Should I raise my hands when I pray (or sing) in the local church? Which music should we use in our local church worship? Should my kids be allowed to dance during a good praise song at the assembly? Shall I be allowed to say “amen” after any song I feel particularly touched by during worship service? Can we change the complete structure of the meeting of the local church? Should we say the Nicene Creed at the gathering of the local church?
In all of these questions we’re really just asking, “What am I allowed to do?” I’ve said it in another post but before answering the questions you have to actually figure out why we come together at all. After you identify that purpose for gathering you then figure out your freedoms within that gathering. In other words, first you ask “why do we assemble?” then you ask, “What should I be doing when we’re assembled?”
Why we assemble is the main question to answer but I think Scripture would have us ask several probing questions that help tie down both the purpose of the church while examining any of our actions.
Does It Actually Edify the Local Church?
Paul said he appreciated speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 14:16) —and yet he saw no real good for the assembly if there wasn’t any interpretation and commanded that the persons stay silent (1 Cor. 14:27). Now this isn’t an argument here to legitimize speaking of tongues in the modern local church, but it’s actually to highlight Paul’s understanding of any activity within the corporate gathering. There are those things that are only for God (1 Cor. 14:2) and then there are those things that are for the gathered people of God.
In fact, Paul says that everything he does when the assembly gathers should aim at edification over against personal preference. Even if he were to offer God 10,000 foreign (and incomprehensible) words of worship, he would rather keep quiet and speak five words that actually edify the gathered people of God (1 Cor. 14:19).
What’s interesting is that when we ask “What is the purpose of the local church” or “Why do we have to gather versus just stay home (Heb. 10:25)” we mention important things (worship, pray, evangelize, take care of the poor) that can be done by individuals whereas Paul repeatedly brings up things that are corporate in their nature and are always tied to edification.
If you can’t see it actually edifying the assembly, you have to wonder if you should be doing it at all.
Is It About You or Is It For Others Within the Assembly?
For Paul, one reason you come together (instead of just staying home) is, as a unified community, to take part in the Lord’s Supper (a marker of a local church). Now, in this taking part of the Lord’s Supper the people of God proclaim the Lord’s death until the Lord returns (1 Cor. 11:26). Of course, the individuals take the supper (1 Cor. 11:28-29) but the meal is distinctly corporate in that when they eat the Supper they must wait for one another (1 Cor. 11:33). If you come to the gathering of the people of God and decide to take part of the meal on your own then you’re, in effect, despising God’s assembly (1 Cor. 11:17-22).
This is important. The individuals are actually gathering in obedience to the commandment of the Lord to “do this in remembrance of me” but Paul won’t even have them start the supper if the individual goal is self-gratification.
Indeed, the broader discussion on the spiritual gifts is actually tied to that fact. Although some gifts are given for enjoyment between you and the Lord, many of the gifts are specifically given to the church—it’s for the benefit of the body.
So you have to ask, before doing any of the things you have freedom to do, are you ultimately doing it for yourself and despising the assembly or are you waiting for the people of God?
Does It Fall Within the Biblical Pattern for the Local Church?
Let’s say that the assembly does just about everything right. They define their purpose as an assembly and then they align all of their activity within the church towards edification and unity underneath that purpose…awesome. The one thing they decide to do is worship as screaming unicorns. What’s wrong with that?
Well, this is where the Reformers had figured out the “regulative principle of worship”. John Calvin probably said it best when he pointed out that “God disapproves of all modes of worship that are not expressly sanctioned by his Word.” For example, when Aaron’s sons approached with “strange fire”, they were struck dead. When Saul went to offer worship to the Lord, even if the camp was gathered, it came at a cost of his kingdom and the words “obedience is better than sacrifice”.
Worship of the Lord is tied to the ministry of the Word—be it reading the Word, preaching the Word, fellowship in the word, or singing the Word—and obedience in keeping the ordinances of the church (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). So there’s plenty a local assembly can do corporately within the confines of what has been defined in the Scriptures but some things (like holy laughter or dancing like unicorns) likely falls outside of the principles and patterns outlined in Scripture.
So you have to ask “Is what we’re doing within the Biblical pattern for the local church?”
That last one will nudge you back towards figuring out the purpose of the local gathering.