This month’s Tabletalk magazine was focused on various issues regarding worship, primarily its use and abuse. Although the articles in the magazine discussed the church as a whole (catholic), it primarily dealt with the issues found in the Presbyterian Church of America. Since the times of the Reformation in the early sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, worship has become a point of debate primarily due to the wish for separation from the Roman Catholic Church and all it’s practices. A great deal of study was undertaken by theologians like Luther, Calvin, and Knox as to the parameters of worship and each branch of the Reformed Church had its own thoughts and practices of church worship by the time of the Westminster Assembly in the mid seventeenth centuries. The primary churches that disagreed at the time were the Anglicans, the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians ( prior to the Westminster Assembly there were even some discrepancies with regard to worship between the Presbyterians and Lutherans on the Continent). The Anglican’s form of church worship was hardly any different from the Roman Catholic Church, a fact that the Scottish Presbyterians fought during the latter half of the seventeenth century. The rest of the Churches that made up the Westminster Assembly were more in agreement with the principles of worship and disagreed mainly in church polity and theology. In that century, the issues were focused on how much (if any) state interference can be in the order of church worship and it’s form, an idea known as the regulative principle of worship. Dr. Derek Thomas defines this as “the corporate worship of God … founded upon specific directions of Scripture”. In our century the issues of corporate church worship have changed and have even become a nasty battleground between Christians from different denominations and even among those within the same denomination as some have witnessed even among the PCA.
That is why the editors of Tabletalk magazine chose to write on this issue and sought well written men in the Reformed sectors of the church to enlighten readers of what true worship is and how we must deal with the issues of worship in the modern church. Burk Parsons, editor of Tabletalk and associate minister at Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Church defined worship as “the Christian’s all-encompassing service to our covenant Lord who has set us free to worship Him in beauty and splendor, holiness and freedom, so that wherever we are – in our closets, our homes, and our churches- we can worship Him coram Deo, before His face in Spirit and in truth, with reverence and awe, according to His Word and for his glory (1 Cor. 10:31)”. Worship then is not simply the singing of hymns and songs or church music although that is part of it; that misunderstanding is probably the bulk of the problem in this debate over worship. Rather than give my own opinion of what should be done in corporate worship, I will write on the regulative principle of worship and what others wrote in Tabletalk and the “do’s” and “don’t’s” of worship that they prescribe.
The first main issue to discuss with regard to worship is the idea of adiaphora. Adiaphora is that which is morally or ethically indifferent as R.C. Sproul says. This is a key issue to understand due to its linkage to matters of conscience and legalism or, in the opposite direction, antinomianism and godlessness. In the early church, adiaphora was discussed with regard to the eating of meat offered to idols. Paul points out that meat is not inherently good or evil, therefore it is adiaphora, of ethical indifference. Today, we have other issues like dancing, drinking, holidays, clothing, etc. These issues are often raised to the level of the status of law and Christians’ consciences become “bound where God has left them free”. This is legalism and it “vastly oversimplifies the call to godliness that the Bible gives to Christian people. When such issues bind someone’s conscience, the Bible does give us instruction how to deal with such people in a loving manner. What needs to be done with this is the need for engrossing ourselves in the Word of God so that we may know what God prescribes. This makes worship no small matter and we must wrestle with it if we are to remain obedient to God.
The regulative principle of worship is an issue which theologians have debated for many centuries and yet seems like one that would not be so controversial if we are, in fact, to follow the requirements in God’s Word. Yet many discussions with regard to church worship and Christian life in general are much more modern and complex than seen in Scripture. Must we give ourselves to license so that we might enjoy what our passions and emotions desire or contrariwise, must we only sing Psalms without instrumentation or with those prescribed in the Old Testament? Such is the nature of our modern argument and the regulative principle of worship means to deal with that. By searching through the Scriptures, John Calvin (and the Westminster Divines later) postulated that “God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned in his Word (The Necessity of Reforming the Church by John Calvin)”. Several passages in the Old Testament express the fact that matters of worship are to be done “after the pattern…shown to you” (Ex. 25:40) as well as the example of Nadab and Abihu’s un-prescribed manner of worship and their destruction in Leviticus 10. In the New Testament, Paul writes in Colossians and 1st Corinthians against the errant public worship of God and calls it “self-made religion (Col. 1:23). Prescribed manners of worship from the Word of God are: reading the Bible (1 Tim. 4:13), preaching the Bible (2 Tim. 4:2), singing the Bible (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16)- hymns, psalms and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19), praying the Bible (Matt. 28:19), and the two sacraments of the Bible- baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Other occasional elements of worship such as oaths, vows, solemn fasts, and thanksgivings are also prescribed. This prescribed manner of worship is meant to protect us impropriety and idiocy; however there is room for variance. This is where adiaphora comes into play with worship and gives us breathing room so that we don’t need to be so caught in the small matters of whether or not to sing traditional hymns or praise music, etc. Things must be done orderly as 1 Corinthians 14:40 dictates and done without license.
A final thought with regard to this issue is the common element in “contemporary worship” where music and praise songs are meant to lift up our spirits and our emotions to a sort of “spiritual high”. Worship is meant to be uplifting of the Lord, not ourselves. So many Christians- and especially my own generation- move from church to church to find a place where the music and style fits our comfort zone. As Dr. Iain D. Campbell writes in his article “Music in the Church”: “The true test of Spirit-led worship is whether it pleases our Creator-Redeemer, not whether it gives us an emotional “high”” We need to be worshipping the Lord in Spirit and in truth; that is what I pray every Lord’s day before worship. We come as sinners needing nourishment and forgiveness, not an emotional high nor our ears to be tickled, we are coming before Almighty God, a God of order and beauty, and mind you, the same God who sent the Spirit among the disciples at Pentecost and who killed Nadab and Abihu when they offered un-prescribed worship. This should bring us into perspective of whom we are worshipping. No doubt worship wars will continue but our need is to be bound to the Word of God and to worship a God deserving of all praise.
“You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!” (Psalm 22:23)