The Second Commandment

Chapter 12 – Elements and Circumstances

Reformed worship is governed by the Regulative Principle, which teaches that we may only do that which God commands in worship. Unlike the rest of our lives, in which God gives us the freedom to do anything He has not forbidden, in worship He requires strict conformity to the elements of worship which He has ordained. This demonstrates God’s great wisdom, for worship is to be a meeting with Him in which He reveals Himself to His people. If we are free to introduce our own innovations and imaginations, we will inevitably obscure God’s self-revelation and inevitably we will portray Him inaccurately.

This principle of worship has become outmoded in the modern church. It is such a thing of the past that many not only do not acknowledge it, they do not understand it. What was once taken for granted in Reformed circles is now not even comprehended in many Calvinistic churches. Consequently, the Regulative Principle has been regularly mischaracterized by those who have never experienced worship governed in this manner.

The most common straw man in this discussion runs as follows: “You say you only do what the Bible commands, but where does the Bible talk about pulpits or microphones? Churches do all sorts of things that are not found in the Bible.” This ignores a critical distinction always upheld by advocates of the Regulative Principle: the Bible regulates what we do in worship, not the circumstances in which we do it. In fact, the circumstances of worship may vary.

Elements and Circumstances
If you have ever read about the Regulative Principle, you most likely have come across the terms “elements” and “circumstances.” Reformed teaching is that the elements of worship are strictly regulated by Scripture while the circumstances are not. Unfortunately this distinction is lost on many for the simple reason that we do not always use these terms as they were used when the early Reformed writers expressed this doctrine.

Simply put, an “element” of worship is something which we consciously do as part of our worship, while a circumstance refers to a peripheral aspect of the meeting place or the manner in which the elements of worship are performed. This distinction is what enables us to make changes or for one congregation to differ in some matters from another without any violation of the Regulative Principle.

For instance, if a church decides to replace public prayer with stand-up comedy, it has changed one of the elements of worship. It is consciously setting out to do something as worship which is not found in Scripture. On the other hand, if a church decides to switch from pews to chairs, it is only changing a circumstance of its meeting place. If a church decides to add pew Bibles for those who want to read the same version as the pastor, it is not adding a new element to worship.

The circumstances of churches change, and the New Testament gives us freedom in those circumstances. In the Old Testament many of the details were legislated, but it is no longer so. We should not be overly concerned with trivialities such as the color of the carpet. Such issues only matter in so far as they should be arranged, where possible, to allow the greatest focus on the elements of worship which God has commanded.

It is true that there are differences of opinion among Reformed Christians as to what constitutes a circumstance of worship, usually concerning song. For instance, some will argue that instruments are necessarily a new element of worship, since we read of no instruments in the New Testament. Others insist that instruments are merely a circumstance – something used to enable congregations to sing together well. The key to such differences is to keep a close eye on those things which are considered circumstantial in worship. Circumstances may become elements over time if we are not careful.

Being Wary of Circumstances
There was once a time when church buildings, like all buildings, were lit with oil lamps. Oil lamps are of only minimal effectiveness; rooms remain dim and smoky. Over time soot accumulates, so oil-lit rooms are necessarily dirty places. The earliest candles were made of animal fat and had all the same drawbacks. Then the wax candle was invented. The new technology of lighting was quickly adopted in churches. Bright, clean light illuminated sanctuaries. This was clearly a positive development; people ought to be able to see while worshiping! If Bibles had actually been read in the Catholic churches the new, improved lighting would have been a blessing to the eyes of the priests.

But something went wrong. Candles were so brilliant as to dazzle men’s minds; they soon became focused on the candles. Candles came to be associated with church, taking on a “spiritual” quality. They became associated with new rituals, and “lighting a candle” became an act of worship. What should have been a significant advance in the circumstances of worship became instead a new element, and thus a serious setback. Some early Reformed churches refused to use wax, finding the smoke of oil lamps preferable to the fog which Catholic superstition had introduced into the minds of worshipers.

Today, when electrical lighting is brighter, cleaner and cheaper than candles, churches continue to use them to create a “spiritual ambiance.” Candles somehow just seem more “worshipful.” Even churches which would not go through elaborate lighting rituals (except, due to some strange inconsistency, at weddings!) will switch to candlelight for special holiday services to experience a super-spiritual glow. There can be no question that a circumstance has become an element.

Churches must watch carefully for such transformations, and Christians must always guard their hearts against emotional connection to that which is not prescribed in the Word. Do we feel the need to worship in pews because they are more convenient, accommodating larger numbers of people in less space, or do pews just seem churchier? Does the organ merely help us find our way in the hymns, or do hymns without the organ seem less spiritual? Careful self-examination should reveal the prejudices, superstitions and idolatries of the heart. Then we should know the difference between that which is circumstantially necessary when we meet and that which we offer as worship unto God.

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