The Call to Worship and Benediction in the Corporate Worship Service as it Relates to the Regulative Principle - by C. Matthew McMahon

Articles on Puritan Worship and the Regulative Principle

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“Observe what I command you this day,” (Exod. 34:11).

When submitting our desires and ideas for worship to the Regulative Principle, (that God alone determines the manner in which sinners approach him in worship), every aspect of corporate worship comes under scrutiny. In considering the “order” of worship, one attempts to define what a biblical order of worship supposes. Christ specifically states that, “The Father is seeking such people to worship him,” (John 4:23), i.e. those who worship him, “in spirit and truth.” Such a “seeking” by the Father displays a divine purpose that requires the worshipper to adore God in a very specific manner (in spirit, without the proxy worship of the temple or any of its types and shadows, and truth, according to the faith once delivered to the saints concerning the Christ).

The Reformed Church Service (which is very closely linked to the early church explanations of the order of worship) always had a “biblical basis” for specific elements of worship which are to be included. Prescribed elements of worship aside (as all Reformed Christians agree on these), there are some deviations in the order of worship between, say, Calvin, Knox and the Westminster Directory for Public Worship. (See comparisons here, or the Directory of Public Worship here.)

To oversimplify this, let’s imagine that we all agree that we have a biblical precedent to preach, sing and pray in a given worship service. Certainly, there are more elements, but to keep things on a somewhat simpler example, consider:

Congregation 1 performs the following: Prays, Sings, Prays, Preaches, Sings, Prays and then is dismissed.
Congregation 2 performs the following: Prays, Preaches, Sings, Prays and then is dismissed.
Congregation 3 performs the following: Sings, Prays, Sings, Preaches, Prays and then is dismissed.

All of them have these three biblically agreed “elements” in their church’s “order of worship.”

Now, consider, does the Regulative Principle determine that one congregation is right, and the other two wrong? Does it give substantial instruction on the actual order of worship, or merely the elements of worship? Is Congregation 1 more biblical in their order than Congregation 3? Why or why not?

There is no specific command set down as an “order” in Scripture. This same lack of command is likened to the good and necessary inference of women partaking of the Lord’s Supper (there is not a direct command for that either, but we do it because of Christian prudence due to good and necessary inference.)

Historically, pastors and theologians used what the puritans called Gospel-Logic (i.e. good and necessary inference drawn from Scripture) to determine the order of worship.

When one considers the order (not elements), specifically warranted by Scripture, such is warranted by Gospel-Logic, not by some exact biblical outline through implied Scriptural examples. We do find in Scripture a number of Psalms calling people to come and worship the Lord.

“Give unto the LORD the glory due to His name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness,” (Psa. 29:2).

Or,

“Oh, worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness! Tremble before Him, all the earth,” (Psa. 96:9).

Or,

“Oh come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker,” (Psa. 95:6).

 

However, there is no direct command for a specific order. In other words, order is circumstantial. We can find no warrant for a specific order, implied or otherwise. All we can find is that the order of worship is to be orderly, and it must have all the elements of worship, without any type of confusion. Confusion in worship is opposite the, “God of order.”

If the required elements are present, we have no Scripture that sets down a required order for those elements. We do know, though, that all those elements must be engaged. Scripture does, however, in light of worship, didactically teach that God is not the author of confusion, but a God of order. All employments of the elements of worship must be set down in an orderly way.

Scripture is filled with directives on order itself, or arrangement, in worship. Here are only a couple of examples:

“And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order;” (Gen. 22:9).

“And the priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and lay the burnt offering in order on it; and he shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings.” (Lev. 6:12). (cf. 1 Kings 18:33).

“Let all things be done decently and in order.” (1 Cor. 14:40).

“For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” (1 Cor. 14:33).

It is Scripturally sound to say, then, that the order of worship should not be confusing, and should have a set organization and symmetry, as well as a discernible uniformity for the congregation. There should be a start, middle and end, so to speak, of some discernible kind. This falls, though, under the guise of, “Christian prudence.” Christian prudence is deduced from the word of God. Nehemiah 8:8, “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” This is generally the manner in which exegetical work on any given scriptural passage should be communicated. Yet, sometimes, inference from a passage dictates rational conclusion, rather than simply a stated fact, or the lack of a fact. For example, “”And when she [Lydia] and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us,” (Acts 16:15). One good and necessary inference here is that everyone in her household was baptized, whoever they were – servants, children, infants, family members, etc. Wisdom allows us to deduce certain obvious points from the text. In this case, everyone in the house were baptized.

In the case of worship, we have an ample amount of biblical data to inform us about the proper elements of worship. Certain elements must be housed within the timeframe of the corporate public service. The order of those elements, though, have been placed in the hands of wisdom. What order would best suit the worship service, and what order would best draw people closer to Christ in such a service?

Worship for the Christian is to be covenantal and centered on Jesus Christ, through whom, and by the power of the Spirit, we worship the Triune God (Matt. 4:10 with John 5:23 and 2 Cor. 13:14; Rom. 1:25; Col. 2:18; Rev. 19:10; John 14:6; Eph. 2:18; Col. 3:17; 1 Tim. 2:5.). In such specific worship, God directs the elements (1 John 5:14.), but allows the order of those elements to be dictated by Christian prudence, having a diversity in the manner in which the church organizes worship (Acts 15:21; Rev. 1:3;  2 Tim. 4:2; Isa. 66:2; Matt. 13:19; Acts 10:33; Heb. 4:2; James 1:22; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; James 5:13; Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:23-29; Deut. 6:13 with Neh. 10:29; Isa 19:21 with Eccl. 5:4-5; Esther 4:16; Joel 2:12; Matt. 9:15; 1 Cor. 7:5; Esther 9:22; Psa. 107 throughout; Heb. 12:28). The elders of a given church must clearly delineate why they organize or arrange worship in the manner they do in light of Christian wisdom, and the people in the congregation must know exactly when those things occur. In Christian prudence, there should be a great measure of stability. This is one of the reasons historic orders of worship are so closely identified as being alike. They came to much the same conclusion in exercising Christian wisdom.

When the elements of worship are considered, such non-negotiable traits of the worship service should be set orderly within the order of worship; as said, scripture is abundantly clear on that. However, the order must be considered as act of circumstance. As long as all the elements are present, a particular minister or denominational group cannot say there is any actual biblical precedence in the definite order of how a worship service is actually conducted, except that it is done wisely, clearly and orderly.

If the order is circumstantial, then how does that affect the Regulative Principle of Worship if one moves, say, the call to worship and the benediction within that order? To use another example, consider the following:

Congregation 1 does the following:

Scriptural Sentence and Call to Worship
Confession of Sin
Psalm
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading
Sermon
Prayer and Lord’s Prayer (by the minister)
Psalm
Blessing (Aaronic)

If order is circumstantial what if Congregation 2 does the following:

Blessing (Aaronic)
Confession of Sin
Psalm
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading
Sermon
Prayer and Lord’s Prayer (by the minister)
Psalm

How does this “affect” the Regulative Principle of Worship, if it does at all, because in the example above, there is really no bookends between a “call to worship” and “benediction” for congregation 2. For many people, this would seem “confusing,” (which is what 1 Cor. 14 tells us we should avoid as that which is in opposition to the character of God) but may in fact not be confusing at all with proper explanation by the elders of the church.

You might think the example is very odd. But, if the argument for the order of worship is really circumstantial, then, is that not actually acceptable if the congregation was clearly instructed on what was happening so long as the elements of worship were all there? In the example above, the blessing and a psalm are the beginning and ending of the service. Is that inherently wrong if the congregation knows that the confession of sin and psalm are the actual “commencement and termination” of the public worship service?

Since the “order” or “liturgy” of worship in this respect is not regulated as the elements are, the order can differ from church to church. Diversity in order implies that I can shift around the order of worship and not be “scolded” for doing it, so long as the congregation knows that it is a stable order, something done regularly, and I’m not purposefully attempting to confuse them.

Is there something that tells me in Scripture not to change a “prudent” order? Or is a prudent order dictated by each individual church? Is there an order of worship that could lead one into danger, to violate being orderly, and end up directing them towards confusion? What if one elder or session is not as prudent as another? How does one determine the viability of a solid order of worship if Scripture does not dictate to me what that is? What are the “guard rails” that are needed to keep the speeding car on the road in case the car begins to spin out of control? Is it solely Christian Prudence with things circumstantial?

If one moves their Call to Worship (the beginning of the corporate service) and the Benediction the end of the corporate service) closer to the front of the service, then have “other things” outside of that after the Benediction, does that affect the Regulative Principle of Worship with those other parts which are not “bookended” by the beginning and ending? Are these others things violating the corporate worship service by that action of moving them outside the bounds of public worship which is bookended by these particular points? No, for all intents and purposes, they are not. Are they impinging on the Regulative Principle? They couldn’t be since they are not part of the corporate worship service. Consider that and the workability of the circumstance of the order of worship.

It seems the diversity of principles which should be coupled with the directive to avoid confusion, implies I can do whatever I prudently deem acceptable so long as the call to worship and the benediction house the biblical elements of worship. I should not be “scolded” for changing the order if the order is not confusing and suits the flow of the service (i.e. intelligent worship of a rational soul without confusion). In our examples, I am using the call to worship and the benediction as the bookends for the beginning and ending to the service. But in doing so, is that even warranted? Or have I simply decided that such an order is best? Have I simply agreed with the forms of worship Calvin, Knox and the Westminster divines used in that way as the best way to order a service? Some people in other churches might think that it is an odd practice to place the benediction at the beginning of the service instead of the ending of the service. Some Reformed churches actually do that. Certain Dutch churches have a benediction at the beginning of the service, and some churches in the Scottish tradition do not use a call to worship at all. Instead, their service begins with the singing of a Psalm. So, what constitutes a wise order of worship with Christian prudence?

I think what is most important surrounding this question of order, is to distinctly inform the congregation when the public worship service commences and when the public worship terminates. Whatever is within those bookended beginnings and endings must be the proper elements of worship, without the least bit of idolatry. But the starting point and ending point simply need to be markers that show the people they have moved from the commonness of that which occurs outside of worship (daily life), to the beginning and ending public corporate worship (the worship of God’s people as the local body of believers). Those lines must be specifically delineated, otherwise, the Regulative Principle which governs corporate worship (i.e. those required elements in the bookends), in this regard, can never be employed. No one would ever know when worship began or ended, and that would not only be confusing, but would invite a number of sinful courses. It would be disorderly to the God of order, and to his Anointed Savior.

There must be devised some public manner of indicating corporate worship has commenced and terminated. I don’t think we can escape this application of Christian prudence in this regard. In looking at Israel and worship, for example, worship was often seen in the Tabernacle and Temple as “a whole” and it needed to be designated in that way to the people. For example, Lev. 10:1-3 shows Nadab and Abihu killed as a result of doing something “in the worship time” they should not have. There had to be some designation for that “worship time,” and the people needed to know that public worship had started.

The answer to all of this is going to rest inside that bubble of Christian prudence, with the intent that there has to be an “orderly” indication of commencing worship and terminating worship which the congregation is aware of in an orderly fashion. Otherwise, hypothetically, if it is left as open ended, like the ridiculous examples before mentioned, then the congregation would not know when corporate worship begins and ends. In that way alone, it is, then, interesting to me that God places the importance of such circumstantials inside that fragile bubble of simply stating “this is the beginning,” and, “this is the ending.” And if that is the case, and Gospel Logic and circumstantials weigh in on the “timeframe,” (i.e. the beginning and ending), then the Regulative Principle for corporate worship rides completely on the call and benediction, or some form of indication that is known to the people, where God is, “now” specially attending the congregation in ways he was not doing before. It is only in this context that the elements of worship are exercised. If that is the case, then God only attends on that time of public worship in a special manner.

I agree there’s a “logic” (or should be) to our order-of-service. Many churches follow a service akin to a dialogue, which is called a covenant renewal service where the order is set down as responsive to where God speaks to us through his word and we respond. Covenant Theology is the hinge on which the Word of God places the condescension of God in his salvation to us. Covenant renewal, then, is an excellent order of worship to confer this. This was much the same manner that Calvin, Knox and Westminster explored in their order of worship.

In considering this, 1) God determines the manner in which sinners approach him, yet, he does this specially, 2) in the midst of their own Christian prudence as to circumstantials during their orderly and defined corporate worship.

That presses one to consider that the “formality” of certain actions in worship (i.e. a formal “call” to worship) is not necessarily needful in the way “Reformed Liturgies” sometimes work today, (again, going back to Calvin, Knox and such). But, the argument on intention (a time beginning and ending corporate worship) and circumstantials (order) is all about the discernment of the minister or session. (As a side note, it never gives leaders the license to suffocate the worship service by adding things into it before and after the service that ought not to belong in the midst of the assembly of God’s people. In other words, they would not add in unbecoming announcements, or jovial talk right before worship begins, or after it ends. That would violate certain other commanded directives due to God in the midst of the charges surrounding the Lord’s Day. The sacred and the profane must be kept apart.)

However, in regards to prudence, there could be arguments made for “better prudence” and “more helpful” orders of worship. But should we then reinvent the wheel on this? Is there something better than what the early church, Calvin, Knox or Westminster have set down? To be honest, I don’t think there is. Anything “proposed” today as some deviant form on the order of worship, generally caters to the world, and houses in it some form of worldliness to make the worship service more attractive to people. But this is never God’s intent and would show a lack of Christian prudence instead of an exercise of it.

Would it then be best to always incorporate the word in our beginnings and endings in some fashion? I think prudence dictates that. There are myriads of Scriptural exhortations surrounding the word of God being our light, our path, our help, our guide, the Christ himself! Why, then, should the worship service not begin and end with the Word of God? Would that not argue biblical prudence to its fullest?

We find, then, through a study of Scripture, that our Reformed heritage, which was enforced by a solemn covenant in the publishing and adherence to the Directory of Public Worship, suggests that in such actions there is more Christian prudence and freedom that we typically give, yet, within certain Scripturally based limits. It is enough to say, then, that we are charged with engineering an order to worship, one that is opposite of confusing, honors the God of Order, and his Christ, that leads the congregation in a holy and righteous manner through the Word, and that begins and ends in such a way as to allow the Regulative Principle to work within those bounds biblically. Certainly, there is a great amount of forethought, caution, discretion, judgement and biblical calculation that must occur in order to rest soundly that the order by which the congregation is ministered to, which draws them near to God, is something that aids in their ability to sanctify God in public worship.

“By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified,” (Lev. 10:3).

Bible Verse:

“I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless,” (Gen. 17:1).

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