At New City Church Mother’s Day came and went without a single mention of mothers in our worship service. Father’s Day also came and went without honoring fathers. This Sunday is July 3 and we will not mention Independence Day. As a church we hold to the historic Christian sexual ethic. This includes what is expressed in The Didache 2:2—written, by the way, in the first century: “you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide”. As a church, however, we did not publicly celebrate the overturning of Roe v. Wade last Sunday. We don’t celebrate the outcome of elections—except the one in which God in Christ through his Spirit voted. We celebrate every single baptism, which is the outcome of that election! We don’t have an American flag in our auditorium. We don’t sing “God Bless America”. We don’t honor veterans or frontline workers. We don’t honor those who serve in the nursery, who play instruments or sing, who run audio / visual equipment during our services. We don’t honor elders or deacons in our gathered assembly.
The reason is quite simple and it has nothing to do with not actually honoring those worthy of honor. Our worship services last about 100 minutes. In a given week there are 10,080 minutes, which means we have 9,980 minutes to thank our mothers and fathers, to thank veterans who served, to recognize the service of those who take care of our babies so their mothers and fathers can participate more freely in the worship service. Since we have 9,980 minutes to honor our mothers, why would we take a single one of those 100 minutes spent worshiping our Lord Jesus together to honor someone other than Jesus?
We want to honor those worthy of honor. Scripture instructs us to honor people. Romans 12:10 tells us to outdo one another in showing honor. Romans 13:7 says to give honor to whom honor is due. Ephesians 6:2 reminds us we must honor our father and mother. When Paul sent Epaphroditus to Philippi he instructed the Philippians in Philippians 2:29 to honor men like him. In 1 Timothy 5:3 widows are to be honored. In 1 Timothy 5:17 elders who rule well are to be double-honored. In Hebrews 13:4 we are told to honor marriage. First Peter 2:17 tells us to honor everyone in general and the emperor in particular.
There is something unique about the gathered assembly that restricts who gets honored in the assembly. In theology when we speak of the church functioning in its capacity as a church, we sometimes use the Latin word “qua”, as in “the church qua church”. We can refer to a church in all sorts of ways. Such-and-such a church is having a VBS this summer. This Other Church just called a new elder. The Church Down the Street is remodeling its auditorium. None of these things refers to the church qua church. When we refer to a church in its capacity as a church we are really referring to what makes a church a church. We’ve explored this topic a number of times but it boils down to this: a church is being its truest self when it assembles in the name of the Lord Jesus for worship. In other words, church qua church is the church in its gathered assembly to worship the Lord.
We see the importance of this in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. After writing about the offices of overseer and deacon, he tells Timothy the reason he’s giving these instructions.
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, 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.1 Timothy 3:14–15 ESV
Paul is indicating that his instructions are for the church qua church. When the church is assembling in the name of the Lord Jesus and Jesus is present in his fullness, this letter instructs him how the church ought to function. Not all of the teaching in the letter is directly applicable to the gathered assembly, but the instructions up to this point apply to the gathered assembly. This is how we make sense of Paul’s statement that he does not allow women to teach, yet Acts clearly tells us Priscilla taught Apollos “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). The New Testament is clear that we must serve according to our giftedness, and spiritual gifts are neither pink nor blue. The gathered assembly is a unique thing, however.
When the church gathers as the church, a unique thing happens: the Lord Jesus is present in his fullness. As we’ve explored a number of times, we are the whole church when we assemble in the name of Jesus. (For a more detailed explanation, see this article.) While Jesus declared that where two or more are gathered in his name he is present in a unique and powerful way, he is clearly referring to the gathered assembly. The context of that statement is dealing with church discipline. He says in Matthew 18:15–20 that the final step of church discipline is bringing the matter before the whole church and the reason the “binding and loosing” has power is his declaration in verse 20: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” The gathered assembly is uniquely church. It is church qua church.
Because of the particular importance of the gathered assembly it must be the place and time in which only Jesus is honored. The Lord Jesus enters into our presence in his assembly and we gather to worship him, to honor him—and him alone. It is simply unthinkable that we would dedicate any portion of our corporate worship to honor someone other than Jesus.
It is particularly unthinkable that we would honor or celebrate our nation in the gathered assembly. The entire book of Revelation is a warning against worshiping empire and power. Whether it’s the fall of Babylon and her excessive wealth and immorality or the beast who embodies military power and conquest, praising one’s nation in the assembly where Jesus is present is unthinkable. In Revelation the dragon represents Satan, the evil one. In one of John’s visions he sees a beast rising out of the chaos of the sea. The beast stands for empire. Notice who John says the people worship when they praise the beast for its military power:
And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”Revelation 13:4 ESV
The way in which the beast was worshiped was praise and honor for its power: who is like the beast? Who can fight against the beast? The questions are rhetorical: no one. This is why John says “the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast” (Revelation 13:3). Beasts come and go yet all cause people to worship power, which is the spirit of antichrist. These various manifestations of the beast control entire economies (Revelation 13:15–17). Separate and distinct from those who worship the beast, however, is that great multitude that cannot be counted.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”Revelation 7:9–12 ESV
Here John sees a vision of the holy catholic church—the church of Jesus Christ in its entirety. In this, the gathered assembly of all God’s people throughout time, they assemble together to praise and honor Jesus. They worship God in Trinity. They proclaim honor to the Lord forever. When we assemble together, that is, when we are the church qua church, we are assembled across space and time with that final assembly of God’s people. Why would we ever honor someone or something they are not also honoring? Hebrews tells us when we assemble together God is present in our assembly, along with all those who have gone before us (see Hebrews 12:18–24). What are the saints in heaven doing right now? They are worshiping Jesus. When we assemble together on Sunday mornings, why would ever do something they themselves would not—and even could not—do?
We live in 21st-century America, which means honoring “the emperor” is different from what it was when Peter instructed Christians to do so. Go to that Fourth of July parade. Observe Memorial Day. Thank veterans who have served our nation. By all means honor your fathers and your mothers. Celebrate Juneteenth and take your sweetheart out for Valentine’s Day. Praise God for sound judicial decisions and the election of wise and capable leaders. These things, however, are not for the gathered assembly. Rather than celebrating or observing national holidays, we celebrate Easter and Christmas. We observe Lent and Advent. We praise God on Pentecost for building his church. The difference is this: when we assemble as his people on Sunday mornings, we only honor Jesus. There’s plenty of week left to honor those worthy of honor, but when Jesus shows up on Sunday mornings, he is the Guest of Honor, and we worship him and only him.