Foundations: No.76 Spring 2019

When You Come Together: Gathered Worship in the New Testament


Gathering together is fundamental to the life of the church in the New Testament, but is this gathering to be understood as worship? After beginning with a consideration of the key New Testament term for the church (ekklēsia), this paper surveys the data on this gathering in Acts, in the letters of Paul, and in Hebrews.[1] Conclusions are drawn regarding the importance of gathering, and the content of these gatherings. Elements of Paul’s understanding of worship are then used to consider the relationship of these gatherings to worship in a broad sense. Further New Testament data lead to the conclusion that “gathered worship” is a legitimate concept.

The question of why this might be the case is then addressed by proposing a Pauline theological framework for understanding worship. This is assembled from two metaphors for the church: the “new humanity” and the “body of Christ”. This framework assists us in understanding the nature and the purpose of the gatherings of the church. In a final section this understanding is applied to a range of contemporary questions.

I. The Gathering of God’s People in the New Testament

1. Ekklēsia as the Gathered People of the God of Israel

The NT designation for the church, ekklēsia, speaks of the fundamental importance of corporate identity and activity. In the LXX, ekklēsia translates mainly from the Hebrew qāhāl, which refers to an assembly, a company or a congregation. The term does not carry any indication of the purpose of the gathering.[2] However, the term is deployed most significantly in the Old Testament to refer to the gathered people of the God of Israel (in the LXX, ekklēsia Israēl or ekklēsia kyriou). In the NT, ekklēsia becomes the term for the church, and immediately this carries a sense of continuity with the people of God in the Old Testament. The choice of Matthew in his Gospel to render Jesus’ promise to build his own “assembly” using this term (“I will build my ekklēsia”, Matt 16:18) is properly understood against this LXX background of the ekklēsia Israēl as the ekklēsia kyriou.[3] The assembly or gathering which Jesus is building is not only Jesus’ gathering; it is the Lord’s gathering, the gathering of the people of the God of Israel.[4] This continuity is clearly seen in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, where he speaks of Moses leading the ekklēsia in the wilderness (7:38).

In Acts and in Paul, in contrast to the LXX, the ekklēsia is found in multiple local expressions, subsets of Jesus’ ekklēsia. The people of God in Antioch or in Jerusalem are an ekklēsia and these gatherings can collectively be referred to as churches (ekklēsiai).[5] Paul’s reference to “the whole church” gathering together in Corinth (1 Cor 14:23) seems to indicate that smaller sub-units of the Corinthian church existed (for example, the ekklēsia which gathered in the house of Aquila and Priscilla, 16:19).[6] However, the sense of the singular ekklēsia carried in Matthew’s Gospel is not lost (e.g. 1 Cor 12:28; Gal 1:13; Eph 1:22, 5:23, 29).

In the Graeco-Roman world, an ekklēsia was a regularly-summoned legislative body, and any gathering of people around a speaker or an inspirational figure could also be described in the same way.[7] Thus, as with qāhāl, the term itself does not carry any indication of purpose. The adoption of the term by the early church not only affirmed continuity with Israel as the people of God, it perhaps also helped to identify the early Christians – especially after the separation of the Way from the synagogue – as a bona fide society within wider Graeco-Roman culture.

We might also note here the synagogue, the life of which forms important background to the worship of the early church. In Greek, the word is synagōgē, derived from the verb synagō, meaning “to gather, assemble, or bring together”.[8] In 36 instances in the LXX the word is also used to translate qāhāl.[9] The verb is in turn a compound of the preposition syn, the simple meaning of which is “with”, and the verb agō, meaning “to lead, or bring”.[10] Syn emphasises accompaniment or association in the compound words in which it appears, and noting this now is important for the survey of gathering in the New Testament which follows.[11]

Related to ekklēsia is the phrase epi to auto. The idiom has a background in the LXX and in the Gospels and is usually translated “together” or “in the same place”. However, its particular use in Acts (2:1, 44, 47) and 1 Corinthians (11:20; 14:23) suggests that the phrase may have carried, for the early Christians, a technical meaning akin to en tē ekklēsia that Metzger renders as “in church fellowship”, and Barrett casts as “in church”.[12] Hence, we find in the very designations of the church the concept of gathering as community.

[T]he focus of “church” is given by its character as “assembly”. This is probably the focus of Paul’s talk of believers “coming together in church”. For, obviously, Paul did not think of “in church” as “in a building”. He thought rather of Christians coming together to be church, as church. It was not as isolated individuals that believers functioned as “the church of God” for Paul. Rather, it was only as a gathering, for worship and for mutual support, that they could function as “the assembly of God”.[13]

From these initial lexical observations, we can now explore the New Testament data on the nature of the gathering of the ekklēsia in the New Testament.

2. “Gathering” and the Early Christians

i) Introduction

During the ministry of Jesus and his disciples, gatherings are the context for many of Jesus’ recorded miracles and teachings, with shared meals assuming a special importance.[14] Matthew’s recording of Jesus’ words “where two or three are gathered (synagō) in my name, there I am in the midst” (Matt 18:20), even though cast in the context of discipline within the church, anticipates the presence of the risen Christ in the life of the church.[15] During his ministry, Jesus himself affirms the gatherings of God’s people, in his own visits to synagogues.[16]

Within Luke’s corpus the theme of gathering develops from this base. Bereft of Jesus, the Eleven continue the pattern which they were formed in by Jesus during his ministry: they gather together with other disciples (Luke 24:33). This is the context for the appearance of the risen Jesus, the sharing of a meal with him, and hearing his teaching about the programme of mission (Luke 24:36-49). Later, Luke casts Jesus as the one gathering his disciples together for the purpose of this teaching and possibly to share another meal (Acts 1:4, 6).[17] It is at one of these continued gatherings of the disciples (described here using epi to auto) that the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit is received (2:1-2). The church is taught by Christ to gather, and is born in gathering. The church then continues to gather throughout the Acts narrative.

ii) Acts

Acts traces the story of the early years of the ekklēsia of Jesus Christ, and is a well-mined source for data on early Christian gatherings. First, of course, there are the well-known passages describing the life of the early community. Acts 2:42-47 is foremost amongst these. The chapter begins with the disciples gathered together epi to auto, which noting the conclusions above might be best rendered “in the church”, rather than the usual “in one place”.[18] The chapter describes the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the life of the Christian community in Jerusalem in the immediate post-Pentecost period. First, the community – or subsections of the community – gather for frequent meals in one another’s homes (Acts 2:46). Luke indicates here, through the close conjunction of “breaking of bread” (klōntes arton) and “sharing food” (metelambanon trophēs) that the Lord’s Supper was probably a part of these shared meals.[19] This sharing was part of a wider sharing of resources (2:44). Apart from meeting in homes, the believers – probably focussed around the apostles – also gathered in the Temple (2:46). This was perhaps the primary venue for teaching and prayer (2:42; Cf. 4:1; 5:21).[20] If this was the case, it does not preclude teaching and prayer also in the home setting.[21] Later in Acts, the combination of more public gatherings (Solomon’s portico, 5:12; the synagogue, 19:8; and, the hall of Tyrannus, 19:9) and private gathering in homes seems to have continued.[22] This perhaps reflects a distinction between the proclamation (kerygma) of the church, which continued in more public locations, and instruction (didachē), which continued in homes.

Shared homes, meals and resources are all part of the devotion of these early believers to fellowship (koinōnia). The meaning of the Greek term is debated, but fundamental to koinōnia is commonality – a common, shared experience. It expresses, in wider use, harmonious partnership, forged in common purpose and labour.[23] It is preferable to understand koinōnia in Acts 2 in this way. The sharing of goods is not the koinōnia; neither is it merely an expression of the koinōnia. Rather, it is a component of the koinōnia.[24] It is commonality that is both demonstrated and achieved in the selling of possessions, and the redistribution of wealth to the poorer members of the community. The gathering of the early Christian community in Jerusalem (whether in the temple or in homes), also both demonstrates and achieves the commonality of koinōnia. This sense is also captured by the description that the believers were epi to auto (2:44).

In Acts 4, the community gathers together to pray after the arrest and release of Peter and John (4:31). Juxtaposed with this account of prayer is a second summary of the fellowship of the believers in Jerusalem. Here, Luke employs the emotive phrase en kardia kai psychē mia (“they were one in heart and life”) to express their unity (4:32). This kind of phrase appears in the descriptions of idealised philosophical communities, and of friendship, in Hellenistic literature.[25] Luke is here deliberately emphasising, in terms that would be familiar to both Jewish and Gentile readers, the church as an ideal community.[26] However, in Luke’s summary this common life is intertwined with the unique, powerful proclamation of the apostles concerning the resurrection of Jesus (4:32-34).

In Acts 12, in a similar pattern to Acts 4, when Peter is in prison the community are gathered for prayer in the house of Mary – and possibly in other locations (12:12, 17). Later, after Barnabas and Paul return to Antioch after their missionary journey – a journey during which they preach to gatherings in the synagogues (synagōge; 13:5, 14; 14:1) – the ekklēsia is gathered together (synagagontes) by the apostles to hear a report of all that God had done (14:27). It seems likely that the contrast between these gatherings is deliberate, as Luke casts the church as the new, authentic gathering of God’s people.[27] The church in Antioch is again gathered by the apostles and the envoys to hear the deliverance from the Council of Jerusalem (15:30). At this gathering, the envoys Judas and Silas address the church at some length (15:32). The Jerusalem Council itself is a “coming together” of apostles and elders to discuss the relationship of Gentile believers to the Law of Moses (15:5-6). In Troas in Acts 20 the practice of meeting on the first day of the week to break bread is the context for Paul’s own lengthy sermon. The community is meeting in a home, on the evening of the Lord’s Day, not only for the Lord’s Supper but also to hear teaching (20:7-12).

Luke’s history of the early Christian church therefore paints a portrait of gathering together as critical to the identity and practice of these communities. The church gathers in the temple and in houses to fellowship together. The koinōnia of the community is seen in its prayer, breaking of bread, teaching and proclamation. In fact, their gathering is the expression of a common life, including a sharing of food and possessions, and a common proclamation. It is precisely in this context of a common life that the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, and that teaching and prayer are practised.

iii) The Pauline Correspondence

Whereas Luke’s language is largely that of “gathering” (synagō), Paul’s language in the first letter to the Corinthians is of “coming together” (synerchomai). The title of this paper, “When you come together”, is drawn from 1 Corinthians, where Paul uses “coming together” six times. In Chapter 14, he writes:

When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (1 Cor 14:26)

As edifying as these words may be, the context of Paul’s uses of synerchomai is negative. Paul uses the verb in highlighting the difficulties in these early Christian house-gatherings.[28] The puzzle of 11:19 notwithstanding, Paul has knowledge of regrettable divisions when the believers “come together”, at least in certain contexts (11:18).[29] Their so-called “Lord’s Supper” is not in fact the sacrament, since when they “come together” to eat and to break bread it is an opportunity for the “strong” to lord it over the “weak” (11:22). Rather than a sharing of food, sustenance depends on status. Some are drunk and some go hungry during the meals which are the setting for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (11:21).[30] The language of “coming together” is repeated twice at the end of the section to urge unity and the well-being of the church (11:33-34). The problems are so great that, in Paul’s assessment, the act of coming together is detrimental to the church rather than building it up (11:17). At no point here does Paul urge these believers not to come together, nor does he urge a subset of the believers to abandon those whose behaviour he sees as problematic. However, earlier in the letter he has set the gathering of the church as the context for church discipline. It is when the community have gathered (synagō) that the one guilty of sexual immorality is to be removed from their midst (5:1-7).

Paul’s treatment of tongues and prophecy in the church in 1 Corinthians 14 similarly emphasises “coming together” as the context both for sung praise and prayer (14:3, cf. Eph 5:18-19), and for teaching (14:15, 26, 29). The emphasis in this chapter is that whatever is done must be done in order, rather than in confusion, and done for the building up of the church. Of special note is Paul’s concern with the reaction of unbelievers who may be present in the coming together of the church (14:23-25).[31]

Paul’s love of compound syn-verbs expressing togetherness continues in his other letters. Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus and Colossae that they have been made alive together (syzōopoeiō) with Christ (2:5); they are a building, with Christ as the cornerstone, or a body with Christ as the head. In both cases they are held together (synarmologeō) by Christ, and it is this togetherness that causes their growth (2:20-22; 4:15-16). In Philippians, Paul desires that the church might struggle together (synathleō) for the faith of the gospel, in a united spirit, as one person (mia psychē, 1:27).[32] The believers are to rejoice together with Paul and one another (sygchairō, Phil 2:17-18).

Paul’s overriding concern with the unity of these early churches is well-recognised, and his understanding of how that unity is to be expressed reflects the portrait in Acts. Believers should share burdens, and do good to one another, especially to the one in need (Gal 6:2,10; Eph 4:28); good things are to be shared together, and especially with those who teach (1 Tim 6:18; Gal 6:6). The expressions of koinōnia in Acts accord in Paul’s use of the same word and its cognates; sharing is a repeated theme.[33] This sharing is rooted in the koinōnia of believers with Jesus Christ, and this is expressed in the midst of their meetings together as they break bread, sharing together in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 1:9; 1 Cor 10:16). We see Paul’s heart for the common life of these believers in this striking passage:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing (koinōnia) in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in life (sympsychoi) and one in your thinking (Phil 2:1-2).

This koinōnia and sharing is not merely a high spiritual ideal for Paul. It finds concrete expression in the collection for the poor church in Jerusalem, which Paul champions (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:4; 9:13).

iv) Hebrews

In the letter to the Hebrews we find an exhortatory sermon to a faltering community of believers. It is a unique example of early Christian oral rhetoric, exposition and exhortation. The epideictic sections in 10:19-25 and 13:1-17 both emphasise the common life of the gathered community. Motivation towards love and good deeds is to be mutual, and is set alongside the absolute necessity of gathering together (episynagōgēn heautōn; 10:24-25). It is only active participation in the gathered life of the community that makes all these things possible.[34] The contrast in v.25 makes clear that gathering together is essential for the encouraging (parakaleō) that will strengthen faith.[35] The difficult circumstances faced by the congregation may have led, as Lane surmises, to a daily gathering of the believers for this purpose.[36] The range of parakaleō does not allow this encouragement to be conceived of simply as mutual reassurance, or comfort in one another’s mere presence, but rather as exhortation, warning, or reproof – meaning that teaching from the scriptures (of the kind employed in the sermon itself) is probably in view.[37]

The community is strongly urged towards continuing the good works and sharing (koinōnia, 13:16) that have been their hallmark in the past (6:10). The believers are a body, and so they must also share with those who are unable to participate in this shared life because of incarceration – in this case identifying with them, remembering them (13:3). Hebrews 13 also furnishes information about the ethical life of the community: hospitality, sexual purity, contentment and respect for leaders are all part of their common life (13:1-7, 17). We do not have space to consider the wider ethical character of the church, but can notice that this is all part of the common context of worship (13:16).

This brief survey demonstrates the importance of the gathering of the church. Gathering is not simply for practising a defined set of rituals; it is the fundamental context for the expression of the common life of the members. In the modern west, in an age of telecommunications technology and motorised transport, and of failing community bonds, it is difficult for us to appreciate the localised nature of the early church, and the necessary physicality of their koinōnia. The New Testament scriptures witness to the importance of a common life for these early Christians.

3. The Content of Gathering

In addition, we can conclude that there were several important elements of content to the gatherings of these ekklēsiai. They gathered in a certain degree of continuity with the practice of the covenant community of Israel. The church in time replaced the synagogue for those who first believed in Jesus as Messiah. The content of church gatherings was similar to the synagogue (including the wider community functions), although both Jewish and, increasingly, Gentile believers were present.[38] Paul’s concerns in 1 Cor 12-14 are often thought to mirror the three main elements of synagogue worship: praise, prayer and instruction.[39] However, the central elements of content that emerge from our survey are somewhat broader: prayer; the proclamation and teaching of the scriptures; shared meals; the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; a sharing of homes and resources, including possessions; the singing of songs.[40] To these core elements can be added: discipline, the collecting of alms, and reports from the wider church.

We can note, firstly, that there is an over-riding concern in the New Testament with what we might call the “practical” or human-focussed elements in the gathering of churches. Secondly, any neat division of “spiritual” or God-focussed elements from these that are “practical” cannot be observed in the texts. Neither can koinōnia properly be separated out as a practical element alongside other “spiritual” elements. Even if some aspects of the common life, such as the distribution of food, required apostolic oversight (which is what precipitates the developments in Acts 6), other informal sharing would take place in homes. Keener makes the point that such informal sharing would not be part of “a formal worship ‘service’”.[41] This is undoubtedly true. Nevertheless, such sharing would occur in the context of gathering in homes which was also the context for the more “formal” elements. Both “formal” sharing in elements of ritual, and informal sharing of life were part of the same gatherings.

At first, the church in Jerusalem seems to be gathering daily. In times of pressure, the church perhaps also met very frequently. However frequently believers met together, it was the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, that was designated early on as the day on which the ekklēsia of Christ would meet. This is attested in Acts 20:7, 1 Cor 16:2 and it seems in Revelation 1:10, a pattern that continues the circumstance of the very first gathering of the disciples of the Risen Christ.[42] This pattern of Lord’s Day gathering is also attested in later sources: the Didache, Ignatius, Justin and the Letter of Pliny.[43] In 1 Corinthians 16, the Lord’s Day gathering is the context for the collection of alms for the church in Jerusalem, and it is clear that Paul has urged this practice on a wider front (16:1-3).

Within this elemental pattern, further liturgical details can be detected.[44] The Aramaic prayer maranatha (“Come, Lord”) is a clear example (1 Cor 16:22), together with the scattered hymns, creeds and doxologies of the NT documents.[45] There is a mixture of the old and the new, the structured and the free. For example, psalms are sung alongside new hymns and songs, both of which can be found in the texts of the New Testament.[46] Teaching can also be distilled into the established and the new: the reading and exposition of Old Testament texts, with the newness of interpretation and application (as we find in, for example, the sermon of Hebrews, or in Paul’s letter to the Galatians); the newness of prophecy, including speaking in tongues;[47] and the recitation of existing prayers from the synagogue, together with the Lord’s Prayer, alongside the newness of new prayers in the Spirit.[48] Perhaps in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 we find the bare bones of a Pauline order of service, although this is debated.[49] The basic elements seem to be similar wherever the church is gathered. By the mid-second century, a two-fold liturgy of instruction followed by the Lord’s Supper seems to have become established.[50]

Here we must note two important points: First, the attention directed to these fairly limited data on gatherings is often out of balance with the actual concern of the texts in which they are found. For example, the tendency for historians and church leaders to look for liturgical detail in these small tracts of text must be tempered by the realisation that Luke himself seems rather disinterested in the precise content and order of these gatherings. As Bock notes:

With as much time and energy as we give to the structure and the makeup of church leadership and worship, it is somewhat surprising that Luke says so little about this topic in Acts… We are told nothing about what a worship service looked like, how long it was, or what kind of hymns were sung. It is bare bones in terms of detail. Luke is far more interested in how the church engages their calling to take the message of the gospel into the world.[51]

The same can be said of the sparse and scattered data in Paul.[52]

Second, it is the holy, common life of the church and its unity in and around Christ that is the thorough-going emphasis of the New Testament, rather than details of worship services. It is the koinōnia, the common life of the gathered church, that is the context for all of the elements noted above. There is no sense in which the New Testament can support the idea of a private Christianity. Neither does it support the idea of gathering for solely spiritual, rather than practical, reasons. The two are inseparably intertwined.

The above does not mean that the liturgy, or content, of Christian gatherings is unimportant, just that this question needs to be set within a perspective that apprehends the centre of gravity of Paul’s or Luke’s concern: the common life of the church. The important question to address now is this: can these gatherings be correctly understood as “worship”? Or, what is the intersection of “gathering” and “worship” in the New Testament?

II. Gathering and Worship in the NT

1. Everyone Worships

In Paul’s understanding of the world, everybody worships. The critical question is not whether someone worships or not, but what they worship. Although human beings have been created to worship God, those whose minds are darkened have exchanged worshipping (sebazomai) and serving (latreuō) God for the worship and service of created things (Romans 1:25).[53] Paul’s use of sebazomai in Rom 1:25 is a hapax legomenon, but if it is taken as a semantic variation on the more usual proskuneō (perhaps to give it a pagan flavour), then Paul here can be understood as echoing strongly the common Old Testament dyad proskuneōlatreuō.[54] The occurrences of this dyad in the LXX are anchored in the prohibition against idolatry in Exodus 20:5: “you shall not worship them or serve them”. Both of these terms have strong cultic associations, although they are both used in a wider context. The veneration and worship expressed by proskuneō is rooted in the action of bowing or prostrating before a superior (including a deity) to kiss the superior (or the ground). It conveys the idea of complete dependence on, or submission to, one who is superior.[55] The sense of latreuō as worship is the performance of religious duties, with the simple meaning of the verb being to serve (things, people or deities).[56] In the LXX this dyad is overwhelmingly found in contexts of idolatry – which is Paul’s subject in Romans 1 – but is also used to describe the worship of Yahweh.[57] The proskuneō – latreuō dyad is used by Matthew and Luke to report the words of Jesus in rebutting the temptation of Satan: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only” (Matt 4:10; Luke 4:8). This is interesting, since Deuteronomy 6:13, which Jesus quotes here, has the much less common combination (in the LXX) of phobeōlatreuō. Whatever combinations we have, the coupled verbs express, first, an attitude of dependence and reverence and, second, the ritual activities of the cult driven by this reverence.[58]

2. Life as Worship

In Romans 12, Paul appropriates the language of cultic worship, applying it in a broad sense:

present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship (latreia) (Rom 12:1).

This verse has received much attention in exploring the contours of worship in the New Testament. Some have used it as the key platform on which to build an argument that “we do not meet specifically to worship God” and that “we do not go to church to worship”.[59] Paul, in co-opting latreia, undoubtedly sets out a broadly-conceived view of life-as-worship (as he also does in Rom 6:12-13). However, the verses that immediately follow here in chapter 12, where the reference to worship is explicit, are striking in that Paul straightaway applies this exhortation to worship in the life of the church community as a body. In his exposition of this idea of cultic worship, he emphasises that the members of this one body are also members of one another (12:5). The individual bodies are offered in worship as one body. The themes of the exposition – humility, prophecy, prayer, exhortation, leadership, rejoicing, sharing in needs, hospitality – are all elements of the gathering of God’s people corresponding to our earlier survey. We might say that Paul in Romans 12:1 is writing about “gathered worship”.

So, worship as “service” involves serving God in our relationships with one another:

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honour; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord (douleuō); rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practising hospitality (Rom. 12:10-13).

The three injunctions in the centre of the section (not lagging, fervent, serving) are explanatory of the devotion to the Lord and one another. Serving God is seen in serving fellow Christians. This same correlation is seen at the end of the letter to the Philippians, where the gift sent to Paul from the church in Philippi is “an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God (Phil 4:18). This blurring of any neat boundary between “vertical” and “horizontal” elements is something to which we will return.

Whilst Paul’s emphasis here is on the fellowship of the church as worship, Paul elsewhere takes for granted that those elements of gatherings which are addressed to God are also worship. Particular elements are addressed to God verbally. Paul writes often about prayers, thanksgiving and singing to God. The New Testament also makes clear that in gathering, the church receives from God. The hearing of the word is at the centre of the gathered life of the church. Those that participate in the gathered life of the church experience “the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age” (Heb 6:5).

3. The Ritual of Gathered Worship

In addition to the above, Paul seems to have no difficulty at all with the concept of gathering in a particular place for worship. Luke reports Paul’s response to Felix in Acts 24, when he explains that “no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship (proskuneō)” (24:11). Paul attended synagogues during his visit, but it is the temple specifically that is presented as the site of his worship (21:26; 24:17-18). Whatever the complications of the circumstances surrounding this visit to the temple – the church in Jerusalem is responding to criticism from the Jewish community (21:21) – this is not nostalgic sightseeing for Paul. He sets his actions in the temple within a Christian context: “I admit that I worship (latreuō) the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect” (24:14). We can note that here again we find the proskuneōlatreuō dyad in the context of Christian worship.[60] The important point is that Paul himself clearly conceives of his actions in going to the location of the temple on a certain day as worship. Returning briefly to 1 Corinthians 14, and Paul’s concern with outsiders, we can also note his description of the reaction of the one who is convicted: “So they will fall down and worship (proskuneō) God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (14:25). Here, worship is God-directed, and takes place specifically in the encounter with the gathered, worshipping community.

Away from Paul, although from within the Pauline circle, we can note the emphasis in Hebrews 9. Here, worship (latreia) under the Mosaic Law (9:1) is transformed, through the ministry of Jesus Christ as high priest and the redemption he secures, into the worship (latreia) of God in the New Covenant (9:14). In the Old Covenant this worship was to do with the tabernacle and especially the sacrifices (9:2-10). We can then return to Hebrews 13:15-16, where the corresponding transformation of these sacrifices is seen:

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased (Heb. 13:15-16).

Here the writer likens spoken or sung praise to a sacrifice – offered to God by our lips. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that the author of Hebrews would have understood the sung praise of the gathered church as worship.[61] He also, like Paul in Romans 12, understands that “actions contributing to the welfare of others are essential to the sacrifice of praise that is ‘pleasing to God’”.[62] There is an explicit identification of fellowship with worship. The cultic language employed here reflects the preceding context where cultic imagery is marshalled for the purposes of exhortation (13:10-13). As Koester notes, “[t]he author is not spiritualizing the notion of sacrifice, since the listeners are to serve fellow Christians, strangers, prisoners, and the afflicted in physical ways”.[63] So, here in Hebrews 13 we have both “vertical” and “horizontal” aspects of the gathering of the church cast in terms of cultic worship.[64]

In the New Testament, worship is explicitly an all-embracing approach to life.[65] The Pauline injunction to do all to the glory of God and the service of the Lord Christ, even activities which we often consider mundane such as eating and drinking (1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:24), was one impetus behind the Reformation recovery of the holiness of life, and that every good activity of life was to be undertaken to the glory of God. Therefore, any view of worship as something restricted to gatherings of the church cannot accord with the outlook of the New Testament. It is undoubtedly true that the church has not always spoken of life-as-worship, and this is one of the things that engenders the corrosive sacred-secular divide in the minds of many Christians.

However, neither can it accord with the New Testament outlook that the gatherings of the church are conceived of in some way as not worship.[66] If we adopt the biblical view of life-as-worship, and if we understand that this worship is something especially related to the relationships within the church community, then it is clearly legitimate to designate church gatherings as “worship”. Within life-as-worship, we specifically gather to worship together. Ridderbos observes that, “for Paul the meeting of the church nevertheless has a specific and highly important significance”.[67] The question then becomes: what is distinctive about gathered worship within life-as-worship? It is clear from the apostles’ practice and exhortation that gathered worship was considered essential for the early Christians, and that it was special and regular in nature. In the words of Jesus, in the testimony of Acts, and also in 1 Corinthians 14 it is in gathering that God, or Christ, is present in a mode different to his universal presence. Why is this? What is it about gathering that is distinctive and important?

III. Components of a Biblical Theological Framework for Gathered Worship

To approach a theological rationale for answering these questions, I suggest here two elements of New Testament theology (in fact, both are primarily found in Pauline theology) that help us to understand the portrait of worship in the early church, and that could help us to resolve questions surrounding worship in the contemporary church.

1. The Ekklēsia as the New Humanity

We can begin with a distinctively Pauline metaphor: the ekklēsia as the new humanity, which we can only consider in a brief sketch. Paul employs this idea in Ephesians 2:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two… (Eph 2:14-15).

Paul here has in mind a new eschatological humanity, inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to be perfected at his appearing. He develops the metaphor from the indicative of chapter 2 to the imperative of chapter 4, where the audience are exhorted towards an anthropological metanoia, turning away from living as the old humanity, and embracing life as the new humanity. The concept is found in the parallel Col 3:9-10, and expressed in a different manner in the new creation of 2 Cor 5:17 and Gal 6:15.[68]

For Paul, the church expresses human community as it will be in the eschatological kingdom of God.[69] The vision of the cosmic redemption of God’s creation in Jesus Christ, includes the redemption of human community in the age to come.[70] Since this age has already begun in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the eschatological ekklēsia is called to live the life of the age to come in the present.[71] The church is an anachronistic entity, a community of the age of “the restoration of all things”, living in the age of “this world”. The Now-Not Yet tension in the inaugurated eschatology of the New Testament is the foundation for the Now-Not Yet tension in the community ethic of the church. As the new humanity, the church must live out the community life of the new humanity. However, since its members remain entangled in the decaying old order, this lived life is imperfect, and repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for forgiveness must attend every step.[72]

The new humanity recovers God’s intentions for human beings as his image, which is achieved through believers being conformed to the image of Christ.[73] Jesus Christ is the exact imprint, the perfect image of God, whose image we will in turn bear.[74] God’s purpose is that the church would be conformed to its head, Christ, and live as a community of men and women functioning as the image of God in God’s world – a community communing with the Creator, and mediating his love and righteousness into his world – to all other entities in the created world, and especially to one another.[75]

Gathering together is not merely the context for the “horizontal” component of human beings as the Imago dei, but the “vertical”; communion with God is at the heart of Reformed ecclesiology. In the gathering of the church, in word and in sacrament, through the ministry of the Spirit we are made to share in the new creation through the means of grace.[76]

We need not – indeed must not – choose between a view of the church as a purely passive recipient of grace and a view of it as an active bearer of grace. We are always passive recipients of grace from God and active agents of love to our neighbour. Grace activates works; love flows from faith.[77]

This framework also helps in explaining why so much of Paul’s pastoral exhortation is towards a community ethic. This is the theological framework within which Paul’s syn-verbs makes sense. This is why most of Paul’s imperatives are plural.[78] As Wright points out, the calling to holiness in the life of the church is not a call towards individualistic ethics (in contrast to say, Plato), but towards “a community that embodies in its own life the wise ordering which is the creator’s will”.[79]

That the ekklēsia is to be fundamentally considered as an eschatological community is demonstrated in Jesus’ statement that the “gates of Hades” will not prevail against his building of it. The gates of Hades here is a reference to the power of death.[80] In the understanding of Jesus, it is death that will not prevent the eschatological ekklēsia from standing complete in the new age. Its completion is secured through his own atoning death and resurrection, and realised on the day when death will be defeated. Hence Matthew 16:18, as the first ekklēsia text in the New Testament, is rooted in Jesus’ power over death as the Resurrected One.

The resurrection of Jesus should be at the heart of Christian gathering and koinōnia. The day on which the church gathers is the day of his resurrection, the first day of the week.[81] In addition, the liturgical prayer maranatha expresses the eschatological focus of the early church, as it awaits the return of the Saviour who desires to gather with them again, in community, over a ritual meal in the kingdom of God (Matt 26:29). If we are seeking to recover a biblical conception of worship in the life of the church, it is still the case that “one of the most pressing needs of evangelicalism in the West is that of the recovery of the biblical priority given to eschatology”.[82]

2. The Church as the Body of Christ

The second metaphor is more familiar: the church as the body of Christ.[83] It is found in close proximity to the first in the letter to the Ephesians; at the end of chapter 1 Paul states that, “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph 1:22-23). The new humanity as one body is realised through the offering of one body on the cross – Paul’s language is deliberately ambiguous (2:16). Both the far-off Gentiles and the near Jews have been united en Christō. We may also note here, in passing, the significance in Paul’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a koinōnia in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 10:16).

In Romans 12, where Paul is dealing with the life of the church, he emphasises that believers are one body in Christ (12:5). This thought is developed further in 1 Corinthians 12, where not only are the believers one body and are baptised into it by one Spirit (12:12-13), but the church is referred to by the cipher “the Christ” (12:12). This is made more explicit later, where the care of the community in suffering together and rejoicing together leads to the statement, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (12:27). Space precludes a detailed exploration, but Paul’s thought here is that the church is the embodied representation of Christ to the world.[84] This brings us back to Ephesians; there are strong connections between 1 Cor 12:27-31 and Eph 4:11-16. This latter text builds on the “body of Christ” in 2:22-23, and on Paul’s emphasis on the common life and worship of the church (the unity of the Spirit; one body; one Spirit; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 4:3-5). Christ has given grace and gift in the church to each member, and teachers specifically so that the “body of Christ” would be built up (4:12). The body grows when each part functions correctly amongst all the others (4:16).

The church as Christ’s body is more than metaphor. As Calvin writes, the believers “do not constitute a mere body-politic, but are the spiritual and mystical body of Christ”.[85] Paul’s theology of the body of Christ was undoubtedly formed in part by his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4). This identification of Christians with the risen Christ is seen in Paul’s emphasis, not only on believers being in Christ, but also on Christ being in believers (Rom 8:10; Col 1:27-28).

Gospel traditions form important background here. The vine imagery of John 15 aligns with the Pauline en Christō, and John 14:20 expresses both aspects of this mutual indwelling: “On that day you will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” Perhaps most significant for our understanding of the life of the church is Jesus’ statement in the discourse of Matthew 25: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40).

IV. Questions of Contemporary Worship

This framework then is of (i) the church as the new humanity, the eschatological ekklēsia of Christ; and (ii) the body of Christ, in which Christ is present, in which Christ’s life is found through the Spirit, and in which the image of Christ is being formed.[86] Both of the components of the framework are utilised by Paul in the context of the life and worship of the church. Both shed light on why it is that the shared, community life of the church – its koinōnia – is so important, and why the unity of the church as God’s family ought to be expressed in practical ways when the church gathers – both in formal or informal settings. This framework helps us to achieve a greater clarity in addressing contemporary questions. There follow brief suggestions in a number of areas.

1. Polarities of Worship

First, we can address what we might call the polarities of worship. There are two oft-mentioned polarities: first, “vertical” and “horizontal” elements of worship; second, “gathered worship” versus “life-as-worship”.

First, a few words on the vertical-horizontal duality: Vertical elements of worship are often conceived as spiritual elements – those elements directed towards God or which are thought to belong to the “spiritual” side of Christian experience. These are usually identified as prayer, praise, and the reading and preaching of the word. Horizontal elements are often identified as those directed towards the members of the church, for example sharing, alms-giving or discipline. As we have seen, in the New Testament these components of worship are intertwined. They all occur in the context of the gathered community. Moreover, the “horizontal” aspects of the koinōnia of the community are, as we have seen, also cast as worship of God by both Paul and the author of Hebrews.[87]

The framework of the church as the body of Christ illuminates why this is so: Christ is present in us as individuals and in the gathering of the church. We do not worship each other, but in our love one for another we are worshipping the Christ whose body we are members of, and the Father of the Christ, who has called us into his family. Whilst we may helpfully talk of the vertical and horizontal in worship, we must temper any stark polarity between these with the truth of Christ’s presence in our brothers and sisters. In the words of the song:

So let us learn how to serve, and in our lives enthrone him
Each other’s needs to prefer, for it is Christ we’re serving.[88]

Second, we can briefly consider the place of gathered worship within life-as-worship. The framework above, and the data of the New Testament only allows a conclusion that life is to be lived as worship. Any attempt to focus worship solely on the church’s gatherings, or “services” is mistaken. In the New Testament, and in Reformed theology, worship is explicitly an all-embracing approach to life.

At the same time, as we have seen, there is no scriptural reason to be uncomfortable with the idea of gathering to worship. Again, the church as the body of Christ sheds light on this question. Since Christ is present especially in our gatherings, and since we partake of Christ together in the Lord’s Supper, our gathering in one another’s presence is a special expression of our worship of Christ. Christ is the absent one for whom we wait at our remembrance meal – we await the day when he will be present. So, gathering is a special moment, or mode, of the worship of the church. It is in the gathering of the church that someone may exclaim, “God is really among you!” (1 Cor 14:25). As Frame writes, “in the meeting, God draws near to his people in a special way”.[89]

The framework component of the church as the new humanity also assists us here. The gathered church expresses most clearly the reality of this Not Yet community in the Now. The church scattered lives as salt and light in the present age, but the church’s gatherings are the times in which the life of the eschatological ekklēsia ought to be most richly-expressed in the midst of this present age. This is why Paul is concerned about the reactions of outsiders that encounter it, and why the gathered worship of the church can rightly be conceived of as a missional event.[90]

In another sense, the worship of God’s people as they are scattered and as they are gathered is not contingent upon this eschatological tension; it is simply a part of life in God’s world. In the Old Testament, the people of God gathered to worship together according to a rhythm of festivals that was closely coupled to the rhythms of the natural world. This pattern was continued in the founding of the synagogue, where communities also gathered each Sabbath – a pattern that seems to be the foundation for the practice of the early church. We might argue that fruitful human community, enjoying God and serving him, exhibits a rhythm of gathering and scattering in the interplay between the personal and the corporate, between the private and the public, and between adoration and action (whether in this age or in the age to come).[91] We see this kind of rhythm in the life of Jesus as he seeks time alone, as well as time with others. The church lives and breathes – its gathering brings in the oxygen of God’s word, and the presence of Christ, as God is praised. It then lives in the world, breathing out the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed, imaging the Lord. Gathered worship plays a particular part in the rhythm of living for God’s glory in God’s world.

We can reasonably conclude that rather than polarising gathered worship and life-as-worship (either through a restricted view of what worship is, or through a desire to re-emphasise life-as-worship), the church rightly ought to understand worship in the broad sense (life-as-worship), and also speak of “gathered worship,” appreciating its necessity and investing in this special mode of worship.

2. Scripture as Regulating and Scripture as Normative

One of the questions that is often re-visited by the church is that of how we use the data of scripture to regulate our worship. Reformed churches have, historically, given the answer that scripture has a positive function in sanctioning the elements of worship, rather than a veto on those things that are expressly forbidden. This is the regulative principle – that whatever scripture does not positively command as part of worship is forbidden.[92]

In our survey above it was noted that at the birth of the church, whilst the importance of the cult ceased for Christians, the elements of worship associated with the synagogue were retained, both in early Jewish gatherings and in the increasingly Gentile gatherings later on. Even the distinctive new elements of baptism and the Lord’s Supper find their roots in Jewish rites. New prayers, songs and confessions were developed, but there was no explosion in innovations in the elements of worship for the early Christians. There is an undoubted simplicity in this worship – it is capable of being conducted in the average home with the only required items being a cup, bread and wine.

Paul seems to set store in the idea that elements of order and practice are standardised, at least in his mind, across the churches as a whole – not only those he has established (11:16). The basic pattern of worship established in the early church seems to be regulative to the apostles, and in the early church this pattern continues. However, we recall our earlier observation that scripture does not give very much detail, nor does it demonstrate a concern with detail, when it comes to gathered worship.

Bock addresses the question of the normative nature of the descriptions of the church in Acts. He focusses on the sharing of possessions, and points out that this was a voluntary behaviour of the community and not a command.[93] How the values of the church are worked out depends on the specific settings of our communities, and the Spirit will give direction.[94]

To return to the regulative principle, Frame sets out a helpful treatment. He affirms the principle, as set out in the Westminster Confession (21.1), as an important insight into the nature of worship: “[c]an any of us trust ourselves to determine, apart from Scripture, what God does and does not like in worship?”[95] However, Frame also points out that scripture does not furnish us with detailed guidance for our gathered worship. He proposes that human wisdom must also be applied to questions of worship, developing his view from the Confession’s acknowledgement that there are “circumstances concerning the worship of God,… common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (WCF 1.6).[96] We can note that the Confession sets worship within the context of the natural order of life in God’s world, which is a point of contact with the theological framework set out above. Frame builds on this particular point of contact:

Typically, Scripture tells us what we should do in general and then leaves us to determine the specifics by our own sanctified wisdom, according to the general rules of the Word. Determining the specifics is what I call “application”.[97]

The task of the church, according to Frame, is to apply scripture in wisdom to the particular setting of the church, recognising the particular purposes for gathered worship set out in scripture.[98] The strength of this idea of “application” is that it applies not only to gathered worship, but also to life-as-worship.[99] Frame’s position reflects, in my view, not only the data of the New Testament, but also the theological framework set out above.

3. Cultural Concerns

The observations above then assist us in another area of discussion: Should the church strive to be culturally relevant? Or should it maintain a culture of its own, as a counter-cultural society?

Of course, casting the options in this way presents false alternatives. The inclusion of Gentiles in the early church congregations leads to Paul’s concern with sensitivity towards those from various cultural backgrounds within the church (e.g. Rom 14:1-8). Paul is also concerned about how the church is seen against the culture in which it is situated. He is concerned about the reactions of outsiders, and his teaching on the place of women in worship – in their speaking and not-speaking – makes most sense if understood as driven by cultural, or socio-religious, concerns (1 Cor 11:5-6; 14:34-35).[100] We have already noted how Luke appeals to cultural conventions in his descriptions of the church. Paul, too, appeals to the surrounding culture (Acts 17:28; Cf. 1 Cor 15:32-33). Yet, it is fundamental to the church that elements of the surrounding culture and its mores are rejected (e.g. 1 Cor 6:9-11).

The understanding of the church as the eschatological new humanity leads to the view that human life in all its richness is to be lived in God’s world to God’s glory. So, the church is to affirm everything in God’s world that is good, expressed in human cultures, and these things are to be received with thanks (1 Tim 4:4). This reflects the Reformed doctrine of common grace. The church in every place and time in the world must glorify God in its own cultural setting (both by affirmation and by rejection) in its own unique manner.[101] There is a missional element to this determined engagement with, and participation in, culture. The church is to affirm what is good, not just in its own life but in the world outside. The church is to “seek the good of the city” in which it finds itself. This kind of thinking has resulted in Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City adopting “cultural renewal” into its vision and values.[102] The overflow of God’s love and grace in the church is experienced by the world outside: “let us do good to all people”, urges Paul (Gal 6:10), and “overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). An encounter with a community seeking to live as the new humanity in Christ ought to be a deeply challenging experience, especially in its celebratory, gathered worship, where the love, joy and peace of the new humanity is most clearly displayed, and the new life of Christ through the Spirit is evident.

4. Priorities for Gathered Worship

At so many points, the individualised and spiritualised conceptions of life and of salvation which history has bequeathed to evangelicalism have prevented an appreciation of koinōnia. In our own day, many of the debates which have consumed the energies of our churches have revolved around the “vertical” components of gathered worship. The “horizontal” elements of worship have, in comparison, been neglected – and sometimes seen as unnecessary accoutrements to the “serious” business of God-focussed worship. The New Testament’s over-riding concern with the ekklēsia as a community of koinōnia sets these rumbling debates in an unfavourable light. The energy expended on which hymn-book to use in church gatherings, which instruments to allow, or on discussions as to whether drinking tea is an appropriate activity to follow a service of worship must in this light be seen to be precious energy misdirected. All of this has eroded a commitment to gathered worship.[103]

This eroded commitment has precipitated further, particular neglects – of church discipline and almsgiving. The portrait of the New Testament church especially challenges our contemporary practice in these areas. The life and character, the integrity of the koinōnia of the new humanity must be protected through discipline, by corporately, prayerfully and mercifully exercising the authority that comes with the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16:19).[104] In addition, any members of this eschatological community who face hardship ought to be provided for by collective giving. In our modern Western context this might look somewhat different to the early church, where the realities of poverty were borne by the individual families with no assistance from the state – but perhaps ought not to look that different. The uncomfortable reality is that many of our churches reflect wider society’s division between those who have and those who do not. Any diaconal redistribution of resources is absent because poorer Christians are themselves absent. A social and economic vision driven by the eschatological vision of the new humanity must take root in the minds and hearts of the disciples of Jesus.

Often, the realities of our comings together ought to be a cause for humility. It is an indictment on the modern church in so many places that the gathering of the ekklēsia precipitates mistrust and friction. Ministers and elders are more aware than anyone of the divisions that can stalk our gatherings. In the Reformed church there is rightly a strong emphasis on: “you cannot be a Christian on your own.” And yet, it strikes me, it is often easier for people to be Christians on their own. In some places, as in Corinth, the coming together of the church is not for better, but for worse.

We need to recover a passion and care for gathered worship, not only in its vertical, but also in its horizontal components. And, as pressure on Western churches grows in increasingly secular societies, the need for a commitment to gathered worship becomes more acute, not less.[105] We need to recapture a sense of its importance, of the local ekklēsia of Christ as an instantiation in time and space of a redeemed and renewed humanity, as a shining city set on a hill against the dark backdrop of this world. We must renew our love of gathering, this important and particular mode of worship – it is ritual, part of the rhythm of life in God’s world. We need to recapture the nitty-gritty implications of the church as the body of Christ and of our service to one another as worship of our Lord. We need, in short, to be captivated by the idea of koinōnia.

The words of John Stott, written almost twenty years ago, are as apposite today as they were then:

It is simply impossible, with any shred of Christian integrity, to go on proclaiming that Jesus by his cross has abolished the old divisions and created a new single humanity of love, while at the same time we are contradicting our message… We need to get the failures of the church on our conscience, to feel the offence to Christ and the world which these failures are, to weep over the credibility gap between the church’s talk and the church’s walk, to repent of our readiness to excuse and even condone our failures and to determine to do something about it. I wonder if anything is more urgent today, for the honour of Christ and for the spread of the gospel, than that the church should be, and should be seen to be, what by God’s purpose and Christ’s achievement it already is – a single new humanity, a model of human community, a family of reconciled brothers and sisters who love their Father and love each other, the evident dwelling place of God by his Spirit. Only then will the world believe in Christ as Peacemaker. Only then will God receive the glory due to his name.


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