Tired of the Worship Wars?
by Pastor John Edgar
There’s a grief afflicting many churches — the worship wars. First worship is judged a matter of style. Then members fight: what’s our style? Hymns or praise songs? Organ or band? There are few objective criteria for judging style, and the disagreement becomes a power struggle. Some churches may decide to have two services, but the Bible proclaims the oneness of believers — should a single church, and many families, be divided in worship when there is room for all?
What is worse is when a new pastor implements a radically different worship service. Then many members, unwilling to accommodate their new pastor’s ‘style’, leave and wander, perhaps for years, in search of a church similar to the one they used to have.
This should not be. Christians are to love one another and consider how to encourage each other in the faith. They should not break ties of love and fellowship every few years. Worse, with each such struggle and mass exodus, many are lost to Christ’s church. Some wander between churches until they give up looking. Others are so offended by the fighting they quit immediately.
In God’s grace, the Reformed Presbyterian Church has been spared the worship wars. We invite all who seek peace to worship with us. As we have been sheltered, we offer you shelter.
When we see the church wounding itself, we ought to reexamine our starting principles. Is worship actually a matter of style? Or has God spoken about it, and does theology guide us? The Second Commandment speaks about worship — surely that indicates that God is quite concerned with how we worship Him.
So first we must realize that if it is actually God that we want to worship, we must listen to Him about what He wants. Otherwise we are only pleasing ourselves. Secondly, we must always remember that Jesus Christ taught us that we are accepted by God when we repent and believe in Jesus’ name. He said, ‘This is the New Covenant in my blood.’ Worship thus centers on Christ and the New Covenant. And as a covenant is made between two parties, so true worship consists of a dialogue between the two covenanting parties, between God and his people.
Our worship service consists of this dialogue. We begin with a Bible verse in which God calls us to worship. We respond with song, coming into God’s presence with joy. Then we confess our sins and receive God’s pardon, to assure us that through Jesus we indeed have peace with God. We read his Law and respond with song. We read his Word and present our offerings. Then we read another part of his Word and hear it explained. We respond once more with song, present our requests in prayer, and depart after receiving a blessing. These parts of the service are each supported by Scripture.
What does the Scripture say about the church’s music? Of first importance are the lyrics sung. One hallmark of Protestant theology is the conviction that the Scripture is sufficient to teach us how to know and worship God. (2 Tim 3:16-17) More specifically, the Scripture twice says, ‘addressing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ — and each of these terms is used frequently in the psalms’ titles (see Psalms 74-76 for examples). The early church thus forbade the use of human-composed hymns in the worship service. With this one act of obedience, one major source of the worship wars was eliminated.
As for the instruments used, the term ‘acapella’ means without instruments, but its Italian etymology is ‘according to the chapel’ (see the Oxford English Dictionary). The word itself teaches the same lesson as history: the music of the early church was acapella, thus eliminating the need for paid professionals, the distractions of good or bad soloists, the expense of instruments, and conflict over which instruments to use. The early church was imitating the synagogue at this point; the instruments mentioned in the Old Testament were not used in regular synagogue worship, but in national celebrations or in the Temple sacrificial service, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. With this additional step, the other major source of the worship wars was eliminated.
At the Reformation, the Reformed and Presbyterian churches returned to the practice of the ancient church by restoring the psalms and eliminating the instruments. As their theology stressed the sufficiency of Scripture and the glory of God, their worship naturally followed: the Scripture is sufficient to give us the right lyrics to glorify God and what detracts from God’s glory must be eliminated. All presbyterian churches used to sing the psalms, exclusively, without instruments.
This is our appeal to our fellow Christians: how you worship God matters. The words you use to praise Him are not a matter of style. They are a matter of theology and obedience. If you would listen to God in this matter, your worship wars would (after a wrenching adjustment) subside.
This is our invitation to all: we offer a haven to those seeking relief from the worship wars. Come and worship with us. No organ will distract you while you pray, nor soloist tempt you to make critical evaluations when you should be focusing on Jesus Christ. The words that you sing and remember will be the very Word of God. And when the next pastor arrives, very little will change in our service. Thus far, this has been God’s blessing to us.