By David S. Lim, Ph.D.
The Charismatic movement broke down two of the three pillars of Christendom: the concept of clergy (holy men) and sanctuary (holy places). It also crossed denominational lines, especially the Catholic–Protestant divide. But there is yet one more pillar to break down – for the Church to be fully released to overcome the forces of hell and finish the Great Commission. This third pillar is the concept (and practice) of liturgy (holy ceremonies) – focused on the weekly worship service!
The early Christians, following apostolic teaching had weekly meetings indeed – but they were small informal fellowships meeting in homes, not big formal worship gatherings, like in other religions! This was the clearest distinction of Christianity: Jesus said, “By this shall all know that you are my disciples that you love one another” (John 13:35); and “Let your light shine before men, so they will see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16). Christians are called to love God with all they’ve got through their love for their neighbor (Mt. 22:37-39 = The Great Commandment), and in the new covenant, not just as they love themselves, but as Christ loved them self–sacrificially (John 13:34). Hence they should be ready to give their lives for their brethren as Christ did for them (1 John 3:16), not just in words but in deeds really (v. 17-18)!
A common misconception is that the early Church underwent severe persecution. Anyone who has taken “New Testament Backgrounds” should know that the Roman Empire provided a context of religious freedom in what is commonly called Pax Romana (Peace of Rome). The Jews were free to worship Yahweh and build their synagogues. The Greeks and Egyptians were free to worship their gods and goddesses, and build their shrines and temples. And the Christians would have been free to organize worship gatherings and build their temples, too. But they did not!
They did not develop a class of priests and priestesses (much less a hierarchy of clergy) to lead them or to teach them. Instead they appointed local leaders (“pastors”) who were called “elders,” “bishops” (aka “chief elders”) and “deacons” who continued to support themselves with their own livelihood, even as slaves. Neither did they start to construct buildings for worship. Neither did they develop rituals and ceremonies for weekly gatherings. They had more important and urgent matters to support: the livelihood and traveling expenses of their itinerant missionaries and teachers called “apostles,” “prophets,” “teachers” and “evangelists” (cf. Eph. 4:11), as well as the livelihood of the poor among them, especially the widows and orphans. After all, they were expecting the Lord to return very soon!
No wonder in spite of their relative poverty, the movement spread rapidly and effectively through simple weekly gatherings where they simply helped and served one another with whatever spiritual gifts and material resources they had! And the rare persecutions even helped them to expand and multiply faster (cf. Ac. 8:4; 11:19-21; 28:30-31; 2 Cor. 8:2-5) — wherever they lived and worked!
For those interested to understand better how far the Church had strayed from Christ’s understanding of worship (in spirit and in truth), please read the following short article on “What Happened to Biblical Worship.” For those who want a longer version, you may read my 20-page treatise: “Biblical Worship Rediscovered.”
May God give us all the intellectual honesty and the moral courage to step into His new wave of transforming the Church: to go back to the Bible and transform our worship to God’s original purpose and format… so that the glory of God will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea — through multiplying the house-fellowships that seek to make disciples who can individually disciple others also — from house to house!
What Happened to Biblical Worship?
Has it ever occurred to you that the present emphasis on “praise and worship services” is a step backward rather than forward in the church’s concept and practice of “biblical worship”? May I invite you to this reflection – not as a conservative Evangelical’s critique of the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition that prevails in the modern church, but as a biblical theologian’s critique of the development of “worship” in church history since Pentecost.
Above all, “biblical worship” has been redefined. In both the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT), “worship” referred mainly to one’s daily walk with God in the way of righteousness, and secondarily to one’s public adulation of God’s goodness in the festivals of celebration (held only three times per year in the O.T.: in the feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles). To give honor to God, we are to offer sacrifices of praise with our lips and sacrifices of good works with our lives (Heb. 13:15f, cf. Mt. 5:16), yet the emphasis is definitely on the latter (Rom. 12:1f – “offer your bodies as living sacrifices;” 1 Cor. 10:31 “whether you eat or drink”). After all in the NT, “God’s temple” is not a building (Ac. 7:48-50; 17:24), but the body of every believer (1 Cor. 6:19f); it is not a local congregation, but the whole people of God (3:16f; 1 Pet. 2:4-10).
This deviation has resulted in other tragic consequences to the Christian’s priorities in “worshiping God.” For most Christians, “worship” has been separated and marginalized from daily life. They think they have “worshiped” if they have attended a worship service on Sunday, regardless of their lifestyles from Monday to Saturday. Not only has the time been shifted, but the venue has been relocated also: from their homes and workplaces to their church buildings. Even in the OT, the “teaching of the Law” was done in the homes, not in the Temple (Deut. 6).
Subsequently, “worship” has become ritualized: It has become a performance of a worship style or “order of worship” (liturgy) – finding the right words, right songs and right rituals to glorify God. Roman Catholicism emphasizes the altar, Eastern Orthodoxy the liturgy, Protestantism the pulpit, and Pentecostalism/ charismaticism the “song and dance.” In all these, the focus of Christian weekly gatherings has been on liturgical adoration in large assemblies rather than on mutual edification in house meetings (1 Cor. 14:26; Heb. 10:24f, cf. Eph. 5:19f; Col. 3:15-17).
Furthermore, “worship” has become professionalized: Only a few specialists appear on stage to lead the rest to perform the right things at the right time in the right way. In contrast, the Bible esp. the NT views “worship” as a spiritual exercise done spontaneously by all believers (note Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing,” 1 Th. 5:17). After all, every believer is a priest/minister (1 Pet. 2:9f; Rev. 1:6, cf. Ex. 19:5f). Our Lord Jesus himself preferred “worship” (including prayer, fasting and almsgiving) to be done primarily in the privacy of one’s home and frowned on the public display of such (Mt. 6:1-8, 16-18). Even performing religious duties may be counterproductive to one’s spirituality: our Lord Jesus taught that the Good Samaritan/businessman was more spiritual than the priest and Levite who may have been rushing to “serve God” in the Temple (Lk. 10: 25-35).
So, let’s beware of the wrong emphasis that’s prevailing in our churches today. We may not be worshipping God “in spirit and in truth” at all. We may be worshipping our worship, and worse even worship of the wrong kind! It’s time to put “biblical worship” back where it rightfully belongs – in every Christian’s home!