Responsive Readings in Worship

“Moses wrote this law, and delivered it unto the priests… and unto all the elders of Israel.  And Moses commanded them, saying… When all Israel is come to appear before the Lord thy God… thou shalt read this law before all Israel in their hearing.  Gather the people together, men and women, and children… that they may hear”

Deut. 31:9-13

“I will therefore that men pray everywhere… Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.  But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence”

1 Tim. 2:8,11,12

 “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.”

1 Cor. 14:34




Simplicity of Worship



Order of Contents

Intro to the Biblical Teaching

Biblical Teaching
.     O.T. Evidence
.     Psalms
.     Ephesians 5:19
.     Book of Revelation
The Modern-Revised Regulative Principle of Worship
Responsive Readings Forbidden by Scripture
Dialogical Principle of Worship
Simplicity of Worship & Liturgies

The Minister: the Mouthpiece of God
The Westminster Standards

Early Church
Early German Reformed
Early Dutch Reformed
French Reformed
English Puritans
New England Puritans
American Presbyterianism

What about the Sursum Corda?




Introduction to the Biblical Teaching on Responsive Readings


Travis Fentiman, MDiv.


Responsive Scripture readings by the congregation are an integral part of many reformed worship services today.  What is less commonly known, though, is that there are no instances of congregational, responsive, Scripture readings in worship in the Bible, none in the first two centuries of the early Church, they are absent from nearly all of the reformed orders of worship from the Reformation and Puritan eras (the Church of England excepted), they are forbidden by the Westminster Standards and the American Presbyterian Churches continued to condemn responsive Scripture readings into the late 1800’s.

The historian of reformed worship, Charles Baird, historically confirmed this in part when he wrote that ‘the churches of the Reformation’ (besides Lutheranism and the Church of England), including the Church of Scotland, ‘the Directory composed by the Westminster Assembly, and adopted [with some revisions] by our [American] Church,’ and ‘every Reformed Church on the continent of Europe at the present time [1855]’ have been ‘not responsive.’  (Presbyterian Liturgies, pp. 8-9)

As we are only to worship God in the way He prescribes, his Word being a sufficient manual of praise and all other human traditions and will-worship being unacceptable to his holiness and sovereignty (Dt. 4:2; Lev. 10:1-3; 1 Kings 12:32-33; Jer. 7:31; Mk. 7:7Col. 2:21-23; 2 Tim. 3:15-16, etc., see WCF 21.1 and the Regulative Principle of Worship), what matters the most is: ‘What saith the Lord?’

We would say with John Knox, over seeking to resist the incoming of the Anglican responsive readings at Frankfort Germany during the Reformation, “If I was fervent, I was fervent for God.” (ed. Sprott, The Liturgy of Compromise, p. 210)


The Biblical Teaching

In the Old Testament only prophets, Levites and priests were charged with the ministry of the Word and Sacraments (Dt. 17:8-1224:8; 33:8-10, etc.) and read the Word of God publicly in worship (Neh. 8:1-8; Neh. 9:1-5; Jer. 36:8, with ecclesiastical elders acting as auxiliary helpers at times, Dt. 31:9-13).  Ministers and teachers in the New Testament, being delegated the ministry of the Word, continue this authoritative function of reading the Word in worship in the Church age: 

Isaiah prophesied that in the time when God would call all nations to Himself that He would call priests and Levites from the gentiles (Isa. 66:18-21):

‘It shall come, that I will gather all nations and tongues…  Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, that draw the bow, to Tubal, and Javan, to the isles afar off… and they shall declare my glory among the Gentiles…  And they shall bring all your brethren for an offering unto the Lord out of all nations…  And I will also take of them for priests and for Levites, saith the Lord.’

This passage, of course, cannot be speaking literally, as the gentiles, by definition, are not descended from Levi.  Rather, the text is speaking spiritually, of the days of the Messiah when God would call persons to minister the Word, pastors and teachers, from the gentile nations.

Jesus the Christ also figures pastors and teachers under the O.T. imagery of prophets and teachers.  Speaking to the Jews about the time of the New Testament after his death and resurrection, Christ says in Mt. 23:34:

‘Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city.’

Seeing as the New Testament offices of ministers and teachers continue the moral ordinances of the ministry of the Word from the Old Testament offices of the prophets, priests and Levites (without their extraordinarily inspired and temporarily ceremonial functions), it follows that the reading of the Word in public worship has likewise been prescribed and limited to ministers and teachers in the Church age just as it was to the prophets and Levites in the O.T. (This argument is that of the Westminster Form of Presbyterial Church Government, quoted below)   

In the New Testament, God has prescribed that ministers, who have have been called by Christ (Jer. 23:21Rom. 10:15, etc.), set apart by the Church (Acts 13:1-414:23), have the Keys of the Kingdom (Mt. 16:18-19), are the ambassadors of Christ speaking on his behalf (2 Cor. 5:19-20), are to read Scripture publicly in worship services (Lk. 4:14-191 Tim. 4:12-14) as an authoritative act of the ministry of the Word delegated to them as a function of their office (1 Tim. 4:12-14, Paul is speaking to Timothy, a minister).  Thus when the apostle Paul directs his letters, being inspired scripture (1 Thess. 2:132 Pet. 3:15-16, etc.), to be read to the congregations (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27), it would naturally be done by the ministers of the churches (called in the Greek, the ‘angel’, or in English, the ‘messenger’ of the churches, Rev. 2:1,8), who are called to minister the Word (Acts 6:2-4; 1 Tim. 5:17).  

The Westminster Standards, reflecting the teaching of Scripture, thus say in the Form of Presbyterial Church Government, ‘that the public reading of the scriptures belongeth to the pastor’s office,’ and the Westminster Directory for Public Worship likewise teaches that the ‘reading of the Word in the congregation, being part of the public worship of God… is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.’


The Old Testament Evidence

While it is obvious to any familiar with the New Testament that there are no instances of responsive readings or of non-ordained persons reading the Scripture in worship in the Gospels, Acts or the didactic (instructive) epistles, it may come as a bit of a surprise to realize that neither is there any instance of such in the more complex ceremonies that have been done away with in the Old Testament.  

Sometimes the worship ceremony on Mount Gerizim and Ebal, after Israel entered the land of Canaan (spoken of in Dt. 27:11-26 & Josh. 8:30-35), is cited as warrant for responsive Scripture readings in the regular worship of God in the Church age.  At God’s direction, half of the Israelites stood on one mountain-side and the other half on the other mountain-side, while the priests and the ark stood in the middle valley.  Upon the sacrifices being offered and the reading of the blessings and curses of the Law, the people gave a series of responses.  

When one looks at the particulars of this account, it is stated explicitly that Joshua (who was an ordained prophet, Num. 27:15-23) and the Levites (who had been specially called and set apart by God), acting as God’s mouthpiece, were the only ones who read the Scriptures publicly (Josh. 8:30-34; Dt. 27:11-17).  The only responses of the people of Israel to the religious vows (which are elements of worship, WCF, 21.5) put to them, was saying ‘Amen’ (Dt. 27:15-26), which responsive act in worship is approved and warranted in Scripture (see Saying ‘Amen’ after Prayers in Worship).  If there were any doubt, this particular worship ceremony was a special one-time event in redemptive history at the entering of Israel into the Promised Land, which was never repeated and never to be repeated.  Also note that God explicitly prescribed the very words of the vows and the congregation’s responses, unlike in any modern liturgy today.  One can imagine what would have happened if they made up their own responsive readings without divine precept (Lev. 10:1-31 Kings 12:32-13:5).  

Those who do not read carefully sometimes quote the book of Nehemiah as warrant for responsive scripture readings.  However you will not find any such responsive readings in it.  The closest that one comes to such is Neh. 9:3, which says that the children of Israel:

‘…stood up in their place, and read in the book of the Law of the Lord their God one fourth part of the day; and another fourth part they confessed, and worshipped the Lord their God.’

The context makes it clear, though, that, in the way this was done, the only persons to publicly read the Word were Ezra and the priests (Neh. 8:1-8), the worshipping involved the people saying ‘Amen’ (which is warranted in Scripture) and prostrating themselves on the ground (Neh. 8:6), and the ‘confession’ consisted in that they ‘confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers’ (Neh. 9:2), otherwise known as prayer.  The only way in which prayer in this passage is specified to have taken place is by the corporate nature of one person praying on behalf of all (Neh. 9:4-38).  Part of God’s prescriptions for prayer is that the content is to be for ‘all things’ and ‘all men’ (Mt. 21:221 Tim. 2:1-2).  This, amongst other things, makes the element of prayer to be different than the element of reading Scripture, which content is restricted to the completed canon. 

At the specifically-prescribed-by-God dedication of the newly built wall around Jerusalem (Neh. 12:27-13:31), one will find, under minute, active prophetic direction (which we do not have today, scripture being a more sure Word of prophecy than any voice from heaven, 2 Pet. 1:17-21), two groups of ordained Levites singing in parade around the wall.  When the Scriptures are read publicly (without response), it is done by the Levites (Neh. 12:47-13:1).


The Psalms

The most common argument for responsive readings is from what may appear to be responsive psalms (such as Ps. 118:1-4; Ps. 135:18-21Ps. 136, etc.) interchanging parts between the congregation, the Levites and the priests.  This inference, though, is by no means certain: as all the data is consistent with the congregation simply exhorting the house of Levi and Aaron by song (without parts) to bless the Lord, just as we exhort the angels, (and poetically) the planets, and sea creatures to do so (Ps. 103:20-22; Ps. 148).  

The old Princeton Seminary, Old Testament and Semitic scholar, J.A. Alexander (†1860), in his treatment of Psalm 118 (which is often claimed to be a responsive psalm) in his Commentary on the Psalms (p. 479), says that:  

‘Many interpreters find obvious implications here of double or responsive choirs, by which the psalm was to be sung.  But this, though possible, is not a necessary supposition, nor is there any certain trace of such a usage or arrangement elsewhere in the book of Psalms.’

Confirming this, the German Old Testament and Semitic scholar, E.W. Hengstenberg (†1869), in his Commentary on the Psalms (p. 376) says:

‘The common idea that the Psalm was sung by alternate choruses is not confirmed by the narrative in the book of Ezra.  That narrative merely assigns the first part in the singing to the priests and Levites, while the people fall in.  Even the Psalm itself contains nothing that can justify or even favor this view.’

See also Alexander (p. 531) and Hengstenberg’s (p. 476) comments on the repeated refrains of Ps. 136, where they state similar conclusions which are in-line with the Reformation practice of the whole congregation singing the whole psalm, refrains included.

Our doctrine and instituted practice, for the certainty of our faith, must be from necessary consequences from Scripture (WCF 1.6), and not possible or unnecessary consequences from Scripture (by which every manner of error is able to be derived from God’s Word).  Hence, as the Psalms do not necessarily provide for responsive congregational readings, such responsive readings certainly are not warranted by the Psalms.

Even if the psalms are possibly to be interpreted in such a responsive way, it does nothing to establish responsive Scripture readings by the congregation in worship, as it would only, at best, be warrant for responsive Psalm singing.  Such a pre-text of these (possible) Old Testament ceremonies was made use of by Romanism during the Middle Ages, and Anglicanism after the Reformation, for such responsive singing.  

However, in the Old Testament, such (possible) responsive singing would have been directly dependent upon the minute direction (e.g. 2 Chron. 5:12-13) of the chief musician (see the titles to many of the Psalms: 4-6, 8-9, 11-14, etc), whose office and duties were integral to the professional singing choirs composed of only (and restricted to) Levites (1 Chron. 9:33; 15:16; 2 Chron. 5:12; 29:28-30) that were instituted and initially governed by direct prophetic direction (2 Chron. 29:25-28; 35:4-5, 15) and which people were specifically called by name by God (1 Chron. 9:1-33; 15:16-24) to those offices through immediate special revelation, only in the regular public worship of God under the administration of David (around 1,000 B.C. and following); not in all ages.  

Needless to say: we do not have prophets (Isa. 8:14-20Dan. 9:27; Zech. 13:1-5; Eph. 2:19-20; Heb. 1:1-2) or Levites today in order to perform such responsive singings as God directed, and the book of Hebrews puts away all such ceremonial worship only appointed for the Levites and the temple administration (Heb. 8-12).  

This is why the Reformers and puritans (in better days) cleaned house and universally put away such sensual and ceremonious worship intended for the youthful Old Testament Church underage as it learned to walk and grow-up in God’s ways (Hos. 11:1-4; Gal. 3:23-4:7), greater light being brought about by the coming of the Messiah and greater spiritual maturity being wrought in us by the vamped-up ministry of the Holy Spirit under the more simple and permanent worship ordinances of God.  

Thus, such (possible) complex, ceremonial responsive psalm singing under the temple administration does not warrant, in any way, responsive Scripture readings in the regular public worship of the Christian Church.


Ephesians 5:19

The most common passage in the New Testament cited for responsive Scripture readings, perhaps, is Eph. 5:19 (see for example, Rev. William Shisko in the O.P.C. booklet, Helps for Worship, p. 20).  In the context of everyday life and social worship, Eph. 5:19 says:

‘Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;’

Rev. Shisko notes on this passage that the Scriptures (with application to the congregation in worship) ‘command us to “speak” to one another as well as to sing to one another and to the Lord.’  Unfortunately though, the original passage in Greek does not bear this distinction:

The Greek word for ‘speaking’ is lalountes, a form of laleo, which is a broad term that means to ‘verbalize’ or ‘utter’.  It is used for inanimate objects, animals chattering, unintelligible blabbering and for normal discourse (see Thayer, Lexicon, p. 368; Trench, Synonyms, p. 273).  Lego, on the other hand, which is not used in Eph. 5:19, is the more restrictive term for talking that commonly designates normal, spoken discourse.  

The significance of these terms for singing is related by Michael Bushell in Songs of Zion (3 ed., p. 93):

“An examination of the musical terminology of the New Testament reveals a great deal of imprecision in the terms used.  In Ephesians 5:19, for example, ‘speaking’ (lalountes) is coordinate with ‘singing and praising’ (adontes kai psallontes) and in Rev. 5:9 and 15:3 (cf. 4:10 ff.; 5:11-13; Ex. 15:1) both lego (to say) and ado (to sing) are used in connection with the singing of a song (ode).

Given the impreciseness of the term laleo, and that it can be synonymous with singing (and even designate such), the word’s usage in Eph. 5:19 must be determined by the text’s broader and specific context.  

Part of the broader context of the verse is the parallel passage of Col. 3:16, which also speaks of ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’.  Col. 3:16, though, speaks singularly of ‘singing’.  

Regarding the specific context of Eph. 5:19, the verse itself speaks of ‘singing and making melody’, which verbs are coordinate with ‘speaking’.  The content of this verbalization is to be ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’, namely songs.  

Therefore, by the usage of laleo and the context of Eph. 5:19, it is clear that the verbalization we are to make of ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ is by singing.  This was the nearly universal interpretation of the Reformation and puritan eras which used the verse as a proof-text for congregational singing and excluded responsive readings.  

It should also be noted that if Eph. 5:19 did support responsive readings, it would only be of ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’, not of other parts of the canon, or uninspired material.  The reason, perhaps, that Rev. Shisko can make use of Eph. 5:19 for responsive readings (‘usually from the book of Psalms’), though the ambiguity of the passage could hardly not be noticed, is that Rev. Shisko only seeks to provide ‘a Biblical basis’ for responsive readings.  That is, if one can find something in Scripture that seems similar to what one is doing in worship, then it may be said to have a ‘basis’ in Scripture.  For more on this broadening of the Regulative Principle of Worship, see the subsection below on ‘The Modern-Revised View of the Regulative Principle of Worship’.


The Book of Revelation

Perhaps the closest thing to responsive Scripture readings that one finds in the Bible are the various verbal responses of the heavenly host in the book of Revelation to things going on in heaven and to things happening on earth (4:8-11; 5:9-14; 7:9-12;11:15-18; 14:6-7; 15:2-4; 19:1-7).  On the face of it, it should be obvious that the apocalyptic and highly figurative book of Revelation (perhaps the most difficult book of the Bible) does not serve as a pattern for the regular worship of the historical Church.  Some of the many reasons for this are that:

– Revelation contains many Old Testament figures and worship ceremonies, such as the use of incense, drink offerings, priestly robes, temples, an extensive liturgy, etc., which things have been explicitly done away with by the clearer didactic portions of the New Testament (Heb. 8-10, Gal. 3:23-4:7, etc.).

– Revelation, while containing worship in it, is not a worship service in the normal sense of the words, as it contains many things that are not instituted means of grace, such as war, the pouring out of plagues, etc.  The responses of praise in the book are often occasioned by historical events in earth’s history over the span of millenia, and hence the heavenly service as a whole is not repeatable, or intended be such, especially as a pattern for the regular worship service of the Church. 

– Much of Revelation, being an apocalyptic vision, is not literal (the vision rather being ‘signified’ by signs, Rev. 1:1), or is so far beyond us in speaking of heavenly and spiritual things, that it cannot be literally applied, even in the case of what appear to be straightforward, moral, elements of worship:

– It is not clear that the 24 elders (that do much of the responsive praising) are literal individuals (see almost any reformed commentary on Rev. 4:10; 5:8; etc.); much more the four composite beasts (4:6-9) who also do much of the responsive praising.

– In 5:13, all of creation, inanimate objects included, speak a unison doxological prayer to the Lamb of God.  Seeing as this cannot be literal as we understand it on earth, it poetically bespeaks something (through apocalyptic vision) so great that it is ultimately inexpressible and incomprehensible to us, as is much of the rest of the book (a rainbow around God’s throne, with thunders and lightening, a sea of glass, seven lamps of fire being the seven spirits of God, 4:3-6, streets of gold, etc.).  

– It cannot be assumed that all of the particulars of (what we understand as the) worship in Heaven directly carry over to (and are warrant for) our regular, earthly worship.  The assumption of such a principle is extreme presumption, being blind to all of the unknowns and different circumstances that there may be between worship in Heaven and that here on earth.  The very context of heavenly worship around the immediate presence of God, the fuller revelation of his will in heaven (beyond that of our completed canon), and God’s transcendent, sovereign nature to will how his creatures worship Him for his pleasure, seems to necessarily entail the inspired prescription of all the details of the worship that God approves of and receives in this heavenly service.  Yet, we have no such access to directly revealed inspired instruction beyond the completed canon of Scripture, which clear, plain, perspicuous and contextually interpreted parts thereof are a sufficient rule (and intended to be such, 2 Tim. 3:16-17) for our worship on earth.

– Many of the aspects of worship in the apocalyptic Revelation do not occur in the rest of the Scriptures describing the Church’s historical worship (Old or New Testament), such as unison prayers (beyond that of saying, ‘Amen’), any possible responsive Scripture readings, etc.  The absence of these things by the rest of the clearer, non-apocalyptic portions of Scripture is not simply an interesting omission, but rather conveys an obvious distinction to any that will rightly divide the Word of Truth (2 Tim. 2:15).

The general apocalyptic context of Revelation being set, let us look a bit more particularly at the verbal responses that we find in Heaven’s worship (as we understand it):

– A number of these verbal acclamations are not Scripture readings, but songs (Rev. 5:9-10; 14:3; 15:2-4), and hence, due to Scripture’s different regulations of various elements of worship (discussed below), such songs do not serve any warrant for responsive Scripture readings.

– Most, if not all, of the rest of the verbal responses are declaratory prayers of doxology or thanksgiving (4:11; 5:12-13; 7:9-10; 7:11-12; 11:16-18; 19:1-3, 6-7).  Though these prayers contain scriptural language and phrases (as prayers should) and are in unison, yet, prayer being a separate element of worship under different, Biblically prescribed regulations, does not provide a warrant for responsive Scripture readings.

– Many of the songs and prayers are only verbalized by the four beasts (4:11), the elders only (11:16-18), the beasts, angels and elders only (5:12; 7:11-12), or an unspecified ‘great voice of much people in Heaven’ (19:1-3, 6-7), and are not verbalized by the congregation of the saints in Heaven.  As the beasts, the angels, and (what appear to be the representative) elders are not followed in all their actions by the rest of the congregation of heavenly saints, how much more do the actions of these heavenly worship leaders not provide warrant or an imitable example for laymen on earth?

– The only example in Revelation that could perhaps be classified as a composite Scripture reading without other aspects of prayer (though the verse is also consistent with simply being a prayer of praise) is 4:8, which reads: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was and is, and is to come.’  This response could be a spliced conjunction of Isa. 6:3 with a rearrangement of Rev. 1:8.  However, this possible composite Scripture reading is not said by the congregation of saints in Heaven, but by the special beasts closest to God’s throne.  

– The only instances of saints in Heaven speaking in Revelation (besides them joining in a verbal prayer with all inanimate creation in 5:13) are 7:9-10 and 15:3-4.  15:3-4 is a song, not by all the saints of Heaven, but only those that had been martyred by the Beast (14:13; 15:2).  7:9-10 is a prayer of praise made by ‘a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations’ that ‘stood before the throne.’  Neither of these examples are Scripture readings.  The latter example, the most akin to anything that could be warrant for such, was done by saints ‘clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands.’

Thus, there are no congregational Scripture readings in the book of Revelation.

The safe interpretative principles of the historical Church have been that for a text to provide warrant for a distinct element of worship, the text must be clear and its interpretation shown to necessarily derive from the text (for a sure ascertaining of God’s will and in order to persuade the conscience of all of God’s people).  The text must not be ambiguous or allow of multiple interpretations (and hence possibly not be warrant for such an element of worship).  For these reasons doctrine and instituted practice ought to be grounded upon multiple clear passages throughout Scripture that speak to the issue, and not upon one text only.  For these further reasons, finding a few verses in Revelation to pre-text a practice in worship makes for an unsure (and illegitimate) footing.   

The view presented here, that the book of Revelation is not normative for the regular worship of the Church on earth, was the nearly universal view of the Reformation and puritan eras (as evidenced in part by their orders of worship below on this webpage, amongst much else).  The reformers and puritans took not their cues for worship from the Apocalypse, but that which was laid down by the apostles in the clear, didactic and historical portions of Scripture.  The Greek Orthodox Church, on the other hand, pre-texted much of their worship from the book of Revelation; which heavily mystical, symbolic, ceremonial and responsive liturgy of the Greek Church the Reformation was a self-conscious and decided rejection of.


The Modern-Revised View of the Regulative Principle of Worship

Seeing that there are no commands or approved examples for congregational, responsive readings in the Bible, we must ask whether responsive readings can be derived by ‘good and necessary consequence’ from Scripture? (see WCF 1.6).  Modern proponents of responsive readings often seek to find such inferences by redefining the Regulative Principle of Worship and making it so broad and loose that nearly anything mentioned in Scripture serves as a pre-text and warrant for the desired practice in the regular, public worship of God.  The claim is made that the Bible’s prescription of the element of ‘teaching’ can be expressed by any of the morally-indifferent forms of: preaching, reading the Word, confessing a creed, responsive readings, drama, etc.  The late Rev. Greg Bahnsen, a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, in the context of addressing the element of singing, wrote:

‘Singing is… one of the many legitimate means of pursuing the various elements of worship.  Prayer, praise, exhortation and teaching, are among the proper elements of worship (as regulated and restricted by the word of God).  But all of these can be pursued by various means: meditation (e.g., silent prayer, reflection on Scripture), plain speech (e.g. praying aloud, preaching a sermon), or in song (i.e., with increased melody and rhythm).  Singing, you see, is just one of the ways in which we pray, or praise, or exhort, or teach one another.’

Antithesis 1, no. 2 (Mar.-Apr. 1990) p. 53, cited here

Rev. Vern Poythress, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America, also in the context of singing, says:

‘singing does not actually need a separate justification at all.  It is justified simply by the fact that praying, praising, confessing, teaching, etc., are justified.’

– ‘Ezra 3, Union with Christ, and Exclusive Psalmody,’ Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974-75): 231, cited here

The Bible though, does not anywhere lay out such an abstract paradigm that prescribed actions of worship can take on a wide variety of forms through which they may be expressed.  

Nadab and Abihu could very well then have argued that offering unprescribed fire unto the Lord was simply a ‘form’ of the many other closely related offerings.  Jeroboam, no doubt, thought that the Biblical festival which he appointed ‘in the month that he had devised from his own heart’ (1 Kings 12:32-33) was simply a morally-neutral form of celebrating the prescribed element of feasting.  The Pharisees pre-texted the hand-washing God prescribed specifically for the high priests before sacrifices (Ex. 30:18-21), for their own form of hand-washing before common meals (Mk. 7:2-4), for, aren’t we all spiritual priests before God (Ex. 19:6)?    They thought wrong (Lev. 10:1-31 Kings 13:1-5Mk. 7:7).

If such an element of ‘teaching’ could go under the form of the lay congregation publicly reading God’s Word in worship, then it would also mean that unordained men, women and children could teach and preach.  If an element of worship can be expressed in any such form, then if the form of responsive readings is present, one could fulfill the will of God in regular worship services without preaching altogether.  For an extensive (and devastating) critique of the loose view of the Regulative Principle of Worship, see Rev. Brian Schwertley’s article: A Biblical Analysis of John Frame’s ‘Worship in Spirit and in Truth’.  The Westminster divine, George Gillespie, argues against all kinds of encumbering liturgical forms being brought into God’s worship under the notion of their being morally-indifferent, in his A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies  Buy  1637, which was the catalyst that launched Scotland into her further 2nd Reformation, along with Jenny Geddes who threw her milk stool at the liturgy imposing prelate.

The Bible does not appoint a few basic elements of worship that may be expressed in any number and variety of forms, but specific actions as worship unto God, all of which have spiritually significant, particular, regulations as to how they are done:

Preaching is a verbal, human act (Acts 8:35, etc.), inclusive not just of teaching, but of rebuking, persuading, applying, exhorting, etc. (1 Tim. 4:2), to be done by ministers alone (Larger Catechism #158) as representatives of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20, not by other men, women or children) and is to include the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27).  

The reading of the scriptures in public worship is likewise to be done by ministers (or elders in their absence), and not the congregation (Larger Catechism #156), and is limited to the inspired canon.  

Leading in public prayer is to be done by appointed men, not by women and children (1 Tim. 2:8-12, 1 Cor. 14:34; Isa. 3:12) and is to include prayer for ‘all things’ and ‘all men’ (Mt. 21:221 Tim. 2:1-2).  

The singing of praises are by the whole congregation (Eph. 5: 19Col. 3:16, sex or age not being restricted or spiritually significant) and the content of such is restricted to the inspired Psalms (see Schwertley’s, Exclusive Psalmody: A Biblical Defense).  

To converge what God clearly delineates is not recommended.

Thus, the puritans, recognizing this in Scripture, consistently speak of specific ‘acts’ and ‘actions’ as constituting worship (see the quotes by Rutherford, Gillespie, Owen and Ames in this article, and note the same wording in WCF 1.6) and taught that ‘each liturgical usage, to be acceptable, must have a warrant in Scripture.’ (Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church, p. 317)  Hence, when the Westminster Confession of Faith describes the ‘parts’ (not ‘forms’) of worship (ch. 21.5), it thinks it not enough to give one proof-text for all, but gives proof-texts for each specific part, no part being capable of being justified in worship without such.  Any imputing of congregational, unison, responsive readings into ‘the reading of the Scriptures with godly fear’ and ‘the sound preaching, and conscionable hearing of the Word’ in the Westminster Confession must be regarded as against its original intention.


Responsive Readings Forbidden by Scripture

Not only are there no  unison, responsive congregational readings in the Bible, nor can such be necessarily derived from Scripture, but the Bible positively forbids them.  In the context of social worship, the apostle directs ‘that men pray everywhere… [but] Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.  But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence’ (1 Tim. 2:11,12), as this is befitting the intended created order, the natural constitution of the sexes, and the natural relation between the sexes (1 Tim. 2:13-15Gen. 2:21-22; 1 Cor. 11:3; 1 Pet. 3:1-7).  While lady-prophets prophesied in the apostolic Church, and prayed (Acts 11:5), as all people do, silently along with the male person leading (Acts 4:24-25; 1:14, see this also as the universal practice in the O.T.), such prophesying by ladies was intended as extraordinary (Acts 2:17) to that time.  The general rule, as Paul goes on to say later in that same context, was for ‘women [to] keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.’ (1 Cor. 14:34)  Thus, when the apostle Paul, later in New Testament history, gives direction for the permanent prescribed order for the continuance of the Church, he directs that ladies, again, remain silent in the due course of social worship (1 Tim. 2:11,12).  What applies to ladies, also applies to children reading God’s Word publicly in worship. (Isa. 3:12)

Thus, it is not surprising that the Westminster Larger Catechism (which most Presbyterian office-bearers have sworn to uphold) positively forbids responsive readings:  

#156:  Is the Word of God to be read by all?

Although all are not to be permitted to read the word publicly to the congregation,¹ yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves… ¹ Deut. 31:9,11-13; Neh. 8:2,3Neh. 9:3-5

The quibble that L.C. #156 only forbids lay persons from reading the Word to the congregation, and not the congregation responding in kind to the minister, cannot be sustained.  The original intent of the Catechism is further known from the other Westminster documents and writings of the divines, including:

The Westminster Form of Presbyterial Church Government, which (after giving scriptural and theological arguments) uses no such qualification, but says ‘that the public reading of the scriptures belongeth to the pastor’s office.’  

The Preface to The Westminster Directory for Public Worship (see below) makes it clear that the intent of the Assembly was to get rid of, in whole, all the responsive readings of the Roman and Anglican Churches, according to the Will of God in Scripture.  Thus the Directory does not use the qualification of ‘to the congregation’, but limits the public reading of the Word to pastors and teachers because it is ‘part of the public worship of God’:

‘Reading of the Word in the congregation, being part of the public worship of God… is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.’  

See also the eight books that Westminster divines wrote against the Anglican service book, here: The Works of the Westminster Divines on Worship)

It should also be noted that arguments for responsive readings (such as Rev. Shisko’s above) usually use Eph. 5:19 (‘speaking to yourselves in psalms, hymns, etc.’) as warrant for the congregation reading Scripture not simply to the minister, but to themselves, the congregation, which Larger Catechism #156 explicitly forbids. 



One objection sometimes given, when Scripture’s univocal testimony is presented on the issue of responsive readings in worship (and everything else that shouldn’t be in worship), is that the historic, reformed definition of the Regulative Principle of Worship (to do exactly and only what God says in worship with regards to what is spiritually significant, in as much detail as God’s Word prescribes for it) is too strict.

Sadly, this objection, it is feared, stems more from men’s love for their own traditions than for a desire to humbly and sincerely do the will of God as He has clearly revealed it.  The Regulative Principle of Worship, though, we must still assert, is no more strict than the words of Moses or of Jesus’s scrupulous and minuscule application of this same principle (meditate on it a while):

‘You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.’ (Dt. 4:2)

‘For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders…  Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.’ (Mk. 7:3,7)


The Dialogical Principle of Worship

It has become fashionable to speak of a ‘dialogical principle of worship’, the defining word conveying a dialogue between God and us in worship.  Sometimes this same concept flies under the banner of ‘Covenantal worship’.  The principle involves the alternation in a worship service of God speaking to us by his Word (through his minister) and the congregation’s responsive readings or singing back to Him.  The warrant from Scripture that is said to demonstrate this pattern are various texts (usually from the Old Testament and the book of Revelation) which show the sacrifices and the reading and preaching of the Word interchanging with the people’s responses by singing, praying and uttering ‘Amen’.  

Insofar as it goes, there is definitely an alternation in scriptural worship between the various elements of worship, where God speaks to us through his Word and we responsively speak to Him via singing and prayer.  This, though, is something we find descriptively in instituted Biblical worship; it is not a tool that we use prescriptively to positively construct an elaborate liturgy according to our human wisdom.  

Further, as is seen in this Introduction and below on this webpage, this principle does not, in the Bible or in the best of Reformed history, involve responsive readings.  Dr. Charles Baird, a historian of reformed liturgy, writes regarding the origins of Reformed worship:

‘The Reformers of Switzerland and Scotland did not, as we often hear, deprive their ritual of a responsive and popular character.  They did no more than separate the functions of minister and people into the distinct duties of reading and singing [respectively].  The [singing of] Psalms [by the congregation] are the responsive part of Calvin’s Liturgy [which were absent under Romanism]. 

– Eutaxia (1855. rep. 1960), ch.1, ‘Calvin and the Church of Geneva’, pp. 28-9

Making responsive readings an integral part of ‘Covenantal worship’ is a misnomer, and historical revisionism.  By ‘Covenantal’, what is presumably meant, is the alternation of communication and living fellowship that is legally guaranteed to us in God’s Covenant of Grace.  What is interesting though, is that (as documented on this webpage) many, and perhaps most of the formative theologians of Covenant Theology (including Martin Bucer, John Calvin, William Perkins, William Gouge, John Owen, and Robert Rollock and Samuel Rutherford in Scotland, etc.), prized living fellowship and alternating communication in God’s worship, and yet still excluded responsive readings as having no place in Biblical worship.


The Simplicity of Worship & Liturgies

One cannot get around that the worship described in the New Testament is simple.  If the revelation-pattern should characterize our worship, then our worship should also be simple.  Modern reformed folk, when they speak of bringing beauty back into the worship of God, they often do not mean personal holiness, but by making the outward forms of the service more complex.  God though, loves the unadorned, plain altar, untouched by human design or artifice (Ex. 20:25).  Thus, the late-1800’s, American, Old School Presbyterian, Thomas Peck, could say that Presbyterian worship was bold, in that it was the Word of God laid bare.  The simplicity of worship used to be a Biblically derived, controlling principle of Reformed Worship.  Let the quotes and articles on our page, On the Simplicity & Spirituality of Worship, melt your heart and bring you to repentance.   

One honest question to be answered is whether Biblical and Reformed worship is liturgical.  The answer is that Reformed worship is not liturgical in the common, narrow sense of the word, as having interchanging responsive readings and prayers, but it is liturgical in the broad sense (which is rarely used) of having a form of order (which is common to all meetings and services: social, civil or otherwise).  The lengthy quote by the late-1800’s, American presbyterian, R.M. Patterson, under our section, What does ‘Liturgy’ Mean, & is Biblical & Reformed Worship Liturgical? is an informative and superb explication of this question, and includes all the New Testament evidence pertaining to it.



Scripture’s teaching that responsive readings are not willed by God for the regular worship of the historical Church is clear and detailed.  

In light of such, what should one do when they are exhorted to read scripture responsively in worship?  One should take to heart the words of the reformer Martin Luther: ‘One with God is a majority’ and, respectfully, do not speak.  ‘I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue.’ (Ps. 39:1)  ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’ (Acts 5:29)

Also, seek connections with those who love, cherish, and are willing to die over (as our puritan forefathers before us, Heb. 11:35-40), the purity of God’s worship as handed down to us from the apostles and the Reformation.  Such Churches in America include the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), the Presbyterian Reformed Church, some congregations of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America and others.

May we all seek to worship ‘the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship Him,’ (Jn. 4:23) and may we say with David, a man after God’s own heart: ‘My soul has kept thy testimonies; and I love them exceedingly!’ (Ps. 119:167)

Please enjoy the further reading and documentation of the majority, historic, Reformed viewpoint below.





Craghead, Robert – ch. 1, ‘Of Praises’  in An Answer to a Late Book entitled, A Discourse concerning the Inventions of Men in the Worship of God, by William, Lord Bishop of Derry...  (Edinburgh: Anderson, 1694), pp. 6-25



Ridgley, Thomas – By Whom & How the Word is to be Read, pp. 448-49  in A Body of Divinity, vol. 2, Questions 156-7



Miller, Samuel – ‘Responses in Public Prayer’  in Thoughts on Public Prayer  (1849)  Miller was Old Princeton Seminary’s second professor, and an ardent defender of presbyterianism.



Myers, Andrew – Tennis in Worship  (2009)  9 paragraphs

This short article documents, in part, the puritans’ general disapproval of responsive readings (and responsive singing) in public worship (which was common in Anglican churches), likening it to playing tennis in God’s Worship.

Tallman, Brian – The Public Reading of Scripture: Presbyterian Style  (2017)  25 paragraphs  at Reformation21

Tallman documents the gradual departure of American presbyterianism away from Westminster’s teaching on who can read the Word of God to the congregation.  The article also provides quotes on the topic from Johannes G. Vos.



The Minister: the Mouthpiece of God

2 Cor. 5:20  The apostle Paul, speaking on behalf of the ministry, to church members:

‘Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.’


1 Tim. 4:13-14  The apostle Paul speaking to the minister Timothy:

Till I come, give attendance to [the public] reading [of Scripture], to exhortation, to doctrine.  Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.’


Thomas Cartwright  1534-1603

The Reply to the Answer of the Admonition, Chap. 2, 21st Division, Sec. 2, p. 109.  HT: Andrew Myers

For God has ordained the minister to this end, that, as in public meetings he only is the mouth of the Lord from Him to the people, even so he ought to be the only mouth of the people from them unto the Lord, and that all the people should attend to that which is said by the minister, and in the end both declare their consent to that which is said, and their hope that it should so be and come to pass which is prayed, by the word “Amen;” as St. Paul declares in the epistle to the Corinthians [1 Cor. 14:6], and Justin Martyr shows to have been the custom of the churches in his time.


William Gouge  1578-1653

The Sabbath’s Sanctification (1641) p. 4

10 Q.  What duties are done by the Minister?

A. 1 Reading the Word. Acts 13:27; Col. 4:16

2 Preaching it. Lk. 4:20-21; Acts 13:15

3 Praying and praising God. 1 Cor. 14:15-16; Neh. 8:6 & 9:5-6

4 Administering Sacraments. Mt. 28:19 & 26:26; Acts 20:11

5. Blessing the people. Num. 6:23

In performing the two first (reading and preaching the Word) and the two last (administering Sacraments, and blessing the people) the Minister stands in God’s room, and is his mouth: but in the middlemost duty (praying to God and praising Him) he is the peoples’ mouth to God.


A Guide to Go to God, 1626, reprinted by Reformation Heritage Books, 2011.  See the whole of the larger section, pp. 330-340.  This work is public domain.

242. Of the use of Amen being added to a Speech

1. Three duties especially are required of him that utters the speech whereunto ‘Amen’ is added.

2. To speak audibly, so as they which are to say Amen, may hear what is said. The Levites under the Law were expressly enjoined to speak to the people with a loud voice.  Accordingly the Levites that were the mouth of the people to God, and prayed in their presence, cried with a loud voice unto the Lord their God.  Be a prayer made as intelligibly as may be, if it be not heard of them that are present, they cannot with assent, desire, and say Amen.



The Westminster Standards  1640’s

Not only are responsive readings absent from all the lists of the elements of worship  and ordinances of the Church in the Westminster Standards, but they are positively limited to pastors and teachers in the Directory for Public Worship and Form of Presbyterial Church Government, along with being forbidden to others by Larger Catechism #156, which latter document most Presbyterian office bearers swear to uphold in their ordination vows.

The quibble that LC #156 only forbids lay persons from reading the Word to the congregation, and not the congregation responding in kind cannot be sustained, as the Form of Presbyterial Church Government and Directory for the Public Worship of God do not use the qualification of ‘to the congregation’, but rather state the context addressed as ‘to read the Scriptures publicly’ and ‘reading of the Word in the congregation, being part of the public worship of God… is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.’  The Preface to the latter document (below) makes it clear that the intent of the Assembly was to get rid of, in whole, all the responsive readings of the Roman and Anglican Churches, according to the Will of God in Scripture.  See also the 8 books that Westminster divines wrote against the Anglican service book: The Works of the Westminster Divines on Worship)


Westminster Larger Catechism  #156

Is the Word of God to be read by all?

Although all are not to be permitted to read the Word publicly to the congregation,¹ yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families…

¹ Deut. 31:9,11-13; Neh. 8:2,3; Neh. 9:3-5


Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 21

IV. Prayer is to be made for things lawful…

V. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear;[r] the sound preaching,[s] and conscionable hearing of the word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence;[t] singing of psalms with grace in the heart;[u] as also the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God:[w]

beside religious oaths[x] and vows,[y] solemn fastings,[z] and thanksgivings upon special occasions,[a] which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in a holy and religious manner.[b]

[r] Acts 15:21. Rev. 1:3
[s] 2 Tim. 4:2
[t] James 1:22. Acts 10:33. Matt. 13:19. Heb. 4:2. Isa. 66:2
[u] Col. 3:16. Eph. 5:19. James 5:13
[w] Matt. 28:19. 1 Cor. 11:23-29. Acts 2:42
[x] Deut. 6:13 with Neh. 10:29
[y] Isa. 19:21 with Eccl. 5:4,5
[z] Joel 2:12. Esth. 4:16. Matt. 9:15. 1 Cor. 7:5
[a] Ps. 107 throughout; Esth. 9:22
[b] Heb. 12:28


From of Presbyterial Church Government


First, it belongs to his office:

To read the Scriptures publicly; for the proof of which,

1. That the priests and Levites in the Jewish church were trusted with the public reading of the word is proved.[k]

[k] Deut. 31:9,10,11. Neh. 8:1-3,13

2. That the ministers of the gospel have as ample a charge and commission to dispense the word, as well as other ordinances, as the priests and Levites had under the law, proved, Isa. 66:21; Matt. 23:34. where our Savior entitleth the officers of the New Testament, whom He will send forth, by the same names of the teachers of the Old.[l]

[l] Isa. 66:21. Matt. 23:34

Which propositions prove, that therefore (the duty being of a moral nature) it followeth by just consequence, that the public reading of the scriptures belongeth to the pastor’s office.


Of the Ordinances in a particular Congregation.

The ordinances in a single congregation are, prayer, thanksgiving, and singing of psalms,¹ the word read, (although there follow no immediate explication of what is read) the Word expounded and applied, catechizing, the sacraments administered, collection made for the poor, dismissing the people with a blessing.

¹ 1 Tim. 2:1. 1 Cor. 14-16


On the Westminster Directory for Public Worship

Note that the Westminster Directory of Public Worship does not include any responsive readings.  Here is some historical background as to how the Anglican liturgical scene (rightly) understood the original, historic intention of the Directory when it was first published:

Richard Muller and Rowland Ward, Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation and the Directory for Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2007) p. 117

It will be of interest to list the objections to the [Westminster] directory [of Public Worship] advanced by [the Anglican] Dr. Henry Hammond, later chaplain to Charles I, in his A View of the New Directory and a Vindication of the Ancient Liturgy of the Church of England issued at Oxford in August 1645.  Hammond notes six basic characteristics purposely avoided in the Directory:

(1) a prescribed form or liturgy

the people having a part through responses in prayers, hymns and readings


The Westminster Directory of Public Worship

The Preface

In the beginning of the blessed Reformation, our wise and pious ancestors took care to set forth an order for redress of many things, which they then, by the Word, discovered to be vain erroneous, superstitious, and idolatrous, in the public worship of God. This occasioned many godly and learned men to rejoice much in the Book of Common Prayer, at that time set forth; because the mass, and the rest of the Latin service being removed, the publick worship was celebrated in our own tongue…

Howbeit, long and sad experience has made it manifest, that the Liturgy used in the Church of England, (notwithstanding all the pains and religious intentions of the compilers of it,) has proved an offence, not only to many of the godly at home, but also to the reformed Churches abroad. For, not to speak of urging the reading of all the prayers, which very greatly increased the burden of it, the many unprofitable and burdensome ceremonies contained in it have occasioned much mischief, as well by disquieting the consciences of many godly ministers and people, who could not yield unto them, as by depriving them of the ordinances of God, which they might not enjoy without conforming or subscribing to those ceremonies.  Sundry good Christians have been, by means thereof, kept from the Lord’s table; and diverse able and faithful ministers debarred from the exercise of their ministry, (to the endangering of many thousand souls, in a time of such scarcity of faithful pastors,) and spoiled of their livelihood, to the undoing of them and their families. Prelates, and their faction, have labored to raise the estimation of it to such a height, as if there were no other worship, or way of worship of God, amongst us, but only the Service-book; to the great hindrance of the preaching of the Word, and (in some places, especially of late) to the justling of it out as unnecessary, or at best, as far inferior to the reading of common prayer; which was made no better than an idol by many ignorant and superstitious people, who, pleasing themselves in their presence at that service, and their lip-labour in bearing a part in it, have thereby hardened themselves in their ignorance and carelessness of saving knowledge and true piety.

Add hereunto, (which was not foreseen, but since have come to pass,) that the Liturgy has been a great means, as on the one hand to make and increase an idle and unedifying ministry, which contented itself with set forms made to their hands by others, without putting forth themselves to exercise the gift of prayer, with which our Lord Jesus Christ pleases to furnish all his servants whom he calls to that office: so, on the other side, it has been (and ever would be, if continued) a matter of endless strife and contention in the Church, and a snare both to many godly and faithful ministers, who have been persecuted and silenced upon that occasion, and to others of hopeful parts, many of which have been, and more still would be, diverted from all thoughts of the ministry to other studies; especially in these latter times, wherein God vouchsafes to his people more and better means for the discovery of error and superstition, and for attaining of knowledge in the mysteries of godliness, and gifts in preaching and prayer.

Upon these, and many the like weighty considerations in reference to the whole book in general, and because of diverse particulars contained in it; not from any love to novelty, or intention to disparage our first reformers, (of whom we are persuaded, that, were they now alive, they would join with us in this work, and whom we acknowledge as excellent instruments, raised by God, to begin the purging and building of his house, and desire they may be had of us and posterity in everlasting remembrance, with thankfulness and honor,) but that we may in some measure answer the gracious providence of God, which at this time calls upon us for further reformation, and may satisfy our own consciences, and answer the expectation of other reformed churches, and the desires of many of the godly among ourselves, and withal give some public testimony of our endeavors for uniformity in divine worship, which we have promised in our Solemn League and Covenant; we have, after earnest and frequent calling upon the name of God, and after much consultation, not with flesh and blood, but with his holy Word, resolved to lay aside the former Liturgy, with the many rites and ceremonies formerly used in the worship of God; and have agreed upon this following Directory for all the parts of public worship, at ordinary and extraordinary times.

Wherein our care has been to hold forth such things as are of divine institution in every ordinance; and other things we have endeavored to set forth according to the rules of Christian prudence, agreeable to the general rules of the Word of God; our meaning therein being only, that the general heads, the sense and scope of the prayers, and other parts of public worship, being known to all, there may be a consent of all the churches in those things that contain the substance of the service and worship of God; and the ministers may be hereby directed, in their administrations, to keep like soundness in doctrine and prayer, and may, if need be, have some help and furniture, and yet so as they become not hereby slothful and negligent in stirring up the gifts of Christ in them; but that each one, by meditation, by taking heed to himself, and the flock of God committed to him, and by wise observing the ways of Divine Providence, may be careful to furnish his heart and tongue with further or other materials of prayer and exhortation, as shall be needful upon all occasions.

Of Public Reading of the Holy Scriptures

Reading of the Word in the congregation, being part of the public worship of God (wherein we acknowledge our dependence upon him, and subjection to him), and one mean sanctified by Him for the edifying of his people, is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.

Howbeit, such as intend the ministry, may occasionally both read the Word, and exercise their gift in preaching in the congregation, if allowed by the presbytery thereunto.



Historical Quotes


The Early Church

There is no evidence of responsive readings, responsive exhortations or responsive prayers in the first 200 years of the early Church.  

Dr. G.A. Jacobs, Ecclesiastical Polity of the New Testament, pp. 217-231, as quoted by Dr. R.M. Patterson, Presbyterian Worship’, in the Presbyterian Review (1883) p. 750

Were the public prayers in the apostolic churches set forms, known beforehand, and repeated on every occasion, like our own?…  All the evidence directly deducible from the New Testament, is against the use of such formularies in the apostolic age.  Nor throughout the second century is any reliable testimony to be found indicative of any considerable alteration in this respect.  On the contrary, the prayers of the Church, described by Justin Martyr, seem to have depended upon the ability and discretion of the officiating minister, as much as they did in the preceding century.  And none of the passages sometimes cited from other patristic authors of this period are at all at variance with Justin’s account.

It is not until the third century that any evidence at all, clear and conclusive, of the use of settled forms of prayer in Christian churches is to be found in contemporary authorities.  And even in that century, although the evidence is conclusive as far as it goes, it does not make it certain that other prayers suggested by particular circumstances or occasions were altogether excluded.  In the fourth century several distinct liturgies are found clearly established in different churches, and having been then committed to writing, some of the most celebrated of them are still preserved.  This, therefore, very briefly expressed, is the sum and substance of the contemporary patristic testimony; and it points us conclusively to the third and fourth centuries, and not to the apostolic age, for the distinct appearance and growth to maturity of formal liturgies in Christian churches… 


Dr. R.M. Patterson, Presbyterian Worship’, in the Presbyterian Review (1883) p. 750-751

The development and extension of the liturgical idea, once begun [as described by Dr. Jacobs above], were speedy and complete.  It grew with the decay of the spiritual life and of an intelligent and educated ministry; with the overshadowing advance of hierarchies: and with the increasing leaven of sacramentarianism.  When the Reformation came, liturgies were full-blown and at the pinnacle of their power.


To give some more detail about the changes in the Church’s worship in the third century: from about A.D. 200 to the early 300’s, only four or so responsive actions entered into Christ’s worship (all without Biblical warrant):

Cyprian (†258) introduced the short, responsive exhortation: Sursam Corda (‘Lift up your hearts’) before the Lord’s Supper

– the Salutation, which was a responsive greeting at the beginning of the service of the nature of a regular Christian blessing/greeting common to civil life.

– The Sanctus, a scripture verse from Isa. 6:3, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, spoken by the congregation before the Lord’s Supper, which is the only responsive scripture reading up through the early 300’s.

– The Kyrie Elesion ‘Lord have mercy’, a short response of the congregation after certain prayers: the only responsive prayer up through the 300’s.

One of the first liturgies to use some of these responsive actions was The Apostolic Tradition of Hyppolytus, circa A.D. 200.  If one reads this document, along with any amount of the rest of early Church history, it becomes clear very quickly why Scripture ought to be the rule of our worship, and not men. 

The four exceptions above to the general rule of responsive readings, exhortations and prayers being absent from the worship of the early Church during its first 300 years are far from the nature and spirit of modern services where responsive readings and prayers constitute a main (and sometimes controlling) element of the divine service.  

The first documented time that a thoroughly liturgical service arose in the early Church is A.D. 380, after the massive changes that were introduced through the officialization of Christianity through Constantine in the early 300’s and the subsequent hierarchical and sacramentalist developments in the leavened Church: the ‘Clementine Liturgy’, being Book 8 of the Apostolic Constitutions.

For a brief, but comprehensive sketch of more of the details from the worship of the early Church, see William Maxwell, who majors on (and is approving of) the liturgical exceptions: Outline of Christian Worship (1936) pp. 7-33



The Early German-Reformed Churches

William Maxwell, An Outline of Christian Worship (Oxford University Press, 1936), pp. 98-99

The German Rites of Strasbourg

Further changes in the services took place during the succeeding year as [Martin] Bucer’s influence became paramount

Most of the versicles [read Bible verses] and responses disappeared, and the [public] worship lost its antiphonal characterThe proses [prose liturgical readings] also were gradually replaced by psalms and hymns in meter;.. [they] abolished all responses save the ‘Amens’


James I. Good, The Origin of the Reformed Church, p. 451-3 & 455, 1887.  HT: Bobby Phillips

[I]t is to be noticed that the [German] Reformed [churches] had very little liturgy Her mode of worship was simple.  There were no elaborate chantings.  The ‘Gloria in Excelsis’ was not used.  The litany was not used in her Sabbath services.  We have been surprised to find that there was no repetition of the creed by the congregation.  When it was used, the minister repeated it himself… The liturgy did not require the congregation to respond with an Amen. The minister made the prayer, and closed it with his ‘Amen’. Indeed the Reformed people were opposed to responses in church service… 

The Reformed people, when they left the Lutheran Church, were opposed to these forms… These and other facts only revealed the determined opposition of the Reformed to ritualistic services.  The Reformed in many places closed organs and introduced the singing of the psalms into the churches… May we be faithful to the sacred trust, and thus be worthy of our fathers, who founded the Reformed Church.



The Early Dutch Reformed Church

Notice the absence of responsive scripture readings and prayers.

Harry Klaassens, ‘The Reformed Tradition in the Netherlands’, ch. 13 of The Oxford History of Christian Worship (2006) p. 465

Structure of the Service in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in the 16th Century

1. Scripture reading and the singing of a psalm
2. Votum (Ps. 124:8) [minister reads this scripture sentence]
3. Prayer
4. Singing
5. Sermon
6. Prayer
7. Reading of the creed
8. Singing
9. Blessing (Num. 6:24)



Geneva, Switzerland

In the Genevan Order of worship below the quotes, notice the absence of responsive Scripture readings and prayers.

Dr. R.M. Patterson  Presbyterian Worship’, in the Presbyterian Review (1883) pp. 751

The Calvinistic liturgies differed from the Lutheran in two important respects: ‘the absence of responsive portions and the discretion conferred upon the officiator in the performance of public worship.’


Dr. Charles Baird, Eutaxia (1855. rep. 1960), ch.1, ‘Calvin and the Church of Geneva’, pp. 28-9

The Reformers of Switzerland and Scotland did not, as we often hear, deprive their ritual of a responsive and popular character.  They did no more than separate the functions of minister and people into the distinct duties of reading and singing.  The [singing of] Psalms [by the congregation] are the responsive part of Calvin’s Liturgy [which were absent under Romanism].  These choral services [of the congregation] embodied the acts of adoration, praise, and thanksgiving, which are scarcely noticed in the forms of prayer; while in the latter, the offices of intercession, supplication, and teaching were assigned to the minister alone.  The prayers, by constant use made familiar to the people, were to be followed silently or in subdued tones; the psalms and hymns [inspired Bible songs and the Apostles’ Creed and Lord’s Prayer sung] constituted their audible utterance in the sacred ministrations.


William Maxwell, An Outline of Christian Worship, 4.4 ‘Calvin’s French Rites at Strasbourg and Geneva’, pp. 114-115

The Genevan Order of Worship, 1542, 1547 ff.

The Liturgy of the Word

Scripture Sentence: Ps. 124:8
Confession of sins [by the minister]
Prayer for pardon
Metrical Psalm
Collect for Illumination [short general prayer by the minister]
Lection [serial reading of scripture by the minister]

The Liturgy of the Upper Room

Collection of alms
Lord’s Prayer in long paraphrase
Preparation of elements while Apostle’s Creed is sung [otherwise said only by the minister if not celebrating Communion]
Words of Institution
Consecration Prayer
Fraction [breaking of bread, etc.]
Delivery [of the bread and wine]
Communion, while psalm or Scriptures read
Post-communion collect [brief prayer by the minister]
Aaronic Blessing


Dr. Charles Baird, Eutaxia (1855. rep. 1960), ch.1, ‘Calvin and the Church of Geneva’, pp. 20

The ritual of Calvinism, like its creed, was founded, therefore, on the theory of a simple return to the scriptural and primitive pattern.  Differing from the systems of Luther and [the English] Cranmer, it lost sight completely of all practices which had originated in a less remote antiquity; it left the missal and the breviary [Romanist responsive, liturgical books] among the rubbish of ‘idolatrous gear’ swept out from its renovated churches; refusing to tamper with the complications of a corrupt ceremonial, whose forms had long enough weighed upon and wearied the souls of men.  It went back for authority and inspiration to the law and to the testimony of God.



The French Reformed Church

The French-Reformed Church exclusively used the Genevan order of worship (above) which had no responsive Scripture readings or responsive prayers in it.

Dr. Charles Baird, Eutaxia, ch. 4, ‘The Genevan Liturgy in France’, pp. 71-91

When Calvin communicated to the Churches of France that Confession of Faith which they adopted and retained ever after as their doctrinal basis, he gave them also the ritual of their worship.  The first disseminators of evangelical truth, the colpoerteurs and peddlers who carried their burdens of religious books from Geneva into all parts of France, acquainted the new converts with these services.  We find them used at the earliest meetings of the Reformed congregations after their ecclesiastical organization in 1555.

The edict issued by Charles IX, in July 1561, granted them some degree of liberty in the celebration of religious rites.  Let us hear these services described by an old Catholic chronicler, who is at no pains to conceal his ill-will for the new sect:

‘Though all religious assemblies were expressly forbid by the Edict,’ says Castelnau, ‘yet they could not refrain from meeting in private houses, where they baptized, married, received the sacraments, and performed all other religious offices after the Geneva Form.  In a little time after, their assemblies became so numerous, that the houses in which they usually met were not sufficient to contain them.  However, very few of their chief preachers appeared, and these meetings were for the most part made up of poor ignorant people, who had no other knowledge of doctrines but only the Catechisms and Prayers that were printed in Geneva.’

Among the earliest enactments of the Synods of the French Churches, we find reference to this [Genevan] Liturgy, which, from the outset, had been adopted as their uniform mode of worship.  The enforcement of a strict and undeviating adherence to it seems to have constituted one of the chief anxieties of these ecclesiastical bodies, so long as they were permitted to meet and to legislate for the government of the Church.  Thus the thirty-first canon of the Discipline established by the first National Synod, which met at Paris in 1559, declares:

‘If one or more of the people stir up contention, and do thereby break the Churches’ union in any point of Doctrine, or of Discipline, or about the Form of Catechizing, or Administration of the Sacraments, or of Public Prayers, or the Celebration of Marriage,’ etc., they shall be exhorted , censured, or excommunicated, according as the case may be.  The same penalties are imposed by the thirty-second canon upon any Minister stirring up contention about ‘The Form of our Common Prayers,’ etc.

The Eleventh Synod, which met in 1581, ordered that printers publishing the Psalm-book of the Church should not separate form it the Prayers and Catechism, but bind together.  and earlier law provides that all persons should bring their Psalm-books with them to Divine service and reproves those who fail in doing so.

The Thirteenth Synod, at Montauban in 1594, enacted that

‘There shall be no alteration made in the Forms of Public Prayers and Administration of the Sacraments; the whole having been prudently and piously ordained, and for the most part in plain and express terms of Holy Scripture.’

At the Fifteenth Synod, Montpellier, 1598, letters were received from Geneva, urging that no innovation be permitted in the Liturgy, singing of Psalms, and Form of Catechizing; which was accordingly ordered.

By the Synod of St. Maixant, 1609,

‘All pastors were enjoined to abstain from any new or private methods of their own [in the service of the Lord’s Supper], as of reading the words of institution between the ordinary long prayer, and that appointed particularly for this sacrament, etc.  Classes and Synods shall have their eyes over those who act contrary to this order, and reduce them to their duty by all befitting censures.’

The Synod which met at Tonneins in 1614, declared that

Even National Synods should not innovate anything in the Confession of Faith, Catechism, Liturgy, and Discipline of the Church; unless the matter had been first proposed by one or more Provinces; and also, unless it were a thing of very great importance.’

Finally, the Synod of Loudun, the last National Assembly of the French Churches, which met in 1659, after which period the Presbyterian organization of the churches in France was destroyed by a persecuting government, passed an order for the obtaining of more accurate editions of the Liturgy, Catechism, Bible and Psalms.

Such value did the suffering Churches of the Reformation in France attach to their venerable Liturgy, and such care did they exhibit in preserving it intact from accidental and designed alteration, that they might hand it down to posterity as they themselves had received it.



The Scottish Reformation  1560 ff.

Notice the absence of responsive Scripture readings and responsive prayers in The Book of Common Order (below Maxwell’s quote), which was the prevalent order of worship in the Church of Scotland (1564) until it adopted the Westminster Directory for Public Worship in the 1640’s.  This work was only a slightly revised version of The Form of Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments, etc. used in the English congregation at Geneva, and approved by John Calvin (1556), which was the first reformed directory for worship published in English

William Maxwell, A History of Worship in the Church of Scotland (Oxford University Press, 1955), pp. 54-6

The service-book adopted at the Reformation [in Scotland, 1560] and so long used in Scotland

All responses [by the congregation in public worship] were deleted from the services, except ‘Amens’ which were specifically enjoined in 1 Corinthians 14:16, and occurred in the Lord’s Prayer and in the worship described in the book of Revelation.  All other responses were much disliked by the stricter Reformers.  


The Book of Common Order, or John Knox’s Liturgy, adopted by the Church of Scotland, 1564, as given in Maxwell, Outline of Christian Worship, pp. 123-4 

The Liturgy of the Word

Confession of sins
Prayer for pardon
Psalm in meter
Prayer for illumination
Scripture Lection [reading]

The Liturgy of the Upper Room

Collection of alms (?)
Thanksgiving and Intercessions
Lord’s Prayer
Apostle’s Creed (prose version) [said only by the minister]
Offertory: preparation or presentation of elements while a psalm in meter is sung
Words of Institution
Prayer of Consecration
Fraction [breaking of the bread]
Minister’s communion
People’s communion, while celebrant reads ‘the whole history of the Passion [the suffering of Christ]’
Post-communion thanksgiving
Psalm 103 in meter
Aaronic or Apostolic Blessing


Leishman, Thomas – ‘The Ritual of the Church’  in ed. Story, Robert, The Church of Scotland, Past and Present (1890 ff.), vol. 5, p. 327

“Another feature of the book [of Common Order, 1564] was that it was so framed as to make responsive worship impossible.  The worshipper was to follow the continuous prayers with silent accord… 

At Frankfort [Germany] the signal for the outbreak of hostilities between the two parties was the loud responses of the Anglicans when a liturgy of compromise was read.  The ground which Knox had taken up there, he was not likely to abandon in Scotland.  His position would be that the people’s vocal part in divine service was the singing of Psalms; for the preface to the original Geneva Book says:  ‘Prayers are after two manner of sorts, that is, either in words only or else with song joined thereunto.'”



The English Puritans  (in addition to the quotes in ‘The Minister: the Mouthpiece of God’ and Myers’ article above)

Thomas Cartwright, A Directory of Church Government, p. v-vi  1585

As outlined by Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (1948, SDG 1997) p. 124

Exhortation to Worship
Prayer of General Confession and Prayer of Pardon
Lord’s Prayer
(Reading and) Sermon
Prayers of Petition and Intercession for the Church
Lord’s Prayer
Aaronic or Apostolic Benediction

Notice the absence of responsive readings in the first (preserved) English presbyterian directory for worship which was foundational to later presbyterianism.  For fuller background information to Cartwright’s Directory, see the link and the background info to the Middleburg Liturgy below.

Andrew Myers: “Cartwright’s ‘Directory’ is built upon the earlier ‘Directory’ by Walter Travers (1574).   At the time Cartwright was arrested in 1585, he was carrying a copy of it.  All original Latin copies were destroyed, but a few copies in English survived.  This (specifically, a copy found in Cartwright’s study) was reprinted for Parliament and the Westminster Assembly in 1644 and was used by Alexander Henderson as the model for the 1645 ‘Westminster Directory of Public Worship’ and the companion ‘Directory and Form of Church Government’.” 


The Waldegrave Liturgy  1584/5

For an introduction to this liturgy, see below on the Middleburg Liturgy.  As given by Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (1948, SDG 1997) Appendix A, p. 263

(Reader’s Service: chapters of Scripture)
Scripture Sentences
Confession of Sins
Metrical Psalm
Prayer for Illumination and Lord’s Prayer
(Scripture Reading) Text
Prayer of Intercession for whole state of Christ’s Church to conclude with Apostle’s Creed, Decalogue and Lord’s Prayer
Metrical Psalm
Blessing (Aaronic or Apostolic)


The Middleburg Liturgy of the English Puritans  1586

Historical Background

The Middleburg Liturgy is a fuller fleshing out of what is contained in abbreviated form in Cartwright’s Directory for Church Government above.

Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Fortress, 1961), pp. 311, 313-6

Around 1570, there arose a new generation of Puritans, who were not content to inveigh against Anglican vestments [ministerial attire], but proposed in earnest to presbyterianize the Church of England in polity, discipline and worship.  Chief of them was Thomas Cartwright

In 1584 the Puritans began a concerted effort to introduce the presbyterian system on the basis of two standards: (1) the Knox Liturgy and (2) a formal Discipline that was then being prepared.  The first of these was presented to the Parliament of 1584-5 by Peter Turner in the form of ‘a bill and a book;.  The ‘bill’ was a proposal to make the Genevan liturgy authoritative in public worship

The ‘book’ was not precisely the Knox Liturgy but an adaptation of it published in London during this era by the Puritan printer, Robert Waldegrave; hence it is called the Waldegrave Liturgy…

When the [civil] Star Chamber restricted Puritan printing printing (June, 1586), the Waldegrave Liturgy was taken to Middleburg, an English trading community in the Low Countries where Travers, Cartwright and Fenner served successive pastorates; and there it was republished… in 1586.  The Middleburg Liturgy (reproduced below) was faithful to [John Knox’s, Genevan] The Form of Prayers, with a few notable exceptions…

The Middleburg Liturgy purported to be ‘agreeable to God’s Word and the use of the Reformed Churches.’  In that subtitle lie two of the chief characteristics of Puritan worship.


The Middleburg Liturgy  (Outlined by Travis Fentiman from Bard, Liturgies, pp. 322-340.  Notice the absence of any responsive readings.)


Reading of consecutive chapters of Scripture interspersed with singing of Psalms, led by a layman appointed by the eldership.


Votum (minister reads Ps. 112:4)
Prayer of Confession of Sins (by minister)
Singing of a Psalm
Prayer of Illumination and the Lord’s Prayer (by minister)
Reading of Scripture (by minister)
Prayer for Christ’s Church (by minister)
Singing of a Psalm

The Service of the Lord’s Supper (usually once a month, sitting at a table)

Words of Institution
Guarding of the Table Exhortation
Prayer of Thanks (by the minister)
Fraction (breaking of bread, etc.)
Minister comes to the Table

Scripture Reading on the Death of Christ
Distribution of the Elements
Prayer of Thanks
Singing of Psalm 103
Departure from the Table


Richard Hooker

Hooker (1554-1600), a defender of the status quo in the Church of England, here lists the English puritans’ complaints with the English liturgy.  Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book 5, chs. 35, 37

“…the people’s praying after the minister they say both wastes time, and also makes an unpleasant sound; the Psalms they would not have to be made (as they are) a part of our common [unison] prayer, nor to be said our sung by turns, nor such music to be used with them; those evangelical hymns they allow not to stand in our liturgy; the Litany, the Creed of Athanasius, the sentence of Glory [Gloria Patria] wherewith we use to conclude psalms, these things they cancel, as having been instituted in regard of occasions peculiar to the times of old, and a being therefore no superfluous.”

“They seem sometimes so to speak, as if it greatly offended them, that such hymns and psalms as are Scripture should in common prayer be otherwise used than the rest of the Scripture is wont: sometime displeased they are at the artificial music which we add unto psalms of this kind, or of any other nature else; sometime the plainest and the most intelligible rehearsal of them yet they savor not, because it is done by interlocution, and with a mutual return of sentences from side to side.”


Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, p. 68.  HT: Andrew Myers

Moreover, the [other verbal] responses of the people [during worship] were stigmatized as ‘vain repetitions’ because of their reduplications.  The Puritans frequently cited 1 Cor. 14:16 as a proof that only one person should speak at once, which appeared to them to veto congregational responses, with the single exception of the word ‘Amen’.


William Gouge  1641

The Sabbath’s Sanctification, 1641, pp. 3-4.   HT: Andrew Myers

Question 11. What duties are done by the people?

(4.) Saying “amen” audibly to the blessing.

As for an audible pronouncing of “amen,” if the minds of them that pronounce it have been upon that which the minister uttered, and their hearts have given consent thereto, it comprises altogether as much as the minister has uttered.  This is the only warrantable means for people to utter their minds in a congregation.  It must, therefore, be uttered by everyone, altogether, so loud, as the minister may hear their consent, as well as they hear what he has uttered in their name.  For the one is as requisite as the other.


Presbyterians and Congregationalists at the Savoy Conference, 1661

They are revising and objecting to an Anglican liturgy-book.  The Book of Common Prayer, as Amended by the Westminster Divines, Appendix, p. 144 (Note that the reprinted title of this work is misleading as only some of the divines involved were Westminster members, and that a few decades after the Assembly took place.)

That the repetitions and responsals of the clerk and people, and the alternate reading of the psalms and hymns, which caused a confused murmur in the congregation, may be omitted: the minister being appointed for the people in all public services appertaining unto God and the Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testament, intimating the people’s part in public prayers to be only with silence and reverence to attend thereunto, and to declare their consent at the close, by saying Amen.


Matthew Henry  1662-1714

Notice the absence of any responsive Scripture readings and responsive prayers in Henry and the Presbyterian’s order of worship.  Bogue & Bennett, History of Dissenters (1833) vol. 1, pp. 361-2

‘…the method of conducting public worship by Matthew Henry, at Chester, and afterwards at Hackney, affords a specimen of what was practiced by the Presbyterians of that generation.’  

Order of Worship  (as outlined by Travis Fentiman from Bogue & Bennett)

Singing of Ps. 100
Short Prayer
Scripture Reading (O.T. in morning, N.T. in afternoon)
Expounding of Scripture Reading
Singing of a Psalm
Prayer for a half hour
Sermon, about an hour
Singing of a Psalm




Notice the absence of responsive readings in the following lists of the elements of worship and liturgy.

The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order, 22.4-5  1658

Prayer is to be made for things lawful… 

The reading of the Scriptures, preaching, and hearing the Word of God, singing of psalms; as also the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are all parts of religious worship of God, to be performed in obedience unto God with understanding, faith, reverence, and godly fear.

Solemn humiliations, with fastings and thanksgivings upon special occasions, are in their several times and seasons to be used in a holy and religious manner.


Richard Baxter  1661

The Reformation of the Liturgy, 1661, as outlined in Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (1948, SDG 1997) Appendix A, p. 263

Prayer of Approach (long or short alternative)
One of the three creeds (read by minister)
Decalogue (read by minister)
Scripture Sentences (read by minister)
Confession and Lord’s Prayer
Scripture Sentences of Absolution and Exhortation
Psalm of praise
Psalms in order for the day
O.T. Lesson (one chapter)
Metrical Psalm or Te Deum (said)
N.T. Lesson (one chapter)
Prayer for King and Magistrates
Psalm or Benedictus or Magnificat
Prayer of Intercession
Prayers of Intercession
Psalm or ‘Hymn’


John Owen  1667

The Independents’ Catechism, or, a Brief Instruction in the Word of God and Discipline of the Churches of the New Testament, by way of Question and Answer, in Works, vol. 15, p. 477

Q. 17.  Which are the principal institutions of the gospel to be observed in the worship of God?

A. The calling, gathering and settling of churches, with their officers, as the seat and subject of all other solemn instituted worship;¹ prayer, with thanksgiving;² singing of psalms;³ preaching the Word;º administration of the sacraments of baptism and the supper of the Lord;ª discipline and rule of the church collected and settled; most of which have also sundry particular duties relating unto them, and subservient unto their due observation.‡

¹ Mt. 28:19,20; Acts 2:41-42; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11-12; Mt. 18:17-18; 1 Cor. 4:17; 7:17; Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; 1 Tim. 3:15;
² 1 Tim. 2:1; Acts 6:4; 13:2-3;
³ Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16;
º 2 Tim. 4:2; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 14:3; Acts 6:4; Heb. 13:7;
ª Mt. 28:19; 26:26-7; 1 Cor. 11:23;
‡ Mt. 18:17-19; Rom. 12:6-8; Rev. 2-3.



The New England Puritans

Notice the absence of any responsive readings.  Horton Davies, The Worship of the American Puritans (1990, 1999)

p. 8

…what then are the form and order of Puritan worship of the earliest years as certified by [John] Cotton and Lechford with remarkable unanimity?

…Each service was arranged in the following order and we may assume that what was done in Boston was also done elsewhere in New England:

Opening Prayer of Intercession and Thanksgiving
Reading and exposition of a chapter of the Bible
Psalm singing
Psalm singing


pp. 299-300

The Lord’s Prayer was considered by the first American Puritans as a model or pattern for prayers…  Cotton Matherprovides a strong defense of unliturgical prayer, insisting that:

the pastors reckon, that the representation of their people’s condition in prayers, with fit expressions of their own choosing, is a necessary gift and work of the evangelical ministry…  Our pastors by blowing up the flame of the gift, attain to such measures of it, that their flocks apprehend a liturgy would be a sensible injury unto them.  (Ratio disciplinae, 46-47)



American Presbyterianism

The First American Presbyterian Order of Worship  1788

This order of worship at the inception of the first national Presbyterian denomination in America is that which all branches of American presbyterian denominations started with.  Note the absence of any responsive readings.  As part of the constitution of the original Presbyterian Church in the U.S., this order of worship was binding upon all American presbyterian churches (see Patterson, Presbyterian Worship’p. 754), though, especially since the splits of the OPC and PCA, this is no longer the case.

As given in: Julius Melton, Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns Since 1787  (John Knox Press, 1967), p. 149  HT: Andrew Myers

“The [Final, 1788] Directory’s Description of Worship

ORDER OF WORSHIP.  The arrangement of chapters in the draft and certain procedural remarks implied the following order of worship:

Prayer of adoration, invocation, and preparation
Reading of Scripture
Singing of praise
Long prayer of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication and intercession, followed by Lord’s Prayer
(Lord’s Supper, when celebrated)
Singing of a psalm


J. Aspinwall Hodge  1882

What is Presbyterian Law? (1882) p. 74

May liturgies be used?

The ‘Directory for Worship,’ ch. v., gives direction for extemporary prayer.  In 1867 the New School Assembly did not deem it necessary to give any deliverance on the use of liturgies, since

‘the usage and forms of the Presbyterian Church have been so uniform and acceptable for years past from their scriptural simplicity,’

and no change in these usages is likely to take place.  In 1869 the Old School Assembly declared that

‘it becomes the Church to withstand the tendency, so strongly manifested in many places, to a liturgical and ritualistic service.’ (Presbyterian Digest, p. 656)

In 1874 the Assembly declared

‘that the practice of responsive service in the public worship of the sanctuary is without warrant in the New Testament, and is unwise and impolitic, in view of its inevitable tendency to destroy uniformity in our mode of worship.’ 


the Sessions of the churches are urged to preserve in act and spirit the simplicity indicated in the ‘Directory for Worship.’


Dr. R.M. Patterson  1883  Presbyterian Worship’, in the Presbyterian Review, pp. 746 ff., 756 ff, 769-71

The New Testament Non-Liturgical

It is scarcely necessary to say to those with whom we are specially concerned in this discussion, that there is not, in the New Testament, the slightest trace of any of the elements of a liturgy, as we have limited the word [as that ‘which prescribes written forms of prayer to be recited, in whole or in part, by the congregation, in unison or alternation with the minister; which provides for responsive readings of the Scriptures’]…

The only thing that looks like an oral response from the people in the worship of the apostolic churches, is found in the ‘Amen’ of 1 Cor. 14:16.  It was the custom in the Jewish synagogue for the people to respond to the prayers by audibly saying ‘Amen’; and it would seem that this had passed over into the Christian congregations.  Paul’s reference to the practice seems to be an endorsement of it.

But the responsive element in the prayers or in the reading of the Psalter or any other portion of the divine Word, is utterly alien to the genius of the Presbyterian system, as it is exhibited in the history of the different branches of the Church, in the words of our Constitution, and in the decisions of our General Assembly.  Observe the contrast between ch. 3 and ch. 4 of the [American] ‘Form of Government‘:

‘It is the duty of Christians to praise God by singing psalms or hymns publicly in the church as also privately in the family… The whole congregation should be furnished with books, and ought to join in this part of worship.’

That is the part of the service in which it is the prerogative of the people vocally to join…  But

the reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God, and ought to be performed by the ministers and teachers.’

And while psalm and hymn books have always been provided and circulated, no forms of prayer have been, nor is there any intimation that the people are vocally to join in, or respond to, any part of them; and that form of prayer which all should be taught and know, and could recite, has been carefully excluded form our Directory.  Hence the General Assembly of 1869 (Old School):

Resolved, that the practice of responsive reading of the Scriptures in the public worship of the sanctuary is unwise in itself, and especially dangerous in this day, when it becomes the Church to withstand the tendency, so strongly manifested in many places, to a liturgical and ritualistic service.’

Stronger still the reunited Assembly of 1874 declared:

‘That the practice of responsive service in the public worship of the sanctuary is without warrant in the New Testament, and is unwise and impolitic in view of its inevitable tendency to destroy uniformity in our mode of worship.’ 

[The American Presbyterian system from its inception has been characterized largely by worship being determined at the congregational level (contra historic presbyterianism).  Since American presbyterianism has resisted any imposition of a necessary liturgy (such as in Anglicanism), any optional liturgy that the local church chooses to use, necessarily creates disrupts uniformity in worship throughout the churches, which is a hallmark of New Testament worship and that of the Reformation and Puritan eras.]


the sessions of the churches are urged to preserve, in act and spirit, the simplicity indicated in the [American] ‘Directory for Worship’.’

The Assembly of 1882 did not contravene this.  In answer to an overture

‘To prepare and publish a ‘Book of Forms’ for social and public worship, and for special occasions which shall be the authorized service book, to be used whenever a prescribed formula may be desired,’

it wisely said:

‘In view of the action of previous General Assemblies on this subject, and the liberty which belongs to each minister to avail himself of the Calvinistic or other ancient devotional forms of the Reformed churches, so far as may seem to him for edification, it is inexpedient for this General Assembly to make any special order in the premises.’

The responsive feature is not embraced in those ancient devotional forms of the Reformed churches.

Eutaxia [Good Order], which was published in 1855 by Dr. Charles Baird, is also cited on the side of the plea [for responsive readings].  But, as we understand Dr. Baird, he opposed the responses and showed conclusively that the Calvinistic Reformers and the Calvinistic Churches rejected them.  He says that,

‘the Scriptural idea of public worship is clearly that of a service prescribed in its various parts and features, but free in the filling up of those general outlines.’ (p. 2)

It has been the wisdom of the Presbyterian Church to follow strictly the Scriptural and the apostolic method: imposing as duties only such acts and ordinances of worship as are of Divine appointment; and leaving in a great measure to individual choice the selection of words employed in their performance.’ (pp. 2-3)

‘While thus providing for the office of prayer [by the minister], our Reformer (Calvin) introduced also the regular practice of congregational singing [which had been absent from Romanism]… In a survey of the Calvinistic worship, this interesting feature of Psalmody must not be ommitted.  It belongs peculiarly and characteristically to that worship.  The Reformers of Switzerland and Scotland did not, as we often hear, deprive their ritual of a responsive and popular character.  They did no more than separate the functions of minister and people into the distinct duties of reading and singing.  The Psalms are the responsive part of Calvin’s Liturgy.  These choral services [of the congregation] embodied the acts of adoration, praise and thanksgiving, which are scarcely noticed in the forms of prayer; while in the latter, the office of intercession, supplication, and teaching were assigned to the minister alone.  The prayers, by constant use made familiar to the people, were to be followed silently or in subdued tones; the psalms and hymns [inspired Bible songs, and the Creed and Lord’s Prayer in verse] constituted their audible utterance in the sacred ministrations.’ (pp. 26-27)

The plea [for responsive readings] has been sheltered, too, under the name of Dr. Charles Hodge.  The article which he wrote on the subject of ‘Presbyterian Liturgies’ can be found in the Princeton Review, [1855, July,] vol. 27, [Article 5,] pp. 445-467 [being a book review of Baird’s Eutaxia].  In it he said:

‘The Scriptures, which in all things outward conform to what is the inward product of the Spirit, do not prescribe any form of words to be used in the worship of God.  There are no indications of the use of liturgies in the New Testament.  There is no evidence of the prevalence of written forms during the first three centuries.’

[While, as noted above under the subsection on the early Church above on this webpage, in the 3rd century, four short verbal responses came into the Church’s worship, however they were, no doubt, known by memory, and not written.  This is significant: Hodge’s statement is correct.  One still, at that time, does not see a dependence upon written forms in worship, which greatly alters the character of worship, especially after hundreds of repetitions, as is the case in many churches today.]

‘The disposition to use written forms, as a general rule, decreases in proportion to the increase of intelligence and spirituality of the Church.’

But he thought it would be a good thing if

‘a book were compiled from the liturgies of Calvin, Knox, and of the Reformed churches, containing appropriate prayers, for ordinary public worship, for special occasions, as for times of sickness, declension, or public calamity, with forms for the administration of baptism, of the Lord’s Supper, for funerals and for marriage;’ ‘a collection of prayers for public worship of established character, sanctioned by long approbation of the people of God and by the authority of the Church; something sanctioned and not prescribed, as in the case of our Book of Psalms and Hymns.’

But he [Charles Hodge] declared:

We do not desire to see anything introduced which would render our public services less simple than they are at present, but merely that means should be taken that what is done should be done well.’  ‘There is a very great difference between the uniform and universal use of a form of prayer, and the preparation of forms to serve as models, and to be employed when no minister is present.’

And he was not a word in favor of responsive worship, nor do the works he commends contain that element.  We can receive all that Dr. Hodge says in that article; but it is an abuse of his name to quote it in favor of the plea which we are resisting.

Arguments Against a Liturgy

1. The fact that not the slightest Scriptural authority can be pleaded for a liturgy should be conclusive in the mind of every true Presbyterian.  Some indeed talk about a liturgical germ being fond in the Lord’s Prayer, and the baptismal form, and the communion ceremonial.  But the development idea which will defend any of the historic liturgies on that ground, will justify the greatest Papal abuses in doctrine, government, and worship, as legitimately evolved from New Testament germs.

Dr. Shields admits (‘Liturgia Expurgata‘, p. 27), that ‘the genius of presbytery the world over, cannot endure anything more stringent than a Directory or system of general rules and suggestions‘; and, p. 58: ‘the wise, generous spirit of our system will not allow the whole Church to be hampered with anything more than a Directory.‘  ‘It cannot be doubted,’ declares Dr. Charles Hodge (Princeton Review, 27, p. 456), ‘that the theory of Presbyterianism is opposed to the use of liturgies.’  Our Church… should authoritatively recognize and provide in the worship of its congregations nothing for which express Scriptural warrant cannot be produced.  Its rule is, not to sanction what cannot positively be disproved from the Bible, but to sanction only what can be proved from it.  Not the shred of proof for a liturgy can be found therein.



What about the Sursum Corda?

Sursum Corda is Latin for ‘Lift up your hearts’ and denotes a certain responsing interchange between the minister and the congregation in worship, which is often claimed to have historic, reformed precedent.  This, however, is not the case.

What about the Sursum Corda?



In Latin

Calderwood, David – pp. 628, 629, 710-11  of The Altar of Damascus, or the Ecclesiastical Polity of Anglicanism Obtruded on the Church of Scotland by Formalists, Delineated, Illustrated & Examined  (1623)

Voet, Gisbert

Select Theological Disputations, vol. 3

71. Of Pseudo-Prayers, Rosaries, Litanies, Canonical Hours & the Offices of the Roman Church  1013

73. Of Pseudo-Prayers, etc., Part 2  1037

74. Of Litanies  1049

75.   Of Pseudo-Prayers, etc., Part 3  1056

Ecclesiastical Politics, vol. 1, book 2, tract 2, section 1, ch.1, ‘Of Ecclesiastical Prayers’, p. 482-3




‘Till I come, give attendance to [the public] reading [of Scripture], to exhortation, to doctrine.  Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.’

1 Tim. 4:13-14

‘…God… has committed unto us [the commissioned ministry] the Word of reconciliation.  Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.’

2 Cor. 5:20




Related Pages


The Regulative Principle of Worship

On the Order of Worship & Liturgies

All the Works of the Westminster Divines on Worship

Saying ‘Amen’ After Prayers

Singing of Psalms

Musical Instruments in Worship

Religious Images in Worship

Images of Christ

Creeds in Worship

Head Coverings

The Lord’s Day 

Religious Holidays

Children in Public Worship 

Tithes & Offerings