Will Christians ever agree on whether certain acts of worship are reverent? In glory, perhaps, but on this side of Heaven, unanimity is impossible. A more modest goal is that thoughtful Christians should limit their discussion about reverence to those who agree on some basic principles. Proverbs warns against debating with fools and scoffers, and many a Christian has disobeyed this advice and found only angst, dishonour and wasted time. Serious discussion can be conducted only by serious people. What then should be the marks of serious-mindedness when it comes to discussing reverence?
First, we should agree that reverence toward God is required (Prov. 1:7, 9:10; Heb. 12:28-29). Few will disagree with this premise, but it is nonetheless important to state, since God Himself states it. We are not debating over a mere cosmetic preference, but over a fundamental posture towards God.
Second, we should agree that it is possible to be irreverent towards God. Again, this sounds pedantic and almost patronising to state, but it is important that we agree that somewhere on the worship spectrum people cross a line from acceptable to unacceptable worship. We may certainly disagree on where that point is, but if it is always further out than what people are actually doing, it may as well not exist. Sincerity and good intentions are ever taken by modern evangelicals to be the panacea for any perceived irreverence, and consequently few are ever charged with heteropathy. This is the equivalent of acquitting criminals by asking them if they meant to be evil, and releasing them if they answer “no”. No one thinks his evil is unwarranted evil; similarly, no one thinks he is being deliberately irreverent.
Third, we should agree that God’s Word regulates worship, and that the primary guard against irreverence is to restrict ourselves to what God commands by precept or inferred principle. Innovation in worship is ever the enemy of reverence. God must dictate the boundaries of worship because He can be known only by revelation.
Fourth, we should agree that the inner affection of reverence must be expressed, and this expression always requires physical creation: human language to express prayers and sermons, music and poetry for songs, architecture for meeting places, social customs and conventions for all kinds of gestures, postures, and the like. And because the created order was created by a personal, intelligent Creator, all creation has meaning. We cannot use just any music, or any poetry, or any tone of voice, or any dress, or any approach, and claim that our desire to be reverent converts anything we use into a reverent thing. Many of the things we use have meaning before we use them, and we should learn the meaning of these things before we employ them. This pursuit of meaning, judgement and discernment is what the catechism means when it says, “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.“
Fifth, we should agree to consult the church historic as a guide and standard for expressions of reverence. The prayers, songs, sermons, liturgies of Christians across 2000 years and five continents are neither infallible nor our final authority. They are, however, highly illuminating, instructive, and corrective, living as we do in an age of flippancy, irreverence and amusement. Their errors are likely not ours are are therefore highly visible to us and easily avoided. Our own errors are invisible to us, and seen more clearly when the contrast of earlier ages highlight our own deficiencies and faults. By allowing the church triumphant to have a voice at the table, our decisions on reverence will not be an echo chamber for our prejudices. We will hear what thousands of Christians before our time considered reverence to be.
These five marks of a serious-minded approach to worship and reverence will not end the debate, nor will those who accept them agree on the reverence of every song, liturgy or prayer considered. But my intuition is that people who accept these five principles will find themselves ever tending in the same direction. They will not be distracted by fruitless discussions of sincerity, preference, “styles”, relevance, or tradition. They will be able to focus on meaning, find fruitful comparisons from church history, and pursue true reverence in its various expressions.