Conserving Biblical Worship – 6

The final aspect of conserving biblical worship is to give careful thought to the circumstances of worship. That is, we need to know not only what the prescribed elements of New Testament worship are. We need to know how best to implement those elements.

We are commanded to gather. But we are not told how often, or for how long. For that matter, we are not told if we should meet in imposing cathedrals, humble chapels, or grey pre-fab buildings. This is a matter of the circumstances of worship, and is not prescribed for us in Scripture.

We are commanded to read the Word publicly. We are not told if this is to be a systematic public reading through the Old and New Testaments, a chosen reading for the day, a call to worship, a benediction, or the passage of Scripture to be preached on.

We are commanded to preach the Word. We are not told how long the sermon should be, if people should take notes, how the preacher should dress or if he should stand behind a pulpit.

We are commanded to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. We are not told if this includes or excludes solos, choirs, anthems, oratorios, folk songs, congregational hymns or ‘choruses’. We are not told how instrumental music should be used (though the Greek word ya,llontej translated “making melody” in Ephesians 5:19 actually means strumming, and thus certainly allows for instrumental music). Nor are we told what ‘style’ of music to use for any or all of these.

We are commanded to pray corporately. We are not told if the prayer commanded involves opening or closing prayers, prayers of confession, the Lord’s Prayer, intercessory prayers, or prayers of worship and adoration.

We are commanded to collect offerings. We are not told if this should be done by passing a plate or bag, or by leaving a box or plate at the back or front, or by having individuals come forward and place their offerings in the collection at the designated time in the service. We are not told if we should play music during the time of offering.

We are commanded to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and baptism. We are not told if all should drink from one cup or if we should use small communion glasses. We are not told if we should have the bread and the cup at the same time or divided by an interval. We are not told if we should sing hymns in the service, preach a message, or spend time in silent prayer. We are not told if we should have a baptismal at the front of the church, or use rivers, lakes or pools. We are not told if the baptismal candidates should wear specific robes, or make a public confession immediately before baptism.

All of these things are questions of the circumstances of worship. For that matter, how we ought to dress to worship, how silent we ought to be upon entering, whether we should shake hands during a hymn, when or if announcements should be made, how visitors should be welcomed or acknowledged, whether or not an altar call should be given, if children should sit through the service or have children’s church, or have a mini-sermon preached to them before the main sermon, these all have to do with the circumstances of worship.

On the face of it, the prescribed elements are just the skeleton. All the meat and tissue is a matter of the circumstances, and these have not been prescribed.

We can observe this silence from Scripture and come to two vastly different conclusions:

  1. God hasn’t said anything about these things, because they don’t matter. How we implement the circumstances of worship is a peripheral matter, whereas God is concerned only that we include the prescribed elements of worship and do so with sincere, devoted hearts.

  2. God hasn’t said anything about the circumstances of worship, not because He is nonchalant about them, but because He expects us to know them through other means.

Given that the church is not confined to one ethnic group like Israel was, whose customs and rituals were detailed down to a fine point, a new set of rules must apply fro defining worship circumstances. As the gospel penetrates cultures and people groups all over the world, God does not insist upon the details of Israelite worship in cultures completely different from it (the opposite of Islam – which imports Arabic culture wherever it spreads). Rather, God makes New Testament worship very simple and generic. New Testament worship does not require a physical Temple, an ethnically based and trained priesthood, a sacrificial system workable only in an agricultural nation, or assemblies possible only to people living within the geographically compact nation of Israel.

This, to me, is one of the major reasons for God saying next to nothing about the circumstances of worship in the New Testament, whereas He defined it down to the gnat’s eyebrow in the Old. He limits His instructions on worship circumstances for an international New Testament church, because to do so will be to force square pegs into round holes. The worship circumstances of one group can look or be quite different from another.

It does not mean that such circumstances are devoid of moral meaning and of no consequence. It means that God expects New Testament Christians around the globe to decide such matters using wisdom, taste, prudence, judgement and conscience. In other words, in matters of the circumstances of worship, God expects His children to be guided by the affections.

According to Scripture, right judgement, taste, and sensibility come from right affections. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. We know correctly, when we feel correctly.

Ordinate affection leads to good decisions regarding the circumstances of worship. Inordinate affection leads to evil decisions regarding the circumstances of worship. And lest we think such matters are unimportant, consider again that most of what we do in corporate worship has to do with the circumstances. The six prescribed elements are a bare starting point; the rest is all circumstantial.

Which leads us to this: if conservative Christians seek to conserve biblical worship, then they must seek to conserve the meaning and importance of ordinate affection.

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