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Family Worship a Term of Communion in the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

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Family Worship a Term of Communion in the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

James Dodson

BY REV. PROF. R. J. GEORGE, D. D.


            A movement is in progress in the United Presbyterian Church to remove from its membership covenant the engagement to observe family worship. The United Presbyterian, of November 19, contains an article in support of the movement, entitled, “Family Worship a Term of Communion,” from the pen of Dr. John McNaugher, professor in the Allegheny Theological Seminary, whom we have been accustomed to regard as one of the most conservative leaders in that body. As Dr. McNaugher cites the position to our Church in support of his contention, I feel constrained to notice his article.

            Dr. McNaugher states the question thus:

            “All of us are in perfect agreement about the duty and the value of household worship. In her Directory for Worship our Church affirms and will never cease to affirm her testimony on the family altar. But here is the point: In the membership covenant we are framing the terms of admission to the Church, we are formulating the conditions which we will impose on all who are received into our fellowship. Are we to confront applicants for membership with demand that they observe family worship morning and evening, unless providentially hindered? The writer answers emphatically in the negative.”

                The following are the principal reasons urged:

            1. More than one-half of those received are children. If they belong to homes having a family altar the requirement is “superfluous,” if they come from prayerless homes it is “meaningless and absurd.”

            But it is not unhappily true that there are many children in homes where they have a family altar who do not diligently attend upon it morning and evening? When they come to unite with the Church is it “superfluous” to ask them to promise that they will? And how can it be regarded as either “meaningless” or “absurd,” to ask children from prayerless homes, to promise to attend upon family worship “unless providentially hindered?” These children are not now “in control of the situation,” but they soon will be, as heads of families. If the Church will have family religion in the future homes of her people - let her engage her youth to family worship. The very fact that many of those who make a profession are children, makes this requirement the more imperative. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Prov. 22:6).

            2. A second argument is that under the evangelistic efforts of to-day many are being brought into the church from the world, “who have never had religious training or have never had religious training or have long since broken away from it”. If family worship is required, these men “will not submit to such a yoke,” but will either join other churches or they “will compromise their consciences disastrously by consenting to the vow while they have no intention of paying it.”

            This argument is a pitiful revelation of the extreme shallowness of much of our modern evangelism. It is an insistence that the standard of requirement of family religion for the whole body shall be lowered in order that she may receive into her communion those who give so little evidence of being truly converted to Christ that they will not promise to consecrate their homes to God, and make a beginning in family worship by reading a chapter from the Holy Word and repeating the Lord’s Prayer with their families each day; who have so little conscience or so little sense of what they are doing that they would make their sacramental vows, with “no intention” of paying them.

            It is not to be expected that new converts, inexperienced in devotional services, will be able to conduct family worship with the same facility or fullness as those of maturer Christian life, but if at this crisis period of their lives, in the ardor of their first love, they cannot be persuaded to engage to make a beginning by setting up the family altar, it is not likely that they or their families will ever know the blessedness of a truly Christian home. “The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tabernacles of the righteous; the right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.” (Ps. 118:15).

            3. Another argument is of such a character that I will state it in the author’s own words - as follows:

            “The practice of our sessions nullifies the provision for family worship as an article in the membership covenant. Commonly in the reception of members, sessions administer that part of the present covenant in a lax, perfunctory way, and with no thought whatever of excluding a man even should he refuse point blank to keep up family worship. This action is wrong, but it is determined by the manifest impossibility of securing any large measure of conformity to the family worship pledge. If this condition of things is so, and it is so, then why should the Church be guilty of placing the requirement among the sacred pledges which sessions, as God’s representatives, are to administer in His holy name?”

                Perhaps no one outside of the United Presbyterian Church would have felt free to give such an account of the situation. Admitting the case to be as stated, two ways of dealing with it are open to the Church. She can either lower her terms of communion and thus bring them into harmony with the unfaithfulness on the part of her sessions, and the lack of piety on the part of her members; or, she can take measures to bring the fidelity of her pastors and elders and the godliness of her people up to the standard of the Word of God. The author advocates the taking of the former course as the first step, although he seems to admit that the latter course is open. For he says:

            “There was an old provision in the Church of Scotland for the visitation of the congregations by presbyteries, in which the following questions were put to the heads of families: Do the elders visit the families within the quarter and bounds assigned to each of them? Are they careful to have the worship of God set up in the families of their bounds? The minister also was directed to ask in his pastoral visits ‘whether God be worshipped in the family by prayers, praises and reading of the Scriptures.’ This old Scottish rule is suggestive of the responsibility resting on those who are called to ‘tend the flock of God.’ Nothing else than faithful inquiry and teaching relative to family worship will avail. If there is failure here the situation is without remedy. If there is faithfulness here the families of the Church will become praying families.”

                These are weighty and solemn words, and to my mind they completely refute the author’s own argument - that the requirement of family worship should be removed from the membership covenant, because of the “manifest impossibility” of securing obedience to it. It is contrary to reason and to all experience to argue that the Church will secure the observance of family worship by ceasing to require it. If this movement prevails, every United Presbyterian whose conscience has been goading him for his neglect of family worship will feel relieved.

            If anything were needed to prove that this is a downward movement, the character of the arguments used in favor of it would be sufficient to convince thoughtful minds.

            The statement made by Dr. McNaugher, which is the occasion of this article, is as follows:

            “The requirement of family worship is not found in the terms of communion of any other church, so far as is known to the writer, and there has been careful examination of the Books of the United Free Church of Scotland, etc.”

                He closes the list with

            “The Reformed Presbyterian Church, Old School.”

                And adds

            “This last body refers in its Covenant of 1871 to the performance of the ‘duties of the household,’ but it has nothing more specific than this.”

                In the examination of the Books of our Church the following seem to have been overlooked:

            “Families are under obligation to worship the great God, socially, by signing psalms, reading the Scriptures, and prayer, each night and day; and the head of the family should take care that these duties be performed and that regular attendance be given by every member of the family. * * * We therefore condemn the following errors and testify against all who maintain them * * * Error 4. That it is unnecessary for families to worship God every day, and particularly to make singing psalms a part of their worship.” - Testimony, Chap. XXIV., Sec. 4. Error 4.

                The Directory for Worship treating of the religious duties of the household says:

            “The head of the family is to take care that none of the family withdraw himself from any part of family worship; and seeing the ordinary performance of all the parts of family worship belongeth properly to the head of the family, the minister is to stir up such as are lazy, and train up such as are weak to a fitness to these services.” - p. 534 of Confession of Faith.

                The Book of Discipline, in the chapter on Admission of Members, says:

            “Every member must give satisfactory evidence of his living in the practice of secret prayer, and family religion, and must intelligently profess both respect for experimental godliness, and acquiescence in the plan of salvation revealed in the Holy Scriptures.” - Book of Discipline, p. 63.

                The Covenant of 1871, to which Dr. McNaugher refers as not being specific, names both the Testimony and the Directory for Worship, along with the other Standards of the Church, and says:

            “We do publicly profess and own this as the true Christian faith and religion and the system of order and worship appointed by Christ for his own house, and by the grace of God we will sincerely and constantly endeavor to understand it more fully, to hold and observe it in its integrity, and to transmit the knowledge of the same to posterity.”

                As to the performance of the duties of worship thus defined the Covenant contains the following engagement:

            “Aiming to live for the glory of God as our chief end, we will, in reliance upon God’s grace, and feeling our inability to perform any spiritual duty in our strength, diligently attend to searching the Scriptures, religious conversation, the duties of the closet, the household, the fellowship meeting, and the sanctuary, and will seek in them to worship God in spirit and in truth.”

                All of these, viz.: the Testimony, the Directory for Worship and the Covenant, are acknowledged in their binding obligation in our Terms of Ecclesiastical Communion, and are required to be accepted by every applicant for membership when he is received into the Church. And they are publicly read, and the engagement renewed in connection with every observance of the Lord’s Supper, and also when parents present their children for baptism.

            In the face of all these facts and declarations and Covenant engagements, the position of the Covenanter Church cannot justly be quoted in support of any movement to abolish the requirement of family worship as a term of Communion.

            If the movement to omit from the membership covenant of the United Presbyterian Church the requirement of family worship succeeds, it will weaken the hands of those in all the other churches who are struggling to maintain it; and the hearts of the pious and godly in all denominations will be grieved. It is not merely a step downward; it is a downward leap.

            Allegheny, Pa., Nov. 23, 1908.