(A review of the book, “With Reverence and Awe, Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship” by D. G. Hart and John R. Muether. In conjunction with our Wednesday night study, I am using this book and the principles taught in it to aid us in a study of worship.)
Chapter 10: Elements, Circumstances, and Forms
Most people agree that worship should consist of preaching, praying, and song. But are all of these things essential for worship? Can what takes place be worship if these activities do not occur? is anything else required? These questions find useful answers in the distinctions that our confessional standards draw among the elements, circumstances, and forms of worship. (Hart and Meuther)
Many religious groups outside of Presbyterian and Reformed circles do not follow the idea of the regulative principle of worship (worship consists of that which God has spoken of in His Word). Many others follow a normative principle of worship (whatever God has not strictly forbidden in His Word may be allowed).
Reformed believe that church sessions and consistories must protect the consciences of worshippers by not requiring anything in worship beyond biblical mandate. (Hart and Meuther)
This concept is clearly stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1, “The light of nature showeth that there is a God who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.”
We see this truth stated clearly in many places in Scripture, and yet the pull of the world is to add to or subtract from the revealed will of God, which then changes and reduces worship into something it was never intended to be. If you have been involved in various types of services in various churches you know what I mean. It’s all around us. As Americans we have reinvented worship much the same way as we choose ice cream. There are a variety of flavors out there, so simply pick the flavor you like the best. When we do that we stumble in many ways. We tend to make worship more about us than about God. We kind of make things up as we go along. We focus on feelings rather than substance. Most of all, we neglect the clear teaching of the Word in order to cater to our own flesh or to the world.
So with all that being said, what are the essential elements of worship? We don’t have a book in the New Testament that simply states, “Here is what you do,” but we do have Scriptures that show a pattern for worship and give us those essential elements. Acts 2:42 states, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” This passage gives several keys to worship: the Word, prayer, sacraments, and a collection (from the Greek word koinonia).
T. David Gordon, speaking on Acts 2:42 states, “It is not difficult to conclude that the elements which are anticipated by our Lord’s instructions to the disciples, which are observed in the churches under apostolic oversight, which are regulated by inspired epistle, are the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, spoken and sung prayers and praises, and collections for the relief of the saints.” Gordon is echoing John Calvin who wrote, “No meeting of the church should take place without the Word, prayers, partaking of the Supper, and almsgiving.” Calvin believed that Reformed Churches in Geneva should observe the Lord’s Supper on every Lord’s Day but was not able to persuade Geneva’s authorities.
The essentials for Reformed worship, then, are the reading and preaching of the Word, prayer, song, the collection, and the sacraments. To leave these out of worship or to add to them is to go beyond God’s Word. Since the aim of worship is to please God, we may not appeal to any other source to discover what pleases him, for example, by speculating on what people may like in worship. (Hart and Meuther)
Determining the what (elements), does not answer the other questions of worship such as when and how the elements should be carried out in worship. Sessions are tasked with the job of answering these questions. Scripture doesn’t say much about the time of worship (the day is specified in the fourth commandment as the Lord’s Day), or the length of worship, or place, or seating. As those questions are determined in each context, we remember that all things should be done decently and in order (I Cor. 14:40).
Elements consist of those things that God has directed for worship in His Word. Circumstances consist in the “where” and “when” God’s people meet with Him on the Lord’s Day. Forms are how we put the elements of worship into an order that honors that dialogue principle of God speaking to His people and His people responding to Him. Elements are mandatory, but circumstances and forms allow God’s people some liberty in the details of worship. Liberty that always remembers we are to approach God with reverence and awe as we gather to worship the Sovereign Lord of all Creation, at His Calling, each and every Lord’s Day.