What are Circumstances of Worship?

What are Circumstances of Worship

Let all things be done decently and in order.” (1 Cor. 14:40).

“…there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church…” (WCF 1.6).

James Bannerman
The Church of Christ
III.ii.i.2.4, pp. 368-379.

Although the Church has no power in regard to the ceremonies and institutions of Divine service, except to administer and apply them, yet the Church has a certain power in reference to the circumstances connected with Divine service, and common to it with civil solemnities, to order and regulate them.

It is most important to remark, that, by the help of the distinction now adverted to, between the ceremonies or institutions [or elements] of worship peculiar to it as a Divine ordinance, and the circumstances of worship common to it with other or civil solemnities, we entirely shut the door against the entrance of the Church, in its own discretion or authority, into the province of public worship properly so called. Within that province the authority of Christ alone is known or valid; and the institutions and regulations which He has prescribed are alone binding. In regard to what belongs to the worship of the Church properly so called, Christ claims the right to dictate alone, without rival and without partner in His office. But beyond that territory, and in the province of what is circa sacra, or not in the worship of God, but about it,—in the circumstances pertaining to it in common with the practice of any civil and well-ordered society among men,—the Church, by the aid of the light and law of nature, has authority to interfere (Gillespie, EPC, III.vii).

1 Corinthians 14.

This office of the Church, not in the worship of God, but about it,—this power to regulate, not the ceremonies of Divine service, but the circumstances necessarily pertaining to it as well as to the services of any civil solemnity,—is defined by the Apostle Paul in the fourteenth chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians. The canon of Church order, which is there announced both in its extent and limitations, will be best understood by looking at it in the light of the circumstances that called forth the announcement. Indecencies and disorders of a peculiar kind had arisen in the Church of Corinth in connection with the administration and details of public worship.

In the first place, in the abuse of the extraordinary gift of tongues with which the members of that Church had been endowed, the custom had become common, when the congregation met for public worship, for those so gifted to speak in languages unknown to the rest, and even to speak, as it would appear, two or three together, to the introduction of utter confusion and disorder in the worshipping assembly.

In the second place, females, forgetting the restraints appointed by their sex, had been accustomed publicly to mingle in the deliberations of the Church, and sought to speak, if not to take part in ruling, in their assemblies.

These were the public scandals to which Paul sought to apply correction and restraint, by announcing those principles of Church order which were applicable to such cases, and bringing them to bear upon the Corinthian offenders. And in what manner does the apostle proceed to do so?

The light of nature.

The offences to be put down, although connected with the conduct and observances of public worship in the Church, were yet offences against nature; and accordingly it is by an appeal to the principles of nature that Paul seeks to correct and restrain them. He lays down the general rule, applicable not only to all Christian assemblies or Churches, but also to all civil assemblies, and equally binding upon both: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).

Indecencies were forbidden by the light of nature, by reason itself, in all societies, whether Christian or not; disorder was to be put down even upon principles that applied to civil assemblies, not less than to assemblies of the Church. And there was enough in the dictates of nature and reason itself to condemn what was contrary to decency and order, apart altogether from any positive regulations established in the Church, or peculiar to it. And accordingly the Church, as a society, having all the rights which any civil or voluntary society has to maintain order and decency in its assemblies, was entitled and bound to exercise that power to the restraint and correction of such improprieties.

Had it been, not in the assembly of the Christian Church at Corinth, but in the civil assembly of the people at Corinth, or in the council presided over by the proconsul of Achaia, that such scandals had occurred, they would have been repressed and punished upon the same principles. Had it been in a public meeting of the citizens or senators at Corinth that two or three had spoken together, or spoken in unknown tongues, or that females had sought to address the assembly, or to rule in it, nature itself would have supplied both the warrant and the law to restrain such disorders. And when these disorders and indecencies occurred in the Christian Church, the very same principles were applicable to their correction.

But in applying such principles, it was the Church legislating or administering power not in public worship, but about public worship. In carrying out the general rule, “Let all things be done decently and in order,” the Church received no authority from the apostle to exercise jurisdiction within the territory belonging to the worship of God, but only authority to exercise jurisdiction in a territory connected indeed with the circumstances of worship, but really belonging to reason and nature. The offences of the Corinthian Christians were offered against the dictates of nature, and would have been no less offences if connected with the solemnities not of a Church, but of a civil assembly; and the course of action prescribed to the Church for the purpose of correcting them, gave no power within the province of Divine worship, but only power about the circumstances connected with it. “Let all things be done decently and in order,” was a rule giving power to the Church in common with every civil society to guard itself against abuses that might be common to both and fatal to both, but nothing further.

It is plain, then, both from the nature of the rule itself, and from the circumstances in which it was given, that the general canon for Church worship, “Let all things be done decently and in order,” while it gives no authority to the Church in the matter of the rites and ceremonies and institutions of Divine service, except to administer them, does give authority to the Church in the matter of the circumstances of Divine service common to it with civil solemnities, in so far as is necessary for decency and to avoid disorder.

Instituted elements vs. circumstances of worship.

There is a broad line of demarcation between these two things. In what belongs strictly to the institutions and ceremonies of worship the Church has no authority, except to dispense them as Christ has prescribed. In what belongs to the circumstances of worship necessary to its being dispensed with propriety, and so as to avoid confusion, the Church has authority to regulate them as nature and reason prescribe. On the one side of the line that separates these two provinces, are what belong to Church worship properly so called,—the positive rites and ceremonies and institutions that enter as essential elements into it; and here the Church is merely Christ’s servant to administer and to carry them into effect. On the other side of that line are what belong to the circumstances of worship as necessary to its decent and orderly administration,—circumstances not peculiar to the solemnities of the Church, nor laid down in detail by Christ, but common to them with other civil solemnities, and left to be regulated by the dictates of reason and nature; and here the Church is the minister of nature and reason, and her actions must be determined by their declarations.

In regard to, not the circumstances of worship, but its ceremonies, the Church has no discretion, but must take the law from the positive directory of Scripture. In regard again to, not the ceremonies, but the circumstances of worship, the Church has the discretion which nature and reason allow, and must be guided by the principles which they furnish as applicable to the particular case.

Scriptural appeals to nature and reason.

That these circumstances of order and decency are left to be regulated by the dictates of reason and nature applicable to each case, is apparent from the statements of the apostle in writing to the Corinthians on this matter.

In reference to the peculiar scandals that prevailed among them, he appeals to the principles of reason, and nature, and common sense to put them down: “Brethren, be not children in understanding; howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.” “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the Churches of the saints.” “It is a shame for women to speak in the Church.” (1 Cor. 14:20, 33, 35). And because the rule was previously binding by the dictates of reason and of nature, he lays it down as a standing and perpetual law in the Church, that all things within it were to be done “decently and in order,“—a law left open for the discretion of the Church to apply, as particular cases should require it, to the circumstances of public worship.

The Church has no discretion over the elements of worship.

But this rule, dictated by reason and nature in regard to the circumstances about worship, did not give to the Church any authority in regard to the ceremonies in worship. It did not permit the Church to carry its discretion or authority within the province already occupied by the positive institutions and express appointments of Christ. There the Church was already fettered by an express and positive directory for worship enacted by its Divine Head; and there the Church had no discretion, except to administer and apply it.

In the circumstances of worship, the Church is the minister or servant of nature to carry into effect, according to the peculiarities of each particular case, the dictates of nature or reason, so that its solemnities, as well as those of any civil society, may be conducted according to order and decency. In the ceremonies of worship, the Church is the minister or servant of Christ, to carry into effect, according to His express directory, the rules for Divine service; in order that His rites, and ceremonies, and institutions, peculiar to the Church, and not common to it with any other society, may be administered in obedience to His authority, and in the way He has prescribed.

Such, then, is the office of the Church in regard to the circumstances of Divine worship, as contradistinguished from the ceremonies or institutions of Divine worship. In regard to the circumstances, as contradistinguished from the ceremonies, there is a discretionary power allowed the Church, such as belongs to any civil society, to be used, as other societies use it, at the dictate of reason and nature, and to be directed to secure in the solemnities of the Church, as in any civil solemnities, the blessing of decency and order. Beyond this it does not go; nor can it give any claim to interfere with, to add to, or alter the institutions of Church worship which Christ has ordained in the Christian society.

Arrogating power over religious ceremonies.

The assumption of such a power by the Church amounts to no more than this: that it has a right to exercise its own reason, like every other society, to guard itself against what is contrary to the dictates of reason in observing the positive institutions of Divine worship. It implies no authority to interfere by addition or alteration, or in any other way, with those institutions of worship. And yet I believe that it is from this quarter that the greatest danger is found to arise in the way of the Church arrogating to itself the power to decree rites and ceremonies in the worship of God. The acknowledged right that belongs to the Church, as it belongs to every voluntary society, to take order according to the dictates of reason and nature that its solemnities shall be conducted with propriety and without confusion, is interpreted as a right to add to or take from the positive institutions of worship according to the judgment or discretion of the Church.

The rule of the apostle, as laid down to the Corinthian Church, plainly and undeniably included in it no power more than reason or nature would confer on any civil society in order to guard itself against those scandals or offences in the transaction of its business that are contrary to decency or order. This right, under the guidance of its own judgment and discretion, the Church has; but no more than this. Of course the difficulty is to draw the line between matters of decency and order, which it is competent to the Church to regulate in the circumstances of its worship, and matters of express appointment and command in the ceremonies of its worship, which it is not competent for the Church to regulate or interfere with. And yet I believe the difficulty of separating between these two things has been very greatly exaggerated.

Three conditions of circumstances of worship.

In the very acute and masterly treatise of George Gillespie, entitled A Dispute against the English-Popish Ceremonies, he lays down three marks by which to distinguish those matters of decency and order, which it is necessary and lawful for the Church at the dictate of reason and nature to regulate, from those parts or elements of public worship in regard to which she has no authority but to administer them. (Gillespie, EPC, III.vii.5-7).

1. Circumstantial, not substantial.

Three conditions,” he says, “I find necessarily requisite in such a thing as the Church hath power to prescribe by her laws: First, It must be only a circumstance of Divine worship, and no substantial part of it—no sacred, significant, and efficacious ceremony.” [1]

There is plainly a wide and real difference between those matters that may be necessary or proper about Church worship, and those other matters that may be necessary and proper in worship; or, to adopt the old distinction, between matters circa sacra and matters in sacris. Church worship is itself an express and positive appointment of God; and the various parts or elements of worship, including the rites and ceremonies that enter into it, are no less positive Divine appointments. But there are circumstances connected with a Divine solemnity no less than with human solemnities, that do not belong to its essence, and form no necessary part of it. There are circumstances of time and place and form, necessary for the order and decency of the service of the Church, as much as for the service or actions of any civil or voluntary society; and these, though connected with, are no portion of, Divine worship. When worship is to be performed on the Sabbath, for example,—where it is to be dispensed,—how long the service is to continue,—are points necessary to be regulated in regard to the action of the Church as much as in regard to the action of a mere private and human society; and yet they constitute no part of the worship of God. And they are to be regulated by the Church in the same way and upon the same principles as any other society would regulate these matters; namely, by a regard to the dictates of natural reason, which have not been superseded, but rather expressly called into exercise in the Christian society for such purposes.

2. Not determinable by Scripture.

Second, The circumstances left to the Church to determine by the dictate of natural reason, and according to the rule of decency and order, “must be such as are not determinable by Scripture.” Of course, whatever in the worship of God is either appointed expressly by Scripture, or may be justly inferred from Scripture, cannot be left open to the jurisdiction of the Church, or to the determination of men’s reason. It is only beyond the express and positive institutions or regulations of Scripture that there is any field for the exercise of the Church’s authority and judgment. Within the limits of what strictly and properly belongs to public worship, the directory of Scripture is both sufficient and of exclusive authority; and the service of the Church is a matter of positive enactment, suited for and binding upon all times and all nations. But beyond the limits of what strictly and properly belongs to Divine worship, there are circumstances that must vary with times and nations; and for that very reason they are circumstances not regulated in Scripture, but left to be ordered by the dictates of natural reason, such as would be sufficient to determine them in the case of any other society than the Church. In addition to the test of their being merely circumstances and not substantials of worship, they are also to be distinguished by the mark that from their very nature they are “not determinable from Scripture.

3. Sufficient reason and warrant.

Third, The circumstances left open to the judgment of the Church to regulate according to the rule of decency and order, must be those for the appointment of which she is “able to give a sufficient reason and warrant.” This third mark is necessary, in order that the canon of Church order under consideration may not be interpreted so widely as to admit of the indefinite multiplication of rules and rubrics, even in matters that stand the two other tests already mentioned,—that is to say, in matters merely circumstantial, and not determinable from Scripture. Even in the instance of such, there must be a sufficient reason, either in the necessity of the act, or in the manifest Christian expediency of it, to justify the Church in adding to her canons of order, and limiting by these the Christian liberty of her members. There must be a sufficient reason, in the way of securing decency or preventing disorder, to warrant the Church in enacting regulations even in the circumstances of worship as contradistinguished from its ceremonies. Without some necessity laid upon it, and a sufficient reason to state for its procedure, the Church has no warrant to encroach upon the liberty of its members. And without this, moreover, there could be no satisfaction to give to the consciences of those members who might scruple as to the lawfulness of complying with its regulations. Even in matters lawful and indifferent, not belonging to Divine worship itself, but to the circumstances of it, the Church is bound to show a necessity or a sufficient reason for its enactments.

The Westminster Confession on circumstances of worship.

All these three tests of George Gillespie’s are combined in the singularly judicious and well-balanced statement of the Confession of Faith on this point. After laying down the fundamental position, that

the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture, unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men (Gal 1:8-9; 2 Thes 2:2; 2 Tim 3:15-17),

the Confession proceeds:

Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word (John 6:45; 1 Cor 2:9-12); and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed (1 Cor 11:13-14; 14:26, 40).” [2]

Every word in this brief but pregnant sentence has been well weighed by its authors, and deserves careful consideration from us. The things in connection with public worship which it is lawful for the Church to regulate must be “circumstances,” not parts of Divine service; they must be “concerning the worship of God,” not elements in it; they must be “common to human actions and societies,” not peculiar to a Divine institution; they must be things with which reason or “the light of nature” is competent to deal; they are “to be ordered by Christian prudence,” which will beware of laying needless restraints upon the liberty of brethren in the faith; and they are to be regulated in accordance with “the general rules of the Word,” such as the apostolic canons referred to in the proofs to the Confession: “Let all things be done unto edification;” and, “Let all things be done decently and in order.


By such tests or marks as these, it is not a matter of much difficulty practically to determine what matters connected with the worship of God are, and what are not, within the apostolic canon, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” They are the very things which reason is competent to regulate, which cannot be determined for all times and places by Scripture; which belong not to Church worship itself, but to the circumstances or accompaniments common to it with civil solemnities, and which must be ordered in the Church, as in any other society, so as to secure decency and to prevent confusion. The power which the apostle gives to regulate such matters is no power to enter within the proper field of Divine worship, and to add to, or alter, or regulate its rites and ceremonies and institutions.

It has often indeed been argued as if the apostolic canon gave such authority. It has been maintained that the authority ascribed to the Church to regulate all things according to the law of decency and order, is an authority to deal with matters in sacris, and not merely circa sacra. But it is clear, both from the nature of the apostolic rule, and also from the application made of it in respect of the scandals in the Church at Corinth, that no such peculiar authority to intermeddle with the provisions of worship set up by Christ in His Church was ever intended. It needed no supereminent power within the sanctuary of God, no priestly or infallible jurisdiction over sacred rites and institutions, no authority similar or equal to Christ’s own over the order of His house, to tell the Corinthian believers that the circumstances connected with their worship of God must be regulated decently, and regulated without disorder.

There is implied no power to add to or alter Christ’s appointments for His Church, in the right to tell its members that they must not speak in the meetings of the Christian society in a way that would not be tolerated in any civil society; and that women were not to violate the restraints appointed to women, and respected and obeyed in every other public assembly. Ἐν ὑμιν αὐτοις κρινατε. Οὐδε αὐτη ἡ φυσις διδασκει ὑμας; “Let them use their own sense and judgment. Did not even reason and nature say the same?” And in assuming such an authority in pursuance of the apostolic rule, the Church was claiming and exercising no more than the right which reason and nature give to every lawful society, whether civil or sacred, to guard itself against those offences or disorders in the conduct of its affairs which even reason and nature condemn; nor in the right to exercise such an authority belonging to the Church is there the slightest ground for alleging that there is included a power to rule over the house of God in the solemn matter of worship, or to interfere to the smallest extent with the rites, and observances, and ceremonies which have been positively prescribed and regulated by the express directory found in Scripture for worship.

In so far as regards the circumstances connected with the worship of God, in contradistinction to the worship itself, the Church is the minister of natural reason; and the rule for regulating such circumstances is the rule prescribed by natural reason, as interpreted by the canon of the apostle to the Corinthian Church. In so far as regards the ceremonies and institutions of worship, in contradistinction to the circumstances of their administration, the Church is the minister of Christ; and the rule to guide the Church in her administration is the express directory contained in the Scriptures. There is in the one case such a latitude of discretion allowed to the Church as nature and reason, interpreted by the apostolic rule, and applied to the changing circumstances of different times, and places, and nations, may permit. There is in the other case no latitude of discretion at all; the office of the Church being limited to the duty of administering the institutions of Christ, and carrying into effect the directory for worship which He has given in His Word.

[1] So soon as you attach a spiritual meaning, a sacred significance, to anything connected with worship, it becomes eo ipso a part of worship. It stands forthwith on a like footing with the typical ceremonies of the Old Testament, many of which were quite as insignificant in themselves as a white surplice or a lighted altar candle. As the Prayer-book of the Church of England says, “These be neither dark nor dumb ceremonies, but are so set forth that every man may understand what they do mean, and to what use they do serve. So that it is not like that they in time to come should be abused as other have been.” Upon the correctness of this last statement, and the justice of the anticipation that good might arise from retaining humanly-devised rites in the worship of God to which a sacred meaning was expressly attached, the condition of the English Church in our own day furnishes a striking commentary. As to what constitutes a part of Divine worship, see Owen, Discourse concerning Liturgies, pp. 35-37, Works, Goold’s ed. vol. xv; Gillespie, English Popish Ceremonies, Part iii. chap. v. vii. 5, 8, 13.

[The literature and the liturgical system of the English High Church party at the present day supply abundant illustration of the effective way in which this principle of religious symbolism may be worked in support of new doctrines. “To the Greek and Latin sister Churches,” says Mr. Perceval Ward, “she (the Church of England) seems to have lost the first principle of Christian worship — the Sacrifice of the Altar. We have to teach our teachers as well as our people this first principle of Christian worship. . . I need not say that the best way to teach this doctrine is the adoption of a high and noble ritual, — a ritual that shall compel the dullest and most thoughtless to ask, ‘What mean ye by this service?’” Difficulties of Re-Union, pp. 93, 94, in Essays on the Re-Union of Christendom, edited by Rev. F. G. Lee, with Preface by Dr. Pusey, 1867. Compare an Essay on the Symbolism of Ritual, p. 523, in The Church and the World, edited by Orby Shipley, Lond. 1867, and the same publication for 1866 and 1867, passim]

[2] Conf. Chap. i. 6 [Cf. Catechism of the Principles and Constitution of the Free Church of Scotland, sanctioned by the General Assembly, ed. 1863, Qu. 33-38, 59-61, 136, 141, 179. See also Zwinglii Articuli, x, xi.; Conf. Belg. Art. Vii.; Catech. Heid. 2, 96; Conf. Helvet. Ii. Cap. xxvii.; Decl. Thorun. De cultu Dei, 2, in Niemeyer’s Collectio Confess. Lipsiae, 1840, pp. 5, 362, 453, 531, 677.]


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