A Dramatic Debate
On September 21, 1996, at the Fall Stated Meeting of Northeast Presbytery, a debate was held on the use of drama in public worship. Presenting the "pro" position was TE Tom Corey, pastor of Hope Church, Ballston Spa, NY. Presenting the "con" view was TE Stephen Gonzales, organizing pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church, who authored a booklet, The Regulative Principle and Drama in Worship (Greenville, SC: Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Press, 1995). Here are excerpts from the papers which they presented.
The Redemptive-Historical Approach to the Bible
Some important advances have been made since the days when the WCF was drafted. These developments have come to characterize our Reformed and Presbyterian thinking, and to distinguish us from similar, yet distinct, Christian traditions, for instance fundamentalism. Our insistence that there is a covenantal structure to God's revelation has kept us from "homogenizing" the Bible, i.e. from taking all prooftexts as equal no matter where come from in the Scriptures. We believe that Scripture has been revealed in a progressive manner. This means that things said under the administration of an older covenant must first be understood in the context of that covenant, and then be "translated" in order to discover their relevance to new covenant believers. This progressive covenantal approach to the Bible is generally known as "Redemptive-Historical". It's my contention that we will do a great disservice to Biblical truth if we ignore this method in our search for a pattern for new covenant public worship.
Old Covenant worship texts must now be translated in order to discern their meaning and application to New Covenant believers. Worship takes on a new 7-days-a-week dimension. . . .
Assemblies for Public Worship
. . . Surprisingly there is little given us in the New Testament to help us reconstruct [the gatherings of the new covenant people]. . . . Acts 2:42 and I Cor. 14 are as close as we come to an approved "list of elements" for such gatherings. It seems clear that worship involved many people in active roles: preaching, teaching, exhorting, prophesying, praying, fellowshipping, singing, collecting, encouraging, taking the Lord's Supper, etc. We believe tongues and prophesies to have been a specific practice limited to the era when the New Testament Canon was still being developed. As Professor John Frame of Westminster Seminary says in his new book on worship, "Unfortunately it is virtually impossible to prove that anything is divinely required specifically for official services." (Emphasis mine)
Constructing a List of Elements
If we approach the N. T. to develop a list of approved elements we need to focus specifically on what God says n the new covenant era regarding assembled worship. It seems to have been the Puritans who first described worship in terms of its "elements" or parts. They held that the regulative principle requires us to find biblical warrant (a command) for each element. Unfortunately we run into serious problems with this approach.
To begin with the N. T. nowhere prescribes or defines public worship as a series of "elements." When it does describe what believers do in public worship settings the descriptions differ widely from each other. . . .
A second problem we encounter in our attempt to develop an approved list of elements is that many of the items we feel certain should be included are not given in command language. Furthermore, many of the things we all feel certain ought ot be included in our list can only be gleaned from prooftexts that definitely don't have assembled worship in their context. These may be good things to do, biblical actions which God's people ought to engage in, but their inclusion on our list requires us to bend our requirements. There is no Biblical command to administer baptism in Lord's Day gatherings. As a matter of fact each time baptism is administered it is in a non-assembly setting! In short, our reasons for including it on our list are theological, not "prooftextable."
A third difficulty surrounds the complexity of setting apart distinct "elements" in these services. Is singing an element, or is it a complex of the elements of confession, prayer and encouragement? Is teaching a distinct element from preaching? Must both be done in each service? Are we to think of biblical worship like one of those 3-dimensional wooden puzzles made up of 8 or 9 distinctly shaped pieces? If any of the pieces is missing is our worship incomplete? If so, is it approved by God anyway?
Finally, I believe we need to face honestly the glaring neglect of some prescribed new covenant practices (elements) in our churches. If it displeases God for us to engage in unprescribed activities and call them worship, how does He regard our neglect of elements He has plainly ordered? We have deleted the Agape feasts entirely, the problem was its abuse . . ., and we don't feel comfortable giving one another a "Holy Kiss" . . . . We need to recognize how we have minimized the element of koinonia: exhortation and encouragement aspects which Paul spent so much of his ministry developing. . . . Could it be that there is a pattern here? Given the fact that several of these neglected practices involve lay people, perhaps we need to search our hearts to discover whether we dismiss these things because we find people hard to control and orchestrate. The fear of losing control may have much to do with our hesitation about dramatic presentations as well. . . .
God's self-revelation has always been dramatic. The response of His people in worship has often also included dramatic action. The Patriarchs built altars and sacrificed animals. From the days of Moses there was the pageantry of the tabernacle with its ceremonies, feasts, and sacrifices. Symbolic gestures, clothing and furniture were part of every worship experience. It must all have been important to God seeing that He devoted whole chapters to those details. . . . The Prophets were dramatic to a fault. Often their ministries and lives were a sort of mobile drama of God's engagement with His wayward people. . . .
If we approach drama as an "element," it seems foreign, hard to prooftext, but if we simply look at the Scriptures we see dramatic action communicating in a coordinated way with the verbal record of God's self-revelation throughout. Jesus the master story teller interacts with the crowds, teaching them in verbal parables and often performing right before their eyes "enacted parables" [i.e., various miracles]. The sacraments were dramatic portrayals of gospel realities that accompanied Jesus' preaching. These appealed to our sensory nature as humans. The orchestrated spiritual gift-based worship of the Corinthian assembly was a dramatic experience of the presence of God meant to convince unbelievers who attended as observers that "God is really among you!" . . . The writer of Hebrews gets even more dramatic. . . . [Chapter 13 spells out] what . . . acceptable worship consists of . . .: loving one another as brothers, entertaining strangers, visiting those who are in prison, keeping your marriage bed pure and your heart free from the love of money, imitating the faith of our God-approved leaders, going "outside the camp" where Jesus suffers in order to identify with his lost sheep. . . .
It has always interested me that John Calvin didn't write a commentary on the Book of Revelation. Some have speculated that this left-brained legal personality just couldn't comprehend this dramatic book. More likely our brother understood that if pictures are worth 1000 words, then these scenes were impossible to elaborate upon without trivializing them. He let them speak for themselves. It's nothing less than a "dramatic feast" (John Frame); the Lord's multi-media finale!
If we grant the following simple assumptions, then the objection against the use of drama in worship entirely disappers-1) that the Word of God may be preached or taught by more than one speaker at a service; 2) that dialogue is covenantal ("I will be your God and you will be my people"); 3) and that the best communication (teaching or preaching) makes use of dramatic aspects. Then drama is not made to be a new or distinct "element", but simply a means for teaching and preaching more effectively.
Dramatic Forms and the Problems They Present
. . . Some forms of drama may be nothing but passing fad. Invest your resources carefully. Some of the dramatic forms available to us today include plays, object lessons, flannelgraph, readers theater, vignettes, pageants, and puppetry. It's interesting that many people who oppose the use of drama in adult worship think nothing of its use for children's stories. I think they simply haven't thought through the implications very deeply. I've often had grown-ups tell me they didn't understand my sermon, but they really appreciated my children's story. There is a lesson here. Drama, well done, can often communicate God's truth in a gripping, unforgettable way.
A. Drama Defined: "A composition in verse or prose to portray life or character or tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typlically designed for theatrical performance" (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary). Erroneous assumptions regarding the definition of "drama" include: defining drama so broadly it becomes meaningless (a smile, a raised voice); reducing it to include just about everything (including, the sacrifices); regarding symbolic actions, dramatic readings of Scripture, or sermonic illustrations as drama.
B. Worship Defined: "Worship is the activity of the new life of a believer in which, recognizing the fullness of the Godhead as it is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and His mighty redemptive acts, he seeks by the power of the Holy Spirit to render [acceptably] to the living God the glory, honor, and submission which are His due." (Robert G. Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship)
C. The Bible is silent regarding the use of "drama" in worship: The WCF provides us with a helpful hermeneutical guide in determining what is proper when scriptures are silent on issues: "The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary inference may be deduced from Scripture . . . and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed."
II. REASONS FOR NOT USING DRAMA IN CORPORATE WORSHIP
A. Drama is manward, not Godward, in focus: drama seeks primarily to entertain and secondarily to convey truth.
B. Drama is not essential for the worship of God: there is no inherent redemptive value in drama, and no Biblical illustration regarding its use.
C. Drama breeds a growing disdain for the reading and preaching of the word: drama creates a monstrous appetite for what thrills; when drama is used in worship, worship can easily be seen as boring when drama is not present.
D. Drama tends to trivialize what is important: one ministry describes Jesus Christ as "King of kings, Lord of lords, and Clown of clowns"; drama has a way of off-setting confrontation.
E. Drama is not an effective medium of communication: plain speech is the most effective way of communicating truth; otherwise, why wouldn't the "White House Players" come out and make announcements regarding Iraq?
Towards the close of the meeting, Northeast Presbytery voted to take exception to the minutes of a session for using drama in public worship. In taking this action, the court cited WCF 21:1 (". . . But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture").