Worship Fitting for Sound Doctrine

This article was an address delivered at Chapel, January 28, 1997, Westminster Theological Seminary (PA). Text: Titus 2 (NASV)

The word “celebrate” has fallen on hard times these days. Here I am I referring specifically to the use of the Word in the context of worship. It used to be that if we spoke of celebrating anything in worship, we usually thought of the Lord’s Supper, though some Reformed folk prefer the word, “administer.” But now the words “celebration” and “celebrative” apply to the whole service, not just one part of it that occurs at best once a month. To “celebrate” denotes a kind of worship that is upbeat, casual or informal, joyful, and unrestrained. And part of the aim of this kind of worship is to alleviate the problems of traditional or older forms of worship that are too formal, too somber, and for some, too boring.

One of the ironies about celebrative worship is that it is the kind of service preferred by many who are strong proponents of family values and traditional morality. This is ironic because celebrations today are not what they used to be either. Celebration used to be associated with family occasions like birthdays and anniversaries, as well as with weddings and the subsequent festivities at the reception. Depending on a particular family’s understanding of Christian liberty, these parties might include certain kinds of beverage refreshment. But no matter what drinks were served, celebrations of an older sort rarely got out of hand, if only because of an assumption, that immoderate displays of boisterousness were unseemly in a setting that included at least three generations of extended relations and close family friends.

Today, however, celebration, while still involving this small scale practice, also,includes the mass gatherings of sporting events and rock concerts. Celebrating the home team’s victory or the lead guitarist’s riffs may still be restrained or moderate, but in the anonymity of a five-figure crowd, the excesses of celebration occur much more readily.

Yet these excesses do not deter the proponents of celebrative worship. In fact, the practices of rock concerts have become the model for most worship celebrations as electric guitars, drum sets and singers with hand held mikes have pushed aside the Lord’s Table, and as prolonged periods of singing have replaced confession of sin, assurance of pardon and the reading of the Decalogue. It is the music that sets the tone for the service and determines whether it is properly joyful. It may be an extreme, but the rave mass recently ,described in one evangelical magazine, is the culmination of this desire for celebrative worship. This mass includes:

Several video screens display[ing] sacred and artistic images of Jesus, as well as disturbing scenes of war, starvation and human suffering, all at a frenetic MTV pace. Pumped-up dance music and live alternative bands provide dynamic periods of pulsating music that can whip the congregation into a dancing frenzy. The communion celebrant breaks the bread and shares the wine while barefoot and dressed in a simple white robe. The entire experience is a sensual delight or assault, depending on your perspective.

Without belaboring the point, the irony here is that no matter how soft rock music can become—as in the case of the Carpenters or Barry Manilow or even Pat Boone’s latest release which is a foray into heavy metal—a fundamental antagonism exists between the family values which evangelicals promote, and the sensibility that contemporary popular music cultivates. As a recent writer put it, “There is no getting around it, the aims of traditional family values are wholly at odds” with the cumulative message of rock culture. Why then would Christians who uphold the seriousness and discipline of Christian virtues encourage a steady diet of light and trivial forms of music?



Even more of a mystery is why some Christians would want expressions of celebration to dominate the services in which they worship God. Here, I have finally come to our text, the second chapter of Titus. This is not a passage that exegetes and theologians generally go to for understanding the nature of Christian worship. But then again, neither is our Lord’s Great Commission which has become the proof text of late for doing  in worship whatever is necessary to reach all people. (Parenthetically, I should add that the Great Commission is not a bad text for thinking about worship if we recognize that it prescribes the two essential elements that God uses to speak to us, namely, teaching and baptism, or as some would have it, Word and Sacrament.) So please permit me to say a few words about this passage and what it might teach about worship.

TITUS 2 Verse One

I want to draw your attention first of all to verse one where Paul tells Titus to teach what is fitting or appropriate for sound doctrine. The point is a relatively obvious one, that our lives should accord with our profession of faith. I am now teaching the course on Dr. Machen and I have been struck once again by his insistence that Christianity is not a way of life, but a way of life founded upon doctrine, or teaching about who God is, who we are, and our need for a Savior. “So it is everywhere in the Bible,” Machen wrote, “First doctrine, then life….The Bible founds living everywhere squarely upon truth” [CFMW, 102]. We see this same kind of relationship in the Decalogue where God instructs the Israelites how they are to love God and to love their neighbors and premises this instruction upon His declaration, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This is why the Shorter Catechism says of the preface to the Ten Commandments that, “because God is the Lord and our God and Redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all his commandments.” Our way of life, in other words, stems from our theology, not the other way around.

But is this any less true of worship, as if public worship were not part of Christian living? Jesus instructed the woman at the well in John 4 that she was to worship “in spirit and truth.” Our Lord’s point was that a new form of worship was emerging because a new epoch in redemptive history was also emerging. No longer would worship be confined to Jerusalem but all the nations would now be able to worship God where they lived. And no longer would worship be bloody and violent after Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Instead, worship would look and feel different because of Christ’s final sacrifice.

The same point holds for Reformed worship. If we profess the truths of the Reformed Faith, our worship should reflect those truths. Or put another way, if our way of worship is indistinguishable from churches that do not teach and profess Reformed theology, either God’s spirit is more at work in other communions than we imagine, or we have not thought hard enough about the way theology shapes worship. And if you wonder what I have in mind, I will only point to the Reformers’ elimination of special music from worship and their insistence upon the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper compared to our choirs ,solos and bi-monthly administration of the sacrament. Do we know something about the Reformed faith that Calvin and Zwingli did not, or is it the case that we have forgotten the point behind Reformed worship? I recently ran across a quote by a Southern Baptist about charismatic worship that puts this point about the connection between theology and worship nicely, “Charismatic believers have a right to develop their own worship to match their own theology and exegesis, and they have done this well. Non-charismatics should not thoughtlessly copy or imitate their worship formula, unless they expect to enter the same ‘Holy of Holies’ in the same way. Instead, they should develop their worship rational-based on their scriptural understanding, and then sing up to their own theology!”

Verses 2–12

If in verse one of Titus 2 we see the point about making our lives conform to our doctrine, something that includes worship, then throughout the rest of the chapter we see the kind of qualities that our lives (and worship, I would argue) should display. What is striking is how repressed, to use the vernacular of our times, Paul wants believers to be. He commends older men in verse 2 to be temperate, dignified and sensible, among other things. In the same vein he says in verse 3 that older women should be reverent, moderate in their consumption of wine, and in verse 5 that they should teach younger women to be sensible along with exhibiting restraint in a number of other ways. And in verse 6 Paul also recommends that young men also be sensible. In verse 12 the apostle summarizes his teaching with, you guessed it, another exhortation toward self-control and seriousness. He writes that the grace of God teaches us to “deny ungodliness and worldly desires, and to live sensibly, righteously and godly” lives. And the reason for this self-control, moderation and seriousness is because it is behavior fitting our profession and our hope that our Lord will return at the end of this age. It is as if Paul has rewritten the old adage about cleanliness being next to godliness. For him self-control, moderation and seriousness are not only next to godliness but actually are expressions of it. And the reason is be, cause we are people who know that this world is fading like the grass, who await a world to come, and so do not revel in the things of this life.

If these are the kind of attributes we should display in our lives, why should our worship be any different? And yet:these characteristics are the opposite of :celebration, spontaneity and informality as our culture has come to understand’, them. Nevertheless, moderation, sensibility, and dignity are much closer to the traits that the writer to the Hebrews recommends as the proper response to God in worship. At the end of the 12th chapter the writer says that we should worship God with “reverence and awe.” And the reason why we do so, he explains, is because “our God is a consuming fire.” Thus, seriousness and dignity, reverence and fear, are much more fitting for the sound doctrine of Reformed theology, than our culture’s forms of celebration. The reason is that Reformed theology, in its affirmation of God’s holiness, transcendence and righteousness, honors and glorifies the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who is indeed a consuming fire.

Now the problem with this understanding of what is fitting for sound doctrine is that it might make our worship little different from funeral services. But this analogy is not as much a problem as we might think. After all a funeral service for a professing believer can be a joyous time, one where we rejoice that a saint, in the language of the Shorter Catechism, has been “made perfect in holiness” and has passed “into glory.” At the same time a funeral service is marked by sadness, not simply because we miss a loved one, but also because we know that death is the natural end of the estate of sin and misery. So too our worship should be characterized by joyful seriousness because the death of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, stands at the very center of our worship. We may rejoice in worship only because we know that Christ has conquered sin and death and has made way for us to come, boldly into God’s presence. But at the same time we rejoice in a serious and circumspect way because we recognize that our sin is what drove Christ to the cross. In other words, reverence and awe, moderation and self-discipline are fitting for the sound doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And this is in fact what usually happens in worship when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, in the old sense of the term. There we remember the death and resurrection of our Savior, our own unworthiness, and our complete dependence upon God’s mercy in Christ. As Paul says in the next to last verse of Titus 2, Jesus Christ has redeemed us from “every lawless deed” and has “purified for himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good deeds.” Only when that truth is firmly fixed in our hearts and minds will we be able to celebrate in a way that is fitting the sound doctrine that we confess and the God whom we worship.

D. G. Hart is an Associate Professor of Church History and Theological Bibliography at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he also edits the Westminster Theological Journal. He and his wife live in Philadelphia where he serves as an elder in an Orthodox Presbyterian Church.