Does Your Worship Need To Be “Elevated”?

I received a piece of spam mail late last week offering to “elevate” the worship service at my church. I can think of a number of verbs that might pique the interest of a Reformed church:  purify, reform, sanctify, solemnize are some that come to mind but elevate is not one of them. The advertiser, to whet my appetite for elevating, avers that “an increasing number of churches are adding audio-video displays to enhance the worship experience with great results.” In the next sentence I half expected him to say, “E.g., congregations at Bethel and Dan have also added golden calves to their service and the people are very pleased.”

To refresh your memory about 1 Kings 12, King Jereboam said:

If this people go 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.” 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.” And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan (1 Kings 12:27–29; ESV).

The issue here is what the Lord wanted versus what Jereboam wanted. The question is this: on what principle do congregations do what they do in public worship? According to the email, the goal of a public worship service is to create a certain quality of religious experience in the congregation. This has been the principle of evangelical worship since the early nineteenth century. This is not the biblical principle of worship as the Reformed churches understand Scripture.

Here is what the Reformed say about what the Lord wants from his people in public worship:

96. What does God require in the second Commandment?

That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word (Heidelberg Catechism).

And inasmuch as the Roman Church, forsaking the use and customs of the primitive Church, has introduced new commandments and a new form of worship of God, we esteem it but reasonable to prefer the commandments of God, who is himself truth, to the commandments of men, who by their nature are inclined to deceit and vanity (French Confession, preface).

Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God (Belgic Confession, art. 32)

…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 (WCF 21.1)

So, our principle of worship is that we do in worship only what the Lord has commanded. The Lord has not commanded the use of videos to “elevate” worship. Therefore we may not do it. Further, the Reformed churches make a distinction between the elements of worship and the circumstances. Indeed, those among the Reformed who would like to incorporate video into their services and thereby “elevate” them appeal to this very distinction to justify the use of videos. If this distinction is new to you please see the resources below, where the distinction is explained in detail.

To those who appeal to the distinction to justify the use of video in public worship I reply that this abuses the distinction by redefining the terms. When we talk about  “circumstances” and “the light of nature” (e.g., Westminster Confession, 1.6) we are talking about those things that are necessary or unavoidable relative to public worship. The list of things required by nature is quite short, e.g., a shared time, place, and language. In order to hold a public worship service we must meet in one place, at the same time, using the same language (1 Cor 14:9–12). Videos are not necessary for public worship. Electricity is not even necessary. The church met for public worship for 1900 years without electricity.

The unsolicited invitation I received to install screens in order to show videos during the worship service gives us an opportunity to remind ourselves again about what worship is: adoring and calling upon the name of the Lord, hearing his law and his gospel, receiving his sacraments, and calling upon his name according to his revealed will. The Lord is not interested in our good ideas. We have known this at least since about 1500 B.C.

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace (Lev 10:1–3; ESV).

The translation “unauthorized fire” is apt. The older translation of “strange fire” no longer communicates the intent of the text. “Unauthorized” is apt precisely because what Calvin called the “rule of worship” is not an invention of dyspeptic Reformed theologians but a revelation from God.

The Lord has not changed since the days of Moses and Aaron. He is still holy. He struck fear into his people by striking down members of his covenant assembly who dared lie to the Holy Spirit (See Acts 5:1–11).

Pastors are sorely tempted to try to find a way to justify the use of videos during worship. We know that we live in a visual age and that people respond to videos and that they would help drive home in an affecting way. There is just one difficulty: God has not authorized it and they are not necessary to worship.

I have good news. The Lord has already established two visual aids for public worship: Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. There is a sense, however, in which the entire service is already an audio-visual experience. It is a wonderful sensory experience to hear God’s people singing his Word (and that without the aid of instruments). We are meant to be affected by the sight of baptismal waters being applied by the minister to believers and to their children. We are meant to hold, smell, and taste the bread and wine of Holy Communion. In fact, in traditional Reformed worship, the congregation was invited forward to the table to receive the  elements of the Lord’s Supper directly from the hand of the minister:

75. How is it signified and sealed to you in the Holy Supper, that you do partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?

Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises:1First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His  blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ.

The Lord is aware of our need for sense experience. He has met that need. The question is whether we will be satisfied with what the Lord has given or whether, like some in the history of redemption, we will seek to improve on what God has graciously given us?

©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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11 comments

  1. But…we need to contextualize to reach the lost…change the medium, not the message…not changing would simply perpetuate a dead, cold orthodoxy and reek of traditionalism and legalism…time to get with times or be left behind.

    While what I wrote above was in jest, it’s sad that you’ll not only hear arguments like this in broader evangelicalism, you’ll also hear it within confessional Reformed denominations as well.

    At times I think the battle is pretty much already lost over adhering to the Regulative Principle of Worship. Even a good amount of Reformed folk think the RPW is “out of touch.” I know of a PCA church that pointed to their special (better, “unauthorized”) use of candles during the Christmas season to illustrate that its elders don’t believe in adhering to the RPW. God forbid we have to give up candle lighting ceremonies during corporate worship around Christmas in order to follow the commands of Scripture. May God help us and our churches recover the biblical practice of the RPW.

  2. Having just finished Calvin’s The Necessity of Reforming the Church and A Reply to Sadoleto, and as I learn more about the Reformed practice of using God’s Word, including His actions reported in His Word, I am grateful for the elegance and beauty of Reformed Principles of Worship. What denomination or parachurch group has the financial wherewithal to sell “aids to worship?” Under what authority or logic do they see such sales as legitimate? Perhaps someone should introduce them to Luther. And Calvin.

    • JP,

      Here are two and some resources:

      Heidelberg Liturgy (1563)

      Strasbourg Liturgy (1545)

      What The Heidelberg Liturgy Teaches Us About Grace, Faith, And Sanctification

      Review: Reformation Worship: Liturgies From the Past For The Present (Update)

      There’s a chapter on Reformed worship in Recovering the Reformed Confession (linked below the post above).

      The pattern of Reformed worship is fairly simple:

      • Invocation/Votum (“Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth”)
      • Greeting from the Lord (“Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ”)
      • Psalm of Response (e.g., Psalm 100)
      • Reading of the Law (e.g., Ex 20; Deut 5; Matt 5; etc)
      • Confession of Sin
      • Declaration of Pardon/absolution (see the Heidelberg liturgy for a good example)
      • [Declaration of Judgment on the Impenitent] This was not done everywhere but it should be done at least sometimes
      • Psalm of Response
      • Pastoral Prayer
      • Reading of Scripture
      • Prayer for Illumination
      • Sermon
      • Prayer/Psalm of Response
      • Administration of Holy Communion
      • Psalm of Response
      • Benediction
      • Psalm of Doxology (there are 5 doxologies in the Psalter, one at the end of each of the books of the psalter

      This order might vary. The English translation of the Heidelberg Liturgy is not quite accurate. They did not take up an offering. That was a 19th-century insertion. They had a box in the back for alms (diaconal offering, relief). They didn’t observe the Supper weekly in most places so that might be put in brackets. I put it in there because that is what Calvin wanted to do in Geneva and what they did in Strasbourg when he was there.

      The basic structure is:

      • God speaks (in the Word)
      • The people respond (with his Word)

      This is the pattern followed by the Reformed. They sang relatively few songs (usually psalms).

  3. It seems impossible for the RPW to become the norm if full subscription to the confessions is not the norm. Therein lies the problem.

    • Good point, Mike. I hadn’t thought about that angle. It would appear that full subscription is a necessary component for recovering biblical, Reformed practices in confessional churches. It’s a battle the PCA has lost already, unfortunately. Let’s pray the Lord turns the tide back soon.

  4. OK, I do have one serious question. You mention “hear(ing) God’s people singing his Word (and that without the aid of instruments).

    Why not instruments, particularly in light of Psalm 150?

    • Hi Tom,

      Instruments were unknown in the ancient church until perhaps as late as the 11th century. Their use was not widespread even in 13th century. Thomas seems to have thought of their use as Judaizing. They were not allowed in Papal masses because they were considered undignified. The Reformed rejected them for the same reasons the ancient church rejected them: they belong to the types and shadows. Yes, the psalms speak of instruments but read Pss 149 and 150 and consider what else they envision. In short, how do we use instruments with also beginning holy war? If holy war expired with the types and shadows, why didn’t the instruments also expire?

      Consider 2 Chron 29. After Hezekiah cleansed the temple he restored temple worship. NB who is doing what:

      Then Hezekiah the king rose early and gathered the officials of the city and went up to the house of the LORD. And they brought seven bulls, seven rams, seven lambs, and seven male goats for a sin offering for the kingdom and for the sanctuary and for Judah. And he commanded the priests, the sons of Aaron, to offer them on the altar of the LORD. So they slaughtered the bulls, and the priests received the blood and threw it against the altar. And they slaughtered the rams, and their blood was thrown against the altar. And they slaughtered the lambs, and their blood was thrown against the altar. Then the goats for the sin offering were brought to the king and the assembly, and they laid their hands on them, and the priests slaughtered them and made a sin offering with their blood on the altar, to make atonement for all Israel. For the king commanded that the burnt offering and the sin offering should be made for all Israel.
      And he stationed the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from the LORD through his prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to the LORD began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished. When the offering was finished, the king and all who were present with him bowed themselves and worshiped. And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the LORD with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped.
      Then Hezekiah said, “You have now consecrated yourselves to the LORD. Come near; bring sacrifices and thank offerings to the house of the LORD.” And the assembly brought sacrifices and thank offerings, and all who were of a willing heart brought burnt offerings. The number of the burnt offerings that the assembly brought was 70 bulls, 100 rams, and 200 lambs; all these were for a burnt offering to the LORD. And the consecrated offerings were 600 bulls and 3,000 sheep. But the priests were too few and could not flay all the burnt offerings, so until other priests had consecrated themselves, their brothers the Levites helped them, until the work was finished—for the Levites were more upright in heart than the priests in consecrating themselves. Besides the great number of burnt offerings, there was the fat of the peace offerings, and there were the drink offerings for the burnt offerings. Thus the service of the house of the LORD was restored. And Hezekiah and all the people rejoiced because God had provided for the people, for the thing came about suddenly.

      What do we see? Levites doing two things: playing musical instruments by divine command and slaughtering animals by divine command. I have sometimes asked rhetorically, if we we’re restoring instruments to pubic worship why not animal sacrifice?

      Here are some resources on these questions. Take a look at them. I know it might seem strange but we should not assume that what we do now is what we have always done. It isn’t true. The practice of worship in most evangelical churches, in our age, would quite unrecognizable to the ancient and Reformed churches.

      Resources On Instruments In Worship

      Resources On The Rule Of Worship

      Resources For Recovering Psalmody

      See also the chapter in Recovering the Reformed Confession, which is linked above in the post.

  5. Maybe this is covered in RRC or in one of the links in a previous post, but what took place in the 11th or “as late as the 13th” Centuries that changed various churches view of using instruments in worship? The invention of the pipe organ? And even if it was the organ, what changed the minds and attitudes of those who oversaw their congregations that allowed them into the services?

    • Hi George,

      It is covered in RRC but my understanding of the history has changed a little. The traditional story is that it was Pope Vitalian, who took office in AD 657, who permitted the first organ in a church, in Spain. Sometimes this is dated to the 7th century. More recently, however, I’ve learned that might not be quite true. According to some scholars, it seems as if the first organ might have been introduced much later (e.g., the 11th century). In any event, they were not widespread enough in the 13th century for Aquinas to think of them as normal. I’ve read that organs were forbidden from papal masses. They didn’t become widely used until the late middle ages.

      Why did they spread? One medieval proponent argued for them (see RRC) because they would help keep the young people. I kid you not. The organ was the first praise band.

      Some people, wealthy patrons of the church, liked them aesthetically and since the medieval church had followed the Levitical pattern it was an easy step to move from priests offering memorial sacrifices to adding musical instruments. 2 Chron 29 will out.

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