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  • Writer's pictureDexter Bersonda

SFCC Position on Corporate Worship

Updated: Mar 29




Corporate worship, or what we call our worship service, is one of the most important and enduring activity of the Christian church, conducted and attended historically with outmost consistency and regularity. However, there is much confusion surrounding the theology of corporate worship, much of these having to do with how to conduct or regulate the corporate worship services according to the scriptures. This document attempts to explain our understanding of corporate worship and how we should practically apply it to our church by recognizing several truths summarized in the following points.

1. God cares how we worship.

We believe that God cares how we worship and that all aspects of our worship – it’s foundation, necessity and regulation should adhere to the standards of His word. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is clear that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. The aim of life therefore is Soli Deo Gloria, and the aim of corporate worship is Soli Deo Gloria together. However, as one reformed theologian puts it, if we are to fulfill Soli Deo Gloria together, the basis and pattern is Sola Scriptura.[1] God cares how we glorify Him and has provided the means of glorifying Him through His Word. This is reflected in several areas of our Confession, such as in question #2 of the shorter catechism:


Q. 2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him? A. The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, [a] is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him. [b] [a]. Matt. 19:4-5 with Gen. 2:24; Luke 24:27, 44; 1 Cor. 2:13; 14:37; 2 Pet.1:20-21; 3:2, 15-16 [b]. Deut. 4:2; Ps. 19:7-11; Isa. 8:20; John 15:11; 20:30-31; Acts 17:11; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; 1 John 1:4

This rule coming from the Word of God does not apply only to worship in life generally, but also specifically to the corporate worship of God in the church.


2. Worship should therefore be regulated.

This means that in the matter of worshiping God corporately, part of our heart’s sincerity entails

seeking God’s instructions on how we should worship. Those who claim that they are well-meaning and sincere in their hearts in worship, but do not seek God’s instructions on worship, are falling short of true worship. The reformers and the puritans called for the “regulation of worship” according to biblical standards. This means that people cannot claim sincerity and then worship God however they want. This has been called “will” worship by the puritans and is understood that those who commit these are raising their own “will” over God’s word, which nullifies their worship since they are showing that their will is more important than God’s. [2]


The regulation of worship is one of the responses of the protestant reformation against the Roman Catholic church, which has instituted several unbiblical practices in the conduct of the mass, such as the use of images, the veneration of Mary and the saints, and many other rituals.


3. Those who regulate worship according to God’s word can be grouped into two broad camps.

These two camps are: those who follow the regulative principle (RPW) or those who follow the normative principle (NPW). Both camps do regulate worship according to the scriptures. For example, both sides believe that those practices expressly forbidden in the bible should not be followed, such as the use of images and praying to Mary and the saints. However, the main contention is whether those that are not expressed in the bible should be allowed or not. The main distinction between them is that adherents of the NPW camp believe that those that are not expressly forbidden are allowable while the RPW generally follow the principle that worship should allow only those expressly provided in scripture with the rest being forbidden. One of the definitions provided for RPW is: “that nothing ought to be introduced into the gathered worship unless there is a specific warrant of Scripture.” [3]


4. The normative principle (NPW) can lead to unhealthy worship practices.

We have seen and experienced many problems with the normative position. Among them are the use of songs that contain lyrics that are not grounded in scripture, the manifestation of extrabiblical forms or “acts of the Holy Spirit”, and the use of elements that are better suited for performance and entertainment such as theater, dance shows, etc. These are allowed under the normative principle since they are not expressly forbidden in scripture and under the principle are therefore not violating God’s word. However, there are problems that arise out of the NPW. One is that experience is given more importance than biblical truth instead of biblical truth standing as the judge of experience. These experiences make people feel spiritual and creates a temptation among those who attend NPW fellowships to exaggerate, dramatize, or fabricate these “spiritual” experiences in order to keep up “spiritually” with the brethren. [4]


5. We therefore follow the RPW. However, there are still areas of contention.

It is clear that we prefer the regulative principle. However, there are two areas of contention that have to be considered:

1. That God’s word should be followed in worship is clear. The problem arises from the fact that not every detail of the worship service is expressed in scripture, especially for the New Testament church.

2. There have been different interpretations and applications of the regulative principle historically, with one question in particular being the suitability of using Old Testament scriptures on New Testament worship.


6. To address the first issue, the puritans and reformed theologians have separated the areas of worship into three terms.

These three terms are: elements, forms, and circumstances. [5] The elements refer to the substance of worship and are expressed in the Westminster Confession Article 21.2-5 [6]:


21.2. Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone: not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone. 21.3. Prayer with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men; and that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of his Spirit, according to his will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue. 21.4. Prayer is to be made for things lawful, and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter; but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death. 21.5. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear;[a] the sound preaching; [b] and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God with understanding, faith, and reverence; [c] singing of psalms with grace in the heart; [d] as, also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: [e] besides religious oaths,[f] vows, [g] solemn fastings, [h] and thanksgivings upon several occasions;[i] which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.

7. The elements are scriptural and therefore clear. However, the forms and circumstances have been debatable.

It should be noted that we agree completely that these elements should make up the worship service, specifically those that are listed under article 21.5. The forms of worship on the other hand, refer to the manner on how we execute the element of worship. For example, we agree that prayer is a necessary element of worship, but the scriptures do not specify if we could have our prayers prepared, written down, or recited extemporaneously. It also not clear if it should be done standing up, sitting, kneeling or lying down.


The circumstances of worship bare those details not mentioned in the bible that could assist in the performance of the elements. These may include the building, the system of sitting, the sound system, the use of projectors, etc. The Westminster Confession has something to say on these on Article 1.6:

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.

The division of the areas of worship according to these three terms have helped somewhat in the application of the regulative principle of worship. It is clear that in the substance, or elements, those expressed by scripture should be followed while those not expressed in scriptures be forbidden. The forms and circumstances afford some subjectivity, but by wisdom should still be based on scriptural principles. The contentions do not entirely disappear however, since there is also subjectivity on whether something is an element, a form, or a circumstance.


One example is the difference between the worship elements used by John Calvin compared to the puritans. Calvin followed and taught the regulative principle. He said:


This is so difficult to persuade the world of: God disapproves of all worship that has been established beyond His Word. Instead, this persuasion prevails and is as if were formed in the bones and marrows of the people: whatever they do they have sufficiently just approval for it, provided they display some zeal for the glory of God. But since God not only considers empty but also openly hates what we support for worshipping Him beyond His command, what do we profit by doing anything to the contrary? These are the clear and distinct words of God. Obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Sam 15:22). He is worshipped in vain through the commandments of men (Matt 15:9). Whatever is added to His Word is a lie, especially in regard to mere will-worship, which is emptiness. Once the judge has made a pronouncement, there is no longer any time for dispute. [7]

However, there were disagreements between Calvin and the puritans. One example is the reading or recitation of the Apostle’s creed. [8] Calvin (and the Scottish Presbyterians) consider the reading of the “Apostle’s Creed” as a form of one of the elements of worship, which is the reading, preaching and hearing of the scriptures. The Puritans considered it an element in itself that is not prescribed by scripture and therefore prohibited it. In drafting the Directory of Worship though, the English puritans conceded to the Scottish Presbyterians and did not mention this prohibition.


Another difference with Calvin is the use of the Lord’s prayer. The puritans were expressly against any kind of repetitive prayers including the Lord’s Prayer. Calvin, on the other hand, included the Lord’s Prayer in music form in his psalter and encouraged its use in corporate gatherings.


What this establishes is that it is possible for us to keep observing the Regulative Principle of Worship while having some differences in circumstances with its puritan definition.


8. We can follow the RPW without agreeing completely with the Puritan system of worship.

While we follow the RPW, we believe that it is possible to have some differences with the puritan system of worship while retaining the main principle of following only what the scriptures expressly command. This is by keeping the main elements of Worship as listed under the Westminster Confession of Faith, therefore not violating the confession. The differences then will fall under the forms and circumstances of worship, similar to disagreements between Calvin and the puritans. The main difference we have is that we will consider the Old Testament use for New Testament worship.


The NT commands us to sing to one another psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. We believe that this gives us warrant to use and follow the forms and circumstances of worship under the psalms, including shouting, clapping, the use of instruments, etc. We do recognize that the puritans promoted a psalter that is based solely in the 150 psalms, with the Westminster Directory explicit in its endorsement of exclusive psalmody. However, we find it ironic that the puritan RPW promotes the singing of Psalms 150 in acapella.


Now there have been arguments against the use of the OT forms in worship:


A. That if one is to follow Psalms 150 then one has to follow Psalms 149 as well (and others), such as drawing two-edged swords and executing judgment on the nations. However, we believe that this portion of the psalm was not literally commanded of the people. For example, the Israelites didn't have to draw their swords everytime they worshipped. We read the psalms therefore as we read the entire scripture, which is to read and follow the psalms in its literal form but read the metaphorical portions as metaphor.


B. That Christ has already fulfilled the Old Testament especially in the areas of temple worship and ceremonies, so we are not compelled to follow OT commands. In answer, although we are not compelled to follow the OT, we see forms in the OT specifically in the psalms, in terms of being allowable. We are not following the OT for salvation but as a reference for allowable worship forms. We also believe that the OT ceremonies in the temple, having already passed, are not allowable forms of worship. We will not, for example, sacrifice animals in an altar at church. However, the forms encouraged by the Psalms (which we sing) are allowable.


C. That we should suppress emotionalism in worship, and that worship should be done intellectually and rationally. The puritans have emphasized this many times and is the basis why some have called for acapella worship. The reasoning is that using music by instruments stir up the emotions. The accompanying music was considered an artificial way of arousing the affections. They argued that God should rouse your affections, and he should arouse your affections through truth, not through the artificiality of sounds that make us feel good. However, we agree with John Piper: “If you're going to go that route then you've to do away with singing, because the human voice can make a beautiful sound that also is emotionally affecting.” [9] While we believe that empty emotionalism should be avoided as much as possible, we agree with Van Til who argued that the primacy of the intellect should be viewed as an unfortunate consequence of the fall into sin and that the will, emotions and intellect have all value before God and have the capacity to please God equally [10]. Despite this, we will however aim to have our affections guided by intellect by having our emotions guided by right doctrine but will at the same time avoid dead orthodoxy.


D. That using these OT forms of worship will only manifest hypocrisy or feelings of spiritual superiority. Our answer is that this can go both ways. Some in the NPW camp are feeling spiritual superiority because of their extrabiblical forms such as prophecies, tongues, etc. However, there are also those in the RPW camp who feel spiritual superiority out of their singing hymns with little or without accompanying music. Again, as John Piper says “Hymns can be sung with just as much inauthenticity as worship songs. Organs can be played with just as much hypocrisy as guitars. Hands can be kept down for motives just as defective as motives for lifting them up.” [11]


9. While we allow the use of OT forms, particularly the psalms, in corporate worship, there are some principles we will follow:

a. We should sing biblical truth. The songs chosen for the corporate worship service should have lyrics that are in accordance with scripture. We prefer songs that are biblically rich and that will theologically benefit the worshippers while they worship.


b. We prioritize the sound of the human voice. In following the NT command to sing to one another, we believe that worshippers are not only singing to God but singing to each other in corporate worship. We should therefore adjust the forms and circumstances of worship so that the congregational voice will have priority over the accompanying sound. This means that we will intentionally lower the volume of musical instruments so that the congregation can hear themselves sing.


c. We prioritize participation over performance. Worship leaders will encourage participation from the congregation specifically on singing. Circumstances that tend to emphasize performance such as having solo singing or instrumental portions will be avoided.


Conclusion:

Having laid all these points, we want to point out that we, the present elders of SFCC prefer to move towards hymns and acoustic accompaniment. Until then, as discussed in our position, we will allow the use of OT forms in worship, which may include instruments, clapping, shouting, and so forth. We believe that these forms are valid expressions of our worship to God based on the Old Testament scriptures specifically the Psalms, and without violating our confession. Soli deo gloria!


In Christ,

The Elders of Spirit Filled Community Church



 


End Notes


[1] Duncan, L. (2020). Does God care how we worship? P & R Publishing, p 11


[2] Ibid, p 29


[3] Thomas, Derek W.H. (2021) Let Us Worship God. Why We Worship The Way We Do, Ligonier Publishing, p. 32


[4] MacArthur, John F. Jr. (1992) Charismatic Chaos, Zondervan, pp 20, 22


[5] Merker, M. (2021). Corporate worship: How the Church Gathers as God’s People. Crossway, pp 81-83


[6] Schaff, Philip (1998). The Creeds of Christendom Vol 3, 6th Edition, Baker Books, pp 646-647


[7] Carmichael, C. (2020). The Necessity of Reforming the Church by John Calvin, Reformation Trust, p 8-9


[8] Gore, R.J. Jr (2002) Covenantal Worship, Reconsidering the Puritan Regulative Principle, P&R Publishing, pp 83-84


[9] Piper, John. Is It Okay to Use Musical Instruments In Worship?


[10] Van Til, Cornelius (1978). An Introduction to Systematic Theology, P&R Publishing, pp 31-32, 35-36


[11] Piper, John. Should We Raise Our Hands in Worship? https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/should-we-raise-our-hands-in-worship

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