The OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) is in the process of ratifying a new “Directory for Worship.” It is available on-line by clicking an appropriate link here. The purpose of this essay is to bring some arguments against the proposed revision to the church.
There are general stylistic changes that I will not dwell on, but which could be unpacked by someone with greater literary skill than myself. In particular, the style in the proposed revision is too self-conscious. By trying to explain everything on the way, it opens itself up to the charge of superficiality. The concrete and specific is often replaced with the abstract and vague. On the other hand, even the attempt at precise definition in the opening section is a move in the wrong direction, I submit. There was an exemplary vagueness at times in using ordinary language, which left the teeth to judicial precedent rather than precise definition. For example, expressions in the current book like “it is altogether fitting” skate a fine line between requiring something and not. It is not exactly a requirement, yet the fact that the wise men of the church commend something as “altogether fitting” means it should not exactly be regarded as optional either. Where the judicial line falls will depend on precedent, the kind of visitation exercised in a Presbytery, and so forth. But now, the book declares explicitly that such sections “are not mandated” (line 67). If not mandated, why bother with them at all? In short, often the concrete is replaced by the abstract, increasing vagueness when the concrete is superior; and often common-sense language is replaced by precise definitions, revealing however that judicious ambiguity is sometimes superior.
In the remainder, I will offer criticisms and warnings tied to specific sections.
Catholicity and worship
In lines 204-206, the proposal says
No favoritism may be shown to any who attend. Nor may any member of the church presume to exalt himself above others as though he were more spiritual, but each shall esteem others better than himself.
This sounds very spiritual, but a skeptic might call it merely windy. Name one OPC anywhere where this has been a problem? What kind of behavior could be addressed by such a canon? Clearly, it is to sandbag for the more radical suggestion that follows:
The unity and catholicity of the covenant people are to be manifest in public worship. Accordingly, the service is to be conducted in a manner that enables and expects all the members of the covenant community —- male and female, old and young, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, healthy and infirm, people from every race and nation —- to worship together. (208-211)
This has too many modern political buzz-words or concepts not to be suspect. You know that people are going to appeal to this “principle” to advocate a more female-friendly worship service, or a more youth-friendly service, or a “service that is not so stodgy, so waspish — how are we going to attract minorities with this kind of worship service?” But this is a wrong view of “catholicity.” Catholicity does not mean bending to the cultural or age-specific desires of everyone, in a democratic sense. Catholicity properly understood, is a principle of intersection, not union, to use set theory language. It is a principle of conjunction in the logical sense — i.e. that which has been the case everywhere — not conjoining in the sense of appending.
Moreover, catholicity is not the only nor even a trumping principle. We should grant national settlements and some local custom. It is quite wrong to suppose that the “national settlement” should be overthrown by some tendentious appeal to catholicity, even apart from the fact that such catholicity is usually wrongly defined.
I.B.4.d. Because God’s people worship not as an aggregation of individuals, but as a congregation of those who are members of one another in Christ, public worship is to be conducted as a corporate activity in which all the members participate as the body of Christ. (213-215)
This is needless. If it means everyone should sing the psalms and hymns, that is obvious — why waste print mentioning it as some highfaluting principle?
But the danger that this kind of vague generality can be used as a wedge for all kinds of appeals to special music, children’s choirs, and what not else is palpable to anyone with experience.
No more long, boring sermons
1.C.3.b. Worship should be conducted with regard to the time, taking care that neither reading, singing, praying, preaching, or any other ordinance be disproportionate one to the other, nor the whole rendered either too short or too tedious. (302-304)
In other words, someone on the committee thinks the sermons are too long.
“Too tedious” is unfitting for a manual. This is pure subjectivity.
Would anyone counter, “no, I think we need some tedium”?
If not (and obviously, not) then this is a canon without objective referent.
Furniture Now Required
I.C.4.a. Because the pulpit, baptismal font, and communion table facilitate the part of worship which is performed on behalf of God, it is fitting that they be positioned so as to draw the focus of the congregation upon the Word and sacraments, and that they be easily accessible and visible to the entire congregation throughout the worship service. Because the Word is primary and the sacraments serve to seal the Word, it is fitting that the pulpit be in the position of prominence. (309-313)
The reference to “baptismal font” and “communion table” assume that these exist and not only exist, but should be “visible to the entire congregation throughout the worship service.” This is certainly debatable, especially in view of the “Reformed tradition,” earlier vaunted. Where in Scripture could one possibly justify the notion that gazing on an unused baptismal font is necessary, and not even just once, but throughout the worship service?!
Note that gazing on the communion table (if one exists) is not at all the same as having communion. This is at best a second order reflection, and I think it would be very difficult to justify this gazing as a proper element of worship from Scripture. And I would like to see someone try.
Let’s examine the issues surrounding these pieces of furniture that are now apparently required — even though it is apparently not even required that one have a building to begin with! (The Covenanters often met out in the woods. We may someday have to do so again.)
I. Baptismal Font
Why does there need to be a permanent “baptismal font” if there is not going to be a baptism?
1. When there is a baptism, there needs to be a source of water. Where did this notion of a “baptismal font” come from, and when did such a thing become a requirement? Where in Scripture is there an argument for a baptismal font?
2. As a matter of convenience, some may choose to have a piece of furniture with a basin that can hold water for use in a baptism. If an architect or someone else wants to refer to this piece of furniture as a “baptismal font,” that is his right. If some other source of water is utilized — a stream out in the woods, a spigot coming out of the wall, whatever — that is also okay.
3. Moreover, it may be deemed convenient, if and when there is such a piece of furniture, to leave the piece of furniture in place semi-permanently, so that people don’t have to lug it back and forth from storage. There is nothing wrong with that.
4. But that is different from assuming that there will be a permanent thing referred to as a “baptismal font” which must be the “focus” of the congregation, “easily accessible” (whatever that means), let alone “visible to the entire congregation throughout the worship service.” Where did any of those unwarranted ideas come from?
II. Lord’s Table
1. For churches that do not have communion every week, there should be no requirement for a permanent piece of furniture, though it might be convenient to have such. I.e. follow the same arguments as above with baptism. The Scottish church, baptists like Spurgeon, and others set up real tables as needed so the people could sit when communion was being served.
2. The table(s) may be left set up semi-permanently if it is deemed convenient to do so.
3. For churches — like most American Presbyterian churches — that have gone from a table or tables that are actually used, to a single symbolic table, it is far more important that the symbolism of sitting around the table be maintained than some notion of “being visible to the entire congregation throughout the worship service.” The proposed unwarranted pseudo-principle was actually used in a conservative (non-OPC) Presbyterian church I attended to justify placing the “communion table” up on the stage, thereby destroying the symbolism of eating at a table. (The next step was the pastor elevating the bread, “not to venerate it” of course, but so that it would be “visible to the entire congregation.”) This is how shaky foundational principles work themselves out into very bad practice that ends up destroying the actual biblical principle, just as it eventually did in popery.
Though it is out of sequence to mention it here, in passing let me mention that a careful reading of 419-435 shows that the existing principle, “the celebration of the sacraments should be accompanied by the preaching of the Word” has been eliminated. This is a serious shift in a direction contrary to the unified voice of the Reformers.
I. Songs and Musicians
I.C.4.b. Because musicians and musical instruments serve the part of worship that is performed by the congregation, it is fitting that they be positioned with or behind the congregation. (315-316)
This refers to something as if it is assumed that it exists. Are Reformed churches now required to have musicians and musical instruments? If not, then statements like this should be qualified with a phrase like “if they are present at all.”
II. The hated reference to “choral”
There is a phrase in the current book that has been subject to endless ridicule by the left wing in the OPC, namely this one:
Let the tunes as well as the words be dignified and elevated. The stately rhythm of the choral is especially appropriate for public worship. (III.6).
The new draft deletes this.
I don’t wish to quibble about the exact wording. Perhaps there could be a better way to describe the matter than “choral,” though I can’t think of how, at least with equal brevity. However, there was great wisdom expressed in the deleted principle, regardless of how it is worded. The writers did not limit the notion to the German chorale, but the Scottish tunes were obviously included within the intended semantic range, and others (French, Irish, and so forth), as can be seen by scanning the selections in Blue Trinity.
The choral is a concretization of two important features of congregational singing, one objective, and the other subjective.
1. The music should be dignified (solemn, grave, stately, regal: pick the best word). There is a semantic range. That is the objective side.
2. The subjective side of the “choral” concept emphasizes sing-ability for a group consisting of all levels of musical training and appreciation, i.e. a congregation. Above all: simple rhythm, simple melodies, and melodies that can be, yet need not be, sung in harmony. Negatively, it excludes syncopation, wide melodic leaps, and aggressive rhythms. In extracting these principles of congregational singing, one can either simply state abstract principles — in which case it is not a directory, it is a chapter from a Systematic Theology — or you can apply the principles concretely. Specifying the choral is the church speaking concretely.
Deleting that in favor of an abstraction is a serious defection. Nothing is established, nothing ratified; in effect, it is now wide open.
The OPC opened the tent door by approving the seriously defective “Red Trinity Hymnal” several years back. Now, the worst aspects of that move are being translated into a “principle.” It is one thing to approve a defective instrument for voluntary usage; it is something else to change a constitution to ratify its worst aspects.
It was a good section, and a serious loss to change it, as we will see even more in the following.
III. The Content of “Songs of Praise”
II.B.2.c. Congregations do well to sing the metrical versions or other musical settings of the Psalms frequently in public worship. Congregations also do well to sing hymns of praise that respond to the full scope of divine revelation. (525-527)
The first sentence is similar to the existing document. The second sentence, however, innovates in two different and very important ways.
A. Many people probably do not realize that the second sentence takes a definite position in a long-standing debate. The debate is between those that argue that the content of song should be given directly by the word of God, versus those that think that the church has freedom to write its own songs.
The argument is analogous, though not settled, by a hypothetical debate between those that argue for reading from the Word of God, versus those that would suggest there should be just a general reading of something edifying. Many people would rightly balk if the “reading from the Word” were replaced with a general “reading,” which might to be sure be taken from Scripture, but might also be taken from worthy Christian writers, such as C. S. Lewis, or Augustine. I mention this not to engage the debate, but only to help those that have not thought about the song issue to understand something of the sentiment as well as content of one side of that debate.
That is the context of the statement given in the new version.
One of the arguments used by the man-made-song advocates is a modus tollens, that we may schematize this way:
- the church’s song must include the full scope of divine revelation
- If church song is limited to Scripture songs then the church’s song does not include the full scope of divine revelation
- therefore, church song is not limited to Scripture songs
The proposal affirms (2) implicitly, but without proof or debate (at least that we know of). (2) has been denied by many. John Murray argued for limiting worship song to Scripture; the OPC did not ratify his position, but allowed it, taking an intermediate position. The intermediate position resulted in the “Blue Trinity Hymnal” where the hymns approved for worship were limited to Psalm-like in content, and stately and dignified in tune. In view of all this, consider the wise wording of the existing Directory:
Since the metrical versions of the Psalms are based upon the Word of God, they ought to be used frequently in public worship. Great care must be taken that all the materials of song are in perfect accord with the teaching of Holy Scripture. (III.6)
This may be unpacked as the following propositions:
1. The Psalms must be used in worship, frequently
2. Whatever song is used must be in accord with Scripture
Note that these propositions can be affirmed by the Murray-position; they can also be affirmed by the non-Murray adherents, provided they are at least willing to include Psalms in addition to songs of non-inspired composition.
In contrast, the new version expresses these two propositions.
1. The Psalms may be used in worship
2. Non-scripture-songs may be used in worship.
Both of these propositions express a major shift from the previous version.
First, Psalms may be used, but they are not required to be. This represents a backing off from the earlier stance, and in particular a drawing back from the dominant original Reformed “tradition” (which is elsewhere vaunted). Psalms are no longer required; they are only permitted, with some tepid commendation.
Second, non-scripture songs are explicitly permitted. The delicate ambiguity of the present version has been changed. This may seem like a technicality, since it was the animus imponentis that man-made hymns were allowed by the existing wording. However, the words chosen were ones that could also be subscribed by Murray-theory-adherents. The new words could not.
The revision would not only demur from Murray, it would exhume his coffin and drive some extra nails into the lid.
Note that this is a move away from catholicity. Fewer Reformed Christians can subscribe without perjury to this version than could subscribe to the current version. This is a serious defection. It is motion in the direction of (1) loosening the requirement of psalm singing, (2) requiring all to acknowledge that man-made songs may be used. Exclusive Scripture-song advocates will presumably now need to take an explicit exception here. That is a revolution, not a tweak.
B. Second, note that in the new phrase, “hymns that respond to revelation,” even more is being asserted than explicitly allowing non-inspired specific content. It is also allowing something more than non-inspired content consistent with revelation, namely, poetry that “responds” to revelation. In this way, the way is opened up for the kind of Methodist back-woods revival songs that my Methodist father used to scorn as “diddly-dees,” which are all about the feelings that gush forth from my heart. The best of these were put into their own section in the Blue Trinity, with the implication that they were not appropriate for formal worship. (One of the serious defects of the Red Trinity was eliminating this categorical distinction.) However, it is a horrifying thought to think that a “principle” that would allow this kind of junk is now being made part of our constitutional documentation.
IV. Musical accompaniment
An exactly parallel argument should be made with respect to musical accompaniment. There is a strong Reformed inheritance that the singing should be without musical accompaniment. The OPC has permitted either view.
As with the content of song, a parallel shift is proposed.
The current version says, (III.6, middle)
No person shall take a special part in the musical service unless he is …
Again, this is a proposition that can be subscribed to by adherents of either position. The anti-instrumentalist regards this as the empty proposition
for all x, if x accompanies then x must be etc.
As such, this is true. But it leaves untouched, formally, whether there should be any x that accompany. (To use the standard illustration from logic: We can agree that all trespassers will be prosecuted. We can also hope that there are no trespassers.) It leaves the permitting of the referent to the conscience.
Now contrast the new version:
2.e “Musical gifts are properly used in public worship to assist the congregation in its worship of God… No person may take a special part in the musical service unless he is …” (535-538)
Thus, the new version asserts not one but two propositions. The second is similar to the previous shown above.
1. Musical accompaniment is permissible
2. for all x, if x etc.
This is no longer subscribable by the anti-instrumentalist; the previous version was. It is thus less catholic. It now requires the loosened view common in the American, though still resisted even in the nineteenth century by Girardeau, Dabney, and many others. Another departure from catholicity.
Public recitation of a creed
The existing book does not mention the reciting of a creed. Many OPC churches do of course have such an exercise as part of their worship. But the Scottish inheritance did not have it, and “strict” Regulative Principle adhering churches do not have it to this day. There was some kind of gentlemen’s agreement that doing so would not be disciplinable, but it would also not be required or even commended.
The new version innovates, in the section “Confession of Faith” (546-547)
II.B.3.b. It is also fitting that the congregation as one body confess its common faith, using creeds that are true to the Word of God, such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed.
As with the topic of song content and accompaniment, this is a move from one allowing wiggle room (in both directions) to one that takes a positive stand. Before, both positions were allowed. Now, one must admit that public recitation is “fitting” or, presumably, be forced to take an exception.
Apart from the fittingness as such, it can be questioned whether the Apostles’ Creed as originally intended is “true to the Word of God.” William Cunningham, in his Historical Theology, vol. 1, pp. 79-93, gave a number of arguments against reciting the Apostle’s Creed. Have his arguments been answered by the OPC? I seriously doubt it. Most Reformed that defend the Apostle’s Creed are advocating an interpretation of at least two of the clauses that is anachronistic and idiosyncratic. Is it, then, only while holding such a view that the OPC will mean to say “it is fitting”?
In all three topics, one must ask (1) has the issue been isolated and thoroughly debated? and (2) even if so, has the majority pondered not only their strength to be able to pass such a motion, but whether it is consistent with the principle of holy catholic church to do so? Whether it is wise, and prudent to do so?
The Aaronic benediction has been changed from the existing III.4 which kept the singular second person, “the Lord bless thee and keep thee etc.” to allow the plural “the Lord bless you and keep you.” (447-453) This is a degradation that changes the meaning for the worse and should be resisted.
Predictably, the woman’s vow of obedience is changed (not to mention the defective shift from the singular to plural mentioned above in a different context) from
wilt thou love him, cherish and obey him, so long as ye both shall live?
Will you love him, comfort him, respect and submit to him even as the church submits to Christ, and forsaking all others keep yourself only unto him as long as you both shall live?
In one sense, I have never understood why Christian women, under the influence of feminism, think they prefer to say “submit to” rather than “obey.” Obey is something everyone does that has a boss. (Most men have to obey many men. Most women only have to obey one man.) Submission goes way beyond that, to a bending and accommodation of the will to another that mere simple obedience does not do.
Thus, in an odd way, the new form is harsher, stricter, than the old way.
However, it is so only to those that ponder these things deeply. At a surface level, it is an accommodation to feminism.
Moreover, it replaces a vow that can be easily verified and tested against behavior, with one that is more vague and uncertain outwardly. Obedience can be verified objectively; submission, with more difficulty, if at all.
The theological deep meaning of the marital roles is a proper subject for marriage counseling, sermons, reading, and mortification. But it is not wise to take vows that cannot be kept. It tends to make one a perjurer. One becomes accustomed to not being able to do what one “vowed” to do. Therefore, I am not breaking the vow in a new way, I’m just shifting where I place the inevitable line.
The same comment can be made in respect to the man’s vow, which now states the impossible and thus always false, and thus non-falsifiable
will you love her as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her
instead of the simple and verifiable old version,
wilt thou love her, honor and cherish her, so long…
There are a number of other defections that could be mentioned, but any reader that has tracked with what I have presented will be able to discover them for himself, and anyone that is not with me would not suddenly “click” by reading a few more.
There are some good things that could be said about the document also; however, now is not the time for that. The time for that is when revisions are still being made and makable. Now, it is an up-or-down vote by each Presbytery. At this stage in the process, the only question is, are there objections to the proposal sufficient to vote it down, regardless of any good things that it might also contain. I have highlighted some bad things about the proposal that I think are sufficient to warrant rejecting it, and urge any Presbyters that may read this to carefully consider voting against it.