Is the Offering an Element, a Circumstance, or Neither?

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 chapter 21, Heidelberg 96, and Belgic Confession article 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,

Q: What does God require in the second Commandment?

A: 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. Deut 4:15-19. Isa 40:18, 25. Rom 1:22-24. Acts 17:29. 1 Sam 15:23. Deut 12:30-32. Matt 15:9. * Deut 4:23, 24.* John 4:24.

Belgic Confession article 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 are 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, 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 is 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 is 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—that is, 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 are following the RPW 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 happen 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 have heard arguments for both and I am 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 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 is not properly a part of the service. We ought not to spend time on it during the service. We do not spend time on other circumstances during the service, do we?

I can see the deacons are sweating now!

It is 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 understood the general equity of those laws to speak to us about spiritual offerings—that is, 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 to 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 have always given Christian alms, but during the service? If you read the older liturgies, there is 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 we not 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 do not 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 God’s people not make their offerings on the way into the service or on the way out or some other time? We have all manner of online donation systems; we have direct transfer.

I can hear it now: “That is just gross!” Really? Why does the thought of using PayPal 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 is 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. And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. 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.

When the Israelites built calves at Bethel and Dan, they were making an offering to the Lord, but the Lord was not pleased. Those statues were not authorized. Further, Jeroboam’s rationale for the calves was eerily similar to the rationale I have heard for including the offering in the service. If we do not do it, something worse will happen. It is 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 have we not 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 the Romanists not make memorial sacrificial offerings?

There has to be a better way. If we find a better way we will be rid of an uncomfortable business in our services. We will not 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 us be faithful to our principle. Let us keep following the basic call and response pattern of our services, but let us 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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  1. But what about Heidelberg Catcehism, Lord’s Day 38 – ‘and to give Christian offerings for the poor’? Text mentioned are: Psalm 50:14; 1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 8 and 9.

    • Very good and valid response Hilbert, certainly giving is right and Biblical. I think the question at hand, however, is whether or not that offering should be formally taken during the worship service? Personally, I have always considered the offering to be a privilege and opportunity for both giving and prayer, but Dr. Clark does make some very good points arguing that it may not be an element of the worship service. It is a thought-provoking question.

  2. Those who use the 1 Cor. 16:2 as justification for calling the offering an element of the RPW are the same ones who use Col. 3:16 to justify hymns and spiritual songs. Neither passage is presented to us in the context of being prescriptive for corporate worship. Our tendency is to go back to the “elementary principles”. We do love our Temple worship.

  3. I made an argument for not taking up an offering when we started the church plant. You can give in an offering box or online. We were well-prepared when covid hit as we were already doing online giving and others were scrambling.

    Part of my argument was from Paul when he instructed the Corinthians (1 Cor 16) to store up something on the first day of the week, so that there be no collecting when I come. So first, he had to tell them to “lay something aside” and then he *didn’t* want a collection taken when he was there. Granted, this collection was for the saints in Jerusalem, but I think that also instructs us that there was no regular offering taken up in worship, otherwise it seems that would have been mentioned.

    Concerns about whether people will give or not are unfounded. Online giving encourages regular giving as you can set it and forget it, so to speak. No more forgetting to bring your checkbook to church. Yet you are still reminded of your giving when you are reviewing your bank records and have another opportunity to pray for the work of the church.

  4. If the offering is an element of worship, which I don’t believe it is, it should not have to be propped up with “special music.” Elements of worship should be able to stand on their own. (Incidentally, it’s not listed in the Westminster standards as an element of worship.)

  5. An excellent presentation on your part. I know of one church in Indianapolis where the elders are going over what you have put forth. RPW is a serious thing and shouldn’t be taken lightly. That’s for bring this to the attention of the church.

  6. Interesting article, Scott! You may, however, want to interact with what Andre Bieber writes in his book, Calvin’s Economic and Social Thought (see: pages: 316 – 327). He intimates that Calvin saw the offering as an important part of congregational worship. Among other things, Calvin argues that through the offering people declare to God that all of their goods are really his, that through the giving of their first fruits they acknowledge God as the ultimate giver, that offering is an expression of joy, gratitude and an expression of faith. He also Staes that the act of offering in worship shows that Mammon has been dethroned in the lives of believers. Your thoughts?

  7. I have often wondered what is the justification for a mandated ceremonial admission to communion in a worship service. The Westminster Directory made no such requirement. Admission by the elders is implied in the concept of church membership. What Scripture requires more than that? Related to that is the requirement of vows in worship from folk in good standing transferring, even between NAPARC churches.

  8. I’m not a hard advocate of the RPW, but I do think offerings in the service are biblically commanded.

    When the Israelites brought offerings of various kinds to have fellowship with YHWH God, he commanded them “not to appear before him emptyhanded” (Deut 16:17). This was for the freewill offerings as well as the reparative offerings (“sin” offering, guilt offering, and burnt offering). When you came to worship God, you brought something to share with Him. If someone’s vocation did not necessarily produce the sorts of grain, wine, oil or livestock that could be offered according to the law, they could exchange money for “whatever your heart desires” and enjoy it “before YHWH” (Deut 14:22-27). The worshiper and family would rejoice in sharing a meal with YHWH, and the Levite and the poor would be provided for. This was an essential part of worshiping in the house of YHWH.

    Granted, this was not a weekly practice. It was either triannual (Exod 23:14-17; Deut 16:16-17) or triennial (Deut 14:28). After the destruction of the temple, synagogues were established for weekly prayer and reading of Scripture, not for worship with offerings.

    The concept of offerings-in-worship, and the practices of the synagogue, were emulated in the early church. In the New Testament, all of the sacrificial offerings find their fulfillment in Christ, and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper corresponds to the OT offerings (not a re-sacrifice of Christ, of course). But the very way that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated was with foods that people brought to share as a meal, with the excess distributed by the deacons to the poor. Thus, the early Christian practice was also not to show up “empty-handed” to worship YHWH. A portion of the offerings brought by the worshipers was set aside for holy use in worship.

    Certainly, people gave other tithes to share with the poor, as well–not necessarily part of the service. But the celebration of the Eucharist, in my view, implies the offering in the service–even if we present our offerings in a different form (money, whether given in a plate or virtually) and even if we receive the Eucharist in a “token” form of bite-sized bread and wine.

    My article touches on this a bit: “Technologising of Word and Sacrament: Deuteronomy 14:24–26 and Intermediation in Worship.” European Journal of Theology 28.1 (2019): 66–77. Note especially the quotation from McGowan on page 75.

    • Benj,

      What happened under the types and shadows isn’t in question here. What is in question is how do we worship in the New Covenant, according to the “rule of worship” (Calvin’s phrase)? What did the New Covenant church do? Is there any evidence that they collected an offering, diaconal or otherwise during the service?

    • James,

      I haven’t read Bieler but I wonder if he’s assuming facts not in evidence. I’ve gone back to all my primary sources on the Genevan liturgy and I see no evidence that they took an offering during the service. It’s been a while since I read the books by J. Olson and E.A McKee on the diaconal ministry in Geneva (and they are in my office at work) but my recollection is that the only offering that was received was what we call the diaconal offering and that was left in a box on the way out of the service on the Sundays communion was observed (quarterly, much to Calvin’s chagrin). I’m happy to be corrected, but I don’t think the offering was received during the service.

  9. Scott,
    (I’m not sure how to reply directly to your comment, so here’s a new one.)
    The types and shadows are not normative, but the ways that the types and shadows find their fulfillment in the New Covenant is instructive.

    My point is this: what we do in our worship in two steps—offering and eucharist—was one combined step in the Old Covenant. In the early days of the church, when a more significant portion of people’s tithe were given in-kind, it was also partly combined in the eucharistic celebration. Therefore, even if we separate them temporally within the service, it is still valid under the RPW to include collection of offerings as an element of worship. I don’t believe that this is a requirement, but it is permissible.

    • Benj,

      Thank you. I understand better from where you are coming. I held a version of this view for many years. I understand the desire to retain a degree of continuity (and I agree with the impulse) with the types and shadows. In that case the question is not whether but how? A better way to express that continuity is not through literal, though unbloody, offerings but recognize that what those typological offerings really pointed to, i.e., what was always the substance of the covenant of grace and therefore carries over into the New Covenant, is two things: Christ, the temple, the lamb, the priest. He is the offering (Eph 5:2). That’s why the typological system expired or was abrogated in the New Covenant. Second, what the typological offering always symbolized was the offering of one’s self. The prophets & Psalms said as much (e.g., Mal 3:1&nash;5; Isa 1:12–16; and esp. Ps 51:17). The New Covenant offering we make, in divine worship, is not money but ourselves.

      Hebrews very much has the gathered assembly in mind as he writes to Jewish Christians templed to back to the types and shadows and is as pains to remind them (Heb 10:10ff) that Jesus is the offering. The danger they face is that they have withdrawn their hearts from the Lord. This is one of the functions of the invocation of Abraham’s offering of Isaac (Heb 11:17). In Phil 2:17 Paul says that he himself is a drink offering being poured out. He is setting the model for the New Covenant church. The Gentiles are themselves a fragrant offering to God (Rom 15:16). The widow’s mite (Mark 12:41ff) is about the fact that she came to worship to offer her heart, herself.

      This how I understand Rom 12:1. The image there is of the corporate church gathered for public worship. However we translate the adjective modifying worship (λογικὴν λατρείαν; traditionally “reasonable” but now “spiritual”) it’s clear that Paul does not have in view a literal act of sacrifice but a figurative act. We are the offering in the New Covenant, in worship.

      Second, as to rule of worship, I don’t think we agree as to what the rule is. The principle you articulate is the normative principle, “it is permitted.” The regulative principle (regula = rule) is that we may do in worship only what God has commanded. This is the principle of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Westminster Standards. The claim that the Dutch did not hold this principle is risible.

      Thus, the question the Reformed ask is: what must I do? What has God commanded? Insofar as the Mosaic sacrificial system has expired and been abrogated it is no longer in force. This is in contrast to the promise and command of infant initiation given under Abraham. That hasn’t expired because infant initiation was never typological. The bloody ritual was typological (Col 2:11-12) but the command to initiate children formally into the covenant community was not nor was the promise. Hence Peter’s language in Acts 2:39. Hence the absence of a repeated command because the first command (Gen 17:7) is still in force.

      We know that the New Covenant church collected offerings but we have no indication that they collected offerings in the worship service. So, we follow the pattern that we see and the commands that we are given.

      I explain this a little more here.

  10. URCNA Church Order Article 38 – Regulation and Nature of the Worship Service.
    The Consistory shall regulate the worship services, which shall be conducted according to the principles taught in God’s Word: namely, that the preaching of the Word have the central place, that confession of sins be made, praise and thanksgiving in song and prayer be given, and gifts of gratitude be offered.

    • Mark,

      Wondering if the URCNA Articles provide scripture references for the respective positions? Thanks.

  11. I could have sworn someone has done a dissertation on this, and I would have said it was Ryan McGraw, but I can’t seem to find a record of it now…

  12. Scott,

    I’m enjoying your exchange with Benj. I think you might’ve just spoke by each other.

    You recently responded to this: “I don’t believe that this is a requirement, but it is permissible.”

    Your response:

    “Second, as to rule of worship, I don’t think we agree as to what the rule is. The principle you articulate is the normative principle, “it is permitted.” The regulative principle (regula = rule) is that we may do in worship only what God has commanded.”

    Prior to Benj making that remark, he wrote:

    “I do think offerings in the service are biblically commanded.”

    If I assume Benj didn’t contradict himself, my inference might be that he believes it’s commanded, which would make it *permissible* under the RPW, though not “a requirement” every Sunday like, for instance, oaths, vows, sacraments. That’s how I’d reconcile the command being permissible in a regulative, non-normative way. In other words, not all lawful elements of worship are required for every Lord’s Day. Of course, I can’t be sure what Benj intended.

    • Thank you, Ron. Yes, this is an accurate inference of what I was trying to say from what I actually said. I’m a biblical scholar (and pastor), not a theologian, and the RPW is not part of the Reformed circles in which I swim–so I wasn’t communicating helpfully. As you say: my point was that the giving of offerings was implied in the Eucharist, and so is part of worship in a lawful but non-normative way. But “not all lawful elements of worship are required for every Lord’s Day,” so churches are not being unfaithful by not taking an offering in the service, any more than by a worship service that does not contain a baptism.

      When I recently took up a new pastoral call, I asked the Session to reinstitute the offering as worship element, which hadn’t been taken in the service since 2020. Even though many still give online and we also have the box in the back, it’s a moment in our service to be reminded that all we have comes from Him.

  13. Scott (et al.),

    This has been a very helpful discussion. I thought I would add a few historical quotes (two from Calvin, and one from Thomas Ephraim Peck, R. L. Dabney’s successor at Union Seminary). I precede them with two comments: First, it is evident that they affirmed the collection as a regular part of the ordinary weekly gathering, but, second, they are not as express on whether this collection necessarily was a part of the service itself (it certainly does not appear in the Strasbourg liturgy of 1545).

    “No assembly of the Church should be held without the word being preached, prayers being offered, the Lord’s Supper administered, and alms given.” (Institutes, Book IV, xvii. 44. Calvin rightly understood τῇ κοινωνίᾳ in verse 42 to refer to “alms,” not “fellowship,” because its lexical root appears again two verses later: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common (καὶ εἶχον ἅπαντα κοινὰ).” So also Acts 4:30: “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common (ἦν αὐτοῖς ἅπαντα κοινά)”.

    “Nevertheless we must note well this passage, for it is not without cause that St. Luke has joined together these two words, i.e., the Supper and the communion, to show us that we ought to have a true union, with fraternal love to communicate with each other, seeing that God made us for each other, as members of one body, i.e., Jesus Christ…And then there were the alms to support those who were in need, and they showed by this that they did not call themselves brothers in pretence. And that was in the ceremony as well as otherwise, because they considered that, since we are all members of Jesus Christ, if there were people in need it was as though they allowed the body of Jesus Christ to suffer lack. And therefore they gave money and alms to assist with that support.” (Sermon on Acts 2.43-44, cited in E. McKee, 85-86).

    “The communion of the saints is implied in the very notion of an organized church having its polity and its ordinances of worship. But this communion (koinwnia) is most impressively exhibited in two ordinances, both of which are emphatically denominated by the word communion, to wit: the Lord’s supper and contributions in money, or its equivalent (Acts ii.42-45; 1Cor. x.16; 2 Cor. viii. 4; Heb. xiii.16; Rom. xv. 26, 27). Both of these belong to the worship of God. No definition of worship can be framed which can be justly applied to the Lord’s sup¬per, that will not apply also to these contributions. There is no more glorious act of worship described in the Bible than that in the last chapter of the First Book of the Chronicles.
    This view of contributions accounts for the importance as¬cribed to them in both Testaments. They are the tokens, and, in some respects, the most unexceptionable tokens of the reality of the com¬munion of saints. Considering the power of the feeling of mine, who can read that the primitive Christians were not accustomed to say, “that aught of the things which they possessed was their own,” but that “they had all things common,” can doubt that a new principle was at work in their hearts, a principle not earth-born, but descended from heaven. Still more manifest did this become when the Gentile Christians contributed to the relief of their Jewish brethren. Here there was no bond of blood to prompt the beneficence; rather was there the bitter prejudice of race. No wonder that the great apostle was willing to travel all the way to Jerusalem to seal the gift to the recipients; that is, to expound its comprehensive spiritual meaning, and to impress upon their hearts the reality and the glory of the communion of the saints.” (Acts xi.29,30; Rom. xv.25-28; 1 Cor. xvi.1-4; 2 Cor. chaps. viii. ix. These are the first two paragraphs from chapter 19, “The Deacon’s Office,” from Peck’s Notes on Ecclesiology. Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publications, 1892, pp. 197-205.)

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