In our last article, we talked about various orders of worship which have been used throughout the history of the Reformed Churches, and some common features which characterize them all.
In this article, we want to begin our discussion of the various elements which go to make up our order of worship. It is perhaps best that we discuss the various elements which go to make up the order of worship in our churches, and discuss the place in which they should be included in connection with this discussion.
Generally speaking, liturgists have divided the elements in the worship service into two main sections: the elements in which the minister leads, and the elements in which the minister speaks. In a way, this is an arbitrary distinction, and other distinctions could be used. The idea behind this distinction is to place emphasis upon the fact that the minister, as the ambassador of Christ, leads in the entire worship service. With a little thought, it can be clearly seen that other distinctions all have objections of one sort or another. The distinction which we have suggested is open to criticism, e.g., that it does not say anything about those elements in the worship service in which the congregation takes an active role. But the fact remains that should another distinction be introduced, which would speak of those elements in which the congregation takes a part, one would face other objections. Chiefly, such a distinction would fail to recognize the fundamental truth that the congregation really participates in the whole worship. Whether the minister is himself speaking or reading from the Scriptures, whether the minister is praying or singing along with the rest of the congregation, the congregation ought to be taking an active part. We will, therefore, follow the distinction which has been most commonly used.
The first element in which the minister leads is the reading of Scripture. This is, perhaps, not the first element in the order of worship; but it is the first element which we intend to consider.
It might be well that we make a few remarks first of all concerning the Biblical basis for this practice. Already in the Old Testament there were times when the Scriptures were read in the audience of the people of God. We read of such practice, e.g., at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8:1-8). The same thing is true of the time of our Lord. It was evidently an established practice in the synagogues already before our Lord came to earth. He Himself’ followed this practice and read from the Scriptures before preaching to the people when He made use of the synagogue. So we read in connection with His sermon in the synagogue of Nazareth that He asked for the scroll of the prophecy of Isaiah and read from chapter 61. The apostles followed the same practice, especially when they used the synagogues for their pulpits. Thus we read in Acts 13:15 that it was after the reading of the law and the prophets that Paul began his great sermon which he preached to the Jews of Antioch. We know too that it was very common in the apostolic church for the congregations to read the letters which were sent to them by the apostles and to circulate copies of these letters so that all the congregations could read them in their worship service. It is not surprising, therefore, that the post-apostolic church followed the same practice and that Scripture reading was, from the beginning, an integral part of the worship service. And this practice continued throughout the centuries with little exception. The major exception was, of course, the failure either to read Scripture or to preach during the Middle Ages when the Romish Church was in control of the entire lives of the people. Because of the emphasis on sacerdotalism and because of the terrible illiteracy of the clergy, Scripture reading was all but abandoned in many instances. The Romish Church believed that the members of the church did not need the Scriptures and, in fact, thought that the Scriptures would be harmful for the people of God. And so Scripture reading was no longer practiced.
The Reformation brought all this to an end. The Reformation was, above all, a return to the Scriptures; and the Reformers were convinced that it was essential not only that the people of God have the Scriptures in their possession, but also that the worship services include Scripture reading.
It is in this connection that an interesting point ought to be brought up. The Reformers not only firmly believed that the Scriptures ought to be read in the worship services, but that the Word of God ought to occupy a central place in the preaching. The congregation was gathered around the Word of God, and that Word was the controlling feature of worship. In order to impress this upon the minds of people, they insisted that the pulpit ought to stand in the center of the platform, in the place of the altar which had stood there in the old Romish Churches. The altar was the center of worship in the Romish Churches because the mass was the center of the worship, where the elements of the bread and wine were changed into the body and blood of the Lord. Intent on showing the people that the mass was an accursed idolatry and that the Word of God stood at the center, the Reformers disposed of the altar and replaced it with the pulpit. But upon this pulpit was the Bible, lying open, in view of all the people of the congregation. This was, of course, symbolic, but there is here an important value in the symbol for all that.
Something of this is sometimes lost within our own church buildings. For one thing, there is an increasingly common practice to clear the top of the pulpit of the Bible, perhaps to allow room for the minister to lay his notes. But during the worship service, and particularly during the preaching, the Bible is not even visible to the congregation. The same thing is true of some styles of modern pulpit furniture. The pulpit is constructed in such a way that the Bible is hidden behind a rather high front board so that it cannot be seen. This is, to my mind, something less than desirable. It can, of course, be argued that all this is mere symbolism and that, after all, the important thing is that the sermon itself be an exposition of Scripture; but the fact of the matter is that symbolism in the worship service has always been important, and we have lost something of the heritage of the Reformation when we fail to do this. By the presence of the Bible on the top of the pulpit throughout the worship service we clearly state that the Word of God stands at the very center of our worship, and its presence there, in view of the entire congregation, reminds them constantly of this important truth.
The reading of Scripture is such an important part of the worship service because: 1) it is through the Scriptures that God speaks to His people; 2) it forms the basis for the preaching; 3) it has been stated correctly that the liturgy of the worship service is an integral whole and the principle of that unity is surely the Word of God around which the whole revolves and which gives to the whole its basic unified structure.
It has been argued that Scripture ought to be read systematically in the worship service from beginning to end. The reason for this is that much of Scripture is never actually read in the worship service and that many people of God never hear the whole of Scripture read to them. This can hardly be considered an objection, however, if there are systematic family devotions in the home. It is usually better to read a passage which relates to the text upon which the sermon is based.
There has been some change in the particular place in the order of worship which the reading of Scripture occupies. It was not so long ago that Scripture reading was usually prior to congregational prayers. In recent years, most of our churches have shifted Scripture reading to after the congregational prayers and just before the sermon proper. I personally do not like this change very well. I know that the argument is that the reading of the appropriate Scriptural passage fits much better just before the sermon so that the congregation can clearly see the connection between the passage and the sermon. But the fact is that, unless the material for the sermon is announced on the bulletin, the congregation does not even know what is being preached on until the service is one-third over. And the elements of worship which precede the congregational prayers are crowded closely together-especially the two songs which are sung before and after the reading of the law or the Apostolic Confession.
There is one possible way in which both these problems can be avoided: a passage of Scripture can be read both before the congregational prayers and after them just before the sermon is preached. In fact, this is done in some Presbyterian Churches where there is a reading of Scripture both from the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant.” When this is done, a passage from the Old Testament Scriptures which relates to the sermon is read in the early part of the order of worship, and a passage from the New Testament is read just prior to the sermon-or vice versa, if the sermon is from the Old Testament. This way of doing things appeals to me very much and ought seriously to be considered.
It remains a fact, however, that the reading of Scripture is essential. It is central and important and it ought to occupy a prominent place in the worship. It goes without saying that the minister, when reading the Scriptures, ought to read them in such a way that his reading is easy to follow. That is, he ought to read Scripture expressively and interestingly. Nor is it out of place to make, from time to time, a few brief comments about the particular meaning of a passage which he reads. And the congregation ought to listen attentively to the reading of Scripture as God’s own Word to them. It has been said of Dr. A. Kuyper, that his reading of Scripture was in itself a sermon and often edified and blessed the congregation as much as the sermon itself. This was apparently due to his way of reading it rather than of any comments which he made in the course of reading, something he almost never did. Even in the reading of Scripture Christ speaks to His people through His blessed Word; and the congregation ought to say, as the Scriptures are read, “Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth.”