Worship: As you like it

Title Page of As You Like It from the Second FolioIn an article published recently by The Aquila Report, Rev. Terry Johnson bemoaned the liturgical chaos we find in the PCA and noted the display of this in the General Assembly worship services. I have greatly benefitted from the ministry of Rev. Johnson and I am definitely a co-belligerent in the effort to restore and promote distinctively Presbyterian worship. Although I appreciate his thoughts in this article, his focus upon preferring one style of worship over another is unhelpful and will always be unpersuasive. Moving the discussion in the direction of preferences simply dissolves it into a squabble about subjective tastes. I know Rev. Johnson is trying to find a way around that subjectivity in this article, but I’m afraid his efforts fail. The moment we say that all worship formats are valid, we’ve conceded that this is fundamentally just a debate about differing tastes.

From the article, Rev. Johnson:

‘I’m not saying that anything that was done was wrong or invalid per se. There are many ways to worship God. What separates various Christian groups is their disagreement as to what is the best way to worship.’

I have to disagree. The concert format led by non-ordained ‘worship leaders’ is wrong per se. It is indefensible from Scripture, and clearly contrary in its aims to the intentional framing of worship found everywhere in Scripture. Given other things I’ve heard and read from Rev. Johnson, I think he’d be inclined to agree with me were he in a less conciliatory mood than he appears to be in this article. 🙂

I think most theologically conservative Presbyterians miss how deep and wide the reach of the regulative principle is. Contrary to the modern framing of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), it is not simply concerned with general worship practices or ideas that end up taking a wide variety of completely divergent forms. Rather, the RPW is concerned with anything that has religious significance in worship. When Rev. Johnson speaks of a ‘worship culture of Presbyterianism’ he’s getting closer to the mark, but I think he has it backwards. He describes this worship culture like a mindset we bring to worship decisions. Surely, there is some of that, but it is more the other way around. God so regulates worship in Scripture that He creates a recognisable ‘worship culture’ in His people that reaches all the way to what we do and how we do it, not merely as one stylistic preference over another, but as a conscious submission to the shaping effects of His commanded worship ordinances.

The decisions that shape our worship are to be driven by theologically thick and biblically defensible imperatives. I’m not talking about the trivialities of ‘chairs vs. pews’. I’m talking about anything that enters into the practice and piety, the devotion and meaning, of worship. God has given us far more to work with on this in Scripture than we are typically willing to admit. Frequently, we are unwilling to go where the Scriptures lead us because we find that direction uncomfortable or not in keeping with our cultural tastes.