Volume 10, Issue 2: Presbyterion
Americans are a breezy lot; we like to go casual. Whether we are flipping burgers in the back yard or approaching the throne of the Almighty, we want to wear shorts and flipflops. The problem is nearly universal; the only thing that varies from church to church is the extent of the damage.
The one thing needful, as C. S. Lewis once argued, is represented by a Middle English word solempne, which expresses something which is desperately needed in our worship. On either side of this solempne, we have this error . . . or that one. Either we are right out there on the cutting edge with worship teams, a thumpin' band and all the rest of it, or we are content with our lazy afternoon orthodusty. If the preacher were ever to whack the congregation with one of those things you use for cleaning rugs, the cloud of dust would look like it had been raised by Jehu's chariot.
Like our word solemn, solempne represents the opposite of casual, but unlike solemn, it carries no connotations of austerity, moroseness, or gloom. We moderns have come to associate spontaneity with innocence and virtue, fresh and unsullied. Our adoption of unbiblical criteria means that we frequently overlook those things which the Bible associates with a healthy church, dismissing them as dead simply because they have more formality in the liturgy than we like.
But solempne is out of reach because we simply assume that formality is dead. But many different scriptural arguments against the spontaneity assumption could easily be brought-e.g. Christ's worship in the synagogue, the elements of worship required by Scripture, etc. For our purposes here, one conclusive argument should suffice. God prohibits spontaneity in worship.
In 1 Corinthians 14:40, Paul requires, among other things, that everything be done according to taxis, according to order. He is not just discouraging chandelier-swinging, he is requiring something else, of a different kind, in its place. The word means "arrangement . . . order, a fixed succession observing also a fixed time . . . orderly array [in a military sense]." God requires that everything in the church should be done according to a set arrangement. Far from "quenching the Spirit," these are the instructions of the Spirit. He tells us that our worship service should be planned and predictable. This means that a preset order of worship printed in the bulletin is the result of the Spirit's leading.
Paul uses this same word in Colossians 2:5 when he rejoices at what he hears about that church. "For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ" (Col. 2:5). How many of us would write to a similar church today, rejoicing to behold their regimentation? A vast difference exists between the quenching of the Spirit, which the Bible prohibits, and being quenched by the Spirit, which is the result of listening to his Word.
Of course a worship service may be formal, but also lifeless. This is disobedience. "Wherefore the Lord said, `Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men'" (Is. 29:13).
In the opposite corner, a worship service may be informal and lively. We have no Scripture for this one, other than the implication that the absence of taxis did not unchurch the group of saints at Corinth. But we must remember that tolerated disobedience over time always leads to death.
A worship service may be informal and spiritually chaotic, meaning that lifelessness is just around the corner. "Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse" (1 Cor. 11:17). If the disorder evident in their worship went unaddressed, the end result of their activity would be final, lasting spiritual inactivity. The activity in a church can simply be a form of pandemonium.
But obedience requires that a worship service be both formal and lively. To say it again, "Though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ" (Col. 2:5).
We should therefore see that there are two types of order. When a formal church is unhealthy, it is because their arrangement is the order of china figurines on a shelf. When a formal church is obedient and healthy it is because their arrangement is that of well-disciplined troops preparing themselves for battle. An opposing general would not look at the cavalry, wheeling as though one man, and dismiss them as a bunch of legalists.
The worship of the church accomplishes work in the world. Battles are won or lost as a result of how our churches worship God. Too often we act as though our differences over liturgy were simply differences over decoration, instead of differences over effective strategy in the midst of a fearful war. There should be no disagreement over whether the warfare of an army should be coordinated or not.
And as the Scriptures declare, when the choir in militant joy goes out as the advance guard of the army, then God's name is glorified, and His enemies are scattered. The worship is formal . . . and exuberant.