The Elements of Public Worship Part VIII
Occasional Elements of Worship:
Religious Oaths, Vows, Solemn Fastings, and Thanksgivings Upon Special Occasions
“Stated festival-days, commonly called holy-days, have no warrant in the Word of God; but a day may be set apart, by competent authority, for fasting or thanksgiving, when extraordinary dispensations of Providence administer cause for them. When judgments are threatened or inflicted, or when some special blessing is to be sought and obtained, fasting is eminently seasonable. When some remarkable mercy or deliverance has been received, there is a special call to thanksgiving.” – Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith
As we have been examining Old School Presbyterian worship our attention in previous installments has been focused on the ordinary elements of worship. That is, those elements that we are taught in the Bible to regularly observe in Lord’s Day services, regardless of what is going on in the world around us. Now, we turn our attention to those elements in our worship that are occasional. These are elements warranted in the Word of God, but which are only observed on special occasions dictated by God’s providence.
An example of just such a special occasion were the terrible attacks which took place on September 11, 2001. In light of the great suffering and turmoil America was plunged into, it was entirely appropriate for churches throughout that nation to call for special services dedicated to prayer and fasting. If the nation were mercifully delivered from some terrible calamity (as would be the case if, for instance, a nuclear weapon planted by a terrorist were found and defused prior to going off or legalized abortion was ended), then it would be appropriate for the churches to give thanks to God for His mercy with a special service of Thanksgiving to God.
We find these spontaneous days of fasting or thanksgiving in response to God’s providence throughout the Bible, for instance, when the tribes of Israel were defeated by Benjamin, they fasted and mourned all day (Judges 20:26); and when the rebuilding of the Temple of the Lord was completed, they had services of thanksgiving (Ezra 6:16).
We also find that throughout the Bible, the people of the Lord had the taking of religious oaths and vows as part of their worship. Examples include the oath sworn by the people of Israel to only serve and worship the Lord and to have nothing to do with false gods (Joshua 24) and the admonition to pay our vows to the Lord (Eccl. 5:4). A common example of vows taking place in a service of worship would be the ordination vows that Elders make.
We must note, as Shaw does above, that these occasional days of thanksgiving and fasting which are warranted in the Bible are not to be confused with the Holy Days or “Church Year” invented by men which we are nowhere commanded in scripture to observe. While it has become traditional to observe holy days like Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter in the worship of the church, we remember that these man-made celebrations were not part of the worship of the Apostolic church and are not found in the Bible. As the Westminster Directory for Publick Worship states: “There is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s Day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.“