2007November16, Friday

The RPW and “Davidic Dance”

Posted in Worship at 16:28 by Trey Austin

David Bayly, over at the Bayly Blog has posted about the RPW and what he perceives as an inconsistency in application. To be honest, i wasn’t sure whether he was against or for the Regulative Principle by what he said (i lean toward “against,” but given what he says about dance, i’m not sure). But, still, his point is well-taken that the RPW is difficult to apply in particular situations, and the primary reason is that people have very different notions about what it consists of and what it applies to.

Of course, David’s (Bayly; not our Father, the Holy King) comments were with respect to a recent meeting of his presbytery (i can tell you from experience that PCA presbyteries aren’t always pleasant places to be) where a young man was examined (apparently for licensure, as he called him a “candidate”—but here again, in the PCA, those terms are fluid), and this young man expressed a willingness to include some sort of drama in worship that several (more than a few, apparently) found troubling. Now, David said that the barrage of questions that followed proved to him that people don’t know how to apply the RPW to worship, and that really, it just comes down to a matter of taste. I don’t necessarily believe that’s the case, though.

David said: “The sheer number and variety of presbyters’ questions revealed the true status of the RPW in the Reformed world today–even in the midst of a fairly united presbytery no two people appeared to apply the principle the same way. Some find drums contrary to Scripture; others, dance; still others, video; finally there are those who object to images of Christ.” David went on to say, “The presbyter who cavils at drums but not images of Christ doesn’t know idolatry from a hole in the ground–more than likely because he has made his own pleasures and tastes the test of faithful worship rather than the Word of God.”

Yes, well, the reason some people find drums contrary to Scripture is because of certain Puritan influences in American Presbyterianism holding historically that all instruments in worship are contrary to worship regulated by Scripture alone. (In this regard, John Girardeau, in his book Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church [reprinted by Puritan Reprints]—for whom i have great respect as a pastor, but not so much as a theologian of a certain strain of Southern Presbyterian thought in the 19th century, and for whom i have even less respect for his views of the RPW—claims that instruments in worship, even in the Old Covenant Temple were always associated with idolatry, and that the psalms advocating use of instruments are a matter of personal worship and not public.) This is the traditional Puritan position on instruments in worship. But i must say that a person who objects to drums and mentions nothing at all of images of Christ (!) isn’t necessarily unconcerned over idolatry; rather, if he would object to the lesser, he would, of course, object to the greater and most likely believe it goes without saying. This really isn’t an application, as David suggests, of “an Englishman’s every pleasure”; rather, it is a matter of where one places “the line.” And contrary to what some RPW advocates insist, that line has been placed in various different places by various different strains of the Reformed Church throughout its history, with the Puritans having the most extreme and strict application, and the Continental Reformed having the less strict application of it. (You can read all about this important distinction in R.J. Gore’s book, Covenantal Worship. Read a CE&P blurb by Charles Dunahoo here.) So, the point is not that we don’t need the RPW (although, in my opinion, we could do without the Puritan form of it), what we need is to understand what is and isn’t circumstance and what is and isn’t an element.

This is key, because we all believe in regulated worship. The question is how do we apply that regulation. In all forms of the Regulative Principle of Worship, elements of worship are those things we have specific warrant to include in our worship (e.g., prayer in its various kinds, reading of Scripture, preaching of the Word, sacraments, singing various types of songs, sharing a holy kiss or other type of greeting, corporate confession of sin, confession of faith, &c.). Circumstances, on the other hand, are those things that surround the elements (e.g., the time of worship, the clothes one wears in worship, the place one worships and its decoration, the way in which the elements are arranged and put to use in the service of worship—though, in this regard, there is a certain logic and flow, but nothing commanded). The truth is that the greatest part of the problem in defining the RPW is agreeing on what constitutes circumstance and what constitutes elements. The old English and Scots Puritans claimed that the clothes the minister wore were elements, and Girardeau, of course, claimed that the way in which you sang the music was an element. This, however, just goes to show that the RPW needs balanced definition—not one that would leave us with stark plainness in our liturgy and houses of worship (this is where the Jehovah’s Witnesses have gone), nor with Ministers of Word and Sacrament dressed like used car salesmen, but with sensible, traditional, and biblical liturgy, decor, and dress.

David’s defense, though, as half-hearted as it was, of “Davidic dance” seems strange to me, though. It is one thing to have purely spontaneous expressions of praise through the course of one’s life, especially in times when God has done something wonderful and glorious in some particular circumstance. However, the overarching guard on what we do in worship, even over the circumstances that are not specifically dealt with in the RPW, is the rule of doing all things in worship “decently and in order.” I don’t know who would think that twenty people spontaneously dancing during corporate worship could be properly defined as decent and orderly. That seems to preclude Davidic dance in corporate worship, even if it is perfectly acceptable in personal worship (which is precisely where we see it to begin with!).

David’s point, though, that Uzzah’s death (for touching the ark against God’s specific commandment) and David’s dancing (which apparently pleased God at the time) doesn’t seem so ironic to me. For one thing, it’s not, as David claimed, the same trip (unless we are in the habit of taking a three-month break in our trips). For another, David became joyful and was given indication that he could and should take the Ark of the Covenant on to Jerusalem because of the blessing of a Gentilewhile the Ark stayed in his house (in other words, David was worried that his attempt to take the Ark to Jerusalem was going to be futile in light of Uzzah’s death, but seeing that even a Gentile could be blessed by its presence, he proceeded to bring that focal point of God’s blessing to the people of God’s own Covenant). And, too, David’s original trip to Jerusalem with the Ark made use of the same means of transportation that the Philistines used to send the Ark back to the Jews after its presence among them brought God’s judgment to them; when David resumed his effort to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, he did so properly, as God had commanded. The point is that we must do what God has commanded us to do and refrain from what he has commanded us not to do. We fall under his judgment and chastisement if we are disobedient. We are free to do anything God has not commanded us to do in any area of our lives that he hasn’t told us is wrong (so long as they don’t become idols to us), but we must worship him publicly and corporately the way he has specifically told us.

Short of presbyteries or entire denominations laying out what is and what is not an element and a circumstance, the confusion will remain. Barring that, we must give leeway to the fathers and brothers to work these things out as their consciences apply the principle. However, i don’t have a bit of a problem telling young seminarians or old baby busters (who think or minister to people who think that being perpetual adolescents with worship that matches the culture around us is the way to live their lives) that some of the crazy things that pass for “worship” in some contexts aren’t permissible. Let the presbyteries do what God intended for them to do.

Update: In response to a commenter giving a very mild approbation to the RPW, David Bayly posted a rather lengthy quote from Girardeau’s work (that i referenced). This is just proof that even critics of the critics need critics, and my dear brother David is as ill-informed about RPW issues as those rabid Calvinists who seek to revive Puritan worship in all its stark plainness. Basically, David is committing the fallacy of the false dichotomy. Either you are for the RPW, which means you’re for Girardeau and his ilk as advocates, or your’re against it, which, i suppose means you’re for drama, puppet shows, and horror houses to scare people into the Kingdom during worship. I overstate that last premise, because it is the other side of the one David is apparently making. The point is that there aren’t just two RPW positions. That’s what R.J. Gore’s book is all about. There is, indeed, a spectrum of people holding to some form of the RPW, with Puritans on the far extreme right, and Anglo-Presbyterians and/or “Contemporary Worship” advocates being on the far left (just before you fall off into the “Normative Principle”). David is clearly to the left of me (how far, i’m still not sure), but we’re both, no doubt, much closer to one another than to Girardeau.

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3 Comments »

  1. tempe said,

    Short of presbyteries or entire denominations laying out what is and what is not an element and a circumstance, the confusion will remain.

    Would you not say that the WCF has already done this (in terms of specific elements, circumstances being defined in 1:6) in Chapter 21, paragraphs 3 and 5?

    Of course, I think I see your point, since it seems young seminarians aren’t really told (at least in some cases) what elements and circumstances mean (and I haven’t encountered ARP grads from our own seminary who are much confused over the difference b/t the two). Even a simple layout, as you have put forth, escapes them. Of course, at Erksine, we had a PCUSA minister (i.e., someone who does not follow the RPW, at least as strongly as some other presbyterian denominations) teaching the class on worship; he did explain the RPW alongside of the normative principle, but I don’t remember ever hearing elements and circumstances distinguished and explained in class. Of course, my memory ain’t what it used to be!

  2. tempe said,

    And apparently my spelling as well, since I forgot how to spell “Erskine”!

  3. Dave said,

    Sorry this is a bit late… I’ve also commented on the Bayly Blog.

    Two simple (and unoriginal) points to start with:

    1. There is no universal agreement amongst subscribers to the RPW as to exactly what it means in practice. For example, some would say it mandates exclusive psalmody, others don’t.

    2. The main use of the RPW is to justify and perpetuate the established style of worship found in a church or group of churches. As such, it is part of a control system that stifles dissent and enforces conformity to the status quo.

    Could I possibly suggest that we’d be better off if the RPW was consigned to the scrapheap of history. It seems to be little more than a misuse of Scripture to suit man’s ends.

    Now, regarding dance, which is my particular interest, I need to respond to some of Trey’s remarks.

    David’s defense, though, as half-hearted as it was, of “Davidic dance” seems strange to me, though. It is one thing to have purely spontaneous expressions of praise through the course of one’s life, especially in times when God has done something wonderful and glorious in some particular circumstance. However, the overarching guard on what we do in worship, even over the circumstances that are not specifically dealt with in the RPW, is the rule of doing all things in worship “decently and in order.”

    I found the use of the term “Davidic Dance” rather interesting. Although there is no dictionary definition of the phrase (it’s also a bit fluid), it is most commonly used in the Messianic Jewish movement to refer to their particular form of congregational worship dance (the term “Messianic Dance” is also used). Davidic or Messianic Dance uses the style of Israeli folk dance to enable lots of people to dance together in worship without needing to have done lots of dance training.

    So, to most people with knowledge in this field, Davidic Dance is not spontaneous or unstructured, but a choreographed form of dancing that enables a group of people to dance in a “decent and orderly” way during corporate worship. In fact, order is one of the key points of Davidic Dance. I’ve seen groups of up to 100 people dance together like this, and I can assure everyone that it is decent and ordered.

    It is impossible, by the way, to claim that all the Biblical examples of dance (including King David’s) were spontaneous, improvised, or unchoreographed.

    I don’t know who would think that twenty people spontaneously dancing during corporate worship could be properly defined as decent and orderly. That seems to preclude Davidic dance in corporate worship, even if it is perfectly acceptable in personal worship (which is precisely where we see it to begin with!).

    I would humbly beg to differ. As someone with plenty of dance experience, I can categorically say that it is perfectly possible for twenty people to spontaneously dance during corporate worship in a decent and orderly way. I wouldn’t call it Davidic Dance, though, and I assume that Trey is referring to what most dancers call improvised (ie non-choreographed or free) dance. (The term spontaneous dance is not a helpful one in my view).

    Incidentally, a careful study of the passages documenting King David’s dance indicates that it was not a solo or private act, but it was done in a communal and public situation where many people were also dancing.


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