On the Need For Corporate Worship
Sometime last year, I was asked if anyone at Torrey Gazette had written on the need for corporate worship. I was shocked to find that no one had done it (Michael Hansen's Why I Love Integrated Worship comes the closest). So I set off to do some soul searching on the issue. I have many things to say that must for a time be kept at bay. They hopefully will be addressed within some broader spheres at a later time.
But the question itself is quite easy. Why is corporate worship necessary? I hope to make a strong Biblical case with the textual support of "mountain top experiences." But until then — as a foundation point — I would like to start with the Reformed Confessions. These will provide Biblical proof texts as well as an introduction to the sacramental elements of corporate worship.
"Unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto." (WCF XXV.III)
The Westminster Confession of Faith states that the visible church was given the tools for perfecting the saints. This is not to discourage the private study of the Scriptures for personal growth, but sanctification is not an individualistic event. The presentation of the bride of Christ is a corporate reality. While this corporate reality can be realized in part within a household, it has the church community on its mind. This has multiple portions of Ephesians written all over it,
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Eph 4:11-12)
So that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph 5:27)
God has promised to use the means of the church, through the gifts of individuals, to perfect His saints. This is why the author of Hebrews can say the church should not forgo assembling (Heb 10:25) — the church is endowed with special authority and power. Not by its very nature (akin to the Roman Catholic Church), but because God has promised through His own Spirit and presence to bring this into effect. This is a unique element to the Reformational church against the non-denominational existentialism that prevails. The church you attend matters. The dedication to word and sacrament is essential.
The second important thing the WCF states is the bondage saints have to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. This language might seem over the top. Yet, Christ frees us to servanthood. We are not freed unto ourselves but for others. There is not a freedom from without a freedom for. This familial relationship of the church is not like the average family relationship — at least not like the family relationships produced by modernity. It is more like the 'extreme' relationships we are akin too — mafia, gangs, etc.
"Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offers opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus." (WCF XXVI.II)
This holy communion should tear down any worldly community that seeks to separate believers. The cannot stand against the church (Matt 16:18). In the visible church, the community of God is found. Our professions to Christ are simultaneously professions unto one another to "mutual edification." Corporate worship is one of the means by which we "relieve each other in outward things." But it also includes acts of sacrificial service. The call to die is not unique to husbands. It is the calling of all Christians for every other Christian (John 15:13). The covenant community requires that we each die for each other. The two-edged sword of God is built for preparing us for worship (Heb 4:13) — it splits us open for sacrifice to the Lord (Rom 12:1).
Moving to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we see even more emphasis on corporate worship. This time, the specific event of preaching is placed in special regard. The catechism states that the Word is effectual in building up in holiness unto salvation. But the Spirit does this "especially [for] preaching,"
"Q89. How is the Word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation. (WSC 89)
Despite the many graces found in pietism — personal bible study, study groups, and private fellowship — the corporate reading and preaching of the word is set apart from all other words. This is because the testimony of the apostles is not made for individuals. While the Scriptures are truly spoken to you, they are really and truly meant for the building up of the church "through faith, unto salvation."
Finally, the Belgic Confession warns against those who might "withdraw from it." That one would recoil from the church should bring us to tears. For apart from the church "there is no salvation." This is not a Roman Catholic doctrine, but the doctrine of God's holy community. Throughout history this doctrine has stood opposed to individualism. But as of late this doctrine has become more and more essential as individualism has grown into the idol of the hour. Salvation is the wedding gift of the bride. Salvation is a corporate event with corporate ramifications,
"We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, people ought not to withdraw from it, content to be by themselves, regardless of their status or condition. But all people are obliged to join and unite with it, keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another, according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body." (Belgic Confession Article 28)
Let is be understood, that the Reformed tradition teaches a strong necessity for corporate worship. Though I would confess that skipping church is not a sin, the individual who misses corporate worship is distinctly and definitively lacking in the edification and strength necessary to pursue Christian holiness and faithfulness.