Worship in its broadest sense is something we are to be doing in every area of life – everything we do is supposed to be for God’s glory. Public worship is that declaring of God’s worth that occurs whenever His people gather together under His Word. Biblical corporate worship then is Word centered worship, performed in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
The Regulative Principle of Worship
We are to worship our Holy God only as He has stated in Scripture – all else is forbidden (Deuteronomy 4:2; eg: Hebrews 7:13-14). Theologians call this the “Regulative Principle of Worship”. This principle stands as a guard against the accumulation of traditions and practices adopted on the pretext that they do not explicitly conflict with Scripture. This principle defines what things (or ‘elements’) there are in New Testament worship.
The Elements of Public Worship
The New Testament clearly teaches that there are six things (or ‘elements’) that are permitted as part of corporate worship:
Reading the Word
The public reading of the Scriptures is an essential part of worship (eg: Nehemiah 8:1-9; Luke 4:16-20; Acts 13:15).
Preaching the Word
The preaching and teaching of the Scriptures are the heart of worship. This is entrusted to those men so gifted and called (usually the elders/pastors – Ephesians 4:7-13; 1 Timothy 5:17; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5). Women are excluded from this authoritative public ministry, not because they are in any way inferior, but in order to display the diversity of God’s created order (1 Timothy 2:11-13).
Praying the Word
Corporate prayer is to declare the truths and claim the promises of the Word – as they apply to the congregation (A familiar pattern for prayer is ACTS: Adoration; Confession, Thanks, Supplication).
Singing the Word
Congregational singing of Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that teach us about the truths and promises of the Word (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). These passages teach that the primary purpose for congregation singing is mutual instruction/edification. Consequently, the singing part of the worship should be under the oversight of the elder-ship, as much as other teaching part of the service. For the same reasons, songs should have a rich biblical content reflecting the full range of Christian theology and experience (such as modeled for us in the Psalms). Songs with poor musicality or shallow lyrics, or items that are short or highly repetitive, should be generally avoided as they do not serve the aim of edification-through-understanding. In our songs we seek to draw on the rich hymnbook of the past as well as the best of the present.
Seeing the Word
Christ’s commanded the ‘visible Words’ of Baptism (Matthew 28:18-20) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). These proclaim Christ’s work in us through His Word in visual form. These are the only visual aids permitted in worship.
Supporting the Word
Voluntary giving is commended as part of worship. (1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 9:6-7) The giving is distributed (often by the Deacons) to support the ministry of the word, either directly – or through practical assistance to those in need.
We see from passages like Acts 2:41-42,45 that these various elements were a part of New Testament worship from the beginning:
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. … And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Order of Worship
Corporate worship is to be done in an orderly manner (1 Corinthians 14:33a,40). However – Scripture does not specify how the elements in any particular service have to be arranged. This means that there is considerable freedom and flexibility depending on circumstances, the topic being preached, cultural context, etc. An sample service could have the following order: A Call to Worship (usually from a Psalm); Responsive song of Praise; Reading of the Law; Prayer of Confession; Song of Repentance; OT Reading; Collection of the Offering; Congregational Prayer; Song of Thanksgiving; NT Reading; Sermon; Lords Supper; Song; Closing Prayer or Benediction.
Our worship is responsive as God speaks to us through His Word and Spirit and the people respond in prayer and praise. This is why we generally have songs interspersed with prayer and the Word. This contrasts with the common mystical view of worship where a block of choruses lead to a mood, which is then misinterpreted as worship. Biblical worship rather aims to stir the heart through the mind as it comprehends the truths of the Word.
The Time of Worship
Throughout the Old Testament, God set aside the Sabbath as a day of corporate worship where the concerns of the normal routines of life were laid aside for this purpose (Exodus 20:8-11). This principle of weekly Sabbath worship continues in the Lord’s Day Sunday in the New Testament (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10). This is part of the reason why we delight to gather together for worship on the Lord’s Day.
The Lost Art of Corporate Worship
When one gifted person leads us in prayer – we all pray together endorsing their prayer. When we sing – we sing jointly together as one Body. When we hear the Word preached – we listen together. The Scripture commends corporate worship in a public service. We are not to be individuals each contemplating about Christ individually in our minds (mysticism) – but joint members of a local body that together worship our God and Savior. All are participating – we don’t all have to be up front to be involved in the worship.