by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps
We believe that Baptist worship should be anchored in Holy Scripture and informed by the liturgical practices of the historic church. We believe that Christian worship should be Word-centered. In worship, we read, preach, sing, pray, and show forth (through the ordinances) the Word of God. We further believe that Baptist worship could benefit from incorporating historic practices such as lectionary readings, the liturgical calendar, corporate confession of sin, the assurance of pardon, the recitation of scriptural and historic prayers (especially the Lord’s Prayer), and the corporate confession of the faith (expressed in the ecumenical creeds and other confessional documents).
As Protestants in the Separatist tradition, we believe that God’s Word should have primary place in worship. We gather together to hear God speak, and he has spoken to us in his Son through his Word by his Spirit. While this rightly means that preaching, the proclamation of God’s Word to his people, takes prominent place in Protestant worship services, hearing God’s Word transcends without eclipsing the preaching moment. We hear God’s Word when we pray it, we hear it when we sing it, we hear it when a call to worship and benediction are read over us, we hear it when we recite the Lord’s Prayer, and we hear it when it is read publicly during the worship service. We also hear and see the Word when we baptize and partake in the Lord’s Supper. Regarding the latter, this is why the words of institution are important in our practice of the ordinances – it is Word and sacrament together, in conjunction with the faith of the participants, that brings about their effectiveness as means of grace in the life of the believer (we will define and discuss “means of grace” in Article IX). Thus, in worship we read, sing, pray, preach, and show forth in the ordinances the Word of God.
While we appreciate the impetus for the regulative principle of worship – that only what is commanded or exemplified in Scripture should be included in corporate worship – we believe that, in practice, it can sometimes be applied in an overly restrictive manner. We prefer to position ourselves somewhere between the regulative principle and the normative principle, one which allows churches to make judgments on what to include in worship based not only on explicit mention of those practices in Scripture but on the norms, or parameters, for worship found in the Bible. In this regard, we believe that three primary scriptural norms are the centrality of Jesus Christ, the primacy of his Word, and the presence of the Spirit. These are intricately related, as it is the Spirit who uses the Word that he inspired to point to the Son, ultimately to the glory of the Father. There is, therefore, a Trinitarian shape to worship in which the primacy of God’s Word finds its theological foundation.
Because of this regulative-and-normative approach and its emphasis on the Trinitarian shape of worship, we believe there are a number of practices excluded or downplayed (by either the regulative principle or what is known as the “frontier liturgy” in evangelical life) that nevertheless assist churches in crafting Word-centered worship. These include lectionary readings, the liturgical calendar, corporate confession of sin, the assurance of pardon, the recitation of scriptural and historic prayers (especially the Lord’s Prayer), and the corporate confession of the faith (expressed in the ecumenical creeds and other confessional documents).
Regarding lectionary readings and the liturgical calendar, these are typically jettisoned in light of the regulative principle. But we want to suggest that these are not necessarily excluded by the regulative principle, since they are merely organizing mechanisms for practices that are justified by that same principle – Scripture reading and preaching. Every church and/or pastor must decide what Scripture they will read each week during the service and which passage they will preach. Whether or not they make this decision via a lectio continua approach and its preaching equivalent, book-by-book expository preaching, or by some other means, the church and pastor are making decisions about what they read and preach, and when. What we want to suggest is that the lectionary for scripture readings and the calendar for preaching functions as one helpful method of such an organizing mechanism.
There are a number of benefits to using the lectionary and calendar for organizing Scripture reading and preaching. First, using the lectionary (or some modified version of it that doesn’t skip passages) gives believers each week a chance to reflect on four major sections of Scripture – Psalms, Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospel. Christians are taught implicitly in this model to read the Bible canonically, and that each portion of the Bible is the Word of God for the people of God. A second and related benefit is that, in the lectionary, the Gospel reading comes last in the order, and so Christians are taught implicitly that the Bible’s message culminates with the story of Jesus. Both of these benefits mitigate against the evangelical tendency to read and preach primarily out of Paul’s letters. It is not an exaggeration to say that most evangelical sermons come the Pauline corpus, and most Scripture readings (if they happen at all) are chosen from Paul’s letters, usually focusing on those passages that speak directly of penal substitution and justification by faith alone. While we readily affirm the inspiration and inerrancy of the Pauline epistles, we also want to affirm the inspiration, inerrancy, and profitability of all Scripture for Christian devotion and liturgy. The lectionary provides a way to correct this Pauline imbalance in evangelical worship.
With respect to preaching, using the Christian calendar has similar benefits as the lectionary (since the two go hand in hand), but it also explicitly centers the church’s life on the life of Christ. For about six months, from Advent in December to Pentecost in late spring, the preaching calendar focuses on the person and work of Jesus, moving chronologically from the anticipation and celebration of his incarnation and birth during Advent and Christmas; through his manifestation to the Magi, his baptism, and his public ministry during Epiphany; on to the penitential and preparatory season of Lent, which climaxes in Holy Week, when we remember his Passion, Death, Burial, and Resurrection. This is followed by fifty days of Easter, celebrating his resurrection until Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the culmination of his restoration of Israel and creation of the Church through the gift of his Spirit. The Sunday following Pentecost is celebrated as Trinity Sunday and what follows is considered “Ordinary Time,” the roughly six months in between Pentecost and Advent. There is thus an already/not yet structure to the calendar, reminding us not only of Christ but of our place in redemptive history. We are situated between Pentecost and Christ’s second advent, awaiting his return in glory. The life of the church is thus shaped by Christ’s work and waiting for his return – the realities that shape the New Testament’s ethical instruction. The church calendar, then, presents itself to us as a ready-made mechanism for celebrating what John Calvin called the “whole course” of Christ’s obedience: not just his central and epochal atoning death, but also his incarnation, birth, baptism, temptation, teaching, healing, resurrection, ascension, session, intercession and imminent return.
Here we should note that neither the lectionary nor the calendar are inimical to what we consider a good and right emphasis in Baptist life, expository preaching. Again, the lectionary and calendar are not elements of worship per se but merely organizing mechanisms for ordering our practice of the scripturally mandated elements of corporate worship. For the most part, they simply serve to distinguish which passage of a particular biblical book – Psalm, Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel – is read each week. During Advent through Pentecost, an expositional preacher would more than likely simply preach the Gospel used in that year’s lectionary as their text, preaching week by week through that particular Gospel. During Ordinary Time, the pastor has six months to preach expositionally through one or more of the other passages in the lectionary, whether Psalm or Old Testament or New Testament. Further, the potential pitfalls of the lectionary, and especially one that on occasion it skips portions of books, can be avoided in Baptist churches because of our affirmation of congregational governance. We are not beholden to someone else’s liturgical rules; instead, all things are ours in Christ, and we can use them as we see fit in accordance with the scriptures.
The other elements mentioned above – confession of sin, the assurance of pardon, the recitation of scriptural and historic prayers (especially the Lord’s Prayer), the corporate confession of the faith, and weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper – have often been omitted in Baptist worship owing not so much to an overly strict rendering of the regulative principle as to the pervasive influence of what has been called the “frontier liturgy.” As evangelicalism, and particularly Baptist churches, made their way from the American East coast into the frontier in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they did so largely with the great revivals still fresh in their collective ecclesial memories. In the spirit of revival, and in order to foster it, many churches stripped their services of most elements, except singing, giving, praying, and preaching, and each of these remaining elements was typically crafted in order to foster revival and conversion. The stripped elements, and especially creedal recitation and weekly Table observance, were felt to be auxiliary and sometimes even a hindrance to the conversion of the lost in attendance and the revival of those who had become lazy in their faith.
This “frontier liturgy” fits well with Baptist spirituality, a spirituality which is characterized, in part, by an emphasis on missions and evangelism. We affirm this emphasis and support its continued importance in Baptist life. Nevertheless, we feel that there should not be such a sharp divide between church services oriented toward the edification of believers and those oriented toward the salvation of the lost and the revival of the lapsed. Instead, we want to acknowledge that the benefits of the “frontier liturgy” and its positive impulses can be retained while also re-incorporating those liturgical elements that have largely been lost in Baptist life but that may still benefit Baptist worship. The Word of God both edifies believers and convicts the hearts of unbelievers. Thus a worship service that emphasizes God’s Word read, preached, prayed, sung, and shown forth will cut the hearts of believer and unbeliever alike. There is nothing antithetical about believers corporately confessing sin, receiving assurance of pardon from God’s Word, reciting our faith together in creeds, and taking the Table together, and also expecting that these means of hearing God’s Word can and will be used by the Spirit of God to convict unbelievers of their lack of assurance, their lack of belief, and their lack of participation in Christ. This is also what we expect of our sermons – that they will both edify believers and call unbelievers to repentance and faith. There is no reason why we should expect a bifurcated purpose in these other elements.
Re-introducing corporate confession and assurance, creedal recitation, weekly Table observance, and benedictions have particular benefits for the edification of believers. Confession and assurance and benediction frame the service with postures of humility toward God in light of our own sin and weakness at the beginning and of mission and evangelism in light of Christ’s call for us to go into all the world at the end. Creedal recitation and weekly Table observance remind us that we are united to one another both conceptually by what we believe and materially by taking the bread and vine together. The Lord’s Supper also makes the gospel visible. Too often evangelicalism reduces itself to a “brain on a stick” mentality (to use James K. A. Smith’s memorable phrase), overemphasizing the sermon and over-explaining each element of worship to the point that all that really seems to matter is what we do with our brains. But God also gives us bodies, and calls us to use them in service to him. He also makes himself known to us in and through the material world. This is not to divorce Word and Table; far from it. Rather, these two go together. God has given us material signs and seals because we are materially embodied creatures and because we experience the gospel in an embodied way each week as we eat and drink together. This unites us to one another in local congregations but also to the Church throughout space and time, since we sit together at the one table of our one Lord.
Ultimately, though, while we believe there are particular benefits in re-incorporating elements that have been lost, and in using the lectionary and the calendar, we simply want Baptist churches to realize that every church has a liturgy—a service of the people. Even if they do not use that word, every church has repeated practices and particular orders of worship. Further, those repeated practices shape and form their people in particular ways. All we are asking, at a foundational level, is for Baptist churches to think explicitly about what liturgy they have, and what effects it may or may not have on their people. Perhaps this will lead to change; perhaps it will lead simply to a deepening and enriching of already-existing practices. In either case (or both), we hope that Baptist churches will reflect critically on their liturgies, and consider some of the elements of the traditional liturgy that have, for the most part, been lost in Baptist life.