Authority in Worship: A Reply to Matthew Adams

Authority in Worship: A Reply to Matthew Adams

Along with Adams, I agree we should have a high view of worship. I am certain that I would enjoy worshiping at his church under his leadership. But within our PCA framework, I simply define high differently than he does at points. When different royal priests with various voices read the Word in worship, it commands my attention, lifts me to the heavenlies, and causes me to thank God for the love He has shown us and for the church He is building – all to the praise of His glorious grace.

Rev. Matthew Adams has written an article in reply to my paper, “Worship in the Household of God: a defense of the lay reading of Scripture in PCA churches.” I appreciate his gracious tone and detailed consideration of several of my arguments. This is the sort of dialog we need more of across the PCA as we sharpen one another in pursuit of truth (BCO Preliminary Principle 4), hoping for light rather than heat to do its work.

Adams1 is to be commended for plodding through my lengthy paper (written on study leave) and for writing his own substantial response. Adams makes a good case for his position, particularly given his understanding of what “high worship” requires. He offers substantive responses in several places (e.g. I Cor 14). In some others he appears to miss or sidestep the thrust of my arguments (e.g. worship as a family gathering, per Gaffin et al), in order to make his own. That said, I appreciated Adams’s exegetical contributions from various commentators and believe those are helpful to the discussion as sessions and presbyteries navigate the issue.

At the risk of starting a tract war of “bloody tenent made yet more bloody” proportions, I would like to offer a brief(ish) response on several points in the hopes of sharpening the discussion and discovering the real points of disagreement.

But before that, there are many things we agree on and these should not go unappreciated:

  • First, Scripture alone must be our final rule.
  • Second, neither side is crazy. All are attempting to follow the good and necessary inferences from Scripture as best we understand them.
  • Third, we believe in learning wisdom from our Reformed forefathers as well as our brothers in sister NAPARC churches. (After all, many of my arguments came from a report issued by the OPC.)2
  • Fourth, we believe in the doctrine of ordination and the general distinctions between the ruled and rulers – and that pastors are to lead in worship. But that still does not answer this particular question.3
  • Fifth, we should have a high view of worship that includes reading and hearing the Word of God with a “reverent esteem” (WLC 157). Some PCA churches (including mine at times) could do better at this.
  • Sixth, we agree that the PCA’s Directory of Worship has relevance and should be “taken seriously as the mind of the Church.”4
  • Seventh, there are limits as to who should be invited to read Scripture in worship. The question is the proper extent of those limits and why we each draw them where we do.

Finally, we agree that uniformity on this issue within the PCA most likely requires a Constitutional amendment process. Such a process would be lawful. The question is whether such amendments would be wise – and whether there is enough Biblical warrant for the effort, an effort which may well splinter the PCA, akin to the old school/new school split of the 19th century.

So here are a few responses to Adams’s article in the form of questions to help us formulate our thinking on this issue for the PCA. These are not every question we could ask, but several that Adams’s article helpfully raised:

  • We all agree that we must adhere to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), and that reading Scripture is a required element of public worship (WCF 21). But is the reader integral to the element itself, or is the reader better understood as a form or circumstance of worship?5
  • Is reading qualitatively different than preaching? Can the average worshiper tell the difference or not?
  • If the reading of Scripture is infallibly authoritative in and of itself, what gives the reading that authority – the Word itself or the reader’s person or office?6
  • If the infallible authority is connected to the office of the reader, what happens to the Word’s authority outside of public worship? Is it somehow changed or lessened if a layperson reads it?
  • If one agrees that the read Word is its own authority, both in and outside of public worship, does it not then become a matter of good order – rather than unbending theological principle – of who may read Scripture in worship?
  • Is there enough Biblical evidence that limiting the reading of Scripture in worship to elders (and candidates) is not only “good” but a “necessary” inference from Scripture (WCF 1.6)? If so, what is that Biblical evidence?
  • Are there other reasonable interpretations of those same texts that raise enough doubts about the wisdom of requiring a denomination-wide conformity on this detail of worship?
  • How does a plain reading of I Timothy 4:14 preclude those other than Timothy from reading scripture in the worship services he led?
  • Did lay prophets and prophetesses in the New Testament churches undermine the creation order of gender roles? If not, how do lay readers undermine elders’ authority or the creation order today?
  • In terms of what constitutes “high” worship, has there been enough attention paid to the differences between Old and New Covenants (cf. WCF 7.6)?
  • How much of what we understand to be a “high” view of worship is culturally conditioned rather than Biblically informed?
  • If we require a positive warrant for each form of each element in worship from the New Testament, what positive warrant is there for other common PCA practices such as instrumentation, choirs and robes? In other words, is it possible that we might be inconsistently “biblicist” on some issues, but not others?
  • What are we to make of the evident existence of an unordained “office” of reader in the early church (and in Reformation Scotland)? What can PCA churches which allow for lay readers learn from this “office” and the care with which it was handled?
  • Given his understanding of the RPW, Adams contends that missionaries should share in the Sunday School hour rather than worship.7 That is reasonable, but is he then willing to legislate that across the PCA, changing this common practice? If not, why legislate who may read Scripture but not other such violations of the RPW? Where are the amendments forbidding choirs or soloists since those are nowhere found in New Testament worship?
  • Whatever our view, as our Constitution now stands, may our courts require our pastors and churches to hold to a narrow view of WLC 156, a view that in effect requires subscription to words that are not actually in the text?

Those are some of the technical questions that I believe are worth exploring together. When I joined the PCA and worked towards ordination in the early 1990’s, these were the sorts of intramural debates and discussions that were encouraged among candidates and elders.

My rather old-school polity professor, T. David Gordon, took several exceptions to the Confession himself, and taught us that presbyteries should make sure that men were sincerely reformed, committed to the unity of the church, and could make substantive Biblical defenses of where they may differ with our tradition (my words).8

We understood that most debates for greater purity and better order should be done within the church – not by trying to push one side out by pursuing unseasonable reform through continual legislation. One of my mentors, Terry Johnson, made much the same argument about a decade ago when he wrote an article about “both sides” of the PCA (more reformed and more evangelistic) needing one another.9

It may be true that on the subject of worship the PCA is a 50-year experiment and that the experiment is now fraying, at least on the edges. But am I the only one observing that those “edges” are growing larger and beginning to crowd out many of us simple means-of-grace guys in the middle – those who wish to major on the grace rather than the means?

What has happened to our majoring on the majors of the Good News the Reformed faith famously champions? To speak plainly, and perhaps inappropriately, is the alliance between the Redeemer NYC network of folks and the Twin Lakes Fellowship men done? Or has its voice simply been more muted in the midst of others?10

Meanwhile, along with Adams, I agree we should have a high view of worship. I am certain that I would enjoy worshiping at his church under his leadership. But within our PCA framework, I simply define high differently than he does at points. When different royal priests with various voices read the Word in worship, it commands my attention, lifts me to the heavenlies, and causes me to thank God for the love He has shown us and for the church He is building – all to the praise of His glorious grace.

Christopher Hutchinson is Senior Pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Blacksburg, VA and the author of Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way Up is Down (New Growth Press, 2018). He has been ordained in the PCA since 1998. This article is used with permission.

1 I appreciate the honorific “Rev.” but will resort to the more standard reference of last name only. I mean no disrepect to either one of us!

2 I think it is unhelpful to raise the issue of pride regarding the PCA’s variety on this issue. One might equally (and unhelpfully) ask if it is prideful to learn only from Reformed giants. Even giants might get things wrong. While good to be introspective, it is better to lay aside such suggestions of pride in others and look at the exegesis and theology itself with as fair a mind we can muster, willing to yield wherever we find greater wisdom than our own.

3 Adams appears to make the fallacy of the excluded middle when discussing family worship as an analogy. It does not follow that if a father is to lead his family in worship that he cannot on occasion ask other members of the family to read the Bible. This does not mean that he is no longer head of household or leading the proceedings.

4 Adams misreads my paper when he writes, “Another misguided aspect of Rev. Hutchinson’s paper is his statement that our BCO’s Directory of Worship has no ‘constitutional relevance.’” This is simply incorrect on his part. The footnoted quote comes from page 22 of my paper in which I am discussing the Westminster Directory for Public Worship from 1645, not the PCA’s BCO.

5 This is probably the key question within the PCA, and one it seems to me good men may disagree on without disparaging the one side as legalistic or the other as violating the RPW. Even if one argues (as I do) that the reader is a form or circumstance, this does not mean “anything goes.” Forms and circumstances must still be suitable, wise and God-honoring. For the distinction between Elements, Forms and Circumstances of worship, and the need for both wisdom and liberty on the latter two, see this helpful lecture by Ligon Duncan.

6 So Adams: “Through the Word of God read and preached, we have God speaking. Both are authoritative actions, and yet only one of those actions is infallible. The infallible act is the reading of the Word. Therefore, shouldn’t we be even more careful with who should read the Scriptures in the Public Worship of God? In the art of prophesying, these go hand-in-hand. Through the Word of God being read, the Holy Spirit penetrates the hearts of the hearers so they might be sanctified (Jn. 17:17). That is the effect of Scripture, which flows from its very nature:  the Word of God’s perfection, purity, and eternality.”

7 I largely agreed with this section and appreciated its wisdom. In our worship services, we always ask visiting missionaries only to share prayer requests in worship so that we may pray for them. We believe prayer is an element of worship. Reports (and fundraising) are not.

8 On this specific issue, Gordon believes that only ministers should read Scripture in worship. But that also helps make my point. See his article on legislating change within the PCA as opposed to patient persuasion.

9 As referenced by Rick Philips at Reformation 21. Rev. Johnson, of course, is well known for advocating traditional Reformed worship and more uniformity in worship across the PCA. As a former member of Independent Presbyterian, my own preferences are for the styles he advocates. But, of course, I try to carefully distinquish between my own preferences and what I can prove from Scripture.

10 Here I do not think it is inappropriate to list the names of the people who authored the PCA’s (non-binding) 2017 Women in Ministry report cited in my paper: TE Leon Brown (Advisory), TE William Castro (Advisory), TE Jeffrey Choi, TE Dan Doriani (Advisory), TE Ligon Duncan, TE Irwyn Ince, Mrs. Lani Jones (Advisory), Mrs. Kathy Keller, Mrs. Mary Beth McGreevy, TE Bruce O’Neil, TE Harry Reeder, TE Roy Taylor (Advisory).

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