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A Reformed Liturgy

Category Articles
Date August 12, 2003

One way that we can step out of our own world and out of our own prejudices is to step over into the world of the fathers. This is one excellent way of testing ourselves.

At the annual Greenville Theological Seminary Conference in Taylors, South Carolina on March 12, 2003 Dr. Joseph Pipa in introducing the topic of Reformed liturgy, sought to draw attention to the fact that there are some problems with traditional, regulated worship. There are forms shaped by scripture and Reformed tradition that are richer than we are currently experiencing, he contended, and we need to be challenged to search the scriptures to find and use them in our corporate worship. We are often worshipping in such a way, he said, that we often forget that we are whole people and are called to worship God not just with our minds but with the entirety of our being.

Two areas with respect to Reformed worship present themselves as concerns. The first is Reformed liturgy, and the second is posture in worship.


The term "liturgy" may cause us to think of highly liturgical, Book of Common Prayer type services with many imposed forms. In fact, President Pipa said, the term actually means "acts of worship." According to Baird, there are four types of liturgy.

i] One of those is the imposed liturgy of the prayer book we normally think of.

ii] A second is discretional – wherein there is a set order of service with common prayer, public confession, reading of the Ten Commandments, creeds, and so forth, that are not imposed and are combined with free prayer.

iii] A third is what Baird calls "rubric" liturgy, seen best in the Directory for Worship where rubrics are given to the minister. Again, there is a set order, but within that order, the minister is given suggestions about what to pray for in various prayers. One could turn these suggestions into common prayer, but they may also be used simply as aids to the minister.

iv] The fourth type of liturgy is free liturgy. Despite the protests of many churches that they have no liturgy, attending two weeks in a row would prove to one that they indeed do have a liturgy or simply a way of doing things. Even when there is a free-for-all, that, too is part of the liturgy.

Pipa stressed that liturgy is not unbiblical and that everybody has one. Dr. Pipa said the question for us as Reformed Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists is, "What is the most biblical way to have a liturgy? Is there a better way to approach the worship of God?"

Dr. Pipa believes there has been a great decline in Presbyterian worship. There is little rhyme or reason to the free liturgy style of worship in some of our more conservative churches, and the seminary president expressed a desire to challenge those churches to a better way without in any way violating the Regulative Principle which dictates the elements of worship. Liturgy, the ordering of those things, has to do with the forms of worship and forms are a confessional concept found both in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms and the PCA’s Directory for Worship. This concept of form expresses itself in the content and structuring of the elements of worship such things as which song or psalm is to be sung, whether to order our worship using some common prayer or all free prayer, and so forth. The content, of all, of course, must be biblical.

How, then, do we develop a liturgy? Dr. Pipa stated that although we are given some freedom of forms within the context of that which is biblical, there ought to be some assembly directives with respect to our worship in order to create a greater uniformity within the broad context of a liturgy. We must, the speaker said, look to Scripture to find the principles for setting forth a liturgy, but before doing so, we should address three important questions that Terry Johnson poses and answers in his book" Leading Worship". First, are all forms equally suited to express Presbyterian convictions? Secondly, is the emotive power of forms being taken seriously enough, and thirdly, are the forms of the Reformed tradition being taken seriously enough?

The answer to the first question, says Dr. Pipa, is clearly no. Not all forms are equally well-suited to express Reformed and Presbyterian convictions. One cannot separate theology from liturgy because the theology informs the liturgy, and the liturgy informs the theology. Thus, if we attempt to communicate Reformed theology and piety through a broadly Evangelical or Anglican or Charismatic liturgy, we are going to affect the doctrine, and history validates that.

In answer to the question of whether or not we are taking seriously enough the emotive power of forms, the answer is again no. We see this most clearly in children who grow up in Presbyterian churches with a Baptistic or Charismatic piety. When they grow up and move to another town, they don’t end up in Presbyterian churches but in Baptist or Charismatic ones, which feel familiar to them. This happened to the French Huguenots who were accustomed to a rich, formal liturgy. When they came to America, the liturgy of the Presbyterian churches had become so free that they ended up in Anglican and Episcopal churches because of the emotive power of the liturgy.

In response to the question of whether or not the forms of Reformed tradition are taken seriously enough today, again the answer is no. They are not being taken seriously enough by us, and they are certainly not being taken seriously enough by those in the contemporary movement.

How do we determine the form that is most akin to Reformed theology? Dr. Pipa gave his listeners four principles.

i] First, the form must be consistent with the Regulative Principle. Hence, it must include all of the elements of worship.

ii] Secondly, the order that really will communicate Reformed theology, Dr. Pipa believes, is a covenantal order. Covenant has two parties, with God as the initiating party and man as respondent. This is illustrated in the tabernacle and temple worship, with the priests not only entering the Holy of Holies to act on the people’s behalf, but also coming out to minister to the people on God’s behalf. We now have access into the throne room in speaking our parts of worship. But, we are priests, not prophets. God speaks to us through our prophets, our ministers, through the scriptures, the blessings, the prayers, the preaching, and the sacraments. So what we see in New Testament worship is this divine dialogue that takes place. There ought to be a covenantal structure to our liturgy, but "so often," Dr. Pipa lamented, "as I visit some of our more conservative churches, there seems to be no rhyme or reason."

iii] Thirdly, there should be a gospel cycle that speaks a sort of "gospel logic." Some elements are from the side of God, and then there are elements from the side of man.

iv] Fourthly, the form must be shaped by Reformed tradition. We must do what? Calvin and Zwingli and Bucer did when they desired to reform worship.

They went first to the scripture to be instructed and afterward to the early church. Dr. Pipa told of teaching Reformation history and using two overheads, one of Justin Martyr’s liturgy from 180 AD., and the other Calvin’s Strasbourg liturgy.

You could superimpose them because they were so alike. "Now you’re talking about something that’s transcultural, transgenerational, transgeographical, and yet the uniformity is amazing," President Pipa noted. One way that we can step out of our own world and out of our own prejudices is to step over into the world of the fathers. This is one excellent way of testing ourselves.

The Westminster Directory of Worship adopted finally in 1645 is a liturgy that came in the context of a universal Puritan rejection of imposed liturgy. It is a document that resulted from compromise between Presbyterians and independents. These independents were, according to some writers, influenced by the first Charismatic movement of the Reformed church and desired no structures so that they might remain entirely free to be led by the Spirit throughout their worship services. Thus, though the Directory of Worship is consistent with the principles of the Presbyterian Puritans, due to their compromise with the independents, some things are left out that they would gladly have included. Dr. Pipa said he believes that the Directory does allow us to include some of these forms that were left out.

Two patterns were followed in the Directory of Worship – Calvin’s liturgy, particularly that from Strasbourg, and Knox’s Scottish Rite. The Puritans took the Scottish Rite along with the Genevan/Strasbourg outline and enriched it. Dr. Pipa said he believes, however, that in some places they also impoverished it. There is in the Directory an absence of common prayer; a concession to independents. However, such prayers, due to the Puritans’ unanimous opposition to imposed liturgy, had they been included, would not have been obligatory. Their commitment to free prayer brought with it a commitment to carefully-wrought free prayer, often prayers written out. Sometimes, according to Dr. Pipa, as much time was spent on prayer as was on the sermon. This was not "offering up to God the first thoughts that come to my mind," said the speaker. "If we just had that today, we would be light years ahead of where we are in so many of our churches."

The rich liturgy found in the Directory was soon given up in nonconformist churches, and Presbyterians followed. This, said Dr. Pipa, along with departure from the great Reformed liturgies like those of Calvin and Knox and the French and Dutch churches, led to an impoverished worship. That departure was not out of conviction on the part of Presbyterians but because of their commitment to trying to get a uniformity of religion and to meet their brothers in the middle.

In statements to Charles II prior to the Restoration, English Puritans attempted to clarify their position on liturgical worship. They wrote: "We are satisfied in our judgments concerning the lawfulness of a Liturgy, or form of Public Worship, provided that it be for the matter agreeable unto the Word of God, and fitly suited to the nature of the several ordinances and necessities of the Church; neither too tedious in the whole, nor composed of too short prayers, unmeet repetitions or responsals; not to be dissonant from the Liturgies of other reformed Churches; nor too rigorously imposed; nor the minister so confined thereunto, but that he may also make use of those gifts for prayer and exhortation which Christ hath given him for the service and edification of the Church"

" You see," said Dr. Pipa, "The Presbyterians were not opposed to non-imposed common prayer such as Calvin and Knox and Dutch churches used in their liturgy."

Dr. Pipa summarized his purpose in bringing this lecture, saying, "What I’m trying to do today is get you out of your comfort zone and get you to think that there is more to Reformed worship than what many of us as Southern Presbyterians have thought about."

Recommending Terry Johnson’s "Leading in Worship", as containing" biblically-worked-out, historically-faithful forms of liturgy," Dr. Pipa commented, "just take out the special music, and it’s perfect."


For the final ten minutes, he turned to discussing posture, saying we pay too little attention to the matter of the body in worship. It is the whole person who worships, said Dr. Pipa, not just a disembodied brain. And, as with liturgical forms, we must take our instructions on posture from scripture. When we do so, we need to be guided by three principles:

i] first, asking the qualifying question, "Does that posture today in various cultures have the same significance it had then? If it does, then it’s clearly a transferable posture to be used in corporate worship."

ii] We need also to look to history, asking whether or not these postures have been used in Reformed churches and in the ancient church as well as keeping in mind always the corporate character of worship.

A general posture that is quite foreign in our culture is the practice of silence in connection with the approach to worship. "It is strange at first," Dr. Pipa admitted, "but you’ll soon grow to love it and feel cheated if you are not given that time approaching God or in the Lord’s Supper."

With respect to Scripture reading, there is great precedent in scripture for standing for the reading of the Word of God. This was the universal synagogue practice. It is a posture of holy reverence and displays our understanding that when the scriptures are read, God Himself is speaking.

iii] Another important posture concept is that of the corporate "amen" at the end of corporate prayer. One voice leads the prayer, with the congregation joining silently and indicating their attentiveness and agreement at the end by joining in the corporate "amen". This is biblical as well as being the practice of the early church. Dr. Pipa suggested as well that the, corporate "amen" can approximate the biblical shout so that we are fulfilling the command to shout to the Lord.

With respect to postures for prayer, Dr. Pipa pointed out that there are three biblical body positions: prostration, kneeling, and standing. Sitting is not an appropriate posture for prayer. Prostration is not often practical in public prayer and often comes in time of great brokenness and humiliation, so that its use may be better suited for private prayer. Kneeling and standing, however, are biblical and time-honored in the Reformed tradition, and both are practical for public worship. Kneeling is the most often described posture for prayer in both Old and New Testaments, and Calvin used it in Geneva. "Just because people who hold to error do some of these things, that does not mean they’re wrong," Dr. Pipa explained. If kneeling is not possible, it is good to stand for prayer. Again, it is a posture found in both Testaments. One other thing to consider is the matter of the eyes in prayer. "I challenge you," said Dr. Pipa, "find one place in the Bible where you are told to close your eyes in prayer." We may do so in order to protect us from distractions, he said, but its purpose is not reverence. In scripture, we read time and again to" lift your eyes to the Lord." This lifting of eyes, looking heavenward, then, would be a reverent and appropriate posture for prayer.

The lifting of hands, is also a biblical posture. It means today what it meant then, but it must be done corporately as part of prayer and praise. The difficulty we have with this today is its being done in individualistically rather than corporately. Either the minister should raise his hands on behalf of the people as their representative, or all the people should raise their hands together in a time of prayer. "It is scriptural, as long as we do it corporately."

He pleaded: "I want you to think about these things, and examine them scripturally and in terms of the Reformed traditio." He continued: "Don’t just overreact to what charismatics or Roman Catholics or high church Anglicans do. What can we do to worship God more richly and fully as whole people in terms of liturgy and in terms of posture?"

The lecturer reminded his listeners also to keep in mind that these things must be for the good of God’s people and that it would be wrong to impose them. Do one thing at a time, study and teach, and as God’s people come to understanding, you then can institute something. He asked his listeners to work on these things as well as work toward an agreed-on directory of worship in order to rebuild unity and uniformity within the worship of Reformed and Presbyterian people.

[as reported in "Presbyterian and Reformed News", January-March 2003.]

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