Many years ago, Al Mohler published a widely-read article on doctrinal triage, a method for evaluating the seriousness of doctrines. Kevin Bauder then pointed out that this approach was something that mainstream fundamentalists had espoused for many years, with possibly more sophistication.
I’ve thought for a while that we need something like that for the question of worship. Too often, we hear blanket statements such as “We shouldn’t divide over worship” or “worship is not something to separate over”. But this sounds rather unwarranted and simplistic, given how important worship is. After all, we wouldn’t say those things when it comes to polity. In fact, our differing ecclesiologies are sources of truncated fellowship. I can fellowship with an evangelical Presbyterian on several levels, but we cannot fellowship in the act of planting or leading a church together. We simply lack fellowship on several questions of church order. If this is the case with orthodoxy and orthopraxy, surely it is the case with orthopathy, too.
No doubt, judging this matter is difficult, for questions of worship combine doctrinal truth, ecclesiastical practice, and questions of wisdom and the affections. But it would be worthwhile for those who already practise something of a triage doctrinally and practically to do so with worship, too. What follows is a suggested approach, using triage for questions of worship.
First-order questions of worship would be those that affect the gospel itself. A practice that denies one of the five solas, or undermines an essential of the faith is a catastrophic error, a heresy of the first order. Teaching that baptism and the Lord’s Supper bring about regeneration and atonement is an example of this. Introducing a priesthood that usurps the uniqueness of Christ’s High Priestly work, or introducing living or dead mediators that compromise His unique status as sole mediator between God and man are explicit or implicit denials of the gospel. Sacerdotalism is worship heresy.
Secondary but important doctrines of worship would be those that affect the whole approach to worship. Whether worship is regulated by Scripture or not is vital to its shape and order. Whether we can do only what God commanded, or whether we may do what He has not forbidden is a very significant question that shapes what elements of worship we will include.
The understanding of how the Holy Spirit works in corporate worship affects the whole system of faith and practice in corporate worship: questions of spontaneous revelation, supernatural gifts, involuntary revival, the use of the altar call, and the understanding of how music is to be used in worship.
How men and women lead or act in corporate worship is another important doctrine affecting the entire shape of corporate worship: views on male headship and female submission come to the fore in corporate worship.
Understanding baptism and the Lord’s Supper as gracious sacraments or as memorial and testimonial ordinances is an important secondary doctrine, expressing our understanding of who is a disciple and member and what is occurring during those events.
Our understanding of God’s sovereignty and human freedom will also shape worship significantly: concepts of what means God will use (and how effectual they are), how urgent or patient we should be in each corporate worship service, the meaning of revival and of progressive sanctification are important doctrines. They will influence our view on what the “high point” of worship is, how the music functions, what the result of preaching should be, and even whether corporate worship is primarily evangelism or discipleship.
Finally, there is the important but difficult question of what the attributes of God deserve: what kind of reverence, what kind of joy, what kind of contrition correspond to the God we believe is revealed in Scripture and what forms and circumstances best communicate that. Errors in any or all of these secondary matters will not be heresies proper, but heterodox worship practices.
Tertiary worship questions will include many of the circumstances of the elements of worship that we include. These are judged by wisdom, knowledge of meaning and ordinate affection. They both flow down from our overall understanding of worship expressed in the second-order doctrines, and also flow back up to express and shape that understanding through their practical embodiment of worship practice. The particular selection of hymns and songs, the use of calendrical liturgies or free forms, the number, form, and length of the prayers and Scripture readings, the kind of preaching and type of sermon, the shape of the service, dress of the worshippers, the architecture of the building, the use of technology, the use of one cup or one loaf in the Lord’s Supper, the form of the music used, are all examples of these third-order matters. Errors, missteps or unwise choices in tertiary worship doctrines are neither heresies not heterodoxies, but possible heteropathies: examples of inordinate affection.
A few comments about this taxonomy and its application.
First, in a “worship triage”, tertiary questions are not on the same order of importance as tertiary doctrines in a doctrinal triage. That is, questions of who were the sons of God in Genesis 6 are almost diversionary in nature. Questions of what music to use and what hymns to select are not diversionary, but quite formative. Placing them in the third category does not make them unimportant, but it differentiates them from heresy and heterodoxy. Heteropathy is serious, but more difficult to judge, with more flexibility to accommodate shifting cultural meanings. Especially in the long run, heteropathy tends to eventually undermine the second-order doctrines of worship. These, in turn, can eventually even affect the gospel as embodied in ordinate worship. As Charles Hodge put it, “Whenever a change occurs in the religious opinions of a community, it is always preceded by a change in their religious feelings. The natural expression of the feelings of true piety is the doctrines of the Bible. As long as these feelings are retained, these doctrines will be retained; but should they be lost, the doctrines are either held for form sake or rejected, according to circumstance; and if the feelings again be called into life, the doctrines return as a matter of course.” (This is another question altogether, but there can be instances of heteropathy that actually represent not just heterodoxy as to what God deserves, but even heresy as to who God is.)
Second, fellowship and separation over worship affects us most often on the local church level, since that is the occasion for corporate worship. How another church worships is not usually a matter for separation, since we do not have to collaborate in order to worship in our individual churches. Fellowship on matters of worship is mostly a question for agreeing to covenant together as members of the same church, and particularly for leaders within the same church.
However, there are areas of targeted collaboration where differences of worship come to the fore. One is missions and church-planting. Those we send as our own representatives to plant churches that we believe are biblical should have fellowship with us on the second-order matters of worship. Agreement on the tertiary level is ideal, but not always likely.
Another is education. If we agree to collaborate to educate leaders for ministry, agreement on first and second order matters is vital. If possible, a seminary that finds much agreement among its faculty on tertiary questions will be great, since much of the application of worship is fleshed out at this level. Again, it might be ideal, but it is not likely.
A third would be conferences, when representatives of different churches congregate for mutual edification. Even though such a conference is not the gathered assembly, it will likely practise some singing, prayer, and Scripture reading and teaching. Here, the wisest approach is deference to as many consciences as possible, employing not what has the widest appeal but what will cause the least offence and encourage the most voluntary participation.
We need not separate over every differing application of worship. But neither should we imagine that worship itself is a tertiary matter. Instead, we should use the same triage we use in doctrinal matters to understand how to weigh up questions of worship and their application to fellowship and collaboration.