If, as I have suggested, Christian conservatism stands upon two primary pillars (a commitment to align one’s ideas with transcendent absolutes that are rooted in God himself and a commitment to preserve those traditions that have best expressed those transcendent ideas), then we may draw at least four very important implications for Christian worship. If you’ve wondered what truly conservative worship will look like, the next four essays will explain my ideas.
The first implication of being committed to aligning our ideas with transcendent absolutes rooted in God and being committed to preserving those traditions that have best expressed those ideas will be a commitment to worship regulated by God’s Word.
Ever since Cain and Abel, God’s people have been asking, “What is the best way to worship God?” Answers to this question have generally fallen into one of two categories.
On the one hand are those who believe that as long as we do not do something that God has expressly forbidden, we may worship in whatever ways we think will be most glorifying to God and beneficial for his people in our time, culture, and circumstances. Since times change, cultures differ, and circumstances vary, godly church leaders should strive to discern what will work best for their particular situation, as long as they avoid those things clearly forbidden by God.
On the other hand are those who say that we may worship God only in the way that he has expressly prescribed in his Word. Whatever is not prescribed for worship is forbidden. We may not add or subtract any elements from our worship
The first position, traditionally called the Normative Principle of Worship, has characterized Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans, and is basically the default position of most American churches today.
Presbyterians, Puritans, and Baptists have historically held the second position, traditionally called the Regulative Principle of Worship. In fact, the RPW was arguably the defining principle of the English separatists who later became Baptists. They argued that all of the innovations of the Church England were beyond what God had prescribed, not the least of which was the baptizing of infants. Note the following passages from the London Baptist Confession of 1689:
LBC 22.1: But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.
John Fawcett, an English Baptist pastor in the mid-1700’s summarized this characteristically Baptist conviction:
No acts of worship can properly be called holy, but such as the Almighty has enjoined. No man, nor any body of men have any authority to invent rites and ceremonies of worship; to change the ordinances which he has established; or to invent new ones . . . The divine word is the only safe directory in what relates to his own immediate service. The question is not what we may think becoming, decent or proper, but what our gracious Master has authorized as such. In matters of religion, nothing bears the stamp of holiness but what God has ordained.
Conserving New Testament Worship
Conservatives desire to preserve biblical worship by preserving the elements of worship that God has prescribed for the Church in the New Testament. God has clearly prescribed those elements that he desires be part of New Testament worship:
- Reading the Word (1 Timothy 4:13)
- Preaching the Word (1 Timothy 4:13, 2 Timothy 4:2)
- Singing (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16)
- Prayer (1 Timothy 2:1)
- Baptism/Lord’s Supper (Matthew 28:19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-34)
- Collection of offerings (2 Corinthians 8, 1 Corinthians 16:1-2)
Six simple, straightforward, clear elements of acceptable worship. We must have these six elements in our worship, and if we believe that God rejects worship based on our own creativity as he illustrates throughout Scripture, then we cannot have any other elements in our worship besides these six. So what about elaborate rituals and ceremonies? No, God did not prescribe those as acceptable elements for worship. What about skits and drama? No, God did not prescribe drama as an acceptable element for worship. What about visual aids in worship? No, God did not prescribe visual aids, and in fact He forbids them.
This is why conservative churches who believe that God has the prerogative to determine what is acceptable worship tend to have very simple, unadorned services. Churches that believe that we can add any elements to our services that we think are good have much more extravagant services, whether in the liturgical tradition with rituals and ceremonies or in the “free” tradition with drama and visual elements.
But if we rightly conclude that it is God alone who has the prerogative to determine what elements may be part of acceptable worship, then we must limit what we include in worship to these six simple categories.
A corollary to this commitment, then, is that conservative Christians will reject any human creativity and innovation with the elements of corporate worship. A conservative church will reject contemporary innovations like drama, holy laughter, slaying in the spirit, and karate demonstrations.
But a conservative church will also reject older innovations, for they are still innovations. Many churches claim to be conservative because they reject contemporary innovations while they nevertheless retain older innovations. The clearest example of this is the Romans Catholic Church, which claims to be the conservative church because of what it retained in spite of the Protestant Reformation. But what it “retained” was nothing more than older innovations. A conservative church will reject such ancient innovations as priests, altars, incense, elaborate rituals, icons, prescribed liturgies, and prayers to saints.
However, the same is true for many churches today that call themselves conservative. They call themselves that because they reject the worst of contemporary worship innovations, and yet they retain and even defend innovations that were introduced in the early 19th century. They reject contemporary innovations, not because they are innovations, but because they don’t think they’re good innovations.
Innovations are innovations, and a truly conservative Christian will not trust his judgment concerning which innovations to accept and which to reject. A conservative Christian will commit to worship that is limited by the Word of God.