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Is There An Exclusive Pattern For Church Worship?

by Graeme Tattersall

To answer the question “Is There An Exclusive Pattern For Church Worship?” let us discuss the purpose of worship, examining what worship is, who we should worship and why. From there we will move to the pattern of worship, as we look at the examples of worship in the early church. Finally we will consider the need for keeping to perfect worship, when we will discuss why we adhere to the N.T. pattern.

The dictionary defines worship as “paying honour; to adore; to venerate; to perform acts of homage to a person or an object.” Now we may not admit it, but every person has an inborn desire to worship - we will worship something. Left to our own choices we'll go down the track of bowing down to what we consider the greatest thing in the world, the most worthy thing in our life, the person or thing most pleasing to us. And the result will be that we end up worshipping a false god.

The enterprising soul can easily devote his life to the pursuit of a career, or money, or power, and in the process, may become enslaved by all three. The spiritual soul may turn to one of the eastern religions, submitting himself to mysticism or things of the occult, or maybe, their adoration might be for dear old Mother Nature herself. And of course there are those who will revere cars, sport, even 'rock' stars. Then again, we could end up in the shameful worship of equals. Like Cornelius in Acts 10:25, we could worship a preacher, or a spouse, or some other person. The thing is, we will desire to worship something or someone.

As with our other natural desires, the desire to worship needs to be properly guided. Left to our own inclination to worship we find ourselves limited, never rising above the god we choose, never growing to our potential best. And sadly, we become like the idols we worship, things that are just as inferior, just as remote, as the gods made of stone, gold, and wood, that we see people worshipping in the Old Testament. In so many ways people end up just as dumb, blind, deaf, and just as lifeless, as the idols at whose feet they fall.

What to do? When man turns to the Bible, he learns from its very first verses, about God, about His power in creation and His power among men. We learn that it is becoming to worship God, because He made us, we see this in Scriptures such as Psalm 100:3: “Know that the LORD, He is God: It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture.” Again over in the Book of Revelation 4:11, we'll read about John who is looking at a scene of worship in heaven, and hearing these words: “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created.” It's the Bible who introduces us to the One we should be worshipping.

And it is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who gives us the clearest insight into the God we are to worship. Instead of paying homage to an all powerful supernatural spiritual Being, who is beyond our comprehension, Jesus brings Jehovah God near. In Jesus we see God, and by Him we learn of how we are to relate to Him, when He teaches His disciples to pray: “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). Isn't that marvellous? Jesus, the Son of God, is telling us that His Father, is our Father in heaven - That God is our Father!

I want to pause here, because there are a couple of facts we need to appreciate before we go further into our study. There are only two things that the Bible mentions that God searches for: He searches for the lost ones who have wandered away from Him (Jesus illustrates this in the parable of the lost sheep - Luke 15:3-7), and He also searches for true worshippers, “for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.” They are Jesus’ words in John 4:23b.

So now we've discussed worship, and Who we are to worship, and how we should worship.

Becoming a Christian initially involves learning that we have all sinned (Rom. 3:23). We learn that God has sent a Saviour to take away our sins, we learn that we can appropriate this blessing of being forgiven, by believing this good news (gospel), by confessing that Jesus Christ is God's Son, by our promising to turn toward God (repenting) and by being baptised by immersion for the forgiveness of sins. Only then do we become Christians.

From that time we are to live faithfully, our lives continually growing to be in harmony with the doctrine of Jesus Christ as revealed to us through His apostles. It's a process whereby we are turning from our worldly ways, to live God's ways. We go from what we were once pleased to do, to wanting to be pleasing to God. Basic to that, is learning how the God of our salvation wants us to worship Him, because He has ordained that He be worshipped “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23).

Rising from the waters of baptism, we have our very first reason to worship Him - our gratitude. We have received from the Lord, the promise of our eternal well-being, we have been saved from the eternal condemnation of Almighty God. Our personal realisation of this means that as sad as our passing will be for our loved ones, leaving this life will be to enter the presence of the God of love. Never again will we face the misery of sin, or enemies, or dread or fear. We will be forever free from the restriction and disabilities of the physical. Though we can't really comprehend the state of heaven, we can easily sense the relief of no longer being bound to the spiritual, emotional and physical trials that beset us in this life. Just knowing by what we know, and by knowing through faith the perfect state of our being in the hereafter is reason for us to offer our continual and grateful thanksgiving, praise, and adoration to God, our heavenly Father.

But whether we are thanking Him for the spiritual blessings that are ours in Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3), or for His daily providential care, we are to worship Him, not only sincerely (as many do), but in truth (as many do not do!).

It's Jesus Himself who points us to the source of this truth, when He tells us that “God's Word is truth” (John 17:17). Now we know that the Scriptures reveal how to please God with our worship.

Because we live in the Christian era, it is the New Testament of Jesus Christ that reveals a clear pattern for His church to worship in truth. We can know this for a certainty because this pattern is revealed to us by the inspired apostles. Jesus had promised that it would they who would “led in all truth” by the Holy Spirit (John 15:13). And this was apparent from the day the church was established.

Just for a moment, we should glance back to that day, and turn to the Book of Acts. Chapter two reveals the coming of the Holy Spirit as Jesus had promised. Acts 2 is a pivotal chapter in the Bible. Jesus said the kingdom, or church, would come with power. On the first Jewish Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus, the power came (Acts 2:1-4), and God's kingdom on earth, the church, was established.

The church began in Jerusalem, her founder was Jesus Christ; the placement of the apostles next to Christ, her cornerstone, saw her foundation completed. The only other material used in her construction is - redeemed souls.

We see the facts of her beginning, the gospel was preached in its fullness for the first time (2:14-26), people were told what to do to be saved from their sins (Acts 2:37-41). “And those who gladly received his word were baptised” and that day 3,000 were added to the church (Acts 2:41). It's from that day, we see the pattern of worship emerging.

We see it in the conduct of the Jerusalem Christians as “they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Every Christian felt a deep sense of awe, and they continued learning the teaching of the apostles. Their fellowship was in their coming together, in the breaking of bread (the taking of the Lord's Supper), and in prayer, and their fellowship included giving and singing. The way they were behaving and the simplicity of their worship was pleasing to everyone (2:47). And more and more were added as the message of the Saviour and divine forgiveness was being heard and understood.

Today, the pattern of worship within Christ's church is, to the outsider, simple. Religious and non-religious visitors to our worship services, may wonder why the church of Christ is, in many ways so different in its beliefs and practices, to that which they are accustomed. To begin with, they don't see a man at the front wearing a reversed collar, or special robes. Nor do they hear a musical instrument accompanying the singing; the Lord's Supper is taken reverently, and prayerfully, there's no pomp, no kneeling, nor other ritual movements. Various men in the congregation, in normal attire lead the congregation in the various acts of worship; one will lead in song, another in prayer, another in Bible reading, another at the offering, and another will preach a lesson from the Bible. Every newcomer is aware of marks of worship familiar to them - nevertheless, it's so different as to be strange.

The honest question that's raised is “Why?” Why are your public acts of worship different, why do you persist in worshipping so differently? Why do you believe that you are correct in the way you worship? They're good questions, and they deserve good answers.

To begin with, the Lord's church doesn't look back to a place, or a time, or teaching other than that which is in the New Testament. We never look to successors, substitutes, or counterfeits of the apostles for our instruction. We go back to the originals, they're the only people to guide us. We have no creeds or prayer books to instruct us in how we should worship; rather, we go back to the New Testament, where all we believe is taught in the words of the Holy Spirit, where all that we insist on is commanded in the words of New Testament text.

To find our pattern for worship, and our model for a life in Christ, we go back past traditions, successors, and imitators. We go back to the New Testament, because it's certain, unchanged, and dependable.

To find our pattern for acceptable worship of our Lord, we go back past the eighteenth century with its denominational names, back past the fifteenth century when the Lord's Supper became a communion of another kind; back past A.D. 1311, when sprinkling was defined as baptism, we go back past the seventh century, when instruments of music were placed in the worship. We go back past the sixth century, when the font of water was placed at the door. We go back past the fourth century, when bishops began to rule over more than one congregation.

By going back to the beginning time, to the original church, we know her name, the terms of her membership, we know her worship, her organisation, her message, her life and her hope. We know because the Holy Spirit recorded that information for us.

From the beginning, the Lord's church was different. Under the Law of Moses, the nation of Israel observed the seventh day, the Sabbath, and kept it holy. Under the Law of Christ, Christians assembled on the first day of the week. We see this revealed in Acts 20:7 “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.” The Scriptures tell us that not only the church at Troas met on the first day of the week, but also the churches in Corinth and Galatia (1 Corinthians 16:1,2).

The purpose of their assembly was to ‘break bread’, to have the Lord's Supper which they ate and drank in remembrance of Christ their Saviour. Today, that same supper is kept on that same day by that same church for that same reason.

When the Lord's Day comes each week, the Lord's church gathers for His supper as in the first century. As part of the worship at the assembly on the Lord's Day, His people gave of their means to support her work. The treasury of the church was always being filled with generous giving, and it was always being emptied for Christian service. Each member had “put aside and saved” and gave to help in the great work of the church (1 Corinthians 16:1,2). The same simple and effective system, finances the church of Christ today.

Musical instruments were unknown in the early church. Anyone passing near the worship assembly would certainly hear music, but it was the music of voices as they sang “psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). This was the gospel service in song, as they taught, exhorted and encouraged one another (something not possible for a musical instrument to do). Here was an act of worship where the music of the human voice was accompanied only by the melody of a worshipping heart. The same is true in Christ's church today, because it has the same music in its worship.

The prayers of the early church were an offering of praise for the God we serve, and thanksgiving for all His marvellous blessings He gives continually. The apostle Paul, by his example, would have encouraged the early church by his own prayerful attitude. Not many would have suffered the amount of pain, persecution, heartache, and rejection that Paul went through, yet he couldn't stop thanking and praising God for all His marvellous blessings. Like Paul, the prayerful attitude of the early church was a reflection of their view of salvation. It was he who acknowledged the tremendous grace, shown for him to be saved (1 Timothy 1:14,15). No one just said prayers - they prayed, and they prayed from their hearts, in thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6; 1 Thess.5:18); for the apostles in their work (1 Thess. 5:25; Ephesians 6:18,19). They prayed for each other (Phil. 4:6); and in prayer they laid their anxieties before the Lord (Philippians 4:6; 1 Peter 5:6,7). It was Jesus who taught that prayer is worthless when we come before God using vain and empty repetition (Matthew 6:7).

The early church met and shared with one another in their worship, by their giving, singing and praying. The word “fellowship” is the word used to describe their attitude when they came together. Not until we read of Jewish Christians whose faith had tired, do we see a word about non attendance of an assembly of the church. In his word of exhortation, the Hebrew writer encourages those who were slipping away, to keep meeting, when he says in Heb. 10:24-25 “And let us consider one another ... in order to stir up love and good works...not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much more as you see the Day approaching.”

Oh yes, there is an exclusive pattern for the Lord's church, and it’s there for the saved to hold to until the Lord comes to take us home!

But why ask the question, “Is there an exclusive pattern for church worship” in the first place?

Well, the problem arising in today's religious climate, is that there's a real effort being made to have unity with a larger number of believers, and to that end the conditions of membership, and worship in the Lord's church are literally ignored. Some brethren are prepared to participate with unscripturally organised groups. And the sad thing is that if when one objects to these things happening, pointing to their error, back comes the reply, “You're the ones who are in error, because you're narrow-minded and unloving and cold!” They don't deny their error, but the suggestion is, that we are all in error in some way, that because they believe us to be guilty of being in one error, we shouldn't object to extending fellowship to those who are simply in a different error. What these people should notice is that lack of knowledge about some things is not as serious as lack of knowledge about other things. For example, failing to know what one must do to become a Christian, worship God acceptably, and live a sanctified life - is deadly!

They need to understand that erroneous views which don't affect one's obedience to God's commandments are not equal to erroneous views that result in disobedience.

When we turn to Ephesians 4:11-14 we are taught that the Lord made provisions for the “perfecting of the saints” that they might attain “unto a perfect man and not be carried about by every wind of doctrine” - the deception of those who would deceive - error!

That's pretty clear teaching. But those who say that none of us have really got it right are saying that the Lord failed in His effort to nurture His church to maturity. Contrary to their thinking, 2 Peter 2:18-19 tells us that error is shown as something from which one must escape. It can be recognised, and action can be taken. If one is in error, he needs to escape from it. Most telling of all is 1 John 4:6, which contrasts the spirit of truth with the spirit of error. Those who profess Christianity are in one camp or another. He who hears God, John says, is in the camp of truth; he who doesn't hear God (but hears his own will, human traditions and innovations), is in the camp of error.

Penitent, even baptised believers who worship with the musical instrument, who teach “once saved always saved”, ordain women to be preachers or elders, can't show that they are hearing God in their belief and practice of such matters. Some may quote certain passages to substantiate their claim, but a study of what the Scriptures teach will always reveal their error.

Jesus says that we can know the truth (John 8:32). Doesn't it follow then that the confusion or unconcern about the truth on the part of millions of people, won't change the truth to make it unknowable? So it can't be true, that all are in error.

It's also not true that since members of the churches of Christ don't understand everything perfectly (the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the whole nature of God, or the role of angels), that they must extend fellowship to all others - who don't understand everything perfectly, especially if they are, baptised believers.

Baptised believers who have quit being guided by the spirit of truth and follow the spirit of error have severed their relationship with the God of truth. While it's important to show mercy and compassion on those who are in doubt in their error and indicate their willingness to depart from error, it is equally important, never to embrace or encourage error with those who refuse to repent of it. For this very reason, it is proper for us to prayerfully keep up the work of preaching the truth in love - lest the issues facing the church in Australia take root, depriving many souls of our day, and our children of tomorrow - from salvation.

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