We are now, after several introductory articles, to enter into the various elements of our worship in God’s house.
Before we do this, however, I want to remind you that the Scriptures, while laying down fundamental principles of worship, nevertheless allow for a great deal of freedom in various elements which go to form our order of worship. The Scriptures do not, in every instance, specify exactly what elements ought to be included in the worship services and what elements ought not be included. The Scriptures do not give us the order in which various elements must follow upon each other. The Scriptures do not, in every case, specify how each element must be carried out. There is, e.g., freedom in the use of different benedictions found in Scripture. We may not allow ourselves to become legalistic in these matters, but must preserve the freedom which Scripture itself gives to us.
The underlying principle which must, therefore govern our determination of the order of worship is the principle of the edification of the congregation. Depending upon the circumstances in which a congregation finds itself, each congregation must, under the direction of the Consistory, decide for itself its order of worship. It must decide this on the basis of the principle of what can best serve the edification of the congregation as the congregation comes together to worship God. While, in a certain sense, this is a subjective judgment, it must be remembered that it is (and ought to be) the judgment of the sanctified consciences of God’s people.
It is because there is liberty in these matters that in this article and the following articles, I will be giving my own personal judgment in some matters. I do this to provoke the members of the church of Christ to discuss these matters among themselves so that whatever may be the order of worship which a congregation follows, it is an order of worship which the congregation intelligently follows. The saints ought to know what they are doing when they worship and why they do things in their worship services the way they do. You may not, therefore, always agree; but at least know why you do not agree.
One final remark. The worship services are under the direction and control of the Consistory. For that reason, the order of worship and any subsequent changes ought to be determined and made by the Consistory itself. This does not, however, preclude the possibility of the Consistory submitting changes to the congregation for its approval or disapproval. There is no reason why the congregation cannot be actively engaged in these determinations, as long as the Consistory retains control, i.e., as long as the Consistory considers carefully any changes before they are submitted and proposes specific changes to be made.
Turning then to the order of worship itself, there are various actions which take place before the worship services actually begin. There are three of them which we purpose to discuss in this article: the meeting of the Consistory before the service; the prayer of the individual members before the service; and the organ playing which serves as a prelude to the service. We will discuss each in turn.
It is becoming increasingly common today to depart from the practice of having the Consistory meet separately before the service. There are, of course, denominations in which this has never been done, but it is a tradition within Reformed Churches. In many instances these latter churches no longer do this. The elders and deacons come in just as the rest of the congregation and sit with their families. In some of our churches, although the Consistory meets together before the service either the deacons alone or both the elders and deacons sit with their families during the worship service, each officebearer finding his own family when he comes with the minister into the congregation.
There is no rule of Scripture which must be followed here and each congregation may decide this on its own. We, however, favor the meeting of the Consistory before the service. The reasons are the following. In the first place, this practice emphasizes the fact that the Consistory is in charge of the service and under its direction. It is through the offices that Christ is present in the congregation, and the congregation is reminded of this when the Consistory meets together before the service and comes in together. In the second place, this becomes increasingly important as our modern culture loses all sense of the proper relationships of authority and obedience—also in the church of Christ. Christ has placed our officebearers over the congregation in positions of authority. Scripture is clear on this. The Consistory occupies, therefore, a special place in the worship service and in the congregation, and this special place is underscored by the separate meeting of the Consistory before the service, by their entrance with the minister, and by their sitting together. In the third place, meeting together before the service gives the Consistory opportunity to pray before the service. This practice, still followed in our congregations, is not of ancient origin. It began during the time of the Afscheiding of 1834 when our fathers were persecuted by the government for separation from the State Church and the worship services were often interrupted either by soldiers or hoodlums who tried to prevent the services from continuing in Afscheiding Churches. The Consistory prayed together before the service to ask God’s blessing upon the congregation so that the congregation could meet without harassment, interruption, and intervention of wicked men. Nevertheless, it is a good thing that those who are in charge of the worship service meet together before the service to ask God’s blessing upon the gathering of the congregation, even though now we do not face these persecutions.
It is perhaps not superfluous to add here that the prayers of the various Consistory members before the service ought to reflect this. Sometimes prayers are altogether too long. Those praying bring all the general and particular needs of the congregation and its members before the throne of grace, including also petitions for the whole of Christendom. This is not necessary. A short and simple prayer asking God’s blessing upon the minister and the congregation is enough.
Not only does the Consistory pray before the service, but it is generally customary among us that the confessing believers also pray when they enter the sanctuary. There are a few remarks which can also be made in this connection.
In the first place, you will notice that I mentioned that the custom is for confessing believers to pray. I have never been able to understand why this is done, i.e., why these prayers are limited to confessing believers. We believe, as I wrote in my last article, that our children must also gather together with their families to worship. They with us are included in the covenant of grace, and they with us can confidently expect God’s blessing upon them as they too worship. Why is it then that we practice the custom of telling our children to pray only after they have made confession of Faith? There is no reason for this. Also our children, when they become old enough to pray themselves, ought to be told to pray before the service. They will have to be instructed in why to pray and what to pray, but that they should pray is an obvious fact.
In the second place, there is a difference of opinion among us whether the people of God should pray as soon as they are seated in their pews, or whether the whole congregation should pray together after the Consistory has taken its seat and the minister has entered the pulpit. If the latter practice is followed, the minister usually summons the congregation to communal silent prayer which is brought to a conclusion by the organist playing, “Hear Our Prayer, O Lord.”
The arguments which are made in favor of the latter practice are: 1) This communal prayer is an expression of the communion of the saints. 2) It avoids disturbances in our prayers by others entering the auditorium or even waiting to enter the pew where we are sitting.
The arguments against this practice are: 1) It makes these prayers a part of the worship service proper which they are not intended to be. This argument seems to be somewhat weighty. 2) It limits the time of prayer by means of an arbitrarily determined point of stopping. This argument also carries some weight. When I come into the Lord’s house on the Sabbath, there are times when I need special time to pray, to cast away the cares of life, to put from my mind problems which may have risen in the early hours of the Sabbath Day, to put myself into a spiritual frame of mind and heart to worship properly. It is extraordinarily annoying then, when I have not yet finished praying and the organ tells me, “Time’s up. Quit praying.”
In the light of these considerations, it is best, I think, that God’s people bring their prayers to God’s throne when they enter the pew. There are always distractions if we allow ourselves to be influenced by them, and the ushers can see to it that people praying are not disturbed by others entering the pew.
While it is certainly true that these prayers are the individual prayers of the believer as he, before God’s face, seeks to enter the proper mood for worship, the child of God ought not to forget that these prayers also ought to be for his pastor who must bring the Word in that service, for his officebearers under whose direction he worships, for his family which sits with him, and for the saints who are gathered with him and who join with him in the communion of the people of God.
These prayers too often become mere custom or habit. But from my own experience, I can testify that they are very important and ought not to be taken lightly.
Next time, the Lord willing, we will discuss the organ prelude to the worship service.