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All I Really Need to Know About Worship... I Don't Learn from the Regulative Principle (Part VI)

Many worship errors evaporate as people are instructed in the sound, 200-proof truth of the Reformed Faith. Our response to high church excesses should less often be, “You’re not allowed to!” than, “Why would you want to?

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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Architecture Mirrors Doctrine

For good or ill, for about the last 14 years, Messiah’s Congregation has been worshipping in facilities rented from an Episcopal church.1 Like virtually all “high” churches, its doctrine is immediately evident in its architecture. About half of the sanctuary is taken up by an “altar” area where the critical drama for high-Episcopalians occurs. A notice is hung at the entrance that the body of Christ (so they say) is in the bread at the altar, therefore “the faithful” ought to genuflect upon entering.2 There are Stations of the Cross, candles, crosses, and kneeling benches in the pews. The pulpit is stage-right.

The problem, though, is not the church’s architecture. Rather, it’s the church’s erroneous set of beliefs which compels it to build church facilities this way. The architecture of the church is merely following its belief system. The form of their building is informed by their form of worship which is informed by their doctrine. The buck stops there.

Our high church friends fail to comprehend the full implications of Christ’s work. Specifically, high-churchers fail to see, first, our Savior’s work as the terminus of the Tabernacle/Temple system. They seek to maintain, mutatis mutandis, the offering system of the Old administration.3 They believe they need to offer Christ again and again on an altar. To this they add a second error: that for this to happen efficaciously they need a priestly caste.

These two errors replace 1) the Biblical teaching of Christ’s once-for-all, sufficient work, and 2) the Biblical treasure which tells us of our right to full, unfettered access to this Christ by faith, apart from earthly mediation. The architecture of high churches, then, is not the problem. It is their doctrine. To realize my dream of tearing down their “altar” (thus accommodating more living altars, AKA worshippers) requires only the tearing down of their erroneous doctrine. Like night follows day, church architecture follows church doctrine. They’ll change their architecture when they change their doctrine.

So, too, will many worship errors evaporate as people are instructed in the sound, 200-proof truth of the Reformed Faith. Our response to high church excesses should less often be, “You’re not allowed to!” than, “Why would you want to? After all, ‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever. Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines. For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace; not with meats, which have not profited them that have been occupied therein. We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle.’”

Similarly, our response to the silly “worship” of evangelicaldom must avoid treating it as an abstraction, as a thing in itself. Rather, it is the result of theology gone awry—or simply left undone.4 What should bother us is the modern indifference to the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of worship as well as of wisdom. What these churches need so desperately is not the RPW, but a proper vision (so to speak) of God, and of what He has accomplished—yes, accomplished—in Christ!

Worship Mirrors Doctrine

That doctrine is the principal thing in the foundation of worship ought not to surprise us. You will recall that Tabernacle/Temple worship was strictly regulated because Christ was therein being revealed. When our Lord had completed His earthly work, that strictness was immediately, without a heat skipped, transferred to the guardianship of the gospel. New Testament anathemas are pronounced on deviant teachers, not errant worshippers. The relationship between doctrine and life is revealed in the “architecture” of several Pauline letters: First, what God has done in Christ; then, what we should be and do in response. Christians, above all peoples on earth, must be aware that ideas and beliefs have consequences. Trusting you already hold this as a presupposition, I’ll not labor to prove it. I’ll only remind you that the weeds of errant doctrines will inevitably appear in worship. Therefore, those concerned with reforming worship must first concern themselves with reforming doctrine. Errant doctrines of God, of Scripture, of the Spirit’s work, of the ordo salutis, of worship5- errors concerning these and many doctrines beside will leave a deeper impact on worship than the presence or absence of the RPW.

Thus, the best way to help God’s people worship Him acceptably is to help them see more clearly just who He is!6 Knowing God and His grace will have a profounder influence on the texture and details of worship than perhaps any other single factor. As St. Paul said, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.”

The Synagogue

Informed worship is doctrinally driven, and it is . . . Word centered. This , as you might have guessed, is a pretty big chunk of the IPW, for it is here that much of it comes together. Therefore we’ll have to divide the subject.

A) To begin, informed worship is Word-centered because it self-consciously follows the synagogue pattern endorsed by our Lord and His apostles.7 As to the place of the Word in this venerable institution, J. Julius Scott, Jr. says succinctly and well:

The synagogue was first and foremost a place for reading of Scripture and for prayer ... Intertestamental Judaism expected everyone to be thoroughly familiar with [God’s Law] as a basis for life. It was the synagogue, with its regular reading and interpretation of the Law and the Prophets, and with its schools for the young, that wove the Scriptures into the fabric of life and experience of the people. There were no altars nor sacrifices in the synagogue; instead only the sacred books (scrolls) were absolutely necessary.8

Just as Moses had been “preached in every city from the earliest times” and was made known by being “read in the synagogues on every Sabbath,”9 so Christ was to be made known in the very same way: decentralized synagogues of Christ would be planted around the earth, connected to one another and the heavenly Temple by the Spirit.

Whatever the relation between Temple and synagogue—and we certainly recognize a relationship—they remained quite distinct institutions. And it was the synagogue which became the model for New Order worship. Some seek to argue against the normativity of the synagogue model for the church10 by asserting that “the temple rather than the synagogue is the ultimate source of a number of the most important aspects of Christian worship.”11 I’m from Missouri. Show me any element of early Biblical Christian (or current Reformed!) worship which can ultimately be traced to the Temple alone—or which came to the church in any way other than via the synagogue.

Sermons? Nope. Benedictions? They predate the Temple by at least half a millennium (Gen. 14). Corporate prayer? Uh-uh (Gen. 4). Singing? Don’t be silly (Ex. 15). Circumcision was not Temple-dependent. Nor could baptism, as practiced by the Jews, by John, or by Jesus be ultimately traced to the Temple.

No, my friends, the above assertion is mere legerdemain. The Temple was not the liturgical mother of the church-. Wandering down that avenue will lead you to an Italian address. The distinction of the Temple was this: God there demonstrated that He was to be found among the people who had the atoning blood which He alone could provide. In that sense we agree, all covenant communities are little Temples.

The New Testament Synagogue

But the post-Pentecost churches as organized by the apostles were instructed to do nothing uniquely or exclusively related to Temple worship, except if we include believing in the Lord Jesus Christ who had been prefigured there in a thousand ways. Now, however, the knowledge of what He has done is propagated in none of those ways. Now it is by preaching and teaching, the very strengths of the synagogue service.

A pre-A.D. 70 inscription found on the Ophel hill in Jerusalem reads in part: “Theodotus . . . built the synagogue for the reading of the law and for the teaching of the commandments. . . . 12 Please note that “Scripture reading was not part of the services in the Temple before the Babylonian exile,”13 while “[T]he primary and seminal element in the synagogue was . . . Scripture reading.”14 It was the elements of the synagogue service, not the Temple, which were appropriated by the early, Biblical Christian church.

A look at Acts 2 and subsequent passages lends zero support to any contention to the contrary. There we read how, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” If we take “[t]he breaking of bread” to be communion, we find its antecedent source not in the Temple but in the Passover, a covenant meal celebrated in covenant homes.15 The other elements are manifestly synagogal.

Interestingly, though they “continued to meet together in the temple courts every day,” they there engaged in practices which marked synagogue, not Temple, worship. In fact: “It is thought that there was a synagogue even within the precincts of the Temple.” Thus, alongside the sacrificial rites of the Temple, “there were arrangements for divine service along the lines of what was done in the synagogue, with prayers and Scripture reading.”16 The apostolic church in Jerusalem, even when gathered in the Temple precincts, also is described as engaged in synagogal and familial rites, not Temple rites.

This is why we might find the Apostle liberally employing Temple terminology as metaphor, hut never enjoining the practices of the Temple on the church. What we find him doing in the churches is straight out of the synagogue: reading Scripture, explaining Scripture, teaching how to apply Scripture, and praying. Consider what Paul does at the gathering of the church in Troas: he teaches until midnight. After Eutychus falls out the window to his death, Paul revives him, brings him back into the gathered assembly, has communion, then teaches until daylight. The Word is central.

Read through the Pastoral Epistles and see how Paul emphasizes teaching. The church, like the synagogue, exists as a teaching center. Teaching God’s Word is both an act of worship and a demand for worship. Teaching is what distinguished the early Christian church (Ac. 4:18; 5:28; 5:42; 11:26). Teaching is what established each early Christian church {Ac. 15:35; 20:20; 1 Cor. 4:17; Eph. 4:21-22; Col 2:7; 1 Tim. 3:2; 4:11; 6:2;2 Tim. 2:2; Tit. 1:9; etc.). Teaching is what continues to identify each Christian church as Christian!17 Rushdoony has noted that:

The Old Testament clergy was divided into two classes, priests and Levites. The work of the priests was hieratic, sacrifice and offerings being its essential function. For Christians, this aspect of Old Testament ministry ended with Christ....The function of the Levitical ministry was instruction (Dt. 33:10). As a result, education was basic to the life of the synagogue and the Levitical ministry.... Many critical scholars ... assume a rootless church, i.e., a church without the fact of the synagogue and the Levite in the background as its origin... The point is that the church itself in the New Testament was more a school than a temple. The Reformation, and later the Puritans, restored this instructional emphasis to church meetings.18

And in so doing they were being true to their synagogue roots. The Informed Principle of Worship insists that New Order worship be heavy on Instruction.

The Word Comes to Worship

B) By Word-centered, however, we mean more. It is not merely a matter of the church “replacing” the synagogue,19 but of the clear Word replacing an entire system of approach to God. It is vitally important for us to grasp the way the Word comes to the fore in the New Order.

In the beginning was the Word. The coming of the Word into the world was anticipated in type and shadow. The Word finally became flesh in history. The shadows and types are taken up in Him and their meaning is now communicated by the Word. Even the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are dependent upon the Word of explication, and their efficacy is tied, in all Reformed confessions, to faith in that Word.

In the Scriptures of the New Testament we find the glorious Word saving (Jas. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23-25), sanctifying (Jn. 17:17), encouraging (Rom. 15:4), and establishing (Rom. 16:25-26) the Christian churches, made up of Jew and Gentile.

Since Christ has fulfilled the pre-incarnational Sinaitic order, it is impossible to return to that order. Any attempt to return to that hieratic order will necessarily involve pagan or semi-pagan practices. God put an exclamation point after this truth when He allowed the destruction of the earthly Temple.

From Passover (under Moses) until Pentecost (under Christ) God’s instructions to Israel about Himself and His covenant included bold graphics, bright colors, and large letters. Since then all eyes are pointed to Christ enthroned, whom we behold by faith.20 This Christ is presented to the conscience by Word, not image!

We declare in the Christian gospel that Christ has accomplished in reality/history what had been before anticipated in type. He has entered the one perfect place, wherein are found ail the perfect particulars, He Himself being both the perfect offering and the perfect priest (see Heb. 9:11, 12, 15a; 7:23; 24-28).

Therefore we are no longer anticipating, no longer waiting: the perfect has come. “He sets aside the first to establish the second” (Heb. 10:9). Thus the difference in administration is like that between counting blocks and calculus, between plastic kiddie tools and the tools that built the World Trade Center, between a box of stuffed animals and a Kenyan wildlife preserve. The real thing is here!21

This reality is conveyed and appropriated by words. This is what distinguishes the mature man from the infant. In teaching children we rely heavily on symbol.22 In teaching adults we rely heavily on words. Words are the things which penetrate the conscience and the heart. Words are what we use to make a direct appeal to a mature man’s reason. Words are the true democratizing force behind the gospel, in God’s providence. For nonverbal symbols are indirect and not equally accessible by all, while virtually all people rely on verbal communication for nitty-gritty understanding. This is why the apostles urged, appealed, pleaded, reasoned, and explained, and why they didn’t dance the message.

The Word vs. Symbol

Rome is looking for God in all the wrong places. In the Romish/High church approach to things, symbol remains paramount in their liturgy. Accordingly, their message is essentially authoritarian (the priest is the real actor while the “audience” is made up of rankles observers), is directed at child-like vassals (not free men), and encourages implicit faith (faith in the clergy rather than faith in Christ). The drama of the Mass, for most of its existence, need not have been in the vernacular because its supposed efficacy was/is not dependent upon any self-conscious understanding on the part of the worshipper. The Word withers where emblems abound. High church worship begins with alleged mystery and continues along a path of allusion wherein the true God is not directly encountered. Informed worship, on the other hand, begins with a direct encounter between God and His people through His own Word, and brings God and His people closer throughout worship by the very same means. It begins and ends with covenant clarity: “I am your God, you are my people.” Amen.

High church worship, by depending upon symbol, mystery and allusion, hides God and His Word behind incense, altars, confessionals, pantheons of saints, robes, colors, candles, and magic formulas. It is pure show business, keeping the true God apart from the people. High church worshippers are taught in one thousand gross and subtle ways that the God who created the world cannot be approached directly.

Informed worship, following and employing the Word, teaches, by its very elements, the very opposite: that “In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (Eph. 3:12).

Do you see how much the sort of worship the IPW calls for is beginning to resemble RPW-style worship? Yet we’ve gotten here cleanly and straightway without it.

There’s more, but it will have to await the next installment. Perhaps you’ll stay tuned if we whet your appetite by telling you now that among the remaining things we hope to demonstrate is that Scripture, and therefore the IPW, requires worship to be male-led. There are no female pastors any more than there are female fathers. Females might play—or usurp—the role, but that’s a different matter, isn’t it?

  1. It’s a small (about 120 maximum capacity), 110-year-old, very worn, very uncomfortable, so-hot-you-faint-in-the-summer, facility. But Teddy Roosevelt worshipped there on occasion, and if it’s good enough for Teddy. . . .
  2. By that standard, none of us at Messiah’s is faithful.
  3. Just as regulativists—rather arbitrarily, I might add—seek to maintain a single, distinguishing feature which governed that system.
  4. “Church growth principles have intentionally been kept as atheological as possible,” C. Peter Wagner, cited by Martin Murphy in his perceptively titled booklet, “The God of the Church Growth Movement,” probably still available from Greenville Theological Seminary. Call them at (864)322-2717. They’re good folks.
  5. Sadly, many Christians could not offer a coherent definition of what worship is or what should take place in a worship service. We would say that worship is the fitting response of God’s people to His self-revelation in the written and incarnate Word.
  6. In the same booklet cited above, Mr, Murphy notes, “The more room we give modernity, the less room we give the true and living God. The church growth movement openly admits to embrac[ing] the children of modernity” while “remov[ing] themselves from doctrine and theology” (29).
  7. Forgive this very lengthy endnote, but I thought some might find it helpful to review this material which first appeared in our series on church government: It is strange to be in a position of having to prove to Presbyterians the proposition that the church in the New Testament is built upon the synagogue model, seeing that this fact is ordinarily employed by them as a justification for their system of government! In 1873, Dr. Marcus Dods wrote a book entitled, Presbyterianism Older than Christianity, by which he meant that the synagogue system (which he regarded as identical to Presbyterianism) predated the New Testament. Rev. John MacPherson, in his excellent handbook, Presbyterianism, writes, “In general, the Christian forms of worship were modeled on those of the Jewish synagogue, and so where any customs in worship or office in the Christian church are spoken of without explanation, we may reasonably look to the arrangements of the synagogue for enlightenment.” And Dr. D. Douglas Bannerman, in the book most commonly received by Presbyterians as the standard work on the subject. The Scripture Doctrine of the Church, devotes considerable space to the establishment of the fact that New Testament church organization and worship is predicated upon the synagogue model. He, too, equates Presbyterianism with the synagogue form, and acclaims the latter as the providentially ordained mechanism by which the true religion was sustained in the world: “It was by this Presbyterian organization, on a broad and popular basis, which united strength with elasticity and capability for adaptation to varied circumstances, that the Diaspora were enabled to hold their ground everywhere throughout the Empire in the face of general dislike and frequent persecution. But in its worship and polity the Hebrew Christian Church [read: New Testament Church] was conformed in all essential respects to the model of the Hebrew synagogue.” This holds true, insists Bannerman, in regard to its worship, and “unmistakably with regard to its organization. The form of polity which had been universally established for centuries in the Jewish Church . . . was ‘simply accepted and perpetuated by the apostles.’“ In this last clause the writer is quoting Dr. Marcus Dods, from the book noted above. We will conclude this section (explaining why we feel so strange in defending the synagogue model of church government to self-described Presbyterians) with the Dods quote in its original context: “This, then, is the reason you do not find distinct traces in the New Testament of the creation of the Presbyterian form of Church government. The apostles could not create what had been in use some hundreds of years before they were born. They themselves were all of them Presbyterians before they were Christians. And these are the two facts, the knowledge of which makes us intelligent Presbyterians: First, that the form of government in the Church before Christ came was Presbyterian; and secondly, that this form of government was not abolished or altered, but simply accepted and perpetuated by the apostles. It was extended to all groups of people who received Christ.” (Extended, I must add, with the same features extolled by Bannerman: a solid core with a flexible, elastic, and adaptable exterior.)
  8. Customs and Controversies: Intertestamental Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Baker, 1995).
  9. Ac. 15:21.
  10. One can’t help wonder if their difficulty might not be traced to the fact that, ‘“While the Temple was controlled by the priests, the synagogue was basically a lay institution.” Julius, 142.
  11. Bushell in his. The Songs of Zion.
  12. Julius, 140. Also mentioned in the inscription was hospitality as a primary synagogue function: it was to serve as a “guest house [with] rooms and supplies of water as an inn for those who are in need when coming from abroad.” See 3 Jn. S-8, also Rom. 12:13; 16:23; 1 Pet. 4:9. These passages are more significant when it is kept in mind that the early churches met in homes.
  13. The Jewish People in the First Century, Volume Two, ed. S. Safari and M. Stern (Amsterdam, 1976).
  14. ibid.
  15. I am not suggesting that its relation to the Passover exhausts the meaning of the Supper.
  16. ibid.
  17. Nevertheless we believe that it is important to discern with care and prudence which is the true Church, for this title has been much abused. We say, then, according to the Word of God, that it is the company of the faithful who agree to follow his Word, and the pure religion which it teaches.” French Confession, XXVII. Cf. Heidelberg Q&A 22-23.
  18. Chalcedon Position Paper #1.
  19. Rev. 2:9; 3:9.
  20. Thus the beautiful instruction from our Form for the Lord’s Supper: “That we, then, may be nourished with Christ, the true heavenly bread, let us not cling with our hearts unto the external bread and wine but lift them up on high in heaven, where Christ Jesus is, our Advocate, at the right hand of His heavenly Father, whither also the articles of our Christian faith direct us.”
  21. As it was, by faith, for the Old Order saints!
  22. Does this suggest that the Lord’s Supper, far from being unfit for covenant children, might be especially for covenant children? Don’t read too much into this, I’m only asking!

  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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