“Worship” is a familiar term to the vast majority of us, even to those who do not consider themselves religious. The term is consistently used when describing the services of a church, and in churches of Christ, the idea of the “worship service” is pervasive and widespread. Many times, I fear, this term– “worship”– is thrown around and used extensively without a good understanding of what the New Testament calls worship and what the New Testament has to say about the assembling of the saints. Let us spend some time in this post defining our terms so that we can be directed toward a more Biblical view of the assembly.
What is worship?
The strict definition, of course, is “to render obesiance to, to pay homage to, to humiliate oneself before”; the primary definition of the term in Webster’s. We see such things in Ezekiel 1:28, Matthew 17:6, etc., when people could only prostrate themselves when confronted with the glory of God.
There is also, of course, Romans 12:1:
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.
By this definition, anything we do� within or without the assembly� in service to God is worship to Him.
Those are our primary definitions for worship� prostration/humiliation before God, and by extension, glorifying and praising God (Greek proskuneo), and being the living and holy sacrifice, deemed spiritual worship (Greek latreia). It is also manifest that the former kind of worship is more direct, while the latter form of worship is more indirect, and perhaps that would be the easiest way of categorization.
In truth, there ought not be a need to categorize� it’s all worship, it’s all done in service to God in some form or another. The difficulty that I perceive is that categorization has already happened, although that categorization has been done along different lines, notably, acts done within the assembly vs. acts done outside of the assembly. It is to be noted that the New Testament never directly, explicitly links “worship” with the “assembly.” Worship is never limited to deeds done inside the assembly, yet the common terminology among Christians labels things done within the assembly as “worship” while not associating that label with things done outside of the assembly. Ideally, we would all recognize how all things work to serve God, and not categorize forms of worship: if, however, we are going to make categories, the categories might as well be Biblical categories.
To this end, let us give consideration to the assembly. Biblically, what is the purpose of the assembly?
1. To assemble to partake of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:18-34).
2. To encourage one another (1 Corinthians 14, Hebrews 10:24-25).
3. A time where collections can be made to take care of financial needs (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).
4. A time to hear a lesson (Acts 20:7-12).
5. A time in which we can offer prayer (1 Corinthians 14:15-17).
6. Singing songs (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16).
In all of these things, worship is never explicitly mentioned. Let us speak of the acts done while assembling and consider what their purposes are.
Prayer: coming into the presence of God in prayer is in itself an act of direct, proskuneo, worship, and we can praise God in prayer. On the other hand, a prayer on the behalf of the collective also has an edification function.
Lord’s Supper: The Lord’s Supper likewise shares in both natures: we memorialize the death of Jesus and reflect on its salvific power, thus offering direct, proskuneo, worship to God. Moreover, the Lord’s Supper as proclaiming the death of Christ until His return and its demonstration of our communion serve to edify the saints (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
Songs: It is interesting to see that especially in Colossians 3:16, the emphasis of singing is not praise directly to God but as speaking to one another. Many songs that we sing are songs of praise, and are direct, proskuneo, forms of worship; on the other hand, a good number of songs we sing are not directly praising God, but an encouragement to one another to hold to the faith and to obey it: pretty much every invitation song fits this category, indirect, latreia, type of worship, mostly directed at one another to our edification.
Lesson: As with singing, even more with the lesson. While preachers many times will preach lessons directly glorifying God, the vast majority of lessons are designed primarily to stir brethren up to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25), to increase the Biblical knowledge of brethren, and to exhort, rebuke, and convince with all longsuffering (2 Timothy 4:2). Such is indirect, latreia, worship to God, since the work of edification is being done, and such is part of our total service to God.
It seems to be obvious that while certain acts always have a component of direct, proskuneo, worship, many of the acts done in the assembly are done as indirect, latreia, forms of worship. When we look beyond the realm of the assembly, we see that while we can individually directly (proskuneo) worship God in prayer and song and other ways, the majority of our worship is the indirect spiritual service to God� latreia.
The following questions, then, must be asked:
1. Why are acts of a similar sort� indirect acts of worship, the spiritual latreia� called “worship” by virtue of them being done in the assembly, but not called “worship” when done outside of it?
2. If we see the inconsistency in the above, what can we do about it?
While I would not bind such matters, I think it best to return to the New Testament usage of terms, and call the assembly what it is: the assembly. The New Testament does not call it a “worship service.” While everything done in the assembly is worship of a sort, direct/proskuneo and/or indirect/latreia, let us not fool ourselves: when we call an assembly the “worship service”, it’s based on denominational usage of the term and denominational accommodation based on sloppy exegesis, or worse, conformity to pagan and other influences. If we recognize that many things we do in the assembly are not proskuneo forms of worship, and we recognize that it’s not very consistent to call latreia acts in the assembly “worship” yet would never think to call similar latreia acts outside of the assembly “worship,” we ought to see that we could use more care in rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
Some may find this to be rather nitpicky, yet that is not my intent. I am aware that people can use the term “worship service” while understanding the true nature of the assembly, yet nevertheless I have personally seen how this accommodation has led many to have misconceptions about the assembly. The New Testament is clear: the assembly is the convening of the saints for encouraging one another and offering worship to God. Worship is not our assembling together. Not everything done in the assembly is direct, proskuneo worship. I fear that we forget sometimes what proskuneo really means: humbling before, showing obeisance to, prostrating before. The idea of worship including supplication and praise is based on the extension of the concept, notably, that after one prostrates himself before his superior, be it a king or the King of Kings, he would then sing the praises of his superior and make his supplication. If we neglect the humility, can we reasonably expect God to accept the supplications?
Furthermore, I fear that many have been turned off from assembling with the saints at every opportunity because of the way the need to assemble has been presented to them. By emphasizing what the Hebrew author emphasized� the need to assemble to encourage one another, and all the more as the Day draws near� perhaps more brethren will reach the intended understanding of the need to assemble: we assemble not because we have to but because we need to. We need the encouragement of our fellow brethren. We need to associate with one another. We need to be an encouragement to others. This need must be internalized� we wouldn’t want it any other way. If we present the assembling of ourselves as a burden that you must bear� a mandatory life sentence, 3 times every week� then we shouldn’t be surprised when brethren act like assembling is a burden. It need not be that way!
What shall we say about these things? Let us remember that we assemble, and can and should assemble very often, and when we assemble we encourage one another and offer worship to God. We of course do all things according to the authority of God, and do not go beyond what He has established; nevertheless, by recognizing the distinctions between direct, proskuneo, worship, which has God as its entire focus, and indirect, latreia, worship, which in the assembly tends to have the edification and encouragement of the brethren as its focus, we can be more effective in our service to God on both counts. We need to give due consideration to these matters, and strive to create in ourselves a fervent desire to continually assemble with the saints, and strive to encourage the same desire to be created in the hearts of those brethren, and thus truly fulfilling Hebrews 10:24-25. Let us not be content to swallow the camel of denominational doctrines and denominational vestiges in our beliefs, and let us strive to speak as the Bible speaks, and proclaim the assembly, the body, for whom Christ died!
Ethan R. Longhenry