1998 Inman Forum

"Some Contemporary Issues

Concerning Worship and the Christian Assembly"

Lecture 3


Chapter 3

MISUNDERSTANDINGS OF THE ASSEMBLY

by Dr. Everett Ferguson

If the purposes of the assembly are as they are set forth in the preceding chapter, then some attitudes represent misunderstandings.(1) This chapter, therefore, represents the reverse side of the preceding study. The purposes of the assembly represent the positive side, and misunderstandings of the assembly represent the negative side. I prefer to emphasize the positive, and even in this negative presentation we will conclude with a positive twist.

1  Limiting Worship to What Takes Place in the Assembly

Common religious speech equates worship with what takes place in church buildings at certain appointed hours. The topic of these lectures is what is generally called worship. I have chosen to avoid that narrow use of worship and to speak instead of the assembly, language that is more in keeping with New Testament terminology. Our common speech represents a narrowing down of the New Testament language of worship. The New Testament uses the words for worship in a broader sense than we typically do today; we, on the other hand, use worship in a more limited way, to apply to only one of the occasions that the New Testament considers worship.(2)

Words for religion and worship in the New Testament are applied to a wide range of activities. For example, James 1:26-27 uses a common word for "religious service," the outward expressions of worship in this way: "If any think they are religious [worshipful], and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion [worship] that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." In the first lecture we made reference to Romans 12:1, perhaps the most striking definition of Christian worship: "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." Since the first lecture developed more fully the subject of Christian worship with reference to the sacrifices of the Christian priest, I will let these verses suffice for now to make the point about what constitutes the nature of spiritual worship. They are outstanding representatives of the phenomenon common in the New Testament, where everything one does in service to God, indeed all of one's life, is viewed as worship to God.

Lest someone draw the wrong conclusion, we note that worship to God does occur in the assembly. The congregational meetings are an important part of one's life of worship, sacrifice, and service to God. In the assembly of the church we show our devotion to him and express praise and glory to him. We noted in the preceding chapter that Ephesians 3:21 ascribes glory to God "in the church." I would, furthermore, direct your attention to 1 Corinthians 1:2, the significance of which is not often noted.(3) Paul writes "to the church of God that is in Corinth . . . together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." "In every place" is not used here for "everywhere" but for "every place of meeting." The Christian use of the phrase went back to Malachi 1:11, "In every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations." That is, in every sanctuary, in every place of worship, incense and sacrifice were given to God. The passage was understood of spiritual sacrifice and applied to the worship that the nations, Gentiles, gave to God through Christ. "To call upon the name of the Lord" was a regular phrase in the Old Testament for worship.(4) Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:2 is saying to the Corinthian Christians that they were joined with many other Christians, for in every church, worship was given to the Lord Jesus Christ by confessing his name.

Participation in the assembly is an important part of the Christian life. Worship to God in Christ does occur there. The misunderstanding comes in failing to recognize the worshipful nature of other activities outside the assembly.

Accepting into the Assembly Whatever Christians May Do Elsewhere

This misunderstanding is the reverse of the first one considered. The limiting of the word worship to the assemblies of the church represents a correct instinct, that is, that there is something special about the assembly. Many have tried by this word usage to express the idea that there is something distinctive about the meetings of the church, and that attitude is proper. The mistake comes in choosing a word that the New Testament uses more broadly and using it almost exclusively in this narrower sense.

When people recognize that the distinction between worship in the church meeting and outside it is artificial, they then want to do the reverse. Instead of taking worship outside, they want to take the world into the church. They thus make the opposite mistake to the one made by those who restrict the language of worship to a few devotional activities.

The attitude of many is that the assembly is nothing different or special, and this attitude reflects a general characteristic of our society. An illustration is provided by a letter to that noted theologian Ann Landers. In response to a restaurant's maitre d' who said that if people enjoyed dining it does not matter how they are dressed, this correspondent said he was wrong. People, she said, who are sloppily dressed cheapen the look of a good restaurant. "How a person dresses expresses the importance he or she attaches to the event and/or establishment." She concluded by saying she would rather not spend money to eat with people dressed like slobs. Ann Landers' reply identified the key line as "how a person dresses expressses the importance he or she attaches to the event and/or establishment." That may be something for us to think about in connection with church services. Many other factors must be taken into account, but I leave that with you to consider in relation to the distinctiveness and importance that we attach to church.

The distinctiveness of the church's regular meetings is shown by Paul's regulations in 1 Corinthians. I find it particularly striking to note the distinction he makes between what is done "in church" and what may be done "at home." At least three times in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 Paul distinguishes a church activity from a home activity.

One of Paul's distinctions is between the Lord's supper and other meals. 1 Corinthians 11:20 reads, "When you come together [in the same place, in the assembly], it is not really to eat the Lord's supper." It should be, so there were meetings in order to take the Lord's supper. But because of the abuses in the Corinthian church, the meal was not "lordly." There was feasting and drunkenness (vs. 21). So Paul exclaims, "What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church [assembly] of God and humiliate those who have nothing?" (vs. 22). Paul concludes the discussion by making the distinction once again: "When you come together [in order] to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation" (vss. 33-34). In translating into English we have to say "in church" and "at home." But in Greek the contrast is more obvious, being expressed by the same preposition: "in" church (vs. 18) and "in" house (vs. 34).

Some have mistakenly read church as church building and concluded that we cannot eat in church buildings or have a kitchen in them for the preparation of food. The word church here says nothing about the place where the activity occurs. It refers to the assembly of Christians. Probably the church was meeting in a private home, the house of a wealthy member. So the same spatial location could be meant by "in church" and "at home." That may be the very reason some of the problems were occurring. The practice of Christians meeting in homes may have been the occasion for the disorders in attire (1 Cor. 11:2-16) and in eating (1 Cor. 11:17-34). The people acted as they did at other times in the same place; the gathering of the church was for them another social occasion. Hence, it was all the more important for Paul to make the distinction between a church and a home activity. Different rules apply to the church meeting. It might be the same place (a private house), the same activity (the taking of food), but the social customs of an "at home" activity did not carry over to an "at church" activity. There is a valid distinction to be made between the Lord's supper and an ordinary meal. There is a valid distinction between what is done "in church" and what may be done at other times and for other purposes.

Eating the Lord's supper and eating another kind of meal represent two different kinds of social occasions. Paul makes a similar distinction between a private religious exercise and the public assemblies of the church. The subject now was speaking in tongues. For this we come to 1 Corinthians 14. Paul lays down his basic premise in verse 2: "For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God." According to verse 5, he wants all to speak in tongues, but he prefers that all be able to prophesy, because unless there is an interpreter for the tongue-speaker only the prophet is able to edify the church. His own practice is expressed in verses 18-19: "I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue." There is our phrase "in church" again, "in assembly." Finally, Paul lays down specific regulations in verses 27-28: "If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God." Speaking in tongues was a gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:8-11), but this did not guarantee those with this gift the right to speak in church. They could speak to themselves and to God. Speaking in tongues was a private religious language. "In church," however, the speech must be intelligible, edifying communication to the other people present. Hence, something allowed, even encouraged outside of church, is strictly regulated and in the absence of an interpreter forbidden in church.

The third use of the difference between activity inside the assembly and activity outside the assembly also has to do with speech. 1 Corinthians 14:34 says "women should be silent in the churches." But Christian women do not take a vow of perpetual silence. "If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church" (vs. 35). Since we will discuss women's role in a later chapter, we will be brief here. But note again the distinction between "in church" and "in house" or "at home." Something is forbidden in the assembly of the church that is commanded, or at least allowed, in another setting.

We conclude from these three circumstances that the assembly is distinctive. There are times when "the whole church comes together," in the wording of 1 Corinthians 14:23. No quibble is to be made concerning whether everyone is actually present, but that is the intention. On those occasions certain things are to be done and to be done in certain ways. There may be other occasions when a group of Christians is together for some other purpose; simply the fact that those present are all or mostly Christians does not make the affair a meeting or activity of the church. The intention to be an assembly of the church must be there for the activity to fall in the category of a distinctive meeting of the church. The purposes of the assembly provide criteria for how things are to be carried out in the assembly. Moreover, God has set certain activities in the assembly, and we learn what these are from the New Testament. These activities will accomplish its purposes. Other activities, if otherwise approved by God, are to be done outside the assembly.

3  Viewing the Assembly as Outward Actions to Be Performed

The emphasis, which is proper, on doing what God has said in the ways that God said for them to be done may lead to another misunderstanding, namely that if we merely do these things, everything is fine. This misunderstanding is to see the assembly as an occasion "to go through the motions"; the assembly is acceptable to God if we do correct acts. If we do certain things on the appointed occasions, then we have satisfied our duty to God. Attendance may be viewed as being credited to one's account. This attitude represents a mechanical or external interpretation of the assembly. As a result, people come to take the Lord's supper and then slip out, as if they have gone to mass and had their religious obligations met; or they sit through the service, taking little active part, as if their presence alone is required. Or, we think our assemblies are what they ought to be because we do certain acts and do not do others.

Jesus, however, puts the emphasis on worship to the Father elsewhere. He says in John 4:23-24: "But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." The assembly of Christians should be the response of love and desire to please God because of all that he has done for us and provided for us. Consequently, renewal in worship will not come through new or different styles and techniques but in the hearts of worshipers.

There are certain things to be done in the assembly, and there is benefit from their doing, but they are to be done from the heart and out of gratitude to God. An emphasis on externals is not sufficient. The assembly is more meaningful than that.

Viewing the Assembly as a Private Religious Experience

Those who want to avoid an external or mechanical interpretation of the activities in the assembly may swing to the opposite viewpoint and put the emphasis on private meditation and individual devotion. This misunderstanding that privatizes or individualizes worship leads to the excuse, "I can worship God better out at the lake than I can in church." And if worship is defined only in terms of meditation or spiritual feelings, then the statement may be true. But such a definition leaves many other factors aside and, of course, completely misunderstands the very nature of "assembly."

We should meditate and focus on spiritual matters during the assembly. This is not wrong. Our assemblies would probably be richer spiritual experiences if all the members spent more of their private time in prayer, devotional Bible reading, and meditation. But corporate worship is different from private worship, even if some of the same things are done. The very idea of the assembly is the corporate experience of being together and being concerned for one another. Notice what is said in Hebrews 10:24-25 concerning what is accomplished in meeting together: "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." I may worship God while alone at the lake, but there are some things I cannot do there. I cannot share the experiences of my brothers and sisters, rejoicing and weeping with them, comforting them and being comforted by them, exhorting them and being exhorted by them.

Seeking What Makes One Feel Good

Many look for emotional stimulation from the corporate assemblies. This being "pumped up" emotionally is identified with spiritual well being. When one comes to church looking for what will make him or her feel good and this does not happen, then we hear remarks like, "I did not get anything out of church this morning, so I don't think I'll come back this evening."

The problem here is putting the emphasis on "me," rather than on God and fellow believers. There is a great deal of emphasis on "meeting my needs" today. But do we know what our real spiritual needs are before we have been confronted with the living God and heard his revelation to us? We need to hear from God first what our real needs are, instead of letting our perceptions of what our needs are determine what we do in our assemblies and in our worship.

"Praise" has become something of a "code word" for emotional exuberance. And so a certain kind of song is described as a "praise song," with the implication that the church has not been singing praise songs until these new songs were written. There are many excellent, new songs being written, so do not think that I am making a blanket indictment.(5) The problem that I am pointing out is the exclusive identification of a certain type of emotional singing with praise for God, when its main effect is to stimulate the worshipers.

Even "praise songs" often put the emphasis on "me" praising, not on God and what he has done. The songs comfort my personal faith and talk about what I do or feel. Many persons speak about "felt meanings," referring to what "I feel." Is that what worship is all about? Worship is not intended to be "group therapy," although I would affirm that worship has therapeutic value.

The creation of a certain mood is often accomplished by the repetition of words or phrases. Again, the words themselves are fine, but is the repetition to deepen meaning or to create a mood in the singers? But then I suppose I have to recognize that the attention span of some people is quite short.

Praise in the Bible, notably in the Psalms, affirms the character of God and recites his deeds on behalf of his people. That objective confession of who God is and what he has done will bring emotional enthusiasm. But that is different from being "pumped up" by an activity itself.

Do not misunderstand me. The emotions must be involved in one's service to God, and there are emotional benefits from corporate activities. However, these benefits are "by-products" and are not something to be sought for their own sake. The personal spiritual benefits of worship are, in this regard, somewhat like happiness. The "pursuit of happiness" seldom attains its goal. People find happiness through pursuing worthwhile objectives, and in losing themselves in these other pursuits, they find a state of happiness and contentment. Similarly, in praising God and seeking the welfare and edification of others we receive emotional satisfaction and spiritual well-being. Seeking an emotional good feeling may bring short term benefits, but soon one has to turn to something else in order to achieve the same result, and one is set on an unending course of finding something stimulating, receiving short term good feelings, followed by emptiness, and then seeking something else to bring stimulation.

Edification, being built up, should not, therefore, be too quickly identified with emotional uplift. Edification, first of all, is directed toward others (see the preceding chapter) not the self. Moreover, we should not confuse edification with feelings, whether of uplift or some other, for edification has to do with understanding and instruction (1 Cor. 14:5, 19, 26).

Before we are carried away on the tidal wave of emotionalism, we should recall again what was said in the preceding lecture. The activities in the assembly are governed by the purposes of praising God and bringing instruction and spiritual upbuilding to others.

Considering the Assembly as a Place to Display Gifts

Some regard the assembly of the church as any other public gathering and so think it is appropriate to display one's abilities there. This misunderstanding may be another expression of the prevalent individualism of our society and feeds the emphasis some place on entertainment in the assembly.

Indeed, one should serve God to the best of one's ability. One should do everything for the glory of God. "Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). That means one will not be satisfied with less than one's best, and that includes activities in the assembly.

However, just because one has certain gifts does not mean that they should be exercised in the assembly. In the preceding chapter and earlier in this chapter we noted Paul's limitation on tongue-speaking in the assembly and indeed his absolute prohibition of uninterpreted tongues from the assembly. And that was a special gift of the Holy Spirit, not simply a human ability. If a gift of the Holy Spirit may be out of place in the assembly, then the possession of a gift does not guarantee one the opportunity to exercise it when the saints come together. Some reason that if they have the gift of instrumental music, they should be able to use it to the glory of God in the assembly. That they should glorify God with their gift is correct, but that this is to be done in the assembly does not follow. We will consider music further in our next chapter. But for tongues, music, or anything else, the test is the edification of others. If the gift does not contribute to edification, it has no place in the assembly.

Even those gifts that are useful in the assembly--such as preaching, singing, and praying--are not to be used for display. They are to be used for leadership. Those gifts are placed at the service of the congregation and are to help it in its understanding and in expressing its thoughts. The asembly is collective action, not "I" action. My "I" is to be hidden in the collective congregational action. If these gifts are exercised in such a way as to call attention to themselves or to interfere with the congregational activity and participation, then they have defeated their purpose. The gifts used in the assembly are subordinate to the spiritual purposes of the assembly.

Considering the Assembly as Entertainment

Our society is so much influenced by mass entertainment that it is almost inevitable that churches should feel this influence too.(6) And our human nature delights in being entertained, so the problem is not new, only intensified in our time. The entertainment model focuses attention on the service itself rather than on God, on the activities themselves rather than their content.

We see the entertainment model in our language about our meeting place. We call it an auditorium. What is an auditorium? It is a place for hearing. We go to a secular auditorium to listen to a concert, a speech, a play, a musical. Those who attend make up the "audience." Is that accurate for what should take place in church? We are not there to be an audience sitting passively while someone else performs. As has been observed, if we are to use the theater analogy, we in the congregation are the performers and God is the audience. Leaders in the assembly's activities are directors or prompters. To protest against the language of "auditorium" is probably one of my "lost causes," but as someone has said, "A lost cause is the only one worth championing; a winning cause does not need a champion." To my mind, we would do better to go back to an earlier period in our country's religious history and call our buildings meeting houses and the room in which we meet the assembly room or meeting hall.

The influence of entertainment on worship assemblies is not just "our" problem. After quoting a Protestant author's lament that "The casual, happy, amused, and chatty Sunday morning has crept up on us unawares," the Roman Catholic Richard John Neuhaus, observed, "The Mass as entertainment is, well, mildly entertaining. One may wonder if there is anything so sure to induce passivity in most of the people as the exhortations to hyper-activity in Father Bob's performance liturgy."(7) The entertainment mentality works against congregational participation.

It is a mistake to evaluate the music and preaching of the church by their appeal to the human senses. The preacher's task is to bring God's message to the people not to entertain the listeners. The singing is our joint expression of praise to God and instruction to others. Prayer too is our joint offering to God. The prayer leader does not say, "I pray," as if he is voicing an individual prayer that other people overhear. He might speak as an individual in his private prayers, but this is a corporate or community prayer being expressed; he says, "We pray," for he is speaking for the community that is gathered. Nor is it a congregation's privilege to hear what a beautiful prayer he prays. The prayer leader's function is give voice to the prayers of the whole congregation. As the preacher brings God's word to the people, the prayer leader brings the people's words to God. He is their spokesman before the throne of God, a responsibility second only in seriousness to the task of the person who brings God's word to the people.

The goal of the assembly is not what pleases me or even the people as a whole. Rather the goal is to contribute to the spiritual maturity in Christ of everyone (Col. 1:28). For that to occur all must participate. We are not present simply to listen to the music, to listen to the prayers, to listen to the preacher. Even when listening, the people are to have their minds engaged, to be thinking along with the preacher or prayer leader, to be making the thoughts and words his or her own; in other words, to participate, not to be entertained.

A Positive Summation

You may want to suggest other misunderstandings. And if I have stimulated you to observe other problem areas, that is fine. One purpose is to lead you to think on these matters.

But let us not conclude on a negative note. Most misunderstandings contain a partial truth. Something completely erroneous would be too easily detected. So most errors have an element of truth in them. That makes them more plausible and easier to accept. The result is that they are often accepted unconsciously. And these misunderstandings of worship contain a partial truth.

The following things are true: we should worship God when we come together; worship does take place in the assembly. We should come "just as we are" and not wait until we feel especially holy or pure before coming to church; rather we should be present and not absent ourselves from the congregational meetings. There are certain things to be done and other things not to be done in the assembly of the saints; we should not bring activities into the assembly that God has not placed there. We should meditate and focus our attention on spiritual things; we should be personally and individually involved in what takes place. We will be blessed by participation; we will feel good as an overall result of regular, faithful attendance. We should do our best whether as leaders or other participants and use our gifts as best we can for God's purposes. And we should enter into the activities to the best of our ability, seeking to please God, not ourselves and not necessarily others.

The items I have listed as misunderstandings are distortions of these correct understandings. Let us cultivate the proper affirmations, seeking above all else to do what God desires of us and so to to be acceptable to him.


1. 1A briefer presentation is found in my book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 227-229.Return to text

2. 2Ervin Bishop, "The Assembly," Restoration Quarterly 18 (1975):219-228; E. Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, pp. 208-212, 231-234.Return to text

3. 3E. Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, pp. 211-212, 234.Return to text

4. 4E.g., Gen. 4:26; 12:8; Deut. 4:7; 2 Chron. 6:33; Pss. 99:6; 105:1; 116:17.Return to text

5. 5See further Chapter 4.Return to text

6. 6For a good critique of the entertainment model in the light of what worship is, see Dan Chambers, Showtime! Worship in the Age of Show Business (Nashville: 21st Century Christian, 1997).Return to text

7. 7"At Ease in Zion," First Things (August/September, 1998), p. 81.Return to text


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