Theology of Public Worship

While most Christians would admit that a theology of public worship is necessary, a quick glance at the state of modern American evangelicalism will quickly reveal that a historically grounded theology of worship is noticeably rare. American Protestants have largely failed to recognize that how one worships will determine what they believe. It reasonably follows, then, that we must consider what we believe about worship. Neglecting the question does not save us the trouble of answering it. We simply guarantee that we will answer it poorly. Early drafts of this essay included portions on the exegetical and historical basis for the necessity of corporate worship as well as Sunday being rightly considered The Lord’s Day, but limited space requires us to assume these things and focus more intently on the necessary elements of public worship.

Put simply, every aspect of our worship must also be centered on the Word of God. We should not presume to worship God in ways which he has not prescribed. This was the very sin of Nadab and Abihu. “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1-2).  The sin of Nadab and Abihu was to presume that they could approach God however they saw fit and God’s anger burned against them for it. Even Aaron knew that God’s judgment was just. The Lord prescribes how his people should approach him, and for this reason, worship should center clearly on the Word of God. As Ligon Duncan has often said (forgive me for not having a specific citation), we should sing, pray, read, preach, and see the Bible.

To say we should sing the Bible is simply to echo Paul when he writes both in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 that Christians should sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Our songs should have clear, Biblical theology. Singing is both expressive and formative, which Paul alludes to in Colossians when he says to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom…” before calling the Colossian church to sing. Paul clearly connects teaching, wisdom, and meditating on the word of Christ to the songs that the Colossians are singing. Similarly, we should see to it with great care that the songs which find a place in our worship be Biblically grounded.

To say we should pray the Bible is to say that the prayers in our worship service, like the songs, should be full of the Word of God. The Bible is full of prayers and doxologies that we should not hesitate to pray back to God who gave them to us. When we pray prayers of invocation, we should quickly run to the Psalms, which are full of requests for God to be near his people. When praying pastoral prayers, we should, out of love for God and our congregations, include Scripture that addresses the needs of our people. When praying prayers of illumination, we should pray back to God the promises he has made to form and care for his people through the ministry of the Word. It is in fact these promises that should cause us to read and preach the Word.

In giving the reading and preaching of the Word prominence in our worship, we make clear that it is not our words, but God’s that change the hearts of men and women. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (Hebrews 4:12-13). For this reason that the early church devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). For this reason that Paul admonishes Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of the Word (1 Timothy 4:13). For this reason our calls to worship and our benedictions should be rich with Scripture, we should relish the reading of the Word in our services, and we should be careful expositors of the Word in our sermons.

Finally, we see the Word in the Sacraments. In baptism and in Communion, we see visible signs of the promises of God. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes these Sacraments like this: “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong to the church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word" (WCF 27.1). These Sacraments are visible signs of the promises of God’s Word, and the “benefits of [Christ’s death]” are “present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.”

These elements cannot be changed, but their forms and circumstances may change based on cultural and historical contexts to best serve those elements. Forms like the precise order of worship or circumstances like whether a congregation uses a hymnal or projected lyrics might vary from place to place, but the Word sung, prayed, read, preached, and seen in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day must always occur. Christians must heed the warning of the tenth chapter of Hebrews, and not neglect to meet together, but instead dedicate ourselves even more to our gathering as we look for Christ’s return (Hebrews 10:25).