Three Principles for Reformed (and Reforming) Worship

What we the Church do in our worship is not some invented thing, an attempt at pleasing a God who is unknowable.

The Church is a divinely ordered society with divinely ordered worship. In its local expressions it will naturally differ but scripture does not permit it to ape the culture in which it ministers (2 Cor. 6:14-18). That the Church’s teaching and worship will be foreign to those outside is inevitable. Not only is it counterproductive to apologize for this by attempting to disguise it beneath a veneer of the common, such capitulation in appearance can lead to the collapse of standards in other areas. It is all too easy for us, in our natural state fearing man more than God, to start out with the good intention of appealing to those who find the Church an uncomfortable place because of its formality or its impersonality and end up similarly dropping our standards of belief or order because they’re inconvenient or difficult for non-Christians to comprehend.

With such a wealth of resources available on the topic of worship I sometimes feel as though I can add little to the Church’s ongoing discussion but once again I have been led to speak out in what may now be considered the Worship Cold War. With ministers and church members holding differing perspectives safely sequestered in cocoons of contradictory scholarship and taking advantage of varying conferences and courses is there any hope for consensus? I have substantial doubts. However, I am confident that those who still adhere to an orthodox understanding of the roles of scripture and the Church will be able to come forth from their respective bunkers and unite around a set of clear principles that should define worship no matter the time or place. It is with the intention of presenting these principles that I write this essay.

As background to the principles, I begin by making a statement of the kind that should be familiar to students of Reformed worship: While the bible is the ultimate authority in all matters of doctrine and practice it is not a handbook for worship nor does it contain a neatly ordered checklist to be applied in all circumstances. The holy scriptures are the inspired Word of God, without error, but mediated through a particular historical context. Thus, for those of us who believe in the cessation of sign-gifts, we will not structure our worship to include time for prophecies yet we will carefully heed the instruction that all be done “decently and in order.” It is the principle of order and cohesion that comes through even when the direct instructions to the church at Corinth are understood as no longer applicable to today’s Church. Similarly, Paul’s instruction that women pray with their heads covered will be recognized as demonstrating the principle of modesty.

Having noted the above hermeneutic to be typical of Reformed theology, let us direct ourselves to the principles which I believe are the most clear biblical prescriptions regarding worship in the age between the incarnation of Christ and His appearing in judgment.

These are:

1) “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24)
2) “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40)
3) “with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28)

These three neatly accord with:

1) the nature and content of worship
2) the structure of worship
3) the sensibility of worship

Principle 1- In Spirit and In Truth

Of the first principle, “in spirit and in truth,” it should be said that this is not some amorphous idea, indefinable and open to interpretation. Matthew Henry is right when he says of Christ’s discourse in John 4, “The stress is not to be laid upon the place where we worship God, but upon the state of mind in which we worship him.” Similarly, “The way of worship which Christ has instituted is rational and intellectual, and refined from those external rites with which the Old Testament worship was both clouded and clogged.” Of the worshipers he says, “… All should, and they [the true worshipers] will, worship God in spirit and in truth. It is spoken of as their character, and as their duty.” He goes on to observe the necessity of dependence on the Holy Spirit to make our worship acceptable to the Father through Christ and interprets truth as equivalent to sincerity, “truth in the inward part.” I would agree with this last point but go further. Not only is sincerity required but sincerity based on the objective reality of God’s self-revelation in His word. One may, with all sincerity, worship a god who is not the God of the bible, or perhaps as is all too common today, a god who is somewhat like the God of the bible. For worship to be true it must be both sincere and comprehensive of the fulness of the Trinity as revealed in the scriptures.

At this point content becomes the primary concern. Admitting that one should worship God with a right state of mind or a right heart before Him is easy. Less easy, especially in today’s climate of often timorous orthodoxy is obedience to the fulness of apostolic teaching. Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28 assumes the presentation of the complete apostolic deposit. “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” implies nothing less than the entirety of both Christ’s public teaching and His private, personal instruction to the disciples. The apostolic office is such that we may comfortably rest in the validity of any doctrine taught in their writings, knowing these doctrines to have come from Christ Himself. In the case of St. Paul in particular we see a supernatural commission from the risen Lord taking a prominent place in His authoritative presentation (Gal. 1:12). With this in mind, it seems not only cowardly but positively wicked to neglect any part of God’s self-revelation either in the Old Testament scriptures or the Gospels and writings of the apostles.

If we believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the scriptures- in their being breathed-out by the Holy Spirit, their essentially supernatural nature in all their parts, that they are really and truly the word of God, a book with one Divine Author- we will do nothing other than faithfully proclaim them in their entirety, leaving nothing out no matter how difficult or offensive to contemporary sensibilities. To attempt to soften the word of God is to place a muzzle on the mouth of the Spirit; to neglect parts of His word is to neglect fellowship with Him as He has commanded. In our worship this means reading and expounding the scriptures in their fulness, singing the word of God back to Him in the form of Psalms and hymns, and performing the few ceremonies which He has commanded in the New Testament (those connected to baptism and the Lord’s Supper) with respect and care for detail.

Such comprehensive presentation of God’s word necessarily will entail the use of biblical vocabulary and biblical narrative. Preaching will not neglect words like justification and propitiation. Hymns will convey a depth of content; even a single central theme will acquire multiple avenues of expression. The simplest of the Psalms are never flat or dull. They are filled with vivid imagery and their strong expressions of feeling are rooted in the long history of redemption. Childish poetry that demonstrates little skill or understanding of the multifaceted nature of biblical themes is not worthy to be placed alongside the scriptures themselves. Lyrics that neglect biblical narrative and context are also inappropriate. It is insufficient to declare one’s love in the abstract without a tangible object of that affection or reason for the love of it. When coming into the presence of God we must constantly be asking ourselves what this God says about Himself in the scriptures and how He says we are to respond to His self-revelation. Yes, even our response to God must be conditioned by His fatherly instruction.

Principle 2- Decently and In Order

The second principle, “decently and in order,” ought to be familiar to any who claim a catholic and Reformed heritage. Here I use the term “Reformed” in the broadest sense and therefore include not only the Continental Reformed and Scottish churches but those Lutheran bodies in Germany and Sweden as well as the Church of England. In the American churches the combined influence of revivalism, the charismatic movement, and popular culture (which is, I believe, in our time inherently dis-ordered) has brought about a seismic shift in the way worship is perceived. I firmly believe that the Church is its own culture and possesses a distinct way of thinking, speaking, and behaving but it is not this alone that makes the Church’s worship different from actions pursued by unbelievers.

The ordered nature of Reformed worship reflects the ordered nature of our God who is Himself a God of order and not of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). In worship we do more than present our public service (leitourgia) to Him; we consciously re-order our whole selves- heart, soul, strength, and mind- and thus re-center our universe around Him. We do this by submitting to His guidance regarding the proper ordering of our worship. It is no small point to note that we are enabled properly to re-order ourselves because He first orders us to receive His instruction; the Lord is ever the prime mover.

Through the work of the Holy Spirit there is effected in worship a transformation of the very substance of space and time. We are brought into the court of heaven by God’s own word which entices us to worship. In the ancient liturgies this was the purpose of the Introit (now typically replaced with a spoken call to worship) which, right from the beginning, demonstrates the rationale for the Church’s communal activity. Take, for example, the text provided in the Sarum Graduale for the second Sunday in Advent:

“O people of Syon, behold, the Lord is nigh at hand to redeem the nations: and in the gladness of your heart the Lord shall cause his glorious voice to be heard. Hear, O thou Shepherd of Israel: thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep. Glory be to the Father &c.”

Observe the emphasis on God’s promised redemption; His word of promise in the scriptures is steadfast and sure. We are so prone to forget God’s promises to us that we need to hear Him speak repeatedly of His covenant faithfulness. So often in the history of Israel did God say, “I will remember my covenant that is between me and you…” (Gen. 9:15) and “I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips” (Ps. 89:34). We remember and celebrate His covenant love by bringing His words back to Him in the context of worship. The Lord has a people; He will save them and will not tarry. We thus begin our worship by recalling God’s word, submitting ourselves to that word to the end that we be brought into a right relation with God who is highly exalted, whose throne is above the heavens.

The order of Christian worship has always followed a logical pattern drawn from the acknowledgement of God’s calling of His people on His own terms. It reflects the scripture’s revelation of the rightly ordered relationship between God and Man. Having been called into His presence we confess our sins and receive His word of pardon and absolution. We then respond in praise to this unmerited forgiveness. Here the ancient liturgies placed the Gloria in excelsis, an effusion of praise following the penitence of the Kyries. We next hear the word of God in both the Old and New Testaments and confess our faith (Credo) in the Triune God as revealed therein. Then we hear the word preached and are able to judge the faithfulness of the minister’s proclamation by the Church’s faith together confessed. So flows forward the inexorable liturgical stream, sweeping aside our dis-ordered lives and replacing them with new spiritual life ordered according to God’s word, presenting to Him a worship that is acceptable through Christ our mediator.

This worship culminates in the great eucharistic prayer, a sometimes very lengthy affair in the ancient liturgies and no less so in the Reformed traditions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. After intercessory petitions follow the Primitive anamnesis and epiclesis alongside the Words of Institution and it is at this point where the veil separating time and eternity is at its thinnest. God the Father has been speaking all along- in the response of His people to His prompting- and Christ the second person of the Trinity has come among the congregation in the proclamation of the word.

The exultant Sanctus of the heavenly host, placed at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer in the ancient liturgies, marks the point of clearest operation of the Holy Spirit where, through His mysterious work, the Body and Blood of Christ are communicated to all who receive the consecrated elements with true and lively faith. The Agnus Dei followed- the moment of spiritual communion when Christ is truly present, as real as the appointed means of bread and wine. Throughout, the action is God’s. He ordains the end and the means to that end. In all the worship of the Church God is bringing glory to Himself, just as He does through all the marvelous and sometimes strange workings of the universe.

What we the Church do in our worship is not some invented thing, an attempt at pleasing a God who is unknowable. The Church’s worship is a gift of God to His elect people, His earthly priesthood who continually offer, after His established pattern, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving both in our individual and corporate life (Rom. 12:1). It is founded in His unchanging character and realized by the collective wisdom of the Fathers of the Church throughout all ages. This worship is our reasonable service offered to a God who has made Himself known both in the holy scriptures and in the person of His Son Jesus Christ who is the true and living Word Incarnate. In Christ’s earthly tabernacling we have a renewed relationship with God, a new covenant through Christ’s blood ordered in all things and sure (Heb. 13:20).

Christ’s earthly ministry and His appointment and confirmation of the apostolic office demonstrate the principle of the Holy Spirit’s guidance of new covenant worship in which, as the hymn-writer says, “The ancient law departs, and all its terrors cease.” Similarly, the ceremonies of the old covenant, those “same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Heb. 10:11) have found their fulfillment in the once for all propitiatory sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The Church’s worship is freed from the bonds of Jewish ceremonial law and permitted to operate on the basis of a completed offering, a full atonement which is celebrated at every eucharist. The logical flow of Christian worship which I have described is directly related to this expiation and it is structured in such a way as to allow the full participation of every member of the Church and not merely a select priestly caste.

However, our sinful condition requires the recapitulation of the process of redemption in the order of the service. Over the course of the week we become numb to God’s call; in thought, word, and deed “through [our] own most grievous fault” (as the Roman Confiteor so eloquently puts it) we sin against God, spiritually distancing ourselves from His sanctifying grace. But, having been justified and declared positively righteous, we come again and again to give God the honor due unto His name and He re-orders our dis-ordered lives using the template derived from the teaching of the scriptures most soundly synthesized into a viable form by the Fathers and passed down to us as a form of sound words, a rich patrimony from which we must draw if we are to be united with the public self-oblation of the universal Church and conformed to Christ’s image before the face of the Almighty. This that Evelyn Underhill calls a “breaking down of the barriers of self-love” and a “great impersonal action, within which, losing ourselves as individuals, we find ourselves to be sharing a more abundant life” is one aim of the Church’s worship.

The primary aim of worship is the glorification of God by addition but the efficacy of its secondary edifying function lies in the degree to which it subtracts the sinful, selfish character of the individual, replacing it with a new character- indeed, generating a new creature whose unity with his fellow believers is marked not by mere cooperation in activity but by common purpose manifested in heart, soul, strength, and mind. The chief rationale for worship ordered after the Church’s historic pattern is the instillation of a common mind (Phil. 2:2) among the saints, regardless of their geographic or temporal residence.

That the ancient order of worship, which had been much corrupted by additions and interpolations by the time of the Reformation, should be visible in the structure of the various Reformed liturgies was a matter of course. The central problem with the medieval Mass was not its structure but rather its sometimes questionable content, its encrustation with unintelligible ceremonies, and the domination of its performance by clergy and choir (who were themselves typically in minor orders). The magisterial Reformers understood that there was a sound deposit of Primitive, perhaps even apostolic, order in the Mass and it was thus preserved.

Even Calvin, the most liberal liturgical innovator of the lot, retained the basic flow of Opening Sentence (Introit), Confession and Absolution, Psalm (in lieu of Gloria in excelsis), Lesson and Sermon, Credo, and eucharistic prayer (including anamnesis and epiclesis). The service also included a minor addition from the monastic service of Compline- the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon. Not once did any of the Reformers, these great men known for their consistent appeal to scripture in all matters of faith and practice, see fit to jettison the foundational order of the Church’s worship for some vain invention of their own. [For more reading on this point see The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship by Hughes Oliphant Old].

Principle 3- With Reverence and Awe

“Reverence and awe,” the third of the chief scriptural principles of worship I articulate here is intimately connected to the second, though it is less bound by the will of the universal Church and therefore more complex in its implementation.

Earlier in this post when I listed the three biblical prescriptions regarding worship I was conscious of not arguing that God has prescribed a particular aesthetic. Rather, I chose to describe the statement of Hebrews 12- “reverence and awe”- as a “sensibility.” While an aesthetic is limited by style and immediately observable and quantifiable, a sensibility is only apprehended fully through long-term observation and exposure, and is measured qualitatively. A sensibility is intuited and experienced rather than simply observed and noted. It is not culturally limited though it is culturally influenced; its principles go beyond the here-and-now to the transcendent realities posited by scripture and the responses we are told we should have to God and His revelation.

We know that our response to God in worship must be determined by what He has revealed to us in His word and through the person and work of Jesus Christ. What is less simple to concretize is how this reaction will manifest in various cultural contexts. The truth is that it is not the worship of the universal Church that has at any point in history failed to connect with a culture but rather that cultures have, in various ways, failed to connect with the worship of the universal Church. The priestly action of God’s people throughout all ages is the fixed point around which all questions of cultural appropriateness must pivot. It is not our duty to re-order our worship but, in the process of bringing people into the community of the visible church, to re-order them to suit what the Church has declared to be good and right for all its members.

It is only natural that this rightly ordered worship will take on some characteristics of the culture in which it operates but it cannot be shaped entirely by that culture or it will cease to be universal. The principle of “reverence and awe” is the key to maintaining a right sensibility in worship no matter the particulars of context.

On this point contemporary statements about culture and context fail. It is not because proponents of contextualization are being too sensitive but rather that they are being insensitive to the uniqueness of cultures (particularly non-Western ones) and how the biblical principle of “reverence and awe” is to be applied in a balanced way alongside the principles of “decently and in order” and “in spirit and in truth.”

The principle of “reverence and awe” largely governs behavior rather than content or structure and the “how” of reverence in the context of the local church is determined by the wider cultural understanding of reverence. Who do the people revere and why? How is this expressed? In some cases the answers to these questions may not be particularly positive. Witch doctors are revered in some cultures. However, it is also generally the case that mothers are revered. The older generations are often respected. Rulers are held in a degree of awe. Understanding that reverence for the God of the bible is a positive reverence, to be truly sensitive to context is to attach to the sound content and order of the universal Church’s worship those aspects of cultural practice which are associated with that culture’s ideal of positive reverence. To be appropriately sensitive to context in terms of the accidents of worship’s biblically prescribed elements is to consider whether the given culture perceives something as reverent or awe-inspiring.

It is interesting to note that in English the word “reverence” may mean “deep respect” or “veneration” but that it also has the rarer meaning of “to bow or genuflect.” There still exists in some ecclesiastical contexts the phrase, “to make a reverence.” This usage of the word highlights the fact that there is a quality of physical self-obeisance associated with reverence. As it is a common action which the Church undertakes in its worship, reverence is not merely an individual’s emotional response to God; it is a communal heart-posture which manifests itself in outward expressions.

The Latin root for “reverence,” reverentia, is sometimes tinged with a sense of fear or timidity. The Psalmist says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” (Ps. 111:10). Used in this way, “fear” is associated with respect but also with obedience. Again, it is the inevitable diminution of self in the presence of One whose throne is established of old, who is from everlasting (Ps. 93:2). The word “awe” also carries a sense of fear or profound respect. To be in awe of God is to shrink back before His greatness and majesty, to realize how insignificant we are and to be amazed at His infinite condescension in the giving of His only Son Jesus Christ to be our Savior from sin. A proper understanding of our place before God and His loving action in time and space in the person of Christ has profound implications for public worship.

Any behavior that makes much of the individual is to be eschewed. There is here an intimate relationship with the Church’s ordered worship for, insofar as that order subordinates the naturally dis-ordered heart of the worshipper, when clothed with appropriate action it also subordinates the body to the communal reverence. This reverence is as much an act of the will as it is a natural emotional expression of human inadequacy when faced with the enormity of God’s being.

For worship to inspire awe it must not be bound to the common. Though we make use of common things- bread, wine, and water- these things become holy by their use. They are sanctified by the action of the royal priesthood of God’s family the Church. Those necessary things, the accidents of worship, that are not specifically prescribed for worship in scripture, should be carefully chosen to reflect the nature of worship itself. While this does not preclude simplicity, it certainly rules out sloppiness and shoddy craftsmanship. In his day, John Ruskin complained that much money was expended on the homes of churchgoers but not a cent was spared for God’s house. Though the Reformers recognized that God “dwelleth not in temples made with hands” (Acts 7:48-50) they would never have approved of parsimony in the service of the Church. Like the words we sing, the objects we use in the public service of God (liturgy) speak to our view of Him.

Similarly, the way we behave in worship should not be common. Knowledge that the Church is a royal priesthood elevates the individual to a new role. Christians are saints with whose prayers God rules the world (Rev. 8:1-5), we are God’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20), we are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20-21). In our lives we are to show forth God’s grace in the work of the Holy Spirit. We are to be humbly noble, recognizing that we are God’s new creatures (2. Cor. 5:17) and that our position was not earned but freely given. In our public worship we should be concerned to make manifest to the best of our ability God’s heavenly kingdom on earth, for what is worship if not a breaking into time of the eternal state where we will worship the Lamb on the Throne forever and ever singing the exultant hymn, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12)?

Therefore what used to be referred to simply as “good manners” are in reality more than cultural conventions. In the ecclesiastical context they are communal expressions of the honor that is due God’s most holy name. These communal expressions naturally differ from place to place and between cultures. For a local church to be appropriately sensitive to these differences is not difficult but it does require a little common sense as well as the discernment to know how to say kindly to those entering the community, “We welcome you, but just as you’re learning how to think new thoughts and how to know God you also need to be learning new behaviors.”

The Church is a divinely ordered society with divinely ordered worship. In its local expressions it will naturally differ but scripture does not permit it to ape the culture in which it ministers (2 Cor. 6:14-18). That the Church’s teaching and worship will be foreign to those outside is inevitable. Not only is it counterproductive to apologize for this by attempting to disguise it beneath a veneer of the common, such capitulation in appearance can lead to the collapse of standards in other areas. It is all too easy for us, in our natural state fearing man more than God, to start out with the good intention of appealing to those who find the Church an uncomfortable place because of its formality or its impersonality and end up similarly dropping our standards of belief or order because they’re inconvenient or difficult for non-Christians to comprehend.

If, as the Fathers of the Church have believed for centuries, the law of prayer really is the law of faith (lex orandi, lex credendi) we must be aware that the value of our liturgy goes beyond its content and structure to the manner in which it is performed. The “how” of our public service to God is just as important as the “what.” We do ourselves, our children, and unbelievers a disservice when we claim Christ’s lordship over all of life and then behave like Gnostics when it comes to questions of worship’s accidents. Matter matters and the use we make in public worship of God’s gifts demonstrates what we really believe, deep down, about God’s worthiness.

To conclude, our attitude towards God cannot be divorced from our actions, for we act out of the internal disposition of our hearts (Matt. 12:33, James 3:12). Just as it is right to be concerned with the content of our worship, so it is right to be concerned with its order and manner of performance. That these all must be, insofar as we are capable of discerning, in line with what scripture teaches about God and our right relation to Him is plain. Inevitably difficulties will arise as the Church continues to spread across the world and deliver the unique message of salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ to people of all tribes and tongues. Yet difficulties must be viewed as challenges for the Church in its local expression to explore the scriptures and apply them to their cultural contexts. This challenge is not limited to newly growing communities but goes out to long-established churches as well and it is my hope that the three principles I have posited above and the short discussion of their meaning will prove useful in the effort continually to reform worship according to scripture.

Evan McWilliams is a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Lakeland, Fla., is an architectural historian, and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of York in the UK. This article appeared in his blog, Inscrutable Being, and is used with permission.