There is legitimate concern regarding the way that the assembly is viewed among many members of churches of Christ. As Christians seeking to serve God according to the New Testament, we say that we strive to “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent,” and so therefore the New Testament should be our primary guide.
When we examine the New Testament regarding the nature and purpose of the assemblies, we find the following as the some of the revelation concerning them:
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42).
What is it then, brethren? When ye come together, each one hath a psalm, hath a teaching, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying (1 Corinthians 14:26).
And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh (Hebrews 10:24-25).
For if there come into your synagogue a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, and there come in also a poor man in vile clothing; and ye have regard to him that weareth the fine clothing, and say,
“Sit thou here in a good place;”
and ye say to the poor man, “Stand thou there,” or “sit under my footstool;”
Do ye not make distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:2-4).
Granted, there are other passages, and we will refer to many of them later, but these help to show the general contours of what was going on and what the purpose was.
The primary purpose of the assembling of the saints as seen above is the edification and exhortation of the brethren. Yes, Christians came together to remember the Lord’s death (Acts 20:7) and took up collections then also (1 Corinthians 16:1-3), but such were not the overarching purposes of the assembly. Furthermore, they didn’t just have chaos or do whatever they felt was right, but followed after the pattern of the early church in Jerusalem: they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, association, and prayers (Acts 2:42). While the Christians spent other times associating with one another in more social ways (Acts 2:46), that was not why they assembled on the first day of the week or in other spiritual assemblies.
From the Scriptures, therefore, it seems certain that Christians assembled to encourage one another spiritually, and they did so through remembering the Lord’s death in the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7), singing to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), corporate prayers of thanksgiving (1 Corinthians 14:16-17), lessons of exhortation (Acts 14:22; 20:7), and taking up a collection for the work of the church (1 Corinthians 16:1-3). The Christians called such gatherings the “assembly,” and the members were expected but unbelieving visitors could also be present (Hebrews 10:25, 1 Corinthians 14:23-25).
That’s what the Scriptures teach. Yet what is often heard among churches of Christ? That Christians are to come together for a “worship service,” that the primary purpose of the assembly is “worshiping God,” and expect this “worship service” to be an extremely formal and mostly vertical event.
Where did this perspective come from? You won’t find it in the New Testament, no matter how hard or often people try to lay it upon God’s Word. In reality, it is a denominational tradition, and it is high time that we recognized it, confessed it, and repented.
The progression to this point is actually quite clear. Within a couple centuries of the end of the Apostolic age, many in “catholicism” began to integrate old covenant concepts onto the new. Consider a Lutheran’s witness:
The Christian church is to imitate the pattern in ancient Israel before Christ, where priests and levites were ministers in worship, taught the people, offered prayers and made sacrifices…In this way a Christian clergy came into being, alongside which the universal priesthood of believers was no more than a theoretical entity. Accordingly, the eucharist (Lord’s Supper, erl) was now understood as a sacrifice. And since the Old Testament law requires daily sacrifice, the Christian priest now offered the sacrifice of the mass every day. Sacrifice in turn needs an altar; church buildings were arranged liturgically and built accordingly. And just as at one time the tent of meeting was the place where Yahweh made himself present, so now Christ dwelt in the tabernacle which housed the transformed hosts. Since Israel had kept the sabbath, and the strict observance of feast days had been a confessional act, it was now important to hallow Christian festivals. The privileged and exclusive status of priests and levites in the Old Testament was transferred to priests and deacons, and the bishop now took the place of the high priest. Just as the eucharist was interpreted in terms of the Old Testament sacrifices, so baptism was interpreted as a rite of initiation after the model of circumcision. Nor were the financial aspects of these analogies ignored: tithes were given to Christian priests as they had once been given to the house of Aaron” (A.H.J. Gunneweg, Understanding the Old Testament, 107f, as quoted in Gerstenberger, The Old Testament Library: Leviticus, 15-16).
Preachers became priests; the Lord’s Supper a sacrifice; supposed Christian observances became feast days; infants were baptized as parallel to Jewish circumcision. Tithes started to be practiced again, and church buildings were viewed in terms of the Temple.
We can add to this list another term: worship. “Worship” is a loaded word, full of confusing matters, much like “church” and ekklesia. Like “church,” the word “worship” has meaning in English that is independent of the Hebrew/Greek words it translates. In English, “worship” refers to the act of honoring, deriving from older words that indicated that the one receiving worship was “worthy” of the honor.
But that’s not really what the Hebrew and Greek words mean. They tend to be much more specific. On one side, we have the Hebrew shahach and the Greek proskuneo, both meaning “prostration.” Falling down to the floor with the nose on the ground, so to speak. Hebrew ‘abad and Greek latreuo are also sometimes rendered “worship,” yet strictly they mean “to serve.”
Let us first focus on shahach/proskuneo, the tandem that are normally translated “worship” and the focus of discussion.
1. From the establishment of the First Temple onward, shahach/proskuneo, when used in religious senses, was entirely focused on the Temple and its location. One would either prostrate oneself in it or prostrate oneself toward it.
2. It is true that shahach/proskuneo would end up taking on a metonymical representation for all the things that one would do while in the Temple (cleanse oneself, enter in, prostrate oneself, offer prayer, possibly offer sacrifice or gifts, etc.), as seen in Acts 8:27 and 24:11. But this does not change the primary meaning of shahach/proskuneo: to prostrate oneself.
3. In the New Testament, proskuneo is found mostly at the “bookends”: the Gospels and Revelation, in the presence of Christ the Lord. Other references involve actions according to the old covenant, as seen above.
4. proskuneo is never used to describe an event in which Christians participate in any assembly. It is also never used to describe the assembly. The only time it is used in the context of an assembly is 1 Corinthians 14:25, and it describes the reaction of the unbeliever to the prophecies being uttered by Christians.
The New Testament, therefore, does not describe the assembly as a “worship service.” It never speaks of Christians “worshiping” in an assembly context. Such ideas come from denominational traditions who themselves got it from importing Old Testament concepts on the New. This is why, whenever this view of the “worship service” is defended, it is replete with either (a) Old Testament examples or (b) examples in the New Testament of persons acting according to the old covenant.
Well, what’s so wrong about importing these concepts? After all, was not the old leading to the new? God hasn’t changed, has He?
The problem with importing these concepts is the same problem that we have with importing the priesthood concept, the church building as Temple concept, etc.: it undermines new covenant truth and reality, and this is why we need to seriously reconsider how we perceive the assembly.
“Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in houses made with hands; as saith the prophet,
‘The heaven is my throne, And the earth the footstool of my feet: What manner of house will ye build me? saith the Lord: Or what is the place of my rest?'” (Acts 7:48-49).
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service (Romans 12:1).
Know ye not that ye are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man destroyeth the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, and such are ye (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
Or know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have from God? and ye are not your own; for ye were bought with a price: glorify God therefore in your body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
So then ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone; in whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).
Through him then let us offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of lips which make confession to his name (Hebrews 13:15).
If ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious: unto whom coming, a living stone, rejected indeed of men, but with God elect, precious, ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:3-5).
We have an impressive litany of New Testament witnesses here: Stephen, Peter, Paul, and the Hebrew author. And notice that all three appropriate the imagery of the Temple and its service and apply it to the Christian and the church.
The Temple is no longer a building but each individual Christian and the collective church, for it is within each Christian that God now dwells, according to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.
The sacrifices are no longer bulls and goats but ourselves and our praise to God.
The priests are no longer the Levites or any subgroup; all Christians minister as priests in the new covenant, offering up themselves and their service as spiritual sacrifices to God.
Remember what we said above about shahach/proskuneo? It was focused on the Temple. Well, guess what? That particular edifice is gone, as Jesus said it would be (John 4:21). What takes its place? People. Individual Christians.
Jesus did speak about this.
Jesus saith unto her, “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father. Ye worship that which ye know not: we worship that which we know; for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth: for such doth the Father seek to be his worshippers. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24).
Here we have the only passage that speaks of proskuneo in the current Christian context. And notice that it speaks in a contrasting way with what was currently in existence.
True worshipers will worship “in spirit and truth”. Jesus is not saying that people are going to go through the “acts of worship” with the right heart and the proscribed way; no, He is speaking in much greater depth than that. Remember, “worship” here does not mean “going to church.” It means “prostration.”
Jesus is saying that true prostrators will now prostrate themselves in spirit and truth. To take such a statement in concrete terms would be ludicrous: a spirit bowing? But what Jesus is saying is that the soul of the true prostrators will humble itself before God and render homage and obeisance to Him. And it will be done according to God’s will.
How is this reckoned practically? Well, Romans 12:1, Colossians 3:17, and 1 Peter 2:3-5 seem to get us closest to it. We worship spiritually when we go about and do the will of God the Father in His Son Jesus Christ. When we present ourselves as living and holy sacrifices, doing all things in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we worship in spirit and truth.
And we get back to the assembly. Looking at the above, we see that we do actually worship in the assembly, for we subject our own will to Christ’s and seek to minister to each other, and to remember Him in the Supper.
So I’m sure you’re wondering: if we end up worshiping in the assembly anyway, why is this a big deal?
Perspective and worldview.
1. The assembly is not the sum of Christian “worship.” As we indicated earlier, it should be the “least” of what we do: it’s for our benefit, and we should not want to lose the encouragement that we can from our fellow brethren. Therefore, the assembly is part of a life of worshiping God, but is not the sum or even the larger part thereof.
2. Christianity is a whole lot more than the assembly. Assembly as worship blurs that distinction, and when the assembly is elevated as the Christian experience, “Sunday only Christians” are the result. When you reduce the religion to acts you do on Sunday morning, don’t be surprised when people consider their religion as things they do on Sunday morning.
We also obsess about the assembly. How many articles and books are written about the proper way of acting during the assembly? This is not to say that chaos ought to reign, or that what we do is not important, or that we should throw everything to the wind. But there’s something to be said for Biblical balance, and we’ve lost it. We spend more time bickering about the assembly and less time encouraging each other to live a godly life in an ungodly world, and we wonder why we’re not getting anywhere.
3. Much is made of what should or should not be worn in the assemblies. Much logic involves Old Testament concepts, and as seen above, we should be wary of that. Modesty is the only standard in the New Testament for Christian dress (1 Timothy 2:9), and when we consider James 2, we see that there were likely very poor people with very poor dress in the assembly, along with rich people in finery.
Early Christians would probably align more on the “casual” or “normal” side of the equation than the “formal” one; Tertullian in fact condemns people who wear their best clothing to the assembly as persons who are acting immodestly.
Making a big deal about clothing is hindering our real purpose, which is not a stuffy formal service, but the encouragement of one another. Furthermore, it hinders our opportunity to welcome those without, because they are made to feel out of place.
4. It hinders our Biblical purpose. The assembly is critically important because it of all things represents the coming together of God’s family to build itself up. When you look at passages like Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, and Ephesians 4:11-16, what do you see? How do we practically exercise these concepts? Yes, we can manifest the unity of the body in one-to-one exchanges, small groups, and the like, but there’s something about the gathering of the saints for spiritual edification that should be different from all these.
The assembly should be an enjoyable family gathering designed to spiritually encourage the members to greater faithfulness and devotion to Christ. But this is often missed in the overlaying of Old Testament formalities on the New Testament assembly.
Many people want to take 1 Corinthians 14:40 and turn the assembly into the equivalent of the Mass or other completely scripted liturgical event, but such is an extreme. One can be orderly without being cold and unfeeling. When brethren have warm and loving relationships among each other, there’s likely to be a little less formality in the assembly. It is not the end of the world. It, in fact, may be the beginning of a new one.
Should this mean we change what we do in the assembly? By no means. The New Testament has already established what Christians did within them. We do well instead to reconsider their perspective and understanding of purpose of the assembly.
Sometimes that makes all the difference.
Ethan R. Longhenry