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  • Morning Worship—10:45 a.m.
  • Afternoon Worship—2:15 p.m.

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Oh, The Formality

By D.G. Hart, Ph.D.

Historically, Calvinists have not been known for being the life of the party. Most know that John Calvin ran a fairly tight ship in Geneva. Meanwhile, Reformed worship strikes many people as austere. Examples such as these have earned Calvinists the reputation for being “God’s frozen chosen.”

Times change. Today, Calvinists are as likely to advocate spontaneity and self-expression as they used to be known for decency and order. On a recent blog, a conservative Presbyterian argued that because of the goodness of God’s creation and the scope of redemption, Christians should be the best at “getting their party on.” “If Christ’s mission was truly accomplished and if the Kingdom of God is alive,” this particular blogger added, “then Christians ought to be the most celebrative people on the planet throwing the best parties and social events.”

The popularity of this perspective is fairly easy to see not only in the way Calvinists now behave at parties but also in the way we worship. Most Presbyterians and Reformed Christians have yet to rename their church buildings “celebration centers,” but the emphasis increasingly in Protestant worship is on loosening those restraints that prevent worshipers from entering fully into or feeling absorbed by the service. The older idea that worship was a time when lighter or less formal expressions, whether in words or music, were considered inappropriate. Today many Protestants, Calvinists included, believe that formality and restraint is unbecoming, if not a tad inhuman. Like our blogger, many ask, if we have so much to celebrate why should we be squeamish in our celebrations?

This shift in Protestant attitudes has led some to look either to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy for a way to recover the seriousness that used to prevail in most sectors of Christian worship. A recent issue of The New Republic featured a story on a Baptist pastor in Wheaton, Illinois, who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy – even becoming an Orthodox priest – in part because he could not abide what he considered to be the frivolity of contemporary forms of devotion. Two aspects of Eastern Orthodox worship stood out to him especially. One was its otherworldliness, the other was its changelessness. This former Baptist told the reporter, “Worship has now been reduced basically to entertainment. That carries people for two years, and then they start looking for something with more depth.”

Examples like this might tempt us to think that we need to plant different types of churches. Some people need a lighter approach to Christianity that is in step with the idiom of contemporary culture while others need worship that is transcendent and that offers solace from the rough and tumble of our time. For this reason it is not uncommon to find denominations planting churches that span the spectrum of cultural sensitivity, with the aesthetically-minded (often urban) believers being directed toward the liturgically formal congregations and the average suburbanites loading up their minivans to attend worship that is readily accessible.

Unfortunately, the church-planting resolution to the debate over formal-vs.-informal expressions of Christianity seems to pay little heed to what the Bible says about the relationship between content and form. Instead of assuming that the Reformed faith can take shape in almost any kind of cultural idiom, from celebration to reverence, the apostle Paul told Titus that some human manners or qualities were more appropriate for Christians than other kinds. In the second chapter of Titus, Paul exhorted Titus to teach what was appropriate for sound doctrine. As such, Titus should compel men to be “temperate, serious, sensible, sound in the faith, in love, and in steadfastness.” Likewise, women were to be “reverent in behavior,” “sensible, chaste, kind.” Paul’s point was that certain manners were more fitting for the truths of Christianity. Aside from avoiding evil, the lives of Christians were to be characterized by sobriety, dignity, self-control and moderation.

Passages like this one might tempt Calvinists to boast in their avoidance of enthusiasm, emotion, and even personal warmth. This is not the point. Though for those who think that Calvinists need to lighten up, some interaction with Paul’s instruction to Titus might balance the opposite call to “party hearty.” Instead, my concern is that form and content may not be as easy to separate as our culture assumes. If Calvinists truly have sound doctrine – and we do – then that teaching should be manifest in ways that, as Paul insists, are restrained and sober, whether in the individual Christian’s life, the activities of believing families, or congregations gathered for worship. Such moderation and self- control need not express itself in the kind of formality that characterizes state dinners at the White House or operatic performances in the concert hall. But neither should Paul’s call for restraint and sobriety be neglected for the sake of a relaxed informality that is indifferent to forms.

Ultimately, the issue is not one of what pleases us, whether we feel more or less comfortable with a certain manner of Christian expression. It is instead one of whether, as Paul puts it, our ways and manners “adorn the doctrine of God our savior” (Titus 2: 10). Certainly, we cannot understand all the reasons for Paul’s instruction about restraint and self-control. But if we paid it more heed, we might not be faced with an apparent stalemate between reverence and celebration.

By D.G. Hart, Ph.D. © 2007 Westminster Seminary California. Used with permission.
WSC Faculty Reflections

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