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Question and Answer

Arrangement of the Worship Space

Question:

Please explain church decorum from the Presbyterian view, like: placement of flowers at the chancel, dress code of the worshipers, placement of the altar and whether it can be moved when the chancel needs to be used for drama purposes.

Answer:

Just as a point of reference, there are multiple Presbyterian denominations in North America, so not every one would approach these matters in the same way. I am responding on behalf of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

History explains some of the language about our church buildings. Centuries ago, Protestant churches frequently used buildings that originally had been built to accommodate Roman Catholic worship. In these cross-shaped buildings the front (chancel) was usually a raised platform on which the altar (for the Eucharist) was the centerpiece. The pulpit and the reading lectern flanked the altar. The baptismal font could be found near the entrance or in a transept or in proximity to the chancel. There also may have been other furnishings on the platform. The congregation stood or sat before the platform in the central area (nave).

As the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition developed, the altar was either pushed to the back of the platform, keeping the split chancel, or (more commonly) moved forward to the floor level and designated as the “communion table” to represent the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. At the same time (if the table was lowered) the pulpit was placed in the center in a position that stood above the table. The font was then moved to stand near the table on the same level. This arrangement was intended to stress the primacy of the Word over all else, and the unity of the Word and Sacraments. This is usually what is found in a worship setting for Orthodox Presbyterian churches. We do not refer to an "altar" anymore in the church setting, nor do we believe any part of the building to be more holy than any other.

For better or worse, it is common practice to place a vase of flowers on the communion table on those days when the Lord’s Supper is not celebrated. Flowers are also placed on the platform and/or around the worship hall as desired. There is no fixed rule about it. There need be no flowers at all.

Clothing is not normally an issue in the OPC. People wear what they want to wear, and I have seen just about every kind of dress in our meetings. That said, the elders do have the responsibility to maintain a certain atmosphere of reverence, and I can envision their asking someone in outlandish or immodest costume to find something more appropriate to wear. I would say the vast majority of attendees at an OPC service are conservatively dressed.

Many of our churches have a meeting hall for informal gatherings. This is normally the venue for plays, concerts, films and the like. However, there are occasions when the need arises to use the worship hall platform or front space, and the pulpit and other furniture can be moved aside for that. This would be the case if there were no adjacent hall or if the audience were too large for the other room. However, I can think of no occasion in the OPC where a regular worship service would require any such modification.

In the OPC we adhere to what is called the “regulative principle of worship,” which means we worship God only the ways He has directed in the Bible. Our Directory for the Public Worship of God puts it this way:

God may not be worshiped according to human imaginations or inventions or in any way not prescribed by his Word, nor may the church require her members to participate in elements of worship that God's Word does not require. Only when the elements of worship are those appointed in God's Word, and the circumstances and forms of worship are consonant with God's Word, is there true freedom to know God as he is and to worship him as he desires to be worshiped. (DPW, I.B.6.b)

This document gives many more specific points than space allows here. Take a look at the complete Directory at http://www.opc.org/BCO/DPW.html.

In conclusion, let me say that we are far more interested in the inner person than in outward matters. Decorum can be a matter of importance, and reflects the heart in some measure, but we pray that you will have a personal relationship with Christ and worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23–24). May God’s richest blessing be yours.


About Q&A

"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. At least one new question is posted each week, so there should always be something new here for you to read. (For those who would like to look at previous questions and answers, they will continue to be available as well.)

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