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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- Resources On The Rule Of Worship
- On The Wisdom Of Screens
- A Brief Note On “Elements” And “Circumstances”
- On Elements and Circumstances