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Theology of Worship

Historically, the driving principle in the development of the standards of Presbyterian worship is the Regulative principle of worship, which specifies that (in worship), what is not commanded is forbidden.

In addition to those detailed in the History section below, Presbyterians also historically have held the following Worship positions:

  • Only two sacraments:
    • Baptism, in which they hold to the paedo-baptist (i.e. Infant baptism as well as baptising unbaptised adults) and the Aspersion (sprinkling) or Affusion (pouring) positions, rather than the Immersion position (although Immersion is valid)
    • The Lord’s Supper (also known as Communion or the Eucharist)


Worship at the time of the Reformation

At the start of the Scottish Reformation in 1560 there was no Reformed standard for worship in Scotland, so the shape the Church initially took was dependent on local Protestant patrons.

Writing from exile in Geneva, John Knox described in detail what should be done at weekly worship in a ‘Letter of Wholesome Councell’ dated 1556. Protestant preachers fleeing Marian persecutions in England brought with them Edward VI’s second Book of Common Prayer (of 1552), which was commended by the Lords of the Congregation. Knox too initially supported it (indeed reportedly, he had influenced aspects of it). However, before leaving Geneva and with the encouragement of John Calvin, he had written his own ‘Book of Common Order’ and it was this that was printed and approved by the General Assembly of 1562. Enlarged, it was reprinted with the Confession and the Psalms in metre in 1564, and it remained the standard until replaced with the Westminster Directory in 1643.

The Regulative principle of worship (see Theology of Worship, above) saw many of the previous practices (inherited from the Roman Catholic church) cast aside. Two major points which might be unusual by today’s standards were:

  • Exclusive psalmody: the doctrine that, in worship, only the Psalms (from the Bible) were to be sung; singing other words was only to be done outside the worship service
  • A cappella singing: the doctrine that no instruments were to be used in worship other than the human voice

Both of these were introduced, at least partly, to prevent the singing of hymns to Mary and the Saints.

Introduction of Continuous Singing

In early times the common method of singing in Presbyterian worship, was lining out, where a precentor read or sang one line and the congregation repeated it after them. The Directory of Public Worship, says this:That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm book; and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read. But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof.

It appears from the wording that this was a practical measure in 1650, not a doctrinal position. Lining out was used by other denominations as well for the practical reasons that many people were not sufficiently literate or because of a lack of hymnals.

From around 1720 onwards, many advocated the introduction of continuous (or regular) singing.[ Cntinuous singing was introduced into many Presbyterian churches worldwide, even those that consider themselves to be following the traditional Presbyterian line on worship; there are some, who still practise lining out, such as the Steelites.

Introduction of Hymns

In this context, “hymns” means hymns that are not part of the Bible; the word “hymn” is used in the Bible, but it is claimed by advocates of exclusive psalmody that this refers to a specific type of psalm.

After singing psalms for 200 years, in 1861 the Church of Scotland first formally adopted hymns, with the Free Church of Scotland doing the same in 1872. Hymns and other extra-biblical words are now widely used in Presbyterian circles; the details vary from denomination to denomination.

Introduction of Instruments

In the early nineteenth century, the Revd R. William Ritchie of St. Andrew’s Church, Glasgow, attempted to introduce an organ into his church, but was informed by the Presbytery of Glasgow that “the use of organs in the public worship of God is contrary to the law of the land and constitution of our Established Church.”

In 1863, the Revd Robert Lee introduced a harmonium into worship at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. Lee defended instrumental music at the 1864 General Assembly, who declared that “such innovations should only be put down when they interfered with the peace of the Church and harmony of congregations”. A pipe organ was subsequently installed in Greyfriars, and first used in 1865.

Present practice

Presbyterian churches practice worship the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This occurs every Sunday (Lords Day). Other services often occur at other times of the week as well as meetings for prayer and Bible Study or simply mid week chapel with communion being served. Most mainline Presbyterians utilize hymns and with some additions to more modern worship songs being introduced or part of a blended service. Most modern day Presbyterians do not strictly sing Psalms as some once did. John Calvin in Geneva used biblical psalms almost exclusively in the Genevan Psalter, though it contained some gospel canticles and catechetical songs. This psalter was to become a prototype for Reformed worship, but Calvin did not have any objection to the use of original hymns in other churches, and he did not appeal to scripture in his preface to the psalter justifying his preference for the Psalms.[1]:42, 45

Other Presbyterian denominations hold exclusively to the psalms in metre. The psalms in metre are still esteemed by worship leaders in the Church of Scotland while also recognizing the contribution of authors of hymns and worship songs from historic times to the contemporary. Use of contemporary worship songs is employed by some more independent or evangelical type of congregations within Presbyterianism.

John Calvin’s direction for celebration of Holy Communion was every Lord’s Day. During the time of the Puritan influence upon some Presbyterians, worship and the celebration of the Eucharist became lessened to once per quarter. This has changed in most mainline Presbyterian denominational churches and celebration of Communion ranges from once a quarter/ once a month to every Sunday or Lord’s Day Service. This movement is carried forward by those who believe that Word and Sacrament should be present in each service of worship. The Real Presence of Christ (spiritually) is highly viewed and understood. Presbyterians strongly disagree with simply the symbolic or memorial service as taught by many Anabaptists, but do not go as far as the sacramental union view of Lutherans. Presbyterians hold the “Spiritual Real Presence” of Christ in the sacrament of Communion. Today most mainline Presbyterian churches administer Communion by either passing the elements or by intinction.

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