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On the Regulative Principle of Worship, and elements vs. circumstances

Many moons ago, in the days of Pine, Lynx and dial-up modems, there was an online discussion group known as Ref-net. I can’t say I was among the first participants of this e-mail forum, but I’m quite sure I got in while it was still made up mostly of university students. We were exploring what it means to be Reformed Christians in cyberspace. All sorts of ideas were up for debate, including public worship.

RPW in the HC

Through the Ref-net I met a friend from South Africa who introduced me to the “Regulative Principle of Worship” (RPW). What is the RPW? While, you can find it the Three Forms of Unity – though I had never really noticed it before – and it is most clearly stated in Heidelberg Catechism Answer 96 where it declares:

“We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.

Worshiping God only as He has commanded: this is one of the rudiments and distinctives of Reformed worship.

I became involved in a number of discussions about Reformed worship on the Ref-net. These ranged from general wrangling about the RPW as such, to specific polemics on applications of the RPW to questions like psalm-singing and “days of commemoration.”

One of the objections I heard to the RPW in general was that it was impractical. If we’re to worship God only as he has commanded, then where has God commanded us to worship at 9:30 AM? Why do we sit in pews when God hasn’t commanded that? In these and many other ways, no Reformed or Presbyterian church really follows the RPW. To the lurkers it must have appeared as if this objection had just detonated the RPW into oblivion.

Elements vs. circumstances

However, this gotcha moment didn’t last very long. It was quickly noted that the RPW comes with an indispensable distinction. When it comes to public worship, Reformed theologians have often distinguished between elements and circumstances. Elements are the things God commanded in Scripture for public worship, things like preaching, singing, the reading of Scripture, prayers, etc. Elements are governed by the RPW.

Circumstances are the incidental things which surround the elements. Circumstances include things like the time of worship, whether one sits on pews or chairs, what temperature the room will be, and far more. Circumstances are not governed by commands from the Bible, but by wisdom and discretion informed by the Bible.

It’s true that this distinction doesn’t appear in the Heidelberg Catechism. Since the Catechism was written for children, you shouldn’t expect it to. But Zacharias Ursinus (its main author) does use this distinction in his theological commentary on the Catechism. It was also employed by Puritans such as John Owen and Jeremiah Burroughs.

Not surprisingly then, it becomes part of the Reformed confessional heritage in Westminster Confession 1.6, speaking of circumstances in worship “which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”

But is it biblical?

The historical pedigree of this distinction is sound, but the most important question is whether it’s biblical. Certainly in the New Testament we see believers worshipping God in a variety of places – homes, synagogues, and even the temple. We see believers worshipping God at different times: evening, late evening, and morning. This sort of variability observed in Scripture is what undergirds this distinction. Outside of the elements commanded for worship, God grants liberty to his church to order the circumstances wisely.

Debate continues

This distinction doesn’t instantly solve every question in Reformed worship. There are disagreements amongst Reformed and Presbyterian liturgists about what constitutes elements and circumstances. Probably the most well-known example has to do with musical instruments. Some, such as myself, would contend that musical accompaniment (done judiciously) is circumstantial. Others would maintain it has the character of an element and, since it is not commanded in the New Testament, it cannot be justified by the RPW. Note: both sides fully affirm the RPW. However, they differ at the application of it, specifically when it comes to defining elements and circumstances. And no, it’s not a matter of “strict” RPW versus “loose” RPW. You either hold to the RPW or you don’t.

While those disagreements can be quite intense at times, we do well to note the broad consensus existing amongst confessionally Reformed churches. There’s unanimous agreement that things like the time of the worship services and the type of seating are circumstantial. Whether you worship in a custom-built church building or use a school gymnasium – God-pleasing worship in Spirit and truth can happen regardless.

Conversely, we all agree that what matters are the God-commanded elements. Without elements like the reading and preaching of Scripture and prayer, you simply don’t have Reformed worship. You have something less than authentic Christian worship. Because of our love for the Saviour and what he’s done, we want to follow his Word carefully when it comes to the content of our worship. But we’ll also be careful about imposing our own opinions where God has granted liberty to be different.

For more on Reformed worship, be sure to check out Dr. Bredenhof’s book “Aiming to Please: a Guide to Reformed Worship” (Amazon.com/Amazon.ca).  And be sure to watch his interview with Focal Point host Chris deBoer below.


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Book excerpts, Book Reviews

The Accompanist as Prophet?

The following is an excerpt from Dr. Bredenhof’s new book “Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship.”  ***** If we have accompaniment, the accompanist has an important role in our worship service. ….We want our accompanists to aim to please the LORD along with the entire congregation. There has to be a pursuit of excellence in the craft of accompaniment. When this is done, we should be thankful and encourage our accompanists. Regrettably, in our tradition there has sometimes been inordinate language when it comes to accompanists, and especially organists. Sometimes the organist has been described as a “prophet” and his playing as “prophesying from the organ bench.” It seems that this rhetoric traces back to the famous Dutch organist Jan Zwart. According to Deddens, Zwart spoke of “prophesying during the worship service, before and after the sermon, in a language the people can understand.” Reformed theologian Klaas Schilder took over this language in describing Zwart posthumously: “His life’s work was to prophesy from the organ bench, and when we say that we give true expression to what motivated this man.” Deddens appreciated this rhetoric and took it over as well. Prophesy is about words The major problem with this description of the accompanist is that it does not stand up to biblical scrutiny. In the Bible, prophecy is almost always about words. A prophet without words is unheard of. There are instances where prophets performed prophetic acts, but these were exceptional, and even these acts never occurred in isolation from their words. Both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, prophecy is verbal. When Lord’s Day 12 of the Catechism says we are anointed to be prophets who confess the name of Christ, it is referring to a verbal activity. During and after the Reformation, preaching was sometimes called “prophesying” – because it had to do with words. The idea of a musical instrument being a means of prophecy is unheard of, biblically and historically. While certainly appreciating the work of accompanists (more on that in a moment), let us also be modest about what they are doing. If one wants to employ the language of the three-fold office of all believers to describe accompanists, then it would be better to refer to them in priestly terms. With their accompaniment, they are offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving with the rest of the congregation. That is something which can be done both with and without words.  Proper honor for accompanists If an accompanist takes his or her work seriously, there can be quite a bit of preparation involved with each service. Moreover, a serious accompanist might even be a professional musician with years of training. A lot of time and money may have been invested in honing their musical craft. This ought to be honored and recognized. That can be done in different ways, of course. One way would be for the pastor regularly to pray for the accompanist(s) in his congregation. Another would be for there to be occasional acknowledgement of the accompanist in the church bulletin or perhaps at a congregational meeting. Still another way would be to ask the accompanist to help the congregation in understanding music in worship. Accompanists have the musical understanding and skills that many of us do not, and asking them to share their insights also shows respect for them and their craft. Let them teach us. It is also appropriate to show our gratitude to our accompanists with an honorarium. This recognizes the time, energy, and financial commitment they have made to pursue excellence in accompanying our singing. Churches that do not offer an honorarium to their accompanists can sometimes struggle to find accompaniment, especially if there are other churches nearby which do offer honorariums. Now someone might object and say, “A lot of us do volunteer work in the church and we don’t get paid for it. So why should the accompanist get paid?” There are two things to say in response. First, the accompanist is not being “paid” for their labors. He or she is not an employee of the church, at least not typically. The accompanist is a volunteer, offering his or her services for the glory of God. Second, unlike most other volunteer work in the church, the accompanist has spent a lot of his or her time, energy, and money on learning to play well. Continuing to play well also requires investments, including the purchase of sheet music. Accompaniment is different than the other volunteer work done in the church. A modest honorarium recognizes this.  Dr. Wes Bredenhof's "Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship" is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca. To learn more about "Aiming to Please" tune in below as Dr. Bredenhof is the guest on Focal Point Episode 5, with host Dr. Chris deBoer. ...


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