What is “worship”? And is it different for corporate setting—church and individual, daily living?
Excellent question, and so important. In fact, this really makes Reformed/Presbyterianism stand out.
First, let’s define worship. We “worship and glorify [God] accordingly, by thinking, meditating, remembering, highly esteeming, honoring, adoring, choosing, loving, desiring, fearing of him” (WLC Q/A 104). And what is the way in which we worship God? Our Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 21, “Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day” says:
1. . . . the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.
First things first: the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is what he says is acceptable. So whatever worship is, it’s not our idea. It’s not what pleases us, but what pleases him. No inventions or innovations. Whatever is not prescribed is forbidden. This rule is called the “Regulative Principle of Worship.”
So, since we know that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the rule for worship, how do we worship? The Confession lists the elements of worship:
3. Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of his Spirit, according to his will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.
4. Prayer is to be made for things lawful; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter: but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.
5. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God . . .
What constitutes worship? What are the essential parts of worship? Prayer, the reading, preaching, hearing of the Word, singing of psalms, and the (2) sacraments instituted by Christ. That’s worship. This is what Scripture says is worship, for the church. There’s overlap. Singing to God certainly is a form of prayer. The rest of the elements could even be categorized as the Word: read, preached, heard, sung, and made visible in the sacraments. Either way, these are what make up the ordinary worship of God.
Notice, worship is not reduced to music! In fact, music is at best an implication. Singing is clearly there. Yet, it is commonly assumed that the “music time” before the sermon is “worship.” Not so. What’s even worse is that label “praise and worship.” I was asked recently if a church had “praise and worship.” You’re probably thinking, “what a question!” However, that phrase was used to mean “contemporary” style music and songs. What a reduction! Music is not worship. The above elements are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God. Hence, the appropriate label of “worship service” to the whole of the church’s gathering on the Lord’s Day, with every stage included.
Now, if you would like an exposition of worship, read the Westminster Larger Catechism: for the Regulative Principle of Worship, read Q/A 107-110; Prayer, Q/A 178-196; the Word, Q/A 154-160 Sacraments, Q/A 161-177.
Second, where does worship take place?
6. Neither prayer, nor any other part of religious worship, is now, under the gospel, either tied unto, or made more acceptable by any place in which it is performed, or towards which it is directed: but God is to be worshiped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself; so, more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or willfully to be neglected, or forsaken, when God, by his Word or providence, calleth thereunto.
God is to be worshiped everywhere! Does that mean everything we do is worship? No. It says everywhere, not everything. Remember, God defines what is worship, and we already covered that. But, isn’t all of life worship? I’ve talked like that. The answer is no, if this is the sense you’re taking the term “worship.” I’ll quickly point out that this was a development in the Protestant Reformation: every vocation glorifies God. The Reformers recognized that Scripture doesn’t distinguish between “sacred” and “secular” as the Church of Rome did. The farmer can glorify God in his vocation just as much as the monk living the “separated life.” All service, in whatever sphere, is service to the Lord. All of life, all we do, we do unto the glory of God. However, a common misunderstanding is that there’s therefore no difference between corporate worship and our common affairs. That simply does not follow. Both glorify God, but they are not the same things. And Reformation theology did not say they were, either.
So, “God is to be worshiped everywhere.” What does “everywhere” mean? Privately, family, and corporately. Now, finally we come to the second part of the original question: is there a difference between individual and corporate worship? The answer is a definite yes. “More solemnly” in public assemblies (with the local church). An important note: individual, or even family worship, cannot substitute for corporate worship. The assembly of the church for worship is “not carelessly or willfully to be neglected, or forsaken.” When is the time of the public assembly? That’s section 7 and 8 of this chapter in the Confession: Sunday, the Lord’s Day.
Continuing on with the difference between corporate and private worship, there are differences pertaining to the acts of worship themselves. God blesses the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word of God (WLC Q/A 155). That happens in corporate worship, not private (whereas reading occurs in both [hopefully]). Not everyone is allowed to preach the Word, either. The sacraments, baptism and Lord’s Supper, are not private acts but church ordinances, only to be administered by one called to the ministry of Word and sacrament. The church, the corporate body, must be present for the administration of the sacraments. The Lord’s Supper is not to be given “to none who are not then present in the congregation;” likewise, “Private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest, or any other, alone” (WCF 29.3-4).
So those are some things unique to corporate worship, whereas prayer, the reading and hearing of the Word, and singing of psalms can take place in family or private worship.
All things are done to the glory of God, but that’s not the same as “worship,” as defined by our standards. God has ordained specifically what “worship” is, and it’s clearly not every activity under the sun. God has ordained the acts of worship. Likewise, some of the elements of worship are exclusive to the public assembly (corporate worship).
Understand that, from the Reformed perspective, the center of gravity in the Christian life is with corporate worship. Corporate worship, the public assembly, is the most important thing you do, every week. That’s completely contrary to the typical way of thinking, today. The Western church has whole-sale acclimated to the individualistic atmosphere, so that your life as a Christian centers on your individual acts of piety: personal Bible reading, personal Bible study, personal prayer, “quiet time.” But think historically, for a minute: when was private Bible reading made possible? For the first 1,400 years of the Church, there wasn’t even a printing press. Was God not providing for the spiritual nourishment of his people? Could Christians not worship God in the most significant way? Au contraire. He was, and they could, by the outward and ordinary means: the Word, prayer, and sacraments, in corporate worship.
There is a three-layered answer to the question. First, daily living doesn’t qualify as worship, because God has specifically ordained certain acts to be acceptable worship; they are “holy” or set apart for that purpose (along with the “holy” day set apart for that purpose: Sunday). Secondly, worship can (and must!) take place everywhere: privately, family, and corporately. But, thirdly, there is a distinction between corporate worship and private or family worship. As I used to say: public worship is not the same as your private devotions. Worship is to happen corporately, in family, and personally, but they are not equal.