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Scripture prescribes some things regarding worship, but there are many things it doesn’t prescribe. For instance, Scripture commands us to meet together for worship, but it doesn’t tell us the time or place, how we should dress, or who should pray and how we should pray. The Bible doesn’t tell us how many songs we should sing or what Scriptures we should read or preach.
The Westminster Confession helps us answer these questions:
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.
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The distinction between elements and circumstances.
In other words, when Scripture commands us to do something, but doesn’t instruct us exactly how to do it, we should use our God-given human reason guided by general biblical principles. There is a distinction between the general elements Scripture commands us to have in worship, like prayer, teaching, and singing, and the specific ways we are to carry out those elements, like the length of prayers, the method of teaching and preaching, etc.
Historically, the terms used to describe this distinction are elements and circumstances. The elements are the things Scripture prescribes and the circumstances are the things we must work out for ourselves in carrying out the elements.
The elements are the things Scripture prescribes and the circumstances are the things we must work out for ourselves in carrying out the elements.
It’s very important to distinguish between the biblical elements regarding worship and the cultural circumstances through which we experience these elements. The core elements of Christian worship are not arbitrary. They are God’s biblical norms for his church in every generation and culture.
Yet, there are significant cultural freedoms through which these biblical norms for worship are expressed in every generation. Serious problems arise when people confuse the biblical norms (elements) and the cultural freedoms (circumstances).
We should be especially on guard against the common mistake of thinking that the cultural freedoms adapted as worship practices by previous generations are the biblical norms for all generations. God gives a lot of cultural freedom in worship so it can be relevant and effective in all times and contexts. So we need to rethink what worship should look like in every generation. This does not mean we neglect to learn from the rich worship traditions of the past. Instead, as we learn from these traditions, we should avoid the traditionalism that adheres blindly to the worship practices of the past.
Earlier, we answered the question “What should we do in worship?” by examining some of the essential elements of worship prescribed in Scripture.
We come now to the question, “How should we worship?”
What are some of the worship practices (circumstances) that we are free to choose depending on our cultural context?
Some of these worship practices include:
• Time of worship
• Place of worship
• Length of worship
• Leaders of worship
• Number of hymns, songs, prayers
• Words of sermons, hymns, songs, prayers
• Use or types of musical instruments
• Calls to worship
• Dialogue in worship
• Types of confessions
• Methods of teaching and preaching
• Modes and forms of baptism
• Tithes and offerings
• Oaths, vows, covenants
• Salutations, benedictions
• Assurance of pardon
• Solos, ensembles, choirs, drama
• Use of media
• Body postures: Lifting hands, kneeling, clapping, dancing, etc.
• Aesthetics: lighting, fragrance, incense, seating, music, etc.
Although the Bible doesn’t give us specific answers regarding how, when or where to carry out these worship practices, this doesn’t mean that anything is permissible. Drawing from the Westminster Confession, quoted above, we should find our answers to these questions by using our God-given human reason guided by general biblical principles.
For example, our decisions regarding the type of music we use in worship should be determined by the light of nature, which means making value judgments based on a variety of factors, including quality and skillfulness. In Psalm 33:3 we’re told to “sing to Him a new song, play skillfully, and shout for joy.” And in 1 Chronicles 15:22, we learn that Kenaniah was put in charge of singing at the temple because he was skillful at it.
Music quality and skill are not easily measured. The Bible doesn’t give us a required level of skill for musicians or a preference for specific types of music or kinds of instruments. So we have to make these decisions based on the light of nature, and guided by biblical principles.
Where Scripture is silent, we should use whatever means are available to pursue biblical values in worship. Those values will guide us to choose music that will enhance the whole spectrum of biblical directives in worship, from enhancing reverence and awe for our transcendent God as we bow down in confession before him, to shouting God’s praise with loud voices and instruments as we clap and raise our hands.
The book of Revelation gives us a majestic picture of God being worshiped by his people from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Rev 5, 7). This vision should motivate us to embrace the beauty of a host of diverse expressions of biblical worship for the sake of the nations.
We should embrace the diversity of proper expressions of biblical worship that indicate God is moving among every tribe, and nation, language and people, and that indicate we are sensitive to the varying aspects of this mission that God gives to individual churches in the way that they exercise their worship liberties.
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