Category Archives: Worship

Worshiping the God of Justice

God is a God of justice. When people try to worship him while continuing to practice injustice, he utterly rejects their worship. This is the consistent truth communicated in scripture from its beginning to its end. That’s one reason why the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship emphasized the decisive importance of justice for Christian worship in its recent symposium. And rightly so. We cannot seek the kingdom of God without also seeking its justice/righteousness.

And yet, as the speakers at the symposium reminded us, worship is not enough. This morning this truth struck me afresh in a new place: Psalm 50.

Psalm 50 is situated in an interesting place, coming right before King David’s famous confession of sin in Psalm 51. Israel’s greatest king had committed a series of acts that we would associate with the most corrupt and tyrannical of kings. He had used his power to steal (seduce? rape?) the wife of one of his best officers, and then he had that officer murdered and the whole affair covered up.

Psalm 50 reminds us that when people act religiously while practicing injustice the result is merely their own condemnation. God is a “God of justice” who “will not be silent.” He gathers those consecrated to him by covenant, “that he may judge his people.”

Image result for calvin symposium worship

The psalm pictures God coming down from the heavens and arraigning his people in court. Yet God’s first words are surprising: “I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings which are ever before me.” Surprisingly, God has no problem with his people’s worship. They are doing all the right things on the outside. They are acting piously, by all appearances putting God first in their lives and observing the first table of the law.

But then the other shoe drops:

What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips? You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you. When you see a thief, you join with him; you throw in your lot with adulterers. You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit. You sit and testify against your brother and slander your own mother’s son. When you did these things and I kept silent, you thought I was exactly like you. But I now arraign you and set my accusations before you (Psalm 50:16-21).

These words served as a perfect accusation of King David. He recognized in his own way that he was guilty as charged. But I wonder how many of us have come to grips with the ways in which our own churches fall into the same sorts of hypocrisy. Far too often we preach and sing the grace of justification by faith alone through the cross of Christ one day of the week while downplaying its implications for the rest of our lives. We celebrate the first and second marks of the church – preaching and the sacraments – while ignoring the third, gospel-driven discipline.

Sure, we usually do this selectively. Liberals and progressives, conservatives and traditionalists each have their own favorite sins that they like to denounce, while ignoring those that seem to painful to confront. In the meantime, adultery and complicity in oppression are far too prevalent among us, as we live our comfortable, non-confrontational lives. We are so used to slander and deceit – or even practicing it ourselves – that we stand by as it crashes like a wave through the highest places of the land. We would rather be secure in our salvation, and possess power in the land, than be known as those who stand and suffer with the God of justice.

Psalm 50 reminds us that this form of religion will not stand. God is not like us, as we like we to imagine, and he will not be silent. Christ came to save us from our sins but he also came to defeat the principalities and powers (Colossians 2:15). He preached the kingdom of God, but he also proclaimed its justice/righteousness. We must continue to repent of our own complicity in injustice/unrighteousness, but not simply to go on living and speaking in the ways we did before. Rather, as individuals and churches we must continually be working out the full expression of our salvation, for justice and righteousness, in fear and in trembling, as the Spirit of God works in us, both to will and to do (Philippians 2:12-13).

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).


How Should We Use the Ten Commandments in Worship?

I am regularly asked what I think about the tradition followed by many Reformed churches of reading the Ten Commandments in worship every Sunday morning. As a means of answering that question, let me offer a few thoughts here.

First a few preliminary observations:

  1. It is important to remember that giving the Ten Commandments so much emphasis in Christian ethics (let alone Christian worship) is a relatively modern phenomena in church history. It was not a practice followed by the early church (see here and here). It is indelibly tied up with the emergence of Christendom.
  2. It is worth noting that among Reformed churches the Ten Commandments are used in various ways. Sometimes they are read according to the first use of the law (i.e., as a teacher of sin to drive us to Christ), to be followed by a corporate confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness. At other times they are read according to the third use of the law (i.e., to teach us about God’s moral law as a means of serving him in gratitude for our salvation), following the corporate confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness.
  3. It is safe to say that the people in the pews often don’t understand the significance of how the law is functioning. Based on conversations I’ve had with many people over the years, regardless of where it is used in the service, many people have the impression – fostered in part by the practice of simply reading the law in worship without explanation or commentary – that Christians are, in fact, under the law, with the weight of its promises and threats hanging over them.

So what do I make of this practice? I believe most Reformed churches do not read nearly enough scripture in their services. Worship should be saturated with scripture – in the prayers, the songs, the sermons, and the liturgy in general. How else will Christians learn to take scripture seriously, and how else can we be confident that our worship is the sort that God desires?

On the other hand, scripture should not be read at random, without explanation or commentary as to its role. For instance, it would be inappropriate to read a passage requiring various sacrifices from Leviticus without making it clear that this passage does not bind Christians. Similarly, it would be inappropriate to read a passage warning of God’s judgment upon sin without accompanying that with some sort of proclamation of the gospel.

How does this apply to the reading of the Ten Commandments in worship? I am a strong believer in the value of a “covenant renewal” portion of a service, an exercise where the congregation can confess its sins and hear God’s assurance of forgiveness. What I would suggest is that the Ten Commandments, like many other passages, can play a valuable role in this part of the service. Given their role in scripture as the paradigmatic expression of the law, I think the Ten Commandments are most naturally read according to the first use of the law, before the confession of sin. This enables the congregation to hear the curses found in the law, confess its sins, and then hear the gospel as the true paradigm for the Christian life. A healthy practice is then to read a gospel-based passage that calls Christians to conformity to Christ, such as Colossians 3, Romans 6, or Romans 12. This helps Christians to grasp the fact that although they are not under the law, the gospel itself empowers them for Christlike service.

This is my preference, though I should say that there are many other passages from the law I like to read before the confession of sin (for instance, Psalm 15, or Deuteronomy 27:15-26), and I think it is dangerous for any congregation to get into a rut – falling into the reading of the same passages over and over such that they lose their meaning to the congregation.

I do appreciate the fact that the Ten Commandments can also be read according to the third use of the law, after the assurance of forgiveness. However, given that this use does not reflect the covenantal function of the Ten Commandments in their scriptural context, I would argue that it needs extra clarification on the part of the pastor or liturgist. The pastor needs to observe, when reading the Ten Commandments in this way, that Christians are not under the law as were the Israelites who first heard the Decalogue, but that we can still learn from it and be reminded of God’s moral will from it as long as we read it in light of what Christ has done. For instance, Christians need to be taught that we will not necessarily receive earthly blessing by keeping this law, nor are we under the covenantal wrath of God where we fall short. Likewise, it needs to be clarified that we are not obligated to cease from work every Saturday because the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ. In short, if we are using the Ten Commandments according to the spiritual (i.e., third) use of the law, according to 2 Timothy 3:16, and not according to its Old Testament function with its blessings and curses, we need to explain that.

My primary emphases, then, would be:

  1. Use a variety of scripture passages in worship. There are so many excellent ones out there that we never use. Why do so many churches use the Ten Commandments all the time?
  2. As much as possible, allow the passages you read to function in the service in a way that communicates their covenantal role in scripture. Use law passages in a law way, gospel passages in a gospel way, sanctification passages in a sanctification way, etc. This will help your congregation better understand how to read, interpret, and follow scripture in their own lives.
  3. Where you depart from this usage, make sure you explain it to your congregation. Do not assume that your hearers understand the gospel and the way it radically alters our use of the law.
  4. Make sure that the ultimate thrust of your service is always to drive people to Christ, and not simply that they might know that their sins are forgiven, but that they might embrace the call of discipleship, to take up their cross and follow him.

What Are the Elders and Pastors of the Church Supposed to Do?

I once attended a church in which a group of women decided to start a book club as a means of fostering Christian friendship among themselves. The women only saw one another at worship and were looking for further ways of connecting. This is not uncommon, of course. But the book club never got off the ground. The women had selected a book to read and were planning their first meeting when the pastor got wind of it. Without discussion or warning, he announced from the pulpit that the women would be reading a different book, one that he had selected. That sort of sucked the life out of the endeavor, turning what had been a bottom-up affair among women to one that came down from the man at the top. Yet I could not help but wondering, why did this pastor assume he had the authority to take control in this way? I eventually realized that this was not an isolated incident. The pastor was a man accustomed to being in control. He was willing to use his office as he felt necessary in order to accomplish his ‘pastoral’ objectives, without accountability.

Of course, there are few controversies in the church older than that of church government. In the New Testament the pastors of the church are interchangeably described as presbyters and bishops. Not long after the apostles passed from the scene, however, Christian churches began to rally around the authority of particular bishops (such as the bishop of Rome) as focal points of unity and standards of orthodoxy. Bishops took on a whole new array of governmental tasks, overseeing the deacons’ care for the poor and adjudicating conflicts among believers. The church’s emerging hierarchy was a clear imitation of the highly successful polity of the Roman Empire.

By the high middle ages the pope had won widespread recognition of his authority not only as the vicar of Peter, but the vicar of Christ. The pope’s authority in the church was embraced as having been instituted by Christ in his famous words to Peter,

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)

The canon lawyers of the medieval church recognized that Christ spoke similar words to the apostles as a group, not simply to Peter, and so they came to distinguish between two types of authority grounded in Jesus’ statement. On the one hand, they argued, Christ gave all the apostles, and hence all priests directly, the sacerdotal authority to administer the sacraments, including penance. On the other hand, Christ gave to Peter alone, and hence to the popes, supreme ‘jurisdiction’ and ‘administration’, the power to govern, to legislate, and to adjudicate specific disputes. In such matters the pope had the ‘fullness of power’; he could not violate articles of faith, but he did have full discretionary authority over the church’s temporal affairs, and – very significantly – that authority was backed up by the powers of excommunication.

The sharpest medieval critic of this view was Marsilius of Padua. Marsilius denied the divine origin of the papacy and insisted that the church is a purely spiritual institution concerned with otherworldly salvation. He vigorously rejected any coercive power on the part of the church, including excommunication, insisting that ecclesiastical affairs of jurisdiction and administration belong to civil government. Marsilius thus became the clear forerunner of the later Protestant theory known as “Erastianism,” in which civil magistrates are placed at the head of the church and the authority of the church’s ministers is limited to the word and sacraments.

The Marsilian or Erastian view became the default view of the early magisterial reformers. To varying degrees, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, and the Henrician reformers in England all not only relied on magisterial power as an emergency source of authority to launch the reformation, but embraced civil government as the rightful overseer of the church’s order and life. On the far extreme was the English Reformation, with Henry VIII’s claim to be the Head of the Church. Much more moderate was Martin Luther, who was always uncomfortable with civil authority in the church, but who struggled to find an alternative.

Most prominent in Reformed churches were the views of Zwingli and Bullinger, who equated the church and civil government as essentially one society with two kinds of power, that of pastors and that of civil magistrates. For Zwingli and Bullinger the tasks of excommunication and poor relief entrusted to the church in New Testament appropriately fell to civil magistrates in the era of Christendom. Now that such civil rulers had converted to the faith, there was no need for ecclesiastical ministers to maintain such functions independently of the city or commonwealth. Ecclesiastical control over discipline and poor relief was associated with the tyranny of the papists.

It was Calvin, finally, influenced by Martin Bucer, who began to navigate a way between the extreme claims of the papacy, on the one hand, and the Protestant Erastians (or Marsilians) on the other. Calvin insisted that as the spiritual kingdom of Christ, the church is called to administer specific spiritual functions without interference from political authorities. These functions do not only consist of the word and sacraments, but of discipline (including excommunication) and of care for the poor. Calvin thus insisted that the church has its own right of spiritual jurisdiction that must be sharply distinguished from the political jurisdiction of civil government.

How was this spiritual jurisdiction to be distinguished from the tyrannical claims of the papacy? Calvin maintained that the church’s jurisdiction is non-coercive. It simply consists in barring a person from the Eucharist and urging him to repent. Just as importantly, he stressed that the church’s right to excommunicate or discipline its members cannot be invoked with reference to any dispute or temporal matter whatsoever, as happened under the papacy, but only with reference to spiritual matters. To put it another way, the church could only discipline a person if she was in direct and clear violation of the moral law of God. Thus the church’s spiritual jurisdiction was not magisterial or discretionary, but ministerial. It was entirely bound up with the word such that church discipline could be said to be an extension or appendage of that word, an exercise of the spiritual sovereignty of Christ.

For Calvin even the church’s care for the poor, an expression of the communion described in Acts 4, is fundamentally spiritual rather than temporal. It is a direct manifestation of the restoration that the kingdom of Christ has begun in human beings.

But Calvin agreed with the other reformers that the outward and temporal matters of the church’s life are to be sharply distinguished from these spiritual matters, and are therefore subject to a different kind of government or polity. Such “indifferent” matters included the appropriate time and day of worship, the speech and attire of women, the forms and postures of liturgy, none of which, Calvin insisted, pertain to the conscience (which does not mean that scripture has nothing to say about them).

Calvin was not very clear about just who should regulate such indifferent things. Clearly he permitted civil government some control here. He submitted to the Geneva government’s decision concerning the frequency of the Eucharist, to its control of the procedures by which the ministers of the church were elected, and to its funding of the church’s ministries (and consequently its control over the church’s finances). Equally clearly, he insisted that civil government could not direct such matters according to its own whim and preference. All the affairs of church life are to be ordered consistent with scripture and for the edification and peace of the body.

Yet it is noteworthy that when Calvin described the offices of church government he did so with respect to the church’s spiritual functions rather than with respect to its temporal or indifferent affairs. For instance, Calvin was adamant in his preaching that the deacons of the Genevan church – which he said should include an order of women – were to be embraced as possessing a spiritual office like that of the pastors rather than that of the civil magistrates. Even more significantly, he always defined the office of elder with respect to the function of spiritual church discipline. He never characterized it as an office of general rule or jurisdiction in the church. In that sense Calvin was no Presbyterian. His office of elder, unlike that of later Reformed and Presbyterian churches, had one specific spiritual function – the function of church discipline. And it is only with respect to that specific function, he argued, that the elders can claim to administer the spiritual government of Christ’s church.

Why did the later Reformed tradition develop a much broader understanding of the office of elder? When Reformed churches were established in Catholic France, under the cross, it was obviously impossible to concede control of even indifferent ecclesiastical affairs to hostile civil magistrates. French churches therefore tended to turn such affairs over to the control of deacons and elders (in some cases the offices of elder and deacon even blended into one). But they were mindful that this was an outward or temporal authority, not a spiritual one. Evidence for this appears from the fact that they (ordinarily) dealt with matters of (spiritual) church discipline at separate meetings from those in which they handled the general affairs of church government.

A similar development, I believe, explains the evolution of church government in the Dutch Reformed Churches. To this day the elders in Dutch Reformed churches are supposed to distinguish their spiritual oversight of the congregation, with which they deal in meetings of the Consistory (pastors and elders), from the matters of general church government, with which they deal in meetings of the Council (pastors, elders, and deacons). Here the Dutch Reformed ‘Council’ (an office of the church) seems to have neatly taken the place of the Geneva ‘Council’ (the supreme authority of Geneva’s civil government) in governing the indifferent affairs of church life.

What worries me is that in some Reformed churches there seems to be little understanding of the difference between the spiritual government of the church, in which the pastors, elders, and deacons administer the kingship of Christ, and the church’s handling of indifferent affairs, in which they are merely representatives of the congregation. In short, I fear that too often elders and pastors think that when they are exercising their authority over indifferent matters they are exercising the authority of Christ! Perhaps that helps explain why many elders devote far more time to such mundane affairs than they do to the vital and spiritual function of church discipline.

Understanding the difference between spiritual and indifferent affairs also has implications for the involvement of the broader congregation in decisions concerning the latter. If Calvin and the other reformers were willing to cede significant authority over the indifferent affairs of church life to civil authorities (a willingness I think we should wholeheartedly reject) because such matters were simply to be conducted for the edification and peace of all believers, how much more should we yield authority over such matters to the very believers whose edification and peace is its objective? This doesn’t mean the church need always operate by majority vote. It does suggest that the general matters of church government might be appropriately handled at meetings and through procedures in which all faithful men and women, in addition to the officers of the church, can participate.

Such a conception of church government would have a twofold salutary advantage. First, it would make the church more sensitive to the gifts, wisdom, and consent of its full membership. Second, it would help people to distinguish the spiritual government of Christ administered by the church’s officers strictly according to the word from those indifferent matters of government appropriately subject to the primary concerns of love, edification, prudence, compromise, and peace. That in turn might help our fragmented churches achieve a greater measure of unity. I believe the Apostle Paul had something to say about that.

The Church needs better teaching – and you can help

For the last two years I’ve been immersed in the writings and context of John Calvin, the subject of my doctoral dissertation at Emory University. Reading thousands upon thousands of pages of the reformer’s systematic, exegetical, homiletical, polemical, and personal writings enables one to get a good sense of the broad brush strokes of his thought, the fundamental principles and practices about which he was most concerned.

In the popular caricature of Calvin the reformer appears as something like a tyrant, lording himself over the people of Geneva by using every possible tool of suppression and manipulation. But of course, this caricature makes it impossible to understand why Calvin’s writings and theology were so inspiring to millions of Christians across Europe who were enduring violence and persecution under the cross. One might view those Calvinists of the Netherlands, England, America and elsewhere as being devoted to the establishment of tyranny in their own lands. But if you are at all aware of the trajectory of democracy and religious liberty in modern history, you will quickly discover that this picture doesn’t quite fit the facts.

The more systematic misrepresentation of Calvin, one admittedly fostered by some of his most devoted followers, portrays him as a vigorous systematician who took the basic theological principles of the glory and sovereignty of God to their logical extremes. This is the picture of the Calvin who is obsessed with double predestination, the Calvin of Ernst Troeltsch and of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. But again, a careful reading of Calvin’s Institutes and basic exegetical and homiletical works will quickly demonstrate that Calvin was not driven primarily by systematic or logical concerns. The default perspective of the man who described predestination as the “terrible decree” about which people shouldn’t speculate too much was that of a pastor and interpreter of Scripture.

If anything drove Calvin, then, it was his unshakable conviction that the Church of Rome had lost sight of the essence of Christianity, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that this gospel was recoverable only in the faithful teaching of Scripture, the pure word of God. Rome defined the existence of the church in relation to the papacy and the apostolic succession of bishops but for Calvin this external hierarchy was simply an empty shell without the life of the gospel in its midst.

As much as possible, then, Calvin sought to transform the worship and government of the church into the mediation of Christ’s rule by his word. To be sure, he was well aware that in neither of these areas can churches function without appropriate rules and structures not revealed in Scripture but necessary to preserve peace, order, and edification. Calvin would have utterly rejected the modern tendency of Reformed and Evangelical churches to fracture into a multitude of denominations and sects on the basis of secondary matters of worship, government, or culture. But he would have been just as critical of those churches, whether Catholic or Evangelical, that fail consistently to preach and teach the pure word of God.

In his Necessity of Reforming the Church, which Calvin wrote to the Emperor Charles V in 1543 after the emperor had summoned the Diet of Spires, Calvin emphasized that Christian worship is in essence the practice of faith and repentance in response to Christ’s word. In contrast to the medieval church, he insisted, the reformers had simply “brought back the worship of the one God to the rule of his Word.” Invoking the Old Testament prophets Calvin writes,

For what is the sum of their declarations? That God neither cares for nor values ceremonies considered only in themselves; that he looks to the faith and truth of the heart; and that the only end for which he commanded and for which he approves ceremonies is that they may be pure exercises of faith, and prayer, and praise.

Calvin’s emphasis was on the word and sacraments (the Lord’s Supper and Baptism) because he believed that it was through these means that Christ had promised to reveal himself to believers and commune with them. The emphasis on the word was therefore never an end in itself, as in bibliolatry, but the means of holding fast to Jesus by holding fast to his communication to believers. Any piety that claims to honor Christ, he argued, and yet fails to take seriously what Christ has said, is false. The fundamental mark of the church is the faithful representation of Christ through the preaching of his word.

For all of our emphasis on the Reformation and the vibrancy of Evangelicalism these days, in my view churches across the denominational spectrum are actually quite weak in this area. For so many churches the reaction to the (very real) danger of intellectualizing worship has led to the much more prevalent danger of dumbing it down. Pastors assume their congregations can handle only the most practical, relevant form of teaching, and only in the briefest manner possible (perhaps 25 minutes a week). And they do little actually to explain what concrete passages of Scripture teach, in their Christ-centered context. Yet while churches can survive with many weaknesses and errors in practice and even worship, they cannot long survive the lack of faithful teaching.

As always, the churches need reform. One organization seeking to promote just this sort of reform is Michael Horton’s White Horse Inn program, a radio discussion he leads along with three other pastors, one Reformed, one Lutheran, and one Baptist. The White Horse Inn (which also publishes an excellent monthly magazine entitled Modern Reformation) sponsors White Horse Inn Discussion Groups around the country for the purpose of encouraging Christians to gather together and talk about these things, promoting reformation in their own churches (and in fidelity to their own traditions). It’s a great way to study the theology of the Reformation on a basic level, as well as to get acquainted with Christians in your area from a wide range of traditions and denominations.

If you’d like to join my group, which meets in Stone Mountain, Georgia, please let me know via the Contact feature on this blog. If you’d like to start your own group you can contact me as well, or just contact the good folks at the White Horse Inn. We need more of this, and you, in your own time and place, can help.

[Note: This post originally referred to the groups WHI sponsors as Reformation Societies. That was inaccurate. Reformation Societies are similar, but are sponsored by a sister organization, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (another excellent organization, by the way, and the publisher of the online magazine Reformation 21, with whom a number of my articles have been published).]

When the State makes the Church do things its way: (un)reformed discipline and worship

One of the problems with conservatism as a theological perspective is that it tends to assume that the status quo within the church is grounded in Scripture. In an era when the biggest and most visible denominations are all sliding to the left and abandoning Scriptural teaching on numerous points, many Christians fall into the mistake of interpreting every church controversy through the lens of the conservative/liberal dichotomy. In some of these controversies, it is conservatives who find themselves defending theologically dubious practices against those who seek change.

Let me provide three examples, all taken from the early Reformation period.

1. It is well known that the primary point of conflict between John Calvin and the civil government of Geneva centered on Calvin’s insistence that the pastors and elders of the church, not the civil government, had the final say on who could or could not participate in the Lord’s Supper. What is less well known is that Calvin wanted the Lord’s Supper to be observed “at least weekly.” For Calvin Communion was the central expression of the union and fellowship of believers with Christ and with one another. Its observance should constantly characterize the gathering and worship of the church.

The civil government of Geneva, for its own not entirely theological reasons, insisted that the Lord’s Supper should be observed quarterly, and most Reformed churches have followed the guidance of the state ever since, celebrating the sacrament at most monthly. Traditions can be hard to break even when there is good reason to do so.

2. When the Reformation triumphed in the Netherlands the Reformed pastors immediately sought to establish what they regarded as biblical church discipline. Like Calvin, they believed the church should be marked not simply by belief in the gospel but by communal living that is worthy of the gospel. But they immediately ran into trouble with the civil authorities who were loath to give so much authority to the pastors. The result was a compromise. As Andrew Pettegree describes it in Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation,

The ministers were expected to marry or baptize any citizens who presented themselves, and in some towns it was only with difficulty that the Calvinist consistories defended their right to restrict access to the Lord’s Supper to full members of their own church…. [T]he Calvinist consistories themselves adamantly defended their right to restrict full membership of their church to those who had made a full confession of faith; a distinction which inevitably led, even among those sympathetic to the Reformed, to a two-tier membership, with full members, the lidmaeten, who subjected themselves to the full disciplinary supervision of the consistory, being far outnumbered by liefhebbers, citizens who attended services but did not make the Confession of Faith which would have secured admission to communion (188, 189-190).

Does this longstanding two-tiered membership help explain the reluctance of so many elders in the Dutch Reformed tradition today to allow children who have professed their faith and understand the basic gospel to participate in the Lord’s Supper? Does this help explain why many find it completely normal when most of the teenagers in these churches are baptized and attend the services but do not observe Christ’s call to observe the sacrament in remembrance of him?

3. Calvin and most of the Calvinist wing of the Reformed tradition consistently rejected the use of musical instruments in worship because they viewed the New Testament rather than the Old Testament tabernacle/temple ceremonies as the model for Christian worship. They rightly observed that organs had been brought into the churches in the middle ages along with the other forms of Roman Catholic piety and superstition to which they were so opposed. The aversion to musical instruments in worship came to mark the Presbyterian tradition until the 19th Century.

The Dutch Reformed are often cited as an example of a branch of the Reformed tradition that broke with this attitude towards instruments in worship. What is less often appreciated is that the reason why the Dutch churches kept their organs was because of the insistence of the state. To cite Pettegree once again,

[I]f the magistrates were expected to maintain the church space, they were not necessarily prepared to allow the ministers to dictate to them on all aspects of their internal decoration. Thus representations from the more precise ministers that organs should be removed along with other ‘idols’, were generally ignored. Organs belonged to the municipality or parish and could not be removed without their permission, a circumstance which provoked some Calvinist ministers almost beyond endurance. ‘I really marvel’, protested Jean Polyander in 1579, ‘that when other idols were removed, this noisy idol was retained.’ But retained it was, despite frequent protests from the Calvinist national synod (188-189).

Does this help explain why many Dutch Reformed elders can be so critical of the musical instruments brought into church in contemporary worship and yet be so oblivious to their own pious appreciation for the pipe organ?

All three of these examples pertain to areas of continued disagreement in Reformed churches today. In each case the Reformed pastors advocated a particular practice on the basis of Scripture and Reformed theology, and in each case the magistrates prohibited that practice for its own reasons. Yet in each case the most conservative Reformed churches today follow the practice once dictated by the magistrates rather than that defended on the basis of Scripture. To be sure, once certain practices were forced on the church theologians rose up to articulate post facto theological defenses of those practices. But such theological arguments should not blind us to the history that often lies behind the practices defended.

These are not matters over which Christians should ever divide. But conservatives need to be just as open to self-criticism on the basis of Scripture as they are to the criticism of whatever seems new and different. After all, the Reformation calls the church not simply to be Reformed, but to be always reforming according to Scripture.

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