Chapter 21.3, 4, 5

iii. Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of His Spirit, according to His will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.

iv. Prayer is to be made for things lawful; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter: but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.

v. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.

Sections 3 and 4 of Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession provide a list of the "elements" of true worship in accord with the regulative principle as defined in 21:1. New Testament (corporate) worship is characterized by five things: prayer (for the living but not for the dead), reading of Scripture, sound preaching and conscionable hearing, singing psalms, sacraments ("instituted by Christ," limiting these to two, baptism and the Lord's Supper), and occasionally, oaths, vows and thanksgivings. 

This list tells us immediately that biblical corporate worship is essentially simple. In the background lay Roman Catholic worship, providing religious significance to rites and ceremonies that had no place in any biblical understanding of true worship. Also in the background lay Protestant claims that so long as the Bible did not expressly forbid a certain practice, it could be viewed as legitimate. Thus article 20 of the Anglican Thirty Nine Articles stated: "The Church hath power to decree Rites and Ceremonies, and[hath] authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written..." This is a very different point of view from the regulative principle which insisted on specific biblical prescription. The Anglican formulation allowed practices not expressly forbidden. Examples forbidden by the Westminster Confession but allowed by the Thirty Nine Articles would be, when an officiating priest dips his finger in water and marks the sign of the cross on the forehead of a child after baptizing, investing such a rite with religious significance. 

Not every issue is easily solved by alluding to a list of the biblical elements of worship. Should the singing be of psalms only, or does the term include other portions of Scripture and humanly composed "hymns"? There is considerable evidence to suggest that the term "psalms" was inclusive of what we might call "spiritual songs" and "hymns." (See, Nick Needham, "Westminster and Worship: Psalms, Hymns? and Musical Instruments?" in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century (ed. Duncan), 2:223-306). Should they be accompanied by musical instruments (organ, guitar or human choirs)? Should preaching follow a definite form (textual, lectio continua, topical)? To these questions, the Confession has already intimated an answer in Chapter 1 (section 6) when it insists that "there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God... which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence." Common sense should guide us in addressing certain questions bearing in mind that a circumstance of worship does not constitute a constituent act of worship. 

There are certain principles of common sense that apply to all human societies (secular as well as religious). It is a principle (as we shall see in the next section) that the people of God gather for worship on the Lord's Day; it is not, however stipulated in Scripture at what time, how frequently, or for how long such gathered worship should entail. These latter consideration will vary from one society to another.

In light of these principles, the Westminster Assembly did not produce a Book of Common Prayer, but rather, a Directory which contains principles rather than stipulations. It contains no liturgies, for example, viewing the matter as a violation of the very principle that Scripture demands no one liturgy to be imposed upon a congregation. The Puritans had, after all, rejected the Elizabethan settlement's attempt to impose such a thing despite the threats of fines and imprisonment. 

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is minister of preaching and teaching at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.