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


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


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


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


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.