Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.
Once upon a time, Jeff Meyers and Tony Rollins–old friends who had not seen each other for a few years–met in the parking lot of a neighborhood church. They were dropping off their pre-school children at the church for Mother’s Day Out. They were such conscientious and helpful fathers. As they were walking into the church, Tony pointed at church’s sign with a grimace and a confident wag of his head: "Is that biblical?"
"What?" Jeff asked. "The sign?".
"No," Tony replied. "The sign says that this church has Lenten services every Wednesday evening. Is that biblical?"
It was early in the day and Jeff was feeling frisky, so he answered with a few of his own questions. Somewhere in the middle of this conversation, the two fathers remembered to sign-in their children. They continued their friendly debate once they were outside again.
JM: Is there something unbiblical about having church services on Wednesday?
TR: No, no, that’s not what I mean. I mean Lenten services. Is that biblical?
JM: What makes meeting on Wednesday evenings for a month or so to commemorate the sufferings of Jesus unbiblical?
TR: It’s not the Wednesday meetings that I’m concerned about. Let’s leave that out of it. It’s the celebration of the season of Lent. The Bible says nothing about such an annual event. Presumably the church celebrates Lent for a period of time on Sunday’s too. Right?
JM: Sure. So, let me get this straight. Because the Bible doesn’t explicitly say anything about a yearly observance of Lent (that is, meeting together to commemorate Jesus’ suffering and death), therefore it is unbiblical?
TR: Yeah, that’s what I mean. The Bible does not command that kind of worship. It’s unbiblical for a church to think it is pleasing God by observing Lent, or for that matter, Advent, Christmas, or Easter services. God has commanded no such thing.
JM: Wait a minute, let’s not muddy the waters. It’s not the "kind of worship" that is under discussion, but the time and theme of worship. This church does not get together on Lent to engage in a different kind of worship. Rather, the people gather to hear the Word, meditate, pray, sing–all the normal activities of worship. Lent does not actually change the worship, but the theme of the worship, especially the Scriptures that are read, the Psalms and hymns that are sung, and the content of the prayers that are offered up.
TR: That may be true. I don’t have a lot of experience with these kinds of worship services.
JM: Well, let’s assume for the sake of the discussion that no new elements of worship are introduced. What if I frame the issue this way: during Lent some Christians focus their meditations, Scripture readings, and prayers on the sufferings and death of Jesus. Is that unbiblical?
TR: But that’s the problem–the Bible does not command the church to celebrate a season of Lent.
JM: Granted. But does that make it wrong to observe such a season?
TR: Yes. When it comes to worship, whatever is not commanded in Scripture is forbidden. Lent is not commanded, therefore it is forbidden. When church leaders invent man-made seasons like this and impose them on congregations, they are binding their people’s consciences where God has not bound them.
JM: That’s interesting. Tell me about your church, won’t you? What has your pastor been preaching on.
TR: I’m a member of Calvin Reformed Memorial Church. My pastor is Rev. Reg Ulative. He’s been preaching through the book of Romans for quite some time. We’ve been in chapter 9 for a few months.
JM: How long has he been preaching from Romans?
TR: For about three years now. We believe in preaching straight through books of the Bible.
JM: Wow! How much longer till he finishes Romans?
TR: He estimates that it will take him about two more years–five years total.
JM: Does the pastor choose hymns and compose his prayers each Sunday such that they support whatever theme he is preaching from Romans?
TR: Yes, that’s the general practice.
JM: Is that biblical? Where in the Bible has God commanded that pastors preach through entire books of the Bible like that?
TR: Oh, I see! You were trying to set me up, weren’t you!
JM: I confess. You got me. But, let’s not get side-tracked. I asked you whether your church’s way of ordering it’s worship was biblical. Where does God command that the pastor order the Scripture readings, sermons, hymns, and prayers according to this method of continuous preaching?
TR: Off the top of my head, I don’t know. But this has been the Reformed way since the Reformation. Our church is being true to a venerable Reformed legacy when we follow the lectio continua method of preaching.
JM: A venerable legacy, huh? Isn’t that kind of like an "old tradition"?
TR: It’s more than just a tradition. We believe that it’s the best way of teaching people the Bible.
JM: Maybe so, but my point is that it is nowhere commanded in the Scriptures. There is no evidence to suggest that either Peter or Paul preached verse by verse through entire Old Testament books. My bottom-line question to you is: what really differentiates your church’s way of ordering Scripture readings, hymns, and prayers from one that uses the traditional church year? Your pastor "forces" five years of Romans on his congregation’s worship and this church’s pastor "forces" a year of the life of Christ on his. What’s the essential difference?
TR: When you put it like that, you make it sound like the church year is primarily a way for the church to order its readings, prayers, and hymns over time. Are you suggesting that it’s not all that different than what Reformed pastors do when they choose themes for their worship service based on their preaching texts?
TR: I guess that makes sense to me, but I’m not so sure that you haven’t tricked me somehow. I’ve always been suspicious of the church year because Catholics and Episcopals do it. Don’t they force the churches to keep the church calendar? I don’t think I would appreciate being mandated to celebrate something that the Bible doesn’t command.
JM: Whoa, do we have go through the Bible-doesn’t-command-it routine again?
TR: No, I don’t think so. But I am concerned about binding people’s consciences with extra-biblical requirements.
JM: You mean imposing Romans on people for five years?
TR: Ha, ha, very funny.
JM: I’m serious. Why do you submit to such an imposition on your conscience? The Bible does not command pastors to preach through Romans for five years. Your pastor has chosen to order your church’s services according to a man-made, extra-biblical scheme. The people are subjected to a five-year diet of Romans. Is that biblical? What makes this scheme more biblical than Lent? Why couldn’t your pastor choose to preach through the life of Christ in a year and lead the congregation through meditations, Scripture readings, and prayers keyed into the life of Christ? Why do you object to Lent and not to Romans? What’s the difference?
TR: Hey, aren’t you doing graduate work at that Lutheran seminary?
JM: You mean Concordia? Yeah, why?
TR: That’s where you’re getting all of these liturgical ideas! They’d never teach this kind of thing at a Reformed seminary, would they?
JM: Look, Tony, sometimes you need to step outside of your own tradition so that you can think objectively about it. Besides, why do you think Reformed Christians have such divergent liturgical practices? It may have something to do with the fact that Reformed seminaries don’t teach students to think about worship and liturgy at all. I don’t need to convert to Lutheranism to appreciate many of their insights into corporate worship. We seem to have forgotten that the Reformation itself was a liturgical renewal as much as anything else.
TR: Well . . . I’ve got to run. My wife’s helping plan our church’s Vacation Bible School this week.
JM: Is that biblical?
TR: Get outa here!
JM: See you later, Tony.
TR: Much later!
Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.
Jeff Meyers [contact him] is the pastor of Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church in Saint Louis, Missorri. He has been ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America since 1988. After college and serving as an officer in the U.S. Army, Jeff attended Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Jeff later earned his Master of Sacred Theology (S.T.M) and is currently completing his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary. He has a personal blog page called Corrigenda.
Jeff is also the author of The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenantal Worship, a practical pastoral guide to worship that introduces readers to the application of Old Testament sacrificial liturgics, biblical typology, and covenant theology.