03 March 2014

Dialogical Liturgy, Temple Emulation and Presbyterian Priestcraft

Conservatives are trying to steer their congregations away from 'contemporary worship' and rightly so. But because they still are following a flawed notion about what it is that we're doing when we gather they tend to drift toward High Church or what some people call 'liturgical' models of worship.

The meeting is not about entertaining an audience, nor is it about marketing a product. But it's not an emulation of the Old Testament temple either. While the more sober model is certainly preferable to the rock concert feel of modern services, they too have embraced in error in how they view the gathering.

This mindset, what I call the Temple Mindset is deeply held within cultural Christianity and there's little hope for real Reformation until it is broken.

With the shift toward marketing based entertainment as a substitute for actual worship, some in Reformed circles have adopted a concept which tries to explain and justify what many people often call 'liturgical' worship.

Of course every congregation has a liturgy. That's simply the pattern or order that is followed when the church gathers. It may be very simple. Perhaps some prayer, Scripture reading, a sermon, hymns, the Supper etc....

But often what low-church people ('low' as in unsophisticated or simplified worship) refer to as liturgical involves a deliberate attempt at ritual and ceremonialism. In 'liturgical' churches, or more rightly 'High' churches you'll often see candles and vestments and more adornment and certainly a greater conscious formality to the proceedings. The leader/pastor or even 'priest' is most definitely to be viewed as a clerical figure contrasted with the laity.

While the Bible certainly teaches the Church has ordained officers, I am among those that contend that in general the clergy/laity distinction is unbiblical. Most congregations in America have followed the medieval pattern of the congregational priest with our modern 'pastor' which is a model not supported by the New Testament.

The New Testament model for the post-Apostolic period is clearly one of a plurality of elders. There's really no indication of a single 'pastor'.

Presbyterians attempt to escape this charge by pointing to their plurality of elders and yet this arrangement does not escape the notion of clerical hierarchy. They still have a 'pastor' who is distinct from the 'ruling' elders. They simply refer to the pastor officially as a 'teaching' elder and yet the way they treat the offices demonstrates that they don't consider them to be the same office at all. One is clerical and one is not. Sometimes they tellingly refer to the ruling elders as 'lay' elders.

In addition what I would call the clerical element is further emphasized by the structure of the extra-Biblical Presbytery their system has created. In their model the Presbytery is really 'the' ecclesiastical body, or to put it another way, 'the' Church. The congregations are subservient to the presbytery and are only legitimate when declared so by the Presbytery.

Interestingly in their understanding of the 'membership' system which is also to be rejected, the pastor is a member of the Presbytery....not the local congregation.

Some congregations have moved specifically toward an ordered 'high' liturgy (robes, candles etc...) and to make it even more confusing there are 'low-church' variants of liturgical worship. One thinks of the Anglican JC Ryle who though a member of the Church of England and certainly not against the wearing of robes etc... was very much opposed to most of the ceremonialism at work with the Church of England of his day. He would wear the robe etc... but deliberately tried to keep things on the simpler side.

With the re-embrace of what can only be called Medievalism you have some Protestant congregations moving specifically toward High Church liturgy. While not common you can find conservative Bible professing Presbyterian churches with stained glass windows, golden crosses, acolytes and robed pastors. Those that are a little more serious in their commitments to Reformed theological principles eschew such trappings and yet wish to utilize worship structures which will keep the congregation from drifting toward to what most people think is the only  alternative... contemporary (i.e. entertainment based) worship.

Some are embracing High Church models because they want to move more toward history and tradition. Others are veering in that direction to counter contemporary trends. It's a conservative answer without going so far as to limit the service to a strictly Biblical (and thus minimalist) model, which is the position I advocate.

What I mean by this is that historically the Presbyterians, Congregationalists and others believed that if it wasn't in the New Testament you didn't do it. If you want to grasp what this was like in practice, visit an old Congregational church in New England. Up front there's a pulpit, perhaps a table for communion and white walls...nothing more. There are no candles, crosses, instruments... none of it.

This wasn't because they hated music or were cold souls. It was a theological principle that a few Reformed churches still follow. Sadly the New England congregations abandoned the gospel long ago, but they often still meet in the buildings which tell an interesting story. If they do have organs or other additions, if you look into the dates, they were always 19th century additions. By then the congregations had abandoned the theology of their forebears.

If the Bible isn't our guide in matters of ecclesiology (worship and Church government)...then what is the standard? Tradition? Culture? If the Bible isn't our guide in this area, why should it be the guide in others?

This is a question of Sola Scriptura. But unless the concept of Sufficiency is attached, it quickly is watered down and eventually eliminated. By Sufficiency I mean that the Bible contains everything the Church needs whether explicitly or implicitly to function. God has given in the Bible all we need to function as a Church and as individual Christians. We don't need rational innovations, the latest in social science, nor do we need the erroneous traditions from Church history in order to worship God properly. The Bible alone is sufficient.

Some erroneously expand this into the realm of the culture and believe (falsely) that the Bible also speaks to the creation of political and economic models as well as providing frameworks for how we develop other realms like the arts and sciences.

The Bible tells us how we as Christians interact with the world but nowhere does the Bible suggest how to construct these social models. The Bible is Covenantal, it's written in the context of redemption, by the Holy Spirit for those who possess the Holy Spirit. It's written to the Church. Its message extends to the dying world, but God is not laying out a blueprint telling us how to conquer and build civilizations.

Those that argue so have embraced a sometimes sound but often dangerous concept of 'good and necessary consequence'. This idea can be sorely abused and turned into a blanket justification for almost anything. This is true both in terms of theology and how the Church is to act in the world. It is a product of bad theological commitments rather than Biblical fidelity.

But returning to the issue of worship, it was clearly understood by those that wrote the Westminster Confession that the Bible alone was to be followed in the realm of worship.

 And yet many conservatives are unwilling to go quite as far as their forebears or their Confession requires. And in some cases, they truly believe this kind of minimalist model is too low, too simple. They want to put more of a storyline/production/narrative face to the meeting and they want to feel somewhat united with the historical Church.

What they've proposed is certainly older and purer, and probably more akin to what was happening in maybe the 4th century or so. The model I'm advocating (I would argue) is from the Apostolic period and survived in the Medieval Underground. The principle was embraced in part by some elements of the Reformation and today still exists in some of the Churches of Christ and Brethren gatherings...and maybe a handful of house churches.

The structure they have created is often called Dialogical worship... a worship structure based on dialogue between the congregation and God. What happens is the congregation is involved in the meeting through the reading of responses etc... The selection and placement of hymns and prayers are carefully positioned to establish a flow.

Some of the services begin with 'God's greeting' where the pastor functioning basically as an intermediary (or priest) speaks for God to the people. He 'calls' them to worship. The people respond by reading something out of the bulletin. A little while later the people will confess their sins through a read prayer and the pastor (speaking for God) absolves them of their sins. It's a back and forth, an interaction between the congregation and the mediator in the front. Thus for it to work in terms of a storyline or production, there should be a flow to it all.

This model of course does not exist in the New Testament and its justification can only be found (maybe) in the Old. But if the patterns of Old Testament Temple worship are to be emulated the advocates of Dialogical worship have no leg to stand on.

Historically the Reformed (and especially the British Reformed) advocated the Regulative Principle of Worship. The New Testament (Hebrews 7.11-18 for example) interprets the Old Testament for us, and the patterns of Old Covenant worship and liturgy are clearly abrogated. They have been fulfilled and to return to them is to deny that Christ has fulfilled them. If you doubt this, read Galatians yet again. The Law is not our guide in the New Covenant era.

While the Church is indeed the Temple, the Temple itself is Christ, not the symbolic and now abrogated patterns of a destroyed building in the land of Israel. It's not the land either for that matter. No nation but the Spiritual Kingdom the Church takes up the claim to be God's Holy Realm.

The Temple is not something the Church would want to see rebuilt. That would be a blasphemous denial of Christ's completed work. The Dispensational advocates of this view have grossly misunderstood what the New Testament says about the Old. In fact that's their basic problem. They continue to read the New Testament in light of the Old Testament, falling into the same error as the Judaizers Paul was condemning.

Nor is the Temple to be understood in an individualistic fashion teaching us to exercise and eat healthy. The 'temple' passages in Corinthians are often greatly misunderstood.

Why have these congregations embraced Dialogical worship? Why this specific pattern? Undoubtedly many believe this is a Biblical model.

I think it has arisen because most Bible-based churches are ultimately unwilling to embrace the simplicity of New Testament worship. The Church model of today, with the building, the pastor, the denomination and certainly the music are basically incompatible with the actual principles of the New Testament.

In the New Testament the congregation was a place of encouragement and Word-based fellowship. It was quite informal and unstructured but reverent and non-chaotic. There was no building and this wasn't simply because of Roman persecution. The concept of a holy sanctuary did not exist. Music had very little to do with any of it. People gathered to pray, hear the Word read and preached, and to share in the communion meal. There's no reason to believe it was somehow crafted into either a formal liturgy, a dialogical liturgy, nor was there a temple model of people facing an altar with a priest-like figure...an emulation of the Jewish temple.

I am not suggesting that congregations that utilize buildings or engage in Dialogical worship are somehow illegitimate churches. Nor am I saying we can't sing. The Church clearly sang hymns and psalms but instruments were not used and the music in general was not a central part of what they were doing. Instruments, with candles, vestments, altars etc... were all part of the abrogated Levitical system.

It's not wrong per se to read collectively or do responsive readings. These things in and of themselves are not the problem. It is the Old Testament Temple mindset that is an error and all errors ultimately multiply and create other errors. It creates a wrong posture, a wrong way of thinking about what it is that we're doing when we gather together to ask the Lord's blessing.

While certainly preferable to the entertainment style so dominant in the Church it does not vindicate the model. While also preferable to High Church ceremonialism it nevertheless retains the seeds of that system and given time (I argue) will evolve into something akin to High Church.

Ironically I have seen congregations that attempt to blend both the High with the Contemporary creating a noxious brew indeed. There's nothing so ridiculous as to see a robed prancing cleric making a buffoon of himself dancing around and engaged in some kind of skit.

The New Testament pattern is so simple if we would just be willing to follow it. There's no grandeur or glory in it and congregations can function on a budget near zero. But it will require a major shift in the thinking of the average Christian. For so many unless you're sitting in a pew looking toward a special area in the front of building and following a certain pattern...then it doesn't 'feel' like Church.

At this point most Christians are embracing a form of subjectivism. They're forming their ideas of truth and justification based on sensation and emotion (rooted in cultural tradition) rather than the authority (the Bible) they're claiming to follow.


Lindsy Waters said...

So what should a typical new testament gathering look like?

Protoprotestant said...

It wouldn't have to be exactly the same in every place and location. Generally speaking families and individuals come together....where? That doesn't matter. There's no seating arrangement or layout that is prescribed. What we tend to do is follow that audience facing the front model.
That's okay as long as it's not understood in terms of an audience watching a priest or something.
We read Scripture, pray, sing some hymns and have some lessons. The Sermon as we typically think of it is usually more of a production. The whole 3pts. idea is more an exercise in rhetoric. Interestingly in Acts 20 when Paul spoke late into the night at Troas, the word usually translated as 'preached' means discussed or dialogued. Not dialog in the sense of God and an audience through a priest, but Paul dialoging with the congregation.
Rather than craft sermons, I think the elders should just teach through the Bible. Not all elders are going to have the same gifts. Some are better at relating than teaching. They can do more devotional type lessons out of the Psalms while others could tackle the more heavy doctrinal issues in the Epistle or Prophets. I'm just giving examples.
I think the early Church services looked probably a bit more like what we would call Sunday School. Formal, ordered, reverent and yet not ceremonial or ritualistic. Ultimately it was Word-based.
I think there was actually a fair bit of questioning and hand raising as we would say.
Instead of one grand sermon, there may have been shorter lessons. I think it all depends on how much time everyone has. Or perhaps if one elder is focusing a bit more on a topic they might spend the whole time on his lesson.
And of course the hardest part for most Protestants to acknowledge is I don't think the Church ever met without celebrating the Supper. I think having a church meeting without Communion would have been something completely foreign to them. Not only would I say we should do it on say Sunday morning. We should do it at basically any meeting we have.
That these things are all done in some sort of order constitutes a liturgy. No matter what you have a pattern you're following. What I'm suggesting is a shift away from a model that admittedly entered the Church very early on and got much worse.
The basic elements are present in almost every Church service out there, minus the Supper perhaps. The difference is in mindset and conscientious shift in what it is we're doing when we meet.
Again, it's not that I won't attend conventional churches. But it can be frustrating when there are so many assumptions in the average article or conversation...assumptions I believe to be unwarranted from the text.
The entertainment stuff all came into the Church to make it relevant and to woo people in. The ritual stuff came in early because of Judaizing tendencies and also a trajectory that tried to integrate pagan elements. It's an old story.
I hope that helps. If you want me to elaborate more, I'd be happy to.

Cal said...

I'm a little more sympathetic to what you call the 'dialogical' model. It's not necessarily trying to replicate the Old, but recognizing that the one preaching is acting as a herald and holding forth the Good News. It's not necessarily acting as a mediator as in the OT priesthood. Rather, something similar to what the Apostles did. I know there are some Anglican evangelical ministers who perceive it this way.

However, you're right about at least some of it. Leithart and the FV guys certainly are drawing upon such Judaizing elements to make a high-church stream into conservative Presbyterianism. Yet as little as I swim within Presbyterianism, I don't think that's exclusively the case.

Generally, I tend towards the 39 Article dictum that the Scriptures are the narrative of salvation, the biography of the Christ as you will, and 'liturgy', depending on time and place, will differ. There are some structures in the Scripture. There are (for lack of a better word) "offices" to guide the community of the Spirit. Simplicity and yet depth and reverence.

My major beef is when any particular stricture becomes binding. So I have no problem with candles, or instruments, or whatever. But is it binding? You'll see people sneer, from traditionalist to contemporary and vice versa. Of course the formal can be judaizers or sacralists and the latter a carnival and a cultural sponge.

I want to ask: what's the heart behind it? The problem is that few think about why they do what they do. Functionally, the legitimacy of corporate worship is tacked onto these things, and at that point they've misunderstood.

I think Acts 2 gives a good guideline. The disciples "continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers." The marks are scripture, fellowship, Supper, and prayer. Anything else is extraneous and useless. Yet, not-necessary does not mean it's verbotten.

I don't find such in Scripture, yet there is a command to constantly examine and purify. I agree with the Reformed's move in the Reformation, but I'm not sure of the Regulative Principle so rigorously interpreted. It can become legalistic.

Though we differ, I struggle with the fact that I don't feel like I fit in anywhere. I'm sympathetic to the Anglican Communion as a wide space for differences. However, what binds them together? That's what makes me wary.

Anyway, those are some thoughts. Always a good push from your writings.


Protoprotestant said...

Thanks for your reasoned comments. Always a good push back. I wrote this realizing that most people aren't going to agree with me.
And please understand I've spent quite a bit of time in Anglican Churches and vastly prefer that system vs. the contempo model. I wrote about my feelings some time ago and how in my flesh I love all the candles etc... I love history and I like historical churches that make me feel like I'm swimming in it.
I've attended more than a few churches which follow the dialogical model. It's not 'that' big of a deal but it irks me when I know what's behind it. That's the part that is irritating.
I'm with you on the binding part. I'll sit through all kinds of stuff I don't agree with UNTIL they MAKE me participate in it. That's where I draw the line. I can be charitable, but often they will not return the favour.
I guess I'm just struck by all the conversations I've overheard in person or on the radio or articles and books I've read. So often...the real issues are completely missed. Everyone is arguing over style and whether you like potato and I like pow-tah-toe.
How many times have I heard the arguments of piano v. guitar. It's silly. If one's okay, so's the other. If it's an issue of reverence then what's the standard? Western Civ? Plato's aesthetics? No one goes back and says...why are we doing what we're doing? What's our standard our criteria for answering these questions?
If it's adiaphora, then the guitar is fine, in India the sitar would be fine, in Hawaii...even a ukelele.
It's verbotten part that we disagree about. You would say I'm binding at that point. I would just say, show me from Scripture.
Yes, my view is really minimalist in this regard. It's Sufficiency again. I'm constantly trying to drive back toward Sufficiency in all my thinking. It leads to minimalism but in that context there's a lot of room for awe rather than prescribed traditions, rituals and even ways of thinking.
If we had a Reformed Episcopalian Church nearby I'd probably be pretty happy to attend it. Despite the differences I could sit through it and enjoy the fellowship. But I would still prefer a low-church home fellowship/brethren model....

Protoprotestant said...

If I'm making anyone think, I'm content.

Even if most are going to disagree with me.

I'm used to that.

Cal said...

That's right, I'd probably group it under adiaphora and I'd have no problems with sitars or ukelele. It's the heart.

I don't see Scripture as creating guidelines or chains on this but a framework. There is no going back to a purity in the 1st century, but are we taking the Apostolic Witness and understanding it faithfully? I don't see Scripture bind in the regards to the structure of liturgy.

A person who sneers at corporate worship that uses a guitar over a piano is a fool. It's the same as someone who defines "worship" exclusively in terms of a rock-concert to be put on for others.

Like I said, the Apostles provide a frame to work within. Prayer, Eucharist, the Scriptures, and fellowship.

That's what needs to be there. I think your criticism is much needed, even if we don't exactly agree. There are so many Congregations that make non-necessities binding yet neglect a weekly Supper or corporate prayer.

Even more atrocious is how many a congregation is a font of alienation. People file into a building and file out without knowing a person in any meaningful way. That's probably the worst. Churches have absorbed the bad-fruit of Western individualism and practice such soulless, Corporation-esque,crowd-mongering.


Lindsy Waters said...

Thanks. No need for further elaboration. I just like hearing different perspectives on this. I like the simplicity of the gathering you described.

I guess i'm with the low church/brethren-esque crowd too though i also haven't been able to have my 'druthers' on this issue.