Preaching to the straw man choir?

Preaching to the straw man choir?

Jonathan Cruse’s book What Happens When We Worship has a simple point. Something important happens between us and God when we worship (p. 1). He presents a theology of worship (ch. 2-7), the pieces of a proper worship service (ch. 8-13), and some brief remarks about how to prepare for worship (ch. 14-15).

This is a book written with more zeal than tact.

The author is Very ReformedTM, which is something better experienced than described. He repeatedly impugns the motives and intent of millions of Christians across the world with broad brush accusations of mercenary pragmatism, and straw men caricatures. This is Cruse’s default rhetorical device. It doesn’t work well if you desire to reach and persuade an audience that doesn’t already agree with you. For example:

  • Cruse suggests that, for Christians, “[g]oing to church gets the same checkmark in the to-do list as going to the grocery store or doing homework,” (p. 1). This is unhelpful. Would Cruse really characterize his own congregation this way? Or, is he just talking about “other churches?”
  • He claims some Christians “dutifully suffer through the service while secretly wishing church wasn’t an obligation,” (p. 3). Who are these people? What real Christian would describe his habitual attitude this way?
  • Cruse writes, “Sadly, many Christians think the only way to worship with joy and gladness is through manufactured means,” (p. 3). Note his use of “many.” He then declares most churches either have an (1) entertainment approach, or (2) a mystical approach (pp. 4-8). His descriptions drip with sarcasm and scorn. He declares, but does not prove, that churches that disagree with him are motivated by mercenary pragmatism. “[I]t wins people to worship with something that will tickle their fancies and yet never save their souls,” (p. 5).

If you don’t do worship the way Cruse thinks it ought to be done, you get the impression you have compromised in some fundamental way. The problem is that Cruse never defines “worship,” and because he makes broadbrush characterizations of his targets you don’t really know who he’s talking about. Is he attacking something like Hillsong NYC? Or, my own congregation? Would Cruse accept that the local Calvary Chapel engages in authentic worship? You don’t know, because Cruse doesn’t tell you.

… when we capitulate our worship to the trends of the culture, we have lost something powerful that is meant to be happening in worship: we are meant to be separated from the world.

p. 71

I agree. But, Cruse never defines the aesthetic style that he believes is “holy,” and so we have no idea what this means. I presume the local Calvary Chapel thinks their worship style is holy. According to Cruse, are they wrong? If so, why?

The entire book proceeds in this manner. Cruse’s seems impatient with congregations which are not Very ReformedTM and don’t practice his peculiar form of the Regulative Principle. Unfortunately, this negates his entire message unless you already agree with him.

The author’s historical horizon seems to begin with the Reformation. He locates orthodoxy within a framework that begins at Calvin and ends with the Puritans. He appears to lack a catholic sense of solidarity or familiarity with the global church, past and present, as betrayed by his cursory comments about mysticism (pp. 6-8). He likes to provide quotes from famous theologians from secondary sources (p. 5 (fn #2), p. 19 (fn #4-5), p. 175 (fn #2)), which is sloppy.

Cruse sees evangelism as something that happens through the means of grace during worship. He argues the only imperative verb in Mt 28:19 is “make disciples,” and cites a book in support, but not the Greek text itself (p. 21, fn. 7), which I presume he can read. He admits that, yes, you must make disciples by evangelizing, but you really make disciples by having true worship, so that’s the key thing. The church fulfills the Great Commission when it gathers for worship (pp. 21-22). The “divinely mandated” methods for church growth are the ordinary means of grace―word and sacrament (p. 115). Cruse thus unfortunately embodies the old stereotype of Reformed folks as the “frozen chosen.” His theology of evangelism is therefore unhelpful.

He has a truncated version of God as the celestial policeman. There is little love or grace. God is the stern judge, ready to kill. Cruse writes:

One pastor I know sometimes opens the worship service by saying, ‘If you are not a Christian, we are glad you are with us today. We hope you will be encouraged by your time with us. But I must warn you that we come to meet with God today, and if you are not right with Him, you may not like what He reveals to you about Himself.’ That’s the idea.

pp. 72-73

Cruse appears to lack a category for God as the grieving husband (Hosea 1-3) who seeks His darling child―whose heart yearns and aches to rescue His people (Jer 31:20) and who loves His chosen with an everlasting love (Jer 31:3). His Calvinism swamps his theology proper, and so Cruse topples off the tightrope and presents a God of profound anger. In short, I think John Gill would have liked the author very much.

The otherwise positive contributions the author does make are discussed more substantively in other volumes. I suggest Hughes Old’s Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Ministers as a guide to incorporate the traditional aspects of Western liturgy into your service, to the extent practicable. I think Cruse would appreciate much of what Olds has to say. In that respect, I’m suggesting an alternative to Cruse that upholds some of his own ideals.

I believe this is a book written for Very ReformedTM people who want to feel those warm tickles inside that tell them that, yes, they are right to be Very ReformedTM. This is fine, but it isn’t a book calculated to persuade. I’m off to listen to an Unspoken song. Unfortunately, I suspect Cruse would not approve.

Revenge of the strawmen

Revenge of the strawmen

This is a review of the first seven chapters of Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice.

J. Ligon Duncan opens the book with two chapters on the regulative principle (“RP”). This is the concept that corporate worship must only be based on positive commands from scripture. Duncan presents a familiar lament about contemporary worship services. You hear this so often that one wonders if these warnings are no more than recycled, plagiarized strawmen. Duncan presents the RP as the answer. “True Christian worship is by the book,”[1] he declares, and “there must be scriptural warrant for all we do.”[2]

So, Duncan presents a representative case for the RP, using sometimes questionable hermeneutics. He cites Exodus 20:5-6 to claim God is like a wronged husband who seeks revenge against “adulterous” believers who worship Him wrongly.[3] It is unclear what the that text has to do with the RP.

Duncan believes nearly every theme in scripture supports the RP.[4] The way we worship communicates how we think about God; “form impacts content.”[5] He asks, “what makes us think we can possibly fathom what would please God, apart from his telling us what to do in his word?”[6] We can only respond to what God has revealed,[7] and the Church has “derivative authority” to “administer his rule for worship, as set forth in the word.”[8]

Contra charges of legalism, “[t]he regulative principle is designed to secure the believer’s freedom from the dominion of human opinion in worship.”[9] Indeed, the Reformers “did not have the same interest in cultural accommodation as many modern evangelical worship theorists do.”[10]

Derek Thomas then weighs in with an angry article answering objections to the RP. He wastes time by arguing the Puritans did not misunderstand Calvin’s theology of worship,[11] presuming the reader will care about this burning question.

The RP is not legalistic at all—why shouldn’t God have rules? We only hate rules because of sin.[12] People who have different interpretations about the RP, Thomas warns, are likely motivated by prejudice.[13] In fact, Thomas suspects disagreement is merely a cloak for pragmatism.[14]

Thomas dismisses John Frame’s objections by, ironically for a RP advocate, not quoting one passage of scripture![15] He acknowledges the charge that Jesus, by worshipping in a synagogue, did not practice the regulative principle.[16] Thomas never meaningfully responds to this, and again cites no scripture.[17]

Thomas likes strawmen, so much so that even at 19 years distance since its publication a fire marshal may well shut his essay down as a fire hazard. To abandon the RP, he declares, is the slippery slope to ruin.[18]

Edmund Clowney chimes in with an essay arguing corporate worship is a means of grace (ch. 5)—an issue I was not aware was in dispute. His contribution is unnecessary. Albert Mohler queues up to offer a workmanlike article on expository preaching. Like Duncan, he employs the same laments about the state of the contemporary church[19] and declares “the heart of Christian worship is the authentic preaching of the word of God.”[20]

Mark Dever offers an uninspired article about how to preach evangelistic sermons. It includes the immortal remark that an evangelistic sermon is one where the gospel is preached.[21]

Terry Johnson and Duncan team up to offer advice on reading and praying in corporate worship. They rightly call the Church back to corporate readings, but their advice can be too idealistic.[22] Johnson does not approve of non-pastors reading scripture in public but, irony of ironies for an RP man, he cannot provide scriptural support.[23] Crudely, he suggest having women read scripture in public is a sop to an egalitarian culture.[24]

All told, this is a collection of passionate essays from men who, to greater or lessor extent, minister in a very Reformed context. At times you get the feeling you’ve stumbled into the middle of a nasty family dispute, and start looking for the exit. Some essays exhibit inappropriate contempt and suspicion for those who disagree.


[1] Philip Ryken (ed.), Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003; Kindle ed.), KL 540-541.

[2] Ibid, KL 581-582.  

[3] “In other words, God is saying in this warning: ‘My people, if you commit spiritual adultery in your worship, I will righteously respond like the most fearsome wronged husband you have ever known.’” (Ibid, KL 802-804). Because “there is a double essence to the idolatry prohibited in the second command” (Ibid, KL 1179), we need the regulative principle.

[4] “[T]he doctrine of God, the Creator-creature distinction, the idea of revelation, the unchanging character of the moral law, the nature of faith, the doctrine of carefulness, the derivative nature of the church’s authority, the doctrine of Christian freedom, the true nature of biblical piety, and the reality of the fallen human nature’s tendency to idolatry,” (Ibid, KL 1103-1105).

[5] Ibid, KL 1122.  

[6] Ibid, KL 1148-1149.

[7] Ibid, KL 1192-1193. “Where God has not revealed Himself, there can be no faithful response, so “God cannot be pleased by worship that is not an obedient response to his revelation, because it is by definition ‘un-faith-full’ worship.”

[8] Ibid, KL 1215-1216.  

[9] Ibid, KL 1222-1223.

[10] Ibid, KL 1347.  

[11] “Is it the case that the seventeenth century took the regulative principle in a direction that Calvin, for example, did not intend?” (Ibid, KL 1626).

[12] Ibid, KL 1689.  

[13] “[I]t is sometimes apparent that this response is not an objection based on principle, but on prejudice,” (Ibid, KL 1698-1699).  

[14] “One suspects that reformation in attitude to sola scriptura is needed before progress can be made in advancing the cause of biblical worship practice,” (Ibid, KL 1700-1701).

[15] Ibid, KL 1725f.  

[16] Ibid, KL 1778.  

[17] “Of interest to us here is to know whether synagogue worship contained anything in it that would be deemed contrary to the regulative principle. Did it contain an element of worship that was not warranted by the Old Testament? The answer is definitely in the negative. What did a typical synagogue worship service look like? Nothing that will give devotees of greater freedom any joy! The fact is that synagogue worship was remarkably predictable, containing a call to worship, a cycle of prayers, the singing of psalms, the recitation of portions of Scripture (the Shema in particular), reading of Scripture, and something that we would now call preaching or exposition, followed by a blessing. It all sounds very similar to a traditional worship service!” (Ibid, KL 1811-1817).

[18] “… being at the mercy of a worship leader with the Outback Steakhouse approach to Sunday morning worship— no rules! What prevents our adding a ‘Pet consecration moment’ between the singing of ‘Jesus Is All the World to Me’ and the offering? Or a section called ‘Getting in Touch with Feelings’ led by Counselor Smith in place of the sermon? Or ‘Mrs. Beattie’s Bread Board: Cooking with Jesus’ as the closing facet of worship? The answer is ‘Nothing!’ Only cultural mores and prejudice can keep worship sane if there is no distinction between the worship service and the rest of life,” (Ibid, 1834-1839).

[19] The Church has been seduced by topical preaching (Ibid, KL 2065). Therapeutic concerns set the tone in many congregations (Ibid, 2065). “The appetite for serious preaching has virtually disappeared among many Christians,” (Ibid, 2084).

[20] Ibid, KL 2044.  

[21] “One thing and one thing alone determines whether a sermon can properly be said to be evangelistic, and that is its content. Is the evangel— the good news—present?” (Ibid, KL 2365-2367).

[22] They proclaim the public scripture reading “ought to be arresting to the congregation. It ought to grab their attention. It ought sometimes to make them tremble and other times rejoice,” (Ibid, KL 2631-2632). This sounds lovely. It likely will not do that. The authors appear to have been carried off into rapturous delight in their prose.

[23] Ibid, KL 2667f.  

[24] “Sometimes it is done (one suspects) to prove to a suspicious culture that conservative evangelical churches are not knee-jerk reactionaries in their stance against women preachers, and so sometimes women are invited to lead the church in this area, if not in proclamation,” (Ibid, KL 2664-2666).