What’s Wrong with ‘Covenant Renewal Worship’

Covenant Renewal WorshipA number of people I have recently spoken with have expressed concerns about the, so called ‘Covenant Renewal‘ model of worship. Earlier in the year I wrote a letter to a friend and attempted to summarize the main areas of concern with this new trendy liturgical movement that is spreading across America through various reformed churches (principally the CREC). I have added a bit to my letter in light of further interactions, and I post it here in the hope that it can set the agenda for fresh dialogue among those who champion the CRW paradigm. The names of the people have been changed, apart from those who have published sources I am quoting.

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Dear Nathan,

I really enjoyed reading your paper on Covenant Renewal Worship and for such a succinct summary of the history of reformed worship. I’m with you on a number of points, though I do have concerns about the larger theological project in which CRW is being situated.

Interestingly, this topic has been in my thinking quite a lot recently, because of it coming up in a dinner conversation with our mutual friends Pastor Jason Carter and Dr. Mark Floss, as well as with a number of lay people who are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the CRW liturgical framework. With those conversations still fresh in my mind, I want to offer a few areas of feedback on the larger issues raised by your essay.

One concern I have about the Biblical Horizons liturgical renewal movement that you praised in your essay is that this movement seems to contain within itself an unstable dialectic that could militate against its own longevity within the life of the church. This is ironic given the CRW is often explicitly grounded in an agenda of generational longevity.

Here’s why I think that. On the one hand, the apologists of CRW want to reject what you have called the ‘sect’ form of the Regulative Principle for a more nuanced understanding that allows them both to answer their Truly Reformed and neo-Puritan critics as well as to identify with the church catholic throughout history. On the other hand, they often make extraordinary claims for Covenant Renewal Worship Movement which only work if you have implicitly assumed a more Puritan version of the Regulative Principle, or at least certain aspects of it. This dialectic enables the whole framework that sustains CRW to be insulated against critique since the former side of the dialectic can be evoked to bring in the dirty laundry of the latter, and vice versa.

When the former side of this dialectic is operational, members of the Biblical Horizons trio can be found to articulate their nuanced understanding of Regulative Principle in a way that is so broad that in principle it not only allows for the CRW order of service but also those forms of liturgy that they would probably be uncomfortable with, such as the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or that of St. Basil or even those closer to home such as Lutheran services. To exclude this, the latter side of the above dialectic kicks in.

My meaning should become clearer if I can briefly expand on the latter side of the dialectic (and if you’ve forgotten which is which, re-read the above paragraph beginning ‘Here’s why’). In order to create a hermeneutical grid for finding in the sacrificial system an actual prescribed order of service and not merely principles that can be loosely applied to New Covenant worship, as well as to be able to offer liturgical recommendations to churches that carry a force of Biblical authority that excludes competing models (as Michael Farley did when he called for a “move toward a common, universal framework” for all churches to adopt), apologists of CRW will lapse into formulations of the Regulative Principle more akin to those which they reject in other contexts (including the context of interacting with TR critics of CRW). For example, one CREC pastor I know appealed to the fact that God gave the death penalty for incorrect worship to argue that God had to have prescribed the correct order of service for New Covenant churches somewhere in the Bible. Or again, when I read the following from The Lord’s Service, I was left wondering what the difference is between Jeffrey Meyers’ version of the regulative principle and the more hard-core formulations, since he suggests that there is one firmly establish and prescribed way of approaching God that is required under the New Covenant:

“…how much clearer does it need to be? The force of these biblical commands, principles, and examples firmly establish the the-lords-service-the-grace-of-covenant-renewal-worshipprescribed way of approaching God in worship. Some have argued that texts like those we have been examining were never intended by God to provide a required order of worship for the New Testament church. But this raises the question about just what God did intend by them. If the covenantal structure, the sacrificial system, and the personal examples of men and women drawn into the Lord’s presence do not instruct the Church in the proper way, the proper order in which to approach God, then what are they there for? If these passages don’t count as liturgical instruction for the Church, what would?”

Of course, if our starting point is that the sacrificial system has to prescribe an order of service and that if it doesn’t then the inclusion of these passages in the Bible is pointless (which, taken literally, is what Meyers seems to be saying), then we will find an order of service there because we have already determined that we have to. The only difference I see between this and what we may call the Puritan-regulative-principle-paradigm is that people like Meyers allow a greater scope for what can count as Biblical warrant, drawing not merely on commands but on “commands, principles, and examples.” Yet it still ends up roughly in the same spot as the Puritans: namely that (1) there is only one right way to approach God and that (2) the Bible is to be treated as a directory of worship. If #1 and #2 are not assumed, then it would make little sense for CRW defenders to advocate a “move toward a common, universal framework” (Farley) or to argue that there is a “firmly established…prescribed way of approaching God…for the New Testament church” (Meyers). Nor would it make sense for CRW-enthusiast Uri Brito to make the extraordinary claim that “CRW is God’s primary way of re-fashioning and re-making you after the Image of Christ.”

It seems to me that apologists of CRW want to be able to fluctuate between these competing theoretical frameworks, and this fluidity tends to insulate their model against critique, since the second side of the dialectic can be evoked to preclude objections to the first side of the dialectic, and vice versa. One obvious solution would be to more consistently embrace what I earlier identified as the first side of the dialectic and to reject the second (and more Puritan) side of the CRW dialectic. A more consistent embrace of the first would allow us to then come at the descriptions in Leviticus with a different hermeneutical grid, rejoicing to discover that so many of the elements the church has employed throughout her history are analogous to principles of the sacrificial system, without thinking that liturgy needs to be reduced to a science, and without having to stretch Old Testament texts into a prescriptive schema that generates one order of service at the exclusion of alternate models. Affirming with Bucer that “Nothing should be introduced or performed in the churches of Christ for which no probable reason can be given from the Word of God”, we have no reason to think there has to be a unitary “firmly established…prescribed way of approaching God…for the New Testament church” since a probable reason in the Word of God can be given for any number of complimentary liturgical practices. The scope of legitimate orders of service that can be developed under the church’s Biblically-informed imagination then either becomes multiform (meaning that dozens or even hundreds of potential arrangements fall under the broad scope of Biblical ‘warrant’), or else subject to a more historical criterion (i.e., what type of worship best connects us to the church of the apostles?).

The approach described in the last sentence would seem to be more realistic both hermeneutically and epistemologically. Consider that much of what James Jordan writes is conjecture, but it is packaged as being about 90% certain. His interpretation of Revelation and other Biblical passages generates an edifice that mostly sides with the historic Church, but which sharply and dogmatically disagrees with Her on several points. I have written about some of these points myself based on studying the Old Testament and reaching a diametrically different set of conclusions (in particular see here and here and here). Now this small percentage chance of error accumulates across each conjecture, so the resulting system is actually very uncertain, even if we can treat each assumption as certain in isolation. Now that is fine and useful as stimulus for the imagination, but it is little value as dogma. Yet in order to justify the harsh pronouncements the BH group makes about other traditions in Christendom, and in order to justify the exclusive claims that suffuse common defenses of CRW, we need something more solid.

So there is an uneasy juxtaposition of these two strains: on the one hand, we have a more nuanced understanding of the Regulative Principle which gives enormous lip service to the catholic heritage, while on the other hand, we have a more Puritan version which constantly militates against the catholic heritage. The latter can be found in some of the passages cited above, including the statement I cited from my dialogue with a chief apologist for CRW that because God gave the death penalty for incorrect worship it follows that God had to have prescribed one correct order of service for New Covenant churches. Both sides of this dialectic tincture CRW polemics, sometimes only operationally and implicitly, and sometimes spilling into even the theoretical formulations. My concern is that this unstable dialectic cannot be preserved for more than two or three generations without one of these approaches winning the day. If the neo-Puritan approach which claims to have found a “firmly established…prescribed way of approaching God…for the New Testament church” (Meyers) wins out, then the stage is being set for years of weary worship wars of the type that Puritans like Cartwright were all too ready to champion.

This dialectic relates to yet another uneasy juxtaposition. Some of the apologists for CRW want to be able to emphasize the catholicity of the model, saying that the Biblical Horizons’ liturgical ordo is essentially identical to that of the historic catholic and Reformed church. We can call this RCW (for reformed catholic worship). Yet others will talk about it as if all worship in the past was in shadow but now (thanks to the BH trio) we have the fullness, and they will invoke postmillennial categories to defend an idea of liturgical progress that is almost utopian (and in my mind very dangerous because of the psychological connection between utopianism and elitism). As one CREC pastor told me last year, while historic Christian worship has a lot of similarities with CRW, nevertheless CRW best reflects the biblical principles of worship compared to anything that has ever gone before. We can call this OOSIL (for ‘out of the shadow into the light’). Still others will take a middle ground between RCW and OOSIL and will say that while CRW is essentially no different to what the church has always practiced, for the first time in history we can be self-conscious about the Biblical rationale because of the pattern having been discovered in the scriptures; that is to say, in all previous eras of church history, they knew what they were doing but were pretty much clueless about why. But now thanks to the Davidic liturgical revolution of CRW pioneers like James Jordon, Jeff Myers and Peter Leithart (some people will add Douglas Wilson to this list), Christendom has moved out of ignorance into the light.

The first of these approaches (RCW) seems to be problematic simply on an historical level, since key aspects of historic Christian worship are rejected in the Covenant Renewal Model, such as a liturgy of the Eucharist, the location of the anaphora, the placement of the Sursum Corda, and many other things that liturgical scholars would be better at identifying than myself. The defence that one CREC pastor and apologist of CRW gave me for rejecting the liturgy of the Eucharist is that it might be a slippery slope to getting rid of the sermon, while other pastors I have talked to have expressed similar concerns, saying essentially that to do anything other than spending a maximum of 15 minutes on the Eucharist and a minimum of forty-five minutes to an hour on the sermon, is to divide off the Word from the Sacrament, or even to create a trajectory for displacing the former with the latter! And while there may be some legitimate concerns about traditions that separate the liturgy of the Word from the liturgy of the Eucharist, thus making the Eucharistic rite portable to contexts in which there is no preaching, no one seems to mind that within churches practicing CRW preaching frequently occurs in contexts where there is no Eucharist (such as conferences, seminars, leadership training, etc). Also, historically the liturgy of the word is relatively brief, while the liturgy of the Eucharist is a series of extended prayers. Some of the prayers are moved to the front of the liturgy in CRW (thus perhaps giving them a radically different character) but also, on the traditional view (though perhaps not the traditional Protestant view) the liturgy is a time of prayer not of lecture or homily, though it definitely contains a homily. (See my article ‘From Eucharist to Pulpit.’) So even without bringing in Second Commandment issues, there is a pretty substantial discontinuity between older historical liturgies and the CRW model.

But let’s assume that it is the case that CRW is essentially nothing new but is, broadly speaking, a clarification of what has always been there in the church’s historic heritage, a heritage which has always recognized that liturgy is at the heart of the church’s life. This puts churches that practice CRW closer to Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox than modern evangelicalism, since the latter does not recognize that liturgy is at the heart. But if someone who has been convinced by the BH group that liturgy is at the heart of ecclesial life does not have access to a protestant church that practices CRW and decides to therefore make the smaller shift to Orthodoxy or Catholicism (smaller because, remember, I am here working with the hypothesis that CRW is pretty much what the church has always practiced historically), this is treated as analogous to apostatizing, at least according to Jordan’s series on the Second Word on the Biblical Horizon’s website, or this article where Jordan refers to Rome and Orthodoxy as “semi-churches” or his comments in The Liturgy Trap about conversions to these traditions being a species of ‘apostasy’ and ‘semi-paganism.’ Nor is this inconsistency limited to James Jordan (who is considered something of a wildcard even among advocates of CRW): in the CREC (the domination where CRW theory is most prevalent) those who convert to Orthodoxy or Catholicism are routinely treated in practice as if they had apostatized.

On the other hand, if someone considers the BH arguments for a while, but ultimately decides to revert to modern evangelicalism, it is assumed that they have just made a mistake, and nothing worse. What is this other than a functional recognition that churches practicing CRW have more in common with modern evangelicalism than the catholic heritage that (following Philip Schaff) it claims for its pedigree? This does not add up. If CRW is really being situated in continuity with the Catholic and Orthodox traditions (this occurs most prominently in Leithart’s corpus), then why do defenders of CRW act as if it is such sharp discontinuity?

This creates real practical dilemmas for people I know. I have a friend, whom we will call Dave, who wrote to me last week and told me that he feels that perhaps the Eastern Orthodox are right about many things, and he would therefore like to at least consider respectfully moving in that direction. But Dave is well versed in the writings of the BH group, in which any such consideration comes with a sharp rebuke which amounts to saying, “Don’t do that, it’s spiritual masturbation, like looking at Playboy, lapsing into semi-paganism and giving God the middle finger.” However, since Dave has also been taught by the BH group to recognize certain hallmarks of historic Christian worship which are lacking in modern evangelicalism, he feels that modern evangelicalism really isn’t an option either. Having also been taught by the BH group about the importance of letting children participate at the Lord’s table, traditional Lutheran and Anglican churches aren’t an option for Dave either, since all but a very small handful of Western churches do not practice paedocommunion, to say nothing of the fact that these older historic churches are tending to either become liberal or are increasingly turning themselves into modern evangelical churches. Therefore, Dave confessed that unless he is willing to functionally excommunicate his children, it follows that when his pastors (I use the plural because Dave had a number of different churches to which he was accountable because of his need to travel) tell him that Orthodoxy isn’t an option, they are essentially saying that he is trapped in his small Presbyterian denomination. Dave confessed his frustration, saying that this leaves him with having to decide to either rebel against his pastors or abandon things that the BH group have convinced him are central to healthy Christianity, or stay in a very small denomination that therefore and in that respect functions like a small sect, rather than being truly Catholic as they vaunt themselves. The reason it feels like a small sect is because, despite its promise to initiate a person with the larger catholic heritage of the visible church, the CRW mentality actually isolates a person in a very small subset of it, training people to feel a discontinuity between themselves and modern evangelicalism while simultaneously emphasizing that conversion to RC and EO is equivalent to someone falling away. (The latter can be seen in Douglas Wilson’s teaching that a pastor whose child converts to one of these traditions must step down.)

The sectarian hue seems to be amplified when Covenant Renewal Worship apologists make statements to the effect that previously all Christian worship was in shadow but now we have the fullness, or that in all previous eras of church history Christians knew what they were doing but were pretty much clueless about why. This can and often does create or reinforce among the laity an implicit back-narrative that is elitist, sectarian or restorationist (and the utopianism of postmillennialism does have many points of parallel with 19th century restorationism).

Nor am I alone in these concerns as earlier in the month a couple of lay people raised similar concerns to me about the implicit mentality behind Covenant Renewal Worship. This mentality is often difficult to critique because of being inchoate and often subconscious. As Calvinists we tend to be rationalists, and so we will give insufficient attention to these back-narratives among the laity unless it corresponds to a specific theological formulations. That is where the work of philosophers like Charles Taylor and James K.A. Smith can be so useful, with the attention they give to categories like the ‘social imaginary’ and the ‘affective unconscious.’ Functionally it seems that many lay people in churches that champion CRW are ending up with a restorationist type of ecclesiology that brings us perilously close to the Puritans as well as types of modern evangelicalism for which CRW is meant to be an alternative. My own view is that this ecclesiological back-narrative arises, in good measure, specifically because the CRW framework hinges on simultaneously affirming, or at least assuming, two irreconcilable notions of the regulative principle. It also seems that in part one of the reasons so many people leave the CREC for EO is because they are reacting against both the neo-Puritan ecclesiology and hermeneutics that are embedded within our liturgical paradigm, as articulated above.

Now certainly it would be possible to dismiss all these points as simply the result of people misunderstanding CRW. This is typically the response I get when I have raised these points with others. However, if numerous people are misunderstanding and misapplying CRW in reductionistic ways, failing to appreciate the more nuanced arguments made by the main apologists of CRW, it is at least worth asking why so many people are coming away with these impressions and what it is about CRW that makes it so susceptible to being misunderstood in these recurring ways. If the reason for these supposedly reductionistic misunderstandings is a back-narrative that exists at the level of the social imaginary or the affective unconscious, then this back-narrative will be both stronger (and therefore more subversive to the health of the church) than an explicit doctrinal formulation, as well as elusive to critique and therefore more easily dismissed. What is actually required in such cases is that we invoke a more sociological criterion of assessment, drawing on concepts such as ‘implicit theology’ and ‘lived religion,’ both of which exist in webs of multiple reciprocates with actual doctrinal formulations. But this type of sociological evaluation is something that defenders of CRW typically shy away from.