Worship, Edification and Theological Method

©David Peterson (2010)

When I wrote Engaging with God, I sought to articulate a wholistic biblical theology of worship, showing how Old Testament teaching is fulfilled in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. The locus of worship for the Christian is not an earthly sanctuary but heaven, where our great high priest reigns and continues to intercede for us on the basis of his once-for-all sacrifice. Many worship terms are used in a transformed way in the New Testament to describe his unique work for us. But worship terms are also applied to Christians in their response to Jesus and his saving work. Although Evangelicals are generally united in their understanding of the former, there is continuing disagreement with regard to the latter.

Worship is meant to be expressed in every area of life, but does the New Testament allow us to speak about corporate worship? Given the importance of edification as a way of describing the purpose of our gatherings, is it misleading to apply worship categories to the same events? ‘Is worship primarily what happens on Sundays when we do specific activities of singing, praying, offering, confessing, and so on? Or is worship primarily the way we live all of life for the honor of the Lord in such a way that Sunday gatherings are no more “worship” than any other time of the week?[1] Or is a ‘middle’ position possible, whereby the whole of life is viewed as the sphere of worship but the gathered worship of the church is seen to have a distinctive function within that broader framework?[2]

This is an old debate within Protestantism, but the issues have surfaced again in three articles written by Tony Payne in 2003.[3] Since returning to Sydney, after eleven years of living and working in England, I have come to realise how influential these articles have been on the local scene. Although I agree with many of Tony’s arguments and conclusions, there are issues that I want to challenge. Since these matters are so important for the way we view church and conduct ourselves when we gather together, I want to contribute to the debate that continues as a result of Tony’s stimulating input.

Some linguistic issues

Tony Payne begins by rightly identifying four Greek verbs in the New Testament that fall within the domain of ‘worship’— proskyneō, leitourgeō, latreuō, sebomai. These are used to signify a response to God of submission, service and honour. Such terms are strikingly absent from descriptions of Christian gatherings, though there are a few significant exceptions to this observation mentioned below. Theologically, the reason for this absence is said to be the teaching about Christ fulfilling the Old Testament forms and categories of temple, priest and worship. The New Testament ‘sacralizes every sphere of life as the place where worship of God should take place. God is no longer met locally at a particular place, where we draw near to him in order to bow before his presence, and offer worship . . . Every sphere of life is one in which grateful sacrifice, offering and worship is to be conducted in the presence of God’ (299, 16).

Paradoxically, in contemporary usage, the terminology of worship is used extensively of church gatherings—particularly with reference to music and singing—but not much in the wider biblical sense. Two questions are rightly posed about this linguistic phenomenon: ‘Is it an acceptable development, driven by New Testament principles and mandates? Or is the difference a departure not only from New Testament practice, but from the theology that drove it?’ (299, 17) Tony argues that this contemporary usage is contrary to the practice and theology of the biblical writers.

But I want to argue that there can be an acceptable development of biblical thinking in this direction. The Old Testament poses questions to us about corporate expressions of worship under the New Covenant. It is inadequate to construct a theology of the gathering on the basis of what is not said in the New Testament. Moreover, there are ways in which the New Testament uses the terminology of worship that require some application to the gathering of believers.

Drawing near to God

In the ‘history of “liturgy”’ section of Tony’s first article, a brief survey of the New Testament use of leitourgeō and its cognates is attempted. It is rightly argued that the meaning of leitourgeō and other worship terms does not change, but there are new referents in the New Testament, such as Jesus as the ultimate high priest and those who draw near to God through him. The point is made that ‘our earthly gatherings, in space and time, are not about “drawing near”, in the way that Hebrews (for example) uses the term. For the drawing near of the New Covenant takes places in a different realm altogether, the realm of heaven’ (299, 18). The purpose of gathering together in Hebrews 10:24-25 is simply fellowship and edification.

However, there is a false dichotomy here that is not faithful to the argument of Hebrews. The drawing near mentioned in 12:22-24 is expressed in Greek in the perfect tense and refers to the act of coming to God in the heavenly Jerusalem, through Jesus the mediator of a new covenant and his sacrifice. This is a way of speaking about conversion, but it should be noted that the verb is plural and refers to the status of Christians collectively. The two exhortations in 4:16 and 10:22 are in the present tense and express the need for continuous drawing near to God through Jesus. In one context, this is associated with holding firmly to the faith we possess (4:14), and in the other it is linked with holding unswervingly to the hope we profess and considering how to spur one another on towards love and good deeds as we meet together (10:23-25).

In the first instance, drawing near to God appears to be a way of speaking about a particular kind of prayer: we are to ‘approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need’ (4:16). This means ongoing appropriation of the benefits of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. The same is true of the second instance, where drawing near to God is something we can do confidently on the basis of the finished work of Jesus (10:19-22). This ongoing approach to God is ‘with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and our bodies washed with pure water’, reflecting the new heart and assurance of forgiveness promised under the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34 in Heb. 8:10-12; 10:15-18).

Of course, such drawing near to God in his heavenly sanctuary can take place anywhere, as believers express again their need for the mercy and help that the Lord Jesus provides. It can be an individual act of realising the benefits of the New Covenant afresh, but it can also be a corporate act when Christians come together. Indeed, the sequence in 10:19-25 suggests that drawing near to God, holding unswervingly to our hope, and considering how to spur one another to love and good deeds belong to together as corporate privileges and responsibilities. Each of these exhortations has something to say about the character and purpose of our gatherings, as well as having relevance to everyday life and discipleship.

Applying the teaching about drawing near to God to our gatherings, we could say that each one, whatever the aim or theme, should have something of a gospel ‘shape’, reminding us of the basis on which we came to God in the first place and encouraging us to express together our ongoing need for the benefits of Christ’s work on our behalf.

Serving God in the assembly of his people

Tony Payne goes on to summarise the sad history of ‘liturgy’ in the early centuries after Christ, where various writers ‘relocalize the terminology of worship, taking Old Testament categories and language, and appropriating them somewhat uncritically to church life’ (299, 18). This error is particularly reflected in the priestly and sacrificial theology of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist that developed so soon after the New Testament era, and is still with us in different manifestations of Catholicism today. There are historical, cultural and theological reasons for this. However, I think Tony overstates his case when he talks about a shift from ‘a fellowship model of church life to a liturgical one’. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by ‘liturgical’.

The leaders of the church at Antioch were certainly ‘worshipping’ or ‘serving the Lord’ (leitourgeō is used in the Greek of Acts 13:2), when the Holy Spirit called for Barnabas and Saul to be released for their first missionary venture. Most likely the reference is to prayer, because of the coupling with ‘fasting’. Hebrews 13:15 talks about offering to God ‘a sacrifice of praise’, which is then defined as ‘the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.’ Clearly, this could take place anywhere, but it could certainly apply to corporate praise and confession. Paul adapts worship terminology in Romans 15:16 to describe his preaching ministry as ‘the priestly service of the gospel of God’. In each of these examples, concerning prayer, praise and preaching, a service is offered to God, which also benefits the church.

The language of service with reference to such ministries may be appropriately applied to what we do in church. We cannot simply assume that there was once a purely ‘fellowship’ model of church, which was changed to a ‘liturgical’ model. There was always service to God and to one another in prayer, praise, preaching, giving (Heb. 13:16), and in the general exercise of gifts and ministries (note how Romans 12:1-2 prefaces vv. 3-8). The ‘vertical’ and the ‘horizontal’ dimensions of service or ministry should not be artificially separated. Prayer, praise, and preaching should express our devotion to God and concern for his glory, as we minister to one another.

I certainly do not want to defend the Catholic theology of approaching God through a hierarchy of human activities, mediated by human priests. I am troubled by the ‘praise and worship’ theology that emerges from some Charismatic circles, because it suggests that God can be contacted through the experience of singing and the ecstatic activities of the church. Both of these theologies can obscure the gospel teaching about the way we approach God through faith in Jesus and his finished work of salvation. But in avoiding error, we must not become more restricted than the New Testament in defining a theology of worship and fail to apply it to the gathering of God’s people.

Diminishing the vertical

In the second of his articles, Tony Payne deals with four questions that might be raised in response to his argument so far. The first is this: ‘if we no longer think about church in terms of “worship”, won’t this drain the “vertical” dimension of our meetings?’ In my experience this ‘drain’ has already taken place in some churches, where there is little or no prayer, where the songs are mostly sung to one another, and where the emphasis is essentially on meeting for mutual encouragement and edification. The old-fashioned prayer meeting had more of a Godward focus! The issue is not simply the use or non-use of worship terminology, but a failure to talk of meeting God in the fellowship of his people. There is no expectation of engaging with God through the ministry of his word and in prayer and praise. Deliberate avoidance of worship terms with reference to our gatherings has contributed to this decline in our thinking and practice, even though it is not the sole cause.

Tony thinks that the use of worship terminology with reference to the gathering will only ‘solve this problem by creating the equal and opposite problem, namely of diminishing and excluding the “horizontal” dimension of church gatherings’ (301, 15). But the ‘service’ terminology can be used with both vertical and horizontal applications, as noted above. Furthermore, worship and edification need to be explained as two complementary and related aspects of the gathering. It is wrong to emphasize one at the expense of the other.

1 Corinthians 14:24-25 envisages that congregational ministry can bring unbelievers to ‘worship God’ (proskyneō is used here) in the sense of submitting to him for the first time (see also John 9:38). May we not also expect a humbling of believers in repentance and faith, or in praise and adoration, as they gather together ‘in the presence of God’ to hear his word (Acts 10:33)? Tony does not deal with the use of this key term for worship in the New Testament. Significantly, it describes the response of believers to Jesus in his earthly ministry (Matthew 14:33), as the resurrected Lord (Matthew 28:9), and as the one ‘taken up into heaven (Luke 24:52). At different moments in their relationship with him, the disciples ‘worshipped’ Jesus. They did this together, though they were clearly not gathered in any formal way. When we worship Jesus by expressing our faith in him and praising him together, we do what they did. We also anticipate the adoration and grateful submission expressed of the redeemed in God’s New Creation (e.g. Revelation 5:8-14; 7:9-17).

If we restrict the terminology of worship to the conversion response of unbelievers or to individual acts of service to God by believers in everyday life, we imply that there is no place for corporate worship under the New Covenant. This would be very strange if corporate worship was such an important feature of life under the Old Covenant. The need to approach God through sacrifice, priesthood and earthly sanctuary is fulfilled in coming to God through our heavenly high priest. However, without any reference to the sacrificial system, Psalm 95 calls God’s people to praise him together and links this with a call to worship him and to hear his voice. Surely a psalm like this applies to the gathering of believers under the New Covenant. The problem created by misusing the terminology with regard to church gatherings will not be solved by abandoning it, but by proper teaching and appropriate application of all the relevant biblical terms.

A sense of transcendence

I agree that a sense of transcendence will not be restored to our meetings simply by the use of worship terminology. It is the word of God that confronts us with the majesty and glory of God, when it is faithfully read and taught. Biblical truths can also be conveyed to us in well-written songs or through the use of psalms. ‘Moments and experiences of transcendence and emotional uplift are perfectly appropriate and desirable as we gather in church, but again, “worship” is neither the best nor necessary category in which to place them’ (301, 17).

All of life and the gathering of the church

Tony next deals with the question, ‘if “worship” is all of life, then surely what we do in church can also be rightly called “worship”?’ He dismisses the argument by saying that there is no positive reason why “worship” should be privileged as the “church” term’ above any others such as faith or love. But worship was a key term used in the Old Testament to describe the purpose of gathering (e.g. Exodus 3:12; Psalm 95), as well as being applied to the ‘service’ of everyday life (e.g. Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14-15). The prophets regularly called upon the Israelites to relate their everyday behaviour to professions of faith and commitment to God expressed when they gathered together (e.g. Isaiah 1:10-17; Jeremiah 7:1-11).

It is entirely appropriate to ask how the term applies to the gathering of the church in this age, even if New Testament writers rarely do so. This question should not be dismissed as an attempt to privilege worship as the ‘church’ term. If we rightly emphasize that worship is to be expressed in everyday life, thoughtful Christians will still want to know how we worship God in church and how these two spheres of service should be related in our thinking and practice.

There is a difference between serving God by obeying him in everyday work and relationships and consciously turning to him in prayer and praise to express our dependence upon him and our gratitude for every experience of his grace. This difference is generally reflected in the use of two word-groups in the Bible: the more general ‘service’ terms and the more specific language of homage and submission to God (proskyneō and cognates), which is regularly linked to praise.[4] So it might be odd to say to others in your family ‘I’m off to worship’ when you mean ‘I’m off to serve God at the office’, but it would not be odd or inconsistent with biblical usage to say after dinner ‘Let’s have a time of worship together’, meaning ‘let’s have family prayers and praises’.

There is a problem when we restrict the use of worship terminology to church or when we regularly narrow it to mean only prayer and praise. But having wrestled with this matter for about thirty years, I consider that a dangerous imbalance is created by not using the terminology at all with respect to our gatherings. So when Tony talks about taking ‘this general and secondary description’ of what we do in church and making it ‘the primary and determinative one’ I am troubled. ‘General’ it is, but ‘secondary’ it is not. Biblical theology, rather than word count, must be our guide. Edification is a profoundly significant way of viewing what we do, but how many biblical texts actually say so? Expressing our fellowship together in the Lord Jesus is another relevant theological construct, but how many texts actually speak in these terms?

Corporate worship

Tony finally considers the option of using the term ‘corporate worship’ to describe our church meetings. First, he dismisses this at a practical level, suggesting that such a subtle distinction will do little to ‘halt the progress of the “praise and worship” juggernaut that is redefining church life across the world ‘ (301, 18). Quite so, since thorough biblical teaching is needed to achieve the right balance in our use of biblical terminology. There is a particular need to explore the theology of edification and to see how this informs and challenges our views about praise.

Second, Tony argues that the expression ‘corporate worship’ does not deal with the problem previously raised: ‘why should our gatherings be designated as “corporate worship’, rather than “corporate love”, “corporate faith” or “corporate thanksgiving”?’ Theologically, the answer is that worship in the Bible means more than love, faith and thanksgiving. We need to apply to the word ‘worship’ to the gathering of believers because it has many biblical associations that relate to our calling as the people of God. Practically, we need to differentiate the devotion and service that is offered to God on an individual basis and acts of worship we share together (obviously including family prayers and other such group activities).

Ridderbos helpfully concludes his discussion of worship and edification in Paul’s writings by relating worship to the character and calling of the church:

However much the ‘liturgy’ must be seen as a spiritual worship of God embracing the whole of life (Rom. 12:1, 2), this does not alter the fact that the indwelling in and communion of Christ with the church have their point of concentration and special realization in its unity as assembled congregation.[5]

Gathering to God

In the third of his articles, Tony gives a broad survey of God’s gathering activity in Scripture. The gathering of Israel to meet with God at Mt Sinai prefigured the gathering of believers from amongst the nations to be with God and ‘the Lamb’ in the heavenly Jerusalem (e.g. Hebrews 12:18-24; Revelation 7). ‘We are called into membership of this heavenly and spiritual gathering through the gospel. And it is on the basis of our membership of this spiritual gathering in Christ that we gather locally and at particular times and places.’ (302, 14) The rationale for our earthly, local church meetings is ‘simply to gather together in love around Christ, to share and speak with each other and him, to love each other and him, to engage in common activities that help each other.’

Tony proposes that we should stop calling church ‘worship’ or considering it under that category, and that ‘we would do better to adopt a “gathered in heaven” model to think about our church meetings’ (302, 15). I agree with the importance of the ‘gathered in heaven’ perspective and will explore its implications in a moment. But again the argument is spoiled by wanting to exclude worship terminology from the equation. It is simply not adequate to argue that the use of this terminology automatically orients our meetings away from edification to an activity proceeding ‘from the assembled worshippers to God via a mediator of some kind, whether a priest or a singer.’

Hebrews insists that we are to keep on drawing near to God on the basis of Jesus’ finished work (4:15-16; 10:19-22) and through his continuing ministry as heavenly intercessor (7:25). Of course this excludes the need for any human mediation, which in any form becomes an affront to our great and glorious high priest. In the heavenly assembly, after his sacrificial death on our behalf, he leads the praises of God’s people (2:12, citing Psalm 22:22). The angels are summoned to worship him (1:6, cf. Psalm 97:7), and are described as being ‘in festal gathering’ (12:22 ESV) or ‘in joyful assembly’ (TNIV). The heavenly gathering we have been invited to join is one of praise and adoration to God, led by the Mediator himself. What we do when we gather on earth must surely reflect this, as well as being an occasion for strengthening and encouraging each other.

This same perspective is portrayed in visionary form in the Revelation to John. God and the Lamb are in the midst of the heavenly assembly, which involves angels and those redeemed from the earth. They engage in praise to God and the Lamb, with expressions of homage described as ‘worship’ (5:14; 7:11). In this way, they ‘serve’ God day and night in his heavenly temple (7:15). If the ‘gathered in heaven’ model is to be applied to our gatherings on earth, it must surely reflect a similar focus and purpose.

For this reason, I think it is wrong to suggest that the ‘gathered in heaven’ model ‘liberates us with regard to form’ (302, 16). Tony goes on to outline five different ways to be together: the meal-based meeting, the in-depth study meeting, the training meeting, the family meeting, and the missionary meeting. These can all be legitimate and important expressions of our fellowship together in Christ. But I have argued that, if our meetings are truly to reflect the way in which God has gathered us to himself and continues to encourage us in that relationship, Hebrews and Revelation suggest the need for a gospel shape and focus. We meet to acknowledge and celebrate the redemption won for us by the Lord Jesus and to draw again on its benefits for ourselves individually and corporately. In this way the church is also ‘built up’, as we ‘grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.’ (Ephesians 4:15-16).

Theological method and the worship-edification debate

A careful study of the terms for worship will show that there is a construct in biblical theology that we may call ‘worship’. This embraces repentance and humble submission to God and his word, praise and adoration, honour, respect and service. Various synonyms and related terms such as prayer, sacrifice, priesthood and sanctuary are extensively used in the Old Testament to establish what God requires and to condemn alternatives. This teaching is mostly related to the particular circumstances of Israel under the Mosaic Covenant.

New Testament writers assume much of this background and theological understanding when they use the same terms, sometimes in similar ways (e.g. Lk. 1:23; Acts 8:27; Heb. 10:11), and sometimes in transformed ways, to acknowledge the difference brought about by Jesus and his saving work (e.g. Lk. 24:52; Acts 13:1; 24:14-15; Heb. 8:6). Only Hebrews offers an articulated New Testament theology of worship, though Paul’s use of various terms in Romans reveals a transformed way of thinking about the subject. His other letters are more occasional pieces and rarely use transformed worship terms. Even this usage suggests that he had generally taught his converts to think in new ways about worship.

The New Testament does not have much explicit teaching about worship and the gathering of believers, but a complete disjunction from Old Testament teaching on the subject cannot be maintained. Passages describing what Christians did when they met together include references to prayer, praise and hearing God’s word, which are important aspects of worship in the Old Testament (e.g. Acts 2:42-47; Col. 3:16). Even when edification is the apostle’s focus, the way in which the ministries of prayer and praise are conducted is a special concern (e.g. 1 Cor. 14:13-17; Eph. 5:18-20), so that God is honoured and the church is encouraged and built up. In such passages, Paul is seeking to reform the practice of these traditional elements of worship in the light of his teaching about the edification of the church. Paul’s key passage about worship being the service of everyday life is followed by a challenge to serve others by the exercise of gifts in the body of Christ (Rom. 12:1-8). Service to God has a special application or expression in congregational ministry and in gospel ministry more extensively (Rom. 1:9; 15:16; Phil. 2:17).

The Gospels record expressions of adoration or submission to Christ in the course of his earthly ministry (e.g. Mt. 14:33; 28:9; Jn. 9:38) and in the response of the disciples to the ascended Lord Jesus (Lk. 24:52). 1 Corinthians 14:25 describes the conversion of an unbeliever in such terms, and Revelation 14:6-7 portrays the gospel as a call to worship the true and living God. What is the relevance and application of these passages to the ongoing Christian life, individually and corporately? Much of the debate on worship examines the use of service terminology in the New Testament without reflecting significantly on the way the proskyneō word-group is used.

Hebrews 12:18-29 is a key passage for understanding the church as a heavenly, eschatological gathering and for explaining how we come to God through Jesus and his sacrifice to become part of that assembly. However, this teaching demands a more nuanced view of the relationship between the heavenly church and our gatherings here on earth. We come together to express our common participation in Christ and in the joyful celebration of that eschatological reality, as portrayed in the visions of Revelation. The wider context of Hebrews 10:24-25 suggests that our purpose in meeting together is more than simply for the encouragement to serve God in everyday obedience.


[1] Timothy J. Keller, ‘Reformed Worship in the Global City’, in D. A. Carson (ed.), Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 203.

[2] Keller, ‘Reformed Worship’, 204, essentially agrees with Don Carson, ‘Worship under the Word’, in Worship by the Book, 11-63, in espousing this middle position. He also cites Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of his Theology (Grand Rapids, 1975), 480-6, and John Calvin as exponents of this view.

[3] ‘Why do we worship as we do?’, The Briefing 299 (2003), 15-20; ‘Church and worship: Some questions and answers’, The Briefing 301 (2003), 15-18; ‘The gathering: thinking afresh about church’, The Briefing 302 (2003), 13-18.

[4] See David Peterson, Engaging with God: a biblical theology of worship (Leicester: IVP, 1992), 55-74.

[5] Ridderbos, Paul, 486. Cf. Peterson, Engaging, 219-21, 283-8.

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