Our Order of Worship

The question of liturgy has always intrigued me. I mean especially questions of liturgy which belong to what we call our order of worship. This interest includes the elements and order of worship as they were practiced in the early apostolic and post-apostolic church, as gradually they were changed by the Romish Church until it became a highly liturgical church with liturgy replacing the preaching of the Word, as radical and significant changes were made at the time of the Reformation and as these liturgical changes developed in different branches of the churches of the Reformation—the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, and, later, the Baptist branches. 

Recently, in Hope Church, the monthly-held discussion groups on the evening of the Lord’s Day turned their attention to these questions of the order of worship. I think that the material came originally from Faith Church, but the discussion group in which we participated was a very lively group that evening and a great deal of interest was shown in these questions; and my interest was once again quickened. 

A number of things struck me as we were discussing these things. One thing which struck me was the obvious fact, known to all, that the Protestant churches are undergoing radical liturgical change in our day. And these liturgical changes seem to me to be of such a kind that liturgy is once more often taking a dominant place in the worship services, to the extent that it is crowding out the preaching. Preaching receives less and less time while liturgy receives a greater share of the available minutes spent in the worship of God. 

Another thing which struck me is that our own congregations have, over the past several years, made a number of significant changes in the order of worship and in the elements to be included in the liturgy of the church. I well remember the time when it made no difference what Protestant Reformed congregation we worshipped in: the liturgy, i.e., the order of worship, was the same. One felt immediately at home and did not have to guess what was coming next in the order of worship. All was like it was in one’s home congregation. But now things are different. Perhaps I notice that especially because I have opportunity to preach in many of our congregations; and I have to be sure, while I am sitting in the Consistory room prior to the service, to check on the order of worship printed on the back of the bulletin and consult with one of the elders concerning any unique elements in their practices so that I do not bungle what is the adopted order of worship in the congregation where I am a guest preacher. 

Yet another thing which struck- me is that changes are often made in the order of worship for the mere sake of change. There is little knowledge and understanding of various rather important questions which arise in this area. People do not always know why various elements are included in the order of worship; they do not know why changes are made; they do not know what purpose each element serves in the worship service; what is the history of many of our practices; why in some cases changes are beneficial and in others they are not. ‘It is not even always clear exactly how a particular practice is worship, i.e., how some of the things we do in the worship services constitute an act of worship—the worship of our God. And the old Dutch proverb came to mind: alle verandering is geen verbetering, i.e., change is not necessarily improvement. 

And so the thought came to mind that it would be worth our while to discuss these matters in the Standard Bearer. We ought to know and understand clearly not only why we worship God on the Lord’s Day, but why we worship God in the way that we do. And if we make changes in our order of worship, we ought to understand why these changes are made and we ought to consider the question of whether these changes are conducive to a better worship of God. Our worship of God ought to be intelligent: we ought to know what we are doing and understand as much as we can the reason for doing what we do. 

Now the field of liturgy is a very broad one and includes many different elements which we do not propose to discuss, at least for the time being, in these articles. For example, liturgy includes also the use of our Liturgical Forms such as the Form for the Administration of Holy Baptism, the Form for Excommunication, etc. We are not of a mind, at least for the present, to discuss these matters. We want to concentrate on what is generally known as, The Order of Worship: what the minister does and says, what the officebearers do, what the congregation does. And we want to discuss why these things are done and what order these things are to be carried out to make our worship conform as much as possible to the Scriptures. It is our hope that these articles will provoke discussion and debate within our churches, in the societies, discussion groups, among our people, and in our Consistory rooms. If the result is that our worship becomes more intelligent, more meaningful, then the efforts will not have been in vain. 

Having said all this, it ought to be immediately evident that the norm for our order of worship ought to be Scripture itself. There are those who deny this. It is argued that, while Scripture is the norm and rule of what we must believe, it does not give us the rule for ecclesiastical life. Principles of church polity and of liturgy are outside the scope of Scripture’s regulative principles. While it may be true, so it is said, that the apostolic church had certain kinds of rules of church polity and liturgy, these were adaptations to the time and are not rules which govern the church twenty centuries later. They are in Scripture because they give us information concerning how the church at that time adjusted to her circumstances and lived her life in the most effective way. But these rules are not normative for us. 

This is not true. Scripture is not only the rule and norm of what we must believe in order to be saved, but it is also the rule of our life—it is the rule of faith and life. And what part of our life is as important as that part we spend in church on the Lord’s Day worshipping our God? To Scripture we must turn for guidance in these matters, and our worship must be in harmony with the revealed will of God. 

But having said this, it is also true that Scripture does not prescribe our worship in such detail that there is no room for differences. Scripture tells us that singing belongs to the worship, but it does not tell us where in the worship service we ought to sing nor how often we should turn to our song books. Reading from Scripture ought to be included in the worship service, but where in the order of worship this reading takes place is not prescribed. Whether to sing doxologies before or after the service (or in both places) or, for that matter, whether to sing doxologies at all is not made a rule in the Word of God. Many things are left to the judgment and discretion of the church to decide for herself. There is liberty and there must be liberty in these matters. 

This does not mean that there is no rule at all, that we can make changes willy-nilly, without rhyme or reason, just because we happen to feel like making changes or happen, subjectively, to like a certain thing. There is one general rule which has to be followed: the edification of the church. Whatever changes are made in the liturgy, within the framework of Scripture’s injunctions in these matters, must be justified on the basis of this principle. We change something because we are convinced that it will better serve the edification of the congregation at worship. If we cannot do that, we ought not to change. 

But the fact remains that there is room for differences of opinion on many of these questions. I am not against change, and there are times when change is eminently desirable. What I am asking for is that change be done intelligently and with good reason; that we know what we are doing and why we are doing something. And this means that we know something about what Scripture says about these things; that we know something about the history of various elements in our order of worship, that we know something about the importance of worship itself in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

As we discuss these things in future articles I do not expect that you will always agree with me. Nor is that necessary. There are some things which I prefer which you may not prefer, and there are things which you prefer which seem to me to be not conducive to the true worship of God “in Spirit and in truth.” These disagreements are healthy, and they will be healthy if only we know why we do what we do and prefer what we prefer. 

There is another area here which we ought not to forget, and that is our historical heritage. I am fully aware of the fact that we ought not to do things—in our worship services also—just because they were always done this way. We must never worship out of custom or habit, merely because, well, that’s the way it was always done. This is not adequate justification for anything. And we do very wrong if we sit tight on past custom. But there is another side to this coin equally as important. We are part of the church of the past and we trace our ecclesiastical and theological roots back to that church of the past. We have a tradition, after all; and that tradition includes not only our doctrine—although that most importantly—but also our liturgical heritage. And our liturgical heritage includes not only our liturgical forms, but also our order of worship. We ought never to cast all this lightly aside. Our fathers, after all, were much more sensitive to proper worship of God than we often are; they were called upon to develop their liturgy over against Rome and to worship under the pressure of persecution. They knew what they were doing and why they were doing what they did. 

This does not make what they did specially holy and does not surround their actions with a halo of infallibility, but it ought, at the very least, to give us pause as we consider changes. And one question which we ought always to face therefore is: Can we improve on what they have done? That question always remains an important one. 

So, we shall turn to the subject.