What does God require in corporate church worship?

The New Testament is clear that God’s people are to gather regularly for corporate worship. This is apparent by the frequent use of the Greek word ekklesia, which simply means a gathered assembly of God’s people. [FOOTNOTE: 1 Cor. 10:31] Likewise, Hebrews 10:24-25 commands, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”

When God’s people gather, it is incumbent upon the church leaders to do three things.

1) Forbid What God Forbids

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, people who profess to worship the God of the Bible do so in ways that He forbids and are rebuked.

In Deuteronomy 12:4, God points to how other religions worship their demon-gods and commands, “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way.” The second commandment in Exodus 20:4-6 also forbids idolatry, the worship of any created thing or seeking to reduce God to something that is made. The Puritans were particularly serious about this commandment, which explains why they rightly forbade the portrayal of God the Father in artwork in the form of anyone or anything created, such as an old man with a beard. From more recent history, much of the controversy surrounding the book The Shack involved a portrayal of God the Father as a woman, which is a violation of the second commandment.

The New Testament church at Corinth is forbidden from worshiping with members of other religions because doing so is to entertain demons. [FOOTNOTE: 1 Corinthians 10:14– 22] Christians should have evangelistic friendships with members of other religions, but we must never participate in the practices of other religions because they worship different and demonic gods.

2) Employ Biblical Methods

Not only are we to worship the right God, we are to worship in the right way.

God centered. [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 4:8–10] Worship is for God. While this may seem obvious, sadly it is not obvious to all people. God-centered worship is about hearing a message that reveals, from the Bible, who God is and what He has done and is doing for and with us; singing songs about who God is and what He does; and judging the quality of worship based upon whether it accords with the Scriptures and we have met with God.

Intelligible. [FOOTNOTE: 1 Cor. 14:1–12] Words spoken should be in the language of the hearers (unlike, for example, the old Catholic Latin Mass or the Protestant preacher who uses so many Greek words that the average person is altogether lost), and any technical words used are explained so that everyone knows what they mean. Defining theological terms is important because, in addition to being God-centered, worship is meant to build up God’s people. The Bible itself is an example of this; the New Testament was not originally written in the normal street-level vernacular of the average person so that it could be understood by as many as possible.

Seeker sensible. [FOOTNOTE:1 Cor. 14:20–25] Since non-Christians do attend church (which is a good thing), we need to help them understand who Jesus is and what he has done so that they can become Christians. This is a way the church practices hospitality which means welcoming the outsider in.

Unselfish. [FOOTNOTE:1 Cor. 14:26] If people want to express their personal response to God in a way that draws undue attention to themselves and distracts others from responding to God, then they should do that kind of thing at home, in private, because the meeting is for corporate, not just individual, response to God.

Orderly. [FOOTNOTE:1 Cor. 14:40] The meeting flows in such a way that God’s people are able to hear God’s Word and respond without distraction. Feedback on the audio speakers; musicians who cannot keep time; singers who cannot keep pitch; long, awkward pauses because no one knows what is happening next; and people speaking in tongues or prophesying out of turn in a way that the Bible forbids all contribute to disorder.

Missional. [FOOTNOTE:1 Cor. 9:19–23] The meeting fits the culture in which it takes place. This includes seating on a pew, chair or on the floor, when a church meets, for how long, what kind of music is sung, and what technology is used. These things should reflect the culture in which God’s people are gathering so that there is no cultural imperialism imposed on one culture from another. This does not mean that features from other cultures or eras cannot be used in the service, such as singing ancient hymns, but it does mean such things are used because they help God’s people to meet with God.

3) Do what Scripture commands

There are certain elements that Scripture prescribes for gathered corporate worship services. Many theologians refer to these as the elements of corporate worship, and they include the following:

  1. Preaching [FOOTNOTE: 2 Tim. 4:2]
  2. Sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Table [FOOTNOTE: 28:19; 1 Cor. 11:17–34]
  3. Prayer [FOOTNOTE: 1 Tim. 2:1]
  4. Reading Scripture [FOOTNOTE: 1 Tim. 4:13]
  5. Financial giving [FOOTNOTE: 2 Corinthians 8–9]
  6. Singing and music [FOOTNOTE: 3:16]

It is significant to stress that essentially all Bible-believing Christians agree on these basic biblical concepts.

Regarding how God is to be worshiped, God must be worshiped as He wishes, not as we wish. This explains why God judges those who seek to worship him with either sinful forms externally [FOOTNOTE: Lev. 10:1–2; Isa. 1:11–17; Jer. 7:9–10; Ezekiel 8–9] or sinful hearts internally. [FOOTNOTE: Genesis 4; Isa. 1:11–17; Jer. 7:9–10; Mic. 6:6–8] When it comes to worship, which is all of life, the God of the Bible cares about both what we do and why we do it. In Genesis 4 the brothers Cain and Abel bring their worship offerings to God and, while what is in their hands is acceptable, Cain’s offering is rejected because what is in his heart is unacceptable to God—he was jealous of his brother. [FOOTNOTE: 1 John 3:12]

D. A. Carson has said, “We cannot imagine that the church gathers for worship on Sunday morning if by this we mean that we then engage in something that we have not been engaging in the rest of the week. New-covenant worship terminology prescribes constant ‘worship.’” [ENDNOTE #1]

God, in His great wisdom, has given clear principles and practices to guide the corporate worship of His people. However, He has not given His people clear methods or an order of service. According to Don Carson, “We have no detailed first-century evidence of an entire Christian service.” [ENDNOTE #2] Furthermore, “the New Testament documents do not themselves provide a ‘model service.’” [ENDNOTE #3] John Frame has also said, “we know very little of the church’s liturgy in the first century.” [ENDNOTE #4]

Therefore, while God is very clear on the principles and practices to govern corporate worship, he has left it up to church leaders led by the Holy Spirit to determine the methods used to implement them.

Regarding the worship of God by His people, here are some things the Bible does reveal:

  1. Heartfelt internally [FOOTNOTE: Genesis 4; Deuteronomy 11:16, 30:17; Isaiah 1:11–17; 29:13; Jeremiah 7:9–10; Micah 6:6–8; Matthew 15:8; Mark 7:6; 1 Corinthians 14:25]
  2. Holy forms externally [FOOTNOTE: Leviticus 10:1–2; Deuteronomy 12:31; 1 Kings 11:33; Daniel 3; Isaiah 1:11–17; Ezekiel 8–9; Jeremiah 7:9–10]. Prostrate face down [FOOTNOTE: Numbers 24:4,16, Deuteronomy 9:18, 9:25; 1 Kings 18:39; 1 Chronicles 29:20; Isaiah 15:3; Daniel 2:46, 8:17]
  3. Dancing [FOOTNOTE: 2 Samuel 6:14; Job 21:11; Ecclesiastes 3:4; Jeremiah 31:4, 31:13; Matthew 11:7]
  4. Clapping [FOOTNOTE: Job 21:5; Psalm 47:1, 98:8; Isaiah 55:12]
  5. Reverence [FOOTNOTE: Nehemiah 5:15; Psalm 5:7; Malachi 2:5; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Ephesians 5:21; Colossians 3:22; Hebrews 12:28; 1 Peter 3:2; Revelation 11:18]
  6. Bowing [FOOTNOTE: Genesis 19:1, 24:26, 24:48, 24:52, 27:29, 47:31; Exodus 4:31, 12:27; Numbers 22:31; Deuteronomy 26:10; 2 Samuel 9:8; 1 Kings 1:47; 2 Kings 5:18, 17:16, 21:21; 2 Chronicles 29:28; 29:30; Psalm 5:7, 38:6, 66:4, 95:6, 138:2, 145:14, 146:8, 45:14, 45:23, 49:23, 58:5, 66:23; Lamentations 2:10; Ezekiel 8:16; Daniel 10:15; Micah 5:13, 6:6; Matthew 2:11; Luke 24:5; John 19:30; Philippians 2:10]
  7. Kneeling [FOOTNOTE: 1 Kings 8:54; Psalm 22:29; Job 40:4; Ephesians 3:14]
  8. Laying on of hands [FOOTNOTE: Matthew 19:13, Mark 5:23, 10:16; Luke 20:19; Acts 8:18-19, 9:12, 9:17, 28:8; 1 Timothy 5:22; 2 Timothy 1:6; Hebrews 6:2]
  9. Lifting hands [FOOTNOTE:  Psalm 28:2, 63:4, 76:5, 119:48, 134:2; Lamentations 2:19; 3:41-42; 1 Timothy 2:8]
  10. Falling down [FOOTNOTE:  Daniel 3:4-7, 1 Corinthians 14:22; Revelation 3:7-10, 4:9-11.
  11. Playing musical instruments [FOOTNOTE: 1 Samuel 16:15-18; 18:6; 1 Chronicles 15:16, 16:42, 23:5; 2 Chronicles 5:13, 7:6, 23:13, 29:26-27, 34:12; Nehemiah 12:36; Psalm 45:8, 98:4; Psalm 150]
  12. Writing new worship songs [FOOTNOTE: Psalm 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9, 149:1; Isaiah 42:10; Revelation 5:9, 14:3]
  13. Singing loudly [FOOTNOTE: Psalm 5:11, 9:2, 9:11, 13:6; Acts 16:25; Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:18-20; Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 2:12; James 5:13; Revelation 14:3, 15:3]
  14. Kneeling [FOOTNOTE: Isaiah 45:23; Romans 14:9, Philippians 2:10]
  15. Standing [FOOTNOTE: Numbers 5:16; Deuteronomy 10:6-9, 19:16-17; 1 Kings 19:11; 1 Chronicles 23:28-31; Psalm 24:3; 26:12; Habakkuk 3:2]
  16. Sitting [FOOTNOTE: Psalm 110:1; Lamentations 3:27-28; Micah 4:4, 7:8, Zechariah 3:10.
  17. Shouting Amen [FOOTNOTE: Deuteronomy 27:15-26; I Ch. 16:36; Nehemiah 5:13, 8:6; Psalm 41:13; 72:19, 89:52, 106:48; Jeremiah 11:5, 28:6; Romans 1:25, 9:5, 11:36, 15:33, 16:27; I Corinthians 16:24; Galatians 1:5, 6:18; Ephesians 3:21; Philippians 4:20, 4:23; I Timothy 1:17; 6:16; 2 Timothy 4:18; Hebrews 13:21; I Peter 4:11, 5:11; 2 Peter 3:18; Jude 1:25; Revelation 1:6, 1:7, 3:14, 5:14, 7:12, 19:4, 22:20-21
  18. Serving with your spiritual gift(s) [FOOTNOTE: 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 12:28-30; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11; I Peter 4:11]
  19. Giving tithes and offerings [FOOTNOTE: Exodus 25:2, 35:22, 36:5; I Chronicles 29-3-4; 2 Chronicles 24:10; Proverbs 3:9; Malachi 3:10; Acts 4:34-35; 2 Corinthians 8-9]

A biblically informed Christian definition of worship includes both adoration and action. John Frame says:

“In Scripture, there are two groups of Hebrew and Greek terms that are translated ‘worship.’ The first group refers to ‘labor’ or ‘service’…The second group of terms means literally ‘bowing’ or ‘bending the knee,’ hence ‘paying homage, honoring the worth of someone else.’ The English term worship, from worth, has the same connotation. From the first group of terms we may conclude that worship is active. It is something we do, a verb…From the second group of terms, we learn that worship is honoring someone superior to ourselves.” [ENDNOTE #5]

  1. A. Carson, “Worship under the Word,” in Worship by the Book, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 24, emphasis in original.
  2. Carson, “Worship under the Word,” 21, emphasis in original.
  3. , 21–22.
  4. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth, 67.
  5. John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principles and Practice of Biblical Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1996), 1–2, emphases in original.