church as ‘worship’?

Should we speak of our church gatherings as ‘worship’?

Tony Payne has written a helpful article here

Tony’s article is significantly more than a review of two good books. His first half dozen paragraphs are a helpful introduction into the “ongoing debate” about “whether ‘worship’ is the right word or category with which to think about our singing, or our church meetings more generally”. My hunch is that this debate is likely to intensify in the next few years.

The paragraphs about Dr Chapell “conducting his entire discussion of what we do in church under the rubric of ‘worship’” (page 48, column 1 in the print edition) helpfully contrast the directions of the gospel (from God to us) and of ‘worship’ (our response to God).

Tony asks (paragraph 24?), “why the apostles never labelled or categorized their church gatherings as ‘worship’?”  I have demonstrated (NT ‘Worship’ Vocabulary, University of Cambridge thesis, 1992; summary in Moore College Library since 1995) that, indeed, “the apostles never labelled or categorized their church gatherings as ‘worship’ (or even ‘corporate worship’)”. However, I suggest it is out of touch with the apostles to think that the idea had ever entered their heads. Rather, we should be asking ourselves (as I believe they would ask us) why on earth we are doing so! There’s no evidence that the NT authors rejected ‘worship’ as the category for church. Rather, I suggest, it never occurred to them express themselves in this way.

An historical study reveals that it was not only the apostles and all the New Testament authors who did not express themselves in such terms, but also the early church fathers. It is only a gradual process over the past 1700 years that has brought us to our present way of speaking. The process began with language imported into Christianity not so much from the Old Testament as from the Roman Imperial cult; the last significant step in this process, that of removing from ‘worship’ qualifying adjectives such ‘corporate’, ‘public’, ‘formal’, ‘Sunday’, etc, has happened only very recently, in the second half of last century.

The apostles did not speak of their gathered activity as ‘worship’ any more than they spoke of those in church ministry as ‘priest’, or their places of gathering as ‘temple’. For them, “the worship” (Romans 9:4) meant what the priests did in the temple, and they knew that had been fulfilled in Christ (the central argument of the Letter to the Hebrews). And just as the apostles re-interpreted these other Old Testament concepts into their new Gospel life context (e.g. taking the Gospel to the nations as “priestly service”, Romans 15:16; our bodies as “temple” of the Holy Spirit, 1 Cor 6:19), so they re-interpreted ‘worship’ for Christ’s gospel people – applying it not to corporate Christian activity, but to counter-cultural courageous living in the world for Jesus (Romans 12:1).

At the same time, the apostles were developing and experiencing Christian gatherings, and they spoke of and wrote about such gatherings often enough. Generally they did not use a key label word for their gatherings. (Some people, on hearing that the NT authors did not use ‘worship’ as their label for church, demand to know what word we should use instead. However, we should not assume that there is just one defining word.) While I have ideas about how the apostles thought about their gatherings, I invite other readers to consider that question for themselves – and to base their answers directly on the New Testament evidence, not on what they may have read elsewhere or been taught in theological colleges.

In The Briefing, Carl Laferton’s helpful article  Church: Just imagine  (The Briefing, 19 March 2012, proposes a ‘desert island’ approach to looking at what we do in church. It would be important to apply the same approach to how we speak about, and the purpose(s) of, our Christian gatherings.

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