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Worship and the Gathering of the Church

Posted by on Dec 23, 2006 in gathering | 2 comments

Many Bible-believing Christians never investigate the purpose for the assembly of believers. “The reason for this is the almost universal assumption that the worship of God is the primary aim of the assembly. In fact the word ‘worship’ is thought to be synonymous with ‘assembly’ and is constantly used in this sense.”[1] Even in many academic studies of the church, the author includes the gathering of the church as part of “the ministry of worship.”[2] Some take this understanding even further, stating, “Corporate worship is the energizing center for all the church is and does.”[3] However, it is incumbent upon all believers to search Scripture—not tradition—for a proper understanding of all things, including the relationship of worship to the gathering of the church.

“Worship” translates various Greek terms in the New Testament (proskuneo, latreuo/latreia, leitourgia, eusebeia). In the Old Testament, the authors connect worship terminology with the tabernacle/temple and priestly service. In the New Testament, Jesus changes this understanding. In John 4, he teaches that worship is no longer connected with a specific location or time. Instead, as Paul instructs the Romans, believers are “to worship God… with [their] lives (Rom. 12:1-2).”[4]

For the most part, worship terms are not found in the passages of Scripture that describe the gathering of the church.[5] It is possible that Acts 13:2 indicates that believers “worshiped” (leitourgounton) the Lord while meeting together. However, the passage does not state that this worship (or service) was occurring during the meeting. Instead, 13:1 indicates that those listed were part of the church in Antioch, and that they were worshiping (“serving”) and fasting as part of that group of believers. Even if this passage is in the context of the meeting, the verb leitourgounton itself does not necessarily indicate “worship” (devotion to God). Instead, the LXX uses this verb to specify priestly service in the temple, and New Testament authors use it in a sense similar to diakoneo (“serve”) to specify “practical expressions of faith.”[6]

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25, Paul uses the verb proskuneo (“worship”) in the context of the meeting of the church. The most important aspect of this passage is that the believers are prophesying during the meeting. In 14:4, Paul taught the Corinthians that prophecy edifies the church. Therefore, in the hypothetical meeting where all are prophesying, the believers are edifying the church. As a result of their words, the unbeliever is converted and begins to worship. The purpose of the gathering is not worship in this passage; instead, worship is the result of the Spirit’s transforming work in a person’s life.

So, the New Testament authors do not designate worship as the purpose of the gathering of the church. Even though believers certainly worshiped together, they did not call their meetings “worship services.”[7] For the most part, the New Testament writers applied Old Testament terminology for worship and temple service metaphorically to the work of Jesus Christ in his life, ministry, death, burial, resurrection and ascension. Believers began to associate worship terminology with the gathering of the church during the centuries following the writing of the New Testament. Peterson quotes Everett Ferguson’s discussion of the changes in the use of worship terminology:

What began in Christianity as a metaphorical and spiritual conception was by the age of Constantine ready to be taken literally again. The extension of sacrificial language had come to encompass the ministry as a special priesthood (Cyprian), the table as an altar and buildings as temples (Eusebius). Sacrifice was increasingly materialised and traditional content was put into the words. Sacrifice became again not only praise and thanksgiving but also propitiatory (Origen and Cyprian). A blending and transformation of conception – pagan, philosophical, Jewish and Christian – created a new complex of ideas.[8]

He continues by warning contemporary believers against using worship terminology in this way by stating, “We not only use words, but words use us.”[9]

Frame recognizes that the traditional use of the term “worship” in respect to the meeting of the church derives from the Old Testament tabernacle/temple systems.[10] While he admits that this is “dangerous,” he is not willing to give up the term “worship service.” In caution, he states, “To say this, however, is not to say that there is a sharp distinction between what we do in the meeting and what we do outside of it.”[11] This is the distinction that many believers have lost, as the meeting of the church has become synonymous with “worship.” For example, one author states, “The primary purpose of worship is to honor God, but as worship is portrayed in the New Testament, it also serves the purpose of edifying believers and evangelizing nonbelievers.”[12] The author has confused the definition of worship as “honoring God” with the use of the term “worship” as the meeting of the church. “Worship” does not serve the purpose of edifying believers; instead the gathering of the church should serve the purpose of edifying believers. This confusion comes about because the phase “the gathering of the church” has become synonymous with “worship.”

Banks describes the proper connection between worship and the gathering of the church. He states:

Since all places and times have now become the venue for worship, Paul cannot speak of Christians assembling in church distinctively for this purpose. They are already worshipping God, acceptably or unacceptably, in whatever they are doing. While this means that when they are in church they are worshipping as well, it is not worship per se but something else that marks off their coming together from everything else they are doing.[13]

He describes this “something else that marks off their coming together” as “the growth and edification of its members into Christ and into a common life through their God-given ministry to one another.”[14] When the church accomplishes this purpose during the meeting, it is worshiping, because it is obeying the command of God.[15] However, in the same way that believers must not equate the Lord’s Supper simply with eating (1 Cor. 11:20-21), they also must not equate worship with the meeting itself. Instead, they are worshiping because they are being obedient during the meeting, not because they are meeting.


[1] Ervin Bishop, “The Assembly,” Restoration Quarterly, 18.4 (Winter 1975), 219.

[2] For example, see John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 239.

[3] G. Temp Sparkman, “Corporate Worship: The Experience and the Event,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 18 (Fall 1991), 241.

[4] Henry Schellenberg, “Toward a Basic Understanding of Worship,” Didaskalia, 15, 2 (Winter 2004), 17.

[5] See Bishop, “The Assembly,” 219-21, and Peterson, Engaging with God, 206.

[6] David Peterson, “Further Reflections on Worship in the New Testament,” The Reformed Theological Review, 44 (May-August 1985), 36-37.

[7] Robert C. Girard, Brethren, Hang Together (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 247-48.

[8] Peterson, “Further Reflections on Worship in the New Testament,” 35.

[9] Ibid.

[10] John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1996), 32.

[11] Ibid., 34.

[12] Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 239.

[13] Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 89.

[14] Ibid., 90.

[15] David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 221.


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  1. 12-23-2006

    Good stuff Alan. One thing in particular jumped out at me:

    “Since all places and times have now become the venue for worship, Paul cannot speak of Christians assembling in church distinctively for this purpose. They are already worshipping God, acceptably or unacceptably, in whatever they are doing.”

    This is true … we are all worshipping something or someone. And if that someone is God, then the question becomes “is our worship acceptable to Him?”

    I have long equated the gathering itself with worship. Piggybacking on Steve’s post about measuring maturity, if we view worship solely as the gathering together of believers, then we can turn “worship” (as in the gathering and the outward displays) into a barometer of maturity as well. Again, it would be flawed at best and judgemental at worst.

    Hmmm … I must say that I am guilty. Our church people are demonstrative in our gatherings (now I cannot use the term “worship” – LOL) and I have found myself wondering about the maturity of some because of their lack of displays. EEK! I am convicted of thinking more highly of myself than I ought.

    Although that may not have been the purpose or idea behind this post, nevertheless the Lord has used it to show me my sin …

    Thanks for posting this and for your thoughts and insight … you give me much to ponder.


  2. 12-23-2006


    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the gathering of the church and worship. I believe that worship is something that should constantly keep us “off balance”. The moment we feel we understand what it takes to worship God, we may become complacent and habitual. Instead, each moment must be spent seeking how God desires for us to worship him. I believe that worship has much more to do with obedience than anything else.

    And, like you said, others may be worshiping – obeying – God in different ways that us. That doesn’t make them wrong or us right.



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