May 3rd, 2012 · Categories: Christianity · 7 Comments

Unity in Worship

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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 3rd, 2012 at 12:55 pm and is filed under Christianity. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “Unity in Worship”

  1. Ron Harper Says:

    May 3rd, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    The central issue in this discussion is that we have the whole thing twisted. We think that worship is for us, and we react to it as consumers. What we have done is turn worship into holy entertainment. We create mega-churches and stage Las Vegas style programs of Christian and other music and call it worship. Please understand that I am a musician and have loved big extravaganzas of gospel and Christian music for my whole life. BUT, I am very aware that I am doing that for me. Worship is what I do for God. The reason that we have all the differences about worship is that we are focusing on us. If we truly focus on Him, most of that will go away.

  2. Misty Says:

    May 3rd, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    I respectfully say I don’t agree. Our church does not even come close to making up the body of Christ. ThenBody is made up of Christians all over the world, who worship in thousands of different ways. Look across town at church, the worship is not visibly united. I believe, you and maybe a few others, are holding so tightly to your preferred style, that you are failing to see that what is truly important is u ity in the Message of the Gospel and the complete truth found in Gods word. Differing styles is not what is breaking down Christian Churches, it’s wavering from the absolute truth of the Bible.

  3. Grumpy Says:

    May 3rd, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Misty, please re-read the distinction between spiritual unity (the body of Christ, a gift of God that we can’t touch) and the visible unity that Paul and other NT writers repeatedly admonish us to maintain. The question I have struggled with since this study began was trying to understand the purpose of all the passages that address the importance of getting along together in whatever local body God has called us to. I have not mined Scripture to find passages that support my “holding tightly to my preferred style”. These passages lead me to believe that it’s a problem when some members don’t want to worship together with other members of the same church. If someone can show me that “bearing with one another in love” and “not giving up meeting together” don’t apply to a local body of believers worshiping God, then I will happily correct my error.

  4. Misty Says:

    May 3rd, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    Then, let’s all unify and worship in a contemporary fashion:). Blended is simply traditional…with a few praise songs thrown in.

    From reading the Worship paper, I conclude that both traditional and modern worship are both biblical, no? Here’s the option..offer both, or the conteorary desiring crowd will simply go to a church that offers that. How many young families are flocking to our church? Not many. Much of he younger population is seeking contemporary, fully aware of what worship is. They arenot some dumb, spiritually devoid looking to be entertained. Modern worship is a very valid mode of worship. If we chose to be Carmudgeonly.(ha!) about it, fine. But a good portion of our congregation will be home bound, long term care, or dead in 15-20 years, and then what oes that mean for our church?

    The push for change is not personal, it is more for the future of our church. Take it or leave it. But leave it, and you will see in the not too distant future some prominent families sadly missing from our church family.

    Debating on your blog is fun, you old fart Carmudgeon :D. Don’t edit that!

  5. Grumpy Says:

    May 3rd, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    Ok, I didn’t edit anything; there goes the G rating….

    Traditional worship can be dead and mechanical; contemporary worship can be indistinguishable from a rock concert. Blended worship can combine the worst properties of both. True Christian worship focuses on the triune God of the Bible and on all that Jesus accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection. It’s not the product of the Ten Commandments, the Great Commission, or any particular style or mode.

    True worship is the inevitable result of truly understanding who God is and who we are in relation to him. It’s the product of recognizing that our significance in worship arises (to paraphrase Casting Crowns) not because of who we are, but because of what he’s done; not because of what we’ve done, but because of who he is.

    I just can’t reconcile divided worship with everything the Bible says about how we are meant to live out our fellowship in Jesus.

  6. Misty Hartke Says:

    May 4th, 2012 at 1:43 am

    I don’t think it’s biblical that one church must all worship the same. I read the verses you posted, and I just don’t see it that way.

    Thanks for not editing..what made it not G rated? Old, fart or car dungeon 🙂

  7. Matt Says:

    May 4th, 2012 at 4:19 am

    I get the unity issues, but I do have to say that I tend to side with the little known fact (at least in my crazy bald world) that the debate in style is going to go away only when Jesus returns to cart us away to His UNBELIEVABLE worship in heaven. What style will it be? I have a feeling that it is going to blow minds as it will be the ultimate collage of styles.

    Here on earth? How do you get the body to be untied in a church setting? Ummm…my official stand is if there is an answer to that, it is way beyond my pay grade. But what concerns me MORE is being united in message. If you dig down beyond the surface of this issue you will find that even if united on the worship front, people are all over the field in terms of world view, message, scripture, etc. if we are making disciples and loving non-believers into a relationship with God, that pot gets even more muddled. To me, the unity has to start with the message. From there, worship styles become ALMOST (but not exclusively) adiaphora. It matters to some, but in the grand scheme of biblically, Christ focused, freedom from sin worship…style takes a backseat to the power of what is happening through the heart of worship.

    Where do I side? Probably where I would see the people who aren’t at church on Sunday being willing to connect to a local body of believers. Can they connect behind blended? Fo Sho! Will they connect to the heart of God through (fill in the blank here with the cool trendy worship flavor of the week name) worship? Fo Sho! Does the body stay unified in the spirit through both of those happening at the same time? I don’t see why that is even an issue if the foundation is there for biblically based, Christ focused worship.

    I know from my experience, God likes all kinds of worship that is genuinely focused on Him. God likes it loud, God likes it traditionally contemplative as well. In the end, as long as it is reflecting glory back to Him, go for it.

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