Worship: A Dialogue Not A Checklist

Most of the debate over the so-called “worship wars” for the last 30 years has focused on the disagreement between those who favor a progressive/contemporary style of worship and those who favor a more “traditional” style of worship. One of the reasons why this debate can be so frustrating is that it is really an argument about an essentially subjective matter: style. Think about the arguments in the 1960s between crew-cut wearing Dads and long-haired teen boys or arguments about how to dress for church. Ultimately, these sorts of debates come down to preference. Neither side can make a conclusive argument from an objective authority.

Christians who confess the Reformed theology, piety, and practice, however, have way out of this frustrating cul-de-sac. We confess a principle according to which our public worship services are governed. Calvin spoke of the “rule of worship” (see also the Institutes). Zacharias Ursinus used this language in his lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism. Behind that usage lay Tertullian’s expression “rule of faith,” which he extended to the conduct of the Christian life and worship.1 The biblical, patristic, and Reformed “rule of faith” as applied to worship or the “rule of worship” is that we do in worship only what God commands. When it comes to the rule and when it comes to the elements of worship, preference and taste are irrelevant.

The only place preference enters is relative to the circumstances of worship, e.g., time, place, language, and tunes. Contrary to at least one understanding of circumstance widely held within conservative Presbyterian and Reformed circles, a circumstance is not “whatever helps us worship.” This is a category mistake. By definition a circumstance is that which is necessary by nature and logic. We must gather together in some agreed place. Where we gather is a convention or a matter of preference. We must gather at an agreed time. Again, that is a mater of preference. We must use an agreed language (or provide a translator), and we must use some tune by which to sing. All these are matters of taste or preference.

When it comes, however, to the elements, to the administration of the Word and to the prayers we offer in response to the Word, it is God’s Word not preference that governs or worship. Were we firmly to grasp our principle, our rule of worship, again we should avoid much of the contemporary debate about worship styles and the like. When it comes to the elements, to the administration of the Word and to the congregation response to the Word, the only question is: what has God commanded?

Within the divinely commanded administration of the Word and the authorized response by God’s people there is a biblical and historic pattern to be observed, a pattern which is sometimes lost. That pattern is sometimes described as the “dialogical principle.” This is not something that was discussed at length in the older writers. It is an expression I learned from my Professor of Practical Theology, Derke Bergsma, in 1984. According to J. D. Benoit (1958), at the dedication of the Chapel at Torgau, Luther explained, “…worship is at once a dialogue and an act of praise…. The event which we call worship…consists simply in this, that our well-beloved Lord himself speaks to us by his Holy Word, and we, for our part, speak to him by our prayers and our hymns of praise.”

Luther was following the biblical pattern of call and response. Some years ago I wrote: God established a dialogic pattern of worship in the history of salvation. God speaks, and his people respond with praise and thanksgiving. Psalm 18 is a classic example of this pattern, in which the Psalmist recounts God’s mighty saving acts for his king and people and then responds with joyful, submissive reverence in v. 50, “Therefore I will praise you among the nations, O LORD; I will sing praises to your name.” This dialogic pattern is fundamental to biblical worship.

According to this pattern, God has the first word in worship. After all, God spoke creation into being. God the Son is the Word. Creation and redemption begin with God’s Word and so our services begin with a call to worship from God’s Word, an invocation (e.g., the minister quotes Ps 124:8) and Greeting from God (e.g., Rom 1:7), followed by a response by God’s people from his Word (e.g., the singing of Psalm 100). We read God’s Law (e.g., Ex 20:3–17; Matt 22:37–40) confess our sins and rejoice in the declaration of God’s grace toward his people (Pss 51, 32).  The Word is also administered in confessions of faith, which are appropriate responses to God’s declaration of pardon from his Word. In response to the Gospel, out of gratitude, we give alms (1 Cor 16:1–3),2 and, since prayer is the chief part of thankfulness (Heidelberg 116), we offer our hearts in thankful prayer.  God speaks to us in the sermon (e.g., Second Helvetic Confession ch. 1) and we respond, with his Word, in worship and praise. God has the last word in the service as the minister pronounces God’s blessing upon his covenant people (e.g., Nu 6:24–26; 2 Cor 13:14). Just as the service begins formally with the invocation and call to worship so it ends formally at this point. A doxology may be sung in response—there are five books of the Psalter and each one ends with a doxology, so we have an embarrassment of riches from which to chose—but this has the same standing liturgically as a song service before the call to worship. Chris Gordon, however, offers a helpful alternative pattern, where the doxology occurs before the benediction.

As you can see, there is an internal logic and movement in a Reformed liturgy, i.e., the order of worship (1 Cor 14:40) ). God is speaking and we are responding. Worship is the expression of a vital relationship between the living Triune God and his people. The temptation, particularly in conservative Reformed and Presbyterian circles, is, however, to reduce the liturgy to a checklist of things to be accomplished before and after the sermon, which is, to be sure, the central act of the liturgy but those  liturgical acts before and after the sermon are not mere preparations or busy work to be checked off.

There is not space to walk through every liturgical act but the basic pattern should be clear. It is vitally important that Christians understand that, in public worship, we are engaged in a living relationship that is administered through God’s holy and sufficient Word. The minister is just that, a servant of God’s Word and we who believe, who are gathered before his face, are his people. The movement of Reformed worship, the call and response, reflects the dynamism of our relationship with God. Let us give thanks to the God who willingly enters into dialogue with his people each Lord’s Day as they gather before his face.


1. Since at least the 1940s, confessional Presbyterian and Reformed folk have spoken of the “regulative principle of worship.” See e.g., the 1946 Murray/Young Minority Report to the OPC on worship. The phrase “regulative principle” may come from German philosophy.  It occurs in the work of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), specifically in an 1899 English translation of his Critique of Pure Reason (1780s)It also occurs in an 1856 Encyclopedia Britannica entry on G. F. W. Hegel (1770–1831). From there it seems to have entered ecclesiastical usage, e.g., in an 1892 volume by the Southern Presbyterian T. E. Peck, Notes on Ecclesiology, where he used it in the context of a discussion of the limits on ecclesiastical power, an issue closely related to public worship.

2. We should be cautious about speaking of “taking an offering.” I understand that, e.g., in the USA, where churches are free (as distinct from being creatures of the civil state) it is the custom to “take an offering” and to describe this act as an “element of worship.” One difficulty of this way of speaking, however, is that it is not obvious that “the offering” is an element or a circumstance of worship. First, New Testament does not speak of Christians making such offerings. The “offering” chiefly in view is Christ’s offering for us, not our offering for or to him (Eph 5:2; Phil 2:17; Heb 10:10, 11, 14, 18).

The NT does speak twice of “offering” that might be close to the way we frequently use it. Philippians 4:18 describes a financial gift from the congregation to Paul, in support of his ministry, as an offering. We do not know, however, that this offering was taken during a public worship service. In 2 Timothy 4:6, Paul describes himself figuratively as an offering being poured out in the service of Christ. He also describes the Gentiles figuratively as “an offering,” as part of his priestly ministry.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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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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One comment

  1. Thanks for this.
    The dialogic principle is after all, an approved example i.e. pattern, which along with express commandment and good and necessary consequences make up the three ways in which God commands something in Scripture.

    The problem today though is, while you can talk to reformed who will affirm the dialogic principle with a passion (it is quite the trend) they will also resist with a passion anything to do with the regulative principle. Go figure.

    (In the larger picture, while I might have an opinion on just who, along with his worship children, is in large part responsible for poisoning the worship well quite well in our day, I will leave my remarks to be framed for another day.)

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