Is Worship Just a Matter of Preference: Licorice and License?

I’ve had a little more time to read several responses to my article “Worship in the PCA in 2017.” Since they likely represent a considerable body of opinion, it may be worthwhile to respond further for the sake of clarification.

Reformed “tradition”
I assume (perhaps wrongly) that it is understood that when we refer to the practices of the Reformed church, we are referring to a church whose foundational principles include sola Scriptura and the regulative principle of worship (RPW). Our “only rule of faith and practice” is Scripture. Consequently, all that the Reformed church has practiced since the Reformation has been articulated and defended on the basis of thorough biblical exegesis, deep theological reflection, and conscientious historical study. What Calvin and the Westminster Divines established had nothing to do with personal or cultural preferences or what they happened to like or dislike. Consequently, when we talk about a departure from historic Reformed practice, we are discussing something serious, requiring (one would think) interaction with our outstanding exegetes and theologians and confessional documents. The Reformed tradition is not traditionalism. Our practices are not arbitrary or based on happenstance. Changes may be justified. Adaptations may be necessary. Yet they should never be undertaken flippantly. Moving fences without asking why they are there, or introducing novelties without respectfully consulting the past is exactly what C. S. Lewis meant by “chronological snobbery.” It is worth asking why have Presbyterians worshipped within the parameters that they have for the last almost 500 years, yet regrettably, it is a question few seem willing to ask.

What is “best”
Similarly, I am cautioned about utilizing the category of what is “best.” However, what I mean by “best” is “best” as understood by the Reformed tradition of biblical, theological, and historical study. The Westminster Divines constantly are navigating a course between the excesses of the Anabaptist on the left wing of Reformation and the Roman Catholics on the right. Their Directory rejects the imposition of an unyielding liturgy as well as the form-free worship of the spiritualist fanatics. It provides directions promoting free prayer, expository preaching, lectio continua Scripture reading, psalm singing, and a simplified administration of the sacraments. It eliminates unauthorized ceremonies, rituals, gestures, and postures and whatever else might distract attention from the authorized means of grace.

Anglican, Lutherans, Roman Catholics and Anabaptist had other ideas about what is best. Obviously. They came to their conclusions on the basis of additional considerations, such as medieval tradition (Anglicans and Lutherans), sacerdotal theology and tradition (Roman Catholics), and the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Anabaptists). Yet all were in pursuit of what is “best,” all things considered. So are today’s Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Willow Creekers.

If one chooses to feature liturgical dance and drama, snake-handling and tongues-speaking, or to burn incense or light candles for the dead, one runs afoul of the RPW because one has introduced elements into one’s service that are unauthorized. However, what if one reads one verse of Scripture, sings “The B-I-B-L-E,” preaches a string of emotional stories, and prays one 20-second prayer at the beginning of the service and another 20-second prayer at the end? How exactly has one violated the RPW? I would argue that one hasn’t. However, has the service been conducted wisely? Have we done what is best? The organizers of the General Assembly’s worship services can be said to have done nothing technically wrong or invalid. Yet, in light of the wisdom of the Reformed church accumulated over the last nearly 500 years, what they offered was not what Presbyterians have considered wise or best.
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