[from The Reformed Presbyterian and Covenanter, VII.1, January 1869, 10-11.]
THE practice of having some special religious service termed dedicatory at the opening of a new church is becoming quite common among Presbyterians. Judging of the service by the epithet applied to it, there is a solemn setting apart of the building to the worship of God. The published notices generally state who offered up the dedicatory prayer. Dedication is consecration, according to Webster. The same Greek word which means literally to make new, is rendered “dedicated” in Heb. 9: 18, and “consecrated,” in chap. 10: 20. The dedication of a church, is the consecration of it, which means setting it apart to a holy use. It is the building that is dedicated, not the money paid for it. That was already dedicated by the donors. They gave it for a religious use, and to that use it is devoted. We propose to inquire as to the propriety of this practice, and see if there he any Scripture warrant for it. The subject needs a careful examination, because, if it be a duty to dedicate a new church, then it should be enforced by ecclesiastical authority; if it is not a duty, it should not be done.
Is there any Scripture warrant for this service? This inquiry presents itself at once, and must be answered. Whatever is done in the matter of divine worship must have the sanction of divine authority. The dedication of a church does not belong to the mere form of religious services. The dedication of a man to the ministry by ordination, and the setting apart of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, are not forms, they are essentials. These ordinances would be utterly vitiated by the want of them, and hence they are provided for in the institutions of ordination and the Lord’s Supper. Is there any similar provision in the Bible for the practice in question? If there be, we have failed to discover it. The dedication of places and things under the Old Testament dispensation belonged to the law, which had a shadow of good things to come. We have now the substance. “Which are a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ.” Col. 2:17.
But, though not found in the Bible, may it not be done as a matter of manifest propriety? We answer, No. It is true the Confession of Faith teaches “that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and the government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence.” But the practice in question is not a circumstance. It is an institution, and so viewed by those bodies who are consistent in observing it. They make it indispensable to the fitness of a house for a place of worship that it be dedicated. If it is a mere circumstance, then it is a matter of no importance whether it be observed or not. But this is not the case with any practice that belongs to the matter of worship. If it is of divine appointment it should be observed. The rule in regard to the matter of worship is—that which the Scriptures do not command, they forbid. “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it; thou shalt not add thereto,” Deut. 12:32. This rule the dedication of churches violates.
Is not the practice opposed to the spirit of the gospel? We hold that it is. Christ has “blotted out the handwriting of ordinances and took it out of the way,” Col. 2:14. By this he has relieved the church from the whole burden of ceremonies. The want of any New Testament warrant for what was positive under the Old Testament dispensation, is proof that it is abolished by the death of Christ. It is in this way that we show that circumcision, the passover, sacrificing, instrumental music in praise, are not now to be observed. They are inconsistent with the simplicity and spirituality of gospel worship. By the same rule the dedication of places of worship is forbidden.
The true view of this subject is presented in the appendix to the Directory for Public Worship. “No place is capable of any holiness under pretence of whatsoever dedication or consecration.” Dedication of churches is but a pretence, but it is a pretence about a matter too sacred to be trifled with.
There are plain Scripture declarations on this subject that this practice disregards. Mal. 1:11, “In every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering.” John 4:21,23, “The hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father; but the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” 1 Tim. 2:8, “I will therefore that men pray everywhere.” Matt. 15:9, “In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
Now, when ritualism is making steady and rapid progress in evangelical churches, it is the dictate of wisdom to resist its beginnings. One unauthorized practice makes way for another; what seems to be harmless at the beginning is often injurious in the end.
It is not intended to include in these remarks the practice of having one minister or more to join in preaching the first day in a new church. That is neither in name nor fact dedication. It is generally intended to help the finances, and whether it is right or wrong is to be determined on other grounds. The danger here is of secularizing the Sabbath, against which it would be well to guard.