Results tagged “regulative principle of worship” from Reformation21 Blog

The Quest for Biblical Worship (Part 2)

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Reformed churches not only have the regulative principle worship (RPW) to guide them regarding elements and forms, but they also, throughout their history, have had liturgies and directories. The liturgies were the more restrictive (e.g. Strasburg, Geneva, Amsterdam), the directories (Westminster Directory of Public Worship and the family of directories it spawned) less so, allowing more freedom, leaving more to the discretion of the minister. Yet a high degree of uniformity has always been the goal, even among Presbyterians.

The Directory and Directions

We might ask ourselves, what is the function of a directory if not to direct? What is the point of providing examples of prayer and descriptions of preaching and rubrics for communion and baptism if it is not for those examples and descriptions and rubrics to be followed? The aim of the original Directory was substantial uniformity, or "sameness," with the past, in the present and for the future. The Westminster divines explained in the "Preface" to the Directory that they were "persuaded" that "our first reformers... were they now alive... would join with us in this work." There is the connection with the past, with the first generation of Reformers whose work revived the worship of "the ancient church," as Calvin claimed. 

Moreover, they understood themselves to be answering "the expectation of other reformed churches" abroad for whom, along with "many of the godly at home," the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) "proved an offense." There is uniformity with present-day Reformed churches, domestic and foreign. 

Consequently, they argued, their work of "further reformation" was required, bringing the churches of England, Ireland and Scotland into conformity with "the reformed churches abroad." There is the goal of perpetuating their work into the future. Through the Directory they aimed to "give some public testimony of our endeavors for uniformity in divine worship" which they had promised in their Solemn League and Covenant, wherein they pledged to endeavor to bring about "the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, confession of faith, form of church government, directory for worship and catechizing." 

No one, from Bucer to Calvin to the Westminster Assembly to the late 20th century considered liturgical uniformity unusual, indeed the opposite. All thought substantial uniformity was necessary to (1) promote unity; (2) to guard the church from the introduction of unbiblical (as determined by the RPW) and therefore unauthorized elements into the services of the church; and (3) ensure that the authorized elements receive the attention they are due. Medieval novelties were removed by the Reformers; future novelties were barred. Our fear of uniformity, our resistance to conformity to historic liturgical forms is unprecedented and unbiblical. Unbiblical? Let me explain.

Today

How much "sameness" is enough and how much is too much? The devil, quite literally, is in the details. The Apostles expect a high degree of uniformity between the churches and demand a high degree of conformity. The same Paul who gave directions to the chaotic Corinthians for "when you come together as a church," not just informally, casually, or ad hoc, but officially, "as a church" (1 Cor 11:18; cf 5:4; 11:32, 34; 14:26), also exhorts them, "We have no other practice, nor have the churches of God" (1 Cor 11:16; cf 1:2; 4:17; 14:33). He appeals to the uniform practice of the churches, and he expects aberrant churches to conform to that standard. The point of the historic Reformed orders of service is that of the Apostles: unity in worship and ministry. The radical sects might do whatever they perceived the Spirit was leading them to do, but Presbyterians have maintained standardized orders based on the elements and forms determined by the RPW. This meant substantial lectio continua reading of Scripture, expository preaching, the singing of psalms and (later) biblically sound hymns, a full diet of biblical prayer, and the simple administration of the sacraments. This also meant the elimination of all unauthorized elements, ceremonies, rituals, postures, and gestures that might disrupt the church's unity in worship or might distract attention, time, and energy from the ordinary and authorized means of grace.

The goal of Reformed worship from the beginning, as repeatedly stated in Martin Bucer's defense of the reforms implemented in Strasburg in 1524, Ground and Reason (Grund und Ursach), was to fill the biblical elements with biblical content: the word read, preached, sung, prayed, and seen (in the sacraments). Let this be enough. If we could agree on these few elements and forms, administered in simplicity, we'd still have issues to discuss. Yet such agreement would go a long way toward unifying the church at the hour of worship, promoting appropriate sameness without strangeness, that we might "together... with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 15:6).


*This is the second installment of Dr. Johnson's short series of posts on "The Quest for Biblical Worship." You can find the first post in this series here

The Quest for Biblical Worship (Part 1)

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Which is more likely today, liturgical sameness or liturgical strangeness? Which is more damaging to the integrity of Protestant denominations? Are we suffocating from liturgical uniformity--encountering the same old predictable things in the Reformed churches we attend? Or, are we unsettled by the unusual liturgical activity that we encounter in our sister churches and regional assemblies? Have we become bored with routine or shaken by what has become unrecognizable? Isn't there a biblical principle that regulates how we worship (i.e. the Regulative Principle of Worship - RPW) that is supposed to spare us both liturgical sameness and strangeness? Indeed, one would think so.

Regulative Principle of Worship

Given that the RPW limits the elements of worship to those God has set out in Scripture, we should expect a significant degree of liturgical uniformity. The six, basic elements (i.e. the reading and preaching Scripture, prayer, singing praises, administering the sacraments, and lawful oaths) should be found in all of our services. Other things (i.e. unauthorized rituals, ceremonies, programs, gestures and postures) should not. Those who agree with this observation must conclude that a significant degree of sameness should be expected.

However, the RPW, as traditionally understood allows the elements to be expressed in a variety of forms. For example, readings, sermons, prayers, and sung praises may be short in duration or long. That is a matter of form. Sermons may be topical or sequential. Readings may be Old Testament or New Testament or both, etc. As long as the form does not compromise the integrity of the element, there is considerable latitude. In addition, the RPW recognizes varying circumstances of worship such as seating, sound projection, use of printed texts, and lighting that are "ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence" as well as "the general rules of the Word"(WCF 1:6). This means that there is considerable, not absolute, but considerable latitude when it comes to these practical matters. A certain degree of diversity should be expected.

If one defines the RPW narrowly--insisting that the Scripture defines elements but hardly touches forms--the degree of uniformity one may anticipate decreases. When this occurs, individuals begin to suggest that just so long as a church reads Scripture (a verse or two), preaches (a religious theme), sings (devotional thoughts), prays (a bit), and administers the sacraments (occasionally), it complies with the RPW. A great deal of time is then invested in planning on inserting "special music," or a 20 minute song set, or among the more radical among us, a liturgical dance or liturgical drama (biblically defended, of course). This narrow understanding of the RPW leads inevitably to heightened diversity. Decreased sameness opens the door for increased strangeness. The gap between a "traditional" church and a "contemporary" church can grow very wide indeed at this point.

However, if one adopts Hughes Oliphant Old's simpler but broader definition of the RPW as worship that is "according to Scripture," ironically, the gap will narrow. Now we're not just settling for reading Scripture, any Scripture and preaching a sermon, any sermon, but we're turning to 1 Timothy 4:13a to learn how the early church read Scripture. "Give attention to the reading" (lit.), the Apostle Paul tells Timothy. Liturgical scholars all agree that the readings were a known entity (hence the definite article) and were lectio continua, as they were in the synagogue (see the Notre Dame study, The Early Liturgy, by Jungmann).

"Give attention ... to exhortation and teaching," the Apostle continues (1 Tim 4:13b). The natural reading of this direction to Timothy, buttressed by Acts 13:15, 27 and Luke 5:16-22, is to understand the sermon, the "exhortation and teaching" as arising out of the Scripture reading. A simpler but broader understanding of the RPW leads to a commitment both to lectio continua reading of the Scripture and lectio continua preaching, that is, sequential expository sermons. If all the churches "buy in," the gap narrows.

We might sing "according to Scripture" by noting that the Bible has its own hymn book, the Psalms, given to the church that God's praises might be sung. We might turn to Acts 4:24-26, buttressed by Eph 5:19, Col 3:16, and Jas 5:13, and note that the early church sang psalms. We might further sing hymns, but do so "according to Scripture," by allowing the psalms and canticles of the Bible to teach us what God-pleasing and God-honoring praise looks like, and conforming our own compositions to that pattern. Our hymns as a consequence would be God-centered, develop a theme over multiple stanzas, use minimal repetition, and express the full range of emotional experience. If all the churches get on board, the gap narrows.

We might pray "according to Scripture" by turning to the Apostle Paul's directions for public prayer in 1 Timothy 2:1, 2, note his varied prayer terminology, and conclude that all types of prayer are meant. We might turn to the great prayers of the Bible as well as the Book of Psalms, functioning now as the prayer book of the Bible, and discern six basic prayer genres as did our Reformed forefathers: praise, confession of sin, thanksgiving, intercession, illumination, and benediction. We might commit our congregation to a "full diet of biblical prayer" in its regular services. The gap narrows further.

The basic question is this: Are we truly committed to worshipping "according to Scripture?" Will Scripture both determine the elements and shape the forms of worship? Will Scripture determine not merely that we pray, preach, read, and sing, but what and how? Will we allow Scripture to shape our understanding of reverence, our concern for catholicity of form, and our commitment to the communion of all the saints, not merely to the preferences of our chosen demographic? If so, greater liturgical sameness will result and liturgical strangeness will be less common.


*This is the first post in a two part series by Dr. Johnson.

The Regulative Principle of "Liturgical Sameness?"

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In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)--the denomination in which I serve as a minister of the Gospel--quite a number of ministers lament the fact that you can attend five of our churches (all within the same city) only to have five very different worship experiences. Additionally, these same ministers lament what seems to be an utter lack of any kind of corporate worship identity within the denomination as a whole. It is indisputable that there is a lack of uniformity in worship practices within the denomination. In light of that truth, the questions that we should be asking are: "Why is there such diversity regarding worship practices in the PCA?" and "Should we view this diversity as a negative thing?"

Some have suggested that the basis for such divergence in worship practices is due, at least in large part, to a lack of understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW)--a principle that is found in Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Others have suggested that it is due to the fact that the "Directory for the Worship of God" (a section of the PCA's Book of Church Order) is mostly, non-binding upon the church. Still others have intimated that it is due to what they perceive to be a descent into the dark valley of the Judges, where everyone merely does what is right in their own eyes.

Whatever one may say, of this much we may agree: There is a lack of understanding of the RPW on the part of many who enter into this debate. The PCA's "Directory for Worship" functions merely as an advisory document; and, apart from chapters 56-58, the Directory has no "force of law" in the PCA. Regardless of that fact, I want to make the following observations about the the greater issues that lie behind the widespread divergence in worship practices in the PCA:

First, I have observed an almost universal lack of understanding as to what the Regulative Principle of Worship actually is. Therefore, there is a lack of understanding of what the RPW is not. In the first paragraph of chapter 21 of the WCF, the Divines explain that however much worship is owed to God by mankind, He must only be worshiped according to the way he has instituted in his Word. God may not be worshipped according to "the imaginations and devices of men or the suggestions of Satan." Worship, then, must be conformed to the instructions given in Scripture. As we proceed through the various paragraphs in chapter 21, we discover the various activities (i.e. the "elements" of worship) that are given in the Word: Prayer, the reading of Scripture, the preaching (and conscionable hearing) of the Word, the singing of psalms, and the sacraments as ordinary parts of worship, along with oaths, vows, fasting and thanksgiving upon special occasions.

Interestingly the WCF says nothing about an order, or "liturgy," for our worship services. It also says nothing about which instruments, if any, should be used to accompany the congregation in their singing. Therefore, it ought to strike us as awfully strange and "unconfessional" to argue that those churches that have a particular liturgy and uses traditional hymns accompanied by a piano are worshipping according to the RPW, whereas those churches that have an different liturgy and sing contemporary hymns accompanied by a guitar - even (dare I say it) an electric guitar - are not worshipping according to the RPW. To be sure, there is nothing in Scripture that gives us the positive warrant to use of a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall half stack turned up to eleven to assist the congregation in singing praise to God. But, to be fair, neither would the Apostle Paul know what a piano was if it ran him over as it rolled down the street. Yet either (at least theoretically) can be used to accompany congregational singing--provided they are circumstances of worship--since they do not run contrary to the RPW. The RPW tells us what elements are to be present during worship, but the RPW does not tell us how those elements may be circumstantially accompanied and performed. Neither, frankly, does Scripture. There is great freedom to plan and arrange worship, then, within the framework of the RPW. To argue otherwise is to go beyond what the RPW was designed to teach. Therefore to go beyond the basic principles of the RPW is to go beyond Scripture.

Second, I wonder if any of those who refer to the "Directory for the Public Worship of God" in this debate have actually read it. This applies both to those who point to its "unconstitutional" status as well as to those who raise irate opposition when someone suggests that it should become constitutional in our denomination. It is actually quite benign. I read nothing in it by way "regulative principles" that I do not find in the WCF. What it does contain is a wealth of helpful advice-much of which is couched as pious advice-for worship. It prescribes no specific liturgy. It demands no particular forms. No doubt those who state differences with the Westminster Standards on issues related to the Sabbath would have similar concerns with Chapter 48 - yet even those who find the Standards too restrictive on issues of recreation would find much helpful advice in that particular chapter for every other aspect of Sabbath keeping.

I mention the "Directory of the Public Worship of God", however, to remind those engaged in the worship wars that the Directory does not demand monolithic uniformity in our worship service. Neither the directory nor the confession give the kind of rule and guide that would create any kind of liturgical uniformity such that you would finally be able to attend five different PCA churches and not experience five different worship liturgies or five different expressions of congregational singing. As Derek Thomas has aptly explained in his 2010 Tabletalk article, "The Regulative Principle of Worship:"

[The RPW] "does not commit the church to a 'cookie-cutter,' liturgical sameness. Within an adherence to the principle there is enormous room for variation--in matters that Scripture has not specifically addressed (adiaphora). Thus, the regulative principle as such may not be invoked to determine whether contemporary or traditional songs are employed, whether three verses or three chapters of Scripture are read, whether one long prayer or several short prayers are made, or whether a single cup or individual cups with real wine or grape juice are utilized at the Lord's Supper. To all of these issues, the principle "all things should be done decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40) must be applied."

Third, given that the PRW and the Directory do not, in themselves, provide a set liturgy for the organization of worship (and, therefore, for organizational uniformity within the denomination), upon what basis are local churches to decide how to organize their worship? Clearly, they are to be guided by the elements as they are laid out in Scripture. Clearly, the RPW provides a grid though which to understand both what elements are to be included and what potential elements are to be precluded. And, clearly, the constitutional sections of the "Directory for Public Worship" gives specific guidance to their respective elements. But what else is there to which we are to adhere?

If Scripture tells us what to do but does not always tell us how to do it; and, if the Westminster Standards advise us in these matters--but also refrain from telling us precisely how to do it; and, if the "Directory for Public Worship" expounds upon what we ought to do in worship--but even it refrains from telling us how to do it, then the only thing to which we may apply ourselves is God-given wisdom. To put it in different terms, the only thing left is for sessions to do what is wise in their own eyes. In fact, the elders of a particular church must do what is wise in their own eyes in this regard, because there is no other body that is genuinely responsible for making those particular decision! They can be--and often are--guided by a whole host of considerations: what the church has historically done in worship, what resources are available (hymnals, etc.), what gifts are present within the body, what are the preferences of the congregation, what insights and instruction may be gained by considering the practice of other churches-both current and historical, both Presbyterian and not. These are questions which local sessions must seek to answer. So long as the elements prescribed in Scripture are present and nothing is added by way of elements, a church does not sin merely because it chooses to organize its worship differently than some other PCA church. Again, Thomas notes:

"It is important to realize that the regulative principle as applied to public worship frees the church from acts of impropriety and idiocy -- we are not free, for example, to advertise that performing clowns will mime the Bible lesson at next week's Sunday service...If someone suggests dancing or drama is a valid aspect of public worship, the question must be asked -- where is the biblical justification for it? (To suggest that a preacher moving about in the pulpit or employing "dramatic" voices is "drama" in the sense above is to trivialize the debate.) The fact that both may be (to employ the colloquialism) "neat" is debatable and beside the point; there's no shred of biblical evidence, let alone mandate, for either. So it is superfluous to argue from the poetry of the Psalms or the example of David dancing before the ark (naked, to be sure) unless we are willing to abandon all the received rules of biblical interpretation. It is a salutary fact that no office of "choreographer" or "producer/director" existed in the temple. The fact that both dance and drama are valid Christian pursuits is also beside the point."

The fact that one church might choose to organize its worship differently than another is not, in itself, evidence that the RPW has been broken or neglected. The RPW does not promote the idea that unless a principle institutes uniformity then it has failed as a principle. There are those who argue that unless there is in fact some degree of liturgical sameness (along a completely undefined axis) within the PCA, the Regulative Principle of Worship is fit merely for the trash heap of failed ecclesiastical experiments. However, nowhere in the Westminster Standards or in the Directory of the Public Worship of God are we told that uniformity in worship practice and liturgy is something that is to be desired. Nowhere are we told that such a notion is, in fact, biblical.

I have certainly not visited each and every congregation in the PCA (nor do I have any plan to do so), but I have yet to visit a church in our denomination that does not conform--at least, broadly speaking--to the Regulative Principle of Worship. A church that includes only those elements in its Lord's Day worship services that are prescribed by Scripture follows the RPW whether it realizes it or not, whether it agrees with the principle or not. This is not to say I agree with every decision made by every church in the PCA with which I am familiar. But a biblically derived principle that makes room for decisions based upon wisdom cannot be deemed a failure simply because some of the churches in a given denomination are guided by the principle make unwise decisions--and certainly not because different churches make different decisions. To deem the RPW a failure because of a lack of "liturgical sameness" is to say much more about one's own preferences for worship than it is to say anything about what the Scriptures say about worship.

A musical query

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I have not been really keeping up recently, but I was interested to read Leon's musings on music in the church planting situation. Passing over a number of other stimulating threads, I should be interested to know the answers to a couple of questions, if he has the time.

First, how does he square his "dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation" with what I presume would be his embrace of the Regulative Principle of Worship. What drives the dream?

Second, might the reader inquire as to whether or not his bevy of players from "the music department at a local university" are all presumed to be members in good standing of a faithful gospel church, and - if not - how would he justify what I presume would be the paid employment of unconverted musicians to assist the saints in the spiritual worship of a holy God?

I look forward to the answers with interest.
dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation
dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation
dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation
dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation