Archive for May, 2012

Unity in Worship

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Note: Over the last 25 years, our church has evolved a blended style of worship that includes both traditional and contemporary elements.  Recently, some of our members expressed dissatisfaction with the traditional elements and requested the establishment of a separate contemporary service.  At our pastor’s request, I participated in a brief study of Biblical worship. During that study, I was struck by the visible unity exhibited in Old Testament worship. Following that thread led me to the following thoughts on the importance of visible unity in modern Christian worship.

Addendum: It may be helpful to the reader to know that on most Sunday mornings, I accompany congregational singing and the occasional anthem or cantata on both acoustic and electric guitars.

Unity is an essential characteristic of our Triune God – three distinct persons who are nonetheless united in a single Godhead. Unity is also characteristic of Old Testament worship. In the Exodus, God gathered the Israelites who had been scattered throughout Egypt into the nation he had promised Abraham. This nation worshipped as a single assembly until individual and corporate disobedience caused the kingdom to be divided and conquered. There was one tabernacle and later a succession of single temples (the Bible does not mention synagogues until the New Testament). The unity of Israel had two dimensions – it was both spiritual (the product of a covenant initiated by God) and visible (a single geo-political entity based on that covenant). The visible unity of this nation whose people claimed descent from Abraham manifested the spiritual unity of God’s covenant with Abraham.

The spiritual unity exhibited in the nation of Israel now infuses the church of Christ. As Israel set out to the Promised Land, “they were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:2-4) At the communion table, we eat the same spiritual bread and drink the same spiritual cup from the same source – Jesus.

The New Testament church also reflects the oneness of God. Unlike the nation of Israel, Christ’s church is decentralized. While it had its roots in the remnant of Israel’s cultural and ethnic homogeneity, it was intended from the beginning to expand into the culturally and ethnically diverse world of the Gentiles. Unlike the singular visible unity of the Old Testament church centered in Jerusalem and its temple, there has never been a single, visible community that encompasses the universal church of Christ. Even the Roman Catholic Church was in reality only the Western Church, separate from the Eastern (Orthodox) Church and other communities such as the Egyptian Copts. Instead, the spiritual unity of the New Testament church was made visible in local churches.

Paul, as both theologian and church planter, was intensely aware of both the spiritual and visible aspects of unity and addressed them often in his letters. He was steeped in Old Testament knowledge of God’s oneness and his covenant with the descendants of Abraham. But he was also commissioned by Jesus himself to shatter the visible unity of Israel by planting churches among people far removed geographically and spiritually from Jerusalem and the Jews. These churches were sometimes widely separated both physically and culturally, each exhibiting visible unity in its own tradition and language.

Spiritual and visible unity in the New Testament

The term “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:13-26) expresses the spiritual unity that binds all believers into one body with Christ at the head, “for we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” (v. 13). This “unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3) is a gift of the Holy Spirit uniting all Christians in all times and places. This gift is purely the product of God’s sovereign will. We can’t create it, improve it, diminish it, or destroy it – no more than we can create, improve, diminish, or destroy grace and forgiveness. For this reason, there was no need for Paul and other New Testament writers to admonish us to nurture and preserve this unity over which we have no power.

Yet admonish us they did, because what we can create, improve, diminish, or destroy is the visible unity of a particular church or body of believers.   It is this visible unity – not the spiritual unity beyond our control – that Paul addresses when, for example, he admonishes us to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” and to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” These are things we must do to visibly manifest the spiritual unity of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:2-4)

Among the churches Paul wrote to, visible unity was perhaps most fractured in Corinth:

I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. (1 Corinthians 1:11)

What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:12-13)

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you…. (1 Corinthians 11:17-18)

The local church is the earliest and clearest example of a body of believers that is called to manifest unity in Christ. Ecumenical bodies such as the Great Banquet make a conscious effort to embody spiritual unity by emphasizing uniting doctrines such as grace and avoiding divisive ones such as believer’s vs. covenant baptism. Weekends are structured specifically to emphasize and visibly manifest the unity of the Spirit so that he may come and do his work in an undivided community.

Failure to live our calling

True worship in a community of faith should reflect both spiritual and visible unity. God is one. The body of Christ is one. Visible unity in worship reminds the worshippers of the spiritual unity that binds us. It displays to the world the primacy and fullness of our unity in Christ. It says to worshippers and world alike that we choose to “be of one mind” and to “live in peace” despite our differences. (2 Corinthians 13:11)

We are called to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2), to “to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), to be mindful that “just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12), to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together … but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25), to “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

We should be “one in spirit and of one mind”; we should “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit”, “in humility [we should] value others above [ourselves], not looking to [our] own interests but each of [us] to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:2-4). “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’” (Romans 15:1-3) We fail our calling when one says “I don’t like that wild music” and the other says “hymns and pipe organs are uninspiring” and neither can regularly worship God with the other. 

Blended worship embodies the very tolerance that Christian unity demands. Blended worship is a reminder every Sunday that we are there to worship God, not to satisfy our own needs and desires. If we insist on services that relieve us of the obligation to tolerate others’ preferences, we declare both our failure to be “one in spirit and of one mind” and our unwillingness to value others above ourselves.

In a single church, two separate services worshipping God in two different ways create a visible division that belies the spiritual unity binding all its members.  Instead of all saying “we are here to worship God”, that church would instead consist of two different groups, each saying to each other (and the world) “we are here to worship God in our way while permitting you to worship him your way.”  

While any visible disunity is damaging in itself, division over style expands the focus of worship to include not only the object of it, but the personal tastes and preferences of the worshipper as well.  Far from encouraging humility and bearing with one another as Paul directed in Ephesians 4:2, separate services encourage intolerance of one another’s tastes and preferences.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4)

If worship is central to our lives as Christians – as it is meant to be – then unity should be central to our worship.

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