The Flexibility of Reverent Worship
In the previous post on reverent worship, we concluded that worship that is acceptable to God is worship that is regulated by the truth of God's word, and worship done with true sincerity of heart. As a follow up, this post examines the flexibility of reverent worship. Even in its strictest form, the Bible and our theological tradition allow for a great deal of flexibility and adaptibility in how we worship God. To put it another way, "reverent" worship, worship done both in spirit and truth, can look and feel very different, and yet still be fully biblical and reformed. Truly reverent worship has more than one mold, and can take a variety of expressions in the life of a local church. Churches in the PCA for example sometimes have very different worship services, but that doesn't mean that one church service is more faithful or more reverent than another church.
It is important to understand the distinction between "Elements" and "Circumstances" of worship as taught in WCF chapters 1 & 21. An "Element" is according to our Confession an essential part of the public worship service that cannot be removed. A "circumstance" refers to things that the Bible does not directly address concerning public worship, and so are to be governed by Christian wisdom. For example, preaching, sacraments, prayer, and singing, are all elements of worship according to WCF 21. If we remove the reading and preaching of the Bible from our worship service, it is no longer true worship according to God's word. Elements are CORE to having truly biblical worship. Circumstances, however, are things that are not CORE, and areas in which churches have flexibility to make decisions.
Let's walk through a few areas of our current worship service and separate what is CORE (elements) from what is NOT CORE (circumstances)
Liturgy / Order of Worship
What is Core: Our service includes in some way all of the elements of worship, such as the four mentioned above.
What is Not Core: Any specific order of service. Neither the Bible, our confession, nor BCO gives a specific order or arrangement of the elements in the service. We have structured those elements in our weekly service in a certain way (which we like!), but that is not the only way to do it. We would have freedom to structure our service in other ways if we wanted to. Our book of church order is incredibly clear on this point:
BCO 47-6 "The Lord Jesus Christ has prescribed no fixed forms for public worship but, in the interest of life and power in worship, has given his church a large measure of liberty in this matter."
Preaching of God's Word
What is CORE: That we have Biblically faithful preaching that does not shy away from the whole counsel of God.
What is NOT CORE: How the preaching is carried out week to week. For example,
- The clothing that the minster wears when he preaches.
- Whether or not the preacher stays behind a pulpit, or even uses a pulpit.
- The specific way in which the preacher expounds the Bible (expository or topical)
Singing of Hymns, Psalms, and spiritual Songs
What is Core: Congregational singing of songs, hymns and spiritual songs that are biblically based and spiritually edifying.
What is Not Core: How the singing is carried out, for example,
- Any particular musical style or instrument.
- Newer vs. older songs
- Singing Leadership or not. Singing leadership was a common feature in the Old Testament, King David himself appointing singing leaders for the people of God.
- Singing from Hymnals or music on a screen
- Whether or not music is included with the words
Administration of Sacraments:
What is Core: The faithful administration of the Sacraments in accordance with N.T. and our BCO.
What is Not Core:
- The manner/mode in which the elements are distributed to the congregation. Our book of church order leaves a great deal of latitude. We must distribute the bread and wine to the congregation, but no details or form given as to how this should be done. Congregations are free to pass trays of bread and wine through the congregation, have the congregation come up front to receive directly from minister, have smaller groups gather around tables in the sanctuary, etc.
- Who distributes the elements to the congregation. The BCO is clear that a minister must preside over the words of institution and consecration of the elements, but that is all that is stipulated. Who exactly should distribute the bread and wine to the congregation is left open. At our church we typically have the Elders upfront helping, but there is no requirement that it be an Elder.
- The frequency of Communion. We prefer to have it weekly of course, but nothing in the Bible, our confession, or our BCO demands weekly observance. Most churches do not have it weekly. Our BCO says that it should be observed "frequently" but leaves that to be defined by the session of the church.
To summarize, even for churches like ours that are committed to the regulative principal of worship (only doing in public worship what we see in Scripture), there is still an incredible amount of freedom in many areas of worship that churches can make different decisions on, and which are still consistent with fully Biblical and reformed worship. The things that are NOT CORE does not mean they are unimportant or that they should not be given serious thought and consideration, but they are areas that our reformed confessions and book of church order have wisely given much latitude for churches to have flexibility and freedom.