Whose Day Is It? The Case for Attending Public Worship Twice on the Lord’s Day
There are many good practical reasons why we should attend the worship service twice on the Lord’s Day. For one thing, God has equipped us with the ability to hear in order to speak to us. Thus Westminster divine Thomas Case (1598-1682) correctly asserts that “we should take all opportunities of hearing, because God hath given us our hearing to that very purpose; He that made the eare, shall not he be heard?”1 Case adds that God does not merely impose a duty upon us to attend the preaching of the Word, but He does so for our benefit or advantage. This benefit includes the initial working of grace in our lives (Jas 1:18); the increasing of grace (Eph. 4:12); the bringing of comfort, joy and hope (Rom. 15:4); and the blessedness or happiness that comes to us from God’s communication (Prov. 8:34).2 If it is wise to seek your own happiness, then that is argument enough for a compulsory attendance at church twice on the Lord’s Day.
It is, however, an indication of the malaise that infects the modern church that most professed Christians in our society attend only one worship service per week. Sometimes a second service is converted into a “youth service” or an opportunity to show a video, but these are not by any means biblical worship services. It seems that the norm is to increasingly spend only an hour or so in the morning worshiping the Lord and then spend the rest of the day in recreation. If you care to challenge those who only attend one service, the chances are that they will tell you that the Bible does not require two services. This is supposed to put an end of the conversation. But is it true that the Bible only requires us to attend one service on the Lord’s Day? Have we discharged our duty having “gone to church” once? In this first part of the article we will consider that we must attend public worship services twice because God speaks to us there. In next month’s article we will evaluate biblical and confessional support for the imperative to worship whenever called to do so by the session of the church.
We must Attend Public Worship, because God Speaks to Us There
When Paul urges Timothy to be instant in preaching in and out of season, he assumes that there will be hearers to hear that preaching (2 Tim. 4:1-9). Just as Timothy must preach the Gospel, so too the congregation must attend the preaching of the Word of God. While it is true that much preaching happens outside the walls of the church as the Gospel is brought to unbelievers, preaching aimed at the salvation of sinners occurs within the context of the Sabbath worship services also. Strangers, covenant children, backsliders and hypocrites need to hear the gospel message as urgently as those who have never darkened the doorway of the church meeting (1 Cor. 14:23). We can perhaps compare the New Testament temple worship where God speaks with the foreshadowing of the Old Testament. In Old Testament days, the Lord spoke from above the mercy seat to His people (Ex. 25:22) and the mercy seat was in the temple. God still speaks to His people in His temple.
Furthermore, it is in the gathered worship of the people or temple of God that God speaks to build up His people to a mature faith, for that is where the Lord opens the Scriptures for our edification. It cannot be denied by any true believer that these Scriptures are to remain the only rule of our faith and life – the way of salvation and duty is found in Scripture alone. The great Apostle Paul made this quite clear for us in his second letter to his protégée Timothy:
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:14-17
Several Key Aspects
Paul underscores several important matters in this advice to Timothy. Firstly it is initially the Old Testament that Paul says is able to make one wise unto salvation, and it is a wisdom that points to Christ as the way of salvation through faith. Therefore, it behoves the Christian to study the Old Testament. Secondly, it is the entire Scripture that must be studied, because “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness”. To limit your Bible knowledge and study to just some parts of the Scriptures or to mainly focus on the New Testament is contrary to God’s wisdom, because “all Scripture” is profitable for the believer. Equally it is all Scripture which makes the man of God adequate and therefore mature; so that he may live a life pleasing to God. Any Christian who does not desire to seek God’s will in all Scripture is plainly telling God that His advice through Paul to Timothy was erroneous. However, there is another false premise that many bring to the Scriptures at this point, for there are those who would conclude that they can study “all Scripture” on their own and they do not really need to go to Church twice on Sunday to hear the preaching of the Word of God.
Such an attitude shows an arrogant disregard for the purposes and provision of God. In the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the great inspired apostle describes how Christ ascended into heaven and then distributed gifts to the Church for the very purpose of building up the Church and maturing its members. These gifts were especially church officers who had a preaching function:
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-12
Today we only have pastors and teachers, the former extraordinary offices and officers now being ceased, but the importance of the teaching office has not been diminished in any way. The preacher brings the nourishment of the Word of God to the congregation of the Lord’s people. To seek to undermine or devalue the importance of the preaching office is, therefore, the height of arrogance. In the words of the great French Reformer, John Calvin:
Wherefore, let us not on our part decline obediently to embrace the doctrine of salvation, delivered by his command and mouth; because, although the power of God is not confined to external means, he has, however, confined us to his ordinary method of teaching, which method, when fanatics refuse to observe, they entangle themselves in many fatal snares.
Not Doing this is Destroying the Church
Such is the importance of what God has ordained as the means of teaching His Church that a person who seeks to undermine God’s government really plans the destruction of the Church:
Whoever, therefore, studies to abolish this order and kind of government of which we speak, or disparages it as of minor importance, plots the devastation, or rather the ruin and destruction, of the Church.
In Calvin’s view, therefore, to undermine the significance of the preaching office is to plot the destruction of the church itself. God would condescend to speak to us in the preaching of the Word twice on the Lord’s Day, then surely that is a great blessing and to suggest that one of those opportunities to hear that Word is superfluous comes awfully close to plotting the demise of the Church. Surely the Church needs that preached Word to survive and prosper.
The Pattern Established by Christ
The great preaching model was, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ who began His ministry by preaching (Matthew 4:17), and when He commissioned His disciples, and the then future New Testament church, he instructed them:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.Matthew 28:19
Not surprisingly, in line with the pattern established by Christ, the apostle Paul links salvation to preaching in Romans 10:13-17.
‘Whoever will call on the Name of the Lord will be saved’. How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are feet of those who bring good news of good things!’ However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.
Preaching brings the “word of Christ”. The Lord Jesus Christ has ordained teaching by appointed office-bearers as the means of the salvation of His elect through His Word. Preachers, as the apostle puts it (1 Cor. 4:1), are “the stewards of God”. Thus, it is an unwise person indeed who would neglect attendance at the place which God Himself has decreed from heaven will be the location where His living voice is to be heard in a manner intended to save and mature His people. For the Christian whose goal is eternal life, to fail to attend the preaching of the Word is like a swimmer intent on entering Olympic competition who never climbs into a swimming pool, for initial conversion does not constitute the whole of salvation.
As we have already noted, the Apostle James has a pertinent instruction for us:
In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. James 1:18-19
James gives a stern and unambiguous command to his readers, and therefore to us. Here is a plain example in the Scriptures where the Holy Spirit requires us to attend the preaching of the Word of God. There is a consensus among sane commentators that it is the Word preached that we are to be “quick to hear”.3 Westminster divine Thomas Case’s sermon on this text (supported by 2 Tim. 4) avers that it supports an argument to attend preaching on the mornings of other days of the week as well as the Lord’s Day:
It is the Ministers duty to be ready to preach in season & out of season (2 Timothy 4:1-2); that is, on ordinary and extraordinary seasons of preaching the Gospel, on the Lord’s day, and on our days, & therefore surely it is the peoples duty to hear in season and out of season. That Command which enjoins preaching, doth of necessity imply hearing also ... If the Preacher be in his place, and you not in yours, it will be but an uncomfortable account for you in the day of Christ.4
Definitely Compulsory Attendance on Sunday!
Whatever you think of the requirement to attend on other days of the week, Case is on firm ground when He uses the command of the Scripture text to press for compulsory attendance at the preaching services of the Lord’s Day.
In support of the vital nature of gospel proclamation, John Stott, in his important book on preaching, Between Two Worlds, stresses that in Old Testament times “God consistently hinged the welfare of his people on their listening to his voice, believing his promises and obeying his commands”.5 Stott emphasises that the same is true for New Testament times: “(I)t is only by humble and obedient listening to his voice that the Church can grow into maturity, serve the world and glorify its Lord”.6
The gathering together to hear this Word of God preached has always been a vital part of church life from Old Testament times. Moses instructed the priests to gather the people and recount the Law to them (Deut. 31:9-13); the priests were also to explain the law to the congregation (Neh. 8:1-8). The record of Acts 20:7 illustrates how early Christian worship on the first day of the week involved communion and preaching. Thus Paul’s instruction to Timothy is to give himself to preaching and teaching and the public reading of the Scriptures (1 Tim. 4:14). This is hardly an adjunct to his ministry but the very heart of it.
The all-encompassing need to gather for worship in the place where God speaks is sewn into the very fabric of the early church; so that the writer to the Hebrews warns Christians not to stop assembling together. In context this “gathering together” is at least in part for the hearing of the Word of God:
Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Hebrews 10:23-31
Often when verse 25 is appealed to, the context is ignored, but the wider context includes at least these ideas: To not gather together is to lead to “willful sin” (v. 26); it is to make likely a “despising of the Law” (v. 28); it is associated with “trampling the blood of Christ underfoot” and it may contribute to one “falling into the hands of the living God” (v. 31). The willful sin, therefore, is likely apostasy including failure to attend the public worship of the church and failure to afford practical help to one’s brethren in Christ. The “gathering together” should not, therefore, be limited to the purpose of mutual edification, but is intended to take place in order to receive the teaching of the pastoral preaching ministry so that this common strengthening of one another can occur. The simple principle is that if we are to nourish others, we too must first receive food ourselves.
This is such a serious matter that we need to ask whether attending one service on Sunday is really living according to the spirit of true Christian commitment? The whole tenor of the teaching of the writer to the Hebrews, at this point, is aimed at the heart of the non-attender. If the attitude is that “I only need to attend once to satisfy my obligations to others and to receive all I need from the Lord”, a loud statement is being made. Such a person, for one thing, is really telling the session of elders and those committed Christians who gather twice for worship that they are doing something unnecessary. Equally, he is telling the Pastor that his many hours in the study in preparation for bringing the Word of God to the Lord’s people were really quite superfluous. Furthermore, such an attitude betrays an obvious contempt for God Himself, who ordained the preaching of the Word as the means of grace.
There’s No Choice Here!
Too often discussions and essays that deal with the importance of the second service on the Lord’s Day present the options as good ideas to be considered and evaluated as if the individual Christian has a choice in the matter. This approach downplays the terrible danger the non-attender is really in and inadvertently undermines the divine imperative that shouts at us from Scripture that we must, out of honour to our God, attend all services of the church where He promises to be present.
After all, it is the common confession of the church that God is present with His gathered people. Our Lord asserts in Matt. 18: 20: “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst”. Even if you take this for any gathering or in the context of church discipline, it must still surely apply to the gathered worship of the church on the Lord’s Day. Calvin concludes from this verse:
For whoever either disregards the holy assemblies, or separates himself from brethren, and takes little interest in the cultivation of unity, by this alone makes it evident that he sets no value on the presence of Christ.
God promised to be present with His people in the Old Testament; surely nothing has changed in the New in this regard:
You shall make an altar of earth for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you. Exodus 20:24
That Christ is present with His New Testament church is affirmed by John’s record in the book of Revelation: “and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash” (Rev. 1:13). Matthew Henry comments on this verse:
He saw a representation of the Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of the golden candlesticks; for he has promised to be with his churches always to the end of the world, filling them with light, and life, and love, for he is the very animating informing soul of the church.
When Absence is an Insult!
Christ is present with His church and surely we must be with Him whenever He manifests Himself on the Lord’s Day in the assembly of His people! Were the Prime Minister to ask Labour Party members to attend a function where she intended to explain the party policy for the next election, she would be affronted if the member declined to attend. How much greater an insult it is to fail to come into the presence of God when He promises to speak to you concerning your eternal wellbeing!!
Moreover, our attendance or nonattendance at worship is a reflection of our heart attitude towards the object of God’s great love. He loved the Church so much that He gave His only begotten Son to die for her (Jn. 3:16), as Paul reiterates to the Ephesians: “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). If we truly love Christ will we not also love the body with the same love, and therefore seek to spend as much time as is possible with the bride of Christ? Related to this is the whole notion of body life. If the body manifests itself most properly in worship, how can that worship be complete if members of the body are absent from the Sabbath meetings (Rom. 12:4-8)? The requirement to worship the Lord twice also undercuts the practice of having Sunday school for children at the same time as Sabbath worship, a custom that also takes adult teachers away from the service. It is often thought that children get nothing out of the sermon because it is too complicated for them, and yet when we see people at worship in the Old and New Testament we see them worshipping and hearing as adults and children together. God’s wisdom is to be preferred to human theories.
The view that we are to attend all the worship services called by the church on the Lord’s Day is something taken for granted by our Reformed forebears. The church order agreed upon by the famous Synod of Dort, for example, puts the matter simply: “The consistory (Session of elders) shall call the congregation together for worship twice on the Lord’s Day (Article 52. Worship Services)”. Did the Synod not believe that it had biblical warrant to require this double attendance, then this article would never have become part of the Dutch church order. The Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 22 is equally emphatic:
Meetings for Worship not to be Neglected
As many as spurn such meetings and stay away from them, despise true religion, and are to be urged by the pastors and godly magistrates to abstain from stubbornly absenting themselves from sacred assemblies.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), Chapter 21, Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day has this to say:
but God is to be worshiped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself; so, more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or wilfully to be neglected, or forsaken, when God, by his Word or providence, calleth thereunto (emphasis added).7
The Authority of the Elders
Notice that it is not one public assembly that is “not carelessly or wilfully to be neglected, or forsaken”, but public assemblies. That God calls us by His Word to worship Him publicly cannot be disputed, but the precise times of worship are left to the discretion of the ruling elders. The question of the authority of the elders is crucial at this point, because God calls us to worship through the order established in the church, and therefore through the delegated authority of the elders appointed by Christ. Consider what the New Testament teaches concerning the authority of the elders and the responsibility of the congregation to respond. Elders who call the congregation to worship in the Lord’s name, are to “take care of the church of God” (2 Tim. 3:5); elders are to be appreciated (1 Thess. 5:12); elders are to be esteemed highly (1 Thess. 5:13); elders are to be imitated (Heb. 13:7); and finally, elders are to be obeyed (Heb. 13:17):
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
To what degree, however, are we to obey the elders? The elders can only require of us what can be supported by Scripture. They cannot, for example, require you to never take a vacation, or demand that you do not possess a television. But the Lord has left the circumstances of church worship, including the times of gathering on the Lord’s Day, to the elders. The great principle is found in 1 Cor. 14: 40: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” The setting of worship times is a task of pastoral oversight and this oversight belongs to the “overseers” who are to “take care of the church of God” (2 Tim. 3:5). Therefore, when the elders set the times and call us to worship, we are obliged to obey them and come and worship the Lord. So God calls us by His Word through His elders, whom He has appointed to govern the church. If the elders can be disobeyed in such a matter as the call to attend worship, why would any of their other demands need to be obeyed? This is a thoroughly biblical reason for not only why we should, but why we must attend the two church services of the Lord’s Day. Either the elders have the duty to settle two services for the Lord’s Day or they have not. If they have, then we must attend. If they have not, then they are unlawfully establishing a second service and are therefore sinning against God if they require the attendance of the congregation as a duty.
The Lord’s Providence in this
The WCF also closely relates the call of providence to attend worship to obedience to the Word of God. In the Lord’s Providence, we are called to public worship by the elders twice on the Lord’s Day, so in this second way, the WCF supports the requirement to attend two services on the Lord’s Day. In its eighth section, the Confession adds that the whole Lord’s Day is to be “taken up ... in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” The implication is clear: public worship on the Lord’s Day is an imperative, not an option. The Directory for the Publick Worship of God (DPW), a companion document produced by the Westminster Assembly, likewise assumes that everyone will be at both worship services.8 The DPW requires: “that all the people meet so timely for publick worship, that the whole congregation may be present at the beginning, and with one heart solemnly join together in all parts of the publick worship, and not depart till after the blessing (Of the Sanctification of the Lord’s Day)”. (emphasis added); and that between the “publick worship” services they are to perform works of piety, necessity and charity only. The whole congregation was expected to be at worship, which involved meeting twice, so none could be exempt in the afternoon on the basis that they had attended in the morning. They were still part of the congregation of God’s people and were expected to act as such. That it was considered the norm for the elders to require two worship services is confirmed in the DPW section, Concerning the Observation of days of Publick thanksgiving. Even on those days, which were not the Lord’s Day, there were to be two public gatherings for worship.
Twice a Sunday
Neither should it be assumed that our Reformed fathers were arbitrary in establishing two worship services on Sunday. They saw a pattern in Scripture where worship was offered to the Lord in both the morning and evening:
Behold, I am about to build a house for the name of the LORD my God, dedicating it to Him, to burn fragrant incense before Him and to set out the showbread continually, and to offer burnt offerings morning and evening, on sabbaths and on new moons and on the appointed feasts of the LORD our God, this being required forever in Israel. 2 Chronicles 2:4
It was the same pattern which was appropriated by the New Testament church. When Paul is preaching in the evening on the Lord’s Day as it is recorded in Acts 20, we can assume with commentator Matthew Henry that Paul would also have preached in the morning. We can see the great wisdom of the morning and evening sacrifice pattern for our personal devotions. To start the day with the incense of prayer and the sacrifice of praise and to close it in the same way is a faithful acknowledgment of our daily need to worship and praise our God, and of our constant reliance upon His means of grace. Should not such a pattern be a part of the one Sabbath day that is ours in the New Covenant for public worship? The Church, then, was being eminently biblical in imposing the same order for the public worship of the Lord’s people.
Furthermore, we are obligated to make the Sabbath our delight, and not pursue our own desires on the Sabbath Day. Isaiah 58:13 is another proof text for WCF 21:8.9 The WCF interprets this text to mean that we are to take up the whole day with worship and acts of piety, necessity and charity. Specifically we are to be taken up with “the publick and private exercises of his worship ... (emphasis added)” Not one public exercise only but the public and private exercises. If there is a public exercise of worship, then the WCF says we are required to be part of that. We must, therefore, attend both worship services. This was something undisputed by the predecessors to the Westminster Assembly and the Westminster divines themselves, because they saw it in Scripture.
Public Worship is Where God is
William Perkins (1558-1602) was one of England’s most important Protestant theologians and teacher of many of the Westminster divines at Great St Andrews’, Cambridge. Discussing attendance at preaching, Perkins notes:
The hearer must be in hearing, see himself in the presence of God. “Now therefore (saith Cornelius to Peter, Act. 10:33) are we all present before God to heare all things commanded thee of God.” The reason is, because God is always in the congregation where the word is preached.10
William Ames (1576-1633), another important and influential early English Puritan, writes on the duties of the Sabbath Day:
Exercises of publike worship in a Church wel constituted, and enjoying her libertie, ought to be held both before and after noone, Ibid. Psa. 92:1. Acts 20:7. And where solemne meetings are wanting, there every occasion to be laid holdone (hold on), to make up that defect as much as may be, Acts 16:13.11
The Westminster divines in their other writings were also without question devoted to the importance of the Lord’s Day and held to the necessity of attending both services. In a work warmly commended by John Owen and Richard Baxter to all Christians, the esteemed Westminster divine, Henry Scudder (d.1659?), in his discussion on sanctifying the Lord’s Day observes:
It is not enough that you observe a rest, but you must keep a “holy rest”... Joyn with the Minister and Congregation. Set your self as in the special presence of God, following the example of good ‘Cornelius’, with all reverence attending and consenting, saying Amen with understanding, faith and affection, to the prayers uttered by the Minister: Attending unto, “believing”, and “obeying” whatsoever by the Minster is commanded you from God ... The like care must be had before, at, and after the Evening exercise.12
The Whole Family
Furthermore, it was taken for granted that a holy resting from all your labours on the Lord’s Day involved attending both services of the church with all your family. Westminster divine Thomas Case in some practical meditations penned upon the death of a Mrs Anne Browne illustrates how the Puritans saw a faithful Sabbath observance requiring family, including servants, to attend both public worship services. Case noted that,
her Servants souls were as precious to God, as her own, and cost Jesus Christ as much blood to redeem: Therefore, (s)he was careful that every one of her Family, should not only attend the ‘Publick Ordinances’; but that they should improve the 'whole overplus' of Sabbath time, in 'holy exercises' of Religion.13
They attended the public ordinances and not one only, and they attended as a family. These principles are being lost in many churches, and it is surely our present duty to assert them and to seek to have the prevalent carelessness replaced by a godly Sabbath observance. Once the church and its members have decided that public worship is optional or that attendance at one worship service is sufficient, though God through His appointed office bearers calls us to both, the destruction of the church, to use Calvin’s terminology, has begun.
There are, of course, those who cannot always attend both services of the church. Works of necessity can keep us from worship at times. This not only applies to the “caring” professions, as they are termed, but to some farmers and other workers such as sailors, for example. Equally the elderly may not be able to cope with two services, and often get to the point where they cannot attend the services at all. Still others may live a long way from church and are unable to travel the distances sometimes required to be travelled to attend a faithful church. Nonetheless, these are exceptions. Let us, therefore, strive to overcome any complacency of laziness in our own hearts and let each member with the whole family come expectantly to both services on the Sabbath Day to meet with God and give Him the praise and adoration He deserves and demands.
Implications that Arise from this Study
Faithful church attendance twice on the Lord’s Day is a biblical and confessional requirement.
Church membership requires double attendance and is implicitly agreed to in the membership vows. Children, though not communicant members, should also attend twice.
Unfaithful attendance at worship should invite pastoral and disciplinary sanctions.
Church members and prospective members should have it drawn to their attention that church attendance twice on the Lord’s Day is mandatory, because it is both commanded and beneficial.