The real crisis of Reformed worship: forgetting which testament we’re under

Arguments are constantly being thrown around in the “worship wars.” Some are far better quality than others. Those that tend to be more helpful, regardless of what position they take, are those that get to the foundational issues: what is the nature of Scriptural authority over our worship, how should we apply it, how is Scripture’s authority at stake in our current debates? Those that are less helpful are those that appeal largely to some standard not generally accepted (such as historical tradition, or contemporary popularity and effectiveness), or those that fail to address the foundational issues.

The Aquila Report has posted an article on worship written by John Payne, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, where these debates are particularly poignant and where a lot is currently at stake. In many ways I appreciate Payne’s argument. I would probably share his views on almost every practical question at stake, and most of what I am about to say is consistent with one of Payne’s basic complaints:

Isn’t it true that in many cases the reading and preaching of Scripture, the careful administration of the sacraments and substantial seasons of prayer have been crowded out by lengthy announcements, personal testimonies, and extended segments of music and praise?

However, I am concerned that Payne provides insufficient attention to the real “crisis” underlying the worship wars in the PCA, and that is the nature of Scriptural authority regarding worship. In short, there is a lack of consensus within the PCA on the nature of biblical authority in worship. The result is that traditionalists appeal to tradition and progressives appeal to contemporary effectiveness and there is no basis of common ground for any sort of agreement.

Let me try to illustrate my argument briefly. I will be sure to return to various aspects of it in future posts, to flesh it out more fully.

It is commonly noted that the fundamental Reformed contribution to the doctrine of worship, represented by figures such as John Calvin, was the argument that our worship is to be regulated entirely by Scripture. This is generally viewed as meaning that we must find warrant for everything we want to do, somewhere in the Bible (i.e., see John Frame’s influential book). But in fact, Calvin’s (and most of the Reformed tradition’s) point was much more specific than that. Calvin (like the church fathers) believed our worship is to be regulated by the New Testament. We are not to look at the Old Testament’s temple worship, illustrated in the historical books and in the psalms, for worship ideas for the new covenant church. Our authority for the new covenant church is the New Testament. In our worship we are to commit ourselves to practicing what the Lord commands, and nothing else.

In reality, many today who think they are Reformed in their views of worship really hold views that in the 16th and 17th Centuries would have been viewed as Lutheran or Anglican. It is not that the Lutherans and Anglicans said we can do whatever we want in worship, as is commonly thought. It is simply that they had a less strict understanding of what sort of Scriptural warrant was necessary, appealing freely to the Old Testament or to biblical principles of edification. In contrast, the Reformed usually threw out the instruments of the medieval church and limited their singing to psalms and other Scriptural texts.

Why does the difference matter? So many aspects of worship under such heated dispute today – musical instruments, choirs, liturgical dancing, etc. – are entirely based on Old Testament texts. They are not even mentioned in the New Testament. What does that suggest? These matters are entirely irrelevant to New Testament worship. They are not commanded by God. They are part of the Old Testament ceremonial law that has been abrogated by Christ.

What we should really be focusing on is those things highlighted in the New Testament as the focus of the early church: preaching, the sacraments, fellowship (including of material possessions), and prayer, according to the classic list in Acts 2:42. Note how little singing is spoken of in New Testament discussions of worship. It is clearly commanded (Colossians 3:16-17; Ephesians 5:18-21), but it does not make the list of basic things the church was doing. Singing seems to have been a means of doing other things; it was not its own element.

In fact, singing (and music generally) is a classic example of how by losing the focus of Scripture our worship debates have gotten entirely off track. We argue over what music instruments to use and how they should be played, even though the significance of instruments is entirely a function of the Old Testament. Instruments don’t matter. We argue over what kinds of songs to sing, failing to make use of Paul’s clear guidance that the content of our songs should be the Word of Christ (Scripture!) and that they should serve as a means of teaching and encouragement. We dominate our services with singing, forcing pastors to keep their sermons down to 20 minutes (a week!), and to keep their prayers short. We hold the Lord’s Supper once a month at best, even though unlike singing the Lord’s Supper is a basic element of worship.

What should Reformed worship be all about? We should gather each week to hear the preaching of the Word, to pray to our God, to break bread, and to fellowship together in song and in the sharing of our possessions. Nothing else really matters. Just like the medieval church, with which the reformers broke, we can fill our worship with all kinds of things based on human wisdom. Instruments, images, art, architecture, vestments, candles, on and on. These things are merely distractions to the real drama of worship as outlined in the New Testament. Returning to that standard would go a long way in restoring our worship to Scriptural integrity.

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on April 30, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The real crisis of Reformed worship: forgetting which testament we’re under.

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