Robin Phillips has written an article in which he wants to set an “agenda for fresh dialogue” on the subject of covenant renewal worship. Okay. I’m in. But I don’t want to answer Robin point by point — rather I would like to make a series of background observations that might help us to determine which of Robin’s questions should be pursued further, and which don’t need to be.
Robin seeks to address those who are increasingly disenchanted with the “liturgical framework” of covenant renewal worship. He believes that the covenant renewal model has an inherent dialectic instability — rejecting strict regulativism in one way, while doubling down on strict regulativism in another way.
“On the one hand, we have a more nuanced understanding of the Regulative Principle which gives enormous lip service to the catholic heritage, while on the other hand, we have a more Puritan version which constantly militates against the catholic heritage.”
In short, the rejection of the regulative principle is done for the sake of distance from the TRs, maintaining that the elements of the Lord’s Supper need not be bread, wine, and haggis. On the other hand, there is a tendency in covenant renewal circles to argue that the Scriptures do in fact teach an order of worship for us, and that we should follow that order.
The argument, in summary goes like this. A worship service is convened with a call to worship. The people of God confess their sins as they prepare to enter the sanctuary. They then consecrate themselves as they sing praises and hear the Word preached. Having done so, they commune with God in the Lord’s Supper. At the conclusion of the service, they are commissioned to go out into the world to live as servants of Christ. Now I take it for granted that nobody is against us doing any of this stuff. Our grounding for this pattern in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament is found in the fact that the guilt offerings, the consecration offerings, and the peace offerings were presented to God in that order. The guilt offerings correspond to confession of sin, the ascension (whole burnt) offerings were consecration offerings, and the peace offerings correspond to communion.
Now Robin raises the question of how tightly people can get this kind of thing wound around their axle. He says that this approach considers it an “actual prescribed order of service and not merely principles that can be loosely applied.”
But this confuses the issues. I am named in the article as a practitioner and advocate of this model of worship (which I am), but I firmly believe that these are principles to be generally applied. In other words, Robin seems to be attacking a covenant-renewal gnat-strangling rigorism, which is fine. Attack away. Rigorism in these things is always obnoxious.
But rigorism is not to be defined as deciding to do all the particular things you do in a particular order and in a particular way. Everybody has to do that. As we do so I would urge us to hold to Hughes Oliphant Old’s formulation of the regulative principle. “Worship must be according to Scripture.” When a visitor asks why we do something, we should be able to answer the question with an appeal to Scripture.
Why do you sing psalms? Why do you kneel in confession? Why do have a sermon? Why do you raise your hands together?
There is a place where this breaks down, of necessity. No place in Scripture tells us to raise our hands during the singing of the Gloria Patri. The Westminster Confession allows for such judgment calls, but they must be made within the confines established by Scripture, and in the spirit of the Scriptures.
“But now thanks to the Davidic liturgical revolution of CRW pioneers like James Jordon, Jeff Myers and Peter Leithart (some people will add Douglas Wilson to this list), Christendom has moved out of ignorance into the light.”
Of course, every Bible teacher should teach what he believes to be true, and if it conflicts with or goes beyond what other Bible teachers say, then he is urging us to move from ignorance into the light, or from dim light to greater light. But this phenomenon is not limited to advocates of covenant renewal worship. It includes, to take one example at random, Robin Phillips writing articles.
So the issue of alleged sectarianism comes down to this. Sectarianism is as sectarianism does. If we had a Roman Catholic or EO visitor who loved Christ come to Christ Church, would we prevent them from partaking of the Lord’s Supper with us? No, we would not. It is the Lord’s Supper, not ours. Such a visitor would not be defying us by coming, but they would be defying the extra-biblical requirements of their home communion. Such disobedience is something we believe ought to be encouraged. And if I were to attend their home church and attempted to partake of the Supper there, I would be turned away. I honestly don’t believe that communions that bar genuine Christians from the Table should be on a high horse about the “sectarianism” of others.
When Protestant bodies practice closed communion (which they ought not), at least they know they are doing so. They own it, and they generally do not prize ecumenism. They rather value purity, and are afraid that open communion will lead to compromise of the gospel. But the RCs and EOs exclude half of the Christian world. They do not do it with a high zeal for purity, as though they were Wisconsin Synod Lutherans. No, they bar from their table the vast majority of the heaven-bound on earth today in the name of catholicity! Well, okay. Suit yourself.
So we urge a body of believers to adopt an explicit approach to covenant renewal worship, and someone asks, “Or else what?” What will happen if we don’t? The answer is that they will continue to renew covenant with God the way they have been doing it. Only the blind rigorists would think nobody ever renewed covenant with God in a worship service until Jeff Myers published The Lord’s Service. If we grow in grace, we trust we are learning to do it more effectively, but this is not to say that anybody who is not “with us in the details” is a liturgical orc.
A worship service, together with all its details, is not irreducibly complex. It is not as though one tiny element removed reduces the whole thing to shambles. No. What is necessary for the esse of the church? Word and sacrament. What is necessary for the esse of the church over time? Word, sacrament, and discipline. What is necessary for the bene esse of the church? Ah — may grace and peace be multiplied to you. That multiplied grace and peace does in fact lead people out of ignorance into light. It does bring about reformations. It grows, and when it grows, the rigorists will come to try to mess it up. As Karen Grant once put it, bright lights attract big bugs.
Every reformation has at least two attempts on its life. The first is from the persecutors who want to kill it dead by killing it dead. The second wave of attack is from the purists and rigorists within the movement who want to kill it dead by turning the mastiff of the Lord into a show poodle.
Robin thinks this approach is “perilously close to the Puritans.” I don’t mind this, of course, because I am a Puritan. But the Puritans, like every significant religious movement, had both its rigorists and its sunny ones. For various reasons, some historically unfortunate and others slanderous, the name of the Puritans has now become synonymous with censorious prune faces, when the historical reality was quite different.
“[T]here is no understanding the period of the Reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was not primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Roman side.
On many questions, and specially in their view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party; if we may without disrespect so use the name of a great Roman Catholic, a great writer, and a great man, they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries” (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays).