A Brief Note On “Elements” And “Circumstances”

While we, some of us anyway, are still on Covid-19 lockdown and unable to gather for public worship it is perhaps a time to think about the nature of public worship. Our patterns of life have been disrupted. I suppose that some of us have gone through a sort of withdrawal and even a grieving process over the loss of public worship. Going forward, in most places, public worship will likely not be the same, at least for a while,  for those that a permitted by public health authorities to gather for worship. Congregations may be smaller due to social distancing rules. Singing will be a little more complicated by masks. I assume that, in some places, those who are used to worship services that are large productions, where the service is in two parts, singing contemporary worship songs for 30 minutes followed by a message may see some adjustment.

One of the the basic distinctions that the Reformed have made since the 16th century is between those things that are essential to worship and those things that are circumstances in worship. Something is essential to worship if, without it, there is no worship service. According to the Reformed understanding of Scripture, the Word of God is essential to worship. The Word alone is the final authority for Christian worship. In his  Word God reveals whom it is that we worship and how he will be worshiped. In Exodus 4 the Lord revealed to Moses why the Old Covenant church was being sovereignly, graciously, freely saved out of bondage from Egypt: that they might worship him (Ex 4:21‐22). He also revealed how he will be worshiped:

I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Ex 20:2–5).

The prologue of the Ten Commandments reveals the gospel, the good news of God’s gracious and free salvation of his people. In its normative (third) use, the moral law reveals how our Savior will be worshiped. The same God who delivered us, his Old Covenant church, out of Egypt is the same God who delivered us at Calvary. Jude 5 says so: “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.”

We approach God only through mediation of his only and eternally begotten Son, Jesus, in the Holy Spirit (John 4:23). In the Word read, preached, and made visible (in the two divinely instituted sacraments, holy baptism and holy communion) the Lord comes to us and by repeating his Word back to him we respond in prayer. Without the Word, there is no proper worship. A service that is not normed by the Word is what the Apostle Paul calls “will worship” (ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ). It has the “appearance” of godliness but lacks the substance thereof.

Nevertheless a worship service must be held somewhere, at some time, in some language. These are necessities imposed upon us in the nature of things. This is the definition of an circumstance: a necessity imposed upon us by nature. Most Reformed ministers and elders are (or should be) familiar with the distinction between elements and circumstances but over the course of the last 4 or 5 decades we have lost track of the original meaning and intent of circumstances. It has become common in Presbyterian and Reformed Churches to appeal to the category of circumstance to justify whatever a congregation might want to do in public worship. The category has become so elastic to have lost all meaning.

The original and true intent of circumstance is clear in Westminster Confession 1.6:

…and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, 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.

That clause “ordered by the light of nature” signals the limits of meaning of circumstance. What does the “light of nature” teach us about circumstances? It teaches us that there must be an agreed time, place, and language.

  • Certainly a worship service must be held at an agreed time. If some of the congregation arrives at 10:00 AM and others in the congregation arrive at 3:00 PM, for the same service, the congregation is not together. To be sure, cultural attitudes toward time vary but even granting a certain latitude, the congregation must be together at the same time in order to worship together in the same service. That is a natural limit and circumstance.
  • A congregation must also speak the same language (or at least provide a translator). Were the congregation to speak, in the service, multiple languages without a translator the service would be chaotic. It would not be conducted “decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40). If the minister speaks French but the congregation does not and there is no translator, the congregation is not edified (1 Cor 14:11).
  • The congregation must, however liberal we might be about the schedule, arrive at the same place. This is true even when we try to conduct services online (whether this experiment has been advisable is a discussion for another time). We must be at the same place (whether really or virtually). This limit is imposed on us by nature. If we are not together, we are not a congregation and what we are doing is not a worship service

As originally intended and as observable in the nature of things, the category of circumstance is not endlessly malleable. Electricity is a convenience not a natural necessity. Sound equipment is a convenience, not a natural necessity. By confusing convenience with necessity there has been much mischief done to and in Reformed and Presbyterian public worship services under the guise of “circumstances.”


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  1. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for the needed reminder of Elements and Circumstances in our corporate worship. I’ve continued to revisit this phrase from the Westminster Catechism regarding “circumstance” as we navigate this current environment. We all seem to have become experts (thanks to social media) when even the experts disagree. And then Sessions and Consistories are criticized for being too lenient and uncaring in their approach or cow-towing to oppressive government – depending on the critic’s viewpoint. Just when we should be uniting, we give in to temptations to divide.
    Church leaders are struggling to act with wisdom and prudence according to the light of nature.

    The Heidelberg Catechism helps us understand the fifth commandment with these words:
    That I show honor, love, and faithfulness to
    my father and mother
    and all those in authority over me;
    submit myself with proper obedience
    to all their good teaching and discipline;
    and also that I be patient with their failings—
    for by their hand God wills to rule us.

    Setting aside the potential for misuse of this by abusive authorities, it is a legitimate call for an charitable attitude toward those in authority, including church leaders. We should pray for them and encourage them as they seek wise application of both the elements and the circumstances in our worship. The elements must not be neglected and there is enough flexibility that no two congregations will likely be identical in their approach to circumstances. Our church leaders are frail men and will undoubtedly err, but our prayers and support can enable them to be faithful in their calling to care for the flock of God.

  2. Thank you Dr. Clark,
    Looking forward to the discussion “ for another time” I am in Jackson County, Oregon. We are facing a dire economic situation and our churches aren’t meeting. I am thinking we will be facing home churches soon, which I don’t think is good.

  3. Also, can you direct me to sound teaching on Belgic 36? Yesterday 1000’s met at the capital, some armed. I am also fearing anarchy. The reformed church feels silent.

  4. Scott,
    To your point: you are correct that there must be a significant amount of obvious commonality informed by cultural situations and natural wisdom. And your helpful distinction between circumstance and convenience is a needed reminder in the affluent West.
    My primary thought here relates to COVID-19 and the nuanced ways that church leaders have sought to be faithful during the mandated guidelines as well as how to begin meeting again for public worship. If a church can split over the color of the carpet, then there is more likelihood that conflicts will arise in adjusting to church life mid/post COVID-19 crisis. Significant decisions are forced on the church such as suspending (or not suspending) corporate worship for a time, how the Word continues to be preached to the congregation (or not), how and exactly when the congregation begins to gather again (size of groups, physical distance, masks/no masks), any alterations (or none) in the logistics of participating in the Supper. In addition, there are a host of other decisions and policies related to or surrounding public worship (hand shakes, hugs, conversations before or after the service) and these can play into the polarization our culture is currently experiencing – polarization which seeks to undermine our reality as one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.
    I’ve already seen and heard discord and criticism of church leaders and uncharitable judgments being directed toward leaders by those who have no idea of the types things which need to be weighed. I have to admit that I am relieved to not be currently serving as an elder in my church. But my vows didn’t expire when my term ended, and my prayers for them have definitely increased in recent months.

  5. I presume “tunes” are a circumstance? But there does seem to be some wide variety of what is desired and or acceptable from country to country. I personally have always struggled with some of the more trad tunes for the psalms. I actually ask not for myself but because im increasingly aware that the ‘tunes’ that have been handed to me are not all that fitting with the culture I find myself in. I realise that a highly subjective thing and yet here I am.

    • Hi John,

      Yes, in the nature of things, tunes are are circumstances. We have to sing to an agreed tune but what that tune should be is determined by the nature of the setting: public religious worship. Scripture has not left us any tunes. There are arguments, interesting but not entirely certain, that remnants of the tunes used in the ancient world remain in some of the tunes we inherited from the Gregorian period.

      Cultures do vary and I think that we need to use tunes that fit the culture in which we find ourselves. That’s not to say that a congregation should not learn older tunes or tunes from a different culture. The faith is cross-cultural, the Psalms are cross-cultural, and our worship should reflect that to some degree.

      The Psalms Are Transcultural

      Resources On Psalm Singing

  6. Thanks for the clarification and the links, Scott.
    Didn’t mean to sidetrack your emphasis here!

  7. Dr Clark
    Have you written anywhere a response to Frame’s questions on the RPW specifically his questions on elements and circumstances as seen here :

    “The most important objection to the traditional view is that it is not warranted by Scripture. That is a great irony, for the Puritan system has the laudable aim of making worship thoroughly subject to the Word of God. But where does Scripture talk about or even imply a distinction between elements or circumstances? Where does Scripture define elements in contrast with circumstances? Where does it say that the elements of worship must be independent of one another in Murray’s sense, or specific to a particular type of worship? Where does it distinguish several kinds of circumstances or tell us that circumstances, as opposed to elements, can be determined by the Church only on the conditions and with the exceptions listed by Bushell?”

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