The Quest for Biblical Worship (Part 1)

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.