Archive for May, 2011

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 9 – Heeding God’s Prescriptions for Worship

May 27, 2011

Biblical worship is the worship revealed in the Bible as pleasing to God. Since the Bible reveals God’s nature, will, and works, we should expect that God prescribes how He wants to be worshipped in Scripture. Both Old Testament principle and New Testament precept (1 Tim 3:15) combine to show us that God’s worship is not regulated by preference, popularity, or pragmatic concerns. God’s worship is regulated by His revealed Word.

Believers in the Regulative Principle of Worship, or the Rule of Prescription, believe that a worship practice can be admitted to the worship of the church if such a practice is unequivocally and positively grounded in Scripture.1  However, while all believers in the validity of the Regulative Principle accept that Scripture must command a worship practice before it can be instituted, not all believers agree on which worship practices have been commanded, or how Scripture makes such imperatives explicit.

Among proponents of the Regulative Principle, broad and narrow interpretations and applications exist. All believers in the validity of the Regulative Principle accept that Scripture must command a worship practice before it can be instituted; not all believers agree on which worship practices have been commanded, or how Scripture makes such imperatives explicit.

Conservatives see fewer elements. For example, D.G. Hart sees Reformed worship as consisting in the reading and preaching of the Word, prayer, song, the collection, and the sacraments. 2  Ligon Duncan recites the Puritan formula for New Testament worship: to read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible and see the Bible (the sacraments). 3

Proponents of a looser application of the Regulative Principle see other elements as having biblical sanction. John Frame sees the elements as greetings and benedictions, reading of Scripture, preaching and teaching, charismatic prophecy (when it operated), prayer, song, vows, confession of faith, sacraments, church discipline, collections and offerings, and expressions of fellowship which Frame sees in things like the love feast and the holy kiss. 4  Bryan Chapell lists seventeen: calls, prayers, Scripture readings, music, offerings and collections, creeds and affirmations, benedictions and charges, rubrics, sermon, sacraments, expressions of fellowship, testimonies and ministry reports, oaths and vows, ordinations and commissionings, church discipline, fasting, and other unnamed possibilities.

As a pastor, I find myself uncomfortable with Frame’s interpretation of the Regulative Principle, but also aware that conservatives like Hart may not have fully dealt with other possible elements, such as mutual edification in corporate worship (1 Co 14:26). Like any pastor who holds to the Regulative Principle, I try to wrestle with the New Testament evidence to see what has been commanded or exemplified. This is what a conservative Christian church will have to do: determine which elements of worship are biblically prescribed.

Once determined, the church will need to include only those elements and ruthlessly exclude everything else. This may be difficult when certain traditions have set in. If your church determines that drama has not been prescribed, then what about the Sunday School skit? Or the Christmas play? If your church determines that the handshaking time falls outside of God’s prescriptions, will it be able to drop it altogether? For that matter, if your church has failed to include one of the biblical elements of worship, will it be able to begin practicing it?

Here some teaching on each element of New Testament worship will be useful. If a pastor devotes a sermon to each element, he is able to show the biblical rationale and reasonable application for what is included in his church’s worship services. Very often, such compelling sermons are all that is needed to show why other elements are not included.

A few more thoughts about pastoral involvement in the planning of corporate worship are in order, which will the subject of the next post.

1. Ligon Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God ed. Philip Ryken, Derek W.H. Thomas and J. Ligon Duncan III (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2003), 64.

2. D.G. Hart and John R. Muether,With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2002), 150.

3. Ligon Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, 68.

4. John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company), 56.

5. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 146.


Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 8 – Restoring Biblical Worship

May 20, 2011

Christianity is far more than salvation from sin and the knowledge of some Christian doctrine. Christianity claims to offer true worship to the only true God. Therefore, a Christianity worth conserving is a Christianity deeply concerned with the question of worship.

To conserve the gospel and the whole counsel of God and abandon the battle for biblical worship is to struggle valiantly to win the road and then surrender or flee when it comes to the destination. After all, while the gospel is the boundary of the Christian life, and the whole counsel of God is the life within that boundary, they all aim at one thing: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. In other words, the gospel and the whole counsel of God are means towards the final end: worship. Why men will fight so hard for means, only to abandon ship when it comes to ends is an enigma. All that doctrine aims at one thing: loving God ordinately.

How can church leaders encourage this movement toward fitting, appropriate worship? To begin with, there are at least four things about worship which need to be taught repeatedly.

First, teach on the importance of worship. Whether it be in sermon series specifically devoted to the topic of worship, or whether it be a constant refrain in other sermons, pastors must make the point clear: worship is at the center of the Christian life. The gospel is a means, not an end. All of Christian doctrine is a means, not an end. What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. At the heart of Christianity is the call to ascribe value to God (Ps 29:1-2). Those under your charge should know that there is no greater priority for the Christian than to glorify God by loving Him wholeheartedly.

Second, teach on the importance of corporate worship. While everyone agrees that Mark 12:28-29 is the greatest commandment, not everyone draws a line from that verse to corporate worship. Rather, in an individualized, sentimentalized and over-therapized culture, people immediately think of their private devotions, or “personal” relationships with God. While I strongly agree that each individual must personally seek to know God, it’s obvious that books like 1 John emphasize loving God in a far more corporate sense than we are used to. A biblical theology of worship is going to place far more emphasis on the gathered worship of God’s people than on individual encounters with God. Corporate worship ought to set the tone for private worship, not vice-versa. Just as the preached Word teaches us how to read it when alone, so public prayers and corporate song and the overall dignity of corporate worship teach how we ought to love God. Corporate worship truly is the catechism of the affections.

Third, teach on the God-centredness of worship. Worship is not a product we consume, it is an offering we give. We have come a long way from viewing worship as a sacrifice of praise, where what pleases God controls what we do. Instead, the modern discussion about worship revolves around words like style, preferences, cultural norms. While these matters deserve serious discussion, the way they dominate the discussion betrays whether our zeal is for God’s pleasure or our comfort. Pastors need to teach on the radical difference between worship and entertainment. In a culture of passive spectators, abundant distraction, Christians must hear the truth that worship is not amusement, but a serious engagement with God.

Fourth, teach on God’s prescriptiveness regarding worship. If it is true that there is worship that pleases God, and worship that does not, we can be sure that God will give us those principles in Scripture. Christian leaders should remind God’s people that God has been quite prescriptive regarding His worship and service, and has often publicly chastened those who innovated. We need to be reminded that sincerity is a panacea for all worship-ills. Good intentions do not make up for disobedience. A carefulness and watchfulness over our worship needs to return to the thinking of God’s people.

Lord, Have Mercy

May 18, 2011

Father and Fearsome God,

We have sinned.

We confess that we have added to the darkness of this age, rather than dispersing it.
We have led others to worship a golden image, rather than YHWH.
Kýrie, eléison.

We have sung songs far beneath Your majesty, and taught others to do so.
We have argued for what is profane and common, perverting our powers of reason for evil.
We have taught others before we had barely understood, being quick to speak and slow to hear.
We have prayed publicly with mindless casualness, and called it sincerity.
We have preached publicly with careless levity and called it joy.
We have worshipped with self-indulgent irreverence and called it lively.
Kýrie, eléison.

We have modelled not the fear of the Lord, but an inordinate familiarity with the Holy One.
We have confused worship with entertainment, and made it acceptable.
We have taught others that the passions of levity, hilarity, and flippancy belong in the service of God.
We have worshipped the gods of fun, popularity, results and attendance figures.
We have served ourselves in Your name.
Kýrie, eléison.

We have breathed in the spirit of the age, and exhaled it upon Your children.
Like Saul, we have claimed noble intentions for our disobedience, compounding our rebellion with lies.
Like Hophni and Phineas, we have caused men to abhor Your worship, therefore our sin is very great.
To us belong millstones, for children have imagined You wrongly through our actions.
Kýrie, eléison.

At one time, we heard of You with the hearing of the ear, but now our eyes see You, and we repent in utter humiliation.

Forgive us for the sake of Your reputation as a merciful God.
For Your own name’s sake, restore what the locusts have eaten.
For Your fame, grant that we could recover hundredfold what we destroyed.
For the glory of Your grace, turn our earned shame into a gracious zeal for the Lord of Hosts.
Kýrie, eléison.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 7 – Doctrinal Literacy (contd.)

May 13, 2011

Churches that wish to be doctrinally thorough and promote theological literacy ought to have a pulpit that systematically teaches through Scripture, and support it with other means of increasing theological knowledge and depth. This post considers a third and fourth way of achieving this.

A conservative Christian church should engage in the systematic discipleship of believers. Of course, the previous two suggestions form part of this discipleship. However, teaching Christian disciples all things that He commanded us (Mt 28:20) entails more than sermons and classes. It calls for the mentoring relationships of teacher and pupil, master and apprentice, father and son. Paul’s description of himself as both a father and a mother to the Thessalonians seems to suggest this (1 Thes 2:7-11). Discipleship involves one Christian seeking the spiritual growth of another. This involves intercession (2 Thes 1:11-12), personal involvement, setting an example (1 Tim 4:12), and verbally instructing. Beyond this, a kind of loving supervision needs to occur, consisting of correction (Gal 6:1), encouragement (Heb 3:13) and counseling. Creating this habit of ‘apprenticing’ other believers in very individualistic cultures can be difficult. Pastors need to teach on these kinds of discipling relationships. Instructional materials can be written or purchased that may assist one believer teach another. Providing opportunities for believers to be together outside of corporate worship can be helpful for increasing these bonds, and allowing younger believers to observe older believers in other settings. Creating a culture of older believers caring for younger believers takes a long time, and needs to be continually urged against the spiritual entropy that causes us to think only of our own spiritual progress.

Systematic discipleship allows churches to ground believers in the ‘grammar’ of Christianity, slowly building from the fundamentals all the way up to a detailed systematic theology. Catechism is not a bad word. All Christians should ultimately be involved in catechizing other believers, as part of the Great Commission.

A conservative Christian church should encourage fellowship with other Christians where it exists. Conservative Christianity is not (or ought not to be) some schtich or gimmick to dress up one or another modern movement as the real deal . Conservative Christianity is truly catholic, for it seeks to conserve what is essentially Christian. Conservative Christianity is not the province of a particular group, denomination or movement. A Wesleyan can be a conservative Christian. A Reformed Baptist can be a conservative Christian. Conservative Christianity embraces Arminians like Tozer and Wesley, and Calvinists like Machen and Edwards. It sees value in Augustine and Novatian, in Fenelon and Guyon, in von Zinzendorf and Warfield. Individual conservatives may disagree with them on points, but it is because of their consistency that we know exactly where those points were. We know how much fellowship we can have with their systems of faith.

Of course, some doctrinal deviations have greater implications for the gospel than others. Some differences cause a greater breach in possible collaboration. Fellowship must be taken where it exists. Pastors can encourage this kind of genuine catholicity by pointing to the great strengths of Christian teachers and ministries past and present that differ from one’s own perspective. It can involve varying degrees of targeted collaboration with other Christians, ranging from the lowest levels of informal fellowship, through things like shared pulpits, all the way up to collaborated ministry efforts like joint church planting. Pointing out where fellowship exists, and where it doesn’t, not only helps believers appreciate the whole body of Christ, it increases their theological literacy. They come to learn how to weigh doctrinal differences. They come to appreciate the spectrum of theology, and how varying doctrinal differences affect Christian life and ministry.

Conservative Christianity wishes to conserve the whole counsel of God. Churches that wish to conserve Christianity must resist the tides of doctrinal minimalism, and seek to consistently teach the whole Christian faith.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 6 – Doctrinal Literacy

May 6, 2011

How do churches teach Christian doctrine thoroughly and cohesively? I suggest four ways, the first two of which I’ll deal with in this post.

First, a conservative Christian church needs a pulpit ministry that systematically teaches through Scripture. I am very thankful for those who have written extensively on expository preaching, or modeled it with their ministries. It is also gratifying to see a renewed emphasis on biblical theology, and the need to teach it from the pulpit. These are gratifying trends, and it is unlikely that church reform will begin anywhere but in churches committed to this kind of teaching. A systematic, ongoing teaching of texts in context is a certain way to teach the whole counsel of God. Good expository preaching will include a mixture of biblical, systematic and practical theology mixed into one meal. Topical sermons are valid forms of instruction, insofar as they are expository preaching with a multiplicity of texts.

A good pulpit ministry will include both positive and negative. It will explain what is good and right, and where necessary, expose theological and methodological error. No substitute exists for the consistent preaching of God’s Word.

Second, a conservative Christian church should encourage theological education among its members, beginning with its leaders. Theological education goes beyond the scope of a pulpit ministry, and seeks to catechize Christians in a broad understanding of Christian doctrine. This is never more needed than now, in our day of doctrinal minimalism.

One sees the effects of poor theological education in a kind of volatility among church leaders. I have seen more than one young pastor abandon theological positions he has barely understood, and have been guilty of similar impulsiveness myself, at times. For example, it has become popular to abandon dispensationalism. One wonders, of those that do, how many had read someone like McClain before doing so? I am not an Arminian, but should I not have read someone like Roger Olson before repudiating Arminian views? Not thirty years ago, Calvinism was hardly popular, but today it has a healthy following. This is partly through the excellent pulpit ministries of some modern Calvinists, but it may also be partly because we Christians are influenced by what is popular.

My point is not to defend or attack any of these positions, nor to impugn the motives of any whose theological position changes. All of us change somewhere. I respect the man who changes theological traditions if he fully understands what he is leaving and what he is embracing. Nor is it to disparage genuine resurgences of neglected doctrines. My point is merely to show how fickle our theological convictions seem to have become of late. It seems to require relatively little to change a man from cessationism to continuationism, a well-written book or two to convince a man of theonomic postmillennialism, a few visits to First Thriving Church to convince a man of bus ministry or orchestras or whatever the case may be. Where true, this phenomenon resembles Paul’s description of immaturity in Ephesians 4:14.

This kind of theological volatility is partly remedied with sound theological education. The kind of theological education worth its name must ground a man in exegetical skills, views of biblical theology, exposure to various systematic theologies, an understanding of the historical development of doctrine, and even a grounding in dialectical and philosophical concerns. The pastor who is privileged to have had such an education must do his best to grow something similar in his church. Though the pulpit ministry will teach much of what is needed, it is almost certain that it cannot achieve the level of theological literacy needed by itself.

To create a thorough and comprehensive understanding of Christian doctrine, the pulpit ministry will need to be supplemented with some kind of evening classes, adult Sunday School courses, or other formats where more specialised skills like hermeneutics, exegesis, biblical theology, systematic theology and historical theology can be taught. Whatever the format, its presence can do wonders for theological literacy in a church. A pastor would do well to harvest the burgeoning resources in print or online, and build something of a theological reference multi-media library, with recommended texts, lectures and sermons. Seminaries exist partly because, at some point, churches stopped doing this. This is not to say that a local church, particularly a newer, smaller one, will always have within itself the resources to do this. But in an era of doctrinal fast-food, every church should strive to be a place where a wholesome, comprehensive view of the Christian faith is taught.

This is important for another reason. The theologically literate are better able to judge the relative importance of doctrines to one another. Armed with such knowledge, they are able to judge how serious the differences are between themselves and other Christians, and how much collaboration is possible. The current tribalism in Western Christianity is a symptom of doctrinally illiterate Christians frantically trying to identify us and them in terms of movements, associations, alliances, denominations, colleges, conferences, and coalitions, instead of careful comparisons of doctrine and the implications thereof. Christian catholicity is greatly aided by theological literacy.