Theology and Corporate Worship
What hath theology to do with worship?” Being tasked to answer such a question is, for me, a bit like offering a dog a mountain of bones. Not a bone. A mountain. Exciting—overwhelmingly so. Where to begin? Though a measly essay can scarcely explore the relationship between these foci exhaustively, I scratch the surface, first, by narrowing “worship” in general to “corporate worship” in particular. And with that, I offer the following four aspects of relationship.
Theology Creates Corporate Worship
Theology creates corporate worship in a number of ways. At the most basic level, theology creates corporate worship because theology creates corporate worshipers. That is to say, Christian theology creates Christians. Never has there ever existed an a-theological Christian. When God effectually calls his own to himself (Romans 8:28-30), it is himself—God, Theos, the subject of theology—to whom he calls them. When God vivifies the spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-10), and they, with their freshly inflated spiritual lungs, cry out like a newborn infant with faith in Christ Jesus, they are, in so doing, crying out to the God-man (John 1:14; 1 Timothy 2:5). They are crying out to Jesus, he who was sent by the Father (John 5:36), empowered by the Spirit (Luke 4:18), incarnate (Philippians 2:5-8), crucified and buried (1 Corinthians 15:1-4), resurrected (Romans 6:5-11), ascended to the right hand of God (Romans 8:34). To become a Christian—to become a worshiper of the Triune God—is to grasp theology at some level. To put it starkly: one cannot become a Christian without theology. So, theology creates corporate worship because theology creates the worshipers who gather corporately.
But theology also creates corporate worship in the sense that theology occasions the corporate worship itself. That is, theology motivates corporate worship. Theology motivates corporate worship. Click To Tweet This is unavoidably true, whether corporate worshipers are conscious of the fact or not. Indeed, Christians—that is, those saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (note the theological concepts to which I have to appeal in order to even define a Christian)—are the only kind of people who can worship the Triune God of Scripture because they are the only ones who want to (Romans 8:7-8). When theological truth gets inside the hearts and minds of individuals, and God thereby redeems and sanctifies them, worship is the natural outflow. And that is the only way that Christian worship occurs. It cannot be manufactured.
I was reminded of this dynamic in a striking way recently, in a Bible study I lead for a small group of college students. One morning, we were reading through the gospel of Luke and discussing the incarnation. In this small Bible study, made up of new believers still wet behind their spiritual ears, our conversation spanned from Mary’s virgin conception, to the Trinity, to the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures. This occasioned, believe it or not, a brief discussion on the extra calvinisticum—that unfortunately anachronistically named doctrine that emphasizes Christ’s uninterrupted divinity in the incarnation. “So in some mysterious way,” I said, “the same person—Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity—in his divine nature, continued to uphold the cosmos by his powerful word even as he took on human flesh. The Son was causing the existence of the manger in which he lay.” One young woman at the table simply blinked at me. Misty-eyed, she gulped, and said, “That is so beautiful it makes me want to cry.” I smiled. She continued, “It makes me want to sing.” Amen. If this is true on the individual level, how much more on the corporate? This is why we begin our services with a biblical call to worship. We sing because we want to sing in response to who God is and what he has done.
Theology Informs Corporate Worship
Not only does theology constitute and create our corporate worship, it also informs our corporate worship. This is a subtle but important difference. After theology motivates corporate worship, we do not leave it at the door: it directs our worship. Think, for example, of singing. After being gripped by some theological truth, the natural Christian desire is to sing. But what should we sing? If it’s in any way about God, it is theological. As it turns out, theology is still needed.
Not only does our theology inform the content of our corporate worship songs, but it also ought to inform the structure of our corporate worship. What do we do when we gather together as the church for corporate worship? How we answer this question will reveal our theological convictions, stated or implied. For example, my church subscribes to the regulative principle of corporate worship—which is to say, our corporate worship is comprised of what Scripture commands and only what Scripture commands. This means that the structure of our services is made up of five elements: public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13), teaching and preaching of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 4:1-2), corporate prayer (1 Timothy 2:1; Acts 2:42; 4:23-31), corporate singing (Colossians 3:12-17), and the practice of the ordinances (i.e., communion and baptism, 1 Corinthians 11:23-34; Acts 2:38; Matthew 28:19). Why do we subscribe to this principle? Our motivation is expressly theological—our use of the regulative principle is a direct expression of our embrace of Scripture’s sufficiency.
Along these lines, theology can also inform the flow of corporate worship. For example, after settling on the building our corporate services with only the five materials mentioned above, we were still left with their order. These activities must be organized into some order. What better governing principle than theology? For our own part, our order of worship roughly corresponds to the gospel narrative (i.e., Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration, Consummation). Our Call to Worship corresponds to “Creation” (Genesis 1:1), Corporate Confession to “the Fall” (Genesis 3:1-24), Assurance of Pardon to “Redemption” (Galatians 4:4-7), Song of Thanksgiving to “Restoration” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21), and Communion to “Consummation” (Revelation 21:1-27).
Corporate Worship Teaches Theology
This is a crucial and often overlooked relationship between corporate worship and theology. Corporate worship teaches theology. There is a reciprocal relationship, therefore, between theology and worship. Theology creates and informs worship, worship teaches theology, which then creates and informs more worship. The psalter reinforces this very point: it is theological content that occasions the psalmist’s writing, and his writing itself becomes more theological content!
This is why we cannot underestimate the importance of our worship’s theological content. The songs we sing teach us to view God a certain way. They teach us to view our circumstances a certain way. They teach us to view ourselves and one another a certain way. They teach us how to pray. They teach us to whom we pray. Our corporate worship—our prayers, sermons, and songs—must be theologically substantive. A church that preaches Trinitarian orthodoxy may still unwittingly harbor Trinitarian heretics by butchering the doctrine of the Trinity with its songs and prayers. A church that preaches hard against the false gospel of prosperity may still unwittingly invite its members to name-it-and-claim-it with its songs and prayers. A theologically strong church is strong because it sings and prays and eats and preaches with corporate theological strength.
Corporate Worship Reenacts Theology
Doxology is theology consummated. Theology hasn’t truly worked its way into a people until it has worked its way out of their fingertips. As a local church gathers for corporate worship, she is reciting her lines. She is playing her role. She is aligning herself with her reality in Christ—therefore corporate worship is nothing other than corporate theology practiced. This is illustrated in perhaps no greater way than in the corporate worship act of communion. That little meal of bread and wine contains worlds. It is a battering ram against the forces of darkness, declaring the Lord’s death until he returns (1 Corinthians 11:26). That is, in taking communion, the local church raises a wide-grinned face at sin and death and hell and says, “Guess what? Your reign is through! Your expiration date has been written by the blood of Jesus—there’s no turning back. Your time is running out!” It is also a meal of horizontal and vertical fellowship—the church as a church enjoys the one meal, sharing in one cup and one bread (1 Corinthians 10:16-17), and communes with its Savior who has promised that he will never leave nor forsake her (Matthew 28:20). And it is a meal of anticipation, hoping with eager expectation for the cosmic feast of the ages: the banquette of the Lamb of God and his holy Bride (Revelation 19:6-8). Who would have imagined a feast of theological truth could be contained in such meager portions of bread and wine (or juice!)?
In these ways and more, we see that theology and corporate worship are essentially intertwined.
 An excellent work on the variegated dimensions of communion is Todd Billings, Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table (Eerdmans, 2018).