“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”
“The proceedings of all assemblies shall begin by calling upon the Name of God and be closed with thanksgiving.”
Article 32, D.K.O.
It would seem as though a provision such as this in the Church Order is really quite unnecessary. The matter of prayer before and after ecclesiastical assemblies is so commonplace that its general acceptance would seemingly preclude the necessity of expressing it as a binding rule. No gathering worthy of the name of the church of Jesus Christ would think of performing its work without first calling upon the Name of God for guidance nor could it properly bring its labors to a conclusion without giving Him due praise and thanks.
Yet, it is not wholly redundant to express this. No, not any more than it is that the Scriptures repeatedly admonish the saints in Christ to pray always. All ecclesiastical rules need not govern only those matters concerning which there are or may arise differences of opinion. Also those matters concerning which there is complete unanimity may properly be expressed in the form of an established rule. In fact, it would be an excellent thing if there could be the same unanimity of conviction concerning all ecclesiastical rules as there is with respect to this one. Such then is the matter treated in this article. One would hardly dare to conceive of an overture requesting the alteration or rescinding of this rule. No one will rise before an ecclesiastical assembly to question its propriety. Even though a direct or literal command enjoining this practice cannot be found in the Word of God, all are agreed, that the matter expressed is thoroughly Scriptural. We do not have to do here merely with an ordinance of man, an ecclesiastical precept, but rather with a practice which, from the very nature of things, is self-evidently necessary for the reason that God Himself requires it. Quite proper, therefore, it is that the church expresses this revealed will of God and, further, in doing so, that she understands the reason it is mandatory.
Prayer is not something that can be legislated. The mere fact that an assembly is begun and concluded formally with prayer is no guarantee that all that transpires during the course of the gathering meets with divine approval and carries with it a blessing. In this respect let us remember that many worldly gatherings are also opened with so-called prayer. If and when prayer is rendered simply as an external formality or as compliance with certain established regulations, the spirit of our Church Order has not been observed. The essence of the rule of Article 32 is deeply spiritual and its observance can only follow from the spiritual consciousness of its need. By nature man is filled with carnal pride that exalts itself in the thought that man is capable of building +he church and properly performing all the labor attendant to it without God. He does not want God in his labor. He is ignorant of the truth that the church and all that pertains to it is immanently spiritual so that in the final analysis only God and God alone can and does perform that work that is conducive to the well-being of His church. “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.”— Ps. 127:1. In the performance of this work, God uses human instruments but these in turn, to be useful and to labor constructively, must be filled with Divine grace and the Holy Spirit. Prayer then, at the beginning of the assemblies wherein the work of the church is to be administered, must be rendered in the consciousness of this utter dependence upon God! Only then will the meeting draw to its proper conclusion wherein thanksgiving may be rendered to God for the evidence of His grace and Spirit in the manner in which the work has been performed and in the decisions that have been taken. To this end prayer is indispensable since, as expressed in our Heidelberg Catechism, “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to these only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them” (Lord’s Day 45). And the requisites of that prayer which is acceptable to God and which He will hear are, according to the same Lord’s Day: “First, that we from the heart play to the one true God only, Who hath manifest Himself in His Word, for all things, He hath commanded us to ask of Him; secondly, that we rightly and thoroughly know our need and misery, that so we may deeply humble ourselves in the presence of His divine majesty; thirdly, that we be fully persuaded that He, notwithstanding that we are unworthy of it, will for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as He has promised us in His Word.”
All this we cite to emphasize that the thrust of the article we are dealing with is not that it establishes a certain formal procedure that ecclesiastical assemblies must follow, but rather that God requires us to approach Him in the consciousness of our needs and dependency upon Him. Always and in every circumstance this is the case but it is especially imperative when a gathering is called to engage in labors that pertain directly to His Cause, the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
From the Church Order Commentary we learn of the origin of this regulation of our Church Order. We quote the following:
“The incorporation of this provision in our Church Order goes back to the first regular Synod of our mother churches. i.e., the Synod of Einden, 1571, which ruled: ‘When thus assembled, the Minister of the church where the meeting is held, or if the church is vacant, the president of the former meeting, shall lead in prayer with a view to the election of a president, an assistant and a clerk . . . The president, having been appointed, shall then lead in prayer with a view to all the work before the gathering.’
“But in 1581, at the Synod of Middelburg, the provision for two distinct prayers was altered. The provision, namely for a separate prayer regarding the election of directors for the meeting, was dropped, and the wording of a ruling pertaining to the second prayer was retained so that we now read: ‘The proceedings of all assemblies shall begin by calling upon the Name of God . . .’ Dutch: ‘De handelingen aller samenkomsten . . .’ Originally the word ‘proceedings‘ in this article therefore referred to the actual questions requiring action on the part of the assembly. Later the term was taken to refer to all work performed, including the opening and closing of the meetings. And thus matters stand today.”
Though seldom used today, there appear in the back of the Hollandsche Psalm Boeken various prayers for usage in the churches and in the Christian homes. These prayers, as translated into the English language, appear also in the Psalter Hymnal. We do not have them in our Psalter. There are prayers to be used for various occasions, such as: At the beginning of public worship, A prayer for all the needs of Christendom to be used on Sabbath after the first sermon, For public confession of sins and prayer before the sermon, Prayer after the sermon, Prayer before the explanation of the catechism, Prayer after the explanation of the catechism, Prayer before meals, Thanksgiving after meals, Prayer for the sick and the spiritually distressed, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Opening Prayer for ecclesiastical assemblies, Closing Prayer for ecclesiastical assemblies, and Opening prayer for the meetings of the deacons.
Something can undoubtedly be said both in favor of and against the use of these liturgical prayers. In favor of it is the fact that sometimes matters are brought under consideration which directly involve persons or things concerning which there is a rather sharp difference of opinion so that debate and discussion result in the creating of a rather tense atmosphere in which it is difficult, if not virtually impossible, to remain objective in prayer. Then prayer may become offensive rather than edifying and where this is the case and it can be avoided it is better to use a proper liturgical prayer. Or a brother may be called upon to lead an assembly in prayer whose ability to do so is very limited. It may then be advisable to use a prayer that has been prepared for the occasion. There are, however, also various factors that are against this practice except in cases of real or extreme necessity. Firstly, liturgical praying has a tendency toward becoming mechanical rather than real. In all our praying we need to guard against this danger and, therefore, should not engage in practices that readily contribute toward it. Secondly, in ecclesiastical assemblies where each session is opened and closed with prayer, the use of the same prayer repetitiously is not good. There are times when the same prayer can properly be used over and over again. Thus, for example, the Lord’s Prayer or the prayers which farm part of our regularly used liturgical forms. However, in ecclesiastical gatherings it is better to avoid needless repetition. Thirdly, to choose one’s own words and to express one’s own thoughts is better because such prayer can be so composed as to more appropriately fit the particular circumstances. Liturgical prayers must necessarily be general in content and this is not always the best. Finally, we believe that free prayer expresses more fully the spiritual consciousness of the gathering and this is an essential element in prayer. The Lord, to whom we pray, does not determine the validity of our prayers by their polished form, grammatical accuracy, length or well-composed phraseology but He looks upon the heart. This is evident from the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. And this is the most important matter!
But we have a few more things to say about the liturgical prayers. That these have not been preserved in our Psalter is not a serious loss. Were these prayers today to be again put into general use, we would advocate that they be recomposed before adopted by our churches: In their present form we do not feel them to be wholly acceptable. To show this more fully, we will, D.V., quote some of them in our next article and express a critical evaluation of them.