that our walk in faith and obedience is not mechanical. God has made us into new creatures who need regular sustenance. The means of grace, that is, “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God,” are the food He has provided to feed the church.
This organic metaphor should instill more humility in our understanding of the Christian life as well as greater gratitude forthe privileges we enjoy as God’s sons and daughters when we gather for worship. We are in warfare and constantly tempted to sin. The familiar hymn, “Come Thou Fount,” teaches this point well.
O, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, O take and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above.
The apostle Paul voiced these same sentiments when he defended his ministry in 2 Corinthians 4. The treasure of thegospel given to the church in earthen vessels (v. 7) was in constant danger: “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (vss. 8–9). The temptations of pilgrimage in the wilderness were very real to Paul. He knew he was wasting away. But through the grace of God he did not lose heart (v. 16). Through the means of grace, in other words, through his ministry—Word and sacrament—he could see and taste and hear the unseen things. The simple elements of words, water, bread and wine were of eternal significance because they represented unseen things. And, according to Paul, the simple means produced “an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (v. 17).
In many Christian circles today believers are tempted not to avail themselves of the “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God.” They sometimes think that lots of church activities and parachurch organizations will provide the sustenance God’s people need. But God has promised to bless the ministry of the Word that constitutes Christian worship. Undoubtedly, many non-church activities may be beneficial. But God’s promises are not attached to them in the same way that they are to elements of worship. In sum, the manna of worship both gathers and perfects God’s people who are in the wilderness of this world. The oracles of God are essential to the health of God’s pilgrim people.
Manna in the wilderness was a peculiar experience for the Israelites. It was unlike anything in their Egyptian diet. At times they were given to grumbling, for it seemed less appetizing than the fare that they abandoned in their Exodus. So too ought we to see something strange about the spiritual diet God provides for us.
To change the metaphor, some have compared worship to the process of mastering a foreign tongue. “Worship,” writes William Willimon, “is the cultivation of a distinctively Christian culture. It is language class, where the Church is trained to speak the Christian language.” One learns a language by mastering difficult rules through repetition. We have no hope of speaking any language fluently if its conjugations and declensions change every week.
What is the proper grammar of worship? In their zeal for the reformation of worship, the Reformers condemned both Roman Catholic sacerdotalists, who claimed an automatic dispensing of God’s grace, and the radical Reformers, who denied the need for ritual in worship at all. These Anabaptists were a persecuted minority in the sixteenth century, but if one observes the worship practices of our day, one could conclude that, 400 years later. the Anabaptist theology of worship has prevailed. Many churches display a disregard for precise rules and regulations in worship. It is common for mega-churches today to offer a variety of styles in worship. One church has six different “flavors” of worship, according to its bulletin, (which reads more like a menu) from “traditional” focusing on “participation through hymn singing” to “an exhilarating, come as you are service using contemporary music and practical messages.” Saturday night offers “a relaxed atmosphere where you feel right at home,” and one Sunday morning meeting serves “a contemporary service, using dynamic music, dramas and life-related messages.”
This worship will certainly satisfy more tastes, but it must be careful not to return to the diet of Egypt, and employ only those elements in worship which God commands. The church that properly worships will be peculiar to the world. We are to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land (Psalm 137). As the church worships and serves the Lord in the pilgrimage of this present life, she does so with confidence, knowing that God has provided manna from heaven. And while marching to Zion the church also worships and serves the Lord with the confidence of exalting her God in the Holy of Holies as her chief joy, even though the world, like Israel’s pagan neighbors. does not understand.
D.G. Hart is librarian and Associate Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PA). He serves as an elder at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Glenside, PA. John R. Muether is library director at Reformed Theological Seminary and an elder at Lake Sherwood Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Orlando, FL. They are co-authors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1995).