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The Law And The Liberty Of Presbyterian Worship





"The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and
New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and
enjoy Him."--WESTMINSTER CATECHISM.


The Church of Christ, as a divine communion, exists in the world for a
definite and appointed purpose. This purpose may be declared to be
twofold, and may be described by the terms "Witness" and "Worship."

It is the evident design of God that the visible Church should bear
witness to His existence and character, to His revelation and
providence, and to His grace towards mankind, manifested in His Son,
Jesus Christ. To Israel God said, "Ye are my witnesses," and to His
disciples forming the nucleus of the New Testament Church, the risen
Saviour said, "Ye shall be witnesses unto Me."

Side by side with this evident end of the Church's existence is the
other one of Worship. Not only from the individual heart does God
require ascriptions of praise and expressions of confidence, but from
the organized congregation of His people, He desires to hear the voice
of adoration, contrition, and supplication. The cultivation of such
worship, and the offering of it in a manner acceptable to God, is a
work worthy of the Church's most earnest care.

It is to be expected, therefore, that in the Word of God there shall be
found the principles of a cultus which, possessing Divine authority,
shall carry with it the assurance of its sufficiency for the ends aimed
at, and of its suitability to the requirements of the Church in every
age. That the word of God contains such principles clearly indicated,
the Presbyterian Church has always maintained, teaching uniformly and
emphatically that Holy Scripture contains all that is necessary for the
guidance of the Church, as well in matters of Polity and Worship, as in
those of Doctrine. Divine worship, therefore, neither in its constant
elements nor in its methods, is a matter of mere human device, nor is
the Church at liberty to devise or to adopt aught that is not
explicitly stated or implicitly contained in the Word of God for her
guidance.

The essential parts of worship we are at no loss to discover, clearly
indicated as they are in the history of the Apostolic Church. Praise
and Prayer, with the reading and exposition of Scripture, together with
the celebration of the Sacraments, are repeatedly referred to as those
exercises in which the early Christians engaged. With such worship,
though in more elaborate form, the Church had always been familiar, for
as Christianity itself was in so many respects the fruit and outcome of
Judaism, the expansion, into principles of world-wide and perpetual
application, of truths that had hitherto been national and local, so
its worship and organization were, in large measure, the adaptation of
familiar forms to those simpler and more comprehensive ones of the New
Testament Church. Throughout the successive periods of Israel's
history, marked by patriarch, psalmist, and prophet, Divine worship had
grown from simple sacrifice at a family altar to an elaborate
temple-ritual, in which praise and prayer and the reading of the Law
occupied a prominent place; to this were added in later times the
exposition of the Law and the reading of the Prophets. This service,
elaborate with magnificent and imposing forms, continued in connection
with the Temple worship down to the time of our Saviour, while in the
Synagogue a simpler service, combining all the essential parts of the
former with the exception of sacrifice, was developed during the period
subsequent to the Babylonian captivity, when, as is generally conceded,
the Synagogue with its service had its origin. Apart then from the
ritual connected with sacrifice, which was wholly typical, the temple
service and the simpler worship of the Synagogue were identical in
their different parts, although differing widely in form.

Now, just as Christianity was itself not a substitute for the Jewish
religion but a development and enlargement of it, so Christian worship
was an outgrowth, with larger meaning and broader application, of the
worship of God which for centuries had been conducted among the Jews.
It continued to comprise the essential elements of prayer and praise,
together with the reading and exposition of the Divine message, a
message which was enlarged in Apostolic times by the record concerning
the Christ who had come, and by the inspired writings of the Apostles
of our Lord to the Church which they had been commissioned to plant and
foster, while associated with these was the administration of the
Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. It has always been
maintained by the Presbyterian Church, that of these different elements
of worship, none should be neglected, inasmuch as all of them have
Divine sanction, and that to these nothing should be added, inasmuch as
any addition made, could possess human sanction only, and would be a
transgression of the principle that Scripture and Scripture alone
contains authority for the government and practice of the Church of
Jesus Christ.

It follows that in the arrangement and adjustment of each of these
various parts of worship, in their due relation to each other, and in
the determination of the methods that shall prevail in their
performance, the Church must be governed by an appreciation of the
purpose for which they have been established, and of the ends which
they are expected to serve. The object of public worship must ever be
kept in view, and no forms, however attractive, are to be admitted by
which that object may be hidden or obscured: on the other hand, order
and seemliness demand a due attention, and it is an error, only less
mischievous than the former, to have regard to the spirit of worship
alone, and thus to neglect whatever suitable forms and methods may best
secure the orderly and appropriate performance of its every part.

The most commonly recognized purpose of public worship is the
cultivation of the spiritual life of the worshipper, and this is
attained by the employment of means intended to bring the soul into an
attitude of response to its Lord. It follows then that matters of
form, attitude, and order in worship, should be so arranged and
regulated that they may serve as aids to the securing of this end, and
that nothing should be permitted which may in any way interfere with
the development of this spirit of response on the part of those so
engaged. And when it is remembered how small a matter may interfere
with the worship of a congregation, and how easily disturbed and
distracted the hearts of men are by untoward circumstances or
conditions, it will be seen that not only the forms of worship demand
attention, but that the order of its different parts, the attitude of
the worshippers, and all matters of detail are worthy of careful
thought and of earnest consideration. But Christian worship has an
altruistic aim also, and is intended to serve as a witness before the
world to those fundamental truths professed by the Christian Church.
With this end in view, it is evident that its forms should be such as
shall most clearly and effectively set forth before the eyes of
beholders, those truths and principles which the Church holds as
essential to Christian faith and practice. To obscure such a public
declaration of Christian belief, by hiding these truths beneath an
elaborate adornment that disguises or completely conceals them, is to
be faithless to the commission of Jesus Christ to be a witness unto Him
before the world; to neglect such witness-bearing, or by carelessness
or inattention to detail, to render it in a manner so ineffective as to
disparage the truth in the eyes of beholders, is to be none the less
unfaithful to that great commission.

With the twofold purpose of worship clearly kept in view as the
foundation for any discussion of this subject, it is also to be
remembered that the Church of Christ is left free by her Divine King
and Head, so to order matters of detail, under the guidance of the
Spirit of Truth, and in harmony with the principles laid down in
Scripture, as may in accordance with varying ages and circumstances
seem best for the attainment of the ends desired. While Christian
worship in its essential parts is prescribed by Scripture, the Church
is free to amplify or develop these general outlines, provided only
that all be in harmony with the spirit of Revelation. It is very
evident that new conditions of a progressive civilization, the spirit
of the times, or the particular circumstances of a community, may make
desirable a modification of a particular method of worship long
practised; it is for the Church, relying ever on the guidance of the
Spirit of Truth, to determine how such modification may, without
violation to the spirit of Scripture, be made. For this reason it can
never be binding upon the Church to accept as final, the particular
methods of worship used and found suitable by men of another age or
another land; while such may be accepted as valuable for suggestions
contained, and as indicating the spirit that controlled good and great
men of another time, yet the Church can only accept them (in loyalty to
the Spirit Who abides in her, and Who is hers in every age) in so far
as they prove themselves suitable to present times and conditions. The
present possession by the Church, of the Holy Spirit as a guide into
all truth, according to the promise of Christ to His disciples, is a
doctrine that no branch of the Church would readily surrender, and her
right, under that guidance, to seek the good of the body of Christ on
lines which, while consistent with the principles of Scripture, commend
themselves to her as more suitable to present conditions than former
methods, this right is one which she can part with only at the risk of
endangering her usefulness to her own age.

To Presbyterians, therefore, thankful as they are for an historic past
that has in it so much to arouse gratitude to God and loyalty to the
Church they love, the citing of the practice of their forefathers in
Reformation times, or even that of the early fathers of the Church, can
never be a final argument for the acceptance of any particular method
in worship. Believing in a Church in which the Spirit of God as truly
governs and guides to-day as He did in Reformation or post-Apostolic
times, and in a Christian liberty of which neither the practice nor
legislation of holy men of the past can deprive them, they rightly
refuse to surrender their liberty or to retire from their
responsibility.

In the best and truest sense the Presbyterian Church is Apostolic, and
her spiritual succession from the Apostles she cherishes with an
unfaltering confidence. While rejecting the ritual theory of the
Church, she has never been careless of the true succession of faith and
doctrine and practice from the time of the Apostles to the present day,
a succession to which she lays a not unworthy claim; and, claiming
loyalty to Apostolic doctrine, polity and practice, she has ever been
jealous in asserting her Divine right, as an Apostolic Church, to the
controlling presence and guiding wisdom of the Holy Spirit of God.
Under the guidance of that Spirit she has ever claimed, and still
claims, the right of administering the government and directing the
worship which, in their essential principles, are set forth in
Scripture, neither superciliously regarding herself in any age as
independent of those who have gone before, and so disregarding the
legislation and practice of the fathers, nor, on the other hand,
slavishly accepting such legislation and practice as binding upon the
Church for all time, and as excluding for ever any progress or change.
That spirit, at once of independence as regards man, and of dependence
as regards God, has characterized Presbyterianism in its most vigorous
and progressive periods; by that spirit must it still be characterized
if, in succeeding ages, the work allotted to it is to be faithfully and
well performed.

If then the Church of one age is so independent of those who in other
times have served her, it may be asked of what interest is her past
history to us of to-day, and of what benefit to us is a knowledge of
the legislation and practice of the Church in other periods of her
progress? Of much value in every way is such knowledge. Those periods
in particular, in which the Church has made notable progress, and in
which her life has evidently been characterized by much of the Holy
Spirit's presence and power, may well be studied, as times when those
in authority were, indeed, led to wise measures, and guided to those
methods of administration and practice, which by their success approved
themselves as enjoying the Divine favor; the lamp of experience is one
which wise men will never treat with indifference. In studying the
Reformation period, therefore, a period marked by special activity and
progress within the Presbyterian Church, we do so, not so much to
discover forms which we may adopt and imitate, as to discover the
spirit which moved the leaders in the Church of that day, and the
principles which governed them in formulating those regulations, and in
adopting those practices, which proved suitable and successful in their
own age. To emulate the spirit of brave and wise men of the past is
the part of wisdom, to imitate their methods may be the extreme of
folly.

Another result, and one equally desirable, will be attained by a study
of Presbyterian practice from Reformation times onward. It will
transpire, as we follow the history of public worship, by what paths we
have arrived at our present position, and we shall discover whether
that position is the result of diligent and careful search after those
methods most in accord with Scripture principles, and so best suited to
the different periods through which in her progress the Church has
passed, or whether it is due to a temporary neglect of such principles,
and a disregard of the changing necessities of different ages. We
shall discover, in a word, whether we have advanced, in dependence upon
the Spirit of God and in recognition of our responsibilities, or
whether we have retrograded through self-trust and indifference.





Next: The Age Of Knox: The Formative Period Of Presbyterian Worship




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