The Church Service – Part 3

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The Church Service

(Part 3)

 

In the church service the Lord meets with His covenant people. It is a continuation of how the LORD met with His people at Mount Sinai and later at the temple and tabernacle. Today, He no longer meets with His people through the mediation of a priestly order, but through the mediation of the Great High Priest, Christ Jesus. As in the past, so also today in the church services, there is a judicial (court of law) element that remains. In the New Testament church services the Lord directed His Apostles, as appointed office-bearers, to assure those who embrace Christ in true faith that their sins are really forgiven. The LORD declares His people “not guilty”; their sins have been paid for. This declaration is comparable to how the priests in the past could assure those bringing sacrifices that their sins have been covered. In Lord’s Day 31 we confess this to be the first key of the kingdom of heaven. And this key—the preaching of the Gospel—is administered in today’s church services. There the mighty God of gods and King of kings calls His people together in a judicial-like context, and that should have a profound impression on the assembling together every Sunday right from the church service’s beginning to its end.

 

The beginning of a Church service:

The LORD gives no direct instruction about exactly what should happen in the church service every Sunday, nor does He outline precisely what should happen first and next. The liturgy of the church services developed over the years from study of God’s Word. One can speak here of a certain development and growth through reformations and corrections that responded to deviations from God’s Word. During such reformations, at times, safe-guards were put in place. It is in view of this background that it is so beautiful a church service begins with a Votum, which is to express reliance on the LORD. This is done by speaking the last words of Psalm 124.

It may be rightly suggested that the church service already begins when the consistory walks into the church auditorium and the duty elder shakes the minister’s hand. Even though the history of this handshake has been debated, it is a good practice which shows that the minister does not come onto the pulpit on his own authority but as an office-bearer who is about to carry out an official task. It is customary for the congregation to rise at this point. In my mind, this is a good custom. Let me explain why.

As has been pointed out, there is a judicial element to a church service. Even though it is different, it can be compared to a civil court. The comparison or parallel may be greater than first thought. It should be kept in mind that civil rulers, including judges, are God’s servants[1]. When a court session is about to begin, and the judge about to walk in, the court clerk comes through the door, saying “Order in the court!” upon which everyone in the court is expected to rise. And then the judge walks in. This custom is not intended to elevate the judge, as a person, but it is done out of respect for the occasion. This rising is done in recognition of the authority the king, or today, the civil government, entrusts to the judge. Any refusal to rise is contempt of the court[2], the king or civil government. And since they are the Lord’s servants, it would be in contempt of God.

But is it really any different in a church service? After all, it is an official gathering of God’s people. It has a very strong judicial element, not so much[3] regarding our crime against one another, as in a civil court, but much more in regard to our sin, or call it crime, against the Lord God. Remember also how among the children of Israel in the past the distinction between the civil assembly and ecclesiastical was not so clear. To be sure, among the children of Israel there were already judges distinct from priests but there was also a certain overlap. People who committed crimes were at times brought to the judge but were also under obligation to bring their sacrifices for the priests to offer up. It was the assembly of Israel that disciplined Achan for his civil disobedience[4]. Here the distinction between the civil and ecclesiastical hardly seems to exist. In fact, it is striking that in the Old Testament there really is no such distinction. But in the New Testament age, wherein the Lord is gathering His people from among all the (heathen) nations, the distinctions between the civil and ecclesiastical assemblies have become more pronounced. Yet even here it is striking that the Lord Jesus and later His apostles borrow a Greek word relating to a political assembly to speak about the church[5].  Keep in mind also that the church is really the assembly of the kingdom of Christ[6] here on earth. A kingdom is a political or civil organisation. As has already been said, this is where the keys of the kingdom of heaven are officially used. Thus, like in a civil court, the church service, too, is an official assembly and therefore it is good to show this right from the onset.

Let me add here as an aside: seeing that the church service is an official gathering, like a civil court or sitting of parliament, one can also expect this to be reflected in how the office-bearers are dressed. In a civil court the judge may wear a toga and along with the lawyers may wear a wig. It adds to the recognition that this is an official gathering. In the past the LORD had insisted on a special garment for the priests and in particular for the high priest. These garments were filled with beautiful symbols of how the Lord has His mediators carry His people on their hearts. We have rightly laid these garments aside and recognise that they, along with the priest of the Old Testament, have become superfluous in the better and more perfect Mediator we have received in Christ. Nevertheless, in recognition of how the church service is an official gathering, the Reformed custom of ministers wearing a black suit continues till today. The black suit came into place especially after past attempts to keep the church services official by officer-bearers wearing special garments wrongly grew, not only into re-introducing Old Testament-like priestly garments, but also into re-introducing this priestly office[7].

Thus the black suit remains important especially when church services threaten to become less official and more like a casual meeting of friends between God and His people. This not only applies to the office-bearers, but just as much to the members of the congregation. People, even criminals, are expected to be properly dressed when attending an official civil court hearing; how much more so when attending an official worship service. The Lord Himself gave instruction concerning it right from the beginning.[8] Thus when the congregation, all properly dressed for the occasion, rises when the minister with the consistory walks in (also dressed with a view to their special official task) the church service begins. It is then the beginning of an official meeting of the LORD God and His humble and respectful people.

Let me add a second aside: there has been a growing custom among the churches for the minister or an elder to first walk up to the front of the congregation to make various announcements. (At times the minister or elder will even understandably first greet the congregation by saying good morning.) Personally, I find this practice a great pity. I know the argument: These announcements do not belong to the official church service and therefore they are made before the service starts. But actually the church service has already started. It started when the minister and elders walked in. The problem here, as I see it, is that really when it comes down to it a short congregational meeting is held, interrupting the beginning and opening of the church service. It really is a very silly time to have a congregational meeting! In my mind it is just as strange as if when, in a court room, order is called, all rise, the judge takes his seat and then begins by announcing that town council will meet on such and such a date at such and such a time. There is place for certain announcements within the church service, which is a different matter, that will DV receive some attention a bit later, but in my mind, the practice of announcements before the church service is not only strange, but also confusing. Just imagine if at Mt. Sinai, just before the LORD began to speak, Moses or some of the elders would say: by the way, there will be a meeting at such and such a place at such and such a time. The church service is not directed at strangers who might be there, but I have often thought how strange it would be if strangers were there and the minister and elders walked in and one of the first things they hear is: A consistory meeting will be held… The home visits DV for this week… etc. It is much, much more beautiful and encouraging to hear as the first thing when the assembly begins: Our help is in the Name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.

These words at the beginning of the church service set the tone for the entire duration of the assembly. In my mind it is particularly encouraging to hear these words from the mouth of the minister who is about to declare God’s Word. Coming back to the analogy of a court room or sitting of parliament, how encouraging it would be for those gathered there if a Judge or Prime-minister would say something like that. By it he would show that it is not really he who is first, but that as a judge or leader he looks to the Lord and relies on Him and His Word. Of course, neither a court room nor sitting of parliament is a meeting of the LORD with His covenant people. It may therefore, at first, appear that this analogy is being stretched a bit too far, but it should be kept in mind that a church service is a meeting of the LORD God as Judge and King with His covenant people. This meeting is under the direction of the special office-bearers and, in particular, the minister of the Word.

Since the church service is a meeting of the covenant God with His people, and some therefore think it should be viewed as a back and forth like dialogue[9], it has been suggested that the people or congregation should speak this word. In my mind, while these words  are important for the entire congregation,  it is especially important for the leaders to say them because the judge in court, or a minister in church, are about to exercise  their official office in making a judgment or leading the service and proclaiming God’s Word. It is important for them to say it so that  the entire assembly knows that what follows will be done while fully relying on the Lord God.

 

The Salutation: 

After the votum, the salutation follows. The minister of the Word, using the gesture of a blessing, speaks the words found in the beginning of several New Testament letters[10]: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Alternatively the words of Revelation 1:4b – 5a are used. This is a greeting, but as a greeting from the Lord God whom we have offended by our sins, it is at the same time a blessing. In his book on liturgy Dr. K. Deddens writes that although we often call it a blessing, it is in fact a greeting… He adds that a gesture using only one hand would be appropriate for the greeting…[11] However, the kind of greeting that is given is a blessing! This was reflected in the Dutch language in which the salutation is referred to as a blessing-greeting.[12] The gesture, the raising of hands, was intended as the gesture of a blessing. This understanding continues to be reflected by how this gesture is made only by the minister of the Word and not by elders during a reading service[13]. It would appear to me strange for a minister of the Word to wave with one hand to the congregation by way of greeting rather than the raising of both hands in a gesture of laying on of hands as in a blessing. After all, for us who gather together as a congregation, the kind of greeting we find continually given in the letters of the New Testament is a real blessing. We deserve for the Lord to send His servants solely with the pronouncement of judgement and punishment. Instead, He sends them to pronounce a blessing for His gathered people! Along with the Votum this opening blessing and greeting, or call it salutation, is a real wonderful way for the official church service to commence.

In the next instalment, something more will be said about other parts of the church service and the order in which they take place.

PKA dB



[1] Romans 13:4

[2] It of course goes without saying that those who for physical reasons cannot rise are exempt.

[3] The expression not so much is used here in recognition that sin and crime against one another is also sin against the Lord.

[4] At least today, we would refer to his theft as civil disobedience but it was just as much ecclesiastical disobedience showing further how the one cannot be fully distinguished from the other.

[5] The Greek word ekklesia usually translated church referred to the Greek political assembly of the people in ancient Greece.

[6] There is no difference between the kingdom of Christ, of God or of heaven. All these expressions refer to the same kingdom. The variation in expressions may be used to show differences in emphasis or focal point. I have used the expression kingdom of Christ here to emphasise that He is King in the line of David. However, it is the same kingdom of heaven which we confess in Lord’s Day 31.

[7] Among some Reformed an attempt was made to retain the official garment for ministers by wearing a toga. However, this did not find much favour in fear of it appearing too much like re-introducing the special of priest like still happens in the Roman Catholic Church.

[8] Exodus 19:10 – 15.

[9] Please see the previous instalment.

[10] See for example; Romans 1:7b  and 1 Corinthians 1:3

[11] K. Deddens, Where Everything Points to Him  translated from Dutch by Theodore Plantinga; (Inheritance Publications, 2007).

[12] In Dutch zegen-groet.

[13] This has everything to do with understanding how Scripture teaches that there are three office in church, minister of the word, elder and deacon. See how we confess it in Article 31 of the Belgic Confession. See also how this matter is address in the reports of deputies among our sister churches in the Netherlands Acts of Synod Heemse 1984 – 1985