"Some Contemporary Issues
Concerning Worship and the Christian Assembly"
PURPOSES OF THE CHRISTIAN ASSEMBLY
There is no systematic treatment in the scriptures of the purposes of the assembly of Christians. Nevertheless, there are several passages that speak to this subject, and my approach has been to collect these verses and organize them in a systematic way. It so happens that many of these passages occur in 1 Corinthians. The disorders in the congregational meetings at Corinth prompted Paul to give more attention to the assembly in this letter than anywhere else. Consequently, much of our discussion will center in 1 Corinthians, but not exclusively.
We come together in church to share in the Lord's supper, to hear the word of God, to pray, to sing, and to give. This lesson, however, is not about these activities that take place in the assembly of Christians. Rather, the intention here is to consider the reasons for doing these things. What are the purposes these activities are intended to accomplish?(1) The Bible gives us some guidance concerning the goals of our meeting together.
1 To Glorify and Praise God
Ephesians 3:21 offers the doxology: "To God be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen." The book of Ephesians uses the word church in the universal sense and without specific reference to the assembly;(2) indeed in this passage itself to be "in Christ Jesus" is to be "in the church." So, this statement has a wider reference than to the congregational assemblies. But certainly the meetings of the church are included. In assembly the church is showing itself to be the church.(3) Hence, the church glorifies God both inside and outside its assemblies.
Another passage that connects giving glory or praise to God with the assembly of the church is Hebrews 2:12. The author quotes Psalm 22:22 as the words of Jesus: "Jesus is not ashamed to call them [his people] brothers, saying, `I will proclaim your [God's] name to my brothers, in the midst of the assembly [ekklesia] I will praise [hymn] you.'" According to the Hebrew parallelism of this poetic verse, to proclaim or announce the name of God is equivalent to hymning or giving praise to him, and the brothers (and sisters) are gathered in assembly or in the congregation. There Jesus is present and is identified with his people, and he is pictured as praising God.
On the day when these words are being written there is a memorial service for one of the elderly members of my congregation. The family planned a praise service. Sitting in the service, I wondered what an unbeliever would make of the occasion--praising God at the death of a loved one. But for believers the service made perfect sense. This is what Christians do--they praise God. And so they certainly will do that when they come together as a church.
Since the assembly is to glorify God, it will reflect the nature of God. Paul uses the character of God as a standard by which to correct certain abuses in the assemblies of the Corinthian Christians. Against the disorderly, if not chaotic, and the unedifying meetings of the Christians at Corinth, Paul reminds them that "God is a God not of disorder but of peace" (1 Cor. 14:33); therefore, "all things should be done decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40). Since God is a God of order and peace, the assemblies of his people will reflect his nature and so be orderly. This is but one example of how the nature of God serves to regulate activities in the assembly. Other aspects of the nature of God similarly will govern conduct in the Christian assemblies: He is spirit (John 4:24); he is light in whom is no darkness (l John 1:5, 7), referring to his moral qualities and perhaps more; he is love (1 John 4:8); he is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16); he is a consuming fire to be approached with awe (Heb. 12:28-29); he is a living God (Heb. 9:14). These qualities of God are used in the respective passages to say something about how he is to be worshipped and served. They certainly speak to the attitudes and manner with which he is approached in the assemblies of the church.
Never, so far as I am aware, are human nature and human needs made a basis for activities in the assembly. Now I feel sure that some human needs are met in our assemblies, and our service to God is to be according to our spiritual, rational nature (Rom. 12:1). There is certainly a human dimension to our assemblies (see point number 3 below), but this human dimension is determined first of all by what gives glory to God and accords with his nature as the Creator of our human nature.
2 To Exemplify the Church
The word ekklesia, translated "church" in our modern English versions, means literally "assembly," or as it was rendered in some of the early English translations, "congregation." Hence, it is in assembly that the church shows itself to be what it is. The church is the gathered people of God, those called into the presence of God to meet with one another and to meet him who is their Creator. If we are a church, we must meet. Not to meet is to deny that we are a church. Paul expresses this purpose of meeting together in 1 Corinthians 11:18, "when you come together as a church," literally "in church." There are times when Christians come together "in church," when they present themselves as a church. They may be together at other times or in other capacities, but there are times when they are conscious of being the assembly of God in Christ. And it is those times that we are interested in for this series of studies.
Because the assembly represents the church as church, apostolic instructions apply to "all the churches." Paul stresses this point by repetition in 1 Corinthians. He may have been especially concerned about the church at Corinth because of the tendency of its members to "go their own way" and "do their own thing." He asks, "Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?" (1 Cor. 14:36). Sounds rather contemporary, does it not? And, so, at least four times in 1 Corinthians Paul reminds his readers that he gave the same instructions to all the churches. Timothy would "remind you [Corinthians] of my ways in Christ Jesus, as I teach them everywhere in every church" (1 Cor. 4:17). Paul's teaching on marriage is his "rule in all the churches" (1 Cor. 7:17). Concerning the head covering the custom of "the churches of God" is to be followed (1 Cor. 11:16). The silence of women is observed "in all the churches of the saints" (1 Cor. 14:33-34).
This insistence on common observance need not necessarily mean uniformity in every detail. There are certain to be regional, national, and cultural differences. Nevertheless, Paul taught a common practice. His instructions were the same everywhere. Certain principles applied to every church. This agreement in faith and practice would give a common identity to the churches, and that is expressed primarily in their corporate gatherings.
3 To Edify One Another
Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:26 sets forth edification as a purpose of the assembly: "When you come together, each one has a hymn [or psalm], a lesson [a teaching], a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up [edification]." It is not altogether clear whether Paul's list of activities is descriptive or prescriptive. He may be referring to what was done in the Corinthian assemblies, without here either endorsing or criticizing the activities, or he may be giving a partial list of the activities that he expected to be engaged in. Either way, his undoubtedly prescriptive words are that everything is to be for edification.
In order to correct the Corinthians' attitudes of selfishness, pride, and self-centeredness, Paul emphasizes a concern for others. Their attitudes were especially shown in their high regard for speaking in tongues, a gift that was spectacular and distinguished some from others. Paul, in contrast, directs their attention to the spiritual well being of others by employing the idea of spiritual upbuilding. He takes a word used for constructing a building and applies it to spiritual development. The importance of the concept is shown by the frequency of its appearance in 1 Corinthians 14: "Those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding" (vs. 3); "those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church" (vs. 4); "one who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up" (vs. 5); "since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church" (vs. 12); "you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up" (vs. 17); and then there is verse 26 with which we began this point, "let all things be done for edification."
To edify is to build up, strengthen, improve. The meaning of the word is suggested by those words with which it is associated: "encouragement and consolation" (vs. 3), "benefit" (vs. 6), "reproved and called to account" (vs. 24). Particularly notable is the association of "edify" or "build up" with intelligible speech so that understanding and instruction take place. "If in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said?" (vs. 9). Hence, Paul declares, "In church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (vs. 19). That kind of speech is edifying. And such edifying speech is the reason that prophecy is a greater gift than speaking in tongues. A speaker in tongues may build up himself or herself, but the prophet builds up others, the church (vs. 4). When one speaks in a tongue, the mind is not involved. In tongue speaking the mind remains unfruitful, unproductive, useless--so says verse 14--and thus no edification or building up can occur.
We might recognize the principle that in speech addressed to others the words need to be understandable; that seems obvious enough. But then we might think that unintelligible speech is all right when addressed to God. He has given the gift, so surely he understands even if we do not know what we are saying. "For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit" (vs. 2). That is true in a private situation, but in the assembly even speech addressed to God is to be understandable by others who are present. Notice verses 16-17: "If you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider [the one without the gift of understanding the tongue] say the `Amen' to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up." "Amen" is a word of ratification or confirmation of prayer, a way of making the prayer one's own. Prayer in the assembly is not a private activity; it is a corporate activity. The congregational participation is indicated by saying "Amen," but one cannot say that if what is prayed is unintelligible. Even speech addressed to God should be edifying to the assembly.
The emphasis on edification in 1 Corinthians 14 is opposed to an emphasis on emotionalism or on personal satisfaction. Edification means that the first concern is other people, not the self. It means the mind must be involved (vss. 14-15). It means that the speech must be intelligible to those present. And it means that spiritual welfare takes precedence over other interests.
4 To Express Unity
The ideas of exemplifying the church and edifying one another lead naturally to a concern for the unity of the body. And that was another major interest of Paul's in writing 1 Corinthians. He states the need explicitly in relation to the assemblies: "When you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you" (1 Cor. 11:18). As a consequence, their coming together was "not really to eat the Lord's supper" (1 Cor. 11:20). It ought to be, but the Corinthians' divisions--social, economic, partisan--made it impossible to observe a Lord's supper. The Lord's supper creates and promotes unity. As 1 Corinthians 10:17 says, "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." Sharing together in the bread and the cup makes us one body in Christ. Coming together in church is intended to demonstrate unity and not division.
The congregational assembly is, moreover, a way of creating and building unity. Joint participation in any activity draws people closer together. Frequent meeting together in church enhances the sense of belonging and of being truly one people.
The meetings then in turn express this sense of unity. It defeats one purpose of the assembly if in our seating arrangements and associations we maintain cliques or in other ways avoid certain persons or groups. The congregational meetings are to be a time of building a common spirit and providing a context for the development of interpersonal relationships. Meeting together shows the unity of the body of Christ.
5 To Express Fellowship
Closely related to the idea of unity is the idea of fellowship. Fellowship means the condition of being fellows, to be joint participants in something. The first description of the corporate life of the early disciples in Jerusalem includes their fellowship along with their other activities in meeting together: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42)--all being activities engaged in jointly and so including the assembly life. The pairing of these items brings the fellowship into close relationship with the apostles' teaching, so there is some support for the interpretation that the word here has special reference to sharing financial means, a common usage elsewhere in the New Testament.(4) Certainly the sharing in material goods is prominent in Luke's description of the community life of the Jerusalem disciples.(5) But other aspects of their community life are highlighted as well, "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home . . . praising God and having the goodwill of all the people" (Acts 2:46-47), so fellowship may not be limited to sharing in financial matters but may include the community life. This found expression particularly in meeting together, even daily.
The association of the assembly with unity and with fellowship places an emphasis on joint participation as over against individual activities. Where there is individual activity, as in leading singing, wording prayers, or bringing a teaching, this individual leadership is in order to promote orderly group participation.
Christians must be together frequently in order to sustain faith and spiritual living. The author of Hebrews knew this, as he exhorted Christians in danger of falling away from steadfast faithfulness, in Hebrews 10:23-25: "Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching." Meeting together provides the opportunity to encourage one another and to spur one another on in the practice of the Christian life, and so it strengthens hope. Failure to meet together deprives one of this encouragement from others and deprives one of the opportunity to encourage others. When one neglects the assembly and when this encouragement does not occur, the fellowship is weakened. Meeting together strengthens the fellowship and shows that we hold a common confession and share a common life.
This "one another" aspect of Christianity puts a premium on mutual reconciliation. Jesus in Matthew 5:23-24 gave some teaching expressed in terms of the worship practices of Israel that are still applicable to his disciples: "When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." This is an aspect of Jesus' teaching that, I fear, has not been emphasized enough among us. If the congregational assembly is to exemplify unity and fellowship, then there must be an emphasis on reconciliation of the members who meet together. There is no place for harboring resentment and antagonism toward others with whom we break bread. The community dimension of being church requires us to work diligently on personal relationships so that we bring harmony and mutual concern to our meetings.
6 To Impress Outsiders
Paul in correcting the uncontrolled tongue speaking in the church at Corinth appeals to the impression made by such disorder on non-Christians. 1 Corinthians 14:23-25: "If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or an outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. After the secrets of the unbeliever's heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring `God is really among you.'" The Corinthian Christians, some of whom may have been ambitious for social advancement,(6) should be aware of the impression their behavior made on non-Christians. Paul thus contemplates the presence of non-believers in meetings when the whole church came together. That situation provided an opportunity to convict them of sin and open doors for evangelistic outreach.
Other purposes of the assembly have priority over this one, but the meeting of Christians provides opportunity for giving testimony to non-Christians. The attitudes and reactions of outsiders do not determine what Christians do in the assembly, but Christians will be sensitive to the effects their meetings have on outsiders and will be eager for the opportunity to show them what the church truly is. The interests of outsiders will not determine what is done in the Christian assembly; that is determined by the will of God. But their interests will influence how things are done. The impression on outsiders functions in a negative way, as it does in 1 Corinthians 14; it does not say what is to be done, but it may say something about things not to be done. The impact and influence on non-believers will be one factor taken into consideration in the assembly.
7 To Commemorate and Proclaim Salvation
The church meets together in order to remember and to proclaim God's saving activity in Christ. This is stated explicitly in regard to the Lord's supper. 1 Corinthians 10:16, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?" And 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 develops the participation in the Lord's supper more fully. Note especially verses 23-26: "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, `This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, `This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."
All activities in the assembly commemorate and proclaim salvation to some extent. I will not work this point out to the extent that it could be but will only make some suggestive comments. The approach to God in prayer is through Jesus and on the basis of what he has done for our salvation. John 16:23, "If you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you." Because of redemption in Christ and adoption as children of God, Galatians 4:6 says, "God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying `Abba! Father!'" It is because the risen Christ has sent the Holy Spirit that we can address God in prayer on the same terms that Jesus did, as "Abba, Father" (Mark 14:36). Singing also proclaims the gospel story of Jesus. Because the "word of Christ" dwells in us richly we sing, and this singing too is done "in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Col. 3:16-17). The hymns quoted in Philippians 2:5-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16 describe Jesus' saving work. Preaching centers in the word of Christ. Colossians 1:28, "It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ." Giving is motivated by the example of Jesus' self-giving on our behalf. 2 Corinthians 8:9, "You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich." And 9:13, "You glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity your sharing." Giving is an expression of obedience and confession of the gospel.
This remembering and reaffirming of our salvation contributes to accomplishing the other purposes of the assembly. Declaring what God has done for us in Christ is a way to glorify God; it shows what the church is, a people called together by the gospel who exist to proclaim God's mighty deeds (1 Peter 2:9); it edifies believers by building them up in the most holy faith (Acts 20:32; Jude 20); it unites them and strengthens their fellowship; and it calls outsiders to faith.
8 Concluding Observations
You may be able to suggest other purposes for the assembly, and I welcome you to give thought to this topic. I do not claim completeness for this listing. I do think it is important for us to give consideration to what we should accomplish by our congregational meetings.
We may differ on how to implement these purposes, so some variety will exist from one congregation to another. Nevertheless, we should be guided by these principles. The purposes of the assembly will set some boundaries on our activities in the assembly and how we carry them out.
In directing attention to the purposes of the assembly, I do not intend to imply that we are free to choose what activities we think will accomplish these things. God has placed in the assembly those activities that will achieve its purposes. That subject has been well explored by others.(7) I only intend by this lesson to place those activities in the perspective of some reasons why they are done.
The purposes of the assembly will provide some criteria for the specifics of what is done--that is, what songs are sung, the content of prayers, and so forth--and for the appropriateness of how things are done. Let us lift our vision to these spiritual realities. The little things that often occupy our attention will not then loom so large in our thinking and will be placed in a better perspective.
1. 1I closely follow the material in my book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 244-247.Return to text
2. 2Eph. 1:22; 3:10; 5:23, 24, 25, 27, 29, 32. Contrast the usage in 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19, 28, 34, 35.Return to text
3. 3See the next point.Return to text
4. 4Rom. 12:13; 15:26; 2 Cor. 8:4; 9:13; Heb. 13:16.Return to text
5. 5Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35.Return to text
6. 6Cf. 1 Cor. 8:10; 10:27-28.Return to text
7. 7For my treatment of the activities in the New Testament assemblies, see The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, pp. 247-279.Return to text