In reaction to the Roman Catholic worship practises of the Dark Ages, some of the pre-Reformers and Reformers decided to halt all the traditional elements of worship that the Roman Catholic Church had practised, and to start over with the Scriptures alone as the guide to what worship practises are acceptable or not for Christians. This, admittedly, is not an easy task. Although many clear commands and prohibitions regarding worship practises are given in Scripture, the Bible is silent on many worship practises.

For example, Scripture commands public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13), but does not give an annual reading schedule fit for corporate worship. It also doesn’t explicitly say if the pastor alone, the other elders, or men in the congregation should do the reading. It doesn’t prescribe which translation of the text to use, nor what the reader is to wear. Is he to pray before the reading, after the reading, both before and after, or is there to be no prayer related to the text? Should the text complement the sermon, be the sermon’s text, or something completely separate from the sermon? These issues are not clearly commanded or prohibited, but intuitively we know we cannot worship God as we please (remember Leviticus 10:1-2!). God defines what is acceptable, or not acceptable expressions of worship.

During the Reformation already there were two basic ways in which to govern worship practises. Both affirmed that clear commands and prohibitions in Scripture need to be obeyed. The two ways parted though, regarding the finer nuances of things not clearly articulated in Scripture.

The one way turned the silence of Scripture into implicit prohibition, and turned the examples of Scripture into implicit commands. This resulted in some arbitrary conclusions, but proved helpful in many matters of worship.

The other way treated the examples in Scripture as useful, but not as necessarily prescriptive. The silence of Scripture was interpreted as a matter of responsibility for elders and congregations to exercise Biblical wisdom. This might well result in different conclusions among different congregations, but maintains the distinction between what is clearly and not-so-clearly revealed by God.

For a brief explanation of this, see “Unity in Church Order” by Roger Beckwith