Corporate worship

groupAnother barrier to celebratory worship has to do with the walls of individuality that we often build when we think about corporate worship. Seems like an oxymoron: individuality in corporate worship. Yet much of Western Christianity is based on a concept of individual salvation, personal Bible study, a private relationship with God….

Nowhere is this seen better than the Lord’s Supper. In churches of Christ, at least, this is often seen as an individual moment. We read 1 Corinthians 11 more often than any other passage, yet we seem to ignore the teachings of that passage. We emphasize 11:28, which talks about each man examining himself, and downplay 11:29, which talks about us being aware of the gathered body of believers. (while some confusion exists over the use of the word “body” in this verse, the text itself makes it clear that this refers to the church)

We’ve created a culture where people feel that they can enter a service and leave, speaking only to a bare minimum of people. After all, we’re there to be with God, right? Wrong. We’re there to be with the body of Christ, worshiping together, communing together at the Table of the Lord, singing together, hearing Scripture together. Together. Corporately.

Corporate worship is a family gathering. Can you imagine someone going to a family reunion, eating a meal, then leaving without speaking to anyone? Some people try to do it at church.

Let’s put the corporate back into corporate worship. It will do us all some good.

Proclaiming Jesus’ death

The_Empty_Tomb010Yesterday I was talking about the connection in some people’s mind between sadness and holiness. As one brother in Guatemala said, the only things missing from some services are the candles and the casket. Why do we feel the need to create a funeral atmosphere in our church services, particularly during the Lord’s Supper?

Part of the problem, I think, is a misunderstanding of Paul’s comment that “…as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26) I think we lose sight of the fact that proclaiming Jesus’ death is a proclamation of triumph. When we proclaim his death, we do so knowing that the tomb is empty. When we proclaim his death, we proclaim the fact that death could not hold him.

When I think of how to proclaim Jesus’ death, I turn to Revelation 5:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9–10)

We proclaim Jesus’ death in a song of triumph, not a funeral dirge. The meal we eat is not a wake; it’s a celebratory feast!

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5–6)

When we come together to eat the bread and drink the cup, let’s proclaim to the world the wondrous news: He has risen!

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Do not grieve; this is a holy day!

Bible studyI love discovering things that are new to me when reading passages that I think I know pretty well. Nehemiah 8 is a favorite of mine. I like the story of the Jews who have returned from exile hearing the Law for the first time. First they cry when they realize what they haven’t been doing. Then the text is explained to them, and they spend the rest of the day celebrating.

But here’s what I missed:

Nehemiah 8:9   And Nehemiah, who was ethe governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”

This is a holy day… don’t be sad! No crying… this day is God’s.

I’ve been in churches where sadness was next to godliness. Situations in which a smile was seen as disrespectful and heaven help the one who dared to laugh.

This day is holy… so celebrate! Eat good food. Drink enjoyable drinks. Because God’s days are about joy, not about sadness.

Granted, there were times when God’s people were to “afflict their souls,” especially on the Day of Atonement. But that’s not a permanent condition nor a common element of worship. The joy of the Lord is your strength!

It’s amazing how men can take a religion that was/is so full of joy and turn it into something grey and burdensome.

Microphones do not a leader make

churchI want to repeat myself a bit. I think this point gets lost in so many of the discussions about gender: much of the problem stems from an overemphasis on public worship.

We define our churches by that once-a-week gathering of the saints. We define much of the work of the church by what is done during that time. Think about your church’s budget. What percentage goes to providing for that time? I’m talking about salaries, about building costs, about everything involved in allowing us to bring dozens or hundreds of people together. Isn’t that the main thing our church does?

If it is, then our church has little right to exist. Our weekly time together prepares us to go out and do the work of the church. If three hours a week (or five or one) make up the bulk of our Christianity, then something is really, really wrong.

Much of the discussion about men and women in the church comes down to who is going to get to stand up, who is going to get to speak, who is going to get to be seen by everyone else present.

So let me restate my radical views:

  • I don’t think the focus of the early church was a once per week assembly. To be honest, you have to do some piecemeal Bible study to even present a case for a weekly assembly.
  • I don’t think the focus of the church was on gathering hundreds of Christians together in one place. That wasn’t practical in many settings. And if it were the focus, wouldn’t we have more discussion of such in the New Testament?
  • I think a lot of our angst comes from the modern design of assemblies. Not the New Testament example. The modern design. Suddenly stepping up to a microphone implies authority. Where someone telling their story to a gathered group of friends feels like sharing, “giving your testimony” to a crowd seems to place you above them, if only for a moment.

I know that not all of the problems mentioned in gender discussions revolve around public worship. But a high percentage of them do.

I also know that pointing out that problem doesn’t solve it. Fact is, we have large weekly assemblies. We are guided by modernism’s idea of what should be done at such times. And we’ve got to work out how to proceed.

Let’s just recognize that there should be flexibility in how we proceed, with each congregation being given the freedom to work out its own standards and norms. Those who damn other Christians for not being more inclusive of women are running the risk of damning themselves. Those who damn other Christians for allowing women to participate more fall under the same threat of divine judgment.

Authorized worship

Last week, I pointed out some concepts regarding worship that I have come to reject. One of those is the idea of authorized worship. Thinking of worship as being “authorized” or “unauthorized” goes hand in hand with the Regulative Principle of Worship. One website expresses it this way: “If God has not authorized worship then there is no basis for it. However, if God has authorized worship, then it is to be regulated by His word.”

It was interesting for me to Google “authorized worship.” The first page of results were mostly from churches of Christ or other groups discussing churches of Christ. The last item on the page was a Google Books hit from the Christian Baptist, an article from Alexander Campbell laying out the idea of “authorized” and “unauthorized” worship (This particular article can be read on Dr. Hans Rollman’s site.. (There was also a page from a Seventh Day Adventist magazine, but it wasn’t actually about authorized worship, rather “who authorized Sunday worship?”)

It was also interesting to see that few of these articles actually seek to prove that there is such a thing as “authorized” worship. The Campbell article lays out a negative proof, that is it disproves the idea that “there is not a divinely authorized order of Christian worship in Christian assemblies.” Campbell says that if there is no authorized “order,” then nothing done in worship can be considered sinful. Therefore, there must be an authorized order.

Much has been made of Nadab and Abihu’s “strange fire”; for many, that’s one of the strongest examples of why we need to look for authorization in worship. (The example of Uzzah also gets used; interesting that both of these examples are frequently used by those who want to claim the entire Old Testament was nailed to the cross!) I spent a good deal of time with “the boys” a few years ago; feel free to read those articles. (And I’d better mention Eleazar and Ithamar, since I promised not to talk about two of Aaron’s sons without mentioning the other two!)

Other texts are thrown around here and there, but frankly, we use the term “authorized worship” because Campbell did. We inherited it from Restoration Movement leaders; we sure didn’t get the term from the Bible. And I don’t think we got the concept from there, either. It always worries me when we freely and regularly use phrases that the Bible itself doesn’t use. That’s not necessarily wrong (notice that I use the word Bible, a thoroughly unbiblical word), but it should raise caution flags.

Maybe I’m not being fair. Anyone want to stand up in defense of the concept of “authorized worship”? I’m all ears.