Reformed Christians are increasingly divided over how they ought to worship God. For many Reformed believers, this is an issue of great urgency. D.G. Hart and John R. Muether wrote With Reverence And Awe (Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship) to address this topic. They call the book a primer on worship, “a brief overview of how Reformed theology informs the way we think about, put together, and participate in the worship service. Our aim is to help church officers and members gather corporately for worship and do so in ways appropriate to the God who has revealed himself in Christ Jesus” (page 13). The authors believe that good theology must produce good worship, while poor theology necessarily produces poor worship. This is something the church has understood in the past, but has lost sight of in recent years. Reformed worship, because of its distinctiveness, will worship God in ways that are distinct from other theological traditions.
The first topic the authors address is the relationship of the church to the world. This is a logical place to begin, for many churches today take their cues in worship from unbelievers, deliberately providing a service that will make unbelievers comfortable. But the authors conclude that true worship “will be odd and perhaps even weird to the watching world. This oddness is not lamentable but essential to the church’s faithfulness and witness” (page 34). In fact, the church must take a posture that is antithetical to the world if she is to resist worldliness and idolatry. The clash with church growth principles is further enforced in the next chapter where the authors discuss the purpose of the church. They list three prevailing beliefs about this: the first, that the church is a means of social reform; the second that the church exists primarily to exalt God; and the third that the church exists primarily to evangelize. After examining The Great Commission, Hart and Muether teach that Christ’s primary command to the church is to disciple. A literal rendering of the Great Commission might read, “as you go, disciple, by teaching and baptizing.” Thus the church is primarily a worshipping community. While the authors do not downplay the importance of evangelism and taking the Gospel to the world, they believe that we can only properly understand the church by seeing her as a body meant for worship and discipleship. Worship constitutes the church and the very purpose for which God saves us, is to become worshippers.
There are two principles critical to the author’s argument that must be understood. The first is the Regulative Principle. This principle teaches that we may only worship God in ways expressly stated in Scripture. What is left unstated is as equally forbidden as what God expressly prohibits. The second principle is the Dialogical Principle which teaches that the covenantal pattern of Christian worship takes the form of a dialogue between God and His people. Thus there are two broad categories of elements within worship: those where we speak to God and those where He speaks to us. These principles inform everything that happens in worship, from the elements we allow, to the order the elements appear.
A further important discussion regards the priesthood of believers. This understanding of the laity arose during the Reformation, but has since been extended far beyond the original meaning. The authors believe that the priesthood of believers does not extend to the worship services. Instead, all parts of the worship service should be led by a rightly-ordained and appointed minister of the Word.
As the book nears the conclusion, the authors turn to the subject of reverence, arguing that the proper attitude for worship is reverence, but that this does not preclude emotions such as joy, grief or even anger. We can learn much about this from the Old Testament patterns of worship, which while they have been abolished, are still instructive for us today. Perhaps one of the most shocking statements in the book is this: “Indeed, we do not believe that it is putting it too strongly to suggest that Christians come to worship with the same attitude and demeanor they take to a funeral service for a professing Christian. Such funerals are times of reverence and joy” (page 127).
Surpringly, yet wisely, it is not until the final chapter that the authors contemplate music. They believe that music should inspire reverence, and like the Sabbath day of rest, should be unlike what we hear other days. This, once again, flies in the face of most modern teachings about music which teach that church music should sound similar to what people listen to every day. The songs we sing in church should be as distinctive as the theology we hold dear. Based on the writings of Terry L. Johnson, the authors suggest four criteria for music appropriate for the worship service. First, is it singable? Second, is it biblically and theologically sound? Third, is it biblically and theologically mature? Fourth, is it emotionally balanced? “It is crucial that the church’s songs be substantial enough to express accurately mature Christian belief as well as the subtlety of Christian experience….Simplistic, sentimental, repetitious songs by their very nature cannot carry the weight of Reformed doctrine and will leave the people of God ill-equipped on occasions of great moment” (page 173).
In the end, the authors conclude, “As attractive as contemporary forms of worship might appear, the logic by which they have entered Reformed circles is destructive of the Reformed tradition because it makes theology powerless. It seperates belief from practice” (page 177). And later they say, “In the end, Reformed theology is only as good, only as compelling, only as binding, as Reformed worship. And that is what the fuss is all about” (page 187).
Clearly Hart and Muether represent a conservative tradition, even within Reformed circles. Both are, I believe, members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and their Presbyterian theology forms the basis for this book. There is little doubt that this book will alienate many readers for that very reason, and that is a pity, for it has much to say that is of great value. One of the things I appeciated most in this book was the authors’ desire to be deliberate in examining and structuring worship to remove all horizontal elements, allowing the worship service to be a time of deep, beautiful communion between God and His people. I found myself wishing that I shared their convictions towards the Regulative and Dialogical Principles, for surely the acceptance of these principles makes deciding the “what’s and how’s” of worship much easier. I also appreciated the theme that God-honoring worship must be built on God-honoring theology. But primarily, I appreciated the assertion that much of contemporary worship has entered Reformed circles in a way that is destructive to Reformed worship. Regardless of whether the worship is right or wrong, we have allowed these forms to enter our churches for the wrong reasons. There is much for me to ponder.
While I do not agree with all of the author’s conclusions, I found this a fascinating and challenging book and I highly recommend it for anyone who wishes to examine biblical principles for worshipping God.