The critical point is to extend biblical authority to every aspect of our worship—elements, content, structure, and aesthetics: If we understand the formative role of corporate worship in making disciples, and if we consequently recognize that such disciple-forming corporate worship must be formed by Scripture, then we must be sure that our liturgies and how we express God’s truth aesthetically in corporate worship are similar in meaning to how Scripture expresses God’s truth.
What would it mean for our worship to be truly shaped by Scripture? Christians are people of the book. Conservative Evangelical Christians, in particular, demand that their beliefs and lives be governed by Scripture. God’s inspired Word is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). Therefore, for Christ-honoring sanctification to take place, the lives of Christians must be governed and saturated by the living and active Word of God. And for this same reason, corporate worship must also be governed and saturated by the Word; since public worship both reveals belief and forms belief, and thus it must be shaped by Scripture.
Yet, I think it’s safe to say that most modern evangelical Christians have an entirely different conception of corporate worship. Instead of a life-forming drama, corporate worship has become a concert plus a lecture, a time where we sing some songs that give authentic expression to our hearts and listen to a sermon that hopefully will give us some practical advice for the week. Most evangelical Christians would quickly assert that Scripture in general provides for us the necessary theological foundation and content for our corporate worship, but not much more, particularly when you venture into questions of the aesthetics of our worship, the cultural forms our songs employ.
Instead, what I will argue in this essay is that in order for worship to properly form God’s people as God has intended, every aspect of our worship—including our worship aesthetics, must be formed and shaped by the Word of God.
This emphasis upon biblical authority over our corporate worship applies in at least four areas; First, the elements of our worship must be regulated by the Word of God. The sufficient Word has given those ordinary means of grace that, through their regular use, will shape believers to live as disciples who observe everything Jesus taught: These elements have been clearly prescribed for the church in the New Testament: First, Paul commands Timothy, in the context of teaching him how to behave in the house of God, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim 4:13). He repeats similar commands in Colossians 4:16 and 1 Thessalonians 5:27.
Paul also commands Timothy to “devote yourself . . . to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13) and “preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).
Third, Paul commands that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and for all who are in high positions (1 Tim 2:1). He commands the Colossians to “continue steadfastly in prayer (4:2), and to the Ephesians he admonishes, “praying at all time in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication . . . making supplication for all the saints” (6:18).
A fourth biblically-prescribed element might not actually be a separate element at all, but rather a form of Scripture reading or prayer, and that is singing. In both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, Paul commands gathered believers to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, thereby “singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:19) and “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col 3:16).
Fifth, Christ commanded in his Great Commission to the disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
And finally, Paul told the Corinthian church that he passed on “the Lord’s Supper” to the church, having received it from the Lord himself (1 Cor 11:20, 23). The regular, disciplined use of these means of grace progressively forms believers into the image of Jesus Christ; these Spirit-ordained elements are the means through which Christians “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [them], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12–13).
Second, the content of our worship elements must be regulated by the Word of God. Clearly what we teach and preach, what we pray, and what we sing must contain the Word of God, or at very least express sentiments consistent with the Word of God.
Third, the order of our worship should be regulated by the Word of God. If the primary purpose of corporate worship is the edification of believers—God forming us into mature disciple-worshipers, then even the structure of our services should follow what God has given to us in Scripture. God made clear this purpose when he instituted corporate worship assemblies in the OT, establishing a structural pattern that continues also into the NT. God often calls these assemblies of worship “memorials,” meaning more than just a passive remembrance of something, but actually a reenactment of God’s works in history for his people such that the worshipers are shaped over and over again by what God has done. Beginning at Mt. Sinai (Exod 19–24), God instituted a particular order of what the OT frequently calls the “solemn assemblies” of Israel. This order reflects what I like to call a “theo-logic” in which in the assembly, God’s people reenact through the order of what they do God’s atoning work on their behalf. For sake of time, I will just summarize this structure:
God reveals himself and calls his people to worship
God’s people acknowledge and confess their need for forgiveness
God provides atonement
God speaks his Word
God’s people respond with commitment
God hosts a celebratory feast
This same theo-logic characterized the progression of sacrifices within the tabernacle assemblies and the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chron 15–17). In each case, the structure of the worship assemblies follows a theo-logical order in which the worshipers reenact the covenant relationship they have with God through the atonement he provided, culminating with a feast that celebrates the fellowship they enjoy with God because of what he has done for them.
While the particular rituals present in Hebrew worship pass away for the NT church, the book of Hebrews tells us that these OT rituals were “a copy and shadow of heavenly things” (8:5). Thus while the shadows fade away, the theo-logic of corporate worship remains the same: we are reenacting God’s atoning work on our behalf when we gather for corporate worship. Significantly, Hebrews teaches that when we gather for services of worship, through Christ we are actually joining with the real worship taking place in the heavenly Jerusalem of which those Old Testament rituals were a mere shadow. And so it is important to recognize that the two records we have in Scripture of heavenly worship also follow the same theo-logic modeled in the OT.