Worship in the New Testament Church
Before His altruistic death upon the cross, Jesus promised Simon Peter, “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18). Many years later, in Paul’s farewell address to the elders of the church in Ephesus, he issued a warning that confirmed Christ had completed the construction of His church: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Having paid the full cost of ownership – an amount unimaginable to finite man – Christ has bought and established His church. As Head over the body, which is the church (Ephesians 5:23), worship in the New Testament church must be exercised in accordance with the will of Christ.
Christ unequivocally demands that true worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). In teaching the church at Colossae about proper worship, Paul was careful to instruct, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). This simple admonition signifies only participating in activities firmly grounded in the authority of Jesus Christ. The apostles were authorized by Christ to preach the gospel of salvation to the entire world, teaching all who were baptized “to observe all that [Christ] commanded” (Matthew 28:20). To ensure the accuracy of the message being delivered by the apostles, Christ bestowed the Holy Spirit upon them to bring to their “remembrance all that [Christ] said” (John 14:26), and “to guide [the apostles] into all truth” (John 16:13).
The word of God is truth (John 17:17), and we now possess the written word of God in a bound volume. The authority of the written word is emphasized by Paul in pleading with the church at Corinth to follow the example of Apollos and himself that they “might learn not to exceed what is written” (I Corinthians 4:6). If the church is to be pleasing to God, worship must be conducted only in compliance with the apostle’s doctrine delivered by the authority of Christ through the Holy Spirit. The individual initiative in prescribing one’s own system of worship is sternly condemned by Paul in the letter to the Colossians. True worship does not arise from the teachings and commandments of men, and Paul refers to all such activity as “self-made religion” or “will-worship” (Colossians 2:22, 23).
To better understand the type worship prohibited by the apostle, consider how the Greek word ethelothreskeia (will-worship) is defined by scholars:
“Worship self-imposed or volunteered…self chosen worship” (Vincent, 2001).
“Voluntarily adopted ‘worship,’ whether unbidden or forbidden” (Vine, 1996).
“Voluntary, arbitrary worship, i.e., worship which one devises and prescribes for himself, contrary to the contents and nature of the faith which ought to be directed to Christ” (Thayer, 1958).
With this understanding entrenched in the mind, it must be admitted that the church of Christ is only authorized to participate in worship activities that are specifically sanctioned upon the pages of the New Testament as inspired by the Holy Spirit. Even during the infancy of the church - preceding the completion of the written word - the church was guided in worship by the Holy Spirit. Paul informed the church at Philippi, “we worship by the Spirit of God” (Philippians 3:3). The same Spirit which worked directly through inspired men in the infant church now works only through the inspired written volume. The teaching - whether by inspired men or by inspired letter - is precisely the same; the mode of the Spirit’s operation being the only significant difference (cf. II Thessalonians 2:15).
Even a casual reading or survey of the New Testament will reveal the acts of worship embraced by the first century church in accordance with the divine instructions taught by the apostles of Jesus Christ. The church assembled on the first day of the week to observe the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7); prayers were uttered (I Corinthians 14:15, 16); the singing of hymns was enjoined (I Corinthians 14:26); personal giving for the work of the church was ordered (I Corinthians 16:1, 2); and the preaching, teaching and public reading of the Scriptures was maintained (Acts 20:7; Colossians 4:16; I Thessalonians 5:27). Each act of worship is addressed separately on this site, and the serious student is encouraged to delve deeper into the word of God, weighing carefully the things often taught by men against the simple teachings of the New Testament.
Before Moses erected the tabernacle as the place for worship, God warned: “See… that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain” (Hebrews 8:5). Worship is now conducted in the church of Jesus Christ, not in a particular geographical location or building, but in the assembly of human hearts, humbly obeying the Creator’s pattern revealed in the mountain of God’s word. The sincere worshipper will behold the pattern of God, giving heed to the warning Paul issued to Timothy, instructing, “Holdfast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 1:13; NKJV).
Are you worshiping according to the pattern followed by the New Testament church? If not, is it the fault of your own careless indifference or inattentiveness, or could it be that those you worship with are not practicing or conforming to New Testament Christianity? Eternal consequences hang in the balance. Worship to Almighty God is not to be taken lightly or frivolously, but great reverence must attend the approach to the holy God of heaven and earth. We plead with men and women to cast aside the vain traditions of denominationalism and all other innovations of men, embracing the simple gospel message of obedience to the Lord’s commands, neither adding to His word, nor taking away from it (Revelation 22:18, 19). Only by participating in genuine New Testament worship may we truly honor the Lord Jesus Christ who purchased the church with His own blood (Acts 20:28; cf. Psalm 2:12).
Thayer, J. H. (1958), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T.
Vincent, Marvin Richardson (2001), Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament (Oak Harbor, WA:
Logos Research Systems).