According to James Bannerman, public worship is “the external apparatus which [God] has established for the ordinary conveyance of grace to the body of believers from his Spirit, and which is fitted for their spiritual edification and growth in grace.” (p339)
What then are the essential parts of public worship? Bannerman follows the Westminster Confession (21:3, 5) and names four: prayer, the reading and preaching of the Word, singing of psalms, and the sacraments (p344).
But what is so special about the four elements of public worship? Bannerman’s answer extends over a couple of pages (p346-347).
“All the parts of the public worship of the church are characterised by this peculiarity [unique feature], that as means of grace they either cannot be enjoyed and used at all by Christians individually, or not enjoyed and used to the same gracious effect.
“All the elements of worship … are parts of a public ordinance, and not of a private one. They belong to the body of believers collectively, and not individually. They are to be enjoyed as means of grace, not by Christians separately, but by Christians in their church state, and in communion with one another.
“No doubt, with respect to some of them, they may be used by individuals apart and alone, and without respect to their being participated in by others. There is private prayer as well as public prayer. There may be solitary praise addressed to God from the closet, as well as jointly from the great congregation in the sanctuary. There are such things as private communion and private baptism, distinct from the public celebration of those ordinances.
“But even in respect to those parts of public and social worship which may be used – or misused – in private, and by individuals apart from the society of believers, it is still true that they do not carry with them the same blessing in private as in their public use. They belong, in their character as parts of public worship, to the church as a body, and not to the individual members of the church as apart from the rest; and even where the individual use of these ordinances is not impossible or unlawful, but the reverse, they are not used to the same gracious effect, nor have they the same gracious influence, as in the case of the social and joint employment of them.
“Prayer is an ordinance of a private kind, as well as of a public; but there is a promise of a more abundant answer and a more effectual blessing when ‘two or three shall agree together to ask anything of God,’ than when they ask apart.
“The reading of the Word, too, is an ordinance meant for the closet as well as for the sanctuary; but in the former case there is no such special and effectual promise as that which declares in regard to the latter, that ‘where two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, there he will be in the midst of them.’
“The ordinance of communion, as its very name imports, is a social and public ordinance, and to the reverse; and the disciple of Christ has a peculiar right to look for grace in company with the other disciples when they meet together at their Master’s table, which those have not who unlawfully and presumptuously change the public into a private ordinance, and partake of private communions.
“In short, the blessing upon ordinances is but half a blessing when enjoyed alone, even in those cases when the ordinance may be used by the Christian apart from others; while there is no blessing at all promised to the unlawful use of public ordinances in a private manner, in the case where they admit of no such private appropriation. Either they cannot be enjoyed at all in their character as means of grace except socially, or else they cannot be enjoyed to the same gracious effect.
“All the parts of church worship belong in a peculiar and emphatic sense to the church, and they are made effectual by the presence and Spirit of Christ, as his instruments for building up and strengthening the collective body of believers in a manner and to an extent unknown in the case of private and solitary worship.
“The outward provision which Christ has made for social Christianity, as embodied and realised in the communion of the church, is richer in grace and more abundant in blessing by far than the provision made for individual Christianity, as embodied and realised in separate believers. The positive institutions of church worship, designed for Christians associated in a church state, carry with them a virtue unknown in the case of Christians individually.”
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This turns upside down the prevailing culture in the contemporary church which gives higher priority to personal religion than to corporate religion. As long as we can still have our quiet times, and worship God in our own homes, can’t we get by, at least temporarily, without the public, corporate ordinances?
Not really, says Bannerman. He moves on to discuss those who deny the existence or downplay the importance of the public ordinances.
“The fundamental principle of all such theories is that the inward light or provision of grace bestowed upon the individual, supersedes the use or necessity of any outward provision of ordinances in the church; that the Spirit of God given to each personally supplies the want of external institutions and positive rites …” (p348)
Four things, says Bannerman, expose the fallacy of this way of thinking.
1. Christ instituted the various ordinances, without ever indicating that they “should afterwards cease; or that there was a time coming when they were to be abolished as no longer of authority or for edification in the church. … It cannot be shown that any higher and more gracious dispensation … was foretold as about to come and supersede [what Christ has instituted]” (p349).
2. These ordinances belong to the visible church, and Christ has promised that the powers of evil will not prevail against it. “And as belonging essentially to the due administration of [the visible church], and forming a part of it, the outward dispensation of ordinances and worship in the church shall never fail” (p350).
3. There is no indication that at any future time the use and purposes of these ordinances would be unnecessary, and might cease. In fact these ordinances will not have completely accomplished their end until the consummation of all things, as Paul expressly says in Ephesians 4:11-13. So until the last day, we have Christ’s warrant that the public ordinances shall continue to be administered (p350).
4. In fact, “there are express testimonies in the Word of God to the fact that the positive institutions and outward ordinances of the Christian church were each and all designed to be permanent, and not to be superseded or done away” (p351).
In short, the ordinances “are not to be modified into something more spiritual, or give place to any other, until the church itself is transplanted into glory” (p351).
“Dwelling on the earth, and conversant with the creatures of the earth, the church has its outward ordinances and visible signs as well as its inward and spiritual ministrations. Through the channel of these outward and positive ordinances the Spirit of God is poured … upon the hearts of his people – a double power, as it were, embracing both the spiritual and the sensible [sense-able], so as to work mightily for the renewal and sanctification both of body and spirit in man. The Spirit of God conveyed through the outward ordinances of Christ is the fitting counterpart adapted to the soul enshrined, as it at present is, in the flesh. It is both a spiritual and an outward influence, appropriate and fitted to the combination of the spiritual and the outward in man. And the twofold and joint influence of the Spirit and the fleshly ordinance shall continue to work for the perfecting of the church, until [the last day]” (p351).
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James Bannerman, The Church of Christ. First published 1869. Excerpts from the chapter titled ‘The Divine Origin, Permanent Obligation, and Legitimate Parts of Public Worship.’ Page references to the single-volume Banner of Truth edition, 2015.