Covenantal Worship and Christ's Authority
Article byJune 2012
In the various worship wars that continue to rage, there is one element (no pun intended) that is more dangerous than any other. I am not referring to the guitar vs. organ or the suit vs. casual debates. Nor I am referring to the debate about the role of women in worship. Rather I'm thinking of the duty vs. privilege debate. I was recently told that worship is not a duty of man, but a privilege. Man is therefore free to take or leave the worship of God as he pleases. This rampantly individualistic and unbiblical approach to worship leads to far greater conflict than any of the above debates, real or imagined as they may be.
Scripture clearly delineates that worship is an obligation of all men - whether redeemed or not. Covenantal worship, rightly understood, is bi-focal, as it were. It embraces the covenant of creation and the covenant of grace. Now I readily admit to a narrow use of this term "covenantal worship" (which I prefer over evangelical, traditional or liturgical) in which we understand the covenantal relationship between God and his people. Yet Scripture points to a broader covenant structure, which itself calls and summons all men to worship.
Worship according to the Covenant of Creation
The Covenant of Creation (or the Covenant of Works) was the relationship into which Adam was created. He was created in covenant, and there was no time in which Adam did not stand in this covenantal relationship to God. Thus, all the stipulations of that covenant stemmed from the fact that God was his Creator. Adam, in his creation, had no need of a redeemer, created as he was in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. So when we think of pre-fall Adam and his relationship to God, we are not yet considering a fallen situation, but one of creation and sustenance.
God placed Adam and Eve in the garden - God's holy presence - to worship him through "tending and keeping", procreation, and extending the garden throughout the world (Gen 1:26; 215). Scripture tells us that the creation itself was for the glory of God (Ps 19:1-6). Likewise man was also created for that same purpose (Is 43:7). Worship was at the heart of creation - both for man and for the creation.
Scripture teaches that all men are united to Adam as a covenant head or representative. What was true of Adam is true of all men - for good or for ill (Rom 5). Thus, all men are naturally "in Adam" and share the same responsibilities with him. Moreover, all men now share the same curse as the first Adam. That original covenant of works, though broken does not alleviate or dilute the requirements of that covenant - God still demands perfect obedience and still demands worship from all creatures.
This is why Scripture calls all men to worship. Psalm 100:1 makes this clear "Make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth." (1) The structure of Psalm 100 makes abundantly clear the duty and reasons for worship. The psalm breaks down into two sections: 1-3 and then 4-6. Each section commences with a series of commands to worship God, and then closes with the reason why man should worship God. Note the language of call/command "Make (1)... serve (2)... Come(2) ... Know (3)". Notice the referents of these commands - "all the earth". The call/ summons is as clear as are the objects of that call. So also is the reason for such summons: "It is he who has made us and we are his" (3). By virtue of creation, man owes God a debt of worship. (c.f. Ps 96:1; 97:9; 98:4; Rom 1:18-23; Acts 14:15-18; 17:22-31). Scripture is very clear that all men are to worship God.
Worship according to the Covenant of Grace
Yet Psalm 100 also reinforces that special redemptive relationship God has with his people (4-6). The same structure applies - the call/command language "Enter ... Give thanks...(4)". These commands to worship are followed by the reason in vs 5 "For the LORD is good, his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever." It is abundantly clear that God also calls his covenant people to worship Him as the merciful covenant-keeping faithful God. We are called to worship our Redeemer. Within this covenant there are three distinct but connected spheres of worship: the individual, the family and the church.
Scripture is replete with examples of individual worship and calls for the same. We should not be surprised at such - God saves individuals. Daniel 6:10 describes how Daniel, at great personal cost to himself, continued to repeatedly and daily worship the Lord. Our Lord Jesus himself presupposes that Christians pray, and do so in private (Matt 6:6). On the basis of Scriptural principle and of Scriptural example, we can state the Christians calling involves regular, even daily communion and worship with God. What we (mis)name as "devotions" should be re-named worship. We should think of it as such. Where individual worship is cherished and practiced faithfully, family worship and corporate worship are likewise reverenced. For the one worshipping in spirit and in truth as an individual, daily communing with God, there will be no competition between his own worship and the worship of his family and church. All will mutually benefit the other and create a cycle of desire for all aspects of worship. If Scripture points us to the principle and practice of individual worship, we may thus state - it is a sin if this worship is neglected.
Yet God's covenant of grace is a covenant made not only with individuals, but also with families (Acts 2:39, Acts 16 Gen 12:15, 17). So there is a familial element to worship - the family being one of the central planks of covenant life. There are a number of key passages which speak to the necessity and centrality of family worship - many of these passages speak to aspects of worship, and thus by extension the principle of family worship.
Genesis 18:9 reads "For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him." This text delineates God's desire that Abraham should lead his children in worshipful conduct in the practice of righteousness and justice. This worship evidently continued through the covenant line, though at times became perverted with idolatry. Genesis 35 details when Jacob commands his family to put away their idols , to purify themselves and to change their garments, that they may make an altar to God. Teaching the word of God to our children is again expressly commanded in Deut 6:5-7, a practice which see continued in the new covenant in Timothy's life (2 Tim 3:14-15).
When families come together to worship, heads of households are taking up the roles that we see delineated in Scripture. Abraham was told teach his household - he was the family prophet bringing God's Word to bear upon his home. Job made sacrifice ad interceded for his family, he acted as a priest, of sorts. Parents are also the kings of the household, to whom children must submit. And so the head of the home is to execute these offices as he leads his family before the throne of grace.
Yet corporate worship is the pinnacle of worship. We are reminded that in heaven there are no "individuals," only God's people. Indeed, there are no families in heaven, save the family of God. If we understood our eternal trajectory, we would more highly value corporate worship. If our ultimate goal is to worship and glorify and enjoy God forever, we'd worry less about whether one is commanded to attend corporate worship and simply desire it more. That said, the message of Scripture is clear on the matter of corporate worship.
Christ's Authority in Worship
Given the fact then that all men owe God a debt of worship, me may think it superfluous to labour the point of authority. However, the "privilege" coalition (of whom there are many) practically deny the authority of God in the church and especially in worship.
The church does not exist in its own right, nor it is to be regarded as other civil institutions or unions. It is not a club consisting of voluntary members. Neither is it self-determining. The church exists, both in its origins and prerogatives in and through Christ. Jesus Christ is the supreme head of the church. He tells Peter "On this rock I will build my church" (Matt 16:18). It is his own personal possession. The church thus exists and is run according to the will and rule of Christ. Not one single member of the church of Christ exists outside of this authority. Every aspect of church life, including membership and worship, takes place under the authority of Christ.
When we consider church membership and the issue of Christ's authority in worship, James Bannerman in The Church of Christ makes some interesting observations. In demonstrating the authority structure of the church he cites six factors worthy of note: first Scripture delineates the divine warrant of the church and the association of members by the express command of Christ. Second, for the running of the society of the church, Christ has appointed office-bearers. Third, Christ has made and enacted laws within the church to regulate its worship and conduct. Fourth, the offices of the church have had names attached to them, names which delineate far more than just a teaching function (elder). Fifth, there is a corresponding command to submit to the offices of the church. And sixth, there is a clear exercise of that authority described in Scripture. (2) Given Bannerman's general analysis, how does the individual member relate to the issue of authority in church and in worship?
Is it the case that members covenant together and with God to form the church? The answer is "No." According to the Bible, Christ calls the church into existence and calls people into the church. Church membership is misunderstood if one thinks that joining a church is pre-eminently an act of man. Bannerman again deals with this issue, asking if the Church of Christ is little more than a union or institution comparable with the world's institutions. He answers no, stating that the institution and conduct of the church is regulated by a higher and independent authority; namely, Christ himself. However, Bannerman states that, in some way, the church's authority and action is derived from the consent and permission of its members. This is because "it is by their own voluntary act and choice that they become and continue members of the church, and so place themselves under that administration of power ... Church power exists by the permission or consent of the members; and the Church has all the rights and standing of a merely private and voluntary association" (3). Bannerman notes that the authority of the church is from God and by positive Divine institution. Yet his formulation once again prompts the question - "how does the individual relate to this authority"
If the church derives its activity from a voluntary code of membership, is there any meaningful authority in the church? I would suggest not on this view. It seems that, on such a view, the authority that has been given to the church is turned on its head. Obligations become privileges and choices. Bannerman's statement perhaps over-simplifies the case: it is not simply a "voluntary act and choice" to join the church. First, as we have seen, it is demanded by the head of the church, Christ. Second, not all who desire to join are allowed to join. That is, Christ's authority, specifically the power of the keys, is exercised by the session of a church. As much as an individual desires to join, Christ's authority, exercised through the church, ultimately allows or denies entry. Therefore, the call of Christ goes out to join a church and the authority of Christ opens and closes the church doors. This association is not as voluntary as Bannerman suggests.
When an individual is admitted to Christ's church he is coming under the authority of Christ. His vow to submit to Christ's authority is as real and binding as any other vow he takes. In joining the church of Christ, we no longer have free reign to conduct ourselves as we want. We are people under authority, with no more right to come and go, to act, speak and think, to present or absent ourselves in worship, than Christ himself gives us. Thus, the authority of the church is not derived from its members nor even its officers, but simply from Christ. What does this have to do with worship? Does Christ exercise authority in worship? In worship, no less than the administration of the keys, Christ's authority is active and manifest.
We have determined already the necessity and requirement of corporate worship. Worship is not an option but a requirement. In many Protestant churches, worship commences with a call to worship. What is the significance of this call to worship? A call to worship is a command to enter into God's presence. It is a summons by God to his covenant people to enter his special presence to worship him. Some argue that there is nothing distinct about corporate worship from any other aspect of life. This is the "all of life is worship" position. However, Scripture is replete with God's commands to "come into his presence" or the like. If all of life is worship, and God is everywhere (Ps. 139:7) then why should God peculiarly and repeatedly call us to "come into his presence" as he does in Ps 100:2? This call is summons to come into his peculiar presence rather than his omnipresence. This command cannot be obeyed unless there is a specified time for that gathering in his presence, which I take to be corporate worship.
But what is the nature of the call to worship? The call into his presence is the nature of a royal summons. Indeed, Ps 50:1 speaks to this matter: "The Mighty One, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting." God speaks and God summons. Are we to think that when God summons us we have the right to turn him down because we have something better or more important to do? Frankly I find astonishing the idea that the creature feels at liberty to dismiss the Creator's call - to dismiss his Saviour's summons, to dismiss the call of the head of the church. The command to enter God's holy presence should ring in the ears of the redeemed with great delight. The sound of our redemption is being proclaimed by the very act that God summons the redeemed into his presence.
However, not only is worship a duty by call or command. For the redeemed, it is also their chief delight. The presence of God was the place of greatest desire to David. He says as much in Psalm 27:1,4 "The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? ... One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple". What a wonderful reality we experience in worship! As unregenerate people, we smart under the command of God. As those born from above, we delight in the command of God. What wisdom of God! What blessing that the command comes to us as something we should desire more than anything else!
Furthermore the Head of the church has determined a specific day for his peculiar worship. Six days we are given to work before God and do all to his glory, according to our various callings. The seventh is the day set aside by God himself, in which his people are to dedicate themselves to worship. Just as the original Sabbath for Adam and Eve was designed to call them away from their ordinary labours in order to engage solely in direct worship and communion with God, the purpose of our Lord's Day remains the same. The Sabbath could not be kept in Old Covenant and the New Covenant Lord's Day cannot be kept without regard to corporate worship.
Psalm 92 is a Psalm written especially for the Sabbath. It is entitled a "A Song for the Sabbath". The opening of the Psalm makes a strong argument for not only the weekly worship of God, but the morning and evening worship of God, which was common place after the sacrificial system was instituted. The Psalm reads "It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre..." It is evident that this nightly meeting was not just a matter of sacrifice, but of musical and worship of God. The practice appears to have been to open and close the day in worship, thus aiding the worshipper to safe-guard the Sabbath from improper use.
Yet Christ is not bodily present in our worship; we do not see or observe him physically (apart from the Supper). His authority is not any less present because of this fact. Quite apart from the presence of the Holy Spirit, throughout redemptive history, God has appointed men to act on his behalf, by his authority, for the ordering of worship. The Levites of the old covenant, not all of whom were priests, served in various capacities in the temple and in the teaching of the people.
These functions depended upon their Levitical lineage not on the fact they were priests, for many were not see 2 Chron 29:34) What is my point in making this distinction? We tend to univocally equate the priesthood with the Levites, and thus negate the importance of this work under the banner of "fulfilled in Christ". However Levitical, not priestly functions included being teachers of God's law, acting as judges on matters of law, and leading in worship on the return from Babylon (Neh 8:10). What is on display here? The ministers of God's Word and worship. (4)
No less in the New Covenant do we maintain that Christ has ordained the office of elder (teaching and ruling) to maintain that same authority in the church. As the Levites spoke on behalf, and with the authority of Christ, so too do those lawfully ordained to office in Christ's church.
It is not the voice of man that we hear when we gather for worship, but the voice of God - calling us, summoning us into his peculiar presence to worship and adore him. Are we to think that if God has gone to the trouble of summoning us, that we can dispense with God's call on our lives by our absence from public worship? When worship is called, Christ is summoning us and, simply put, he demands that we respond.
Yet, in his grace, that demand should come to us as something desirable. A command to do what we desire to do, no longer has the pinch of a command. What a blessing! The correlation between God's law and our own heartfelt desire is surely a thing for which God is to be thanked in corporate worship. Let me close with the words of Joseph Swain that well illuminate this blessed truth:
Take his easy yoke and wear it;
Love will make obedience sweet;
Christ will give you strength to bear it,
While his wisdom guides your feet
Safe to glory, where his ransomed captives meet. (5)
Rev. Matthew Holst is the pastor of Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church in suburban Atlanta.
1. I am not discounting any prophetic significance in these kinds of Psalms. In addition to the universal call to worship that goes out now, we also see in these Psalms, the time when all the world will actually worship God in the new heavens and earth.
2. James Bannerman The Church of Christ (Edmonton AB. Still Water Revival Books. 1991) 191-192
3. Bannerman, Church of Christ, Vol 1, 191
4. Ryan M McGraw, The Consequences of Reformed Worship: The Biblical Foundations for the use of the Call to Worship, Baptism, the Offering, and Benedictions in Corporate Worship, 2008, 158-160. Unpublished ThM thesis.
5. Joseph Swain, "Come Ye Souls By Sin Afflicted." 1792
reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.
- Same-Sex Attraction and the Church
- God's Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly as Candidates and Credentials Committee
- The Real John Knox
- Praying for Heretics: Irenaeus of Lyons' First Prayer for the Gnostics
- God's Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reform of the English Pulpit, 1643-1653