Discernment in Worship

Question: How can we tell the difference between the true church and the false church?

Answer: The marks by which the true Church is known are the pure preaching of the doctrine of the gospel; maintaining the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary to it rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only head of the Church; the false church will not submit to the yoke of Christ; neither does she administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from them as she thinks proper; and she relies more upon men than upon Christ. These two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other (Belgic Confession, Article 31).

What’s all the fuss about? Our series has made a case for worship that is explicitly Reformed. But some readers may have found our reasoning archaic and perhaps chauvinistic. After all, we live in post-confessional and even anti-denominational times. Why ought we to strive any more for worship that is distinctively Reformed? Such an approach sounds narrow-minded and prideful. How more humble and tolerant, in contrast, seems the willingness to blend into our worship the strengths of other denominational and confessional traditions.

As attractive as this solution appears, its logic is destructive of the Reformed faith, for it sanctions Reformed convictions only if they are powerless to shape Reformed conduct. Many want to hold on to Reformed theology, but are not as concerned about Reformed practices, like worship. Consequently, we are still zealous for the Reformed confessions even as many proponents of the Reformed faith worship like pentecostals. But is there any more pride entailed in practicing the Reformed faith than in professing it? It may be those who hold to Reformed doctrine but abandon Reformed worship who are guilty of narrow-mindedness. It is just as legitimate to speak of Reformed worship as it is to defend the Reformed faith, and to deny the former is to call into question the propriety of the latter.

Another line of argument that downplays recent worship debates points to church history and sees today’s worship wars as merely contemporary versions of perennial struggles. The Reformation introduced new music, and so did the first and second Great Awakenings. Organs and choirs came into our churches in the nineteenth century, Change is inevitable, and whenever there is change in the church, there will naturally be controversy, So if Reformed orthodoxy managed to survive changes in the past, why can’t we expect it to incorporate today’s worship innovations?

While this line of reasoning is also reassuring to many people in Reformed churches, it misreads church history. The character of today’s changes is different, and so that explanation, as comforting as it sounds, fails. The Reformation was not experimentation for its own sake, but it was an effort to reform the church according to the Word of God. Can we claim that today’s innovations are offered in the same spirit?

The reason for the worship wars today, then, is because the church has failed to exercise discernment over its worship. Conservative Presbyterians and Reformed have carefully preserved orthodoxy in their theology, but they have not preserved it in their worship. As we draw our study of Reformed worship to a close, we do so by suggesting how we should evaluate worship.




Let us first review how not to evaluate worship. One common mistake is to play the numbers game. This method says that the larger the church, the better its worship — or, at the very least, there must be something good going on in the worship of big churches. It is surprising how often Christians succumb to this logic. Followers of Jesus Christ should know better than to equate popularity with truth. As Robert Godfrey has pointed out, Jesus was the greatest church-planting failure in history, by the standards that the church growth movement generally employs. In John 6, a great multitude gathered to meet Jesus by the Sea of Galilee, but He did not mistake the crowd for true disciples. He questioned their motives (“you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled” v. 26), and after His difficult sayings, the masses grumbled and abandoned Him, to the point where He was down to twelve followers.

The numbers game is one that Christians, especially Reformed Christians, will always lose. Consider these statistics: the circulation of People magazine is 3,600,000. Christianity Today’s is 170,000, Outlook subscribers number 4,500. It is obvious which of these magazines is most popular. But which of them are we most confident will bear the truth, and which is most edifying to read? If men and women like to credit themselves for some aspects of their salvation, why should we expect the hard truths of Calvinism to be popular?

This is not to suggest that smaller is always better. Of course we should yearn to see our churches filled, and we should strive for a recovery of Reformed worship. Rather, our point is simply that when churches get bigger, that may be the appropriate time to suspect that its worship is pandering to people’s interests at the expense of the truth.

Another improper way to evaluate worship is by commending practices where worshipers seem sincere and people’s motives are in the right place. This is a sentimental standard that fails to recognize that people can be very sincerely committed to error. American slavery and Soviet communism had their fervent disciples, but in neither case did devotion justify the cause. Consider, too, the recent growth of Islam and Mormonism. Their believers are sincere, and have genuine “experiences” in their faith.

But sincere experiences do not vindicate false worship, and a focus on experience will deflect us from the true indicators of acceptable worship. As J. Gresham Machen insisted, “Truth [is] I the foundation of conduct and doctrine the foundation of life.” To reverse that, and make experience the foundation of our theology, is an error that lies at the heart of liberalism, which challenges even the existence of truth. “It denies not this truth or that but truth itself,” continued Machen. “It denies that there is any possibility of attaining to a truth which will always be true. There is truth, it holds, for this generation and truth for that generation, but no truth for all generations; there is truth for this race and truth for that race, but no truth for all races.” Machen’s words indict common-place efforts to construct worship along generational, demographic, or ethnic-based criteria.

Yet another flaw in contemporary worship logic is to take people at their own word. People can be easily fooled by those who claim to be reverent and even Reformed in their worship. After all, most people who are advocating the new kind of worship appear to be Bible-believing Christians. They appear to be devoted to Christ and are motivated by evangelistic concerns.

We should not forget the lesson that the fundamentalist-modernist controversy taught. Liberals claimed to be good Christians. They rejected the creeds of the church in order to get back to Christ and to the Bible. “Just plain old-fashioned honesty of speech,” Machen lamented, “is largely absent today” because of the deceitful use of the language of the Christian faith. “Formerly when men had brought to their attention perfectly plain documents like the Apostles’ Creed or the Westminster Confession of the New Testament, they either accepted them or else denied them. Now they no longer deny, but merely ‘interpret.’ Every generation, it is said, must interpret the Bible or the creed in its own way.” Of course, we are not claiming that worship innovators are inevitably liberal. We are merely challenging the employment of Biblical and confessional language to baptize worship innovations. Lots of evangelicals are clearly devoted to Christ. But lots of evangelicals are also far from the teachings of the Reformed faith. If we can live with the notion that Reformed doctrine is narrower than lowest-common denominator evangelicalism, why then should we expect Reformed worship to be broad?

Together these false ways of evaluating worship call us back to the task of discernment. We must look beyond appearances and ask hard questions. Does our theology come from our worship experience or is our worship based on our theology? Are we striving to be acceptable to God or to be relevant to visitors? Is our standard the Word of God or the wisdom of market research? Do people mean what they say when they claim their worship is reverent? Discernment in worship, in other words, requires that we look to the theology that undergirds our worship.


If we are not liturgical relativists then we will seek not to worship in any old (or new) way, but rather we will be zealous to worship at our best. Just as there are better and worse ways to express Christian theology, so there are better and worse ways of worshiping God. To be sure, there is no perfect worship until the new heavens and the new earth because there is no perfect church in this age. But humility must not provide license for relativism; so recognition of our sin and frailty should not detain us from striving to reform our worship according to God’s Word.

So what is the best that Reformed believers can offer? What is a better form of a sermon? One that conforms to the teaching of the Bible. What is a better form of prayer? One that asks for things that are agreeable to God’s will as it is revealed in His Word. In other words, the best worship is that which conforms to the Bible. And for Presbyterians, it is not enough simply to use the words of the Bible, but also what the Bible teaches as a whole, which means that our theology, which is the system of doctrine taught in Scripture, will be an indispensable guide in determining what is best in worship. Our theology will help us to be discerning.

Of course, to say that the best worship is worship that is Biblical is only another way of articulating the regulative principle of worship. Our only standard for worship is what is revealed in Scripture, not our emotions, or what market research tells us will be appealing to the masses. The regulative principle is at the heart of Presbyterian worship and it is the best way to be discerning in worship.

So we want to conclude our series with article 31 of the Belgic Confession, quoted above. The true church is one that is “managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary to it rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only head of the Church.” True worship, therefore, is governed by the Bible, which is our only reliable way of knowing the will of the head of the church. True worship is where Christ is truly acknowledged as Lord, and which conforms to what Christ has taught in the Bible. Any worship that departs from this is false worship: “The false church will not submit to the yoke of Christ.” The yoke of Christ is easy, and His burden is light. Nor is His yoke mysterious to His people, for He has plainly revealed to us what is pleasing to Him in worship. The law of God is the law of perfect freedom. We believe that when we teach our children the Ten Commandments, so let us practice it as we gather for worship.

The church desperately needs discernment in worship. We need to be able to spot true from false worship. And we can through what God has revealed by the work of the Holy Spirit. And we need courage to follow our Reformed convictions. It is not enough to spot false worship. We need to call it that. The church of Christ cannot advocate liturgical relativism.

Discernment lies not in the reclaiming of the old and the rejection of the new, but the rediscovery of the nature and purpose of worship. We return to the basics only when we turn to the Bible and the confessions as our guide. Here are some of the basics:

Reformed worship is based on the Word of God. The Bible not only directs our worship, as we have seen, but it also comprises our worship. The Bible is read, it is sung, and it is preached. Moreover, it is seen, felt and tasted, in the Lord’s Supper and baptism.

Reformed worship is theocentric. Worship is God-centered because its aim is the glory of God. It is the highest form of fellowship between God and His people, and it must be done in Spirit and truth. The Bible reveals that there is nothing that God hates more than false worship. John Murray described Reformed piety as God-consciousness, “an all-pervasive sense of God’s presence.” This spirituality should characterize all of life, but especially worship in the presence of God. “Adoration springs from the apprehension of God’s majesty, and where this is, there must be reverence, that is, godly fear. Here again much of our worship falls under the charge of irreverence and therefore under condemnation. There is a place in life for jollity and jollification. But how alien to the worship of God would this be in the sanctuary.”

Reformed worship nurtures God’s people through the means of grace. God has constituted us in such a way that worship counts toward the strengthening of our spiritual life. He knows that we are weak; He knows our frame, and worship is His manna for us in our wilderness.

Reformed worship is dialogical. Worship is a meeting between God and His people. Believers come at His invitation, are welcomed into His presence. God speaks through the invocation, the reading of the Word, sermon and the benediction. Worshipers respond in song, prayer and confession of faith.

Reformed worship is simple. As recipients of the fuller revelation of Christ, we worship as the church come of age, not the church under age. We are not dependent on the fleshly and childish elements of the Old Covenant. God’s holy day of worship is the Sabbath, and we I have instructions for no other holy time for worship than the Lord’s Day.

Simplicity also suggests a stable routine — a liturgy that is set, that is ordinary, and that is habitual.

Reformed worship is eschatological. We are resurrected with Christ, and we worship Him in heaven. Our union with the resurrected and ascended Lord challenges the mistaken idea that we need visible or material supports in worship.


Frequently, variety in worship is described as the difference in style, whether contemporary or traditional, seeker-sensitive or liturgical. These styles do not affect content, supposedly, but are interchangable according to the needs and preferences of the congregation. But from a Biblical perspective, this is the wrong way to think about worship style. In Scripture, there are ultimately only two styles of worship: true worship and false worship.

In his book, The Southern Tradition, historian Eugene Genovese contrasts religious practices on the competing sides of the MasonDixon line in this way:

In the North people are wont to say, “You worship God in your way, and we’ll worship Him in ours.” This delightful formulation says, in effect, that since religion is of little consequence anyway, why argue? In contrast, the Southern version … says: “You worship God in your way, and we’ll worship Him in His.”

However accurately this may characterize regional differences in American Christianity, this is a helpful way of distinguishing competing claims of good worship. Are we pleasing man or God? Are we striving for God’s glory or for human comfort and enjoyment? Are we satisfying “seekers” or honoring the one who seeks His worshipers (John 4:23)?

Article 31 of the Belgic Confession defines the true church as one where Christ is Lord, and where He is truly its head. It is a church governed by the Word as the only reliable way to know the will of Christ. This should be true of our worship. True worship is worship where Christ is truly acknowledged as Lord and where it conforms to what Christ has taught in His Word by Himself and His apostles. We can distinguish true worship from false worship by what God has revealed through His Holy Spirit.

Conservative Presbyterians have been generally discerning about doctrinal fidelity. They can defend sound theology and identify the defects of Trinitarian, Christological, or soteriological heresies. But are they as astute about maintaining the ways in which correct doctrine takes visible form in the lives and practices of the organized church? Reformed orthodoxy will die a slow and certain death if it has nothing to say about the way we order our lives.

And that death will be especially painful if it is silent about our highest calling. Worship, we have noted, is the most fundamental aspect of the Christian life. To worship God is to be engaged in the highest calling of our creation as God’s servants and image-bearers. To worship acceptably, we must worship with discernment. And we must have courage. For it is not enough to spot false worship. We must be able to call it that when we see it.

In the end, Reformed theology is only as good, only as compelling, and only as binding, as Reformed worship. And that is what the fuss is all about.

D.G. Hart is librarian and Associate Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). He serves as an elder at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. John R. Muether is library director at Reformed Theological Seminary and an elder at Lake Sherwood Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida. They are co-authors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1995).