It seems a strange thing, these days, to propose that corporate, public worship is to be preferred before private worship. With the rise of individual rights and relativism that has long infected the Church of Christ it seems a very strange and silly thing for John Owen’s co-pastor and successor- David Clarkson- to assert such a notion.
He does make such a bold claim (for this day and age) and he does a very fine job of substantiating it biblically. Here is a portion of his sermon Public Worship To Be Before Private (Ps. 87:2):
But before I proceed to confirm the observation, let me briefly explain what worship is public. Three things are requisite that worship may be public, ordinances, an assembly, and an officer.
1. There must be such ordinances as do require or will admit of public use; such are prayer, praises, the word read, expounded, or preached, and the administration of the sacraments. The word must be read, and prayer is necessary both in secret and private, but they both admit of public use, and the use of them in public is required and enjoined. These must be used both publicly and privately; the other cannot be used duly but in public.
2. There must be an assembly, a congregation joined in the use of these ordinances. The worship of one or two cannot be public worship. Of what numbers it must consist we need not determine; but since what is done in a family is but private, there should be a concurrence of more than constitute an ordinary family.
3. There must be an officer. The administrator of the ordinances must be one of public quality, one in office, one set apart by the Lord, and called to the employment by the church. If a private person in ordinary cases undertake to preach the word or administer the sacraments, if it be allowed as worship, which is not according to ordinary rule, yet there is no reason to expect the blessing, the advantage, the privilege of public worship.
This for explication; now for confirmation. Observe these arguments.
1. The Lord is more glorified by public worship than private. God is then glorified by us when we acknowledge that he is glorious. And he is most glorified when this acknowledgment is most public. This is obvious. A public acknowledgment of the worth and excellency of any one tends more to his honour than that which is private or secret. It was more for David’s honour that the multitude did celebrate his victory, 1 Sam. 18:7, than if a particular person had acknowledged it only in private. Hence the psalmist, when he would have the glory of God most amply declared, contents not himself with a private acknowledgment, but summons all the earth to praise him, Ps. 96:1–3. Then is the Lord most glorified, when his glory is most declared, and then it is most declared when it is declared by most, by a multitude. David shews the way whereby God may be most glorified, Ps. 22:22, 23, 25. Then he appears all glorious when publicly magnified, when he is praised in the great congregation. Then he is most glorified when a multitude speaks of and to his glory: Ps. 29:9, ‘In his temple does every one speak of his glory.’ The Lord complains as if he had no honour from his people, when his public worship is despised, neglected: Mal. 1:6, ‘If I be a father, where is mine honour? If I be a master, where is my fear? saith the Lord God of hosts unto you, O priests that despise my name.’ By name of God here is meant his worship and ordinances, as plainly appears by what follows, ver. 7, 8, 11. And he here expostulates with them as tendering him no honour, because they despised his worship and ordinances. Then shall Christ be most glorified, when he shall be admired in all them that believe, in that great assembly at the last day, 2 Thess. 1:10. And it holds in proportion now; the more there are who join together in praising, admiring, and worshipping him, the more he is glorified: and therefore more in public than in private.
2. There is more of the Lord’s presence in public worship than in private. He is present with his people in the use of public ordinances in a more especial manner, more effectually, constantly, intimately.
For the first, see Exod. 20:24. After he had given instructions for his public worship, he adds, ‘In all places where I record my name, I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.’ Where I am publicly worshipped, for the name of God is frequently put for the worship of God, I will come; and not empty-handed, I will bless thee: a comprehensive word, including all that is desirable, all that tends to the happiness of those that worship him. Here is the efficacy.
For the constancy of his presence, see Mat. 28: ‘I am with you always to the end of the world.’ Where, after he had given order for the administration of public ordinances, he concludes with that sweet encouragement to the use of them, πὰσας τὰς ἡμέρας, I am with you always, every day, and that to the end of the world. Here is the constancy.
See the intimacy of his presence: Mat. 18:20, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ He says not, I am near them, or with them, or about them, but in the midst of them; as much intimacy as can be expressed. And so he is described, Rev. 1:13, to be in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, in the midst of the church; there he walks and there he dwells; not only with them, but in them. For so the apostle, 2 Cor. 6:16, renders that of Lev. 26:12, which promise he made, upon presupposal of his tabernacle, his public worship amongst them, ver. 11. Hence it is, that when the public worship of God is taken from a people, then God is departed, his presence is gone; as she, when the ark was taken from the Israelites, cried out, ‘The glory is departed.’ And why, but because the Lord, who is the glory of his people, is then departed? Public ordinances are the sign, the pledge of God’s presence; and in the use of them, he does in a special manner manifest himself present.
But you will say, Is not the Lord present with his servants when they worship him in private? It is true; but so much of his presence is not vouchsafed, nor ordinarily enjoyed, in private as in public. If the experience of any find it otherwise, they have cause to fear the Lord is angry, they have given him some distaste, some offence; if they find him not most, where ordinarily he is most to be found, and this is in public ordinances, for the Lord is most there where he is most engaged to be, but he has engaged himself to be most there where most of his people are. The Lord has engaged to be with every particular saint, but when the particulars are joined in public worship, there are all the engagements united together. The Lord engages himself to let forth as it were, a stream of his comfortable, quickening presence to every particular person that fears him, but when many of these particulars join together to worship God, then these several streams are united and meet in one. So that the presence of God, which, enjoyed in private, is but a stream, in public becomes a river, a river that makes glad the city of God. The Lord has a dish for every particular soul that truly serves him; but when many particulars meet together, there is a variety, a confluence, a multitude of dishes. The presence of the Lord in public worship makes it a spiritual feast, and so it is expressed, Isa. 25:6. There is, you see, more of God’s presence in public worship, ergo public worship is to be preferred before private.*
I wish to draw your attention to the last paragraph. His point is simple- if people have found that private worship has been better from an experiential standpoint than in public then perhaps God has been offended and withheld His blessing. My take is this- perhaps the modern church needs to re-evaluate what is calls “worship” in local church gatherings. Could it be that we are approaching the Most High in an improper and offensive manner thereby offending Him? Could it be that that instead of worshiping the thrice holy God the way He has prescribed and commanded in His Word, the contemporary church has done what it so often does when it becomes uncomfortable with certain issues- ignore or re-define them (usually based on what suits our fancy)?
Maybe there are people objecting that they have been to liturgical Reformed church services and still think they’re “boring” or “dull”? I do admit there is a great danger in getting caught up in form so as to attempt worship in truth to the neglect of spirit (Jn. 4:24). There is also the possibility that people making such claims that biblical worship is “boring” are really un-regenerates who think they are regenerate (non- Christians thinking they are Christians). It would be sheer madness to allow un-regenerates to drive the direction of the church! It is a very strange thing to have people say that they love Christ but find they way to worship the triune God, in the manner He commanded, as “boring.” It is similar to saying I love America but hate the constitution and freedom and its terrain.
When God promises to do something He does it. If He has promised to bless His covenant people, gathered in the name of Christ, with His presence during corporate worship and His presence seems lacking, it is from no fault of God’s but instead is the fault of people that have taken it upon themselves to approach Him in a way He has not commanded.
*Clarkson, D. (1864). The Works of David Clarkson, Volume III (189–191). Edinburgh: James Nichol.