Biblical Theology and Corporate Worship
What exactly are we doing when we gather as churches for worship? And how do we know what we should be doing in those weekly gatherings?
Naturally, evangelical Christians turn to Scripture for guidance on these questions, but where in Scripture do we look? There’s plenty about worship in the Old Testament—about prayers and sacrifices and choirs and cymbals and much else. But does all that material actually apply to new covenant gatherings of believers?
What we need in order to answer these questions is a biblical theology of worship. Biblical theology is the discipline that helps us trace both the unity and diversity, the continuity and discontinuity, within the sprawling storyline of Scripture.
In this article I’m going to sketch, all too briefly, a biblical theology of corporate worship. Four steps will take us there: (1) gathered worship in the Old Testament; (2) fulfillment in Christ; (3) gathered worship in the New Testament; (4) reading the whole Bible for corporate worship.
1. GATHERED WORSHIP IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Ever since God’s people were banished from his presence after the fall in Genesis 3, God has been at work gathering them back to himself. So when Israel suffered in chains in Egypt, God rescued them not just so that they would be free from oppression, but so that they would worship him in his presence (Ex. 3:12, 18). God led his people out of Egypt and brought them to his own dwelling place (Ex. 15:13, 17).
Where is that dwelling place? At first, it’s the tabernacle, the elaborate tent in which the priests would offer sacrifices for the people’s sins and impurities. We read in Exodus 29:44–46,
I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.
The goal of the Exodus was that God would dwell among his people, and he does this by means of the holy place (tabernacle) and people (priesthood) he appointed for that purpose.
When God brought Israel out of Egypt, he took them to himself as his people. And the way he confirmed this new relationship with Israel is by cutting a covenant with them, often called the “Mosaic covenant.” In Exodus 19, the Lord reminds the people what he’s done for them in rescuing them from Egypt, and then promises that if they obey the terms of his covenant, they will be his treasured possession (Ex. 19:1–6).
The Lord confirmed this covenant with the people in Exodus 24, and all the laws of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy flesh out the terms of this covenant. All these details specify how God’s people are to live with God and each other within this specific covenant God has made with them.
So the detailed sacrifices and purification rituals described in Leviticus are a means of repairing breaches in covenant fellowship. The cult maintains the covenant.
A handful of times a year all Israelites were commanded to gather together before the Lord at his tabernacle, for the festivals of the Passover, firstfruits, and so on (Lev. 23). Apart from these festivals, the regular offering of sacrifices was carried out by the priests, and individual Israelites came to the tabernacle (and later the temple) only when they needed to offer a specific sacrifice for sin or impurity.
In other words, for Israel, corporate worship was a special, few-times-a-year occasion. Worship, understood as exclusive devotion to the Lord, was something that Israelites were called to practice around the clock (Deut. 6:13–15). But in the sense of having intimate access to God’s presence, worship was restricted to specific people, places, and times. God dwelled among his people, yes, but that presence was restricted to the tabernacle and guarded by the priests.
2. FULFILLMENT IN CHRIST
The turning point in the storyline of Scripture is the incarnation of God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. All God’s promises are fulfilled in him (2 Cor. 1:20). All the Old Testament types—the institutions of the priesthood, temple, and kingship, the events of the exodus, exile, and return—find their fulfillment in him. So in order to understand the whole Bible’s theology of worship, we have to understand how Jesus fulfills and transforms the worship of the Mosaic covenant.
Tabernacle, and later the temple, was where God manifested his presence among his people; Jesus fulfills and therefore replaces these old-covenant structures. John tells us that the Word became flesh and—literally—tabernacled among us (John 1:14). Jesus promised, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:20). In other words, Jesus’ body is now the temple, the place where God meets his people, manifests his presence, and deals with their sin (John 2:21–22). That’s why Jesus can say that an hour is coming when true worshipers will no longer need worship in Jerusalem, but will worship in spirit and truth (John 4:21–24).
Jesus fulfills and replaces the earthly temple of Jerusalem. He is now the “place” where true worshipers worship God.
Jesus also fulfills and replaces the entire sacrificial system associated with the Mosaic covenant and its tabernacle and temple. Hebrews tells us that, unlike the priests who had to offer daily sacrifices, Jesus atoned for the people’s sins “once for all when he offered up himself’ (Heb. 7:27). Jesus’ single offering of himself doesn’t just purify the flesh like the old covenant sacrifices, but instead purifies our conscience, renewing us inwardly (Heb. 9:13–14). Because Jesus has perfected his people by a single offering, there is no longer a need or place for the offering of bulls and goats (Heb. 10:1–4, 10, 11–18).
Jesus fulfills and replaces the Levitical sacrifices. His blood now secures our eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12).
I could go on and on like this. The point is that Jesus’ saving work ushers in a radical shift in how God relates to his people. The new covenant Jesus inaugurates makes the old one—the covenant God made at Sinai, through Moses—obsolete (Heb. 8:6–7, 13). Now, God’s people have their sins forgiven through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice. Now, God’s people experience his gracious presence through faith in Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit. Now, all God’s people have intimate access to God (Heb. 4:16, 10:19–22), not just a small number of priests.
3. GATHERED WORSHIP IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
What does all this mean for gathered worship in the new covenant era? The first thing to note is that the Old Testament’s terms for worship have been applied to the whole lives of believers. In Romans 12:1 Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Now we don’t offer animals as sacrifices but our very selves. The Christian’s whole life is an act of sacrificial service to God.
Or consider Hebrews 13:15: “Through him [that is, Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” Praise is our sacrifice, and we offer it continually—not just for an hour on Sunday morning. The fruit of lips that acknowledge God’s name includes songs of praise, but much more too: boldly confessing the gospel in public, speaking words of truth and love to others, bringing every word we say under Christ’s dominion.
This means that “worship” isn’t something we mainly do at church on Sunday. Instead, worship should suffuse our entire lives. For the Christian, worship isn’t confined to sacred times and places, because we are united by faith to Christ, the one who is God’s temple, and we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, making us both individually and collectively the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16–17, 6:19; cf. Eph. 2:22).
What then characterizes corporate worship in the new covenant? Reading and preaching Scripture (1 Tim. 4:14); singing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs together (Eph. 5:18–19; Col. 3:16); praying (1 Tim. 2:1–2, 8); celebrating the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 11:17–34); and stirring one another up to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24–25).
One of the most striking things about corporate worship in the new covenant is the persistent focus on building up the whole body. Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). We teach and admonish one another as we sing to the Lord. As we praise God, we build each other up. Paul goes so far as to say that everything in the gathered assembly should be done with a view to building up the body in Christ (1 Cor. 14:26).
What’s unique about the church’s weekly gathering is not that it’s the time when we worship, but that it’s the time when we build each other up by worshiping God together.
Because of the new covenant Christ inaugurated, gathered worship in the new covenant era has a whole different fabric than gathered worship under the old covenant. Instead of a few times a year, gathered worship is now weekly. Instead of meeting at the temple in Jerusalem, believers gather in local churches wherever they live. Instead of God’s presence being restricted to the Holy of Holies and guarded by priests, God now dwells in all of his people by the Spirit, and Christ is present to his people wherever they gather (Matt. 18:20). Instead of performing an elaborate series of sacrifices and offerings, Christians gather to hear the Word, preach the Word, pray the Word, sing the Word, and see the Word in the ordinances. And all of this aims at building up the body in love so that we all attain to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:11–16).
4. READING THE WHOLE BIBLE FOR CORPORATE WORSHIP
How then to do we look to Scripture to teach us what to do in corporate worship?
First, I think it’s important to affirm that Scripture does in fact teach us what we should do in the church’s regular assemblies. Remember that while all of life is worship, the church’s weekly gathering occupies a special place in the Christian life. All Christians are required to gather with the church (Heb. 10:24–25); church attendance is not optional for the Christian. This means that, effectively, everything a church does in worship becomes a required practice for its members. And Paul urges Christians not to allow any humanly devised regulations or worship practices to be imposed on their consciences (Col. 2:16–23).
I would suggest that these biblical principles add up to what has historically been called the “regulative principle” of worship. That is, in their corporate gatherings, churches must carry out only those practices that are positively prescribed in Scripture, whether by explicit command or normative example. To do anything else would be to compromise Christian freedom. So churches should look to Scripture to tell us how to worship together, and should do only what Scripture tells us to do.
But that raises the question, what exactly does Scripture tell us to do? To put it more precisely, how do we tell what biblical material on worship is normative and binding? To answer this question in full would take a book; here I’ll offer the briefest of sketches.
Discerning what biblical teaching on worship takes some finesse, since Scripture nowhere presents us with, for example, a complete, confessedly normative “order of service.” But there are some commands in the New Testament which are pretty plainly binding on all churches. That the churches at Ephesus and Colossae were both commanded to sing (Eph 5:18–19, Col. 3:16), and the Corinthian church is referred to as singing (1 Cor. 14:26), suggests that all churches are supposed to sing. That Paul commanded Timothy to read and preach Scripture in a letter designed to instruct Timothy about how the church is to conduct itself (1 Tim. 3:15, 4:14) suggests that reading and preaching Scripture are God’s will not just for that one church, but for every church.
On the other hand, some commands, like “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16), seem to express a universal principle (“Welcome one another in Christian love”) in a form that may not be culturally universal.
Further, some contextual commands may have broader force, like Paul telling the Corinthians to lay aside money on the first day of the week. That was for a specific offering to the saints in Jerusalem, but all churches are commanded to support their teachers financially (Gal. 6:6), so giving may well have a place in corporate worship.
So far we’ve just dealt with the New Testament, though. What about the Old? After all, the Old Testament has plenty of commands about worship:
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! (Ps. 150:3–5)
Does this mean that, in order to be biblical, our church services need to include trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, dancing, strings, pipes, and cymbals? I’d suggest not.
Remember that the Psalms are expressions of worship under the Mosaic covenant, what some New Testament writers refer to as the “old covenant” (Heb. 8:6). Now that the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 has come, the old covenant is obsolete. We are no longer under the Mosaic law (Rom. 7:1–6; Gal. 3:23–26). Therefore, forms of worship tied up with the Mosaic era are not binding on us either. The temple was served by priests, some of whom specialized in liturgical music (1 Chr. 9:33). In fact, these are the ones we see playing the very instruments named in Psalm 150 (2 Chr. 5:12, 13; 9:11). So Psalm 150 is not providing a template for Christian worship; instead, it is invoking a specific form of old covenant worship associated with the temple and the Levitical priesthood.
That doesn’t of itself settle the question of what kind of instrumentation may be appropriate accompaniment for the church’s congregational singing. But it does mean that a simple appeal to Old Testament precedent is out of order, just as much as an appeal to Old Testament precedent can’t legitimize animal sacrifice. This is where many Christian traditions fall short of a biblical theology of worship, by selectively appealing to Old Testament precedent as if certain features of the Levitical priesthood and temple worship carry over into the new covenant age.
Certainly much in the Old Testament informs the manner of our worship. The Psalms teach us to worship with reverence and awe, joy and wonder, gratitude and gladness. But the Old Testament prescribes neither the elements nor the forms of the worship of the new covenant church.
In this sense, the New Testament provides a new constitution for God’s new covenant people, just as much of the Old Testament served as the constitution for God’s people under the old covenant. God has one plan of salvation, and one people he saves, but the way God’s people relate to him radically changed after the coming of Christ and the establishing of the new covenant.
This is why we need to employ all the tools of biblical theology—putting together the covenants, tracing the links between type and antitype, observing promise and fulfillment, delineating continuities and discontinuities—in order to arrive at a theology of gathered worship. As Christ’s new covenant people, indwelt by promised the Holy Spirit, we worship in Spirit and truth, according to the terms God himself has specified in Scripture.
 For a biblical theology of worship that has deeply influenced my approach here, see David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992).
 For a basic introduction to the storyline of Scripture that uses the theme of God gathering his people as a primary lens, see Christopher Ash, Remaking a Broken World: A Fresh Look at the Bible Storyline (Milton Keynes, UK: Authentic, 2010).
 For more on the trajectory of the temple across the whole canon, see G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology 17 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).
 For brief defenses of the regulative principle, see Jonathan Leeman, “Regulative Like Jazz,” and the first three chapters of Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, ed. Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W. H. Thomas, and J. Ligon Duncan, III (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003).