Previous article in this series: September 15, 2014, p. 484.
The Protestant Reformed Churches are united. In confession (doctrine). In discipline (church government). And, for the most part, we are united in worship (liturgy). It is the latter, unity in worship, that is the focus of our attention here. There is no question regarding how tight our unity is in doctrine—the confessions we hold spell that out very precisely. Nor is there question about our unity in church government—every PRC holds the Church Order as regulative and binding for her life. But how united are we in the matter of worship? We return to that question in this editorial.
Even in regard to public worship, the PRC are mostly united, even if not completely. But my hope—I believe it is also Christ’s calling for us—is that we grow in our understanding of that aspect of denominational unity so that we fully appreciate the need for it.
Doctrine, church government, and worship (liturgy)…all these, we said last time, are matters of “the churches in common.” That expression, “matters of the churches in common,” is taken from Article 30 of our Church Order and refers to business that belongs to synod, our denomination’s broadest assembly. Synod decides on doctrinal (confessional) matters. Synod determines any changes to the Church Order. And synod decides matters of worship for all the churches. Determinations regarding worship are not a matter of the local consistory. We are not Congregationalists—each church doing her own thing—in worship, any more than in doctrine or church government.
The last editorial also emphasized the importance of maintaining a liberty in regard to worship details. In minor matters, individual consistories have the right to determine what is most edifying for their congregation. The Church Order gives one example of that liberty when it allows variations in the manner of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, as long as the main elements of the supper are preserved (see Art. 62). This liberty requires that the churches must press for liturgical unity (concord in fundamental matters) but not liturgical uniformity (identity in every detail). For example, our churches have always recognized the right of consistories to use different closing benedictions (“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God…” from, or “the Lord bless thee and keep thee…” from Numbers 6), and to choose from a variety of opening and closing doxologies. Churches have been free to recite together, or hear the minister speak, the Apostles’ Creed; to sing a Psalm during the offering rather than hear the organ play; to have baptism before or after the sermon; and more. We must be united in the fundamental matters, but have liberty to differ in minor matters.
But here we deal with our question: which are the minor matters, and which are major? It must be clear, the major items include more than the principles of worship; for other Reformed churches share our principles, but differ significantly in practice. The major items also include more than what Dordt’s Church Order prescribes; for Dordt does not designate which Psalm-book to use for singing, and we consider choosing a particular Psalm-book to be significant. What then is to be considered major (to be changed only by synodical action) and what is minor (which local consistories may determine)?
Although the churches have not answered that question, my observations (during a generation of preaching) of an increase in liturgical differences among us compel me to urge the churches: as you exercise your liberty, keep in mind the treasure of denominational unity—also in worship.
Reformed history reminds us of the importance of liturgical unity.
History. Precedents. Hold fast the traditions!
Our Dutch forefathers were convinced of the need to maintain unity in worship—in the order of worship. The 1574 Synod of Dordt declared: “From now on, the service…shall be opened with a standing formula, i.e., Our help stands in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Two things stand out in this synodical decree. First, interestingly, although of less importance in these editorials, the Reformed fathers wanted worship to start with this votum, not with the salutation with which most PRCs begin. Second, now to the point of the editorials, it was not the local congregation but the synod who decided how the churches were to worship, even in this “detail” of whether “Beloved…” (the salutation) or “Our help…” (the votum) were the first words in the order of worship. (See sidebar for definitions of these terms.)
The early consensus of Reformation churches was that the order of worship was the business of the denomination, not the local consistory.
The history of our Presbyterian brothers is similar. When, shortly after our 1618/1619 Synod of Dordt, these brothers in the United Kingdom adopted their standards, called the “Westminster Standards,” included in these standards were not only their creeds and their “form of Church Government,” but also their “Directory for the Public Worship of God,” in which was prescribed a particular order of worship for all the churches.
It may be repeated: consensus in Reformation churches was that denominational unity included the order of worship.
When the early Dutch Reformed settled in America and established their denomination, which became the Reformed Church in America, they soon adopted a “Constitution” that included the same three elements that the Presbyterians in the UK did: their doctrinal standards, their form of church government, and their liturgy. Notable here is that, even though this liturgy did not prescribe the particular order of worship, liturgy was one of the three elements constituting denominational unity; the particular order of worship among the congregations was assumed by all.
When the Christian Reformed Church was formed in 1857, all the churches worshiped in the same manner. Their worship order was what they had practiced in the Netherlands. And for sixty years there was unity, if not uniformity.
However, in 1916 (and 1916 is PRC history), the CRC’s Classis Illinois observed that local congregations were adopting a variety of changes in worship, and petitioned synod to “introduce a uniform order of services.” Synod 1916 appointed a committee called “Committee to Promote Unity in our Worship-services.” This aptly-named committee, therefore, did not find its beginnings in a desire to create some innovative liturgy, but in changes that were being made in the churches, and synod believed that “it was a matter of principle that the order of worship should not be left to the discretion of the consistories” and that the “churches were to express their unity through a common order of worship….” Classis Illinois’ overture initiated a sixteen-year study of the order of worship in the denomination.
This long story (to oversimplify it) concludes with our fathers’ inability to declare on a uniform order of worship! Strikingly, this inability came not because synod concluded that every congregation should be free to settle on their own order, but from an inability to decide which order was the best order. They could not see eye to eye on which order of worship was proper. But our fathers clearly believed that the order of worship was a significant element of denominational unity.
The sixteen-year struggle involved more than one disagreement. The major dispute related to whether the morning service would include a general, congregational confession of sin, followed by the minister’s declaration of forgiveness—a declaration called an “absolution.” Also, they could not come to consensus whether the summary of the law ought to precede or follow the ten commandments. The synodical row included whether there ought to be an offertory prayer, and whether a form-prayer rather than spontaneous prayer would be used after the confession of sin.
But the churches did agree: “denominational unity is expressed by unity of worship as well as by unity of doctrine and of discipline,” and “the uniformity sanctioned by custom and tradition is gradually being broken.” Repeatedly, especially in the early years of the study, synod conveyed to the churches sentiments like: “The regulation of public worship should not be left to the individual churches,” and “Synod urges our Consistories not to make any changes in their public worship other than those included in the order adopted by Synod,” and “By restricting changes to those approved by Synod, the calamity of every congregation determining its own mode of worship will be averted, and our denominational unity in matters of worship will not be seriously impaired.”
In the end (1932), because so many local consistories had already made changes, the CRC was unable to settle on a denominational liturgy, and the churches in effect all went their own way. It’s probably only a little exaggeration to say that they became “liturgical Congregationalists.”
The PRC are not at this point. The sky is not falling over our denomination. Although some might suppose it is falling when even the most minor changes are made, there is significant and essential unity in the denomination in liturgy. We are agreed on the centrality of preaching, the subordination of the sacraments to the Word, the need to sing Psalms. We agree that worship is to be reverent, congregational, spiritual, simple, and that no choirs or special numbers are a part of it.
But that’s why this is a good time—really the best time—to remind us to value liturgical unity as we value confessional unity!
Differences exist from church to church, but we ought to be sober in our judgment of them. They do not fracture our unity, and they may not. Unity is precious!
The differences perhaps fall into three categories:
First, there are differences in the manner in which elements are practiced: is the Apostles’ Creed recited by the congregation or read by the minister? Does the minister pronounce the votum (“our help”) or does the congregation speak it in unison? Do we stand or sit to sing?
Second, there are a few differences in order. Examples of this include whether worship begins with the votum or the salutation; whether the Scripture reading follows the first Psalm or immediately precedes the sermon; and whether the offering is taken after the congregational prayer or after the sermon.
Third, there are additions or omissions of elements themselves. I mention the addition of reading one of our confessions article by article in connection with the church’s confession of faith; the addition of a “prayer before the sermon”; or the inclusion of the “call to worship” and the “silent prayer” as part of the worship service itself. Or, the omission of the opening doxology or the omission of the Apostles’ Creed or the reading of the law.
I must make clear here, again, that my (and your) personal preference about any of these differences is not now the issue, even though we may all have our judgments. The issue regards whether the local church or the denomination decides on the changes.
As these differences increase (if they increase), what happens to unity? As matters stand today, what is to stop other changes? Is it time for a denominationally-adopted order of worship? Is it time for the churches in common to define what is minor and what major, where there is liberty and what may not be changed independently of the others?
We may be very thankful that consistories give conscious and serious consideration to the matter of public worship. We must pray, sing, and engage in all of our worship “with understanding,” as the apostle reminds the churches in—not an insignificant reminder in light of the Old Testament’s dire warning about the sin of drawing nigh to God with the lips (worshiping outwardly) but being distant from God in the heart! Pastors do well to teach the principles of public worship and instruct both in sermons and catechism as to the reasons for the elements of our worship and their order. Why is the law read early in the morning service? Why do the deacons receive the offerings when they do? Why are the offerings even a part of worship? What is the purpose of an opening doxology and then another doxological Psalm? If we are not instructed in these things, we risk formalism in worship.
At the same time, when consistories consider changes in worship practices, let them do so remembering our unity, with an eye—a jealous eye—on “the churches in common.” Let us not come to the point where it is impossible for us to return to a common manner of worship.
Unity in worship.
Liturgy—I use the word liturgy in the basic sense of “worship.” In these editorials, it refers to worship itself, to the order of worship, even to the forms used for baptism and the Lord’s Supper. (I make this clear because there are different understandings of the term. Some hear the word liturgy and think of a very formal and elaborate worship; others perhaps of a worship service in which everything that is spoken, even the prayers, is predetermined; others think only of the liturgical forms themselves.)
Votum—means “vow” and refers to the confession of the people, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
Salutation—means “greeting” or “address” and refers to God’s word to His people, “Beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Just that. The salutation is often wrongly mingled in our minds with the votum, so that we suppose “Beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ, Our help is in the name of the Lord….” is one and the same. It is important to see the votum (our confession) as distinct from the salutation (God’s address).
Benediction—means “blessing” and refers to God’s word to His people, “Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you….” PRC worship services have benedictions at the beginning and end of each service.