The Third Commandment

Chapter 17 – Evaluating Liturgical Worship

Over the last few decades contemporary trends have swamped the church. Contemporary services have given way to Seeker Sensitive services, which in turn are giving way to Purpose Driven services. Traditional Christians struggle to see the distinction between these very similar brands of worship. Given the emotional upheaval involved in changing the worship style of any church, a reaction was inevitable.

One form that reaction against contemporary worship has taken is a revival of “high church” or liturgical worship. Some have observed the pervasive silliness of the Evangelical culture and concluded that Protestantism is spiritually dead. Many have returned to Catholic or Eastern Orthodox roots in search of a serious treatment of the things of God. Others have turned to Lutheran or Anglican traditions, hoping to find a merging of the Protestant gospel with the sobriety of a liturgically governed worship service. Even in traditional Reformed denominations some have called for the establishment of a strict liturgy.

It is natural for those who repudiate contemporary trends to seek what feels trusted, traditional, and safe. High church services seem to demonstrate a deeper reverence for God than much of what goes on in contemporary Evangelicalism. However, if we are determined to base our worship on the Scriptural directives alone, we must conclude that Liturgicalism is the wrong answer.

Perhaps the most common claim of the proponents of high church liturgical worship is that all churches follow some liturgy. One meaning of “liturgy” is a form of public worship, but typically the word refers to an order of worship. If a church always reads scripture before praying and singing three hymns, that could be called a “liturgy.” By this definition, the only way to avoid having a liturgy would be to never follow the same order twice. Such an approach would be confusing and counterproductive. Consequently, most churches follow some order, but are they liturgical?

In normal communication this is not the way “liturgy” is used. Traditionally the word has referred to a collection of “formularies,” or specific, written words which must be used in worship. A good example of a liturgical formulary is the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Note the word “common” in this title; the idea was for every church throughout England to worship the same way each week. Prayers were written for every Sunday, and each minister was to read them verbatim.

Liturgical worship, then, is that which follows a highly stylized form of worship. Every word and action is spelled out in advance, and all deviation is discouraged. This promotes a sense of safety, since everyone knows in advance what will be said in church. Of course there can be degrees of liturgicalism. In some liturgical churches the preacher is free to exposit God’s Word as he sees fit. In others his texts are pre-selected. In some the very words of his sermon are provided for him in a “homily.”

Liturgy and the Regulative Principle
It is perfectly understandable that traditionalists would see liturgy as a useful safeguard in a world of ever-changing worship. Certainly this form of worship is more somber and reserved. However, liturgicalism violates the Regulative Principle in two ways.

First, strict liturgies set the words of men on an equal level with Scripture. The Regulative Principle teaches that we may only do in worship that which the Bible commands. Liturgicalism teaches that we may only do that which the formulary prescribes. Even if the elements of worship did not change, liturgicalism would introduce a foreign element into Bible-directed worship. Pastors loose the freedom to expound upon the Word and teach as God leads them. Rather, they are tied down by a prescribed form which is nowhere to be found in Scripture. Such an approach is no longer consistent with the principle of Sola Scriptura.

Secondly, liturgical worship typically introduces new elements into worship. Circumstantial postures like kneeling and standing and turning to face the procession take on the properties of new elements of worship. Elements of worship seem to multiply under liturgicalism. Even Reformed churches with liturgical leanings tend to add to the elements of biblical worship. Reading a creed may seem safely reformed, but it is an innovation not found in the New Testament.

In fact, liturgies are no different from the deviations of contemporary worship, except that they are earlier deviations. Traditional additions to biblical worship are still additions.

Liturgy and Contemporary Worship
Comparisons between traditional, liturgical worship and contemporary worship might be pressed even further. While the solemn atmosphere of the liturgy seems far removed from the relaxed ease of seeker sensitive worship, both are intended to create an aura of worship. The only difference is the particular aura which is sought. Symphonic performances may not seem to have much in common with rock concerts either, but the philosophy of both is fairly similar. Concert goers are expected to be comfortable throughout and to leave happy. They may be culturally different sorts of folk, but both get what they are looking for. Similarly, churches which offer both “contemporary” and “traditional” services are simply seeking to cater to more than one demographic.

Most of what I have said about contemporary worship is applicable to liturgical worship as well. At its roots liturgy is a performance. This was one of the main objections the Reformers had to Catholic worship – the congregation was made up of mere spectators while the priests worshiped. New Testament worship is to be participatory, and going through the motions of a liturgy is not biblical participation. It may seem that reverence and awe result of liturgical worship, but this, too, is a false perception. The fear of a mysterious, indistinct idea of God is not what is meant by biblical reverence. Rather, we are to be in awe of the God who is clearly revealed through incisive preaching. Liturgy, though, is a poor teacher. Repetition of a pre-determined routine does not engage the mind to the same degree as biblical exposition.

Returning to the Word
Strict liturgies are not the solution to the contemporary worship mess. Rather, we must return to the principles of the Word of God. Churches must determine to do that which the Bible prescribes in worship, and to do it in the manner which the Bible prescribes, and to do nothing more. Innovations, whether of an old, traditional type or a newer, contemporary type, are not acceptable. What are we doing in worship? Is it biblical, or did men invent it? These are the questions which must be asked first. Then we may turn to questions of style. How does our worship style lead us to think about God? Is it participatory, reverent, and instructive, or does it merely entertain us?

Remember, no worship is acceptable to God unless it conforms to the pattern established in His law. We may not introduce our own thoughts and practices.

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