Should we aim to follow the example of "open time" (where everyone shares his own insights, etc) in our worship services?
With the growing influence of Brethrenism and many of its distinctives, including premillenial dispensationalism and lay preaching, their ideas of “open time” in the public worship of the church are also being more widely adopted by Evangelical churches.
Strictly speaking, a true Brethren meeting consists exclusively of “open time;” that is, there is no set format to the meeting and it is up to the “brethren” in attendance to ask spontaneously for a hymn, pray or even preach (although it is, at least in some groups, permitted to prepare for a sermon beforehand). For all their boasting of having no set format, Brethren meetings end up following the same format every Sunday.
Many Evangelical churches have adopted a semi-brethren approach in which a part (usually around 15 minutes) of the church service is “open time.” During this time, people (often even women and children! See I Tim. 2:11ff) are free to “share” something from Scripture or ask for a hymn. Some churches even devote one Sunday in four completely to “open time.”
But what does God’s Word say about this practice? Is it according to God’s revealed will? This question every child of God involved in this practice must ask himself, for the “Apostle of Love,” John, says, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God” (I John 4:1). So we ought to be like the Bereans, and “search the Scriptures” to see “whether those things [be] so” (Acts 17:11).
In order to answer such questions, we must begin with the relevant first principles; for public worship, this is the Regulative Principle. That is, we ought to worship God only in the way in which He has told us to worship Him. We are not to use our imaginations to invent ways of worshipping God. Any tradition of worship not found in God’s Word is unacceptable.
This is the teaching of the Second Commandment (Ex. 20:4-6; Deut. 5:8-10). When this commandment forbids the making and worshipping of idols or images, it is not forbidding the worship of false gods; this is already forbidden by the First Commandment (the Church of Rome subsumes the second under the first in a vain attempt to hide her practice of blatantly breaking the second). Rather, the Second Commandment teaches us that we must not use our depraved, sinful imaginations (i.e. make idols or images) in order to worship the Holy One. For when Aaron made a golden calf for the people to worship, he did not tell them “here is Baal;” he told them: “This is thy God that brought thee up out of Egypt” (Neh. 9:18), that is, the true God. Later on, his sons Nadab and Abihu “offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded not. And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD” (Lev. 10:1-2). They did not do something explicitly forbidden; they merely did something which “God commanded them not”—and God struck them down immediately. This arrogant presumption, that we think we can invent ways of worshipping God, is what the Apostle Paul calls “will worship” (Col. 2:23).
A healthy knowledge of our sinfulness and depravity will help us understand partially why this is so. Ultimately, it is for the same reason that we cannot invent any way of being reconciled to God ourselves—because there is only one way, and that, both in justification and public worship.
In short, “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it,” (Deut. 12:32, emphasis added).1
Having established the simple rule that we must worship God only in the way He has prescribed, we may proceed to the simple question, “has God prescribed a time in public worship which is left open for the spontaneous contribution of non-ordained members?”
The answer is, “no.” The Scriptures do not contain any such instructions.
There are several appeals to Scripture for such examples. These can be grouped into two, and we shall quickly deal with these as such.
First, there are numerous examples of prophets who were directly inspired by God to speak extemporaneously in the public worship of the church, even though they had not been appointed as regular preachers or teachers (e.g. Acts 11:28). However, since the canon of Scripture is finished and no more will be added to it, there are no more true prophets today (they are in the foundation of the church, Eph. 2:20). Indeed, every single reference in Scripture to prophets following the Apostolic Age are false prophets (e.g. Matt. 24:11,24; Rev. 19:20).2 As such, this example is invalid.
Second, there is I Cor . 14:26-33, the classic “proof text” of the Brethren view of public worship. This passage requires somewhat more lengthy treatment, but we trust our exposition will nevertheless be simple and clear.
The Brethren position on this passage is very simple (on the surface): This passage, and especially verse 26, is the model of public worship that all churches must follow.
We will state our position at the beginning: In the first verse of this section Paul is not prescribing what ought to be the norm in all the churches; rather, he is describing and then correcting the disorderly, sinful practices of the Corinthian church. It is an example of what a church service should not be like! To prove this we will now proceed.
This first letter to the Corinthians by Paul differs from many of his other letters in that it is the only one, besides perhaps his first letter to Timothy (e.g. I Tim. 3:15), which gives detailed instruction on public worship—and this instruction mostly takes the form of rebuke for a sinful practice followed by a correction.
The Apostle begins, in chapter 11, his main criticism and correction of the Corinthians’ behaviour in public worship. First, he commands the men to be bare-headed and the women to cover their heads (vv. 3-16), followed by a harsh rebuke for their carnal use of the Lord’s Supper as a mere excuse for indulging the flesh (vv. 20-22), and their lack of self-examination prior to partaking in it, leading to sickness and even death for some members (vv. 27-30). In fact, their practice of the Lord’s Supper is so corrupt that Paul does not even have time to correct all the errors and instead promises to do this in person when he arrives (v. 34). Next, he instructs them with regard to spiritual gifts (chs. 12-14), which again shows that they were abusing these gifts in public worship in order to puff themselves up (such as speaking in unknown tongues which helped no-one else in the church; v. 14). This necessitates a brief interlude on true Christian love (ch. 13), in light of which he exhorts them to use their gifts not for self-gratification but for the edification of the brethren (14:26c).
But even much of the remainder of I Corinthians has reference to public worship. He begins, in the first chapter by calling them to unity—because he had heard of divisions and strife among them (v. 10ff) which certainly affected their public worship. In the second chapter, Paul applies a stinging rebuke, calling them “carnal” and complaining that he must still talk to them of the basic things of the truth (3:1ff)—and such a lack of doctrinal knowledge surely also affected their public worship. After this, he explains to them that they are the body of Christ and therefore ought not defile themselves by permitting immorality (3:16-17), which leads, in the fifth chapter, into Paul’s demand that they excommunicate the adulterer during public worship—all the while sharply reproving them for not having done so already (5:1ff).
However, even the remainder of the letter is filled with criticism of the Corinthian Christians.
Along with the rebuke of their perversion of public worship, lack of doctrinal knowledge and toleration of sexual immorality, he also rebukes them for elevating themselves above the Apostles in their pride (4:6-14; 5:2). In the sixth chapter he complains of their practice of bringing each other before the courts of the land in order to solve their business squabbles; this is because they are spiritually as babies whereas they ought to be a sufficiently mature church to have elders to rule over them and to judge these matters (6:1-5). In fact, Paul is so concerned about their apparent spiritual weakness that he must even remind them that fornication is sinful (6:15-16).
So having the whole tone of this epistle in mind, we can begin to examine the passage in question. The passage is part of Paul’s correction of their perversion of public worship in chapter 14.
“How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation” (v. 26).
First, notice, Paul does not say, “and this ought to be the practice in all the churches.” He does not even say, “and this is the practice of all the churches.” Far from it! He begins, “how is it then, brethren?” That is, “Considering that we are to do everything for edification, considering that things must be clear in order to be understood [see preceding passages], how is it then that you are so disordered in your public worship? Someone calls out a psalm, another brings a prophecy, another one a teaching, there are even women speaking—there is no order, there is just confusion. Instead, you should do everything for edification; only two or three should speak at most, the others listen and test what is said, and the women ask their questions at home. God is a God of order and not of confusion!” (see vv. 26-35).
This point is already sufficient to refute the Brethren contention that this passage is God setting down the format of public worship that all churches should follow. However, there are further reasons why the Brethren interpretation is wrong.
Second, when Paul permits (v.31) “ye may all prophesy” it is clear that he does not mean “every single person”—for a few lines later he forbids women from speaking in the church service (v. 34) and, perhaps more importantly, he has spent a whole chapter explaining how everyone has different gifts so that not everyone is an apostle, a prophet, a teacher, etc. (12:29-30), and thus not even all the men in the church should preach. In short, when one considers the context of what Paul is saying and when one stops with the foolish argument that “all means all and that is all it means” (which would lead to even the children and babies being permitted to prophesy), it becomes clear that even here the “open time” is restricted to those who have the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues, while women are strictly forbidden from speaking at all in the public worship services of the church. That is, the Corinthian “open time,” which Paul supposedly prescribes, is closed to women, children and even men that do not have the relevant spiritual gifts. In other words, it is really not “open” at all according to the Brethren conception of “open”.
Third, even this permission in verse 31 in no way implies that the “all” who “may… prophecy,” should speak, and should do so in the one meeting; for Paul himself limits it to “two or three” at most (v. 29). And which Brethren meeting or “open time” obeys this command of Paul’s, and limits it to “two or three?”
Fourth, nowhere in this passage does Paul condemn only one person speaking in a worship service (the practice of only one man speaking in a worship service, i.e. the ordained minister, is strongly opposed by Brethrenism).
We see, therefore, that neither the prophets speaking spontaneously in church services in the Scriptures, nor the example of the Corinthian church, are valid proofs of the Brethren idea of “open service.”
What remains for us is to repent in dust and ashes and to humbly inquire of the Lord, “how dost thou desire to be worshipped?” and go to Scripture, and not to our imaginations, to determine the answer. In doing so, we must reject our hyper-spiritual notions and proud inventions of worship, remembering that Nadab and Abihu were slain by God simply for offering “strange fire” (Lev. 10:1).
The way the Spirit leads is through the Scriptures; therefore, to reject, misinterpret or ignore Scripture is to reject the leading of the Spirit. Conversely, the Spirit leads believers by leading them to worship God in the way prescribed in His Holy Word.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (21:3, 4) gives the following as a summary, though not an exhaustive one, of what God prescribes for public worship in Scripture:
“Prayer with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship,a is by God required of all men;b and that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son,c by the help of his Spirit,d according to his will,e with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance;f and, if vocal, in a known tongue.g
a. Phil. 4:6. • b. Psalm 65:2. • c. John 14:13-14; I Pet. 2:5. • d. Rom. 8:26. • e. I John 5:14. • f. Gen. 18:27; Psalm 47:7; Eccles. 5:1-2; Matt. 6:12, 14-15; Mark 11:24; Eph. 6:18; Col. 4:2; Heb. 12:28; James 1:6-7; 5:16. • g. I Cor. 14:14.
The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear;a the sound preaching;b and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God with understanding, faith, and reverence;c singing of psalms with grace in the heart;d as, also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God:e besides religious oaths,f vows,g solemn fastings,h and thanksgivings upon several occasions;i which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.k
a. Acts 15:21; Rev. 1:3. • b. II Tim. 4:2. • c. Isa. 66:2; Matt. 13:19; Acts 10:33; Heb. 4:2; James 1:22. • d. Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; James 5:13. • e. Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:42; I Cor. 11:23-29. • f. Deut. 6:13 with Neh. 10:29. • g. Isa. 19:21 with Eccles. 5:4-5. • h. Est. 4:16; Joel 2:12; Matt. 9:15; I Cor. 7:5. • i. Est. 9:22; Psalm 107 throughout. • k. Heb. 12:28.”
1 For biblical proof and more detailed explanation of the Regulative Principle of Worship, see the relevant sections in Scriptural Praise: The Case for Exclusive Psalmody and Public Worship and the Reformed Faith.
2 See http://www.cprf.co.uk/cessationismresources.htm for further reading on cessationism. Those who contend that there are still prophets today ought to remember God’s commands concerning those who claim to be prophets but who make even a single false prophecy or teach a single false doctrine—they must be immediately excommunicated, Deut. 13:1ff.