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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