This is part 2 of a multi-part ‘Worship Matters’ series. Read part 1 here.
God has given us the Bible as the only infallible* rule of faith and practice (see The Book of Church Order:
47-1). We as Reformed Christians understand and believe that ultimate authority rests not in our reason or the visible church, but in God’s inspired and inerrant Word. Because the Bible holds this place of ultimate authority in our lives, our worship must be regulated by what God says. This is called the Regulative Principle and finds expression in the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 21.
We see most clearly God’s concern that we worship Him alone and that we worship Him rightly in the first two Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Ex. 20:3-4 NIV). We are to worship God alone! And we do well to acknowledge how many other things compete for our worship. What else rivals God for your heart and soul, your mind and strength (see Mt. 22:37)? And we are to worship God in a way that pleases Him! We know what Jesus said to the women at the well: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:24 ESV). And we are also familiar with Jesus’ criticism of the traditions that had been elevated over God’s Word and His warning against hypocrisy (see Mt. 15:1-9).
As we think about this regulative principle, we need to become familiar with three important terms: elements, circumstances, and forms. Understanding these categories will greatly help to have an informed discussion about worship. Confusing these categories will lead to misunderstanding so we should be careful as we apply this biblical principle.
To quote my seminary professor, Dr. T. David Gordon from a 1995 Sunday School handout, “’Elements’ of worship are those things which the
Bible teaches to be essential to worship” and these elements are fixed by Scripture. Circumstances on the other hand “are those considerations regarding how, when, where and in what manner or amount to perform the elements.” (See WCF 1.6.) For instance, whether to worship at 11:00 am or 2:00 pm is a circumstance as is whether or not to use a microphone. Finally, forms have to do with the particular expression or content of a particular element. For example, if singing praise is an element (which it is), then should we sing only Psalms or can we legitimately sing hymns and songs? That is a question of form, not circumstance or element.
Well, what do we believe the Bible sets forward as Elements for worship? What must be included in our worship for it to be worship that is acceptable? The Book of Church Order gives us this guidance: “The Bible teaches that the following are proper elements of worship service: reading of Holy Scripture, singing of psalms and hymns, the offering of prayer, the preaching of the Word, the presentation of offerings, confessing the faith and observing the Sacraments; and on special occasions taking oaths” (47-9).
Moving forward, we will examine each of these elements as they appear in our own worship service.
To God be the glory!
*”Infallibility signifies the full trustworthiness of a guide that is not deceived and does not deceive.” (J. I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology, s.v. “Infallibility and Inerrancy of the Bible”, 337.)