“O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”

Psalm 96:9

As far as is known to undersigned, our Protestant Reformed Churches have never officially considered the matter of adopting a unified order of worship. Although we do have various synodically adopted liturgical forms, we do not have a synodically prescribed form of worship. 

If this matter should ever be brought to the synod in the form of an overture, there are two important questions that will have to be faced. The first is whether or not, according to the Church Order, this matter properly belongs to the synod to decide. Is it something that falls into the category of “things pertaining to the churches in common” and, therefore, a matter that Article 30 of the Church Order authorizes synod to decide or is it something that belongs strictly to the jurisdiction of the autonomy of each individual church? This matter is not as simple as it may at first appear. One might claim that of all the things that the churches have in common, nothing is more common than their worship and, therefore, it unquestionably falls within the province of synod to decide this. Those who favor this position might also attempt to bolster their stand by uncharitably accusing those who dissent of being congregationalistic. But are we not somewhat begging the question? Before we can surrender this matter to the province of the synod, it must be established that a uniform order of worship in a given denomination of churches is necessary. Desirability for a certain thing is not to be confused with necessity. Any overture requesting the synod to deal with this matter would have to show that it is mandatory that all our churches worship according to the same established order. Only if this is done may the synod determine for all the churches what that order is to be. If this cannot be done and it must be granted that there is the possibility and allowability of a variety of worship orders in the churches, the synod would have no jurisdiction to act. Should the synod do so nevertheless, it is not difficult to see that this would be but one step in the direction of a synodically-controlled church. One by one the rights of the individual churches could be taken away. The basic problem then is: “Is worship and the order of worship a local affair or a denominational affair?” To ascribe to synod the right to tell each church how it may worship would be, in my opinion, going too far. If synod would assume this prerogative, it could also conceivably tell the church whether worship services were to be held in the morning, afternoon or evening; the time and length of the services; etc. 

Let us assume, however, that all of the churches would agree that a unified order of worship is desirable; and, therefore, agree to have the synod adopt such a form. Then there is a second problem that must be faced; a problem which now must be faced by each consistory individually. The problem is already an important and difficult one when limited by local considerations but it becomes many times magnified when broadened to denominational scope. It is the problem of what that worship-order shall be? What is to be included and excluded from our worship-order? Must the service begin with a prayer, a song, a confession, or some other way? Must the congregation stand or sit when singing? Likewise this same question may be applied to praying. When is the proper time in worship to read the Scriptures? Should the service end with the benediction or should the closing benediction be followed with the singing of the doxology? At what point in the service should the offerings be received and should this be done during congregational singing or in silence? To these many more questions could be added and it can hardly be expected that all the churches would agree on all these intricate points. Neither is this necessary because, as we wrote in our last article, the important thing is not the chronological order but rather whether all the elements introduced in our worship are contributory to the objective of worship. For this reason, too, it is preferable that these things be regulated consistorially rather than synodically. 

Our churches have no synodically prescribed form of worship. As we wrote, this matter has never been before our synod, but it might be of interest to our readers that, at the time of the origin of our churches, this matter was very much under consideration in our mother church. Since 1857, the date of the origin of the Christian Reformed Church, there had been in use what we will call the “old Order of Worship.” This Order had never been officially adopted, but simply had the sanction of time and usage. It was very much like the Order of Worship that is used in most of our churches today. 

In 1916 the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church took up the matter of the improvement of the liturgy. One of the motives for entering upon this liturgical task was the desire for a uniform liturgy. As the synod embarked upon this work, two important things must be directed to our attention. The first is that it was never questioned that the establishment of a uniform liturgy is the ecclesiastical prerogative of the synod. Failure to determine this question first became the occasion, as we shall see presently, of much trouble later. Secondly, the synod did not move hastily in this task. The various committees of synod worked for twelve years and it was not until 1928 before the synod adopted what we will call the “new Order of Worship.” 

When this was done in 1928, protests were immediately registered by two Classes (Hudson and Pacific). Already in 1920 when a changed Order of Worship was proposed which was virtually the same as the one finally adopted in 1928, some of the churches objected and urged liturgical congregationalism. It is claimed that they did so, not because they had turned congregational in principle, but for the simple reason that the congregational or consistorial determination of the liturgy afforded an easy escape from a liturgy (Synodical) that was not agreeable to them. It is interesting to note, however, that when the protests came after the synod of 1928, they were not directed against the synodical establishment of a liturgy but rather against certain alleged objectionable features of the Worship-Order that had been adopted. Thus it appears that even those churches that objected did nevertheless concede the right of synod to establish the liturgy. 

In spite of this, however, synod did an about-face. In 1930 she repudiated this position. Article 117 of the Acts of Synod reads: “It is not to be sustained upon the grounds of Scripture and Church Order that it lies within the jurisdiction of Synod to prescribe a specific order of worship and to enforce its introduction into the churches. Neither Scripture nor Church Order produce warrant for such action.” Upon the advice of its pre-advisory committee, Synod decided torecommend a liturgy to the churches, but to leave its introduction to the discretion of each local church. It is argued that it is “the right of the local consistories to consult the best interests of their churches with respect to the introduction of an Order of Worship” and this right synod intends to recognize. And then the synod further declared “that an open way is left for synod to employ means to advise and educate our churches with a view to reaching as great a measure of uniformity as is possible and practicable.”

The same synod of 1930 changed somewhat the adopted Order of Worship of 1928 and then recommended this “Newest Order” to the churches. Synod “urged the consistories not to make any changes in their public worship other than those included in the Order adopted by Synod and impresses upon the consistories the fact that denominational unity and loyalty require that all the churches shall conform to whatever decisions touching this matter have been taken, unless they shall be proved to be contrary to God’s Word; and further insists that consistories should refrain from introducing them by independent action, but make known their desires through the regular channels.” Though great power of persuasiveness, urging and insistence is employed by the synod, the fact nevertheless remains that no church is obliged to adopt Synod’s Model Liturgy. Whether all of the churches in the process of time came around to conforming with synod’s desire so that there is a uniform order of worship in the Christian Reformed Church today, I am not prepared to say. Neither do I know whether this matter came up again at later synods and whether there is in usage in the churches today a form of worship of a later date. This is not our present concern. Our interest in this matter centers in the question of synodical jurisdiction because, if the matter of a uniform Worship-Order ever comes up in. our churches, it is hoped that before any liturgical changes are made, recommended or imposed, this matter is thoroughly explored and decided on the basis of the Word of God. 

Perhaps in our churches the anticipated difficulty of obtaining a uniform order of worship is not as acute as we think it is. Maybe our churches already are more uniform in this respect than we suspect. We have no way of knowing this because to date we have received word from only two of our churches as to what order of worship they use and, as we wrote before, this can hardly serve as a basis for comparison. Certainly we cannot draw any denominational conclusions from this scant evidence. 

On the other hand, it may also be that the form of worship employed by our various churches is more diversified than we realize. If this should be the case, it is certainly not our intention to say and neither do we want to leave the impression that we think one particular form is better than others or that all others are wrong. The order of worship cannot and should not be stereotyped. There are many factors that enter in and influence the choice of every church. Among these are such things as traditional background and geography. If, therefore, a synod were going to adopt a particular form and impose it upon all the churches, it is very questionable whether a suitable form could be found that would answer to the particular needs of churches in different localities and with different historical and traditional background. It is very possible that through the imposition of such a worship-order more damage than anything else would be done. 

Another factor that must be considered and which may also be regarded as an argument against a synodically imposed unified worship-order is the advisability of allowing for periodic changes in the form of worship. The order of worship ought to have a certain amount of flexibility and not be absolutely stereotyped. By fixing all the parts of worship into a certain mold we tend to become traditionalistic in the bad sense of the word. We then begin to do what we do in our worship out of custom or form and fail to realize the spiritual significance of these acts. We become so attached to a certain form that we begin to think that any deviation from it is per se heresy. By allowing changes in the order of worship from time to time we avoid some of this and are kept more alert to the more important matters that concern the essence of worship. 

In this same line we should remember not to oppose change just because it is different. The mere fact that our fathers did a certain thing a certain way for a number of years does not mean that this is the only way it can be rightly done. And although all change is not necessarily improvement, we must be open-minded enough to consider the possibility that it might be. Any change that will truly enhance our worship and enable us in some richer way to give expression to our praise of God ought to be welcomed. Such improvements in worship are much easier to enact when these things are regulated by each consistory than they would be if the matter of worship were synodically controlled.