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Theology of Public Worship

Worship must be carried out according to God’s revealed will. We want to worship God in the way that He has prescribed as best as we possibly can.[1] So, we want our worship to be drenched in Bible. We want every aspect to pour out biblical truth.

Public worship must succeed as much as possible in carrying out what God has given us in His word to do. We should acknowledge, however, that “The New Testament does not provide us with officially sanctioned public ‘services’ so much as with examples of crucial elements.”[2] Even though it is true that the New Testament does not give us “a complete manual of liturgics,”[3] it does gives us clear things that we are to do.[4]

The Great Commission in Matthew 28 tells us a few things that are essential for disciples of Jesus. Matthew 28:19-20 says: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” We will look at implications from the Great Commission first and then turn to other crucial aspects of what it means to be the called out ones of God.

First, the church is given a command. Something we must collectively work at carrying out. We must make disciples and that includes sharing the good news of Jesus with others (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). Public worship then is to facilitate discipleship (which includes encouraging evangelism).

Second, after those that we share Jesus with trust Him and repent of their sin then they are to be baptized (Matt. 28:19-20; Mk. 16:15-16). Thus, the church is to celebrate baptisms. 

Third, we see the church must teach disciples to do all that Jesus the Lord commanded and so we see the importance of teaching, preaching, and reading Scripture within the church (Matt. 28:19-20). Why is preaching such a big deal? Preaching is essential because it teaches God’s truth so as to exalt Christ, encourage and build up, and exhort the gathered church.

Thus, we see the preaching of the Scriptures have a central place in the gathered services of the church. Sermons communicate God’s transforming truth, they exalt Jesus Christ, they teach the Bible so that people understand and apply what God has said, and they encourage conformity to Christ.

Fourth, gathering together on a regular basis is vital (Heb. 10:24-25). It was the practice of the early church to gather together on Sunday, the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7-11; 1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10). Thus, we see the vital importance of community

Fifth, celebrating the Lord’s Supper together is essential because that’s what Jesus told us to do (1 Cor. 11:23-26). Jesus said “…do this…” so it’s not an option. We must gather together and celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. 

Sixth, qualified leaders (elders/pastors) are very important so that they can ensure the health of the church. Titus 1:5-9 tells us that Paul put elders in Crete because things were out of order until qualified elders were leading. Leaders are also given to the church to teach and equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-14 see also Col. 1:28-29). Thus, it is important that qualified leaders have oversight of the public worship of the church.

Seventh, the Bible also tells us that it is important for churches to sing songs together. Ephesians 5 says, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (vv. 18-20; cf. Acts 16:25; 1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16). Notice too that it’s not just a person singing by their self but rather we address one another as we sing. 

Eighth, it is also very important that churches be a holy witness and so church discipline is vital. See, for example, Matthew 18:15-20 (and also Phil. 2:15; 1 Cor. 5:9-12). Matthew 18:17 says, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” When the church gathers for public worship it is, as much as possible, to be a gathering of saints; or course, seekers are welcome to! But, false converts who will spread heresy like gangrene (2 Tim. 2:17) are not.  

Ninth, another foundation of healthy public worship is the practice of spiritual gifts for the upbuilding of the body, the church (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 14:26). This is important because “each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). It’s good to be “eager for manifestations of the Spirit” but we see from Scripture (and especially 1 Corinthians) that it’s more important that we “strive to excel in building up the church” (1 Cor. 14:12).

Tenth, from reading the New Testament we also see that prayer is an important part of the gathered church. Jesus taught on the importance of prayer and we can see from reading Acts that prayer was vital to the early church (e.g. Acts 1:14, 24; 2:42; 3:1; 4:23-31). 

Eleventh, almsgiving and charity are also important aspects of a Christian church because Christians are called to care for and help people, as they are able. We see this seems to be the regular practice of the early church (e.g. Acts 6; 1 Cor. 16:1-4). 

With all this being said, I agree with Michael A. Farley, we should not “read the NT in an inappropriately narrow and legalistic fashion as if the NT as a whole is to function as a collective new covenant version of Leviticus. If none of the individual NT books were written to be an exhaustive liturgical manual, then it is wrong to read and apply the NT as a whole in this restrictive fashion.”[6]

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[1] I appreciate what Michael A. Farley says: “Evangelical scholars employ a range of very different hermeneutical strategies in applying the Bible to worship. This is not surprising, of course, since evangelicals are divided over the theory and practice of biblical hermeneutics in many areas of theology. The first step toward progress in reconciling divergent views is a clear recognition and accurate characterization of the diversity of hermeneutical approaches to constructing a biblical theology of worship. If discussion can take place at this level, evangelicals can avoid the frustrating experience of talking past one another without comprehending why one’s arguments are not persuasive to one’s interlocutors” (“What Is “Biblical’ Worship? Biblical Hermeneutics and Evangelical Theologies of Worship,” JETS 51/3 [2008]: 610).

[2] Worship by the Book, 52.

[3] Farley, “What Is “Biblical’ Worship?,” 610. “There is no single passage in the New Testament that establishes a paradigm for corporate worship” (Worship by the Book, 55).

[4] For example, I really appreciate this summary by Edmond Clowney: “The New Testament indicates, by precept and example, what elements of [corporate] worship are. As in the synagogue, corporate prayer is offered (Acts 2:42; 1 Tim. 2:1; 1 Cor. 14:16); Scripture is read (1 Tim. 4:13; 1 Th. 5:27; 2 Th. 3:14; Col. 4:15, 16; 2 Pet. 3:15, 16) and expounded in preaching (1 Tim. 4:13; cf. Lk. 4:20; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; 4:2). There is a direct shift from the synagogue to the gathering of the church (Acts 18:7, 11; cf. 19:8-10). The teaching of the word is also linked with table fellowship (Acts 2:42; 20:7, cf. vv. 20, 25, 28). The songs of the new covenant people both praise God and encourage one another (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:15; 1 Cor. 14:15, 26; cf. 1 Tim. 3:16; Rev. 5:9-13; 11:17f; 15:3, 4). Giving to the poor is recognized as a spiritual service to God and a Christian form of ‘sacrifice’ (2 Cor. 9:11-15; Phil. 4:18; Heb. 13:16). The reception and distribution of gifts is related to the office of the deacon (Acts 6:1-6; Rom. 12:8, 13; cf. Rom. 16:1, 2; 2 Cor. 8:19-21; Acts 20:4; 1 Cor. 16:1-4) and to the gathering of believers (Acts 2:42; 5:2; 1 Cor. 16:2). The faith is also publically confessed (1 Tim. 6:12; 1 Pet. 3:21; Heb. 13:15; cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-3). The people receive God’s blessing (2 Cor. 13:14; Lk. 24:50; cf. Num. 6:22-27). The holy kiss of salutation is also commanded (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Th. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14). The people respond to praise and prayer with the saying of ‘Amen’ (1 Cor. 14:16; Rev. 5:14; cf. Rom. 1:25; 9:5; Eph. 3:21 etc.). The sacrament of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are explicitly provided for. Confession is linked with baptism (1 Pet. 3:21); and a prayer of thanksgiving with the breaking of bread (1 Cor. 11:24)” (Clowney, “Presbyterian Worship,” Worship: Adoration and Action, ed. D.A. Carson, 117 as quoted in Worship by the Book, 48).

[5] Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 1

[6] Farley, “What Is “Biblical’ Worship? Biblical Hermeneutics and Evangelical Theologies of Worship,” JETS 51/3 (2008): 610-11. “Liturgical theology ought to be a matter of wisdom that results from reflection upon all that God has revealed in Scripture about corporate worship in light of the person and work of Christ. Thus Christians need to employ a more theologically oriented regulative principle rather than one that would limit legitimate liturgical practices solely to those explicitly attested in the NT” (Farley, “What Is “Biblical’ Worship?,” 611). In a similar way, John Piper says, “In the Old Testament, there is an extremely detailed set of guidelines for how everything should be done in relationship to the tabernacle and the sacrifices and the way people come to God. In the New Testament, those details are almost completely lacking. I am tempted to say completely lacking. There is no way anybody could construct a normative worship service from what we have in the New Testament. Lots of people think they can, but I don’t think so. There is more tradition going on there than they realize.” “Do We Really Need Musical Worship?” https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/do-we-really-need-musical-worship. John Piper goes on to say, “I don’t think you look for prescribed patterns in the New Testament. You look for emphases, trajectories, implications, the nature of God, the nature of man, the nature of his mind, the nature of his emotions, the nature of salvation, the nature of gifts. And what you find is that there is an extraordinary centrality and emphasis to the word of God in the Christian life” (Ibid.).

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The Regulative and Normative Principles of Worship

Brief History of the Principles 

Humans have been worshiping and thinking about worship since the beginning. We see this, for instance, by looking at the narrative of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Further, all of life is about worship.[1] The question we are considering here, however, is how are we to formally worship God as the gathered church?

The two classic Protestant views of worship are the normative principle of worship and regulative principle of worship. There is a lot of confusion as to what these principals mean and how they are worked out in the life of the church. For example, an article online said that those who hold to the regulative view do not use instruments in their church services.[2]

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Why celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

Jesus commands us to together partake of the bread and the cup in remembrance of Him, and so that is why we celebrate Lord’s Supper. We see this in a few different passages (Matt. 26:26-29; Mk. 14:22-25; Lk. 22:17-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25).

We partake together and first remember Jesus’ propitiatory death for us and so the Lord’s supper causes us to reflect on the past. Second, the Lord’s Supper causes us to reflect on the current fellowship we together experience through union with Christ. And third, we look ahead to the future when we shall feast with Jesus after His return (we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” 1 Cor. 11:26). Scripture also points us to the importance of self-examination so that we do not take the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner and thus bring condemnation upon ourselves (1 Cor. 11:28ff).

The New City Catechism says, “Christ commanded all Christians to eat bread and to drink from the cup in thankful remembrance of him and his death. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of the presence of God in our midst; bringing us into communion with God and with one another; feeding and nourishing our souls. It also anticipates the day when we will eat and drink with Christ in his Father’s kingdom” (Q46).

The Lord’s Supper is a beautiful and amazing picture of the gospel for us. Jesus’ body was broken and His life was poured out so that we could have life. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper we are reminded of the amazing truth that Jesus—God in flesh—is the Lamb of God that takes away our sin. The Holy Spirit uses the God-ordained and Christ instituted means of the Lord’s Supper to help us remember with thankfulness Christ’s finished work on the cross.

4 Reasons Sermons are Essential

Why are sermons such a big deal? The Bible tells us to sing as the gathered church. The Bible also tells us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and baptisms. But why are sermons essential? 

Sermons are essential because they teach God’s truth so as to exalt Christ, encourage and build up, and exhort the gathered church.

First, the teaching aspect of the sermon is important. Its importance is seen all over Scripture (e.g. Neh. 8:7-8; 1 Tim. 3:2). God has spoken and so helping people understand and apply the revelation from Him is life-changing. God’s people, however, are able to understand His truth. This is because all believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:22; 1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16), Jesus has made all those in Him priests (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:5-6), and Scripture is clear on the things which are “necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation” (The Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 1). Qualified teachers are still vital, however, because sound (or healthy) doctrine is vital. That is, in part, why pastors must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24) and defend the truth (2 Tim. 2:25; Titus 1:9). We also see in Scripture that right teaching leads to maturity and the body of Christ being equipped for every good work. Believers may be able to subsist on milk but teachers are able to provide needed meat (2 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12-13).

Second, communicating God’s truth in sermons is vital because the Bible is the authoritative word of God and it is uniquely profitable (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It is our sole authority for faith and practice. Scripture is a light (Ps. 119:105,130), a sword (Eph. 6:17), a hammer (Jer. 23:29), and a surgeon (Heb. 4:12). Scripture is more essential than bread (Matt. 4:4), better than gold (Ps. 19:10; 119:72), and we need it to live (Ps. 119:144). Scripture is perfect (Ps. 19:7), true (Ps. 19:9), pure (Ps. 19:8), and eternal (1 Pet. 1:25). Scripture contains the words of life (Jn. 6:68) and the words that are breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16). Scripture gives joy (Ps. 119:111; Jer. 15:16), makes wise (Ps. 19:7), equips (2 Tim. 3:17), guards (Ps. 119:9), guides (Ps. 73:24; 119:105), saves (1 Pet. 1:23), sanctifies (Ps. 119:9,11; Jn. 17:17), and satisfies because by it we know God (1 Pet. 2:3 cf. Ps. 16:11; Jn. 17:3).

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As the church we are…

This is not an ecclesiology. But it does tell you a lot about the church. As the church we are…

Welcomed and Welcoming

We remember that Jesus Himself was criticized by religious leaders because of the type of people that He hung out with and helped (cf. Matt. 9:9-13; 11:19; 21:31-32; Mk. 2:15-17; Lk. 3:12-14; 5:29-32; 7:36-50; 15; 19:1-10). So, we’re not like the hypocritical religious leaders. Instead, we’re like our Leader, the One who reaches out to heal our brokenness. 

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Church Membership?

Church membership is often not the priority it should be. There are a few possible explanations for this: (1) lack of understanding of church membership and its importance, (2) lack of commitment, or (3) a lack of desire to submit to biblical authority. This will only cover the first issue, lack of understanding. I think it can be assumed that if you are a Christian you should be committed (see for example Rom. 12:1) and you should submit to biblical authority (see for example Heb. 13:17).

What is Church Membership?

When a person is born again by the Spirit they instantly become a member of the invisible universal Church body. Church membership is a formal covenant of a believer to a local visible church body for mutual growth and accountability.

Reasons for and Advantages of Church membership

There are several reasons to be connected to a local church body: worshiping together (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19-21), equipping (Col. 1:28; Eph. 4:12-13), exhortation and teaching (1 Tim. 4:13), exercising spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-7; 1 Pet. 4:10-11), church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5), sharing the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17-20; Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24), celebrating baptism (Matt. 28:19), giving (Matt. 23:23; 1 Tim. 6:17-19), encouragement (Heb. 10:24-25), as well as, having faithful leaders to care for and help you (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).

There are also several advantages to church membership. Church discipline may not seem like an advantage but it is. It may be the very thing to deliver a soul from hell (1 Cor. 5:5), this is a true and gracious advantage. As a church member you can enter into the life of the church in a unique way such as voting on specific church issues. Church membership is a covenant of commitment one to another. Through church membership you clearly know who your brothers and sisters are and pastors/elders know who exactly they are responsible for. Members have church resources available to them that otherwise would not be. Members also very often have more opportunities to serve in the churches various ministries. Lastly, church membership is biblical.

Church Membership is Biblical

“Biblical? Where is the chapter and verse?” you ask. Well, there is no chapter and verse that states explicitly that you must join a church. Yet, I believe we can see it implicit in the New Testament. In the book of Acts we see that the early churches’ practice was to baptize believers and then add them to the church (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5). In fact, those that were saved and baptized in the early church “devoted themselves” (which could have taken the form of a formal covenant) to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and prayer (Acts 2:41-42).

There is no explicit text calling believers to belong to a church because it was everywhere assumed and practiced in the early church so there was no need for a formal statement. Also, many of the first churches were smaller house churches so membership or commitment would be more easily recognized (especially under persecution). However, many churches are much larger today so it serves the leadership of the church and the church as a whole to keep track of those who have formally covenanted to church membership. 

We see that there was a list of widows that were entitled to financial support (1 Tim. 5:9) and there may also have been a growing list of church members (see for example Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5). Churches would also write a letter of commendation (Acts 18:27; Rom. 16:1; Col. 4:10; cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-2) for believers that were moving to a different area. This leads us to conclude that church roles were likely kept in the early church. However, even if they did not have a formal list they obviously knew who was part of the body and this was very important to them and should be to us as well.

We also see a New Testament mandate for godly qualified leadership. Men who are called to shepherd the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2) by laboring (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17), and watching over souls (Heb. 13:17). Pastors (a synonym of elders and shepherds) will give an account to God of how they shepherded so it is important that they know who their sheep are.

Church membership is implied from church discipline (see Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 1 Tim. 5:20; Titus 3:10-11) and it assumes that the elders of the church will know who the members of the church are. We also see much biblical imagery that points us to church membership. The church is called: body, bride, family, royal priesthood. These things suggest tight connection, even formal covenant. We as the church are to be like an outpost in enemy territory, an embassy amongst a distant land. If you are a citizen of the heavenly Kingdom you should be connected to the local embassy. The church is that embassy, the church represents the Kingdom of God on earth.

Conclusion

Local church membership, though obviously not required for salvation, is vital. It is my prayer that more and more believers would covenant together as the body and bride of Christ to be committed together to be and do what Christ our Lord has called us to do with the short time that we have here to labor for our Lord. 

Suggested

Introductory: Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership

In-depth: Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love

The Mission of the Church (in less than 500 Words)

The church is given a threefold mission; upward, inward, and outward. These three things work in unison. They create a helpful cyclical motion. When we worship God as we should we want to build others up in the church, we want to evangelize, and when we build others up they grow, they evangelize, people get saved, and we praise God; and so the cycle repeats in various ways as it is supposed to. For the church to function as it should all three of these aspects of the church’s mission must be being carried out.

Upward: Worship

We are called to sing songs of praise (e.g. Ps., Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) but we are not to stop there. We are called to love the LORD our God with all that we are; mind, body, soul, and, strength. Everything! We are to lay our very lives upon the altar in service to the LORD (Rom. 12:1). This is the foundational thing. Upon this the other two aspects of the church’s mission is built. If this is lacking, the church will fall.

Thus, we see the huge importance of godly, sound, and worshipful preaching and singing. If the church is to worship the LORD they must know, see, and taste the wonder of the LORD. It is to this same end that songs of worship are to be sung.

It is when the church, both individually and corporately, are crying out to the LORD in worship, and having the eyes of their hearts enlightened to God’s love, that inward nurture and outward evangelism will flow as a perpetual fountain.

Inward: Nurture

We see from Scripture that one of the non-negotiables is discipleship (Matt. 28:19-20). The Church must equip the saints for the work of the ministry that they may grow up every way into Christ (cf. Eph. 4:11-16). We strive for those we disciple to show the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), follow the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-31), and practice the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) themselves by teaching “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). We do this for the building up of the body and the glory of God among all the nations (Rom. 1:5).

Outward: Evangelism

The church is a gathering of the people of God and the people of God are told to proclaim His excellencies (see 1 Peter 2:9). The main way it proclaims God’s excellencies is through the proclamation and teaching of His Word (That is how the church expands cf. Acts 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 13:49; 16:5; 17:11-12; 19:20). The purpose being to make disciples that are wholly committed to Christ.

We see here the importance of the two other aspects of the mission of the church. It is when we taste of the LORD in worship that we want to tell people of the wonders of the LORD. We tell the good news most naturally when we are impressed with the fact that it is good news.

For a slightly more expanded discussion see: “What is the Church?”

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