Worship, Polity, & the PCA

Worship, Polity, & the PCA

All is not well in the way worship is conducted in the PCA. Even as observance of the Lord’s Supper becomes more frequent in our churches, it seems that errors in its conduct multiply. These include the bizarre and biblically-unfounded practice of intinction (where the bread is dipped in wine and the two actions of the supper become confused), distribution of elements by unordained persons and even children, and so-called “young child communion” where some churches regularly admit children as young as four years old to the table. 

The state of worship in the Presbyterian Church in America is arguably better than it has ever been, at least as far as liturgy goes. More churches now use recognizably Reformed liturgies than at any point in the denomination’s history. These are liturgies that include the biblical elements of worship—they are not just the standard evangelical format of  “30 minutes of singing/30 minutes of preaching.” What may be lacking though are the hard-to-define (but essential) qualities of reverence and awe. What may be trending is leadership of worship that does not comport with or support presbyterian polity. And what may be chipping away at the foundations of proper worship are errant and novel practices, mostly regarding the Lord’s Supper.

Granted, most PCA churches employ liturgies that have more in common with those of the Continent rather than those of the holy presbyterian isle, Scotland. A standard PCA liturgy looks something like this, with minor variations in order and terminology:

Call to worship
Hymn or psalm
Lord’s Prayer
Confession of sin
Declaration/assurance of pardon
Confession of faith
Singing of the doxology
Prayer and offering
Pastoral prayer
Scripture reading
Hymn or psalm
Scripture reading
Sermon (with prayer before and after)
Lord’s Supper (weekly or monthly, bookended by additional prayers)
Closing hymn or psalm

This is scripturally-regulated worship made up of biblical elements. The dialogical pattern of God speaking by his Word and his people responding in prayer, praise, and confession is obvious. There are many prayers and lots of scripture. Rearrange the order, change a term or two, and you have a liturgy that is common not only to most PCA churches, but also to most of the confessional churches affiliated with the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) and, indeed, to most conservative Reformed churches the world over for the last five centuries. But otherwise-solid liturgies may be undermined by things done, left undone, or done improperly—additions, omissions, and errors.

What are some examples of tangible and intangible things which have been added to liturgies, to the detriment of simple, biblical, Spirit-and-truth Reformed worship? We would propose the following:

First, an overly horizontal, man-centered ethos may be reflected in informal or casual approaches to the service, which could include announcements or presentations that break up the dialogical-biblical flow and tone of the service. These might focus on service opportunities or might amount to promotional pitches complete with video presentations or distribution of materials. Fellowship times in the middle of the service (sometimes called “passing of the peace” or even “halftime.”) might succeed in establishing a familiar or homey feel even as they distract from the holy purpose of worship. Children’s activities or the departure of children from the service at some point may also prove disruptive. Other unwelcome additions include showy musical performances, loud or complex musical accompaniment or leadership (which may also dominate visually as a central focus),  or other inappropriate visual elements. Too often, we also find whole seasons imported to the simple, ordinary,  and biblical Reformed tradition, like Lent and Holy Week. Somewhat related are the eclectic additions of the Anglican-attracted, which includes complicated and variable clerical garb and vestments, crossings, bowing at prescribed times, or turning to face a cross, bible, or procession. Finally (and possibly most destructive) we may bring “the warfare of the world…into the house of God,” as J. Gresham Machen lamented in the 1920s. In his day the imported social and political issues included “things that divide nation from nation and race from race…human pride…the passions of war.” Little has changed in the last 100 years since Machen published Christianity and Liberalism. The battle for spiritual worship continues.

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