The Discipline of Worship

Scripture teaches that Christians should offer praise continually (Heb 13:15). The force of the word “continually” is that it should be consistent. Worship, therefore, should be  characteristic of our lives. This idea is illustrated in the tabernacle, where the altar was continually burning (Lev 6:13); every morning and every evening a sacrifice of praise was offered. In order, however, for that to be achieved, a certain degree of preparation was required. The sacrifice had to be suitable, it had to be sacrificed at the correct time, and there had to be sufficient wood. The ashes required to be raked and the grate of the altar cleared. These responsibilities fell to the priests, who were a disciplined team (or should have been) and were dedicated to keeping the altar burning. Although Christians no longer worship at a literal altar, the same type of discipline is still required to keep the flame of worship burning.

It may seem odd to some that discipline has any role to play in worship. Is worship not the spontaneous overflow of the heart to God? If worship is spontaneous, surely it cannot require discipline. But experience shows that if we only worship when we feel like it, the chances are we won’t feel like it very often. This article seeks to describe the sort of discipline that is necessary to sustain a life of praise.

First, there is internal discipline, which consists in nurturing our communion with God. It is fostered by prayer and the study of Scripture. This discipline keeps our souls fresh and our spirits thankful. Second, there is external discipline, which consists in ordering our lives so that worship is possible. It expresses itself in attendance at the gatherings and in acts of public worship. Discipline is required to “keep at it.”

We will look at these two forms of discipline in two settings: first, in the life of the assembly and, second, in the life of the believer.

In connection with the assembly, we know that the Breaking of Bread became a regular gathering of the church at an early stage (Acts 2:42). It was convened on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). At its inception in the upper room, the Lord Jesus gave thanks (1Cor 11:24), and after His departure, the disciples took over the responsibility of giving thanks. While there is a sense in which worship should permeate all the gatherings of the assembly, the primary opportunity for assembly worship is when we meet to break bread. But for the remembrance of the Lord Jesus to achieve its purpose, spiritual discipline is required. As regards internal spiritual discipline, we should be exercised about having “somewhat to offer” (Heb 8:3).  If we permit our natural inclinations to take control, there is a risk that on a Lord’s Day morning we may appear before Him “empty” (Deut 16:16). As regards external discipline, we should order our lives in such a way that we can attend the meeting and thus obey our Saviour’s command, “This do in remembrance of me” (1Cor 11:24). While it is acknowledged that there may be legitimate reasons for being absent, they are few in number; we should order our lives and careers so as to make attendance possible. One aspect of discipline is punctuality. If being late is, at a social event, a discourtesy to the host, how much more is lateness for the Lord’s Supper a discourtesy to the Lord? It is surprising how many saints consider it acceptable to arrive at the Breaking of Bread after the opening hymn has been raised. We should discipline ourselves to be there on time.

Worship is also required in our personal lives. For many of us, thankfulness does not come naturally. Indeed, a lack of gratitude is a characteristic of the last days (2Tim 3:2). One means of maintaining a proper sense of gratitude is to keep the causes of gratitude before us. One rich source of inspiration is Scripture; we should discipline our lives so that time is set aside for the study of Scripture. This provides material for worship and is an inspiration to worship.

We should also discipline ourselves to “watch” in prayer; that is, we should look for God’s answers. Seeing God answering prayer produces “thanksgiving” (Col 4:2). We should also be vigilant that our prayers are not consumed with personal requests to the neglect of the exercise of worship.

To some, discipline may seem the wrong word to use in the context of worship.  It may be thought that one of the key differences between the worship of the OT and that of the NT is that worship in the NT is freed from control. This is partly true. To an Israelite brought up in the dispensation of Law, there were set feasts at which the nation of Israel would go up to Jerusalem and worship the Lord. The means of worship was prescribed by the Law. The burnt offering, for example, was offered according to the regulations prescribed in Leviticus 1. While it is clear that Israelites could spontaneously offer oral praise from time to time, worship largely took the form of religious acts and observances.

In the NT, the ritual of the Law passed away. This was because the Lord Jesus promoted worship that did not focus on external forms or sacred locations. But although worship is now “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), it is still subject to the discipline of Scripture. Scripture governs worship: it tells us what to give thanks for, softens our hearts and kindles thoughts of praise. Discipline should not be confused with ritualism or formalism.

Perhaps Psalm 45 catches the balance best. It appears that the psalm is written by a guest at the wedding of a great warrior king. Fruitless attempts have been made to fit the psalm into the lives of Solomon or even Ahab. In truth, the psalm speaks of Christ, and the writer is enthralled with his subject: “My heart is inditing a good matter” (v1 KJV). Then he speaks about the effort he has put into the task of writing the psalm: “I speak of the things which I have made touching the king.” Had he not set aside time to compose the psalm and painstakingly “make” the composition, it would not have found its way into Holy Scripture. The discipline of the wordsmith and the joy of the wedding guest combine to create a great psalm of worship. Spontaneity and discipline combine in worship.