John L. Girardeau on the Power of the Church to Innovate in Worship


The following is a portion of The Discretionary Power of the Church by the great Old School Presbyterian (OSP) theologian John L. Girardeau. It is particularly profitable because he not only explains the often confused difference between the elements and the circumstances of worship, and thus the important differences between WCF 21.1 and WCF 1.6. but he also tackles the subject of whether liturgies are acceptable parts of OSP worship head on. Hopefuly the following will help us as we seek to determine what the worship of modern OSP churches should look like.
“The public worship of the church, in a wide sense, includes the reading of the Scriptures, preaching, prayer, the singing of praise, the administration of the sacraments, contribution of our substance to the service of God, and the pronunciation of the benediction. In a stricter sense, its elements are prayer and singing. It will not be disputed that these modes of worship are revealed by Christ in His Word. If so, the church has no discretionary power to introduce any others, or to change in any respect those which Christ has warranted. The theory that whatsoever is not expressly forbidden in the Word the church may do, involves the monstrous assumption, that in matters of positive institution uninspired wisdom is of co-ordinate authority with the revealed will of God. The power that adds to or abridges them, that changes or modifies them, must either be equal to the original appointing power, or be shown to be delegated from it. Neither of these positions rests upon a shadow of proof from the Scriptures. But whatever others may think on this subject, our doctrine is definitely settled. The Westminster Confession distinctly enounces the principle that whatsoever, in connection with church-worship, is not commanded, either expressly or implicitly, is forbidden. Its language is: “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.” This is the doctrine of the best and truest of the Reformers, the doctrine of our own Constitution, our accepted exposition of the Written Word,—that only what Christ has commanded can the church enforce or permit; that what He has not commanded is not allowable; that the only sphere in which the church possesses discretionary power is that of commanded things, within which she may act, beyond which she is not at liberty to go one inch.”

“But, in this sphere of commanded things, what is the extent of her discretionary power? This is a question which is to us, as a church, one of present, practical import. It is one of the points at which we are in especial danger of being caught off our guard—this is a gate through which the Trojan horse is sought to be introduced into our holy city. It is a real, living issue, What power has the church within the sacred, the divinely-scored circle of commanded things—of revealed duties? This being the question, the answer, for us, is most precisely given in our Confession of Faith. After stating the mighty principle of the limitation of power within the things prescribed in Scripture, it proceeds to say: “There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and the government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.” Since then, by her Constitution, the charter which defines her rights, limits her powers and prescribes her duties, the discretion of our church is astricted to “some circumstances concerning the worship of God common to human actions and societies,” it is a question of the utmost consequence, What is the nature of these circumstances? Dr. Thornwell puts the case so clearly, and yet so concisely, that we quote a portion of his words in answer to this very question: “Circumstances are those concomitants of an action without which it either cannot be done at all, or cannot be done with decency and decorum. Public worship, for example, requires public assemblies, and in public assemblies people must appear in some costume and assume some posture. . . . Public assemblies, moreover, cannot be held without fixing the time and place of meeting: these are circumstances which the church is at liberty to regulate. . . . We must distinguish between those circumstances which attend actions as actions—that is, without which the actions cannot be—and those circumstances which, though not essential, are added as appendages. These last do not fall within the jurisdiction of the church. She has no right to appoint them. They are circumstances in the sense that they do not belong to the substance of the act. They are not circumstances in the sense that they so surround it that they cannot be separated from it. A liturgy is a circumstance of this kind. . . . In public worship, indeed in all commanded external actions, there are two elements—a fixed and a variable. The fixed element, involving the essence of the thing, is beyond the discretion of the church. The variable, involving only the circumstances of the action, its separable accidents, may be changed, modified or altered, according to the exigencies of the case.” Such is the doctrine of one who was a profound and philosophical thinker, a man deeply taught of the Spirit, and a master of the Presbyterian system, the doctrine of Calvin and Owen, of Cunningham and Breckinridge, the doctrine of the Reformed Church of France, of the Puritans of England, and of the Church of Scotland, the doctrine to which, by the grace of God, the practice of the Free Church of Scotland and of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, in an age of growing laxity, still continues to be conformed.”

“There are three criteria by which the kind of circumstances attending worship which fall under the discretionary power of the church may be determined: first, they are not qualities or modes of the acts of worship; they are extraneous to them as a certain kind of actions; secondly, they are common to the acts of all societies, and, therefore, not peculiar to the acts of the church as a particular sort of society—they are not characteristic and distinctive of her acts and predicable of them alone; and thirdly, they are conditions necessary to the performance of the acts of worship—without them the acts of this society could not be done, as without them the acts of no society could be done.

Let us now bring a liturgy to the test of these criteria; and it is instanced because it is an appendage to one of the acts in which worship is, in the strictest sense, rendered to God—prayer. It cannot abide the first, because it qualifies and modifies the act of prayer itself it is a kind of prayer, a mode in which it is offered. It cannot abide the second, because it is not common to human actions and societies—all societies, political, scientific, agricultural, mechanical and others surely do not, as such, use liturgies. It cannot abide the third, because a liturgy is not a condition necessary to the performance of the act of prayer. Its necessity could only be pleaded on one of two grounds: either that without it the act of prayer cannot be performed at all, and that is out of the question; or, that without it the act cannot be performed decently and in order, and to take that ground is to impeach the office of the Holy Ghost; who is specially promised to teach us how to pray and what things to pray for, to depreciate the capacities of the sanctified intelligence of man, and to pass a derogatory criticism upon some of the purest churches that have ever flourished, and some of the noblest saints who have ever edified the people of God by their ministrations.”

About Andrew Webb

I was converted out of paganism and the occult in 1993 and while I was initially Charismatic/Arminian in my theology, I became Reformed and Presbyterian through bible study and the influence of ministries like RC Sproul's. After teaching in local bible studies, and taking seminary courses part time, I began to feel called to the ministry in 1997. I was Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in Hatboro, PA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina Presbytery in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor/Church Planter for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor
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2 Responses to John L. Girardeau on the Power of the Church to Innovate in Worship

  1. mark jenkins says:

    I really appreciate this topic of discussion – very important. I’m not following this most recent post though. What exactly is meant by “liturgy” here? Secondly, could you please expand on the first criteria for determining if a circumstance falls under the discretionary power of the church, namely, ” they are not qualities or modes of the acts of worship”?

    I understand that he is trying to guard the substance of the elements from alteration but I’m not sure about exactly how he is trying to do that. In other words, what exactly counts as a mode?

  2. Andrew Webb says:

    Hi Mark,

    In a little while I’ll be posting Samuel Miller’s brief essay entitled “Presbyterians reject prescribed Liturgies” which will clear up a few of your questions. I guess in answering your questions its important to note that OSPs reject both the Spirit and the Letter of Liturgies as an unjustifiable imposition on New Testament worship.

    First as to what a liturgy is, it is a prescribed form of prayer and may include an address to, and antiphonal responses from, the congregation. A clear example of this would be the Anglican Book of Common Prayer from which ministers read their prayers, which were ordered according to a man-made “church year”. Neither of these impositions is found in the New Testament, and indeed if anything we see that prayer in the New Testament was always extempore and addressed the current needs of the congregation. While OSPs do not deny that a minister may write down his prayers, the idea that he would simply work his way through a prescribed litany of canned prayers year after year – no matter how pleasing they might be to human ears – is condemned. It is not taught in the NT, neither is it necessary or even needed that we follow a liturgy that we might pray “decently and in order” (therefore they are not circumstances or modes that assist us to perform the elements) also these “wooden prayers” go against the very spirit of worship in spirit and truth that is central to New Testament worship. They are not the expressions of the one praying and as we would not call a man who simply reads the sermons of other men a true preacher, we have no warrant to call the reading of another man’s prayers the ministry of congregational prayer. Certainly I don’t think anyone can seriously make an argument that thje reading of a fixed liturgy was what the apostles had in mind when they said “but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

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