HOW SHOULD SUNDAY BE DONE?
We have established in our last post that when we the church gather on Sunday it’s all about Jesus. He is the object of our worship and He is the reason we gather. So what does His word say about how we form our worship gatherings? Historically the church of Jesus has ordered and formed it’s worship gatherings in a variety of different ways. This is why you can go to various churches in any number of denominations and find different kinds of music and orders of service.
Regarding the formation of worship, the Bible is clear that God is to be worshiped in ways that He says are acceptable. In Leviticus 10:1-2 and Ezekiel 8-9 we see God’s explanation of why He judges those who seek to worship Him in either sinful expressions or with sinful intentions in their hearts (Genesis 4, Isaiah 1:11-17, Jeremiah 7:9-10; Micah 6:6-8). The Bible prescribes the following elements for corporate worship on Sunday:
- Preaching (2 Timothy 4:2)
- Sacraments of Baptism and Communion (Matthew 28:19: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34)
- Prayer (1 Timothy 2:1)
- Reading Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13)
- Financial Giving (2 Corinthians 8-9)
- Singing and Music (Colossians 3:16)
In the Bible we are given clear principles and elements of practice to guide God’s people in corporate worship, but we are not given specific methods. According to D.A. Carson, "we have no detailed first-century evidence of an entire Christian service" (Worship by the Book 2002, 21). And, “the New Testament documents do not themselves provide a ‘model service'" (21-22). So the question that arises is can anything else be included in corporate church worship elements, such as creeds, skits, different music styles, service orders, lengths, technology, instruments, aesthetics, ect. In order to address these questions there are two theological positions that have been developed, the normative and regulative principles.
Corporate church worship services must include all the elements that Scripture commands, and may include others, so long as they are not prohibited by Scripture. Advocates of the Normative Principle - Martin Luther, the Book of Common Prayer, Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists
The normative principle gives flexibility to methods that give room for contextualization. When I was in Kenya I was invited to the Massai to preach one Sunday by a Kenyan pastor. This particular congregation had two sermons lasting an hour or more each, at least four large blocks of time for worshiping through song and dancing, and ended things with a discipleship class! The reason they structured their worship services this way was because everyone had to walk miles to get there, so they had to develop a contextual service. Also, there was no electricity in most homes, and no one had a watch or phone to tell the time. For them, Sunday was set aside completely for church. They preached multiple sermons to ensure everyone could hear the Gospel, and danced because dancing is deeply woven into the fabric of Massai celebration.
The normative principle also treats gathered and scattered rules of worship the same. We tend to live our lives by the logic of normative principle. When we look at the Bible and see that a husband is to love his wife like Christ loves the church we don’t assume each man will love their wives in the exact same way. Rather, the Christian husband should love his wife in a way that his wife feels love through his sacrifice and care.
A major disadvantage is that the normative principle can allow too much, and make our enjoyment the reason we’ve gathered, not Jesus. Motives matter, we gather to worship Jesus not be entertained. It is possible for this line to get very blurry in certain contexts. Also, operating by the normative principle in corporate worship can elevate unbiblical elements (like skits and special music) to the exclusion of biblical elements. While the Bible may not forbid such elements, the issue arises when we make time for what the Bible hasn’t prescribed to the exclusion of what God has prescribed.
Corporate church worship services must include all the elements that Scripture commands or things that are a good and necessary implication of a biblical text, but nothing more. Advocates of Regulative Principle - John Calvin, Presbyterians, Puritans, the Westminster Confession, and other Reformed churches.
Advantages of the regulative principle is that it seeks to define worship by God and not us, and it esteems the Bible rightly. This is an advantage because it creates a clear line from the world and what is allowed in the church.
It separates the gathered and scattered worship, meaning the Biblical principles for worship we follow throughout the week are not directly applied to corporate worship. It can also be taken legalistically and forbid things that the Bible prescribes. For example, some churches believe it is a sin to use instruments in corporate worship because we do no see them directly prescribed in the New Testament. This belief forbids the church to obey other parts of the Bible like Psalm 150 where it lists a variety of instruments God desires to be worshiped with.
Our Corporate Worship
At The Well, we want our corporate worship gatherings to be crystal clear and laser focused on Jesus. Making much of Jesus is our focus so we will choose to spend the majority of our time praying and adoring Jesus, singing and celebrating Jesus, preaching and proclaiming Jesus, and remembering Jesus though communion. When we order and form our worship gatherings at The Well we side with the Apostle Paul and resolve to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. So, practically speaking, our worship services tend to follow the regulative principle, but we do not draw a hard line on the issue. We believe people develop a spiritual appetite for what you feed them. Right now, we want our people to be more comfortable with praying, so we spend a lot of time praying on Sundays. Our church is also filled with young Christians that haven’t had a lot of Bible intake in their short time being Christ followers, so I preach hour long sermons. In short, we really don’t have the space in our worship gatherings to make time for what the Bible hasn’t prescribed, and we will definitely not add something to the exclusion of what He has prescribed. Our aim is to contextualize and contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints, the precious gospel of Jesus.
What we believe about corporate worship and its formation truly matters. Below are some resources to help guide you as you research more:
- For study about all of life being worship check out, Unceasing Worship by Harold M. Best
- For study on the theology of corporate worship, Worship by the Book, edited by D. A. Carson with contributions by Mark Ashton, R. Kent Hughes, and Timothy J. Keller.
- For more on the Regulative Principle Worship in Spirit and Truth by John M. Frame