IV. Worship, Sacraments, and Ceremonies
The consistory shall call the congregation together for worship twice on the Lord’s Day.
The consistory shall ensure that, as a rule, once every Sunday the doctrine of God’s Word as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism is proclaimed.
“Why do we have to go to church twice a Sunday?” Many a parent will have heard this question from children and many a minister will have had to answer this question at catechism classes.
There is no express command in God's Word that we shall do so. This does not mean, however, that we are not in full harmony with the Holy Scripture when coming together twice on the Lord’s Day. We are not only in harmony with God's Word when doing so, we also are continuing in the line of the Old Testament church. When, in the New Testament era, the Christians came together on the Lord’s Day in the morning as well as in the evening, they followed the Old Testament church with its morning and evening sacrifices. The New Testament church did not add anything to what they had always known, nor did they take anything away from it.
It is completely in that same line that the churches have agreed that the consistory shall call the congregation together for worship twice on the Lord’s Day. It is in the province of each church to determine the exact time and whether it shall be morning and afternoon or morning and evening. As long as there are two worship services a Sunday, a church is faithful to its obligations. More and more we see it happen all around us that one service per Sunday is considered sufficient. Especially during the summer months the afternoon or evening service is oftentimes cancelled either for a few weeks or for some months.
Even where a second service is being maintained this service has often degenerated into a meeting with a speaker or a film or a slide show. It no longer deserves the title “worship service,” but the term: social gathering. We must be thankful that the churches have bound themselves to calling the congregation together twice on the Lord's Day, and that they have upheld that these gatherings are worship services.
This also applies to the service in which God’s Word is proclaimed with the Heidelberg Catechism as a guide. Usually it is in the afternoon or evening services that a so-called “Catechism sermon” is given. There is no objection to using that term as long as it is realized that no sermon is delivered, “on the Catechism,” but that in these services, too, we listen to the proclamation of God’s Word.
At times it was customary to read one or more texts in conjunction with the reading of the Lord’s Day to be dealt with. This writer recalls to have heard as a routine the following words: “On these and other texts is based the truth which we find in Lord’s Day.…” It was an effort to make clear that the congregation was not about to receive a sermon on human thoughts or doctrine but to hear the proclamation of God’s Word as the church has summarized it in that specific Lord’s Day. It was also done to refute the claim that the churches gave too much honour to a human book by placing it on a level with the Holy Scriptures.
Admittedly, since the Heidelberg Catechism is taken as a guide, the afternoon or evening service does, indeed, have a slightly different character than the morning service when part of Scripture is taken directly as the truth to be proclaimed; yet it is a fallacy to say: “This evening we profess our faith as formulated in Lord’s Day...,” or to introduce the sermon with the words: “This evening we shall listen to what we confess in Lord's Day.…” We are going to listen to God’s Word as the church has summarized it. That we follow this summary by the church is the only difference with the morning services. The Word of God is proclaimed, and this includes and involves more than the reading of one or more texts from Scripture in connection with the Lord’s Day in question.
In earlier days there was a provision that, as much as possible, the whole Catechism should be dealt with in the course of one year. This writer knows of only one church where Lord’s Day 1 was taken on the first, and Lord’s Day 52 on the last Sunday of the year. He also knows of ministers who needed more than two years to “work” their way through the Catechism. The original intent may have been that the cycle be completed in one year, there is no longer any rule requiring it.
Vacant churches may not always be able to have a “Catechism sermon” every Sunday, but they should do their best to continue with it also when no minister is available.
Is there a set liturgy which should be followed by all the churches? We find two different liturgies in our Book of Praise. Are the churches restricted to these two and are no deviations from them allowed?
It is advisable that all churches use the same liturgy so that members attending a service in a sister church far or near know what to expect and are spared some embarrassment when they make a wrong move, and so that ministers who conduct a service in another church do not have to ask every time: “And what liturgy do you have here?” Though this is considered advisable, it does not mean that it is mandatory. The orders of worship found in our Book of Praise are merely suggested orders.
Liturgy is the concern of each church, but it does not for this reason become a matter of all the churches together in their federative bond. A general synod would be amiss by adopting one or two orders of worship and then imposing them upon the churches. The churches would be imposed upon
if they were told to abide by the liturgies that were approved by general synod. Churches have the freedom to decide for themselves, and they should keep this privilege.
When saying that the order of worship is a matter for each church, we should stress the word church. Liturgy is not a matter to be decided upon by the minister but by the consistory. A consistory, on the other hand, must have good reasons for bringing about any changes, even when a “new” minister suggests them. A see-sawing should be prevented.
As for the order of worship itself, the following points deserve some special attention.
The first sign that the church of Christ is assembled is visible when the elders and deacons enter with the minister. This shows that the people who are gathered together here are not attending a meeting with a speaker or are having a social get-together. They are assembled as the church of Christ under the supervision and authority of the consistory. Here an official worship service will be conducted in which God's Word is proclaimed with authority and power.
In most churches it is customary that an elder gives the minister a handshake before the latter goes on the pulpit and also at the end of the service when he has left the pulpit. Various explanations have been attempted to explain this gesture, but as yet no one has been able to say with certainty when, where, and why it was introduced. All the “explanations” remained guesswork or the expression of possibilities. Whoever feels like it can collect a large quantity of them.
As soon as the person who is to conduct the service is in the pulpit the congregation usually rises for the votum and salutation, although in some churches all remain seated until the minister requests them to rise. Sometimes announcements are made before the congregation is asked to rise.
With the congregation standing, the minister speaks the votum: “Our help is in the Name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.” In doing this he confesses, as the mouth of the gathered believers, their total dependence upon the Lord as He has revealed Himself in His Word as the almighty God of the covenant.
After this follows the salutation. This, we may say, is the Lord’s response to the confession just made. He assures His people that they do not confess this in vain, but that He is present indeed with all the fulness of His mercies. Now that the congregation has confessed that their only help is in His Name, He now endows them with His blessing. The words for this “salutation” are sometimes taken from Rev. 1, sometimes from the letters of Paul. Before he begins to say this salutation, the minister raises his hand(s).
There is a difference in the wording of this “salutation” as well as in the manner in which the ministers give it. This difference is found in that either both hands are raised in a gesture of blessing or one hand in a gesture of greeting. It depends on whether the “salutation” is seen as a greeting or a
blessing. In the latter case it again makes a difference whether this blessing is seen as a wish or as an assuring statement.
Let us pay some attention to the questions arising here. When the words “Grace (be or is) unto you and peace.…” are used, some ministers say: “Grace to you.…” They do this because in the original Greek text no verb is used. Thus it is a literal “translation” when also the English version omits the verb. There is only one difficulty: “grace to you and peace.…” is an incomplete sentence, as it lacks a verb, and it is not made clear whether it is a wish or a statement, an assurance on which the congregation may count.
The question is therefore: “Is it a wish or an assuring statement? Is it a greeting or a blessing?”
According to some it is merely a greeting and for this reason they raise only one hand to symbolize this. But if it is only a greeting for the assembled congregation, though a greeting from the Lord, then the raising of even one single hand does not make any sense. In that case no hand raised is better than just one hand raised.
Let us consider: are the words spoken in reply to His people’s confession that their help is in His Name just a greeting on behalf of the Lord? And even if they are merely a greeting, what makes them different from a blessing? And is it really logical to speak at the beginning of a “greeting” but to characterize the very same words at the end as a blessing? By what is the worship service characterized? Is it by a simple “greeting” by the Lord in response to His people’s confession that they expect everything from Him alone? Or is it rather the Lord’s assurance that: blessed is indeed the nation whose help is in His Name? Does the blessing come only at the end and is it not there right at the beginning?
This is a guide to the use of our Church Order and not an explanation of our liturgy. Let it therefore suffice when we state that in response to their confession that their help is in His Name, they receive the Lord’s blessing, that is, the assurance that He is with them with His grace, that through Christ the relationship with Him has been restored, and that they are together under His blessing. God’s “greetings” are never just greetings, but deliver that of which they speak. Thus also at the beginning of the service the minister should raise both hands. On behalf of the Lord he not merely “greets” the people of the covenant but may lay the Lord's blessing upon them.
He should not drop his hands before the “Amen” has been spoken. When we take this word seriously and remember the meaning of it as also our Catechism explains it, it is clear that it belongs to the blessing and should not be added as a sort of afterthought. “It is true and certain!”
That a “greeting” in the Name of the Lord is a blessing is evident from many places in Scripture. At this place we mention only Luke 10: 5 and 6. We’ll come back to this text later on.
We do this in connection with the next question, namely, whether a verb should be used and, if so, whether it should be in the indicative (“is”) or in the optative (“be”). Is the minister to say “Grace is unto you.…” or “Grace be unto you”? Likewise, at the end of the service, should he say: “The Lord blesses you.…” or is it to be “The Lord bless you....?” Not using a verb at all does not sound like proper English.
Someone remarked that no Jewish translation of the Aaronic blessing uses the indicative: “The Lord blesses you.…” and that also the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament of the Seventy (LXX), uses the optative. The conclusion is obvious: we, too, should use “be” and “bless.” Besides, it was stated, when the indicative (“is” and “blesses”) is used, the impression is given that the blessing is a fact, irrespective of the people’s reaction to it.
This latter remark is spurious. The blessing of the Lord is not a wish, a hope expressed, or a possibility put forth. The words that are spoken on behalf of the Lord are powerful words, words that bring about what they say.
Here we return to Luke 10: 5 and 6. The word of “greeting” did bring the peace into the house, for when there was no “son of peace” living there, it was not a “wish” or a “greeting” that would return to the one who spoke that word, but the peace itself, brought in the greeting, would return. When the peace itself was brought into a house where someone lived who rejected it, how much more are the treasures, the blessing of the Lord given to His people when He responds to their confession. When a blessing is spoken, whether at the beginning or at the end of the service does not make any basic difference, the blessing of the Lord is laid upon His people and they are blessed. Then His blessing is not a possibility but a reality. Being together, they are blessed; leaving after the service, they leave as blessed children of the Most High.
Thus it is evident that the indicative (“is with you” and “The Lord blesses you”) is the proper wording. Certainly, the blessing is not automatic, but is there anything in the Lord’s service that is automatic? The blessing returns to the Lord if it is not received in faith, just as the word of greeting by His emissaries would return if no “son of peace” was found in the house. That the Lord’s assurances will return to Him if they are not received in faith does not undo the fact that His assurances are just that and nothing less. For this reason we thank the Lord that He “has forgiven us and our children all our sins.” (Form for the Baptism)
Elder and Benediction
One more question is to be answered here. It is the question whether an elder, when conducting a service, should use “us” or “you.” The question of the raising of the hands is not the issue here. There appears to be no difficulty regarding this point. Why should an elder have to change the wording to “be with us” and why would an elder act correctly when saying: “Let us now pray for the blessing of the Lord?” Does the Word of God come to His people with less authority when an elder reads a sermon prepared by a minister than when a minister delivers this sermon himself?
The value and power of the word of blessing are not derived from or determined by the position and office of the person who speaks the blessing. God’s people are blessed when the words of blessing are spoken, and they are blessed not by the minister but by the Lord. Likewise they are blessed when an elder conducts the service just as richly and certainly as when a minister conducts it. An elder should, therefore, use the same words which
a minister uses. He does not pray for the blessing but assures God’s children that they are together under His blessing in response to their confession at the beginning.
And if anyone, upon hearing the elder say: “Grace is to you...” should think: “Who does he think he is?,” the answer reads: “Exactly what he is: one who is allowed to pass on the rich assurances of the covenant God and who in His Name is allowed to declare His mercies to the assembled congregation.”
In this connection one more question remains. Would an elder be allowed to make changes in a prepared sermon he is going to read? It all depends. He would not be permitted to add anything of his own, but definitely would be allowed to leave out references to specific places and circumstances which do not mean anything to the congregation as they are not familiar with them. In all likelihood a minister will eliminate such points before releasing the sermon for publication, but in some instances ministers provide vacant churches with non-published sermons. In our age of computers and photocopiers many possibilities exist and are utilized. In these cases it may be necessary to omit or change some sentences to make the sermon as a whole more applicable to the congregation. An elder should have the freedom to do so. After all, he is an office-bearer with all the authority that comes with his office.
Bearing in mind that we are dealing with church polity and not with liturgy, the above will have to suffice as a commentary on Article 52.