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New Horizons

Worship in the OPC

D. G. Hart and John R. Muether

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was born in 1936 from a doctrinal controversy. As J. Gresham Machen and his allies escaped from the modernism of the mainline Presbyterian church into "a true Presbyterian church, at last," there was much work to be done in establishing the doctrine and practice of the new denomination. The church began by debating which version of the Westminster Confession of Faith should be adopted as part of the church's constitution. In 1937 the General Assembly determined to eliminate the compromising amendments of 1903.

Also during the church's second year, the Assembly provisionally adopted a Form of Government and a Book of Discipline. Standing committees were erected to oversee the church's work in home and foreign missions and in Christian education.

Because worship was not the crisis out of which the OPC was formed, its regulation was not an immediate priority for the church. This is confirmed in reviewing some histories of the OPC. From Robert Marsden's The First Ten Years to the semicentennial anthology Pressing toward the Mark, there is no discussion of worship. The Presbyterian Guardian rarely addressed the subject of public worship. Even so, only three years before the formation of the OPC, the mainline Presbyterian church produced a new hymnal, which Machen reviewed in strongly negative terms. While he preferred the 1911 hymnal, he conceded that it was far from perfect. Diversity in the church's hymnody was not a sign of denominational health to Machen, and he thought the church would be better off singing from the same page.

Concerns about worship among conservative American Presbyterians antedated the formation of the OPC. In 1898, Wallace Radcliffe, moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., lamented (on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the Westminster Assembly) the "heterogeneous and irresponsible license which in our day has come to be known as Presbyterian worship, wherein every Presbyterian minister does that which is right in his own eyes."

And so the importance of worship was not totally ignored. The OPC completed its constitution with the approval of its first Directory for Worship in 1939. Ned B. Stonehouse lauded it as a conservative document in the pages of the Guardian. "It is by no means characterized by the introduction of numerous innovations," he wrote. "It is faithful to the best traditions of historic Protestantism." Yet even the American Presbyterian tradition, dating back to its first Directory for Worship (approved in 1788), was one of compromise and pragmatism. Indeed, the OPC's original Directory showed the influence of revivalist elements, as when it insisted that worship demonstrate "life and power."

As much as the OPC had repudiated modernism, it still bore many of the marks of American Presbyterianism more generally. The denomination was, after all, an offshoot of a communion that had not always successfully combined experimental Calvinism with doctrinal and procedural rigor. This mélange was codified in the 1758 Plan of Reunion, which brought back together the Old and New Side Presbyterians, who had taken different sides during the First Great Awakening.

This plan's compromise of objective and subjective impulses had a direct bearing on the future of American Presbyterian worship. The most zealous defenders of creedal subscription and church order also adhered to the older practice of singing psalms only. Their opponents, who backed the revival, liked the new hymns of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley because those songs lent themselves more readily to revivalism. Consequently, when the PCUSA issued its first official hymnal in 1833, it followed the signal of the Plan of Reunion by combining a psalter for singing with an assortment of over six hundred hymns.

One reason why it took the OPC so long to publish its own hymnal was that the church needed to resolve the question of exclusive psalmody. Although some, like Professor John Murray of Westminster Seminary, argued for psalms alone as appropriate for public worship, the OPC decided to follow the American practice of singing both psalms and hymns.

The arrival of Trinity Hymnal in 1961 was warmly greeted throughout the church, and it generated strong sales beyond the OPC as well. Several features of the hymnal are worth noting. The hymns were arranged according to the topics of the Westminster Confession, signifying the importance of aligning faith and worship. Moreover, the segregation of sixty-eight hymns as fitting for "informal occasions" acknowledged that different occasions called for different forms.

The preface to the hymnal lamented the state of hymnody. Some hymns "turned worship into something unworthy of a holy God and his people." Desperately needed, said the editors, was "the resurgence of reverent worship of the Lord in song." At the same time, editorial decision represented a compromise of diverse opinions regarding the value of particular hymns.

Largely because of Trinity Hymnal, the OPC's worship in its first forty years was fairly uniform and self-consciously Reformed. But that consensus would be tested by the innovations of contemporary worship in the 1970s and 1980s. So great was this wave of influence in the OPC that it bred discontent in some quarters of the church about its worship, even to the point where a committee report could lament to the General Assembly that diversity of worship in the church bordered on "near liturgical anarchy."

This survey of our history may offer a partial explanation for this confusion. Many members of our church tend to define orthodoxy in terms of doctrine, not worship. More than one OP minister has said, in so many words, "as long as your theology is OK, your worship can be flexible." This sentiment seems far removed from the Westminster Confession's instruction that "the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture" (21.1).

The Revised Directory for Worship

A revised Directory for Worship has been submitted to this year's General Assembly for approval. It is forty years in the making. Early in its work, some members of the revisions committee suggested that a new directory was needed less to establish uniformity of worship than to account for differences in it. The church needed a new directory, wrote one member in New Horizons magazine, because "we have changed our styles of worship. There is diversity found in the worship of our churches." This argument raises the question of whether a directory serves merely to describe practice or to prescribe practice.

The OPC was not alone in its uncertainty; this has been a long-standing confusion in American Presbyterianism. Julius Melton observes, in his book Presbyterian Worship in America, that for American Presbyterians the directory is the "least of the standards" and often a "non-directive directory." Indeed, the very notion of a "directory" for worship seems counterintuitive to contemporary assumptions about worship. How can you "direct" what ought to be spontaneous? How can you freeze the forms that must always be changing as people and cultures change?

The OPC, like other American Protestant denominations, came to the worship debate without a strong liturgical tradition. The trend toward contemporary worship caught the church by surprise, and only recently have American Presbyterians devoted sustained biblical and theological reflection to this subject.

At its best, the OPC has understood that worship reflects the church's theology. As the editors of the original Trinity Hymnal observed in its preface, the hymnody of the church, "almost equal with the character of ... preaching, controls the theology of the church." True theology yields acceptable worship, and proper worship reinforces correct doctrine. Worship is not a matter of taste, but an expression of theological conviction. When a church's worship does not reflect its theology, that church is incoherent and schizophrenic, and it will open the door to theological decline.

In 1939 Stonehouse observed that the public worship of God is of the "greatest possible interest of all Christians." For that reason, he commended a careful reading of the OPC's first directory. No less is it vital for us to study this new directory. For only when its principles are studied and ultimately appropriated can we expect our church to be truly Reformed according to the Word of God.

The authors are ruling elders in the OPC and historians. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2007.

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