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Let me begin by defining the term "worship," since it is another of those "accordion" words that tends to gain meaning by however much air one pumps in or out of it. Strictly speaking, worship has to do with homage or adoration offered to God, which is what is intended by the Greek word most often rendered into English as "worship." In English, however, the word "worship" came to pick up an extended meaning, not found in Greek, having to do with what takes place when Christians gather for that purpose. Usually it refers to the whole event, sometimes as an adjective (e.g., "worship service") but often simply as a noun (e.g., during "worship"). A more recent nuance of this latter usage narrows its point of reference to one or more of the activities directed specifically toward God, especially singing, plus the praise and prayer that occur during singing (e.g., "our worship time").
My interest for this lecture is with the so-called "worship service," for which, it must be pointed out, there is no word in Paul's Greek. When he does refer to this event, he uses either of two verbs that mean "to assemble" or "to gather together." Thus he refers to the Corinthians as "assembling as a church" (1 Cor 11:18; lit. "when you gather together in assembly"), or of "the whole church assembling/gathering in the same place" (14:23).
My interest here is in exploring, first, the nature of these "gatherings" in the Pauline churches, and, second, in the role of the Spirit in their gatherings.
We should note at the outset that this is a somewhat tenuous task, in that Paul offers no specific instruction on such matters in his letters. Which makes perfectly good sense, since "worship" is something they simply did, very much like eating, so that there was no reason for instruction or analysis. What we learn, therefore, comes to us by way of Paul's correcting some abuses. And since these are so case-specific, we must admit that we know far less than we should like to know, and of course far less than we would like to admit to.
What I propose to do is quite simple. First, I will offer a very brief overview of what is available to us as working data; second, I want to make some observations about several aspects of these data, trying to ferret out what we can learn about worship in Paul's churches; third, I note the crucial role of the Spirit in their worship; and finally, I conclude by focusing on a single aspect of worship, namely the role of singing.
I. THE DATA
Although our data from Paul regarding the church gathered for the worship of God are relatively sparse, there is just enough for us to make some general observations — and we must be especially careful in this case not to make too much of his silence regarding certain matters.
We begin by noting that the language of "gathering" for the purpose of worship in the sense we have defined it occurs only three times in the Pauline letters, all in 1 Corinthians, and always in the context of correcting an abuse. First, in 11:17-34, it occurs in a context where Paul is admonishing the "haves" as to how they are treating the "have nots" (the language of v. 22) at the Lord's Table. Here the language of "gathering" occurs five times (vv. 17, 18, 20, 33, and 34); in v. 33 Paul specifies, "when you gather to eat, " referring of course to the eating of the Lord's Supper that has been the point of contention in what has preceded.
Second, the terminology also occurs in chapter 14 (vv. 23 and 26), where Paul is correcting the Corinthians' singular enthusiasm for speaking in tongues in the assembly. One should also note v. 19 where he says that "in the assembly I would rather speak five intelligible words than thousands of unintelligible ones" and v. 33 where he refers to what takes place "in all the churches of the saints," referring specifically to their gatherings.
The third occurrence of this language is in the very difficult sentence in 5:3-5, where in the context of excommunicating the brother living in incest, Paul says (literally), "when you and my spirit assemble together with the power of the Lord Jesus." What this means specifically is a matter of some debate, as you might well understand, but there can be little question that Paul is referring to the gathering of the whole church. Most likely Paul understands himself to be present by means of the Holy Spirit, as his letter, which he understands to function as a prophetic word in their midst (14:37), is being read in the assembly.
It is probably of some importance to note that in two of these instances (11:20 and 14:23) Paul speaks of their "gathering together in the same place," while in 14:23 he also notes that it is the "whole church" that is gathering in this way. Furthermore, in 14:26 Paul actually specifies some of the activities that take place when the church is thus gathered: "When you assemble," he says, "each one of you has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation." I tend to think that we should probably add "and so forth" to this list, since Paul proceeds in what follows to take up not only tongues and interpretation, but also "prophecy and discerning prophecies," neither of which is mentioned in v. 26 (although it is possible that "revelation" stands for prophecy in this case).
Although these are the only places where this specific language occurs, there are at least five other passages which also reflect Christian worship, and perhaps several others as well.
a. Paul refers to the Lord's Table in two other places in 1 Corinthians. In 10:16-22 he argues that the Corinthians' own meal in honor of the Lord means that they cannot join their neighbors in the meals at the pagan temples, since that means to eat in fellowship with demons.
b. In a much more allusive way, in 10:1-4 Paul images Israel in the desert as having had their own form of baptism and Lord's Supper. Of the latter he says, "they all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink," referring to manna and the water from the rock.
c. In 1 Cor 11:4-5 Paul refers first to men and then to women as "praying and prophesying." Although this passage does not mention the assembly as such, both the language and its location in the letter argue for a church context. In the immediately following passage where he corrects their abuse of the Lord's Supper, Paul begins in v. 17 by stating, "in the following instructions I do not commend you, for when you assemble it is not for the better but for the worse." This would seem to imply that what has preceded also took place in their assembling together.
d. Finally, in the twin passages in Col 3:16 and Eph 5:18-20 Paul speaks of their being filled with the Spirit, so as to teach and admonish one another with songs of various kinds, as they offer praise and thanksgiving to God. What makes it clear that this is referring to Christian worship is not only the mention of teaching and singing, but that in Col 3:16 he specifically mentions the "message about Christ" as dwelling in their midst as they teach and admonish one another through singing.
Along with these rather clear allusions to Christian worship, we could add some more indirect references, especially those passages that refer to the "church that meets in [their/her] house" (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15), as well as those passages that state or imply that Paul expected his letters to be read in the gatherings of God's people: for example, Col 4:16 (where the Colossian and Laodicean letters are to be exchanged and read in the churches), plus the doxology at the end of Philippians and the grace that concludes all of his letters, both of which function best in the context of worship.
II. WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM THE DATA
When we turn next to an analysis of these data, we must begin by noting how little we really learn about many things that interest us. For example, we learn nothing at all about such matters as time, frequency, size, order, or leadership. The references to the churches of various households indicate that the Greek word ekklesia has just enough flexibility to it, so that although in places it can refer only to the people themselves, at times it likewise refers to the gathered assembly of the people, as it does always in the Greek Old Testament. But we are quite in the dark about these gatherings. Even the language in 1 Corinthians 14:23 referring to the "whole church" assembling is ambiguous, whether that means the whole of a given house church or the whole of the believers in Corinth — presumably from several house churches — assembling in a larger place of some kind. If it refers to given house churches, then each gathering is relatively small by our standards, since archaeology has yet to discover a villa in Corinth that could house more than 50 people comfortably in the atrium. If it refers to all the house churches meeting together, the question remains as to where and how.
In terms of participation we learn that men and women participated equally, since this is said specifically in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 and implied in the repeated "all speak in tongues" in 14:22-23 and "all may prophesy one by one" in v. 29. Furthermore, there appears to have been a great deal of Spirit-led spontaneity on the part of the whole community. This is certainly implied in the description in 14:26, and made certain by the description of prophecy and discernment in vv. 29-32 with the admonition that the "S/spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets."
While we might guess that there were one or several giving leadership to this spontaneity, we don't have a clue as to who or what form this may have taken. Paul's emphasis is on the (at least potential) participation of the whole body. What this also means, to anticipate the next section, is that the role of the Spirit, who gifted women and men alike to speak to the community, makes it especially tenuous for us to look to the Jewish synagogue for help in these matters. Not only did they worship in anticipation of the coming Spirit, and therefore without him, but also there was no place or any kind for women to participate.
What we are left with, therefore, are references to various "activities," for want of a better term, which cover a broad range — from the eating of the Lord's Table together, to singing, to various forms of speech (prayer, prophecy and discerning prophecies, tongues and interpretation, and teaching, including the reading of Paul's letters). But there is just enough ambiguity in each of these areas to cause us to be especially cautious about our own pronouncements.
Most difficult for us to know is (1) whether these various references give us all we need to know about their worship, and (2) whether the two very different kinds of activity involved in eating the Lord's Supper and in speaking and singing occurred at the same gatherings, or in gatherings of two different kinds. In light of the passing reference to "praying and prophesying" in 1 Cor 11:4-5, followed immediately by the correction of the Lord's Table, which are held together by the twin introductions in vv. 2 and 17, I am inclined to think that these two (prophesying and the Table) occurred at the same gatherings; but such inclination falls far short of certainty.
What does seem clear from these various references is that the "activities" of worship were double directional — toward God, on the one hand, and toward the community, on the other. This is almost certainly how we are to understand the reference to "praying and prophesying" in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5, where prayer represents speech that is directed toward God and prophecy represents speech directed toward the community. Similarly, the singing in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18-20 involves "teaching and admonishing one another" while also "offering thanksgiving to God." Likewise, the fellowship at the Lord's Meal, according to 1 Corinthians 10:16-22, involves participation in the Lord and participation in the body of Christ, which Paul interprets as the church.
What all of this seems to indicate, therefore, is that worship in the Pauline churches was much more varied, with a much greater combination of spontaneity and set activities than most of us know in the later church. The singing, which included "psalms, hymns, and Spirit songs," probably refers to the singing of both spontaneous songs under Spirit inspiration by an individual ("each one of you has a psalm") as well as to songs previously composed and sung by the whole. The speaking included prayer directed toward God, including tongues and their interpretation which in the public assembly Paul understands to be praise or thanksgiving directed toward God and interpreted for the people. It also included all kinds of speech directed toward the people, including inspired utterances such as prophecy or revelation, or a message of wisdom or knowledge, or spontaneous teaching, as well as the reading of Paul's letters, which would also imply the reading of the Old Testament Scriptures.
It is very likely, we should add finally, given that the context of all of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 is the community at worship, that the gatherings of the people in the presence of the Spirit also included in an ongoing way a variety of non-verbal supernatural phenomena such as healings, miracles, and moments of special faith. This is made certain not only by how Paul sets forth the Spirit manifestations in 12:7-11 (where each one is given a manifestation for the common good) but also by the fact that in Gal 3:5 Paul specifically says that in supplying the Galatian believers with the Spirit in an ongoing way, God performs miracles among them. This does not imply that "worship" was the only context for such Spirit activity, but that it certainly served as one significant context for such.
When we add all these observations together, we must admit that we don't really know very much, but we know just enough to be intrigued to the full. Wouldn't one love to be the proverbial fly on the wall in the gathering of God's people in one of the early Gentile churches under Paul's jurisdiction? My guess is that most of us would not be quite sure where we were, since the Lord's Table took place in the context of a meal together and the worship included so much Spirit-led spontaneity. I have often wondered, if the roles could be reversed (i.e., if Paul could be the proverbial fly on the wall in one of our gatherings, either of the more liturgical variety or more Baptist/Presbyterian variety), whether Paul would recognize himself as in a Christian gathering for the worship of God. But I refuse to do more than wonder, because we simply do not know enough.
But that does leads me, then, to the matter of the role of the Holy Spirit in all of these activities, which is probably the factor that separates us more than any other from worship in the Pauline churches.
III. THE ROLE OF THE SPIRIT
What is most notable in all the available evidence for worship in the Pauline churches is the common denominator of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. This, of course, is abundantly clear in the long discussion in 1 Corinthians 12-14, where Paul variously refers to any and all of the various activities mentioned as "given by the Holy Spirit." The one and the same Spirit, Paul says, disperses all of these as he wills (12:11); the person speaking in tongues utters mysteries by the Spirit, he adds (14:2); I will pray and sing with my S/spirit, he goes on (14:14-16), meaning that the Holy Spirit by means of tongues speaks praise and thanksgiving to God through Paul's own spirit.
This latter passage probably offers us the clue to the unusual expressions in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5. Despite most English translations to the contrary, Paul does not say, "as though I were present," meaning because I am not there in body I am not really present. Rather he says clearly that he is in fact present when they gather. His way of expressing this is "my Spirit is present." Since in 14:37 he makes it clear that he understands what he writes to them in this letter to function as a Spirit-inspired prophetic word, most likely he envisions himself as present by the Holy Spirit when his letter is being read in their midst.
It seems certain, therefore, that the various spontaneous activities mentioned in 14:26, "where each one of you has something to contribute for the edification of the body," are clearly to be understood as inspired by the Spirit. The whole of this argument means that the "teaching" envisioned in 14:6 and 14:26 is not a sermon or lesson prepared beforehand, but is given spontaneously by inspiration of the Spirit. Although one cannot be certain, it is possible that Paul thus understood prophecy as being a revelation of some kind, very likely of the kind mentioned in Galatians 2:2 which prompted Paul to go up to Jerusalem and consult with the leaders there. Teaching, on the other hand, according to Colossians 3:16 has the "message about Christ" as its primary content, implying that the teaching that comes by way of letter, song, or inspired utterance focuses on the gospel — and its ramifications (after all, they both teach and admonish one another).
More difficult to assess is the role of the Spirit at the Lord's Table. We need to begin by noting that the word "Spiritual" in Pauline usage refers not to something "mystical" or "religious" or "internal," with reference to the human spirit, but rather refers primarily (if not altogether) to the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we must surely understand Israel's analogy to our Lord's Supper, with its "Spiritual food and Spiritual drink" to be an allusion to Paul's understanding of the Spirit as present when believers eat the bread and drink the wine of their Supper.
How the Spirit was present is more difficult to assess. It is altogether unlikely that Paul understood him somehow to invade the bread and wine itself. More likely he understands the Spirit's role to be present to create and empower the two-way koinonia (participation/fellowship) between believers and their Lord and with one another as they eat the bread and drink the wine. After all, in Paul's view the Spirit is responsible for the creation of the church as Christ's body, represented in our "Spiritual food," and is the agent of the New Covenant represented in our "Spiritual drink."
The key to all of this, of course, is Paul's larger understanding of the Spirit as the renewal of God's Presence both within and among his people. For Paul the resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Spirit meant that the final, messianic age had already dawned. The Spirit for him was both the evidence of the presence of the future and the guarantee of its final consummation. The coming of the Spirit meant that the New Covenant promises of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, where God would put his Spirit within his people's hearts and they would both live and obey him, had been fulfilled. Likewise, the coming of the Spirit meant that Joel's prophecy had been fulfilled, so that all of God's people — old and young, men and women, slave and free — would function as prophets.
The key to their worship is thus to be found in passages like 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, where Paul urges that they recognize what it is they are destroying with their merely human wisdom and division, namely, God's temple in Corinth — the church itself. Do you not know who you are, he asks? You are God's temple in Corinth, the place where the eternal and living God has chosen to dwell in your city. And you are that precisely because the Spirit of God dwells in and among you. Thus, when the church assembles, Paul argues later, Paul himself is also present by the Spirit as is the power of the Lord Jesus, also by the Spirit.
It is no wonder, therefore, that Paul sees all that takes place in such a gathering to be the working of the Holy Spirit.
IV. WORSHIP AND THE TRINITY
That leads me finally to take a closer look at the twin passages in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18-20. My interest in doing so is twofold: (a) to note the role of singing in the worship of the Pauline churches; and (b) to note that truly Christian worship is ultimately Trinitarian.
Colossians 3:16 appears toward the conclusion of a series of exhortations (vv. 12-17) that indicate what it means for the believers in Colosse to live as those "raised with Christ" (v. 1), while Ephesians 5:18-20 occurs as the transitional word between the long list of general exhortations that began in 4:17 and the more specific ones that deal with relationships within the Christian household.
Here are passages full of intriguing information about worship in the Pauline churches. I begin by noting what we learn from the opening exhortations ("let the word of Christ dwell in your midst richly" and "but be filled with the Spirit").
1. Everything about the contexts, and the language of both sentences in particular, indicate that Paul is here reflecting on the Christian community. These are not words for the individual believer, but for believers as the people of God in relationship with one another. In Colossians that is especially clear. Beginning with v. 12, everything has the community in sight, since everything is for, or in light of, "one another." Thus in the immediately preceding exhortation (v. 15), which sets the pattern for the present one, they are to let the peace of Christ rule in their hearts, since it is to this that they have been called together as one body.
Verse 16 views these relationships within the context of the gathered people of God at worship, where they are to teach and admonish one another as one way that the word of Christ will dwell "in them" richly. This means that the prepositional phrase "in/among you," even though it modifies the verb "indwell" and would ordinarily mean "within you," here means "in your midst." The indwelling "word of Christ," therefore, in its two forms of "teaching and admonishing one another" and of "singing to God," has to do with the church at worship.
If the community context in Ephesians is less immediately certain, it is clearly in view, since the whole passage from 4:1 through chapter 6 takes up community life, how they are to "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (4:3).
2. If the same vein, it is significant to note that the compound participles, "teaching and admonishing," are the same two that Paul used in Colossians 1:28 to describe his own ministry. Here, then, is clear evidence that Paul did not consider "ministry" to be the special province of either apostles or office-holders. As in the earliest of his letters (1 Thess 5:14), these kinds of activities in the Christian assembly are the responsibility of all believers.
This is quite in keeping with the picture that emerges in 1 Corinthians 14:26 as well, where he admonishes in a presuppositional way, that "when you come together, each one has a hymn, etc....for the strengthening of the church."
3. The primary concern of the exhortation in the Colossians passage is with the "word of Christ." In Paul this invariably means "the message of the gospel with its central focus on Christ." This, after all, is what the letter is all about: Christ the embodiment of God, Christ the All-sufficient one, Christ, creator and redeemer. Paul now urges that this "word of Christ," which in part he has already articulated in 1:15-23, "dwell in their midst" in an abundant way.
In so doing, they will reflect precisely what we learned about worship from 1 Corinthians 11:4-5. Part of their activity will be directed toward one another ("teaching and admonishing one another"), and part toward God ("singing to God with your hearts"). Thus the "riches" of the gospel are to be present among them with great "richness." The structure of the sentence as a whole indicates that songs of all kinds are to play a significant role in that richness.
4. The parallel passage in Ephesians makes explicit what we would have guessed in any case, that Paul considers all of this activity to be the result of their being filled with the Spirit. Thus, however we are to understand the adjective "Spiritual" in relation to the various expressions of song, Spirit songs are at least one expression of the Spirit's presence, whose "fullness" will guide and inspire all of the worship in its several expressions.
When we turn from these opening clauses to the rest of the two sentences, we learn still more about Paul's understanding of Spirit-inspired worship.
1. It needs to be noted, first of all, that where the Spirit of God is, there is also singing. The early church was characterized by its singing; so also in every generation where there is renewal by the Spirit a new hymnody breaks forth. If most such songs do not have staying power, some of them do, and become the treasure trove of our ongoing teaching and admonishing of one another, as well as of our constantly turning to God the Father and God the Son and offering praise by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
2. But having said that, it is doubtful whether we are finally able to draw fine lines between the three words used to describe the singing. The "psalm," for example, may well include the Old Testament Psalter, now taken over into the worship of the Christian communities; but one would be bold indeed to limit it to such. This, after all, is the word used for the (apparently) more spontaneous singing of 1 Corinthians 14:26, and its corresponding verb is likewise used in 1 Corinthians 14:15 to refer to Spirit-inspired "praise to God" in tongues, as well as with the mind. Thus, even though New Testament usage is undoubtedly conditioned by the fact that the hymns of Israel were called "psalms," there is no good reason to understand it as limited to those hymns. What is suggested by this word, of course, is a song that is in praise of God.
So also the word "hymn." In the Greek world, this word was used exclusively of songs sung to deities or heroes, and thus would never be used, for example, of the bawdy songs of the bistro. Therefore, "hymns" also refer to singing praise to/about God, or in the case of the New Testament to/about Christ as well, as the evidence from the Revelation makes especially clear.
The third word, "songs," covers the whole range of singing, so Paul qualifies it here with reference to the Spirit. As already noted, the adjective pneumatikos ("spiritual") in Paul ordinarily refers to the Spirit, either directly or indirectly. Here in particular the ordinary meaning prevails. We are dealing with songs that are inspired by the Spirit. This is most likely an indication of a kind of "charismatic hymnody," similar to that alluded to in 1 Corinthians 14:15-16 and 26, in which Spirit-inspired, and therefore often spontaneous, songs were offered in the context of congregational worship.
Therefore, even though "Spiritual" could well modify all three nouns — the psalms and hymns would also be "of the Spirit" — it is more likely that it is intended to modify "songs" only, referring especially to this one kind of Spirit-inspired singing. The word "songs," after all, is the one which the recipients of the letter would least likely associate with worship, since it covers the whole range of "songs" in the Greek world, whereas the other two are usually sung to a deity.
3. Very likely we have fragments of such psalms, hymns, and Spirit songs embedded in our New Testament documents. The Revelation, for example, is full of "new songs" sung to God and to the Lamb. That is almost certainly the case with Ephesians 5:14 and 1 Timothy 3:16 as well. But more significantly for this letter, the considered opinion of most New Testament scholars is that Colossians 1:15-18 also reflects such a hymn about Christ. If this is so, and there are no good reasons to doubt it, then that would also explain why Paul thinks of these various kinds of hymns and Spirit songs as a means of their "teaching and admonishing one another." Such songs are at the same time creedal, full of theological grist, and give evidence of what the early Christians most truly believed about God and his Christ.
4. The background to such two-dimensional worship, hymns that are at once directed toward God and a means of teaching and admonishing one another, is to be found in the Old Testament Psalter. There we find dozens of examples of hymns addressed to God in the second person, which also have sections in the third person, extolling the greatness or faithfulness of God for the sake of those singing to him.
The use of hymns in the New Testament documents indicates how clearly they also function in this two-dimensional way for the early church. Most of them are about Christ, and as such are both in worship of him and for the continuing instruction of God's people. The clear implication of 1 Corinthians 14:15-16 and 26 is that "Spirit songs" in the Pauline communities are also to be understood in this way. Singing "with the mind" (= singing intelligible words by the Spirit) is understood as praise to God, and something to which the rest respond with the Amen; and the "psalm" in 14:26 is precisely for the "building up" of the others. Unfortunately, many contemporary Christians do not think of their singing in these terms, and thus miss out on one of the significant dimensions of our reason for singing.
5. Let me conclude, finally, by noting that in its own non-reflective way, Colossians 3:16 is a crucial "Trinitarian" text. There are more than a score of such texts in Paul. But in contrast to the others, where the Father initiates salvation, which the Son effects and the Spirit applies, here the order is reversed. Christ still plays the central role, hence they must let the "word of Christ" dwell lavishly in their midst. But the same Spirit who applied salvation now helps to initiate response through Spirit-inspired songs reflecting the message about Christ, and all to the praise of God.
The God who created and redeemed is worthy of all praise. The Spirit who was present at creation and became present to bring us to life in redemption, now leads us in the worship and praise of our Redeemer and Creator. In Paul, therefore, our worship is as Trinitarian as our experience of God and our theology. Obviously, it is the presence of the Spirit among us as we gather in Christ's name that makes it so.
The Text and the Life in the Spirit
The Text and the Life of the Church