I enjoyed Rev. Terpstra’s articles on “The Believer’s Role in Public Worship,” but his January 15, 2002 article prompted me to write and ask a question. As the same liturgy is performed week after week, Rev. Terpstra notes that there is a temptation to fall into the “sin of formalism, of using the right means of worship in the wrong way, just going through the motions, as if the elements were empty, insignificant rituals.” I think this temptation is a strong one, which makes me curious about the Reverend’s solution to it. He says that rather than changing the liturgy, we should just concentrate more.
If there was only one possible, acceptable liturgy, I would agree that this would have to be the solution. But since many variations could be acceptable I wonder why changes to the liturgy might not be a better solution. As long as the liturgy is identical from week to week, the temptation to formalism will always be present.
In other situations we do what we can to remove temptation. For example, if the young ladies of a congregation dressed in an overly provocative manner, it could be argued that the men should simply concentrate harder, to resist the sin of lust. But it would also be quite reasonable to ask the young ladies to dress in a more sedate manner, to remove the temptation.
I am not asking for change, simply for change’s sake, but I do wonder why variation in the liturgy, which may help remove a temptation, would not be a good thing.
Editor, Reformed Perspective,
Edmonton, AB, Canada
You raise the issue of changing the liturgy to prevent the threat of formalism, as I mentioned in the January 15 article. I can agree with you that this is possible within the bounds that Scripture and the second commandment give us. The main elements of worship as prescribed by God are unchanged and unchanging. However, there may be variations within this structured liturgy. For example, the use of a different doxology could be implemented from time to time. Or the reading of Scripture could be placed at an earlier time in the service, instead of just before the sermon. Or a different creed could be used for the congregation’s confession, such as the Nicene, instead of only the Apostles’ Creed. I dare say that all of our Protestant Reformed churches use such variations. And there is no question this can help to prevent the sin of formalism in our worship.
But my point remains — change or variation in the church’s liturgy will by itself never solve the problem of formalism. That is a matter of the worshiper’s heart. It is our own personal attitude in worship and our own personal use of the elements of the service that must constantly be changing — that is, changing according to God’s work of conversion in us, so that more and more we hate all false worship and strive to be pure and sincere in the way we approach the Lord and worship Him in our services. When we guard our own hearts and seek to be conformed on the inside to God’s way of worship, then and only then will the sin of formalism be turned back.
(Rev.) Charles J. Terpstra
We are saddened by the decision of the 2002 Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) to end discussions with the United Reformed Churches in North America (URC) (“Actions of the 2002 Synod of the PRC,” Standard Bearer, July 2002). This decision was unfortunate for several reasons.
First, the URC is a faithful denomination committed to the doctrines of historic Reformed Christianity.
Second, a continuing dialogue between the PRC and URC, while perhaps not resulting in ecclesiastical unity (the stipulated goal of the PRC Contact Committee), would, if the PRC were willing, have the desirable effects of nurturing a filial relationship between the denominations and promoting greater respect for and understanding of one another.
Third, the rationale articulated by the synod for ending discussions with the URC reveals an alarming tendency within the PRC to elevate controversial, extra-confessional matters to the confessional level. Room for debate and disagreement should exist within faithful Reformed denominations on difficult and often mysterious issues such as creation science, covenant theology, and eschatology. Instead of demanding lock-step orthodoxy on matters that spark disagreement among the best Reformed thinkers, the PRC should learn from the URC’s example. It would be a refreshing reform if the PRC embraced the URC’s humility and realism by recognizing the ability of churches and Christians to differ on some points of doctrine while remaining united in the faith.
Stephen and Alison VanderWoude
St. John, IN