Grace Presbyterian Church
October 27, 2019, Reformation
Decently and In Order
There are, in the broader life of the American church, two running jokes or maybe punch lines about Presbyterians. Or maybe three, if you count how quickly you can get a crowd of Presbyterians to call out “and also with you” just by saying “The Lord be with you” loudly enough for everybody to hear, but that happens in other denominations too. I know, it’s a little strange to think that there’s really anything funny about us, but hear me out.
One of the punch lines, more reflective of an “outsider” view of Presbyterians, is less a joke than a rather cold two-word description of us (supposedly). Maybe you’ve heard it? You know, how Presbyterians are all emotionless and unexpressive? That we’re … (wait for it) … the “frozen chosen”? Yeah, it’s an old one that somehow refuses to go away. Now if it meant we got special tickets for the big Disney movie premiere coming up about a month from now that might be something, but sadly that’s not how it works.
The other punch line, more of an “insider” view, might be regarded as a somewhat more kindly spin on the “frozen chosen” line. No, we’re not frozen, we might say, but we do believe in doing things “decently and in order.”
Hey, that sounds familiar. In fact, we just heard it in the last verse of our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. So we’ve got the Bible on our side after all.
All joking aside, churches in the Reformed tradition do in fact have a history of taking that particular fragment of scripture pretty seriously. It shows up in our form of governance, which was in fact a model for the organization of the different branches of government of the United States.
The order of worship today also reflects this concern for order. It is based on an order that was reconstructed about ten years ago to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, the scholar and teacher who became the chief voice of theology in what came to be known as the Reformed tradition of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin was not the first such voice, far from it, but his formulation of ideas about theology and worship and the life of the church proved to be most influential and substantially accepted among voices in this tradition. (Reminder: it was John Knox, a Scottish student and follower of Calvin, who brought those ideas to Scotland, where they took root and grew into the tradition we now call Presbyterianism.)
Calvin certainly had ideas about worship, some of which have not been observed in our usage of today’s service. In the midst of searching for a new organist we’re not about to shut off the organ down for the day over a five hundred-year-old ban, for example, nor is the choir being shut down. Also, the songs we have sung in today’s service do mostly comply with his edict that only scripture was to be sung in worship, either psalms (as two of the songs we sang) or other appropriate selections (as the final song we will sing later). The one exception we are making there is, irony of ironies, for a text long attributed to John Calvin himself (although it’s not completely clear that he actually wrote it). To be fair, Calvin’s attitude about congregational singing did soften, just slightly, later in his career, but it is his early restrictiveness that endures as his reputation.
Otherwise note how much the service focuses on the word, or perhaps more accurately on words and on the person preaching them. It’s not clear that anyone besides the preacher presided in worship, so Clint got the day off from liturgy duties. Beyond the traditional use of the Apostles’ Creed, it was expected that the Ten Commandments were to be recited as well, either following the absolution from sin, as today, or after the creed itself. While we have spoken the Confession of Sin corporately and read the psalm in our usual responsive fashion, it’s not clear that either one would necessarily have been encouraged or expected in the churches of the early Reformed tradition. The preacher talked a lot, and everybody else…listened, and that was doing worship “decently and in order.” Oh, and one other thing; at least until the councils of Geneva nixed it, Calvin’s services would have included communion every week.
I guess choirs were considered disorderly? And really, that third song we sang earlier sounds awfully dance-like for a church all consumed with keeping order. For all of that, our more usual weekly worship is not dramatically different from this aside from the greater use of music. Things might be in a slightly different order, some elements are named differently, some things are missing, and the Ten Commandments have not persisted. (Personally, if I were starting a new tradition, I’d have gone with the Beatitudes – words of Jesus, after all – before the Ten Commandments, but that’s just me.)
But, if we’re going to get all excited about Paul’s words, maybe we should look at just what Paul was describing as doing worship “decently and in order,” right? It actually looks a bit different.
Look what is presented right away: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation…” Whoa. Every person in this group somehow was expected to be prepared to contribute something to the worship of the gathered assembly. And it was not just about one person dragging in their favorite hymn every week and demanding that the assembly sing it every week. People were creating hymns or lessons for the assembly. These things – hymns, lessons, revelations, and so forth – were products of the Spirit’s work on the people on an ongoing and ever-renewing basis. Are you prepared for that?
Oh, and let’s get back to that “so forth” – tongues and interpretations, since Paul has a little more to say about that. If it happens, he says…no more than two, maybe three, and make sure they take turns properly – no one stepping all over another’s time. Frankly that’s good advice for speaking in a known tongue, much less an unknown one. And oh, yes, if there’s no one to provide an interpretation of what is to be spoken in tongues, then the potential tongues-speakers need to keep it to themselves (and God).
Then come the prophecies and revelations (we might think of sermons), and again it’s not meant to be a free-for-all. Two or three prophets might speak, one at a time, and the whole assembly – all the women and men, nobles and slaves gathered together – are charged to weigh and evaluate what is said. If one of the assembly is given a revelation by the Spirit in that moment, that one is apparently encouraged to speak, but otherwise even the prophets can take turns and wait for one to finish (and the assembly to weigh what is said) before another starts.
What kind of chaotic order is this?
The key, it seems, is found in verse 26 and verse 33; “Let all things be done for building up.” “For God is a God not of disorder, but of peace.” The gathering of the assembly for worship and instruction is not about who can come up with the best hymn this week, or who has the best revelation or fanciest tongue or cleverest interpretation. If these things are not offered all together for the purpose of building up the body of Christ, for instructing and encouraging and maybe admonishing as needed, then they are out of line. All the fuss about “order” is directed towards one purpose; allowing everybody gathered together the opportunity to hear, to reflect, to respond, and all in all to be edified. Jumbled discourse, one person piling on after another without any sense of order and organization, does not edify, and Paul figured that out.
This was apparently something the Corinthians struggled with. You might remember that elsewhere in this letter Paul has to reprimand the Corinthians for their conduct of the Lord’s Supper, which included a meal that some people got into early and ended up full and drunk and some ended up with nothing to eat – a pretty disordered way of doing such service. So being concerned with keeping things orderly and edifying makes sense in this case, and it’s not unreasonable that the church reformers of the sixteenth century would also be concerned about that.
We have to observe, however, that even the most orderly service does not necessarily edify or build up. An orderly service can be nothing more than ego-boosting for a power-hungry pastor, for example (and yes, those do exist). It can be a means of stifling any kind of individual thought in favor of hardened doctrine based on half-baked and hateful Bible-thumping and bad interpretation, which does happen sometimes. It can be, in the hands of the worst, a forum for emotional and spiritual abuse, with the obedient listeners being pounded repeatedly with their own awfulness and God’s unrelenting judgment, with no hint of God’s love or mercy.
Order isn’t everything. What the order is used to communicate matters. If order is nothing more than a synonym for “control,” then we are guilty of actively clamping down on the moving of the Holy Spirit. Seriously, if I (or any preacher) thinks that my words are all that matter in a service of worship, I need to quit. That’s not what this is for.
If our order is about anything other than building up, edifying, offering the opportunity to learn and pray and take in and respond and all of those things that equip us to be servants of Christ; if our worship is about anything besides that, we’re doing it wrong, and we should probably close up shop and head home. Chaos doesn’t edify anybody, but order itself is not the answer. What we say and do and sing matters, and matters intensely.
Obviously Calvin’s directives about worship eventually loosened up, even if only after his death. Eventually the church decided, for example, that hymns written by human beings inspired by God (you know, the way that human beings inspired by God wrote the Psalms) could be good for worship. Still, the Reformed tradtion maintains, for the most part, a concern for doing things “decently and in order,” and that’s all fine and good, as long as what we do with that order, and who we serve with it, matter more than the order itself.
For doing things “decently and in order,” and with love and mercy, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #624, I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art; #385. All People That on Earth Do Dwell; #261, Peoples, Clap Your Hands!; #545, Lord, Bid Your Servant Go in Peace