Worship by the Book

Three Views on How the Bible Ought to Determine Our Worship

Should we burn incense in our public worship? Should we kneel? Should we raise our hands during prayer? Should we dance? Should we speak in tongues?

Even though all of these worship practices are found in Scripture, Christians do not agree about their place in contemporary worship. We all believe that our worship should be governed by Scripture, but even within our own Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, there is much disagreement about how that principle applies to specific worship practices.

Presbyterian churches have traditionally been guided by what has come to be called the "Regulative Principle," based on the Westminster Confession of Faith:

But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by God himself, and so limited by his own free will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imagination and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (Art. XX, 1).

Exactly how this principle should be interpreted and applied, however, has long been a cause of dispute—even among conservative Presbyterians.

Reformed churches from the continental tradition also have taken sides in this dispute, seeking to be guided by scriptural principles. And, like the Presbyterians, they have disagreed widely about the application of such principles.

To give RW readers a clearer perspective on the reasons for the different views on this issue, we have asked three Presbyterian authors to explain their understanding of the relationship between the Bible and contemporary worship. We encouraged each of them to deal with some of the questions posed above as well as some practical issues such as decorating the sanctuary with flowers, including accordion solos in the service, remaining seated in pews during prayer, incorporating religious drama into the liturgy, having the choir sing anthems, and having the pastor wear a purple robe.

G. I. Williamson, author of the first article, believes in a strict interpretation of the Regulative Principle. The second author, Bernard J. Stonehouse, holds a more centrist view. And Thomas Kennedy, author of the third essay, suggests that Scripture provides us with general worship principles that have to be worked out within the historical context of the church.

" …Not in the Realm of Shadows"

by G. I. Williamson

In my study of biblical worship two principles stand out. The first is the principle of continuity: in every period of redemptive history, God alone prescribes the proper manner of worship. The second is the principle of discontinuity: the worship of God has differed from one period of redemptive history to another.

We can see both this continuity and discontinuity in a careful look at worship in the old and new covenants. Worship in the time of the Patriarchs, for example, differs in many ways from worship in the time of Moses; and Mosaic worship differs from that in the New Testament church. Yet worship in all three periods was prescribed by God for his people.

Worship Under Moses

The worship instituted by God through Moses was very elaborate and included many objects and rituals unknown in the worship of earlier times. Yet no part of that worship was left to human invention.

When the Israelites were constructing the tabernacle, the Lord said to Moses, "See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain" (Ex. 25:40). And when all was finished, "Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as the Lord had commanded" (Ex. 39:43).

Some commentators suggest that much human art work went into the preparation of the tabernacle and temple. This is true in one sense and not in another. Neither building contained products of human creativity or innovation. Instead, inspired "artists" created exactly what God intended (Ex. 31:2-11)—-just as the biblical writers wrote down only what God inspired them to include in Scripture.

Out of the Shadows

Under the new covenant the ceremonial worship of the tabernacle and temple are no longer appropriate. We now live in that realm of reality of which the tabernacle and temple worship were mere symbolic representations. When Jesus was on earth, he spoke of the hour soon to come when no earthly location would have special significance for worship (John 4:19-24). This hour came when he "sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven … in the sanctuary, the true [or real] tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man" (Heb. 8:1-2). "For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence" (Heb. 9:24).

The meaning is clear. In our worship today we are supposed to come not to an earthly tabernacle or temple but to "Mount Zion… the heavenly Jerusalem … the church of the firstborn… to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant" (Heb. 12:22-24). Our worship today is not supposed to remain in the realm of shadows, or symbolic representation.

Temple worship in the time of David was far more elaborate than the earlier tabernacle worship had been. But again it's important to note that the changes in worship were not the product of human invention. All changes that David made, including the addition of a choir (1 Chron. 20:21), were revealed to him by God (1 Chron 28:19). The orchestra played and the choir sang during the sacrifice of the burnt offering (2 Chron 29:27-28). This "performance" was appropriate then for the same reason that background music is appropriate today for a television drama. The need for music arises because the enactment is synthetic, and the mood music induces a feeling of authenticity.

However, in the New Covenant such things as choirs and special music hinder true worship rather than help it. The church today is supposed to live in the realm of the "real thing," and special effects and mood music only lead it back to the realm of shadowy symbolism. What would we think of a mother who neglected her own real baby to go up into the attic and play with the dolls that had been dear to her as a child? That's exactly what we are seeing in the phenomenon of modern Reformed churches going back to the weak and beggarly elements of ceremonial symbolic worship.

Spirit and Truth

As New Testament Christians we are supposed to worship in the realm of "spirit and truth" (John 4:24—24), not in the realm of the material and representational, as our Old Testament brothers and sisters did.

Yet today we see Reformed churches returning to precisely these symbolic Old Testament elements—or at least to some of them. If these churches were consistent in their return to Old Testament ordinances (choirs, robes, candles, musical instruments, etc.), they would show respect for the complete system—and for the Author of that system—by going all the way. They would have a choir made up of people from the tribe of Levi. They would gather an entire orchestra instead of just the combo of their own choice. They would even advocate rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. If they did these things, we would at least respect them for their consistency.

But the truth is, these Old Testament elements have no place in our worship. We don't need choirs, orchestras, purple robes, candles, incense, or dramatic performances. Why? Because these shadowy representations only get in the way of the great reality of New Testament worship: the privilege of going—each Lord's Day— by means of God's Word and Spirit, right into the heavenly places where Christ is. May the Lord revive and reform his church again so that it will stop going back to these weak and beggarly things—stop acting like a full-grown woman who prefers dolls to real babies—and return to the simplicity and beauty of spiritual worship.

We don't need choirs, orchestras, purple robes, candles, incense, or dramatic performances.

"It's Important to Be Open to Change."

by B. J. Stonehouse

It wasn't long ago that Reformed churches in this country approached public worship in a rather uniform way. We all basically agreed what elements were appropriate in worship and what form our Sunday morning services should take. But during the past ten to twenty years that predictability has begun to disappear. Many congregations are involving other voices than the pastor's in worship. Stringed instruments, drums, tambourines, and other instruments are used alongside the more traditional piano and organ. People raise their hands in praise and prayer to God and give public testimonies to God's grace. Some congregations have introduced ecclesiastical dance into their services. Joy and celebration seem to be the keynote of these newer celebrations as churches in our tradition move toward a more liturgical worship style.

Change is always unsettling and generally raises a host of questions. What is Reformed worship? How does the Bible regulate worship? How do these new practices stand up in the light of scriptural teachings?

The Regulative Principle

Our worship, as all of life, must be regulated by the Scriptures. Historically, as least for Presbyterians, the "Regulative Principle" has always provided the foundational direction for worship, guiding our churches to include only those elements directly commanded by Scripture or those (such as infant baptism) arrived at by good and necessary inference.

This principle recently received a sharp challenge from Ralph J. Gore, Jr., in his doctoral thesis The Pursuit of Plainness: Rethinking the Puritan Principle of Worship, submitted to Westminster Seminary in 1988. One of Gore's strongest arguments is that Jesus did not follow the regulative principle. He regularly worshiped in the synagogue, which has no biblical warrant for existence. And he was involved in at least one feast, the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22ff.) which had no biblical warrant. If Jesus did not follow the Regulative Principle of Worship, claims Gore, then neither should we.

Gore's thesis may provoke some rethinking of principles of worship in years to come. But whether or not it is right to include elements in worship that fall beyond the commands of Scripture, we should surely include elements that are commanded by God. Many of the newer practices fall into that category.

Exuberant Praise

Many people are unsettled when they attend services in which hand-clapping and praise-shouting are a regular part of worship. If that is your reaction, you should use a concordance to check out God's directives for worship. Here are some samples: "Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy" (Ps. 47:1); "Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation" (Ps. 95:1); "Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; make music to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, with trumpets and the blast of the ram's horn—shout for joy before the Lord, the King" (Ps. 98:4-6).

Who can doubt that we are urged to shout in the context of worship? Who can believe that only the preacher has that privilege? What seems strange and unsettling to many of us is actually a response to clear biblical directives.

What about the introduction of new instruments, even percussion instruments, into worship? They can help us catch the sense of awe-filled joy found in Psalm 150, which begins "Praise God in his sanctuary" and continues "Praise him with the sounding of a trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the string and flute, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals." The principle seems to be to use everything we have to bring praise to God—and that certainly incudes musical solos, choirs, and accordions.

Notice that dancing, too, was a part of Old Testament worship. There have been times during worship that I was so full of the joy of the Lord that I felt like dancing. I was held back by natural inhibitions, a total lack of rhythm, and ignorance of what kind of dancing would be appropriate for worship. I've never witnessed dancing in worship, but I'm convinced that those congregations who include it in their services may be responding to biblical directives.

Raised Hands

When I first attended an Orthodox Presbyterian Church where many people raised their hands in prayer, I was startled and uncomfortable. "What's going on here?" I wondered. "Only Pentecostals do this sort of thing."

That got me searching the Bible, and 1 found 1 Timothy 2:8: "I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer." It was also eye-opening to find that John Calvin (who has more solid Reformed credentials?) said in his commentary on this passage: "This attitude has been generally used in worship during all ages… Let us learn that the attitude is in accordance with true godliness."

Widespread Congregational Participation

I grew up being told that we don't include testimonies in worship because we want to focus on God rather than on people. I also heard numerous lurid accounts of congregations who abused this practice.

So, as the pastor of a rather traditional church, I tended to avoid the testimony—except at Thanksgiving. On that holiday I gave people a chance to publicly express their thanks to God for blessings during the past year. Many people told me it was the best service of the year. Slowly it began to dawn on us that if testimonies were good once a year, they could be a blessing at other times. After all, the Scriptures do indicate the importance of bringing personal expressions of thanksgiving and intercession to God (Phil. 4:6, 1 Tim. 2).

We've discovered that when others (besides the minister) participate in worship by speaking out their praise to God and leading other parts of worship, the life of the church as the body of Christ is more evident. Such wider participation was apparently also part of worship in the early church (1 Cor. 14). Paul seems to assume that a number of people will speak, pray, and testify in worship and gives at least tacit approval to multiple worship leaders.

My congregation and I have also discovered that it's important to be open to change and that it's healthy to have a variety of approaches to worships—as long as the regulative principle is followed. Certainly we shouldn't accept new ideas just to be different or because they seem entertaining. We should look carefully at new practices that could divert us from true worship. At the same time, we should carefully consider changes when they have biblical warrant.

"Scripture Is the Lens Through Which We Read Our Culture."

by Thomas D. Kennedy

I remember walking into our place of worship on Easter Sunday several years ago and sensing that the room was filled with an air of joy and excitement—as it should be on Easter Sunday. I was surprised and delighted by scores of brightly colored helium balloons. What joy! Christ is risen! God is with us even after the cross!

How different are my memories of the Easter Sundays of my childhood. Of them I remember Easter lilies in the sanctuary, new spring clothes, fancy hats, and listening to a room full of psalm-singers sing "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!"

In retrospect I am hard pressed to say which of these two churches was trying harder to govern its worship by Scripture. But I'm pretty sure that the church of the balloons worships in a manner more fitting than the church of my youth.

Seeing God and Ourselves in Our Worship

We believe that in worship the body of Christ comes together to hear God speak and remind

us of his saving activity in human history. Hearing God, we respond with warmed hearts and grateful words and songs. We respond, if our worship is to be true, in words that we can own, words that are genuinely ours.

The words that God speaks, likewise, must be intelligible to us—words we can understand. To use Calvin's words, "God lisps." God speaks as does a mother to her young child. Similarly God acts in ways that are intelligible in a particular human context. That God's words and actions address the peculiarities of our context serves to affirm the goodness of our nature as historical creatures. It is good in God's providence that we are alive now, at this time, with our various histories. God's speech and God's actions confirm this.

The implication is, I think, that in our worship we ought not to deny or seek to conceal our histories and the historical character of our existence. Our worship should reflect how we see God and how we see ourselves as the particular historical persons we are—late-twentieth-cen-tury North American Christians. We should expect our worship to be identical to neither the Christian worship of Calvin's Geneva nor the Christian worship of first-century Jerusalem. The guiding principles may remain the same— that God speaks to us, that we remember and celebrate Christ's resurrection, that we pray and praise and offer our gifts to God. But these are only general principles. How these are fleshed out and applied will depend on who we are now and not who our great-grandparents were or who our great-grandchildren will be.

This means that faithful worship, like faithful work, must be approached with a knowledge of our historical context, of ourselves as members of a particular culture. Or, as Karl Barth suggested, we should approach preaching and worship with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Scripture is the lens through which we read our culture, through which we discern which artifacts and practices of our culture may be vessels of God's speech and may be transformed for Christian worship and which, because they are not compatible with God's reconciliation of all things to himself, are not appropriate for Christian worship.

Putting Principles into Practice

What does this mean in practice? Perhaps a few examples will help. Take the issue of liturgical dance. If a congregation were educated properly about liturgical dance (and I think the meaning of dance is seldom transparent enough so that this education can be forgone), I see no reason why dance could not be both appropriate and effective in a contemporary worship service. Dancers might call us to worship, reveal to us some facet of God's character, or help us respond in gratitude to God.

And what about music? Could an accordion solo be appropriate? In principle at least as appropriate as any other instrumental solo, I should think. In practice, however, I suspect that the accordion is so alien to us that it would have smaller claim to propriety than, say, a banjo, a dulcimer, or a steel guitar (although I'm sure there is a Presbyterian church somewhere made up of former Scottish woolen-mill workers in which accordion music might rightly be preferred to the electric organ).

As to flowers in the sanctuary, I must admit some ambivalence. In our culture flowers function as decoration, and as liturgical decoration, they are vastly inferior to liturgical banners and other liturgical art. On the other hand, flowers are affectively powerful. Most North Americans can associate flowers with beautiful sanctuaries, and the association of God and beauty is surely to be valued. So I suspect that flowers are acceptable insofar as they do not displace other liturgical art.

Ministerial robes are themselves an example of liturgical art. Where they are used, the congregation may require some education about their meaning. A black robe serves to distinguish the minister as the one set apart by God for speaking the word of God to the people in the service. Such meaning is more or less transparent, I think. Not so the symbolism of a purple robe. Most North Americans do not associate purple with royalty or dignity or a particular season of the church year. These things must be explained. Still, I see nothing inherently wrong about a minister wearing a purple robe unless he or she is wearing it simply because it's the robe of his or her alma mater.

We might respond similarly to questions about kneeling, burning incense, raising hands in holy prayer, and speaking in tongues. We know that these practice have been meaningful at various times in the history of Christian worship, and some may be meaningful yet today. Kneeling for prayer, for example, expresses our humility before our Maker and assists us in centering our thoughts on God- The raising of hands is, like the kiss of peace, foreign to our culture and more likely than not to be disruptive.

Scripture, then, provides us with general principles, and these principles inform and guide the content of our worship. But to take these scriptural principles as literally determinative of our worship is to deny the historical nature of our existence and leaves us with an alien worship, a worship which bears so little resemblance to our daily lives that the presence of God with us in that worship is difficult to feel and to believe.

Thomas D. Kennedy is a commissioned lay preacher in the Presbytery of Western Kentucky (PCUSA). He serves as assistant professor of philosophy at Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, Tennessee.


G.I. Williamson is pastor of Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Carson, North Dakota.


Bernard J. Stonehouse is missionary-at-large of the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.


Reformed Worship 11 © March 1989 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.