We usually go to church twice every Sunday; or, at least, that is the expectation. When this is done on a regular basis it tends to become, like so many other things, habitual and a routine, while its purpose and privilege can be forgotten. Consequently, we become easier with our reasons or excuses for not attending. That is evident from the increasing number of vacant places in the afternoon services, during the holiday seasons and the special church services. One might even, at times, hear the added complaint …but I do not get much out of it anyway.
So let’s see what the church services are really all about. What Scriptural instruction are we given about them?
A “church service” or a “worship service”?
Perhaps like most of you I have not (at least, in the past) really considered there to be any significant difference between the terms church services and worship services.[i] In my mind these expression were synonymous and it made little or no difference what the gathering together on Sundays was called. However, several senior members among us have made a point of emphasising that we should speak of church services rather than worship services.
This set me to thinking why they would make a point of it. I discovered that in the past, in the Dutch language, the expression church service was used quite consistently and purposely. The expression Word service[ii] was also frequently used. When thinking about it, what strikes me is that especially in this old Dutch expression the emphasis falls on the Word, that is, on what the Lord says in Scripture. When speaking about worship, however, attention falls more on what we do – for it is we who worship.
The Origin of Church Services
This greater emphasis on what the Lord says in His Word indeed appears to be foundational in the historic development of church services. The church services as we know them today find their roots in how the Lord, at various times, had assembled His people together. Think of the Lord gathering His people at Mount Sinai. Later the Lord prescribed various ordinances for His people to gather together at the tabernacle on various special commemorative days such as the Passover, but in particular on the Sabbath days. These came to be referred to as holy convocations.[iii]
Although no great detail is revealed about how these holy convocations were maintained and at times neglected, especially during the exile and perhaps even more so afterward, these convocations grew and developed into local synagogues. We are told of how the Lord Jesus made it His custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath.[iv] Here, at these assemblies, God’s Word was read and it was here, in the synagogue, that He preached.[v] Later, when bringing the gospel message of Christ and His work, the Apostle Paul preached in the synagogues.[vi] There the law of God and the Prophets were commonly read.[vii] However, after Christ’s time on earth, there were many Jews in various synagogues who denied Him and refused to accept the gospel of salvation. Consequently a Greek synonym, church, was used to speak of the Christian gatherings.[viii]
Declaring God’s Word is the focus of church services
Even though in Scripture the Lord gives no direct command or clear example of what is done when the church is gathered together, it is evident enough from this background information that the main purpose in the assembly of God’s people was the declaration of His Word. Special office-bearers were appointed to bring this message.[ix] In the old Dutch language, these special servants were called servants of the Word[x] or in English administrators of the Word or ministers for short. The point is: they spoke God’s Word.[xi] In other words, what was central to these assemblies was God speaking from His revealed Word through His appointed and ordained servants. Especially after the reformation from Roman Catholic heresies, there was a return to recognising the importance of the preached Word as the God-given instrument by which we are brought to the faith, rather than focussing on men and choirs worshipping the Lord.[xii] Thus, as it turns out, the senior members who prefer to speak about church services rather than worship services appear to maintain the reformational focus on the preaching as central to the weekly assembly.
The expression worship service appears to focus much more on how man responds to God’s Word. Here one can think, for example, of how Moses responded when the Lord spoke to him from the burning bush. He took off his sandals and covered his face.[xiii] He showed respect to the Lord. That is worship. Think also of how the children of Israel responded when the message of deliverance was affirmed by the signs Moses showed. We are told that they bowed their heads and worshipped[xiv] and likewise when they received instruction regarding the first Passover.[xv] There obviously is a place for worship in a church service. A church service where God’s Word will be read and proclaimed can therefore commence with the singing of Psalm 95:6: Come let us worship and bow down….[xvi]
However, as in the past already among the children of Israel, the primary purpose and focus of the gathering on Sundays is not our worshipping, but God’s speaking. After coming home from church, we can continue to worship the Lord by thanking Him for the comfort and encouragement received from the Word that was heard. We can continue to worship Him by bowing before His majesty in confessing how far we have missed the mark of the new obedience to which we have been called in the church service. Thus, as was understood during the reformation from Rome, already in the past, the main purpose for gathering together as church is not so much to worship the Lord as it is to listen to what the Lord says in His Word. Consider here the fact that besides elders and deacons the Lord has appointed ministers of the Word who are to preach the Word and administer the sacraments.[xvii] They are not facilitators to worship. This is further shown when recognising the church service to be an official gathering of God’s people.
The church service as the official gathering of God’s people
While we worship at home just like we might, at times, worship in the assembly of God’s people, there is something official about a church service. The way the Lord gathered His people at Mount Sinai appears as the background to the church services today.[xviii] There, at Mr. Sinai, it was an official gathering in that the Lord had given specific instruction through His appointed servant, Moses, concerning preparation for this meeting. Later instruction for these assemblies further shows how through His appointed servants the Lord assembled His people. In Deuteronomy 31:9ff the instruction is given that: At the end of every seven years, at the appointed time in the year of release, at the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel come to appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the LORD your God and carefully observe all the words of this law…. Compare it to how a principal at school may call an assembly of all students. The principal does so as principal. Thus the Lord calls an assembly of His people through the appointed leaders, the elders, so that His Word may be brought through those servants particularly appointed for that purpose, namely the administrators (or ministers) of His Word.
Even though the content of the assembly may have changed from sacrificing to preaching with the progression of the Lord’s work for our salvation, the gathering is just as official. That it is an official assembly is further evident from how the Lord teaches us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the assembly,[xix] in contrast to eating our food at home. Church discipline is to be exercised because it is in the official coming together of God’s people.[xx] If we keep in mind that these weekly assemblies or church services are called together and directed through God-appointed office-bearers who have been given the task to care for the Lord’s children, how can we neglect this assembling?[xxi] Since office-bearers are servants commissioned by God for the task of caring for His people, their authority is comparable to representatives of the civil government who are also official servants of the Lord God.[xxii] Civil rulers are given authority in civil matters. Likewise elders are entrusted with authority in the church. When they call an assembly together, church members are all expected to be there if possible. To ignore this call is comparable, for example, to neglecting the decree of a civil ruler. Think of how Emperor Augustus made a decree for all to be taxed … so everyone went to their home town for that purpose. It’s like when the principal calls all the students to an assembly, they are all expected to be there.
When such decrees or assemblies are called, the question of what you might get out of it becomes irrelevant for those who are called. They cannot know beforehand what they might get out of it, but that is not the point either. The point is that they are called together through a God-given authority. In high school, there always will be students who complain that they get nothing out of the assembly but they are all expected to be there. There may even be some who sneak off somewhere, but their action is illegitimate. No one from among the children of Israel would have dared stay away from the assembly at Mount Sinai. There is evidence that there were those among the children who neglected to attend the other assemblies which the Lord had ordained, but their neglect showed unfaithfulness.
When considering this background and context one can understand why the letter to the Hebrews warns us not to forget or neglect[xxiii] the assembling of ourselves as is the manner of some. As churches we conclude this to mean, as confessed in Lord’s Day 38, that we are to diligently attend the church of God. Of course, this call to diligently attend is to be understood in the further and broader context of the entire gospel message. You may belong among the LORD’s chosen children! Through Christ, you may now approach the throne of grace. You are called to gather together as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Who would ever want to miss out on this gathering regardless of how much I might get out of it? This question entirely falls away when embracing the blessing of salvation through Christ’s blood and therefore seeking to be gathered together as sheep of His flock. Then you know that this is the place where forgiveness and eternal life is found.[xxiv]
[i] The expression worship service may have come more in use among us in view of how in the Book of Praise (page 581) two alternative Orders of Worship are given.
[ii] Dutch kerk dienst or old Dutch dienst des Woords.
[iii] See for example: Ex/ 12:16, Lev. 23:2, Num 28:18.
[iv] See Luke 4:16
[v] See Matthew 9:35
[vi] See Acts 9:20
[vii] Acts 13:15 and especially 15:21 gives a pretty good idea of what took place in the synagogues.
[viii] Both Greek word, synagogue and ekklesia (in English translations church) refers to an assembly or gathering together of people. Seeing that in Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 the assembly of unbelieving Jews is referred to at the synagogue of Satan; the word church became commonly used to speak of the assembly of those who truly believed in Christ.
[ix] See, 2 Timothy 2:2
[x] Dienaar des Woords. This expression runs parallel to the old Dutch expression of the church service as Word service see footnote 2.
[xi] When saying that they speak God’s Word it does not mean that they are inspired like those who the Lord directed to write Scripture, but one could say, they are sent with a Bible under their arm and instructed to bring this message to the people. Those who hear the message have the task, not only of hearing and believing, but also testing what is said according to what is revealed. See 1 John 4:1ff
[xii] See Romans 10:14
[xiii] Exodus 3:5 – 6
[xiv] Exodus 4:31
[xv] Exodus 12:27
[xvi] Rhymed version quoted from the Book of Praise
[xvii] See how we confess this in Article 30 of the Belgic Confession
[xviii] Exodus 19
[xix] 1 Corinthians 11:33 – 34
[xx] Matthew 18:20, 1 Corinthians 5:4
[xxi] See Titus 1:5
[xxii] See Romans 13:1 – 7
[xxiii] Chapter 10:24 NKJV forget RSV neglect. Note that the verbal expression shows that the passage speaks about actual attendance and not just being a member.
[xxiv] See Articles 27 – 29 of the Belgic Confession. It is beyond the purpose of this article to show how by these articles of the Belgic Confession we recognise from God’s Word, the church, or actually assembling of His people, as the place where the Lord grants the blessing of salvation.