CON Contact Us DON Donate
Our History General Assembly Worldwide Outreach Ministries Standards Resources

Previous Issues

























Favorites from the Past

New Horizons

The Proposed Directory for Worship

David J. O'Leary

Mt. Tom is a beautiful mountain in western Massachusetts. Local hang gliders come there to launch. It's a fascinating sight to see them sail off, down over the trees below, and land on the field at the bottom of the mountain. I remember watching one man as he tested the wind and anxiously waited for the right moment to launch. Others became impatient and urged him to go. I could tell that he wasn't ready, but the pressure of those waiting made him launch. Sure enough! He didn't catch enough wind and landed high in the trees below the launching point. It was a case of waiting so long for the right wind that he was tempted to jump at any breeze.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has been seeking to develop a new Directory for Public Worship (DPW) for many years. Godly men have worked hard to develop a new Directory, and it will be considered at our General Assembly, meeting from May 27 to June 3. I am concerned that the length of time invested in this Directory will make us eager to jump, even if the wind is not with us. But unless there are some significant corrections or amendments, I will vote against the new Directory and urge others to do the same. I would like to consider why many think we need this new Directory, what the Directory should be and how it should serve, address some of our fears in the OPC, express a concern for our reputation, and offer some solutions. You can find this proposed Directory at My prayer is that we would be united more deeply in the worship of the true God through Jesus Christ.

The concern for a Directory for Public Worship goes back to the beginning of our denomination. As we developed our Form of Government, insufficient time was spent on a Directory for Worship. As one minister put it, "[While] the DPW reflected the shared assumptions of most of the ministers and ruling elders in the OPC," it soon became the case that "what could once be assumed must now be more thoroughly spelled out" (New Horizons, June 2007, p. 4). Concern grew that we were not all on the same page. But this was overstated. One committee reported to a general assembly that there was "near liturgical anarchy" in the church. A committee was established to do the work. It took twenty years. There were various reasons why it took so long. Some men transferred, some resigned, others retired or left the OPC. But most of the time was necessary because of the careful work, the faithfulness and the thoroughness of these men. In addition, it is hard to reach agreement on the proper rules for worship. Were we to vote the new Directory through today, we would still not have agreement in the OPC.

I do not want to suggest that there is nothing good in the new Directory. The classic definition of worship as a meeting of the triune God with his covenant people cannot be ignored. There is also the dialogical pattern of worship: God initiating and calling, the people responding with praise and worship. This cannot be overlooked or go unappreciated. Fortunately, our present Directory for Worship has such an emphasis.

The first question we need to ask is whether the Directory should be a directory or a manual. A manual would present us with guidelines and principles for worship that are then applied by the local session in individual churches. A directory would prescribe the conduct of worship and include mandated material. An important consideration here is the regulative principle of worship. This states that God alone may prescribe the worship of his people. It is often debated whether a directory prescribes the actions and conduct of worship or describes them. In fact, the sections that prescribe worship should only describe what Scripture first prescribes. Anything more than that is inappropriate. We may not prescribe for the people of God what Scripture has not commanded us to do.

A distinction is often made between the elements and the circumstances of worship. Elements are required by God; circumstances are practical details worked out by churches for good order. Borrowing from our Confession of Faith (1.6), the new Directory derives its principles "from the Bible, explicitly or by good and necessary consequence, and from no other source" (DPW, I.B.6.a). The risk here is that while God's Word is infallible, our thinking is not! What we think is a good and necessary consequence may not follow from Scripture as clearly and logically as we think. We must be careful that what we mandate in worship is based on Scripture alone. Our Directory should be expected to distinguish clearly between that which is mandated for churches and that which is simply recommended.

This distinction between what is mandated and what is recommended is clearly seen in the matter of the involvement of unordained persons in worship. This matter was considered by the Committee on the Involvement of Unordained Persons in the Regular Worship Services of the Church, which reported to the 58th General Assembly (1991). The majority report recommended the involvement of unordained persons, including women, in the conduct of worship (see But as it stands now, the new Directory specifies that the minister, licentiates, ruling elders, and candidates for the gospel ministry or interns may be involved in the conduct of worship, but "no others" (DPW, I.D.2.f). The Larger Catechism says that "all are not to be permitted to read the Word publicly to the congregation" (Q. 156), and the DPW understands that to include all unordained persons.

The role of women raises particular questions. While some hold that the Bible does not prohibit the involvement of women in the conduct of worship, they may fear that agreeing to such involvement would put them on a slippery slope leading to the ordination of women to the office of minister or ruling elder. Such a departure from the Word of God is not proposed here. But, as the majority of the Committee on Unordained Persons reminds us, "the abuse of a thing is not a valid argument against its proper use" (GA Minutes 1991, p. 276). In all such cases, the session would continue to oversee the conduct of public worship.

I have more concern for what I will call the "other" slippery slope. If we prescribe what Scripture does not prescribe in minor matters, we may suddenly lose the battle over what Scripture does prescribe in major matters. If we teach unordained persons, our sisters included, that we do not take Scripture seriously, there will be an overreaction that will open the office of minister or elder to women, contrary to 1 Timothy 2:12.

I am also concerned for the reputation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In significant areas, the OPC has set the pace for many beyond her boundaries by clearly delineating what is and is not the teaching of the Word of God on a number of subjects: freemasonry, 1942; the free offer of the gospel, 1948; abortion, 1971; creation, 2004; and justification, 2006. I fear that if we exclude the participation of unordained persons in regular worship, our reputation for biblical faithfulness will be—legitimately—challenged.

But where is the rule? Where is the order? Where is the purity of worship? It is found in the oversight of sessions. The new Directory shows the wisdom and legitimacy of allowing matters of worship to be left in the hands of sessions. It recognizes the legitimacy of the guest minister preaching the Word, but recommends that a ruling elder or pastor lead in the prayers of intercession because they would be more familiar with the congregation (DPW, II.B.1.d). The abuse of worship will be guarded by what the 1991 majority report called the "local congregational option"—the session's oversight of the conduct of worship.

I urge my brothers and sisters to pray for the work of the Assembly and the presbyteries as they consider this new Directory. I urge you to speak to your pastor and elders expressing your concerns, especially if you share my concerns! Then I urge the commissioners to the General Assembly, and the members of the several presbyteries, to amend the new Directory so as to express more accurately what Scripture does and does not prescribe. If that does not happen, I urge you to vote no on the new Directory. If we launch into the wind when it is not favorable, we may well end up in the trees.

The author is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, North Shore in Ipswich, Mass. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2009.

© 2020 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church



Chaplains and Military Personnel

Diaconal Ministries


Inter-Church Relations

Ministerial Care

Planned Giving

Short-Term Missions


Church Directory

Daily Devotional

Audio Sermons

Trinity Hymnal

Camps & Conferences

Gospel Tracts

Book Reviews



Presbyterian Guardian