What is the business of church? 1 Why does the congregation congregate, and when they get together what should they be doing and why should they be doing it?
In answering this, our thoughts might first turn to the kinds of things that we do in church, things like praising God, learning from the Bible, praying, sharing with and serving our fellow Christians. But is there anything that holds these things together, some purpose that they all serve?
This seems to be a useful question to ponder. For if we were clear what church was for, it would help us participate in church, and give us a way to help others participate too. More than that, knowing what the congregation was supposed to be doing when it met, and why, would also help us assess how well church was serving its God-given purposes.
I notice that reformed and evangelical Christians take different approaches to this question (to say nothing of those with other theological outlooks). I want to explore two contrasting approaches to these questions: those of John Piper and of D. Broughton Knox.
Church is for the pursuit of worship – John Piper
One answer that might occur to you is that the God-given purpose of church is the worship of God. The church service is ‘corporate worship’. Speaking this way about church places the emphasis on us making some response to God, and towards God, whether that response is the reverent and orderly participation in a proper liturgy or joyful praise and adoration in song, or receiving God’s word with open ears and ready hearts.
John Piper is a pastor and writer for whom worship is a fundamental category for talking about the Christian before God, and his thinking on the church as worship is worth our attention. In what follows I am following his seminar notes ‘Gravity and Gladness on Sunday Morning: The Pursuit of God in Corporate Worship’.2 Piper sees the business of the Christian life as worship, and the business of church as corporate worship, unfolding as an awakening, a pursuit and an experience, all of which are worship in some manner, for they show forth the glory and worth of God. The awakening as that we are stirred up to pursue satisfaction in God by hearing the word of God, supremely in preaching, which is an act of expository exultation. The pursuit is pursuit of satisfaction in God in the common activities of the church service, and the experience is of satisfaction in God,1 in which God is glorified by our enjoyment of him.
The Experience: Worship
Piper works backwards through this triad, because for him the essence of worship is the experience of satisfaction in God, and the awakening and pursuit are only worship inasmuch as they lead to the experience. So, as he often does, Piper begins with the foundational thesis that there is no other greater than God and that our great good and purpose is to glorify him (i.e. worship him) by enjoying him forever. Worship is an inward, spiritual experience. In his words, ‘The essential, vital, indispensable, defining heart of worship is the experience of being satisfied with God because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. The chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying him for ever.’3
It may seem to fly in the face of the New Testament to think about church from the category of worship, but Piper faces this difficulty explicitly. He looks at NT usage of two main words that might be translated ‘worship’ (proskuneo and latreuo) and acknowledges that these are not used to describe what happens in the Christian gathering. Piper seeks the explanation of this in Jesus’ aim to divert attention ‘away from worship as a localized thing with outward forms to a personal, spiritual experience with himself at the centre. Worship does not need a building, a priesthood, and a sacrificial system. It needs the risen Jesus.’ 4
Piper takes Jesus’ words that ‘true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth’ (John 4:23) to mean that ‘this true worship is carried along by the Holy Spirit and is happening mainly as an inward, spiritual event, not mainly as an outward, bodily event.’5 And, as Piper sees it, the New Testament writers continued Jesus’ programme so that in their writings worship ‘is being significantly de-institutionalized, de-localized, de-externalized. The whole thrust is being taken off of ceremony and seasons and places and forms and is being shifted to what is happening in the heart – not just on Sunday, but every day and all the time in all of life.’6
Piper suggests that for the NT writers to use worship language for church would too much have suggested an identity between worship and certain occasions or acts. Hence, by avoiding worship language and categories in speaking of church gatherings, the NT does not marginalise worship, but underscores that worship is located ultimately in the heart, not in any outward form, place or act.
The Pursuit of Worship
If, as Piper reasons, the essence of worship is the experience of being satisfied in God, then since we are to worship God, we should pursue this experience of being satisfied in God. This pursuit of satisfaction in God then becomes a kind of extension of worship out from its essence. The ambit of worship widens to include both the experience of satisfaction, and the activity of pursuing that satisfaction. Indeed all things in life should serve the pursuit of this satisfaction in God, including church. So, if Christians are convinced that ‘nothing is going to bring satisfaction to their aching hearts besides God’, then ‘This conviction breeds a people who go hard after God on Sunday morning. They are not confused about why they are there. They do not see songs and prayers and sermons as mere traditions or mere duties. They see them as means of getting to God or God getting to them for more of his fullness.’7
This pithy answer to the question What is church for? explains why Piper’s Philosophy Of Music And Worship begins with ‘God-centeredness’, which is expounded as ‘A high priority on the vertical focus of our Sunday morning service. The ultimate aim is to so experience God that he is glorified in our affections.’8
Congregation members are to ‘Come on the lookout for God, leave on the lookout for people.’ And they seek to ‘Remove horizontal intrusions between vertical acts.’ (I take this to mean that a focus on people should not interrupt the congregation’s focus on God.)
The Awakening of Worship
However, there is something else to be taken into account: ‘In the real world of ordinary Christians, the pursuit of satisfaction in God through supplication, thanks, and praise do not usually arise in the hearts of God’s people without being stirred up in some way when they come together.’9
The stirring up is accomplished by the Word of God, by the mouth of the preacher, augmented by the example of the preacher: ‘in this world it is normal to go backward without continual exposure to the Word of God awakening in us the spiritual affections God deserves from us.’10 ‘God also designs that some of this continual exposure to the Word of God be provided by leaders in the church whose calling it is to make truth known to the people and to be examples of Godward affection for them.’11 ‘The content of God’s Word will be woven through all we do in worship. It will be the ground of all our appeal to authority. Preaching (expository exultation) will be central.’12
This high valuation of the preaching of the word leads Piper to a further widening of the ambit of the word worship. Worship is not only the experience of satisfaction in God, and the pursuit of this satisfaction, but the stirring up of others to pursue satisfaction in God through preaching (‘expository exultation’) is itself worship too,
‘because the declaration of God’s truth and the demonstration of its value with appropriate affections is worship. That is, it displays the value of God in that it shows he is worth knowing and proclaiming and feeling strongly about.’13
Two observations about all this. Firstly, Piper is thinking out of a theological foundation into the practice of church against the background of Scripture and his context. Worship is the big theological category for everything in Piper’s view of what it is to be a human being before God, so worship is the foundation for thinking about church too. This is not surprising. What we should note is that in this analysis, church is complex – it is not a simple, uniform act of worship that goes on in a congregation, but centres about sluggish, forgetful human hearts being stirred up to seek satisfaction in God, centrally by the expository exultation of a preacher, and the congregation together using the activities of the service as the means of seeking and expressing that satisfaction in God.
The second observation I would make here is that this analysis is an antidote to any approach to church which does not place the relationship we have with God at the centre of what church is about. It is an assault on the church as social-cum-community group or cultural habit. It is a theological, un-sociological account of church designed to reveal the real significance of what it is to go to church.
Church is for the expression of fellowship – D. B. Knox
To be frank, Piper’s approach to church seems foreign to me (unsurprising, really, since he is from a slightly different culture). Engaging with Piper’s vision of church has sent me back to examine the influential voices in my own Christian culture to understand my own instincts about church. If the pointy end of John Piper’s theological vision is worship, then D. Broughton Knox, who taught influentially in Sydney Anglican circles, had a theological vision with a pointy end too, namely, fellowship. We Knox sees the business of the Christian life as fellowship, and the business of church as to express and enjoy that fellowship. We may summarise Knox’s view of the aims of church as the increase and expression of the experience of fellowship.
The Experience: Fellowship
Whereas John Piper thinks of the true end of human beings as the worship of God, Knox thinks of the true end of human beings as fellowship with God and one another in Christ. As Piper sees it, God’s basic delight is in his glory and its display. Our fundamental way of sharing in God’s basic delight is our worship, which is the enjoyment and display of God’s glory. As Knox sees it, God’s basic delight is the fellowship – the shared love and activity – of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our fundamental way of sharing in God’s basic delight is to come into fellowship with him, and his people.
In his essay ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, Knox defines fellowship as, ‘friends sharing a common possession, leading to a common activity on the basis of that sharing’.14 For Knox, although ‘fellowship is a basic and delightful human experience’15 , fellowship begins in God – the full, perfect and blissful fellowship within the Trinity. Their common possession is the self-giving love the persons of the Trinity have for one another, and all the divine works of creation and salvation are their common activity.16
Human enjoyment of fellowship with one another ‘springs directly from the image of God in which men and women have been created’.17 We are made for fellowship. This fellowship is to be with God, and with one another, and although the fall has broken that fellowship with God and one another, in Christ, that fellowship is restored. A favourite verse of Knox’s is 1 John 1: 3; ‘that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.’
In Knox’s view a verse like this describes the heart and reality of the Christian experience and the goal of salvation. Christ (that ‘seen and heard’) has brought Christians into fellowship with himself and his Father, with one another (‘we’) and, through their proclamation of Christ, with still others (‘you’).
Elsewhere Knox writes: ‘In the Scriptures, God has made known his plan and purpose and final objective for mankind, which he is bringing to pass. It may be summed up in one word – fellowship; God has made us for fellowship. Heaven is fellowship with one another in God’s presence’18
Fellowship is friends sharing in a common activity19 , and Knox sees this fellowship with God and one another as being experienced by the Christian in several areas of activity. Christians share together in the praise, thanksgiving and intercession directed to the Father, led by the Son and helped by the Spirit.20 We share together with Christ and one another in the fellowship of evangelism, of living by faith in God, of suffering, of generous giving, of hope, of the inheritance of God’s people, of the Spirit.21
Knox writes that ‘our truest fellowship is the sharing of Christ’, and, ‘to be conscious of this fellowship means being conscious of of our relationship with God and one another in God.’22
This is the Christian life – a life of fellowship with God and one another, which is fundamentally a delight. So then, as Christians, we should seek to express and to increase this fellowship.
Church, then, is an expression of this fellowship. ‘The church service should provide this fellowship’, writes Knox, going on to say ‘The real reason [for church] is that the Spirit of God has drawn [the congregation] into each other’s company to meet with Christ in each other, in accordance with his promise to be present with them. The Spirit has drawn them that they might experience the fellowship of the Spirit whom they all share.’23
Knox lamented the failure he perceived in his own culture of church to appreciate the centrality of fellowship – ‘friends sharing in a common activity’. Neither pulpit nor pew thought they were in church for fellowship, and the formal, solemn, quiet, constrained conduct of church services provided little opportunity ‘to see the faces of our fellow-Christians […] shining with the face of Christ’.24 Rather, Knox laments that in his church culture, ‘the only thing a worshipper at Morning Prayer sees of his fellow worshipper from the moment he enters the building, til the time he leaves it again, is the back of his head.’25
Rather, the expression of Christian fellowship, friends sharing Christ in common, as we meet, ‘doing together what we do on our own, seeking Christ’s face for he is in each of us and we meet him in one another.’ I’m not sure what Knox would have said to Piper’s ‘Come on the lookout for God, leave on the lookout for people’ quoted above, but he might have said, ‘If you are on the lookout for God, look for him in his people.’ Knox is concerned our recognition and appreciation of one another as we gather is natural, genuine and primary in our engagement as church.
Knox holds that the end of church is Christian fellowship, and this fellowship is not a means to a further end, and always exists as it has been established by Christ. However, our consciousness and enjoyment of that fellowship can be and should be increased. The means to Christians experiencing the fellowship of the Spirit ‘is remembering Jesus, dwelling in him, setting our minds on things above, where he is. All these phrases mean the same thing – namely being consciously in his presence.’26
One important way to increase our consciousness of the reality of our fellowship, our consciousness that we are together in the presence of Christ and his Father is teaching the word of God. ‘Christian fellowship is evoked on the word of God, and response to that word.’27 The word of God brings a knowledge which is the first thing necessary for the strengthening of fellowship. He writes,
‘Christian fellowship is based on knowledge; knowledge of our common possessions, our common calling. This knowledge stirs the imagination, warms the affections, energizes the will to work, to suffer and to hope, and unites us all into one, God and his people. Knowledge comes through being taught with a receptive, obedient mind.’28
Knox therefore treats the teacher of the congregation as one exercising a foundational function in the strengthening of fellowship. But his emphasis falls more upon the ‘receptive, obedient’ minds of we who hear, who ‘must act on our knowledge and direct our wills to the things of God’ to experience fellowship with him, whose fellowship is weak because we fail to set our minds on things above, where Christ is. 29
The things we do together at church help us to set our minds on things above – not only hearing his word, but praising him, thanking him, praying to him, sharing the Lord’s Supper. All these things help us remember Christ, and that we are in him and he is in us. When we do these things together at church, our fellowship ‘is not only directed towards God, but also towards one another, building one another up as Christians. The Spirit’s gift of love for one another will ensure that when we come into each other’s company, an important consequence will be helping one another to be better Christians through instruction, exhortation and encouragement’.30
There are obvious points of similarity between Piper and Knox. They both have an experience taking a central place in their vision of the Christian life. For Piper it is the inward, spiritual experience of being satisfied in God, for Knox it is friends sharing a common possession, namely Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And for both, church has important role in strengthening that experience for the Christian. And further, the preaching or teaching of the word of God has a central place in that strengthening role.
There are also striking differences. In Piper the oneness of God is to the fore. He is God and we are his worshippers, and the great pleasure of God is the display of his glory before his creatures for our joy and his. In Knox, the triunity of God is to the fore. He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and his great pleasure is in his own fellowship, shared with his creatures for our joy and his. Perhaps as a result of these differences Piper also focusses more upon the individual ‘going hard after God’ for him or herself in church, with other parties somewhat secondary, whereas Knox focusses on the primacy of the sociality of church, of mutual recognition and appreciation.
Both Piper and Knox offer robustly theological accounts of church designed to reveal the real significance of what it is to go to church, and how we should see and engage with the activities of church and the people we meet there. I can’t read what they have to say without being challenged to examine what I am thinking and feeling and seeking when I go to church on Sunday. And I have a hankering to read what some of the reformers had to say on this topic.
1 I am using church here to refer to the actual meeting of the congregation, and not the congregation itself (which we might refer to as the church). Church in this article is primarily the church service, rather that the congregation. It is what the people are doing together, rather that who they are together. I’m not trying to focus on the being of the church so much as her doings when she congregates locally.
2 John Piper, Gravity and Gladness on Sunday Morning Seminar Notes from September 12, 2008. Downloaded on August 16 2011 from http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/seminars/gravity-and-gladness-on-sunday-morning-part-1.
3 John Piper, Gravity and Gladness under ‘2. The Intensification of Worship As etc. Thesis.’
4 John Piper, Gravity and Gladness under ‘2. The Intensification of Worship As etc. Possible Answer.’
5 John Piper, Gravity and Gladness under ‘2. The Intensification of Worship As etc. Question. What do etc.’
6 John Piper, Gravity and Gladness under ‘2. The Intensification of Worship As etc. The Language of etc.’
7 John Piper, Gravity and Gladness under ‘3. What is the Inward Essence etc. Some Implications 2. Worship becomes’
8 John Piper, Gravity and Gladness under ‘5. What Unites Us in Worship: A Philosophy Of Music And Worship’.
9 John Piper, Gravity and Gladness under ‘4. Worship Services Are Normative and Preaching Is a Normative Part; Thesis Three’.
10 John Piper, Gravity and Gladness under ‘4. Worship Services Are Normative and Preaching Is a Normative Part; Thesis Three’.
11 John Piper, Gravity and Gladness under ‘4. Worship Services Are Normative and Preaching Is a Normative Part; Thesis Three’.
12 John Piper, Gravity and Gladness under ‘5. What Unites Us in Worship: A Philosophy Of Music And Worship’.
13 John Piper, Gravity and Gladness under ‘4. Worship Services Are Normative and Preaching Is a Normative Part; Thesis One’. This quotation seems to hint at an implicit, more fundamental definition of worship at work in Piper’s thinking – that worship is the display of God’s value, and to worship God is to display his value. This more fundamental definition is also evident when Piper gives arguments for why Christians should go to church: because, ‘God’s aim in the universe is to be known and enjoyed by his creatures and thus to be shown more glorious than any other reality. Corporate worship is one essential way that God designs for this display of his glory to be expressed in the world’ (italics mine). And, giving another reason why we should gather to worship corporately: ‘Corporate unified supplication, thanks, and praise displays more of the glory of God than individual acts of supplication, thanks, and praise because harmony in diversity is intrinsically more beautiful than mere unison; harmony in diversity requires more grace from God to bring it about among sinful people’(italics mine).
14 D. Broughton Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’ in D. Broughton Knox, Selected Works, Volume II: Church and Ministry ed. Kirsten Birkett (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2003), 58.
15 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 57.
16 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 61-63.
17 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 59.
18 Knox, ‘Heaven is People’, in Selected Works II, 247.
19 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 57.
20 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 64-65.
21 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 64-70.
22 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 70.
23 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 74. See also p76.
24 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 75.
25 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 75.
26 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 70.
27 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 74.
28 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 73.
29 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 73.
30 Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Selected Works II, 80.