Although I had been raised in Methodist and Presbyterian churches and attended Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, was ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, served pastorates in that church and in the PCA, I nevertheless found myself at different times in my career attracted towards old traditional liturgical churches: first the Antiochian Orthodox Church and then more recently, the Anglican Church. In God’s gracious providence, both experiences have led me to a deeper appreciation of the Reformed Tradition and of Reformed worship in particular, which has kept me from wholeheartedly embracing and remaining in either of those traditions.
PART ONE: REFLECTIONS ON MY JOURNEY
This is a long story, but I hope it will be worth the telling if it may help others who are struggling with the very important issue of how our worship is related to the historic church and how that practice of corporate worship grows out of our doctrinal commitments: Lex credendi, lex orandi est, “What we believe determines how we worship.”
Although I had been raised in Methodist and Presbyterian churches and attended Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, was ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, served pastorates in that church and in the PCA, I nevertheless found myself at different times in my career attracted towards old traditional liturgical churches: first the Antiochian Orthodox Church and then more recently, the Anglican Church. In God’s gracious providence, both experiences have led me to a deeper appreciation of the Reformed Tradition and of Reformed worship in particular, which has kept me from wholeheartedly embracing and remaining in either of those traditions. But what I want to reflect on now is: Why was I drawn to investigate those other traditions?
I am, and always will be, most grateful for the theological education I received at Westminster, both in my undergraduate degree (BD, now called MDiv, 1970) and an Old Testament degree (ThM, 1987); but if anything was lacking in that education, it was the study of the careful and thoughtful reflections of the Reformers on the subject of worship. That whole body of literature was somehow neglected. To be fair, Westminster was very focused on combating modernist/liberal heresy in those days, so the emphasis was on theology and apologetics; reformed worship seems to have been assumed. Had I discovered an adequate understanding of exactly what reformed worship was and of the biblical case for reformed worship then, maybe I might not have gone looking at greener pastures for meaningful worship by investigating other traditions.
Carl Trueman, in his review of Mark Noll’s and Carol Nystrom’s Is The Reformation Over? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), says this:
Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in other words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day.
Trueman goes on to say that his commitment to justification by faith alone and his ecclesiology are what keeps him from heading in the direction of Rome. I had never waivered in my commitment to the doctrines of the Reformation, but I was vulnerable on my ecclesiology and a corresponding theology of worship.
When I served in my first pastorate in an Orthodox Presbyterian church (OPC) in Bend, Oregon, I soon found that I had almost no formal instruction in how to conduct worship, serve the sacraments or pastor the church beyond preaching and counselling. All I really had to rely upon was my church experiences growing up, and I sensed that something was missing. How should we celebrate the major events of the gospel history, the birth of Christ, His death and resurrection? Even then I can remember nursing a bit of envy of the Lutheran church in town – they had a tradition that supplied some of those answers, but which I seemed to lack. A pastor friend once commented that it was almost a proverb that when Presbyterian ministers go on vacation, they visit Lutheran and Episcopalian churches!
I have always loved history, particularly biblical and Church history, so when I made the acquaintance of an Antiochian Orthodox pastor, I began to examine the early Church Fathers and looked into Eastern Orthodoxy, especially the experience of Dr. Peter Gillquist, who had led a group of about 2,000 Evangelicals, ministers and Inter-Varsity leaders, into the Antiochian Church in 1987. I read his books, Becoming Orthodox (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1989) and Coming Home: Why Protestant Clergy are Becoming Orthodox (1992). I was looking for a historic connection to the worship of the early Church, to the worship tradition of the Apostles. Gillquist’s book made me feel that I was not alone in my quest. The ancient and venerable traditions of Orthodoxy seemed to provide what I was looking for.
Around this time I met an interesting speaker and writer at the local Orthodox church who had written articles for World magazine, Frederica Matthewes-Green, who has since written several books offering an apologetic for the Orthodox Church: Facing East and At the Corner of East and Now; her husband had been an Episcopalian priest and they left that church, finally sick of the apostasy, to join the Antiochian Orthodox. She gave me a copy of an article she had written for Regeneration Quarterly (Spring, 1995). I found her comments provocative:
Something about Eastern Orthodoxy has immense appeal to men, and it’s something that their wives are generally slower to get. The appeal of joining this vast, ancient, rock-solid communion must be something like joining the Marines. It’s going to demand a hell of a lot out of you, and it’s not going to cater to your individual whims, but when it’s through with you, you’re going to be more than you ever knew you could be. . .
My vague assumption was that early Christians just sat around on the floor, probably in their blue jeans, talking about what a great guy Jesus was. It was embarrassing to review Scripture and realize that from Exodus to Revelation worship is clothed in gold, silver, precious stones, embroidery, robes of gorgeous fabric, bells and candles; I don’t know of an instance of Scriptural worship that doesn’t include incense. God ordered beauty, even extravagant beauty, in worship, even while his people were still wandering the desert in tents. Beauty must mean something no nonsense, head-driven Christians fail to grasp. . . . Protestant churches, on the other hand, usually look like classrooms, and what happens there is more likely to be teaching than worship.
At first, this article sounded valid and persuasive; but although I felt the force of such argumentation, I have since come to recognize two flaws in this line of thought, pragmatic and romantic as it is. First, God did indeed order beauty in the Old Testament, but Mrs. Matthews-Green does not address the reason why. Israel in the wilderness was exposed every day (and night) to the amazing phenomenon of the glory cloud, a visible manifestation of God’s presence with the people. The beauty of the tabernacle, its vestments and furnishings had, as their immediate function, the reminder of the character and nature of the living God they were to serve as that glorious nature had been manifested to their eyes as visible glory. They needed the remembrance of that glory, just as the menorah kept before the people the remembrance of the burning bush in which God had initially called Moses to his mission. (The menorah carries several other figural associations as well, but that is another discussion). The high priest’s vestments, significantly, were the reversal of those of the tabernacle. (The tabernacle was drab on the outside, glorious on the inside; the high priest’s clothing was the opposite – glorious outside, drab underneath). When the high priest came out of the tabernacle to bless the people, he was bringing out with him, in the very clothing he wore, a figural representation of the glory resident within, in the holy of holies. He was a walking type of our Lord Christ, who embodied in himself the very glory of God. But now that glory is not seen in the vestments of God’s ministers but in the “face of Jesus Christ,” as he is preached (2 Cor., 4:6). All that gold, embroidery, etc., were ultimately typal representations in the material world of the glory of our Lord Christ. To return to such things today, after the revelation of Christ in the New Testament, is to step backwards, imagining they are “honoring mysteries once commended,” as Calvin put it (Institutes 2.8.33), and instead of pointing to Christ, now could actually have the effect of distracting from Him.
The second flaw is based on the stereotype, sadly often true, of lifeless Protestant intellectualism, where preaching is no longer “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16), i.e., a means of grace. It may be true that the worship of many Protestant churches may resemble classroom lessons; and sterile, merely intellectual preaching that has not moved the preacher can do little to edify the flock, but true preaching captures the heart and shows us Christ, transforming people’s lives. It is in the power of the Spirit, working through the preached Word that the glory of Christ is displayed and folks are drawn to commit their hearts and lives to follow Him. He is not literally displayed before our eyes, but revealed in the hearts of the people, as the Spirit works by and through that Word preached. Mrs. Matthewes-Green has indeed pointed out a real failing of many modern Protestant churches: that of preaching which fails to lift up Christ and only assumes or alludes to the gospel, instead of proclaiming it and pressing home its claims upon the hearers. (See on this point, Michael Horton’s A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003).
Horton makes the valid observation that preaching “is not chiefly an event of instruction, motivation, encouragement, inspiration or exhortation. All of these may be involved, depending on the passage, but the preached Word is primarily a means of grace. . . too often preaching is primarily conceived as an event in which God is the topic but not the actor!” Further, Horton writes that, where preaching is reduced to being merely doctrine or exhortation (vital as these may be to good preaching), “it is no wonder that people eventually sense the loss of God’s active presence and look for other means of grace, other sources of ‘bringing Christ down’ into our daily experience that is threatened by meaninglessness and triviality.” But the assumption that more elaborate worship ceremony and ritual, grounded in ancient tradition would correct that failing, is itself a mistaken direction and a false remedy. The Heidelberg Catechism gets to the heart of the matter by speaking to the vital question of how preaching is a means of grace:
Q.1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death? A. That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Therefore, as preaching lifts up our Lord Christ and displays the grace of God in Jesus, men and women are moved to trust in him for their eternal salvation and consequently, they are motivated by divine and supernatural transformation, to work to please their glorious Savior. What finally kept me from continuing down that road of exploration into Orthodoxy were the concerns and prayers of my wife and the urging of an Episcopalian pastor friend of mine that I read the book, Worship (Guides to the Reformed Tradition. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984) by Hughes Oliphant Old. That book kept me from moving further in the Orthodox direction and reclaimed me for the Reformation, demonstrating how the reformers had understood and learned from the early Church Fathers, a fact I might not have fully appreciated if I had not studied the Fathers first. I still had not fully seen the biblical significance of types and signs as foreshadows of Christ in the history of redemption, which would have answered those arguments about worship, but I did realize that there was too much in Eastern Orthodoxy that could not be reconciled with biblical doctrine (such as prayers to the saints and devotion to the Virgin Mary). I never laid aside the basic theology of the Reformation, but I was willing to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to much that actually was essential to Orthodoxy, but which I could not, in good conscience receive with any honest commitment.
So I was re-committed to the Reformed Faith, but I still felt a lack of substantive ecclesiology and a practice of worship sanctioned by historic Christian tradition. I thought I might find the best of both in evangelical Anglicanism; after all, the Church of England was born in the Reformation and had a reformed confession in the Thirty-Nine Articles and a coherent ecclesiology along with a long-standing tradition of established worship, enshrined in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. I still thought most of Presbyterianism was deficient in both worship and ecclesiology.
By this time we had moved to Atlanta, my wife began working at PCA headquarters, and I was teaching at Beulah Heights Bible College. We became involved with a former Episcopalian church which had left that denomination (ECUSA) and come under the oversight of the Bishop of Bolivia, later to be part of the newly formed American province under the name Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).
I spent 5 years in that church when it was under the Bolivian bishop, teaching an adult Sunday school class with an average attendance of 25-35, and so I thought that I was truly being useful, making use of my Bible training and offering instruction from a Reformed perspective which those folks would not have had otherwise. Personally I was happy and felt useful in teaching the Bible, but I became increasingly uncomfortable with the shallow preaching and Anglo-catholic style ritual practiced there. I soon became compelled to leave that church, especially as they joined the ACNA. My reasons were that the new denomination was not self-consciously Reformed, insisted on paedocommunion for under-aged children, which seemed to me contrary to Scripture (1 Cor. 11: 28) and in this latter issue, did, in fact, explicitly contradict the Reformed Catechism of Thomas Cranmer; also the ACNA exhibited a definite tendency towards mysticism, a subtle embracing of the charismatic movement and romanticized notions of Roman Catholic practices.
Those practices included the wearing of a chasuble for Communion, bowing, making the sign of the cross, the installation of an ombri to house the consecrated reserved sacrament and of a sanctuary light at the front of the church, meant to indicate the presence of the consecrated host. Although both the rector and bishop denied that any of this indicated any adherence to the doctrine of transubstantiation, yet I knew from history that that was their original rationale. Because I knew the history behind these things, I saw that they clearly evidenced flirting with Roman Catholicism. In addition, the church sanctioned the use of the 1979 version of the Book of Common Prayer, which contained material which was not biblical, including prayers for the dead, a down-playing of the role of repentance and one of the Rite 2 services, nick-named “the Star Wars liturgy,” because of its New Age-influenced language!
I had thought that Anglicanism had a coherent ecclesiology, but I began to learn that it was an ecclesiology based on an unbiblical hierarchy, i.e., the model of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, adopted from the structure of the Roman empire: the bishop essentially rules, and there are no ruling elders except the pastor in the local churches or even anything approximating a session. In the local church the rector rules. The vestry is only an advisory committee composed of elected members of the congregation. Gradually, I was starting to see that the authority of Scripture was subject to the interpretation of the bishop, or of the church’s constitution. The structure of church authority is very much a perpetuation of the Roman Catholic model in slightly modified form. When I raised my Scriptural misgivings about serving Communion to very young children, I was threatened by the bishop with being “inhibited,” that is, forbidden to serve Communion in any service where young children might be present. There was no discussion, no desire to deal with the question I was raising from Scripture. This kind of high-handed dealing in place of pastoral counsel had been typical of the Episcopal Church, but now had carried over into the new denomination. It had become clear to me that the Lord was showing me the door. Also, the ACNA is still within the world-wide Anglican Communion: “Our fellowship is not breaking away from the Anglican Communion” (The Global Anglican Future Conference: Final Press Release, June, 2008). ACNA and the other GAFCON churches remain part of the same world-wide ecclesiastical family as The Episcopal Church, which had resisted repeated attempts of the wider Anglican Communion to force it to come to grips with its flagrant apostasy.
So I did some research and was received into the Anglican Orthodox Church (AOC), a small conservative splinter denomination not affiliated with the Archbishop of Canterbury, as the ACNA has been from its inception. My three years in the AOC was spent in a small house–church, preaching and teaching and administering the sacraments in a “low-church evangelical” style of the Anglican tradition. We used the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, notably more orthodox and conservative than the 1979 version, although even in it one can find the influence of both late 19th century liberalism and the Anglo-Catholicism of the Oxford Movement.
By this time, through my own ongoing study, helped a lot by my attendance at two Reformed Worship Conferences, which are held annually at Midway PCA in Powder Springs, GA, I had begun to realize that there is an inherent weakness in Anglicanism, even in the more evangelical expressions, especially in the USA (I cannot speak to the situation in the Church of England). It is a strong tendency to default to Roman Catholic thought and practice (as referred to by Carl Trueman, above). I came to this conclusion as I read Calvin and John Knox and from discussions with the folks in our house-church, most of whom were former Episcopalians. There was sometimes an expressed commitment to certain iconic traditions of Anglicanism that seemed to supersede the commitment to the gospel message and the primacy of Scripture. I began to perceive that many of Episcopalian background regard the traditions of Anglicanism as a kind of idol. The vestments, music, architecture, ceremonies, even the reading of Scripture itself are all seen as parts of the tradition, and the tradition is the main thing. A strict observance of the church calendar seems to hold sentimental value for many, and the correct performance of the calendar-appropriate services is quite important. In that environment, the gospel and the true preaching of the Cross can easily become lost or overshadowed by the tradition. That overshadowing is made all the more dangerous because it is enwrapped with so much of the outward trappings of Christianity.
On this matter, see Bishop J. C. Ryle’s brilliant and lengthy essay, The Cross: A Call to the Fundamentals of Religion. His comments are all the more relevant because he writes from within the Church of England. You can hear the passion in his words, boldly affirming the preaching of the gospel as indeed a means of grace:
Reader, as long as you live beware of a religion in which there is not much of the cross. . . There are hundreds of places of worship, in this day, in which there is everything except the cross. There is carved oak and sculptured stone. There is stained glass and brilliant painting. There are solemn services and a constant round of ordinances. But the real cross is not there. Jesus crucified is not proclaimed from the pulpit. . . And hence all is wrong. Beware of such places of worship. . . There are thousands of religious books published in our times, in which there is everything except the cross. They are full of directions about sacraments and praises of the church. They abound in exhortations about holy living, and rules for the attainment of perfection. They have plenty of fonts and crosses both inside and outside. But the real cross of Christ is left out. The Savior and His dying love are either not mentioned, or mentioned in an unscriptural way. And hence they are worse than useless. . . Churches, ministers and sacraments are all useful in their way, but they are not Christ crucified. Do not give Christ’s glory to another. “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”
Also, the tendency toward Rome is enhanced by the elements shared with Catholicism already present in Anglicanism, due to a large extent, I’m sure, to the continuing influence of the Oxford Movement from the nineteenth century. This tendency, with the attitude of many Anglicans that the embracing of Catholic style worship and piety lends respectability, appears to produce a cultural sophistication that can cause some Anglicans to think their church superior to those of other Protestants. In fact, some in the Anglican camp apparently do not wish to be identified with Protestantism at all, preferring to think of their church tradition as a whole other branch of Christendom, between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism and equal to them, along side of the Orthodox! It is worth noting that prior to the nineteenth century Oxford Movement, none of the recognizably Catholic elements were present in Episcopal churches. No cassock, alb or chasuble was worn: only the black Geneva gown. Communion tables were of wood and were not called altars; there were no crucifixes or candles on the table, no making the sign of the cross and the priests were not called “father.” All of these Roman Catholic influences were introduced in the late 18oo’s.
I remember a joke told me by an old friend, who happened to be a southern Episcopalian:
An Episcopalian went to his rector and asked, “Is the Episcopal Church the only way to Heaven?” “Well, no,” the rector replied, “But it’s the only way a gentleman would take.”
Like all good jokes, there’s perhaps more than a grain of truth in this one.
I began to find myself appreciating more and more the position of the Puritans (whose original goal was to further the Reformation of the Church of England, to “purify” that church) and the 16th century Reformers over against that of Anglicanism. I have found these books to be very helpful: John Calvin’s The Piety of John Calvin, ed. Ford Lewis Battles (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1978), John Owen’s Discourse on Liturgies (The Works of John Owen, vol. XV. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), The Select Practical Writings of John Knox (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011) and Samuel Miller’s Thoughts on Public Prayer (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1985).
PART TWO: LESSONS LEARNED FROM INSTITUTIONALISM
In seeking to articulate what I have learned from this pilgrimage, I’d like to return to Carl Trueman’s premise that the Catholic Church is “the default position in the West.” If he is right, and I think that he is, it might be instructive to ask why. It strikes me that the answer is very likely the same as that which could explain the phenomenon of the agitators of the first century, sometimes called “Judaizers,” who were teaching that to truly be Christian, Gentiles had first to be converts to Judaism. What would have motivated those Jewish agitators who professed faith in Christ to think that way and cause trouble for Peter (Gal. 2:11-14) and Paul (Gal. 5:1-15) in apostolic times? I suspect it was esteem for Judaism’s sense of historical continuity and institutional unity. They had accepted that Christ was the promised Messiah, but they still took self-righteous pride in belonging to the nation chosen by God as His people, to whom belonged the temple in Jerusalem with its magnificent architecture, the elaborate ceremonial of the Mosaic sacrificial system, the beautiful high priestly vestments, the rich imagery of the Jewish liturgical calendar, the pilgrimage feasts, the heritage of the historic land and the defining sense of community , the sign of inclusion to which was circumcision – all of this had been commanded by God and was subsequently seen as essential, an expression of a rich culture that marked Jewish identity; the identity and work of the Messiah apparently seemed to them only an addendum to that religious culture!
This brings us to the heart of the issue. We do not gather to celebrate an idea or a tradition; we do not assemble to contemplate a concept or revel in our history or merely enjoy each other’s fellowship, much less to entertain ourselves, or congratulate ourselves on belonging to an institution of world-wide significance; no, we meet together to adore God, and that through His only begotten Son, who died and rose again for us and who, by the Spirit, transforms lives through the ministry of His Word in the context of His assembled Congregation.
The Galatian agitators found it difficult to leave all of the Old Testament religious/cultural world-view; they had not understood the earth-shaking significance of the person and work of our Lord Christ! They failed to see that all of those Old Testament ordinances were types and signs pointing to Christ, and when He is revealed in all His glory, the past signs are no longer relevant. Signs along the highway are important when you’re driving to reach your destination, but if you confuse them with your destination, you’re lost. The study of these Old Testament signs is worthwhile and immensely significant for us today for what they can show us of the deep figural meaning and practical application of Christ’s life and work — our very understanding of the gospel, for that they are indispensible — but there is no longer any reason to practice them. Just as it may be instructive to stage a re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, we might build a life-sized replica of the tabernacle or temple, but they would only be elaborate museum pieces, not the real thing. In fact, if we insist on requiring the continuing of Old Covenant practices and ordinances, we are denying the reality to which they pointed. The typal figures must give way to the Reality. This explains why Paul wrote what he did:
Galatians 5:2-6 Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. 3 And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. 4 You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. 5 For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.
I have no doubt that Paul would have spoken along the same lines if the agitators had insisted on the worship of the temple or keeping the kosher laws. (All that might well have been part of the bigger picture). They were appealing to that sense of Jewish historic continuity and cultural and institutional identity, a “rock-solid communion” that will demand a lot out of you, “without catering to your individual whims” (much like both Orthodoxy and Catholicism)! Clearly such a rigorous demand had an appeal to anyone hungry for a challenge and eager to please God, but it had nothing to do with the gospel; it was the appeal of believing you could earn God’s favor by rigorous submission, instead of embracing the free offer of grace by faith. The motivation to please God has nothing in the world to do with any yearning for a challenge or with earning any standing with God; rather, it has to do with the God-given awareness that the believing sinner owes everything — his very life, both now and in all eternity – to Jesus. We are motivated to strive to please our Redeemer out of sheer love and gratitude for him who died and rose again for us!
This subtle and deceptive move away from the gospel of grace towards a works-righteousness, a religion of human effort that can “bring Christ down” into our human experience, I believe, is exactly what happened in the history of the Church; it came into its own in the fourth century with the conversion of Constantine and the legitimization of Christianity and its subsequent recognition as the official state religion of the empire. The Church began to take on the pomp and ceremony to which the Roman court had become accustomed. The clergy now began to dress like Roman officials, wearing the stole that represented state authority. In time, as transubstantiation became the norm for understanding the Lord’s Supper, the ministers adopted the chasuble of the old Roman pagan priesthood, an outer garment worn to protect the costly vestments from the splattered blood when sacrifices were performed. As the Christian Mass was a “bloodless sacrifice,” the chasuble became more ornate in itself and its final evolution was the gorgeous gothic chasuble of the Middle Ages, still used in today’s Catholic and Episcopal churches. I can actually remember being impressed the first time I attended a service in which the priest donned a beautiful gold and scarlet chasuble for Communion. Why was I impressed? I found it impressive because it represented a dramatic and emotional human effort to “bring Christ down.” John 3:16, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, should have furnished all the “impressiveness” I could possibly need.
Other practices, such as the use of incense, the formation of an elaborate liturgical calendar and liturgical drama were introduced into medieval Christian worship, practices borrowed from Old Testament worship, seemingly justified by their biblical associations, but all of which were intended to further the emotional impact of the Church’s worship, a sense of a mystical atmosphere, insuring a duly solemn experience for the worshippers, while providing the emperor with a setting commensurate with the dignity of his office and of the imperial state church. Such theatrical embellishments would also enhance the authority of the emperor and encourage loyalty to the state. In the East, there arose the concept of Caesaropapism, the identification of the emperor as the divinely ordained head of the Church on earth. In the West, the Roman popes filled the vacuum left by the fall of the western empire and took on the title, “Vicar of Christ on Earth.”
Certainly it is right that our worship gatherings be characterized by an atmosphere conducive to worship, allowing for both joyous praise and quiet reflection, but both Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy worked to set the stage, as it were, to artificially attempt to create an air of mystery, to create an environment that would overwhelm the senses of the worshippers and raise them to God’s presence by means of the institutional environment.
All of these historical developments had the effect of distracting from the simplicity of the believer’s devotion to Christ and the simplicity of gospel proclamation. Certainly the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians is relevant here, for it was becoming a historical reality in the medieval church:
2 Corinthians 11:2-3 For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. 3 But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
I remember an incident about thirty years ago, when we were at New Life Church, PCA, in Abington, PA. New Life was meeting at the local YMCA, and I was working at the hospital just up the street. This was when Dr. Jack Miller was pastor of New Life. One Monday, after a particularly moving worship service and sermon the previous day, I thought I’d take a walk on my lunch hour down to the Y to reflect and remember that special worship experience. But when I got there, the Y was very busy with all of its daily business. People were milling around, working out in the gym (where we had met), and it no longer was the same place it had been the day before. The royal coach had turned back into a pumpkin! I was disappointed, but I learned that day that no external place or surroundings can retain the status of a holy space; only the Lord’s presence by His Spirit can manifest His presence. The Lord had done that the previous day in the meeting of His gathered people. Andrew Bonar, who travelled the Land of Palestine in the nineteenth century on a mission of Jewish evangelism for the Church of Scotland made a similar comment: that the Spirit was needed for any sense of God’s presence, even there, in the land of the Bible, with all its biblical associations, just as much as at his home in Scotland! (Andrew Bonar, Mission of Inquiry to the Jews). The ancient temple itself was no longer a holy place, once the Glory had departed! We cannot catch, tame or guarantee the Spirit’s presence by building the appropriate architecture or performing the right rituals; we can only wait on the Lord with prayerful and receptive hearts, made ready by faith and trusting God’s promises in His Word.
A contemporary British Anglican, Mark Ashton, had this to say concerning this important issue (Worship by the Book):
God has promised to bless the preaching of Jesus Christ. He has not promised to bless denominational distinctives. If Anglicans continue to preach Anglicanism and not the gospel, Anglicanism will continue to die. But if, as Anglicans we preach the gospel, the Church of England may yet have a future in the purposes of God.
We may notice that in the Middle Ages the Bible and Scriptural exposition recedes into the background; it was becoming only one tool among many used to help produce the appropriate emotional impact. When the Bible is considered a part of the Church’s tradition, or that tradition is regarded as equal to the Bible in authority, then the gospel is compromised and overshadowed. The Orthodox say that the Church created the Bible, not the other way around. The Anglican fathers spoke of the Church being supported by Scripture, Reason and Tradition (the famous “three-legged stool” analogy), although never intending to subordinate Scripture to a position equaled by the other two, nevertheless it had that effect. And after Latin was no longer the spoken language of the people, its retention in the worship of the West served to add to the mystical and emotional atmosphere, all the more, since it was not comprehended, providing an emotionally and sentimentally satisfying worship experience, perhaps, but effectually obscuring the gospel. The Church throughout history has often witnessed the tendency to confuse mysticism with spirituality!
What was the big picture of what was happening in the Church? A real clue is found in Paul’s argumentation against works-righteousness in Romans:
Romans 10:6-9 But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down from above) 7 or, ” ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.
Michael Horton, in A Better Way, brings an important insight as he comments on Romans 10:6-8:
The spirit of works-righteousness says, “How can I climb up to God, and bring Christ down to me, where I am, in my own experience?” . . . Martin Luther would talk about ladders that people climb in order to make it into God’s presence: mysticism, merit and speculation were the ladders he had in mind. These same ladders are plentiful today. Scores of methods abound for pulling God down out of heaven, to manipulate him into doing what we want him to do when we want him to do it. . . Today people still want to see, touch, and control God. They will do almost anything to be where the “action” is, where God has been conjured down out of heaven, whether it is flying to Toronto, Pensacola, or even Lourdes. Not content with hearing God’s Word, they want to see God’s glory.
Seen in this light, the trend of the Church to attempt to create an atmosphere meant to enhance the worship experience is basically motivated by human efforts to “pull God down,” to orchestrate the experience of worship, to manipulate the subjective sense of God’s presence for the people. It almost reduces the concept of God to an experience, or source of an experience, instead of a real encounter with a living Person. Horton goes on to say, “Throughout the history of Israel, idolatry was the Big Sin . . . the sin from which all else was seen to flow.” This desire to make use of worship and its theatrical elements to control and manipulate the people’s experience is shown to be, at its heart, an attempt to control God, and so moves dangerously close to bearing more of a resemblance to magic than to true worship, and so is a manifestation of idolatry.
The traditional account of the conversion of the Russians to Eastern Orthodoxy is revealing, I think. Prince Vladimir of the Keivan Rus in the tenth century decided he needed a uniform religion to unite the people if he was to successfully build his empire; so he sent emissaries to explore the world’s religions. They visited Rome to investigate Catholicism, Constantinople, to investigate Orthodoxy; they also explored Judaism and Islam. They returned with the recommendation to go with Byzantine Orthodoxy, for they said, as they had been present for the worship at Hagia Sofia, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.” They had been so overwhelmed and impressed by the ritual, the icons, the incense and the stunning beauty of the Orthodox worship service. No mention apparently was made of the message of the gospel.
The Reformers asked a question, no doubt a new one in their time: How does God say that He wants to be worshipped? That very question relates to God as a Person who has spoken in His Word, not simply as a traditional concept or an abstract idea. The “regulative principle” which came out of the Reformation, namely, that all worship was to be according to Scripture, resulted from that reflection; and we might add that our worship is to be appropriate to our place in the flow of God’s redemptive history. The entire Book of Hebrews helps put us into the context of that redemptive history, as evidenced in its introduction:
Hebrews 1:1-4 God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; 3 who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.
It is a more than a little disquieting to realize that the deceitfulness of our hearts is capable of making pretty much anything in this life into an idol. Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods (New York: Dutton, the Penguin Group, 2009) is insightful on this, and John Calvin’s often quoted statement that our hearts are “idol factories,” is an important insight. The Apostle John’s last sentence of his first epistle might at first glance appear to be a quaint non-sequitor, but actually is a summation of all that he has written in that epistle:
1 John 5:20-21 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. 21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.
Paul’s parting admonition to the Ephesian elders is equally relevant to our discussion of idolatry, for a more subtle form of it comes about when those who should be spiritual leaders in the church conspire to use religious devotion to further their own ambitions:
Acts 20:28-32 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God,1 which he obtained with his own blood.2 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 “Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. 32 “So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
Also, Thomas Cranmer’s comment on the importance of Scripture is worthwhile, for the temptation to idolatry inherently substitutes another authority, in addition to, or instead of, God’s Word, the Bible:
If there were any word of God beside the Scripture, we could never be certain of God’s Word; and if we be uncertain of God’s Word, the devil might bring in among us a new word, a new doctrine, a new faith, a new church, a new god, yea himself to be a god. If the Church and the Christian faith did not stay itself upon the Word of God certain, as upon a sure and strong foundation, no man could know whether he had a right faith, and whether he were in the true Church of Christ, or a synagogue of Satan.
It behooves us to question anything that is inserted into our worship, asking what purpose it serves, as well as its scriptural legitimacy. In fact, I remember a very telling line from the TV mini-series, Young Catherine, about the woman who was to become known to history as Catherine the Great of Russia. She has been brought from the Lutheran German nobility as the wife of the future czar of Russia, and so was expected to fit in with Russian culture, including the embracing of Russian Orthodoxy. I think the screenwriter displayed some real insight: One day she asks a priest, “Why do you need all these” – Icons, ceremonies, incense, etc. — “to draw near to God?” The priest’s answer is very interesting: “We don’t need them to draw near to God, but to protect ourselves from Him.” That statement may or may not be historically accurate, and perhaps no Orthodox priest would endorse it, but it does perhaps shed some light on why some of these elaborate traditions have come about. As Michael Horton has put it, we naturally want a “controlled environment where God can be controlled instead of worshipped.” If the iconostasis is suddenly thrown aside, and we stand naked in God’s presence, “Suddenly he is not at our disposal but we are at his. A faint glimpse of his blinding majesty and holiness sends us running for shelter . . . but there is nowhere to hide” (A Better Way, 71). We do well to become curious about our traditional attachments!
At the very least, Paul’s warning (Acts 20:29) tells us that the devil attacks the Church from within, as well as from without. When the Roman persecutions ceased with the accession of Constantine, then interior distractions from the gospel began to materialize. We are, I believe, indeed right that all sin ultimately boils down to idolatry, “the sin behind the sin,” then nothing would be more subtle than idolatry operating as a cult of personality or under the mask of Christian worship!
PART THREE: THE NEED FOR A BIBLICAL ECCLESIOLOGY
It is clear from Scripture that the Church, the Body of Christ and Congregation of God’s covenant people is of great importance (Matt. 16:18; Heb. 12:23; Eph. 5:26-27). It seems to me from history, that one of the biggest idols to arise in the history of the Church has often been the institutional church itself, which grew along side the concept of “Christendom” in the Middle Ages. Not that the Church does not need organization and order, but the more it’s connected to this world’s power structures, bound to and identified with property, politics and the state, the pursuit of wealth and power – all of which characterized the medieval church – the less it has functioned effectively as the Body of Christ. The Apostle Paul’s warning above should also warn us of the danger of assuming an infallible church. I believe we in the Reformed tradition need to revisit the works of the Reformers on ecclesiology and do further reflection in articulating a biblical ecclesiology for ourselves.
Clearly a true and accurate understanding of the biblical doctrine of ecclesiology will go a long way toward combating much of the false and confusing ideas of the nature of the Church. The truth is, that overly elaborate worship and institutional pride can become a distraction, both from a true concept of the Church and from the gospel. Unscriptural worship inevitably becomes an idol, that can fool us into thinking that our worship is somehow inadequate if all the proper elements are not present and performed correctly, but such a mindset has more in common with magic and paganism than with worship the is “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23, 24). Unbiblical worship obscures Christ and His kingship claims upon our lives. If Roman Catholicism is the default position of Christianity in the West, it is evidence of this tendency toward an idolatry of the church as an institution, and the answer is to be found in the Scripture and by God’s grace, reflected in the work of the Reformers.
How do we “unpack” the Scriptural terms for the Church? I believe T. David Gordon was correct, when he said at a recent Reformed Worship Conference, that, “We would all do ourselves a favor, if, whenever we came to the word, ‘church’ in Scripture, we would read, ‘assembly,’ instead.” I believe that as we come more to a biblical ecclesiology, we will begin to understand better how the highly institutionalized church, with its elaborate worship has missed the mark; it then looses its appeal, and we may return to the Scriptural model articulated by the Reformers.
The Greek word, ekklesia, translated “church” in our versions, but significantly, was consistently translated, “congregation,” by William Tyndale in the sixteenth century. An anonymous blogger once wrote this comment on the meaning of the word:
Does all of this matter? I think it does, because when I began to substitute the words “gathering” and “congregation” and “community” and “assembly” for the word “church,” I began to get a picture that the church is more about people who were connected through a supernatural kinship – and that all their resources and abilities were meant to be used to produce a continuation of the life and activity of Christ Himself – instead of an event that is required to include certain traditions or practices.
The translation “church” carries an institutional connotation, and actually is derived from an entirely different Greek word, kyriokos, which appears only twice in Scripture and is an adjective meaning, “belonging to the Lord;” it is found in 1 Corinthians 11:20 and Revelation 1:10. It found its way into German as, kirche and Scottish as kirk. But ekklesia was the word used by the Greek translators of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, to translate the Hebrew, qahal, the word used in Scripture for the assembly of God’s people (see Jer. 31:8, and many other references), the convocation, assembly, the organized company of God’s redeemed people — Israel, in the Old Testament — and finding its eschatological fulfillment in the Body of Christ in the New.
As I have been telling my own story, I have necessarily focused on certain churches and traditions in my own experience; I did not intend to vilify particular churches or their traditions, as if no true Christians could be in them, which I know is not the case, and I hope I did not create that impression. But, as Carl Trueman has said, “We live in an age where taste, not truth, holds sway; or perhaps better, we live in an age where taste is truth. Thus, to claim truth relative to God is distasteful because it automatically implies that some other position is wrong or inferior.” I have sought to write honestly from my own experience, expressing what the Lord has shown me in this journey. Certainly the Spirit is not limited by our human weaknesses and errors, nor is idolatry limited to traditionalism of the older institutional churches. But I think I have, by God’s grace, begun to learn that any church must be careful of what it canonizes as indispensible for religious experience; no practice can substitute for, or automatically guarantee, the reality of the heart of faith seeking God through the Savior, together with the company of God’s redeemed people. For that, we must all cry out in dependence on the Spirit, trusting in the promises of God’s Word, and when we do, we do indeed experience a foretaste of Heaven, in whatever congregation of God’s people we may find ourselves in worship. John Bunyan’s description of prayer comes close to a definition of worship:
Prayer is the sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the Church, with submission in faith to the will of God.
I also want to say that I am not writing against liturgical worship as such; actually every church has a liturgy, whether they call it that or not – public service in which the people participate in common – and John Calvin, Martin Luther and John Knox, in concert with all the Reformers, had nothing against liturgy in the strict sense or even the use of written prayers to some extent. Problems arise where a particular form is required and prescribed by church authorities, limiting freedom and hindering the leading of the Spirit, as if the right form might guarantee true, heartfelt worship. Helpful books in this regard are: Terry L. Johnson, Leading in Worship (Oak Ridge, TN: The Covenant Foundation, 1996), Hughes Oliphant Old, Leading in Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), Robert G. Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), D. G. Hart, Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition ((Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) and D. A. Carson, ed., Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).
How then should we describe and attempt to articulate exactly what Reformed, that is, biblical, worship in the New Testament era should be like? Or, to put it another way, what should be the biblical character of our worship? This topic is far too large to be dealt with in any detail in this paper, but perhaps I can make some basic observations. I think Michael Horton has succinctly described worship in its essence in his book, A Better Way, 19, in these words:
Imagine the worship service as a magnificent theater of divine action. There is the pulpit, lofty and grand –this is God’s balcony from which he conducts the drama. Beneath it is the baptismal font, where the announcement, “The promise is for you and for your children” is fulfilled. Also prominent is the communion table, where weak and disturbed consciences “taste and see that the Lord is good.” That which God has done to, for and within his people in the past eras of biblical history he is doing here, now, for us, sweeping us into the tide of his gracious plan.
The image or analogy of a theater as the setting for a worship gathering is not inappropriate; what is inappropriate is anything artificial, contrived, and manipulative. Calvin has described the universe, the scene of God’s creation and governing works, as a “dazzling theater” (Institutes 1.5.8), “this most glorious theater” (1.14.20), “This magnificent theater of heaven earth, crammed with innumerable miracles, Paul calls the ‘wisdom of God’” (2.6.1). Calvin goes on to say (1.6.2) that Scripture is essential for the right understanding of the creation theater:
Therefore, however fitting it may be for man seriously to turn his eyes to contemplate God’s works, since he has been placed in this most glorious theater to be a spectator of them, it is fitting that he prick up his ears to the Word, the better to profit. . . no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture.
The weekly worship service is a kind of “reality check,” a time when believers are called to re-align their priorities once again, according to God’s stated plan. It is a time when we may corporately confess our sinfulness, in case we’ve slid into self-righteousness and self-trust, and once again, we may hear God’s Word of forgiveness and absolution in the name of our Savior Christ. As we hear God’s Word preached and applied to our lives, and we are led by God’s Spirit once again to know that his grace meets us where we really live. We can join our voices with all God’s people assembled as his Congregation, the local expression of the Body of Christ, to pray for our and the world’s needs and for the good of that Church, to praise him with heart-felt joy and gratitude, having been nourished by the Word preached and by the Word made visible in the sacraments, and we are sent back into the theater of the world with his benediction ringing in our ears, edified for another week of serving him in the role to which he has called us. For this we do not need any artificial theatrics or visually impressive artistry but only the Word preached in the Spirit’s power, showing us Jesus. “Sir, we would see Jesus” should be carved on every pulpit in the land, for every preacher to read as he gets up to preach. And unbelievers are saved from eternal death, drawn to Christ as he is lifted up in the preaching, while gradually believers are transformed into the very likeness of their Savior.
In closing, I think a quote from Carl Trueman’s Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Fearn, Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2011) is worth our reflection, as he comments on a point relevant to this discussion:
The whole point of the Reformation from a theological perspective is that it was more than just a dispute over forms. . . The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have a more sacramental form of worship than, say, the Reformed, who emphasize more the Word written and preached; but the essence of the two, Christ, is fundamentally the same, even despite significant differences in theology. The Reformers, however, would have had no truck with such an approach: as far as they were concerned, the battle was not one between forms or emphases or traditions; it was between those who had the gospel and those who were committed to hiding it or opposing it or abolishing it altogether. (Emphases mine).
I have no desire to be unkind in these remarks, but I do believe, if I am to have any hope of being helpful, I must be honest, not judging anyone’s hearts, but rather church traditions in the light of Scripture. I believe the Roman Catholics have made an idol out of institutionalism, the Orthodox, of their tradition, both of which are present throughout Protestantism in different degrees, and many U.S. Anglicans have made an idol out of a vague romanticized and self-driven idea called “Anglicanism.” All of us would do well to return to the Reformation’s emphasis on the Scriptural simplicity of the gospel, centered on Christ, preaching the Word of God written, praying for the enlightening empowerment of the Spirit.
Much that passes for “Anglicanism” is actually a return to the medieval church’s supplements to the Bible, practices and traditions which that church claimed were ancient and apostolic. W. Robert Godfrey summarizes Calvin well: “The church to be the true church of God should recognize that everything God’s people need for true religion is to be found in the Bible” (John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor. Crossway Books, 2009, 176). He goes on to quote Calvin directly:
For this reason we freely censure that tyranny of human traditions, which is imposed upon the world in the name of the church. Nor do we hold the church in contempt, as our adversaries falsely assert, in order to make us hated. . . They are themselves the most outrageous violators of the church . . . in their combination of impudence and wickedness shown in their incessant clamoring about the authority of the church, while they take no notice of the command of the Lord, or of the obedience due from the church to that command.
When John Knox was with the English congregation in Frankfort, he and others drew up an outline of the English prayer book and sent it to Calvin for his comments. Calvin responded on January 20, 1555:
In the Liturgy of England, I see that there were many tolerable foolish things. By these words I mean, that there was not that purity which was to be desired. . . I cannot tell what they mean which so greatly delight in the leavings of popish dregs. (Quoted by Lloyd E. Berry in his Introduction to The Geneva Bible: 1560 Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2007, 6).
Again, we see in Calvin’s words the earnest desire of the Reformers to return to the purity of the biblical worship of the apostolic Church. The five mottos of the Reformation were, Sola Scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, soli Deo gloria. As R. Burk Parsons has recently said in Tabletalk (November, 2012): “And, make no mistake, we are not justified by believing the solas but by believing in Christ, and we guard these solas not merely for the sake of an event that took place five hundred years ago in Europe, but for the sake of the event that took place two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem.”
The history of worship in the Church is in large part a history of religious people putting rituals, ceremonies and trappings of religion with a hierarchy of church authority on the Roman model in the way of worshipping God, effectively distracting from the “simplicity that is in Christ.” The Apostle Paul warned the Corinthian church of this very danger:
2 Corinthians 11:2-3 For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. 3 But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
Although that history of distraction in worship did take place, our Lord did not leave his Church in that state; indeed, He “chases us down to do us good” (as John Larson once put it, in a thought reminiscent of Francis Thompson’s poem, The Hound of Heaven). And the history of the Church’s worship also includes that of those saints who, by God’s gracious intervention, actively broke through those distractions and rediscovered biblical authority in order to worship Christ sincerely, in the purity of the Word of God by the power of the Spirit. God, whom Luther called “the Great Iconoclast,” has said that He would not give his glory to another (Isaiah 42:8; 48:11). Since the Father is indeed seeking worshippers in Spirit and in truth, it is our task as believers to follow the Reformers as they followed the Holy Spirit and pursue worship purged of anything that would distract us from our Lord Christ.
John 4:23-24 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.
This, then, is a brief telling of my story of how the Lord has brought me back to the glorious simplicity of Reformed, biblical corporate worship, for which journey I am deeply thankful. That worship is glorious, because through the straightforward preaching of the Word, Christ is displayed in all His glory as the Spirit works by and through that Word, and simple, in that that worship, purged of human invention, leaves room for the drawing on the part of the Holy Spirit of our hearts toward Christ in adoration. My prayer is that my personal story might be of some help to someone who may be wrestling through some of these same issues. I will close with this Scripture from the Apostle Paul, as he describes what goes on in preaching; he makes no mention of anything external needed, recommended or even suggested:
2 Corinthians 4:5-6 For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Soli deo gloria!
Dr. David Jay Miller attends Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Athens, Ga.