Is the Offering an Element, a Circumstance, or Neither?

The Reformed churches order their worship services according to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) This principle says that we must do only that which God has commanded in his Word. When planning the elements (see below) of a service, the only question we ask is: what must we do? The Lutherans, Anglicans, and evangelicals ask, “What may we do?” If a thing is not forbidden, they believe it may be done. We call that “will worship.” We find the RPW through Scripture and we confess it in Westminster Confession of Faith ch. 21, Heidelberg 96, and Belgic Confession art. 7.

Westminster Confession of Faith 21 says in part, “But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.”

Heidelberg 96 says,

What does God require in the second Commandment?

That we in no wise make any image of God,1 nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.2 1 Deut 4:15-19. Isa 40:18, 25. Rom 1:22-24. Acts 17:29. 2 1 Sam 15:23. Deut 12:30-32. Matt 15:9. * Deut 4:23, 24.* John 4:24.”

Belgic Confession art. 7 says, in part,

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large….

It is a corollary of our doctrine of sola scriptura. The only authority for worship is the Word of God. This means that no ecclesiastical authorities may require of God’s people anything in worship that is not required by God’s Word. They may not ask us to sing any songs that not required by God’s Word. They may not require us to say anything that is not required by God’s Word. In this way not only is the worship of God protected from the vagaries of human opinion and preserves true Christian liberty. Our consciences are free before the Lord because we know that, when we follow the biblical principle of worship, that we are acting as God has commanded.

As a consequence of this principle, the Reformed view of worship distinguishes between the elements and circumstances of worship. A circumstance is the time, place, dress, language, and posture of worship. These things are a matter of wisdom. Whether we hold services at 9AM and 5PM or 11AM and 3PM is morally indifferent. It’s a matter of wisdom. Whether you pray on your knees or standing up is morally indifferent. Whether you use the traditional language of piety (e.g. “thee” and “thou”) or contemporary English (if that’s the language of the people; 1 Cor 14) is a matter of wisdom. Whether you wear a suit or dress more casually is a function of the culture and dictated by wisdom. Whether you meet in a traditional church building or a converted service station building is a matter of wisdom. These things are all circumstances and can change from time to time and place to place.

An element is that thing without which there is no worship. The elements of worship are Word, sacrament, and prayer. No one is authorized by God to add to these elements, i.e. we’re not authorized to add new elements or to substitute a new element for a divinely authorized element. For example, it is not possible in a Reformed service to substitute a dramatic presentation for the preaching of the Word or even to add such to the service. That would be a gross corruption of the worship of God. Calvin and the Reformed churches with one voice regard such additions or substitutions as “will worship.”

Everything that is authorized by God can be placed under one of those headings. The call to worship comes from the Word. The sermon is an exposition of the Word. The reading of the law and the declaration of pardon (absolution) are basically expositions of the Word. The benediction comes from the Word. If we’re following the RPW (the regulative principle of worship) as understood historically in the Reformed churches, then the songs sung come from the canonical Scriptures (usually the psalms). The prayers of God’s people in response to the law and the gospel are authorized by the Word. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are authorized by the Word.

One of the more significant things that happens in the service is the receiving of offerings. At some point in virtually every service, except perhaps when the minister forgets to announce it, the deacons receive offerings. On what basis do we do that? Is it an element or a circumstance? I’ve heard arguments for both and I’m beginning to wonder whether the offering is not a practice in search of a justification?

If it is a circumstance, then we can change it, right? We can omit it (as we presently do it) without any moral or spiritual harm to God’s people or without sin against God and his law. We can mail it in, we can phone it in, we can put it in an alms box on the way out of the building (as we did before the modern period). If it is a circumstance, we could handle the offering in any number of ways. If it is only a circumstance, then it isn’t properly a part of the service. We ought not to spend time on it during the service. We don’t spend time on other “circumstances” during the service do we?

I can see the deacons are sweating now!

It’s a much harder test to show that the offering is an element of worship. It is neither Word, nor sacrament, nor prayer. Indeed, it seems to me that to call it an “offering” is positively Mosaic (old covenant). We confess that the offerings were fulfilled in Christ. He is the paschal lamb, he is the consummation of all the burnt offerings, wave offerings and sin offerings. Typically we have understand the general equity of those laws to speak to us about spiritual offerings, i.e. of our heart, mind, and will to Christ in the same way that we no longer think of conducting holy wars against other nations or denominations! We refer the imprecatory psalms and the commands to conquer the nations to our ongoing struggle against sin, the flesh, and the devil.

Why then do we continue to speak about a literal, material “offering”? If the slaughter of animals was fulfilled by Christ why do we persist in speaking about literal, financial offerings? If we can offer money to the Lord, can we offer other things too? If we can preserve this aspect of the Mosaic economy, why not others? Yes, we’ve always given Christian alms, but during the service? If you read the older liturgies, there’s no line for “offering.” Of course, under Christendom, those were state-funded churches. Our churches are not state-funded but does that fact give us license to contradict our own theology and principle of worship? No. If the “offering” is not an element, then we ought not to use it as a way of responding to the Word, as if it were a prayer. How can we criticize Roman Catholics for lighting votive candles when we make, in effect, votive financial offerings? What’s the material difference?

What about the practical problems? What if we stopped “receiving offerings” in our services? I know the great fear is that the financial support of the church would drop. Would it? Can’t we teach God’s people some other way to support the church financially? Is our fear of what might happen if we obeyed God a right reason for doing something in worship that we don’t believe is an element of worship divinely commanded.

I say that we act according to our principles and trust the Lord. God’s people know that they must support Christ’s church. We know that the Apostle Paul received offerings, but we also have no information that a “collection” was taken up during the service. Why can’t God’s people make their offerings on the way into the service or on the way out or some other time? We have PayPal now! We have automatic debit.

I can hear it now: “That’s just gross!” Really? Why does the thought of using PayPay or automatic banking for the “offering” offend you? Is it because you still think of it as an element? Is this a divinely authorized way of responding to God’s grace? I appreciate the intent, but here’s the problem: how is it not will worship? Consider 1 Kings 12:25-30:

Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. And he went out from there and built Penuel. 26 And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. 27 If this people cgo up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” 28 So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 29 And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.

When the Israelites built calves at Bethel and Dan, they were making an offering to the Lord, but the Lord wasn’t pleased. Those statues weren’t authorized. Further, Jeroboam’s rationale for the calves was eerily similar to the rationale I’ve heard for including the offering in the service. If we don’t do it, something worse will will happen. It’s the lesser of two evils.

Perhaps you regard it as an element. Can you show from God’s Word that we must take up an offering during the service? If you must have your “offering,” then haven’t we weakened one of our arguments against the Roman eucharistic sacrifice? We argue that their continued sacrifice, even if only memorial, is a contradiction of the completed work of Christ. If we can make financial offerings, why can’t the Romanists make memorial sacrificial offerings?

There has to be a better way. If we find a better way we’ll be rid of an uncomfortable business in our services. We won’t have to explain to our invited unbelieving friends who visit that, well, the offering is for them. We look like TV hucksters just a little when the basket/plate goes around. We sit uncomfortably and fidget. We wait for the service to begin again.Let’s be faithful to our principle. Let’s keep following the basic “call and response” pattern of our services, but let’s make sure that the “response” is one that is really authorized by God’s Word.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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25 comments

  1. That is an interesting question I have not really thought about before. I think that we have to be careful about drawing too sharp a line of discontinuity between New Testament worship and Mosaic worship though. Obviously there is discontinuity – Christ’s coming changes everything. No more sacrifices of atonement, etc. However, there is some continuity. I believe that the song sung after the defeat of Pharaoh at the Red Sea is the first instance of congregational singing in the Bible. In Revelation 15, it is the song of Moses and of the Lamb that the saints are singing. Likewise, we can draw a line of continuity between the altar of incense and the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8). So I am not sure that identification with the Mosaic economy is a good argument against the offering. As to a positive argument for it (which I agree is necessary), I don’t have one at this time, and you have definitely given me something to think about.

  2. Hi Jamie,

    Great to hear from you. There is some continuity between worship under Moses and under Christ, but we’re all agreed that the Mosaic cultus is fulfilled in Christ. The unity comes in the continuity of the object of worship (the Triune God who reveals himself in Christ). We’ve always worshiped in Spirit and in Truth but we don’t worship under types and shadows. The problem with the Roman system is that they retained the types and shadows. That’s the problem with much evangelical worship is that it’s really going back to types and shadows. Be careful about taking the imagery of the Revelation literally (e.g. incense) or you’ll end up with a literal thousand year reign and literal blood up to a literal horse’s neck etc. The way we’ve connected with the typologies is to apply them metaphorically in our context. We understand that that imagery of the Rev is just that: imagery. We wouldn’t want to start burning incense in our services would we?

  3. “… who has given a gift to him
    that he might be repaid?”
    For from him and through him and to him are all things.
    To him be glory forever. Amen.

    -Rom.11:35-36 (ESV)

    Excellent post Dr. Clark!

  4. An element is that thing without which there is no worship. The elements of worship are Word, sacrament, and prayer.

    Is that an syllogism proving the necessity for weekly communion?

  5. I agree that incense is symbolic (of prayer). But some elements (like congregational singing) seem to be almost completely continuous. I don’t necessarily disagree with you regarding the offering, though I need to give it more thought.

  6. Why don’t you list singing as an element of worship? The WCF 21.5 indicates it is. Maybe you consider that as Word (which it is if the songs are Scripture).

    The “offering” as an element is so ingrained in American Presbyterian churches (OPC included), that it’s almost impossible to make the argument. In fact in our OPC the offering becomes like a sacrament, complete with its own prayer, music, & singing afterward. It can easily be gathered together in a locked box in the room for worship. I’ve not heard one Reformed argument in favor of continuing the “offering” during worship, but I’ve heard many reasons that seem to stem from either ignorance or tradition.

  7. Eliza,

    It’s true that 21.5 lists singing, and considered that way, it is an element. To be consistent perhaps I should have only spoken of prayer and scripture and subsumed both singing and sacraments under the word since both occur in 21.5 under the Word. The sacraments have their own section in the confessions and singing does not, however.

    According to the RPW, singing is our response to the Word of God and it, as you suggest, ought to be the Word. As historically understood, the RPW requires that we sing only canonical songs. Semper Reformanda!

    I agree with your analysis of the status of the offering. It’s a sacred cow. We need to embrace and practice the RPW. If we don’t then the progressives are right that we’re being mere reactionary conservatives. If we don’t act (radically) according to principle then the worship wars are merely a battle of wills and preferences. That’s a dead end.

  8. This is a place where I currently take exception to the WCF (I tentatively believe giving is an element of worship), but I can be persuaded to believe otherwise.

    Isn’t 1 Cor. 16:1,2 (“Now concerning the collection of the saints…”) one of the texts used to prove that we are now to gather together for worship on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day (see the prooftexts for WCF 21:7)? Why did Paul say specify the first day of the week if the setting aside was not to be done during the worship service?

    Did Christ fulfill offerings of thanksgiving?

  9. Yes, Christ fulfilled all the typological elements of the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants (which themselves were typological).

    Paul took up collections in a variety of places, usually for poverty relief, but he also received collections for his own ministry. Does it follow, however, that these offerings must have taken place during the service as an element? Yes, they were received perhaps in conjunction with the service but they may have been received after the service or before. Who knows? It’s not much of a basis for an element of NT worship is it?

  10. An element is that thing without which there is no worship. The elements of worship are Word, sacrament, and prayer.

    I’m still curious — are you saying that if the Lord’s Supper is absent (more generally, if no sacraments are administered), it’s not (proper) worship? Certainly a worship service with no Word or no Prayer seems absurd. And certainly we can’t have baptism every worship service (unless we keep all those wimminfolk continually pregnant (while they’re barefoot in the kitchen))! Is it just through faulty tradition that I feel comfortable with a worship service lacking the Table?

  11. Hi Ruben,

    Not exactly, though I can see how that might seem to follow from what I said. I have struggled over how to express the the essential nature of the sacraments to Christian worship without making them mandatory in every service. Obviously baptism can only be administered when there are candidates for baptism. It’s my conviction that the Supper should be administered every Lord’s Day. I agree with Calvin who thought that it ought to be administered every time the gospel is preached. I can’t say, however, that any service lacking the Supper is not a service but I don’t want to say that the Supper is not essential. The sacraments are not things that we can change at will or omit the way we would a change or omit a circumstance. Ordinarily, there is no obvious moral question regarding the time of service. That’s a matter of wisdom. We cannot simply begin omitting the Supper, however, without doing great damage to worship. It is properly a constituent of the service.

    Each sacrament has to be administered according to its purpose and nature. The purpose and nature of baptism is to signify and seal the admission of one into the visible covenant community. The nature and purpose of the supper is to renew our profession of faith, to be fed by the body and blood of Christ. It is a sign/seal of covenant renewal. The promise of God is renewed and our reciprocal response is renewed. Van Mastricht called the supper a “sacrament of nutrition.” Thus it is appropriate to observe it every week. Its omission is a a defect in our services. That’s why I wrote as I did.

  12. I just cannot erase the impression that this posting concentrates to much on the “outer form” or structure of the worship. If there is one thing our Lord taught us about means of grace is that “concentrate on the spiritual realities”. So, what is worship? I have yet found in the blogosphere a short and clear definition. They give clear, concise answers to prayers, word, praise, sacraments, but worship is almost always too complicated, unlike Jesus’ simple answer to Samaritan woman.

  13. Hun,

    The reason that Reformed folk focus on things such as prayer, preaching, and sacraments is that we are embodied human beings. Reformed people are not gnostics seeking to escape the body or physicality. We understand that God the Spirit uses real material means to accomplish his purposes. We call them “means of grace.” We confess that, according to God’s Word (Rom 10), God wills to use them to bring us to faith and to strengthen our faith.

    Through those means God comes to us. He meets us. He speaks to us. We hear him and we respond to him. That’s worship, acknowledging God for who he is and what he has done, but doing so according to his Word and not according to human imaginations.

    The approach you seem (I stress seems) to be advocating is what is known as pietism. It discounts the external in favor of what I call the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience.

    I just published a book about this very thing. About 1/3 of the book is about worship in one way or another. Maybe it will be useful.

  14. Yes, God gave us means of grace and His words teaches us how to treat or use them. I just wanted to point out that “worship = word+prayer+ sacrament” _doesn’t_ hold. Our Lord told us that God seeks who “worship” Him; He didn’t say that God seeks who “listens to the word, prays and participates in the sacrament” or who “participates in a worship ceremony or service.” Participating on a worship service that follows the Regulative Principles does not mean that person has “worshipped” God, even in the case that person has listened to the preaching, sung psalms, and prayed earnestly. As Arthur Pink put it, our “soul has to bow in adoring contemplation of God;” yes, worship in essence is “bowing” and that is indeed the literal meaning of the biblical word ‘worship’. As like any other human activity, if you indeed “bow” to God, then the perception that you “bowed” remains with you. Without that self-perception, how can one say that he “worshipped” God just by participating in some ritual?

    By the way, we know that proper worship comes from proper acknowledgement of God. If we worship the true God, we know He has the right to claim anything as His, even our existence itself, and deserves our eternal service. And thus Romans 12:1 tells us the intrinsic connection with proper worship and offering; they just cannot be separated; true worshiper’s reasonable and just sentiment is offering of oneself, which includes everything that is given to him. Indded, congregational worship is already an offering; an offering of time.

  15. Hun,

    Of course Reformed worship is not about mere externals and ritualism but we don’t have to choose between true spiritual (better, “Holy Spiritual, i.e., in the Holy Spirit and in the Truth (i.e. Christ) worship) of the Father and the means of grace.

    No one that I know is arguing that “if RPW, then true worship.” It is true, however, that, if one is wantonly violating the RPW, just as if one is violating the 5th commandment, one cannot be claim to be worshipping God truly or submitting to authority. The RPW is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition.

    As mere mortals, however, we cannot judge the heart nor can we do the work of the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit works true worship in the hearts, minds, and wills of his people but he does it in the context of the visible covenant community using the means of grace.

    It’s not as if John 4 is the only passage about worship in all of Scripture.

  16. My old church gave up the offering–not for RP reasons, but because they decided that a box at the back (similar to the alms box you mention, I guess) and standing orders were sufficient for regulars, while visitors, and particularly the unchurched, may feel like they were being pressed for money. I give for the support of the church by standing order, but I think there’s a good justification for the bags if there’s a special reason to give, like last week where we were visited by our denominational mission organisation and the offering was in aid of them.

  17. Yes, principles need to be kept; as our Lord said, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11:42) At the same time, our Lord’s rebuking when he said that was that regulating the forms do not bring in inner holiness. Actually, it’s the other way around; you need to know what God is seeking in us when He says He is seeking “true worshipers;” only after that our discussion of the form of worship become meaningful.

    One of the reasons people think they are free to do anything in worship is not that they forgot the reformation nor the confessions; rather, it is because they forgot that worship simply means “bowing.” Everybody knows that you can’t bow in your comfort. But even in the so-called reformed churches I go, I get the impression “Is this the atmosphere we would create even if Jesus was sitting right in front of us?” But people think it is OK because they are singing psalms, not hymns. In other words, many people think worship is a collection of other means of grace. But worship is never a mere collection of other means of grace. Yet, sadly, most of the dialogues we find is still done under the point of view that worship is a ritual.

  18. Well put, Dr. Clark. My session and I recently became persuaded that because the offering can’t be shown to be an element of worship that it must be removed from our services per the RPW.

    Any idea when this tradition began? In our study, we couldn’t find the origin of the practice. Was it a result of the popularization of the open air preaching of circuit riding preachers or something else?

    • Hi Steve,

      I wrote this a long time ago. I should make clear that I do think there’s a place for the collection of alms. I wouldn’t call it an “offering.” I am sensitive to the fact that, in the USA anyway, we don’t have state churches and that creates issues that the older Reformed/Presbyterian churches did not face. I still think there are other ways to address it but I’m not opposed to collecting alms during the service. That seems to fit the biblical witness.

  19. I belong to a reformed church in Scotland and we have never ‘taken up an offering’ during the services. We have a plate at the door and accept free will offerings from anyone attending. If they do not want to give that is OK, better not to give than to give grudgingly. Members of the church in the main give by an envelope system. Interesting arguments, I never thought about before, though obviously I have been in churches where this is done, notably the main stream Church of Scotland. I belonged to a small reformed church in London for a couple of years and on Sunday the ruling Elder gave the intimations and simply informed people that there was a free will offering box at the back of the church should they wish to contribute.

  20. Does anyone ever wonder why the Reformed churches that deny Old Testament (Mosaic) worship order use Old Testament worship standards to support RPW?

    • RSC

      It is for Alan to comment, but I read him to say that the only instructions God gives about worship are in the OT, and if these point to and are fulfilled in Christ, then the NT frees us to worship ‘in spirit and in truth’.

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