Open Worship

Do we need it today?

What is Open Worship? 

Open worship or spontaneous worship is worship that is open to be led by the Holy Spirit working through different members of the group.  There is no pre-arranged human leader.

The Holy Spirit may prompt members of the group to lead in prayer, Bible reading, Bible teaching, encouragement, personal testimony, spiritual songs and in other ways.  In effect, there are many worship leaders. 

The balance of activities will vary according to the circumstances.  For instance if the purpose of the gathering is to remember the Lord in the Breaking of Bread, then the emphasis will be on the Lord Jesus rather than on our own personal experience or testimony. 

The Problem 

Unfortunately the practice of open worship is declining.  Many churches have never had open worship in their gatherings, and in others open worship is gradually being replaced by pre- planned worship led by skilled "worship leaders". 

There seem to be several reasons for the decline of open worship: 

1. Open worship is not taught or encouraged.  This is probably the main reason for the decline of open worship.  If believers are to engage in effective open worship they must understand the biblical principles on which open worship is based.  They must also know how to prepare for open worship and what is expected in open worship.  Open worship should be taught at all levels within the church to both young and old. 

2. Lack of spiritual preparation.   Believers must spend time with the Lord during the week if they are to be used by the Holy Spirit to lead others in worship.  Effective open worship requires individual spiritual preparation.  Unless believers are "in the Spirit on the Lord's day"[1] they cannot be expected to lead open worship in an acceptable fashion. 

3. The growth of professionalism.  There is a major increase in professionalism in the churches.  There are professional preachers, professional pastors, professional counsellors, professional worship leaders and numerous other professionals associated with modern churches.  

Open worship may sometimes seem to be amateur and sub-standard, as it is not led by professionals.  However the promotion of professionalism can be just another way of creating an unscriptural laity/clergy distinction in the church. 

Professionalism may also remove the need for the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of ordinary believers as all the "hard bits" are done for them by professionals.  Professionalism can result in a disempowering of the average believer and a lack of vitality in the church. 

4. The apparent lack of Biblical guidance.  Some people say that "open worship" is not taught in the Bible.  They say that the New Testament is unclear about the form of worship used in the early church, and consequently we are free to organise worship any way we like.  However we will see that this is far from the case. 

What the Bible teaches 

A careful study shows that open worship is very much in tune with Biblical teaching, and it was almost certainly one of the reasons for the overwhelming vitality of the early church.  Consider the following points: 

1.    The New Testament teaches that every believer (man, woman or child) is a priest[2] and is to offer up spiritual sacrifices.[3] 

2.    There is no indication in the New Testament that some believer-priests are more highly qualified than others to offer spiritual sacrifices! 

3.    The only special class of priest specified in the New Testament is the Lord Jesus Himself.  He is the only High Priest.[4]

4.    There is no distinction in the New Testament between clergy and laity - or between ordained and non- ordained believers.   If every believer is a priest - as is clearly taught in the New Testament - then every believer is automatically a member of the clergy!  This means that any clergy-laity distinction has no Biblical basis. 

5.    There is only one distinction made in Scripture between the priestly roles of believers.  This is the distinction between the priestly roles of men and women when the church is gathered for corporate worship.  The leadership of worship through the spoken word is a priestly role of the male priests. [5] 

6.    To put any one person (whether ordained or otherwise) in a position between a group of believers and their God is to deny every believer's right of direct access to the High Priest. 

7.    From chapters 11-14 of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians we learn that: 

  • There were many worship leaders in early church services. 
  • How is it then, brethren?  Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation.  Let all things be done for edification.[6] 
  • There was no one specially appointed worship leader.  There is no reference anywhere in the New Testament to worship being led by a specially qualified or selected worship leader.  Although this is an argument from silence, it has weight, because if worship leaders had the prominence then that they have today, it is reasonable to expect that they would be mentioned. 
  • The worship was not planned in advance.  There is no indication in Scripture that worship was pre-planned.  It might be argued that planning can be under the direction of the Holy Spirit, and of course this is true.  However there is no evidence that the early church pre- planned their worship.  Pre-planning worship may prevent the Holy Spirit from speaking through members of the group who have not been included in the plan. 

8.    Although Paul had many things to criticise about the way the Corinthian church worshiped he did not criticise their practice of open worship. 

9.    There is no mention of a special spiritual gift for leading worship in any of the lists of spiritual gifts.[7]  Worship leaders have great influence in the church today.  Some are famous for their ability to induce what is thought by some to be "a spirit of worship".  In many churches this leadership role is probably more important than that of other leadership roles such as elders or pastors, as it directly influences the worship of the whole church. 

If special worship leaders had existed in the early church, there would have been a special "gift of the Spirit" available for them in their unique and important role of leading others to God in worship. 

10.  There is no special qualification for elders or deacons to enable them to lead the church in worship.  If church officials or leaders were meant to have a special role leading the worship of the church, we would expect that some special qualification would be mentioned in the lists of qualifications of elders and deacons.[8]  Perhaps "able to lead worship" - but no such qualification is mentioned in Scripture. 


The practice of open worship has a strong biblical basis and should be actively taught and encouraged in the church. 

Anything less than open worship is a denial of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and may mean that the desire of the Holy Spirit to lead God's people in worship is impeded.  It may also result in the creation of a virtual clergy/laity distinction that is totally foreign to the New Testament.  This leads to a lack of spiritual vitality in the church as believers are dis-empowered and cease to function in the way God intended. 

As Paul wrote to the Colossians: 

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.  And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.[9] 

Lindsay Smith 23/3/02   

Recommended reading 

Gary Inrig.  Life in His Body.  Harold Shaw Publishers 1975. 

James H. Rutz.  The Open Church.  The SeedSowers 1992.   


[1] Rev. 1:10 

[2] 1 Peter 2:5-9   Rev. 1:6. 

[3] 1 Peter 2:5. 

[4] Heb. 4:14. 

[5] 1 Cor. 14:34,35   1Tim. 2:8, 11,12  This is not a popular distinction today, however it is taught in Scripture.  It applies only when the local church is gathered with both men and women present.  It is a distinction of role, not a distinction of status.  In Christ, all men and women are of equal status, Galatians 3:28. 

[6] 1 Cor. 14:26. 

[7] Rom. 12:3-8   1 Cor. 12-14   Eph. 4:7-16   1 Pet. 4:10,11. 

[8] 1 Pet. 5:2-4   Tit. 1:5-9   Acts 20:28   1 Tim. 3:1-13. 

[9] Col. 3:16, 17