Something Old, Something New: Seeking the Balance In Worship

"Public worship brings out intense feelings in Christians. And it should, since corporate worship is so important to the spiritual growth of believers."

"Christians should be concerned about what edifies the community assembled on Sunday morning. According to God's design, believers are built up in Christ as their voices are lifted in praise. Worship is for His glory and our edification."

"Two important questions to ask are: What in those traditions transcends the centuries because it conveys truth? What has the history of the Church confirmed as effective vehicles for edifying the saints?"

A seasoned pastor and Doctor of Ministry student was describing struggles in his congregation over the issue of Sunday morning worship. Having walked this road before, I recalled the fervent emotions surrounding this potentially volatile subject. I could sincerely empathize with the turmoil he faced and would face in the months to come.

Public worship brings out intense feelings in Christians. And it should, since corporate worship is so important to the spiritual growth of believers. These deep convictions are appropriate, but they can bring disharmony to a local fellowship of believers. Coming to think that one style of worship is God's choice for everyone is entirely too easy. When an uncharitable spirit prevails, accusations can abound. Some may say that worship is "man-centered" or "out of touch with people;" others may contend that the pastor is compromising the gospel.

Disruption and division over worship has been a recurrent issue for the church from the beginning. The apostle Paul dealt with these problems at Corinth. If any church had occasion to despair over its internal problems it was this one. The difficulties at Corinth had been reported to Paul, and he systematically addressed each crisis in the first letter to the Corinthians.

Paul's discussion of spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12-14 provides the context of his comments about worship. In chapter 12, he exhorts the Corinthians to recognize both their oneness in Christ and the importance of counting every member as a valuable contributor to the fellowship of faith. Next is the well-known "love chapter" where he describes Christian love as the chief of virtues.

Following this call to unity and charity, Paul speaks directly to specific worship-related activities. In chapter 14 he appeals to the Corinthians to pinpoint those practices that were hindering their worship. I would like to examine the primary focus of Paul's exhortation.


Paul's chief concern goal is to edify the body of Christ. The idea is that of "building up," just as one might build a house. All components of worship should build up all the participants in their faith. Paul's exhortation, while chiefly addressed to the primacy of clear preaching/teaching, includes additional elements of corporate worship such as prayer and singing (vs.14).

Spiritual gifts were being used in a self-serving fashion in Corinth, and fellow believers were not being edified. Paul condemns this practice as a distortion of God's purposes for the church and points out the correct way in verse 26: "What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification."

The principle of mutual edification is a timely reminder for contemporary discussions of worship. For example, the supposed contradiction between "God-centered" worship versus "man-centered" worship may not be true. Of course, worship is directed to the praise of the Holy Trinity, however, here Paul underscores that another key function of public worship is the edification of believers. Christians should be concerned about what edifies the community assembled on Sunday morning. According to God's design, believers are built up in Christ as their voices are lifted in praise. Worship is for His glory and our edification.

First, Paul seems to assume significant variety and freedom in the expressions of worship. Verse 26 points to the reality that believers will bring to the assembly different expressions of praise (a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, an interpretation). And of course, what edifies one may or may not edify another in the same way.

Sermons are a great example of this truth. Amazingly, a sermon may affect a particular person as a "blessing" and leave others thinking "I didn't get much out of the sermon today." Of course, the pastor is convinced that those not blessed must have been sleeping! Music can bring similar responses. A particular hymn or song may touch one person deeply and not provoke such "religious affections" in another.

As Christians, we are not all moved, blessed, or edified in the same manner. Explanations abound for this -- our diversity of backgrounds, different degrees of sanctification, and the mystery of the Spirit's work in each soul. Christian experience makes it abundantly clear that God works through a variety of media for His own purposes. This insight should encourage in us an openness to difference of expression in worship as long as those expressions remain within Scriptural guidelines.

Second, in the midst of the diversity, a loving attitude smoothes a lot of feelings. Paul states this principle unequivocally in chapter 13. If I don't exercise love toward my brother or sister, I am nothing. Interestingly, this beloved chapter on charity immediately precedes a discussion on public worship. Edifying the body of believers must be practiced in the context of love. And love often means sacrificing one's own preferences out of deference to another.

I have seen this lived out by the saints in inspiring ways. I remember a Sunday afternoon meeting in which church members were discussing the "new songs" in worship. Several members were dissatisfied with more contemporary musical tunes used on Sunday morning. After some discussion, one of the respected charter members of the congregation stated, "This music is not my cup of tea, but if it reaches the young people I'm in favor of it." That was a watershed moment and set a healthy tone of charity in the meeting. Being open to things new for the sake of edifying the body was a sacrificial response for this senior saint, and I saw a kingdom principle at work that day.

Last, equally important to freedom and charity is proper order. Paul supports freedom in worship, but within boundaries. Freedom in the Spirit does not mean that we do away with order in worship. In fact, structure can help insure that edification occurs. In the final verse of the chapter, Paul states: "But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner" (vs. 40). This verse has become the hallmark of Presbyterianism. Sometimes Presbyterians are considered severe and stifling (often with good reason!) because of our accent on order. Nevertheless, the firm conviction that the Sprit works within structure is clearly biblical.

In Corinth Paul was faced with the use of spiritual gifts that caused confusion rather than edification. Free expressions of worship without the boundaries of order do not build up the body of Christ. The apostle mandates that discipline be implemented for the purpose of restoring an orderly environment.


The basic structure and components of worship in the early church borrowed from the Jewish synagogue tradition. The synagogue pattern of scripture reading, exposition, singing, and prayer provided the basic liturgical order, and Jewish psalms, hymns, and prayers were adapted for use in Christian worship. As the early believers used the synagogue tradition, likewise, the present day church ought to utilize the great Protestant traditions as a key resource for worship. If we become focused on only the newest forms of worship, we may easily miss the insights and balance that the traditional components may offer us.

While a diversity of worship patterns exist among the different Protestant groups, much common hymnody and shared elements from the ancient and Reformation church remain. Two important questions to ask are: What in those traditions transcends the centuries because it conveys truth? What has the history of the Church confirmed as effective vehicles for edifying the saints?

Take the Apostles Creed, for example. Here is an almost universally accepted confession of the Gospel that has edified the faithful from the earliest centuries until the present. The 16th century Reformers utilized this creed as a tradition with abiding value. John Calvin versified the Apostles Creed, and it was set to music for worship. Are we not missing a part of what is authentically Christian if we totally ignore the use of this ancient symbol? The voice of tradition needs to be heard. Tradition for its own sake can be deadly. Testimony to this truth is evident throughout the Scriptures and especially in the ministry of Christ. Church historian Jarosalv Pelikan makes a helpful distinction: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living….it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name" (The Vindication of Tradition, p. 65). That which is agreeable to Holy Scripture and has consistently edified the saints over many centuries ought not to be automatically relegated to the category of traditionalism just because it comes from another era. Particularly, in our disconnected culture's obsession with the here and now, it is imperative that Christians keep in touch with their spiritual heritage.

The church needs both the voice of the Christian tradition and the voice of the present. The old and new are not mutually exclusive but need each others' gifts to maintain the balance of ministry. The harmony of past and present will help ensure that freedom and order maintain their proper places in the church.

This past Easter I was reminded of the biblical balance that builds the body of Christ. A trio began the worship with the "Easter Song" by the second chapter of Acts, a very upbeat piece of music. Later in the service the choir sang the "Hallelujah Chorus" by Handel. We kept the tradition and stood up! The "Amen" was heard throughout the congregation at the conclusion of both. Some people were probably more edified by one or the other of the musical selections, but we were all together and bringing our offerings of praise both as individuals and corporately.


Calvin recognized that diversity of worship practices can lend itself to accusation and lack of charity. He says in his commentary on I Corinthians 14, "Let there be nothing of pride and contempt for other Churches - let there be, on the other hand, a desire to edify - let there be moderation and prudence; and in that case, amidst a diversity of observances, there will be nothing that is worthy of reproof."

Worship could divide in Paul's day, in Calvin's day, and it still can now. Christians will have differences over worship, and even if they don't worship together in the same assembly, each can seek a charitable spirit towards brothers and sisters whose expressions of praise differ from their own. All worship falls far short of His glory and will always contain imperfection this side of glory. A good dose of humility is helpful medicine.

My pastor friend has some challenging days ahead as he attempts to steer his flock through the maze of tensions over worship. He will not please everyone. In fact, he probably won't fully please anyone. Nevertheless, seeking the balance of the old and new will be a most useful guide. Woship should unify God's people, not divide. And the road to unity is paved with charity and humility.

Don Fortson

Donald Fortson is Dean of Students and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at RTS/Charlotte. He holds a B.A. degree from Covenant College, Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Columbia Theological Seminary, and is a Ph.D. candidate at Westminster Theological Seminary. For nine years he was associate pastor of Forest Hill Church (EPC) in Charlotte.

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Last updated 09-22-98.