“O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”
Four years ago we introduced this rubric of the Standard Bearer, dealing with our Liturgy, to our readers. After a few brief articles in which we treated the idea and importance of our liturgy, we devoted ourselves to a discussion of some of the liturgical forms which are used in our churches. We have treated the Baptism and Lord’s Supper Forms, the Excommunication Form and the Form for the Readmittance of Excommunicated Persons, as well as the Forms for the Installation of Office Bearers in the church of Christ. Although there are still forms which are worthy of our attention, we choose at this time to put these aside in order that we may concern ourselves with matters that deal directly with our public worship. Our intention is not only to discuss the various elements that are found in our worship but also to consider these things in the light of the historical development of liturgical practices. The church has not always worshipped according to the same form. Although the essence of worship remains the same through all the ages, its form is subject to constant change. This observation demands that we confront several important questions to which we also must find satisfactory answers.
Some of these questions are: Why did the church in past centuries worship as it did? What necessitated or brought about the changes in the form and order of her worship? Were these changes good or bad? Did they improve the service or did they detract from it? And, perhaps the most important question of all and consequently also the most difficult to answer is this: What, in the form and order of worship, belongs to the essence of the service of God and should therefore never be changed, and what is incidental and therefore subject to alterations? We should know not only what to do when we enter into the house of God but we should also know why we do the things we do. If this is not the case our worship reverts into a mere form, and formalism is, according to the Word of God, not worship at all, but it is very displeasing to God. In the Old Testament God severely reproves His people because of their superficial and meaningless formalism. Consider, for example, the words of Isaiah 1:11-15.
“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams; and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye. come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth; they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.”
The prophet Malachi speaks in the same vein in Chapter 1:12-14 of his prophecy: “But ye have profaned it, in that ye say, The table of the Lord is polluted; and the fruit thereof, even his meat, is contemptible. Ye said also, Behold, what a weariness is it! And ye have snuffed at it, saith the Lord of hosts; and ye brought that which was torn, and the lame, and the sick; thus ye brought an offering: should I accept this of your hand? saith the Lord. But cursed be the deceiver, which hath in his flock a male, and voweth, and sacrificeth unto the Lord a corrupt thing: for I am a great King, saith the Lord of hosts, and my name is dreadful among the heathen.”
These unreserved condemnations of formalistic worship are in accord with the description given by the apostle Paul of those who in the last days will also in pretense worship God, “having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.” (II Tim. 3:5) Emphatically the apostle warns, “From such turn away.” That may be individuals, but it may also consist of complete institutes of the church on this earth. The church that in its religious practices and worship turns formalistic; goes through the motions of serving God and no more, is not an institute that serves the edifying of the body of Christ, and neither does it glorify God through such practices. The child of God who sincerely desires to worship God in spirit and in truth cannot remain there. From it he must turn away and seek fellowship in that spiritual communion of saints where the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ breathes and upon which He bestows the blessings of His grace.
The point we wish to make here is that our obligation to God is not met by attending church once or twice each Sunday. Neither, from the viewpoint now of the church as such, is that obligation fulfilled when she conducts a. formal service which in its formal aspect conforms with the traditions of the past. There is something much deeper that is so essential that without it all that appears externally in the form of worship stands condemned and is devoid of the blessing of God.
When we began this rubric four years ago we pointed out that the term “Liturgy” is derived from the Greek term “leitourgia” or “leitourgein” which is ” a composite of two terms, “leitos” meaning people, and “ergon” meaning work or service. Hence, the idea of our liturgy is that it reflects upon all that constitutes the service of the people. Specifically it refers to our service or worship of God. In a restricted sense the term is generally used then to denote that which belongs to the instituted worship of the church, but in the broader sense of the word we understand that our whole life upon this earth must consist of “leitourgia.” “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” (I Cor. 10:31) “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.” (Col. 3:17)”For none of us liveth to himself and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.” (Rom. 14:7, 8) To these, many, many more passages from the Word of God can be added, but the point of the whole matter is beautifully expressed by Jesus Himself, when, after instructing us in the truth that the heart of God’s law (criterion by which our service is to be measured) is that we shall love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, He teaches us that the second principle of the law, which is like unto the first, is: “Love thy neighbor as thyself”. This principle of Christian love is absolutely fundamental in all worship. Without it our gathering together, our singing, praying, offering, preaching, listening and all the rest reverts to an empty form, simply because the blessing of God does not rest upon it. He abhors it and it wearies Him as much as the sacrifices and oblations of Israel of old did. If you doubt this, just read I Corinthians 13 and in the King James version insert the word “love” in the place of the word “charity” in each instance it occurs in the chapter. If the worship of the church is to be a potent, spiritual force, the membership of the church must practice the love of God and the love of one another in their daily life, and the force of that love must be the power that unites them in public worship.
Moreover, without that love we are not really able to understand or to realize experientially what we are doing in our public worship. We can go through the motions or we can follow certain established customs or practices in worship simply because these have been handed down to us or we have been told that this is the proper way to do things, but then we have not grasped their spiritual significance, and we cannot leave the House of God with the satisfaction that we have truly entered into worship. The latter is something else again. Now each part of our worship must be spiritually motivated and until we ourselves are able to enter personally into that motivation, we are unable to derive the spiritual blessing from that part of the service. And when we are able to do that we will also realize that the external form of this or that part of worship is not of primary importance, and we will not be hasty to condemn others, either of the past or the present, because they do not conform exactly to our form of worship. We will be understanding.
At the same time, however, we will also realize that all form is not equally conducive to good worship. The form of worship must serve to give expression to the fundamental idea of worship. All form does not do this equally well, and therefore we must understand each aspect of our form of worship so well that we are able to give account as to why we do as we do, and also then be able to instruct those who worship according to an inferior form. This will not be easy and will require a measure of patience and tolerance.
On the other hand, we must also remember that there are some practices in the very form of worship that do not contribute at all to the idea of worship but rather detract from it. Such practices must not be tolerated but condemned. Here too we must be careful that we do not ban certain practices because they are not to our liking or because they are different than those practices to which we have become accustomed, but, if we are to ban them, we must be able to show why and in what way they detract from the fundamental idea of worship. With this in mind we purpose to examine some of the liturgical practices of the church of the past as well as the practices of some of our modern day churches. Our aim in doing so is not to be critical but rather: (1) to enable us to see the development of worship in the church under the guidance of the Spirit of Christ. We believe that the Spirit has not only led the church in the development of the truth doctrinally but in line with that development the church has been taught to enrich her worship. It would follow that the more the church learns concerning the truth of God, the better equipped she becomes to enrich her service of Him, and this should be reflected in her worship. (2) to compare our own practices with those of others for the purpose of ascertaining which are really the best. In doing so we will be following the injunction of the apostle Paul to, “Prove all things: hold fast that which is good.” (I Thess. 5:21) We may concede that there is much yet to be desired in our worship and that perfection will not be reached in this world of sin, and consequently, we must with open mind be ready to consider whatever may enhance the beauty of worship. (3) to serve, if possible, in directing our churches to a unified practice in this regard. I am not sure that it is so but I am told that the order and form of worship in our various churches differs. To what extent I do not know but I might suggest that someone (the clerk perhaps) in each church send me their order of worship so that I can make a comparison and perhaps reflect on this in some later article. We must also realize, of course, that the choice of an order of worship belongs to the autonomy of each church and it is the prerogative of each consistory to determine this. No established order may be coercively imposed upon the churches and certainly our aim is not to attempt that. But if we consider carefully the various elements, their meaning, and their proper relation to each other and the whole of our worship, it may be that we can arrive at agreement on what should be included, what should be excluded and what order we should follow when we go up to the house of our God.