Introduction: Why corporate worship is important
We are living in a day when worship as a public act is being minimized by many believers, who think that they can get along quite well – thank you very much – without the church. I met a family one time that felt that all organized worship was wrong and resisted any invitation to go to church with us (or to any church), even though they professed to be followers of Christ. At another time, I talked to a fellow believer who told me, “I just don’t feel like church is for me right now.” In other cases, people flit from church to church and then eventually end up giving up and staying at home because they just “didn’t fit.” Some people don’t go to church, but protest that they are doing just fine because they watch the Hour of Power and Billy Graham on the TV.
The New Testament knows nothing of this attitude towards the church. It sees participation in the community of believers as essential to the faith. The author of Hebrews warned not to forsake the assembly of believers “as the manner of some is” – in light of the coming judgment (Heb. 10:24-5). In other words, worshipping with the church is a serious and indispensable thing for believers. What Paul says to Timothy in the text reinforces this emphasis.
In the next chapter, in 1 Timothy 3:14-15, Paul tells his son in the faith that he is writing these things to him (i.e. the contents of his letter previous to this) “that . . . you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (ESV). In other words, the instructions of Paul to Timothy had to do with the church. Hence, when we arrive at our text, we need to see them as addressing a situation in the gathered community of believers, the church. When Paul urges that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men” (v. 1), he is thinking not primarily of private prayer (though that is important), but of public prayer made in the church. The church is to pray and it is to pray for all people.
Similarly, in verses 8-10, Paul is addressing a situation in the Ephesian church. Of course, what Paul intended for the Ephesian church, he intended for all Christian churches – it was not only there that men should pray, but that “men pray everywhere;” that is, in every place there was a church.
What should be underlined here is that Paul is concerned about worship in the gathered community of believers. It is not just that worship is important, but that worship with other believers is important. Worship is not just a private act. It ought also to be a public act as well.
There are several reasons why it is this way. First, the apostle Peter says that when we are born again, our souls are “purified . . . in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren” (1 Pet. 1:22). In other words, when a Christian is made, he/she is made into a person who loves other believers. The apostle John agrees: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat [i.e. God] loveth him also that is begotten of him [i.e. other believers]” (1 Jn. 5:1). But you cannot love other believers and then be content to live in isolation from them. Thus, someone who is truly born again is going to seek out other believers, and the most natural context for this to take place is the church.
Second, the very nature of worship in some sense demands an audience – not so that we can turn the attention on ourselves but so that we can enjoy God together with others. In his book Desiring God, John Piper describes how C. S. Lewis found the commands to worship God a stumbling block to faith. Piper writes, “He did not see the point in all this; besides, it seemed to picture God as craving ‘for our worship like a vain woman who wants compliments.’” He then quotes Lewis at length who saw that his objection was predicated upon a false assumption of what worship really was:
But the most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything— strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise.… The world rings with praise— lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game.… My whole, more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value. I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.
To follow up on Lewis’ analogy here, I would add that the world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses to others, readers praising their favorite poet to others, and so on. When we are truly delighted with someone or something, praise overflows naturally to include others in its enjoyment. It is the wicked man who wants to horde the enjoyment for himself. The church is the place in which we not only together direct prayer and praise to God, but share in this experience with each other: “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19, ESV).
Third, we need the spiritual gifts of others. It is not for no reason that the Christian life is described as a warfare, and the church is the army with Christ at its head. But no army is ever made up of one person. Armies are made of many individuals, each with a position and a job without which the army would be far less able to wage war. Another analogy the Bible uses is the body. Paul reminds the Corinthians that the body is not just an arm or an eye. The body needs every part to function (1 Cor. 12). In the same way, we need the spiritual gifts of other believers. God by sovereignly distributing his gifts, and choosing not to give every gift to a single believer, is teaching us to rely on other believers in the journey to heaven. Even Paul felt like he would benefit from the spiritual gifts of other believers (Rom. 1:12). And again, the context in which this is most likely to take place is the church.
On the other hand, it is possible for believers to gather without worshiping God in the right way. Worship, because of sin, is not automatically going to happen in a way that pleases God, even in the context of the gathered church. This is so serious, that in the church of Corinth, when some in the church were abusing the Lord’s Supper, they died – and Paul interpreted their deaths as judgment from God (1 Cor. 11:28-31). Worship is so essential that God is ferociously determined that we get it right, and that is the reason Paul is so concerned about what was happening at the church in Ephesus, and was unwavering in his commitment to get it right. We ought to have the same concern. Our spiritual well-being depends upon worship functioning properly in the gathered community of believers.
Therefore, we need to hear Paul’s words today. Though this passage does not say everything about worship that we need to hear – it was directed to correct specific abuses in a specific church – nevertheless, this is a good place to start. Further, sin recycles itself, and so what happened at Ephesus in the first century can certainly happen again. We ought not only to heed the principles of proper worship but also to beware the dangers of sin in our worship. To that end, I want to consider the following three points: (1) What should NOT characterize the church at worship, (2) what SHOULD characterize the church at worship, and (3) why the church at worship should be characterized by these things and not by these other things.
What should NOT characterize the church at worship
1. Anger. In his words to Timothy, Paul deals with problems specific to men (v. 8) and then the problems specific to the women (v.9-10). Beginning with the men, Paul writes, “I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting.” “Lifting up . . . hands” was the typical way an orthodox Jew prayed, but Paul is probably not prescribing a specific form of prayer as to describe it in a vivid way. Rather, the emphasis of the passage is on the attitudes and actions surrounding prayer. Prayer is to be characterized by holiness and not by anger.
“Doubting” (KJV) is probably not the best translation. The ESV translates it with the word “quarreling.” Though we ought to pray in faith and not doubt God, that is not the issue here. The issue here had to do with the endless and angry arguments that the false teaching produced. In 6:3-5, Paul describes those who oppose the truth, which produced “questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth. . . .” Paul probably had this scenario in mind when he wrote 2:8. One of the reasons Paul wanted the false teachers silenced is because their teaching only produced angry men who quarreled instead of holy men who prayed.
You cannot worship God in anger. This is why Paul is constantly denouncing wrath and anger in believers: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 5:31-32). To the Philippians, he wrote, “Do all things without murmurings and disputings” (Phil. 2:14), and to the Colossians, “But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth” (3:8). Even in the case of opposing error, truth must be spoken in love: “But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient” (2 Tim. 2:23-24).
And Jesus said that it is not enough to take care of our own anger: if we have caused someone else to be angry with us, we must do what we can to be reconciled before we come and participate in worship (Mt. 5:23-24). Perhaps this is the reason Jesus put these words into the prayer he taught his disciples: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Mt. 6:12). It is kind of hard to be angry and bitter and quarrelsome with someone whom you have forgiven.
Unfortunately, even when there is not false-teaching to stoke the flames of contention, anger can still be a problem. And this is especially true with men! Anger is sometimes even promoted as a “manly” virtue. You stand up for yourself by fighting those who get in your way and exploding in anger when something doesn’t go your way.
The Lord’s Prayer makes it obvious why anger is so antithetical to prayer and worship. It is the contraction of all we profess: that we have without any merit or desert been forgiven freely by God through Christ. It is thus a complete betrayal of the message of the Gospel. Further, anger is antithetical to worship because is turns the attention away from God and to ourselves. Anger turns our gaze from the claims of Christ to our own claims and demands. It is therefore not just a contradiction to the message of vintage Christianity but to its very nature. Anger is a message and the message it speaks is that we deserve to be served, when our Lord came not be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many (Mt. 20:28). And the example of Christ shows us that anger isn’t manly at all. It is the sign of a lack of self-control, a man who might be physically strong but who is pathetically weak in his spirit.
Someone might ask, however, about Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:26, “Be ye angry, and sin not” – doesn’t this imply that anger is okay? Isn’t there such a thing as righteous anger? After all, wasn’t even Jesus angry? (Mark 3:5)
First, yes, there is a thing such as righteous anger. Sin ought to grieve and anger us. If it does not, it is because there is something wrong with us. We are to abhor that which is evil (Rom. 12:9). This is illustrated by Jesus in Mark 3:5 – it was the hardness of their heart that moved him to anger.
But we need to be careful here. Even righteous anger can develop into sinful wrath. I think that’s why Paul went on to say in Ephesians 4, “let not the sun go down upon your wrath; neither give place to the Devil.” Anger unrestrained – even if it begins as righteous anger – is like a bomb waiting to explode, and it puts us in danger of falling into the snare of the evil one.
It is not this kind of anger that Paul is talking about in our text however. It is the anger that comes from pointless disputes rooted in selfishness. A good way to distinguish between the two is to ask ourselves, “Why am I angry?” Is it because I have been inconvenienced, or because God has been sinned against? What is at the bottom of my anger: me or the glory of God?
2. Ostentation. Paul moves in verse 8 to 9 from dealing with the men to dealing with the women in the church. To the women, he says that they should “adorn themselves in modest apparel . . . not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array.” It is important to understand what Paul is confronting here. He is not saying that women – or men, for that matter – should always dress in bland, unattractive attire. What Paul opposed were excessive displays of wealth. The word for “costly” carried the idea of being extremely costly. The word is used in Mark 14:3-5 to describe the expensive ointment – basically a year’s wages – that the woman poured on Jesus’ head. It is said that at that time clothing could cost as much as 7000 denarii – about 19 years’ wages. This kind of ostentatious display is simply contrary to the spirit of the Christian faith. It really says that what one values are those things that make one admired by the world – gold, pearls, costly array. The Christian should live in such a way so that people see that their hope is not in this world (1 Pet. 3:15). Our wealth, and what we value, is in heaven, not in the things of the earth. What we value are those things that we will carry with us into heaven.
Paul is saying, then, that believing women should dress in a way that reflects their values. They should dress in a way that shows that they value “good works” (v.10) over “gold, pears, and costly array.” Peter says something similar: “Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price” (1 Pet. 3:3-4). Note that this passage shows that it is not the jewelry per se that Paul and Peter are inveighing against – if that were the case, Peter would be saying that women shouldn’t wear clothes at all! No, it is not jewelry or a certain hair-style that the apostles were concerned with, but with an attitude that manifested itself in the way one dressed.
The wealth of the church should not be reflected in what we wear or what we have but in who we are and what we do. That goes for men just as much as it does for women.
It is said that during the persecution under the Roman emperor Valerian, Lawrence the Roman church’s chief deacon was called before the emperor who told him that he was going to confiscate all the church’s property. Lawrence, who had known that Valerian would do this, had already given all the wealth of the church away. Nevertheless, he told the emperor that he would give him the money in three days’ time. At the end of three days, he brought the emperor to the church and led him into a room where were gathered all the poor, sick, orphans, and widows who were supported by the church, and told him, “Here are the treasures of the church.” Valerian, who had expected a treasure trove in gold, was furious. But Lawrence had demonstrated a great truth: the treasures of the church are not what the world values.
3. Immodesty. Not only should believing women avoid ostentation, but they should “adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control” (v. 9, ESV). The problem at Ephesus is that believing women were wearing not only expensive but seductive dress. Therefore, Paul calls on Timothy to put a stop to it.
Why is this important? It is not just that this is a problem of lust. That certainly is a problem, but it’s not the only reason Paul wants the Christian women to dress differently. It is because the way a woman dresses is a reflection of an attitude towards sex and marriage. Just as gold and pearls and costly array reveal where one places their heart and values, even so immodest dress reveals a cultural disdain for faithful, life-long, monogamous, Christ-honoring marriage.
In fact, in the ancient world, seductive dress was linked to marital unfaithfulness. One Biblical scholar has written, “The use of external adornments such as pearls, gold jewelry, hair styling and expensive, provocative clothing indicated two undesirable characteristics – material extravagance and marital infidelity.” The ancient world evidently recognized what our culture does not: that there are things a woman should not show; there are things about a woman’s body that ought to be kept between her and her husband.
Thus, it is not just another man’s heart that is at stake here, but the witness of the church to the institution of marriage. And if there has ever been a time where such a witness needs to be defended, it is now. There has never been a time in which marriage has come under such attack as it has today. And our culture reinforces its attitudes in the standards of dress – or lack thereof. When believing women wear seductive dress because “that’s the way girls dress these days” they are not being faithful to the mission of the church in being a witness to holiness of heart and the institution of marriage.
However, there are two dangers we need to avoid when it comes to the issue of modesty and clothing. One is that men are merely victims when it comes to lust, and that therefore women ought to cover up everything! It is claimed that “men just can’t help themselves” and that therefore a woman is completely in the wrong whenever she wears anything form-fitting. This is certainly the wrong approach to the solution, since both for men and women, sin is a choice. Ultimately, we are not victims – we choose to sin. This is just as true when it comes to lust as it is for any other sin. Often, it simply isn’t the woman’s dress at all that is the problem anyway – it’s the heart of the man that is the problem. Until that is taken care of, the problem isn’t going to go away even if a woman dresses modestly. Peter speaks of those who have “eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin” (2 Pet. 2:14). Such individuals are not going to be stopped by putting a woman in a burqa.
Another danger is found at the opposite extreme. In the recognition that men are responsible for the lust in their heart, not the woman in the plunging neckline, some people go to the other end of the spectrum, and make it sound like a woman shouldn’t be held accountable to any standard of dress. This also is wrong, simply because a woman who dresses immodestly is responsible for the lust in other men’s hearts. She is not responsible in the same way as the man is. He is the ultimate offender. But the immodestly dressed woman has willingly become an accomplice in another man’s sin. The man who drives the getaway car may not have robbed the bank, but the bank would not have been robbed without him. The person who places a chocolate cake in front of a person who loves chocolate cake but who is on a diet is partly responsible for causing that person to eat something they shouldn’t. In the same way, a woman who dresses immodestly in public is partly responsible for the man who has looked at her and is now struggling with lust.
Anger, ostentation, and immodesty are wrong, and should never characterize the church. And they are serious issues because worship is serious. Our culture may not see any of these matters as a big deal. But then again, the church is not meant to reflect the culture, we are meant to be counter-cultural and to reflect God to the world. What then should characterize the church?
What should characterize the church at worship
1. Prayer. Though prayer has never been the main point of the passage, the fact that prayer is always in the background demonstrates that it is absolutely essential to the life of the church (v.1-2, 8). Jesus called the temple “a house of prayer.” Now the church is the temple of God, and therefore it is fitting that is should be called the house of prayer.
When you look into the book of Acts, you will see that prayer characterized the early church. They prayed before the day of Pentecost, they prayed during times of persecution, they prayed when Peter was in prison, they prayed when seeking guidance and direction, and on and on. The narrative makes it clear that the church was blessed precisely because the church was a praying church. When the need for deacons appeared for the first time, Peter said that the church needed to appoint men other than the apostles because they needed to give themselves to the word of God and to prayer (Acts 6:4). Jesus told the apostles to pray in his name: “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (Jn. 16:13). James tells us that the “effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (Jm. 5:16).
What is especially interesting about the Acts passages is that the prayers that are highlighted as changing the course of church history are not private prayers. They are the prayers of the gathered church. Which tells me that God especially blesses through the prayers of believers when they are gathered together. This has been true during almost every revival of religion that has taken place. If prayer does not precede it, it always accompanies it. Thus, we should never look on prayer as being an accoutrement of worship, but as belonging to the very heart of it. If you are not praying, you are not worshiping.
2. Peace. If anger and arguing are not to characterize the church, then peace ought to characterize the church. Those who are at peace with God ought to be at peace with one another. Harmony, unity, love, forgiveness, and longsuffering are the marks of the church.
3. Piety. Men are to pray with “holy hands,” and women are to “profess godliness” and then to demonstrate their profession with good works. Grace does not come through good works, but good works do come from grace. Therefore, by the grace of God, the church is a factory of good works. This piety starts at home (1 Tim. 5:4), extends to our work (6:1,2), and reaches out to those inside and outside the church (5:10; 6:18).
Why the church at worship should be characterized by these things: Witness
Paul’s concern to avoid these particular behaviors and to inculcate the others is rooted in the same concern behind verse 2: that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. In other words, Paul’s concern is for the witness of the church. You can see this clearly by comparing verse 9,10 with 1 Peter 3:1-4. In that text, the whole purpose for the proper adornment of the wife was so that their unbelieving husbands “may be won [to the gospel] without a word by the conduct of their wives” (ver. 1, ESV).
I think it’s important to note that in the early church, they expected their gatherings to be evangelistic (1 Cor. 14:24-25). The worship of the gathered church is not meant to be some secret ceremony veiled from the lost. Rather, it ought to be a part of our light to the world. Thus, it really matters what attitudes we bring to corporate worship. If we are angry, we are inevitably going to drive the lost away, but if we are at peace with one another, the world will take note.
Also, what message do we take to the world when we drape ourselves in the riches of the world? We certainly aren’t pointing people to Jesus. How do we show to the world that our treasure is Jesus? Instead of hording wealth, we give it. Instead of displaying the wealth of the world, we let our light so shine that men may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Mt. 5:16).
In the end, these things that Paul tells us to avoid are characteristic of lost men, and what we are to inculcate are not. That makes it hard, because it means we are being called to go against wind and tide. But the church can never be a witness unless it is counter-cultural. It will never truly wave the banner of the gospel high unless it follows the worship of Vintage Christianity. To that end, may we pray that God will give us the grace to be faithful and to worship him acceptably with reverence and godly fear (Heb. 12:28).
Desiring God (2003), p. 21,22.
 Mounce, The Pastoral Epistles, WBC, p.115.
 Qtd. In Mounce, p. 104.