By Whose Authority Do We Do These Things?
Over the years, I have amassed quite a collection of worship folders from various churches, and I will confess that I have profited from many of them as they have helped me to understand how to profitably arrange the biblical elements of worship into a service that doesn’t overtax the worshipper or fail to keep Jesus Christ both central and exalted.
However, I will admit that I have some worship folders from Presbyterian churches where the only things Presbyterian about their worship are a few common elements of worship and the name of the church on the Bulletin. Usually when this is the case they tend to fall into one of two different camps:
High Church Episcoterianism: Usually this worship service will take up all three panels of the legal-size worship tri-fold and require that the worshipper have a fairly good working knowledge of Latin. It will be extremely liturgical, highly symbolic, follow the church year, and have more in common with the Anglican worship that the Westminster Divines rejected than the simple worship that Scottish and American Presbyterians practiced for well over 200 years.
Vaguely Charismatic Worship: Usually these worship folders will weigh several pounds due to the number of inserts included, and occasionally the actual order of worship will be difficult if not impossible to find. One can usually expect to find many, many, praise songs and choruses, a “message” and whatever other elements the church has scheduled for that day (this can include skits, dancing, and so on.)
Proponents of the Episcoterian methodology will often make appeals to the transitional worship of the early reformers, failing to recognize that the liturgical and symbolic elements of this earlier worship were formally abolished by Presbyterians in the 17th century as scripturally warrantless and in some cases the result of compromise.
Proponents of Charismatic worship on the other hand are far more likely to simply make pragmatic arguments for their preferences (hey it works!) and attacks on the concept of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) as obsolete and unnecessarily restrictive.
Both groups essentially deny the RPW as it is set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1 but more importantly they positively assert something that Old School Presbyterians deny, namely that the church has been granted a discretionary power to add or decree new elements in worship. In other words, when asked if churches have the right to be innovative when it comes to elements in the worship service their defacto answer is “yes.” That the church has the power to do this is explicitly stated in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church stating in Article 20 that “The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies” and that “Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, Ceremonies or Rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying” in Article 34.
It’s worth noting that this is also the opinion of the modern mainline PCUSA which states in its directory for worship:
“Those responsible for ordering Christian worship shall be faithful to the authority of the Holy Spirit speaking in and through Scripture. Beyond Scripture no single warrant for ordering worship exists, but the worship of the Church is informed and shaped by history, culture, and contemporary need. Thus the worship of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should be guided by the historic experience of the Church at worship through the ages, especially in the Reformed tradition”
But does the church really have the power to do these things? Is there a place in scripture where Christ tells the church that all authority on earth has been given to them and that therefore they should go into the world teaching men to observe all things they feel might be helpful or popular?
Clearly the Reformers didn’t think so, and certainly our Puritan and Old School forefathers didn’t either. When it came to worship they held to three foundational principles:
1) That all authority had been given to Christ, not the church. He alone had the power to command men’s consciences
2) That Scripture was sufficient rule and guide for all of our faith, life, and practice, and that by following it “the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:17)
3) That the traditions of men have “indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion” Col. 2:23 but were ultimately of no value no matter how antique they were.
So to quote the great Puritan Minister, John Owen, they declared:
“In things which concern the worship of God, the commanding power is Christ, and his command the adequate rule and measure of our obedience. The teaching, commanding, and enjoining of others to do and observe those commands, is the duty of those entrusted with Christ’s authority under him. Their commission to teach and enjoin, and our duty to do and observe, have the same rules, the same measure, bounds, and limits. What they teach and enjoin beyond what Christ hath commanded, they do it not by virtue of any commission from him; what we do beyond what he hath commanded, we do it not in obedience to him; — what they so teach, they do it in their own name, not his; what we so do, we do in our own strength, not his, nor to his glory.”
Therefore whatsoever things we add to Christ’s worship, we do without authority, and these things do not improve our worship. Rather they are more like a servant’s unauthorized decision to “improve” his Master’s flawless and priceless diamond with a few layers of paint.
Therefore over the next few posts we will be attempting to discern the outlines of Old School Presbyterian (OSP) worship by separating “worthless paint” from “priceless gem.” As we do this, I should note that this discussion will probably only be useful to those who are not already enamored with various worship traditions ancient and modern. Even Calvin conceded the near impossibility of separating men from their traditions and persuading them they never had a right to create them in the first place:
“I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” (1 Samuel 15:22; Matthew. 15:9.) Every addition to His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere “will worship” is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.” – From John Calvin’s The Necessity of Reforming the Church
Our first post therefore will be an examination of this principle, that the church has no power to innovate in worship from OSP theologian John L. Girardeau.