When talking about worship passions tend to flair. Do we have traditional or contemporary? At that, should worship be made more relatable to the tastes of the younger generation, whatever that may look like? I myself have had many conversations with folks on what true and proper worship ought to be, which tends to follow that of the Westminster Confession of Faith’s summary of what the Bible teaches about worship. Namely, that worship ought to be God-centered, that worship is given and instituted by God. The tendency among many Evangelicals today is to see worship as all about experience and creativity, and that God encourages our innovation. In a word, worship ought to be missions-minded, and if missions-minded it ought to be subject to change since it has to be so contextualized.
But, if we remember in Leviticus 10 how God dealt punishment to Nadab and Abihu, Aaron the High Priest’s sons, and Moses’s nephews, by means of capital punishment then we see how seriously God takes worship. Even still, this seriousness over worship is not limited to the Old Testament. In Acts 5, we see God issuing a similar judgement to Ananias and Sapphira for not merely giving only half of their offerings in worship, but lying directly to God and the Apostles about it. Certainly, this does not fit our modern conception of God, who executes people for, what the Puritans called, will-worship. Fair to say that God has not done so since then, but to say that God will not execute judgement on those who worship him irreverently and that he does not care about how he is worshipped is a serious mistake, and a mistake worth repenting over.
Throughout the remainder of this article, I will be expounding on what the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches on worship, with greater emphasis on the elements of worship. Though, for the purposes of this article I will not deal with issues related to the Sabbath.
1.) The Acceptable Way
WCF 21.1 teaches something I think is universally accepted by all Christians, namely that God has lordship and sovereignty over all, and that he is 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.” I say this is universally accepted because it recognizes that we are to worship God with all our being. But, the Confession also teaches that the “acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that 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 Scripture.”
In other words, things like praise bands, fog machines, laser light shows, and anything else that makes worship look more like a concert than actual worship is not a proper way to worship God. To be sure, those who advocated for traditional worship does not necessarily have it right either. Many innovations in “traditional” worship services began to include things like choirs and special singing. Choirs became more in use in the mid- to late 19th Century around the time of the Second Great Awakening. By all accounts, to have a choir is not just a form or circumstance of worship, but that which has no Scriptural support. What this first paragraph outlines in chapter 21 is what Reformed Presbyterians have called the Regulative Principle of Worship, that anything not clearly outlined for the purpose of worship ought not to be practiced in worship.
Historically, Reformed Presbyterians have sung songs of worship without the use of instruments. Part of the reason for this is because instruments were tied to the forms of worship in the Temple in the Old Testament, and that since the Temple has been destroyed, and New Testament worship did not expressly teach us that we could use instruments in worship, Presbyterians up until the 19th century did not use instruments in worship. Many more conservative Presbyterian denominations still practice this form of worship, most notably in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing).
2.) What is Constituted in Worship?
The Confession lays out a pretty straightforward way in which worship is to be conducted. In 21.3, the Confession teaches that one special part of worship is through prayer with thanksgiving, and that, “it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of his Spirit, according to his will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.” The Confession further states that prayer ought to be made for “things lawful; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter: but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.” What this shows is that prayer is itself to be informed by Scripture. How we approach God in prayer, both in public worship and private devotion, shows how we will worship and revere God in the other areas.
I want to focus on the issue of “reverence” here for a moment. Approaching God with reverence in prayer is something that is missing in how I hear many Christians pray to God. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone open prayer saying, “Um, Hey God,” or “Hey, Father,” instead of saying something like, “Oh, Holy God,” or “Dear Merciful Father,”. One side of these is radically different than the other, with one conveying something of the holiness of God where the other does not. Is this being too particular over prayer? No, it is not. Prayer, as with anything else, is to be approached with a sense of reverence and awe before God. Such casual prayer is by no means revering God as he is meant to be revered. Prayer, as with worship in general, ought not be approached casually, God demands something more of us. We need to learn to approach God in prayer with better reverence than we do.
In 21.5, the Confession teaches that the “reading of the Scriptures,” the “sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word,” the “singing of psalms,” and the “due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ,” are all that ought to be constituted in worship. This sets up for a rather simple form of worship, with it being informed solely by Scripture. This is traditional, historic Reformed worship, and it is a wonderful thing. The benefits of having worship restricted to only that which is expressly commanded to be done in worship are many, but I wish to focus on a few:
1.) For greater spiritual growth. Currently, I go to a PCA church whose worship largely limits itself to these things, though we do not sing psalms exclusively as is likely what the Confession has in mind when it talks about “singing of psalms.” Nor do we sing a cappella; we do have a piano. Regardless of one’s view on those things, I have found myself to have grown a lot spiritually. As I will go into more depth on point 2, this form of worship has left me more spiritually nourished and filled, rather than spiritually drained. One of the many criticisms I have with modern worship is that it is very superficial and lacks a great deal of depth. While it may bring in relatively orthodox biblical teaching, the superficiality and lack of depth shows in how unchallenging it tends to be. Whenever I hear the preaching of the Word, for example, I expect to be challenged. I expect to have my mind engaged, and not just my heart. I expect to have a pastor who will expound the Bible book by book, chapter by chapter, and verse by verse. And I expect to have the songs I sing be saturated with the Word of God, if those songs are not the Psalms. These things lead to a deeper, less superficial religion that helps the believer know God better and understand his will for our lives better.
2.) Does not let the emotions run wild. As I noted briefly in point 1, one of my criticisms of modern worship left me spiritually drained and unfulfilled. But, here is the reason why: much of modern worship not only plays to emotions, it also lets emotions run wild. This is especially true in Pentecostal/Holiness traditions. I am not arguing that worship ought to be emotionless. Rather, the point I want to make is that one’s emotions ought to be restrained, and one must have the ability to exercise self-control in this area, with self-control being a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). In worship, one ought to have both the heart and the mind engaged, not one or the other. When the emotions are allowed to run wild you have people running around, falling all over the place, jumping up and down, etc., all because they had a “Spiritual anointing.” This sort of worship is chaotic to say the least. In a day where most want an experience of God, it is quite understandable why they would go to Pentecostals for that. Pentecostals seem to offer an answer to that. Sadly, it really conveys an underlying belief that the ordinary means of grace are not sufficient for Christian experience.
3.) Honors God as holy. As I noted in my criticisms of modern worship, Reformed worship recognizes God as holy. Many Christians have read R.C. Sproul’s book, “The Holiness of God,” and found it to be revolutionary in their conceptions of God. I, too, was profoundly impacted by Sproul’s book, so much so that I began to desire to view God as holy in this way, as it related to my sin and salvation. But, viewing God as merely holy insofar as it relates to our sin and salvation does not make him to be regarded as holy in all things. Both in how we pray and worship God ought to be approached with a sense of the holiness of God, that in all areas of life God is to be regarded as holy. If one takes this view away from Sproul’s book, then you took the right lessons. Contemporary worship simply does not regard God as holy, because it approaches him in worship very casually, lacks seriousness, etc. God’s holiness is not limited to his disgust over sin, but also in how we approach him. To be sure, when Christ died on the cross and Temple veil was torn, we were then allowed access to the Father and could come to him freely. But, being able to come to God freely, especially in worship, does not mean we do not have to regard him as holy. Appropriate Christian worship will always view and approach God as holy.
Many church conflicts and church splits have occurred over the issue of worship. Many in America do not see the big deal in being so serious about worship. After all, is it not just a matter of preference? After this article, I hope the answer to this question is no, it is not just a matter of preference. Whenever I have talked to folks about worship, I have gotten the, “Well, that’s just your preference” retort. Sadly, many Christians think this way. But, worship should never be just a matter of preference. That conveys that worship ought to be something one may like, and what one thinks others may like. While one ought to enjoy the worship service, worship is not about personal preference. Worship is about what is God honoring and God sanctioned. As noted above, things like prayer, preaching and hearing the Word, singing psalms (or biblically rich hymns), and the administration of the sacraments are not only sanctioned but are also honoring to God. Anything more or anything less dishonors God and requires immediate repentance. At any rate, my exhortation to Christians everywhere, not just those in Presbyterian and Reformed churches, is to seek those churches that truly seek to honor God and regard him as holy.