Primitive Christian Worship


Although I disagree with a few strands of his overall theology, I appreciate what Ethelbert Stauffer writes about corporate Christian worship in his New Testament Theology [(Macmillan: 1955), 201]:

The worship of the primitive Church at every point took it back to the coming of Christ, the Christ-event. So it is the good news of the gospel that constitutes the real centre of her services of worship. The Word of Jesus Christ must have its course, said Luther, in the German Mass. It must dwell amongst us richly, declared Paul (Col. 3.16; cf. 1.27). So it came about that the prophecies and histories of the OT were read and expounded; the sermon set forth the mighty acts of God in the fulness of time (Acts 13.15 ff.); the correspondence of the apostles, new and old alike, the epistles, which are very much like sermons when read to the congregations, these were read and so, with their message, their thanksgivings and doxologies, helped to bring out the full meaning of Christian worship.

But Christian worship was ‘also’, most certainly, a service to the world. Yet the primitive Church did not serve mankind in solemn rites and cultic practices, in pious instructions and edifying spirituality. Christian worship rooted men out of their self-centred individualism into an extra nos — away from all that is subjective — up to that which is simply objective. This was its service to humanity. It summoned the nations to worship the crucified.

A Vision for Worship in the Local Church

John Jefferson Davis is professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In his new book, Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (IVP Academic, 2010), Davis shares his vision for the local church that is built around a simple mission: (1) worship God well, (2) love one another, and (3) engage in mission. His book focuses on (1), but (1) is set in the context of (2) and (3). According to Davis, the faithful church is:

  • Committed to doctrinal orthodoxy and biblical authority.
  • Reformed in its soteriology.
  • Trinitarian in its theology.
  • Charismatic in its practice, affirming the gifts and anticipating the active presence of the Spirit in worship.
  • Counter-cultural in its posture, on one hand confronting scientific materialism (modernism), on the other hand confronting digital virtualism (postmodernism). The church is not a place that we control (contra modernism) and it is not a place to be entertained (contra postmodernism).
  • Missional in its vision, acting locally and “partnering with its brothers and sisters in the faith in the global church” which will also serve to protect the church from “identifying itself too closely with America and its global economic and military hegemony” (32).
  • Neo-monastical in its stress on sexual purity over licentiousness, humble obedience and submission over autonomy, and a life of simplicity in light of consumer-driven materialism.
  • It places God-centered doxology as its highest priority. “The fundamental issue is the recovery of the centrality and reality of God in the worship and life of the evangelical church generally: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead; Jesus is still alive today, and is present here with us in the power of the Spirit to enjoy communion with his people” (12).
  • It stresses the real presence of Christ when the church gathers and frequently celebrates the Lord’s Supper; “a more meaningful and frequent experience of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the evangelical church involves the rediscovery of a central reality in the worship of the New Testament and the early church: the real personal presence of the risen Christ who meets his people in joyful fellowship around the table” (114).
  • It focuses weekly on the main things. “One basic reason why frequent Communion, rightly administered, can be a powerful means of spiritual formation is that it focuses the church’s attention on the core realities of the Christian faith: the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection and the return of Jesus Christ. No Christian doctrines are more fundamental than these for the Christian faith. Week by week the church is reminded in the Eucharist that ‘Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again’” (166).

Davis cannot focus on all these features and he doesn’t try. The book centers on the final three bullets.

Rarely will you find a more pointed critique of the modern church communicated within such a compelling, full-scale vision for correction. And Davis’s understanding of technology, and the influence of technology on the church, is impressive (note the Google homepage analogy to the real presence on page 162).

Worship and the Reality of God was a rare book that I found hard to put down. Here’s what Douglas Groothuis wrote:

Professor Davis recaptures what has been lost in most contemporary worship: a theologically rich understanding of the presence of God in our midst during congregational worship and of how we should rightly respond to this incomparable Reality. This is a book to reawaken the heart and mind to true worship, and as such, it is desperately needed.

Worship and idolatry

tss-well-done.jpgSunday morning, Rick Gamache delivered an excellent sermon on worship in light of idolatry (Worship God!: The Heart of the Right Response; 10/28/07). His main text was Philippians 1:18-23 (esp. v. 21).

Here are a few scattered highlights from my notebook …

  • God does not make worshipers, each of us already worships. If we follow a trail of where we spend our time, money, energy and affection and we will be led to the throne of what we worship.
  • “Pleasure is the measure of our treasure” – Jon Bloom
  • Tragically here is what we often find enthroned: unworthy idols like money, status, reputation, career, promotions, relationships, children, s-ex, possessions, hobbies, books, leisure, education and even ourselves!
  • Evil is forsaking living water for broken cisterns; seeking to be satisfied in something or someone other than God Himself (Jer. 2:12-13).
  • Worship is not a Sunday thing, it’s a way of life.
  • God and idolatry are at war for our worship.
  • Our worship of God is intended to bring us pleasure! “For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant” (Ps. 147:1). God’s demand for our worship is a demand for us to be happy and to experience our greatest pleasures! If we are not worshiping God, it’s to our detriment.
  • The essence of worship is to find our deepest satisfaction in Jesus Christ alone — in this life, and even in the face of greatest loss and personal death (Phil. 1:18-23). We can be content in the loss of all things only if we treasure Christ above all else (Phil. 3:8). Further, to say that death is gain — because we long for greater intimacy with Christ — shows that Christ is the supreme object of our hearts. This is worship.
  • So if my circumstances never change, can I be satisfied? Even if my child continues in rebellion, my health never improves, I never get married, etc., can I be satisfied in Christ? (This is a question of worship).
  • God does not need our worship, nor does our worship add anything to Him (Acts 17:24-25).
  • Thinking that our worship gives God something He didn’t already possess is man-centered legalism that kills worship. We come to worship God to receive from Him. “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:12-13). This lifting of the cup is a call for God to fill us (see also Heb. 11:6).
  • This worship is not man-centered, it’s radically God-centered. In Psalm 73, where did Asaph’s thinking radically shift from saying God has forgotten about His people (vv. 3-13) to where Asaph breaks out in praise of God’s sufficiency (vv. 25-26)? The change came when Asaph met God in worship (v. 17).
  • We need to recognize, like Asaph, that “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (v. 26). Our hearts are weak and frail and prone to idolatry.
  • In the end we need to pray for the filling of the Holy Spirit to see more of the glory of Christ. A prayer our Father gladly answers (John 16:14; Luke 11:13)!

These are only my scattered notes to whet your appetite for the whole sermon. You can download the mp3 or listen below. Excellent sermon worthy of your precious time!

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Related: Rick Gamache sermon jam (audio)

Related: Seeing the glories of the Cross requires a deeper understanding of God’s holiness and the depth of personal sin.

Related: Spiritual questions to ask your children

Related: Depression, Worldliness and the Presence of God (sermon on Psalm 73).