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One of the key insights of the Protestant Reformation was that the worship of the church should be based on the explicit teaching of Scripture. Stated simply, God’s Word must govern God’s worship by God’s people.

Another principle recovered at the Reformation, long held by Christians throughout the ages, was that the church of Jesus Christ represents the communion of the saints, a body of believers who are united to Christ and one another. This principle applies to all Christians in heaven and on earth. These two ideas go together. The church’s relation to Christ defines both the worship and identity of the church. As the Head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ leads His people on earth in worship to prepare them for worshiping with His people in heaven forever.

The church on earth and the church in heaven are not two separate entities but one body united to Christ as Head. Reformed theologians often designate those who behold Christ by faith on earth as the church militant and those who behold Christ by sight in heaven as the church triumphant. In his Greater Catechism (1645), written to help families grow in their understanding of the person and work of Christ, John Owen explains these principles in a series of questions and answers on the nature of the church:

Q. What is the church of Christ?

A. The whole company of God’s elect, called of God, by the Word and Spirit, out of their natural condition, to the dignity of his children, and united unto Christ their head, by faith in the bond of the Spirit.

Q. Is this whole church always in the same state?

A. No, one part of it is militant, the other triumphant.

Q. What is the church militant?

A. That portion of God’s elect which, in their generation, cleave unto Christ by faith, and fight against the world, flesh, and devil.

Q. What is the church triumphant?

A. That portion of God’s people who, having fought their fight and kept the faith, are now in heaven, resting from their labors.

By conceiving of the church in terms of its spiritual union with Christ, Owen helps us see the organic link between the church militant and the church triumphant. But how does this distinction relate to the topic of worship? I’d like to consider this question under three headings.

First, the authority of Christ. For many people, the Great Commission in Matthew 28 serves as the starting point for discussing the work of the church during the period between the first and second comings of Christ. But we might miss the main point of the passage if we focus too quickly on Jesus’ instructions to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the triune God and teaching them to observe everything that He commands (vv. 19–20). The key that unlocks this passage is found in Jesus’ preceding claim that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given” to Him (v. 18). Ministry in the local church flows downstream from the authority that Jesus possesses as the Head and King of the church (see Eph. 1:22; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 19:16). This means that those who are called to serve Christ’s church must do so according to the directions that He has given in Scripture.

An illustration here may clarify this point. Imagine that I asked you to babysit one Friday night so that my wife and I could enjoy a meal together in downtown Orlando. Before leaving our children with you, I would want to review some basic house rules. The first rule: the kids need to eat their veggies before enjoying chocolate ice cream for dessert. The second rule: they can watch one of three preapproved movies. The third rule: they need to change into their orange and blue pajamas before bedtime. The final rule: they need to be in bed with the lights out by 9 p.m. These rules define your relationship with our family. Under these rules, you have freedom to oversee our children. We hope you and our kids have a blast together. But you should understand that apart from your duties as our babysitter, you have no intrinsic authority over our children. Your powers are limited. Under no circumstances should you tell our kiddos that they may forgo their veggies, binge-watch any show they want, wear garnet and gold, or stay up until midnight. These are our kids, not your kids. Your job is to care for our children within the parameters of our house rules. In other words, the authority you have as our babysitter is delegated and limited, not intrinsic and universal.

The authority that church leaders possess is limited by the instructions Christ has given.

Life in the church isn’t much different. Pastors, elders, and deacons should operate within God’s house rules for the church outlined in Scripture (see 1 Tim. 3:14–15). Church leaders do not have intrinsic authority to exercise power over the flock of Christ. Instead, the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ delegates His authority to those who minister in His name. By His Word and Spirit, Christ has given “offices, oracles, and ordinances,” as Presbyterians like to say, for the worship and work of the church. When we look to the New Testament, we learn that Christ, through the ministry of the Spirit, consecrates elders and deacons (i.e., the offices) to care for the needs of local congregations (see Acts 6:1–7; Eph. 4:9–16; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–16) through the faithful proclamation of Scripture (i.e., the oracles) and the proper administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (i.e., the ordinances). The authority that church leaders possess is limited by the instructions Christ has given. As the church militant, we receive our marching orders by looking to those whom Christ has commissioned by His Spirit to declare His will for us as it is recorded in His Word. Pastors and elders have no inherent authority to conduct the worship and work of the church as they see fit. To care for the body of Christ, they must lead according to the standards set by the Head of the church. The reason is simple: the church does not belong to pastors, elders, or any other church leader. It belongs to Christ (Matt. 16:18).

Second, the teaching of Scripture. Conversations on worship often focus on matters of preference and style. Whether we’re talking about the reverence and beauty of a traditional liturgy or the intimacy and authenticity of a contemporary service, we can easily fall into the trap of reducing the corporate praise of God to cultural norms and personal tastes. These conversations are important. But if our worship practices are determined on stylistic, aesthetic, or pragmatic grounds, the church will crumble over time—whether by the shifting sands of liberalism or the slow decay of traditionalism. There is a better way to talk about worship.

Framing debates over worship in terms of personal preferences is not only reductionistic but also divisive; it creates an “us versus them” mentality in the church. No one wins. While not wanting to downplay legitimate differences that Christians have on this issue, we should rethink how we approach the question of worship. Rather than starting this discussion by considering the diverse perspectives of the church body, we need to begin conversations about worship by asking about the requirements of the church’s Head. This is where the previous point about Christ’s authority comes into play. The limitation of the church’s authority requires the regulation of the church’s worship. This line of reasoning is often known as the regulative principle of worship. It is one of the most misunderstood and neglected contributions of the Reformation.

In 1543, at the behest of his friend and mentor Martin Bucer, John Calvin wrote a small treatise titled The Necessity of Reforming the Church. For Calvin, the key to the Reformation’s teaching on worship was the central role of Scripture in positively shaping the public praise of God. Given sinful humanity’s propensity toward idolatry, when distinguishing between worship that pleases God and worship that doesn’t, we must not “adopt any device which seems fit to ourselves but look to the injunctions of Him who alone is entitled to prescribe.” Calvin argues that there is a universal principle that must inform the worship of any person who enters God’s presence. He states:

If we would have Him to approve our worship, this rule, which He everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed. . . . Namely, God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word.

According to Calvin, only worship authorized by the Word of God is worthy of God.

Calvin was far from original on this point. Scripture everywhere teaches that the Lord’s command regulates communion with God. Adam (Gen. 2:15–17), Abel (Gen. 4:4), Noah (Gen. 8:20–22), Abraham (Gen. 17:9–14), and Moses (Gen. Ex. 20:1–11), to give just five well-known examples, are all given divine directives that inform their liturgical practices. Conversely, Cain (Gen. 4:5), Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1–3), Saul (1 Sam. 15:22–35), Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:3–8), and Uzziah (2 Chron. 26:16–23) all face God’s judgment for imposing their own standards on Israel’s worship. With these cases in mind, it should come as no surprise that when Jesus commissions His church, He gives instruction on preaching (2 Tim. 4:1–2), prayer (Matt. 6:5–15), singing (Col. 3:16–17), baptism (Matt. 28:19), and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23–26). These biblical elements are nonnegotiables in corporate worship. They represent the appointed means by which Christ as Head of the church guides and governs His people in worship that brings glory and honor to God.

Third, the perspective of eternity. Having considered the authority of Christ and the nature of worship, we are now ready to consider how these two principles inform our understanding of the church militant. On May 16, 1816, John Black, a little-known Scottish Presbyterian pastor and one-time professor at what would become the University of Pittsburgh, preached a sermon titled “Church Fellowship” before a gathering of ministers in Philadelphia. The sermon explicitly connects the communion of the saints with the topic of worship. Black states:

Saints by profession of faith are bound to hold communion and fellowship in the worship and service of God. The church is a society. She is formed upon the principle of an organic body, having a head and members. This constitution proceeds upon the ground of a covenant, embracing the head, and all the members, in a state of union and communion together. All the members united to Jesus Christ, and members one of another, walk together in love. They join their hands, for their hearts are united. They take sweet counsel together, and walk unto the house of God in company (cf. Ps. 55:14).

For Black, the communion of the saints provides a “social principle of earth” that informs how we should view other Christians and our worship together. The local gathering of the saints in worship on the Lord’s Day represents a “holy convocation,” where we assemble under the banner of King Jesus, hear His gracious Word proclaimed in Scripture, and fellowship together by eating and drinking at His table. All this prepares us for joining the heavenly host in worshiping God through the ministry of the Lamb (see Rev. 4–5; 21–22).

All this sounds so wonderful—and it is. But the gathering of the saints on this side of Canaan’s shore is also marked by the frailties and failures that characterize life and ministry and worship in a fallen world. Congregations are often divided. Moral scandals sometimes overtake even the best of churches. Theological errors can creep into pulpits and pews. Beyond that, each one of us must confront our own sinful inclinations, thoughts, and behavior that often stifle our attempts to worship God according to His Word.

As we confront sin and suffering, heresy and heartache, we must train our eyes to see the church from the perspective of eternity. The church militant must pass through the crucible of sanctification as it prepares for the day when Christ will present it to His heavenly Father as a dazzling bride, without spot or wrinkle (Eph. 4:13–16; 5:27). This means that the church on earth is not yet what it will one day be (1 John 3:2). Even more, we must look past our own sliver of time to realize that the church here and now is only a small part of the much larger body of Christ in heaven that consists of a vast multitude of people from throughout the ages and from every tongue, tribe, and people. With Christ as our King, we as the church militant have every hope that what we see dimly here on earth will be realized more fully when our faith becomes sight. Until then, may the Lord find us faithful to the charge He has given us in His Word.

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