The Biblical Way to Worship: A Presbyterian Appreciation of Liturgy

Nothing can bring theological and ecclesiological differences to so sharp a focus as worship. Within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the denomination in which I am ordained, a wide range of worship “styles” are evident. On the one end, the “church growth” movement has gained a foothold. From a church growth perspective, traditional forms of worship must be adapted or scrapped in an effort to make the church “visitor friendly.” At the other end of the spectrum, there is a minuscule liturgical movement. The handful of congregations that are involved in this mini-movement have rediscovered the value of traditional liturgical forms, and have drawn on the work of Anglican (Dix), Roman Catholic (Bouyer and Danielou), and Orthodox (Schmemann) liturgists to learn better what it means to worship the Triune God.

At the same time, the liturgical movement within the PCA has a distinctively Presbyterian stamp. Among those distinctive elements is a reliance on the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura. Contrary to popular impression, the Reformers never meant to imply that the tradition of the church should be abandoned. Calvin everywhere appeals to Augustine and Chrysostom for support and even mentions with favor the “less sophistical” schoolmen; for his part, Luther adapted the medieval Mass to form the Lutheran liturgy. The principle of sola Scriptura means that the Spirit speaking in Scripture serves as the final and only absolute rule of faith and practice, and that the traditions of the church must be constantly evaluated and, when need be, challenged by the Living Word of God.

Thus, the members of the liturgical movement of the PCA have embraced liturgy because they believe it to be the most biblical way to worship. They have tested the traditional liturgies of the church by the standard of Scripture and have found them sound in many important respects. In this essay, I wish to highlight some of the principles of worship that have led me to the conclusion that the traditional liturgical forms are biblical.

1. God is the audience in worship. Paul exhorts Christians to do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), and this principle applies with special force to worship. Worship is not entertainment for believers. It is not designed to make us feel good, though it can and does often make us feel good. Worship is designed to be entertaining to God, to please and delight Him. Worship is God-centered. In contrast to the common appeal to what Nathan O. Hatch has called the “sovereign audience,” liturgical forms force the worshipping church to focus on God, not themselves. Traditional prayers, for example, have a tone quite different from the usual evangelical wish-list. Even the most superficial comparison of “It is truly meet, right, and salutary, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to thee, O Lord,” with “Lord, I just want to thank you for getting me those season tickets” shows the superiority of the former. Sincere as such informal prayers undoubtedly are, they are inappropriately familiar during an audience with the King of Kings.

2. Worship is a dialogue. All the Psalms are written to be read, chanted, or sung antiphonally. In Revelation 4-5, when we get a glimpse of the heavenly worship service, we find the same pattern. The four living creatures sing the Sanctus, and the elders fall on their faces and respond by singing praise to the Lamb. The liturgical dialogue is ultimately between God and His Bride; the officiant, standing as the representative of the Divine Husband, speaks to the Bride, and the Bride responds to her Husband’s overtures. This pattern structures all the traditional liturgies. The officiant speaks, and the people speak; the officiant chants, and the people chant; the officiant calls to confession, and the people kneel. Thus, liturgy preserves the dialogue pattern of biblical worship.

3. Worship is an act of the whole church. By this I mean two things. First, worship is an act; as Robert Webber has it in the title of his book, Worship Is a Verb. Worship is something we do, not a feeling or something that takes place internally. Some of the most common biblical words for “worship” mean “bow down,” and one of the Hebrew words used to describe the Levites’ tabernacle service has the connotation of manual labor. Worship is work. Many Protestant churches employ a form of worship that turns the congregation into an audience and the worship service into a classroom lecture. This empties worship of its properly activist character. Enacting a liturgical rite is the proper, the biblical way, to think about what we are doing when we worship.

It is true, and we must never forget, that the prophets and our Lord Himself denounced those who worshipped God with their lips but not their hearts. God does not want us merely to go through the motion of devotion: He wants our hearts. But neither Jesus nor the prophets rejected formal, ritual worship as such. What they rejected was its abuse and perversion by hypocrites.

Second, I wish to stress that worship is an act of the whole church. Again, this is a pattern found in all biblical accounts of worship. The worshipper at the tabernacle slaughtered his own sacrificial animal and sometimes ate its flesh; the worship of the restoration community depicted in Nehemiah involved the whole people; and the picture of heavenly worship in Revelation shows not only the whole church but the whole creation engaged in a cosmic liturgy. It is not only the minister who worships, or only the choir. The whole church is involved. Again, this principle finds its best expression in liturgical worship. In a liturgical service, the congregation says the prayers, recites the creed, responds to the Word of God with its tithes and offerings, participates in the sacrament of the Supper. In many Protestant churches, the minister is more a liturgical performer than an officiant of the sacrifice of praise.

To summarize, the biblical principle is that worship is the chief work of the church.

4. Worship is an act of the whole man. Worship is not a merely intellectual or emotional exercise. Worship should involve the whole person, and all of his senses, to their fullest. Charismatic Christians have regained an appreciation for the importance of gesture and posture in worship. But individualistic charismatic worship can undermine the principle that worship is an act of the church. In the worship services described in Nehemiah, the whole congregation (not individuals who were “moved by the Spirit”) lifted up their hands in unison, and in Revelation 4-5 all the elders fell on their faces together. Because liturgy provides a structure to worship, it gives a form in which the congregation can give physical expression to her devotion.

5. Worship follows a specific order. In the sacrificial rites described in the Old Testament, the sacrifices were offered in a particular sequence: sin offering, burnt offering, and peace offering (see Leviticus 9:8-21). A consideration of the meaning of these various sacrifices will show that the same pattern is reflected in the traditional liturgies of the church.

The sin offering, or purification offering, comes first in the sacrificial sequence. According to the rite described in Leviticus 4, the purification offering focused on the sprinkling of blood, whether in the Holy Place of the tabernacle or on the horns of the altar of burnt offering. Scholars agree that this offering was for cleansing from impurity and sin. In the New Testament, John tells us we are cleansed by confession of sin (1 John 1:9). Accordingly, the biblical principle is that our first act of worship is confession of sin, a principle reflected in many liturgies.

The second offering was the burnt offering. In Leviticus 1, we find that the distinctive element of this rite was that the entire animal was burned on the altar. The burnt offering, then, is a type of the worshipers’ entire consecration to the Lord. In the New Testament, we offer ourselves as sacrifices by prayer, praise, and dedication of tithes and offerings. Thus, in traditional liturgies, praise and prayer and the preaching of the Word follow after the confession of sin.

The final offering in the sacrificial pattern was the peace offering, the distinctive element of which is the sharing of a sacrificial meal (Leviticus 3). Alone among the Old Testament sacrifices, the peace offering was given to the worshipper as food. Hence, the Old Testament worship service ended with a meal. Similarly, traditional liturgical services culminate in the liturgy of the sacrament.

Thus, the Old Testament pattern of sin offering, burnt offering, and peace offering translates into the church as confession, consecration, and communion. Not only is this pattern reflected in the Old Testament sacrificial system, but it also has a clear theological rationale. Like Isaiah, we are people of unclean lips and hearts, and we can enter into God’s presence in worship only if we are first cleansed. Once we are cleansed, we can offer ourselves to the Lord. After we have given ourselves afresh to His service, He graciously invites us to share a meal around His table. The movement of biblical (and traditional liturgical) worship, then, is from alienation to communion.

6. Liturgical worship is a way of obeying Paul’s injunction, “Do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:1). I believe that liturgy is one of the most firmly counter-cultural activities in which Christians can engage. To defend this thesis requires a bit of explanation.

The question of whether the church witnesses to Christ “against” culture, Christ the “transformer of culture,” Christ “of” culture, or Christ “above” culture cannot be answered in abstraction from a particular cultural context. To be sure, in many ways the church’s message and relation to the world cannot change; the church must, in season and out of season, proclaim the whole counsel of God and confess that Christ is Lord of all. But in many respects the church’s relationship to society and culture is not static but fluid; tactically, we might say her stance toward the world depends on the condition of the world.

The church’s relation to contemporary America must, it seems to me, be confrontational. As Herbert Schlossberg argued in Idols for Destruction, contemporary America is, like ancient Israel, a land filled with idolatries, rarefied and respectable though they may be. Faced with an idolatrous culture, the church has no choice but to stake out her ground as a counter-culture. (A friend of mine recently remarked that, since the triumph of “the ’60s,” the church is more accurately described as a counter-counter-culture.)

A leading aspect of contemporary life is, according to Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the dominance of entertainment and particularly of television. Following Marshall McLuhan, Postman argues that the medium of public discourse shapes the content of the culture. A “typographic” culture where the written word is the primary medium of communication encourages certain mental habits, so that “in a culture dominated by print, public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas.” A culture dominated by the flickering image will be one in which ideas are suppressed in favor of entertainment.

Postman argues that the constraints imposed by the medium of television do not melt away when the pro¬ gram has a religious content. Instead, television reduces religion to another form of light entertainment. Thus, “most of the religious shows feature sparkling fountains, floral displays, choral groups, and elaborate sets.” Celebrities from the entertainment industry make frequent appearances on religious programs, and nearly every television preacher has the same blow-dried cheeriness as his secular competitors.

Tasteless as religious programming can be, the more serious threat is the invasion of the television ethos into the church. Religious celebrity has always competed with the slower rhythms of life in local congregations. Itinerant evangelists are more vibrant, more exciting, downright more spiritual than the sinner who preaches Sunday after Sunday to the same faces. The attacks of George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennant on the “unconverted ministers” who populated colonial pulpits are an extreme example, but the conflict can take more subtle forms as well. Successful methods of church growth may be imitated by local pastors with the result that the church is refashioned in the image of the revival.

The same dynamics are at work today. On the one hand, more ambitious churches try to imitate the exciting atmosphere of televangelism. Alternatively, churches may seek to contextualize their ministry by adopting forms of worship, church life, and preaching that will appeal to the entertainment-drenched congregation. In either situation, the television culture acts as a solvent of traditional church life and worship.

In this context, it can be seen that a traditional liturgical form of worship is among the most counter-cultural acts that the church can perform. At every point, liturgy bucks the tide of contemporary culture. Where the culture celebrates youth and novelty, liturgy honors the wisdom of ancients. Where the culture encourages us to seek pleasure, liturgy forces a congregation to focus on giving pleasure to God. Where the culture insists that freedom means formlessness, liturgy is founded on the principle that there is no freedom without form. Where the culture exalts spontaneity, liturgy trains us in mature habits and responses. Where the culture pitches its appeals to the sovereign audience, liturgy is an appeal to a sovereign God.

It is surely one of the high ironies of the confused state of contemporary Christianity that a reappropriation of tradition should constitute the cutting edge of counter-cultural radicalism.


  • Peter Leithart

    Peter J. Leithart (born 1959) is an American author, minister, theologian and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature as well as Dean of Graduate Studies at New Saint Andrews College and holds a doctorate from Cambridge University. He was selected by the Association of Reformed Institutions of Higher Education to be one of the organization's 2010-2012 Lecturers. He is the author of commentaries on the Book of Kings and the Book of Samuel, as well as a Survey of the Old Testament. Other works include books on topics such as Dante's Inferno, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. He is also the author of a book of children's bedtime stories titled Wise Words based on the Book of Proverbs.

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