Recently I’ve been doing some thinking about benedictions. I know, most people hear the word “benediction” and their eyes glaze over. “That’s part of a church service, right?” Well, yes, it is. But it’s not simply a part of a church service. The benediction is a blessing that usually comes at the end of a worship service. It is a blessing from God administered by his spokesman. Put this way, it becomes a little more clear that the benediction is quite an important part of worship. Who wouldn’t want to receive God’s blessing?
A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of proclaiming the benediction to the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) congregation which I serve as associate pastor. After preaching on the parable of the prodigal son, I used the benediction from the book of Hebrews:
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21)
The main point of my sermon was that Jesus is the true elder brother who comes and saves us as prodigal sons. At his own expense, Jesus the true elder brother brings prodigal sons back home to their Father. I mentioned this in the benediction, reminding the congregation that Jesus is not only the great shepherd of the sheep, but also is our true elder brother who loves us and brings us all the way home. Since expounding on the Scriptural benediction text is not something I usually do, I wondered whether I had committed a theological foul by adding my words to God’s words (even though I didn’t intend to do so). So I set out to find out.
The first thing I did was ask each of the other elders in the church independently what they thought about the benediction I pronounced. All the elders had slightly different thoughts, but all agreed that I didn’t do anything wrong per se. One thought it unusual in our circles but not unheard of, another thought it was fine but he personally chooses to stick to the Scripture text as a didactic device, and the other was quite enthusiastic about it.
The second thing I did was look up relevant sections in the PCA Book of Church Order (BCO), and compared them to (1) our sister denomination the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) and (2) the Westminster Directory of Worship (the “fountainhead” for our tradition).
Of Publick Reading of the Holy Scriptures: “When the minister who readeth shall judge it necessary to expound any part of what is read, let it not be done until the whole chapter or psalm be ended; and regard is always to be had unto the time, that neither preaching, nor other ordinances be straitened, or rendered tedious. Which rule is to be observed in all other publick performances.”
In the Westminster tradition, it seems the minister is only permitted to expound on the reading of the text after (not before) the reading of scripture (whole chapter or psalm).
From the OPC BCO Directory for Worship:
II.A.2.a. “Because the hearing of God’s Word is a means of grace, the public reading of the Holy Scriptures is an essential element of public worship. He who performs this serves as God’s representative voice. Thus, it ordinarily should be performed by a minister of the Word. Through this reading, God speaks directly to the congregation in his own words. For this reason, the reader should refrain from interspersing the reading of God’s Word with human comments. He should use an accurate, faithful translation in the language of the people. He should read clearly and with understanding, and the congregation should attend to the reading with the deepest reverence.”
In the OPC tradition, I assume that “human comments” by the reader are permitted if they are not interspersed in the reading of the Word.
From the PCA BCO Directory of Worship:
BCO 50-4: “How large a portion [of scripture] shall be read at once is left to the discretion of every minister; and he may, when he thinks it expedient, expound any part of what is read; always having regard to the time, that neither reading, singing, praying, preaching, nor any other ordinance, be disproportionate the one to the other; nor the whole rendered too short, or too tedious.”
BCO 58-7: “Now let a psalm or hymn be sung, and the congregation dismissed, with the following or some other Gospel benediction: ‘Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.'”
BCO Appendix A – Marriage Service. In the Benediction section, the following text appears. Note that the benediction listed is an adaptation of scripture (within the category of “some other Gospel benediction” from BCO 58-7), not a direct quote from scripture.
“Then the married pair standing, or kneeling, the minister shall pronounce the benediction: ‘God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, bless, preserve, and keep you; the Lord mercifully with his favor look upon you, and so fill you with his grace that you may live faithfully together in this life and in the world to come may have life everlasting. Amen.'”
Note that the reader (minister) has the freedom to expound on the reading of the Word “when he thinks it expedient.” Westminster restricts to after the reading; OPC restricts to before/after the reading. If I’m reading it right, the PCA allows greater freedom than the OPC and Westminster for a minister when reading a portion of Scripture, essentially permitting the benediction I gave. It doesn’t seem to me that most people would consider such as “adding to Scripture” (one of the arguments against expounding on the Scripture when reading it) since there is no intention on the part of the speaker to add more “inspired words” to God’s Word. I think the speaker’s intention is key.
Third, I read a little about benedictions in the Reformed tradition. I consulted a number of books about worship on my shelf, but only a few addressed the question of what is appropriate for a benediction. Bryan Chapell, former president and chancellor of Covenant Seminary, had the most to say in his chapter on Benedictions in his book Christ-Centered Worship.
- Theology of Benedictions: pp. 252-254. Note his emphasis on benediction as ministerial blessing that may or may not be a quotation from scripture.
- Examples of Benedictions: pp. 254-258
- The entire chapter on benedictions is instructive
Also helpful was The Worship Sourcebook, which is a compilation of resources in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition.
From The Worship Sourcebook, published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship
- Theology of Benedictions and practices of various communities in the Reformed tradition: pp. 360-361
- Examples of Benedictions: pp. 361-365
Lastly, it occurred to me that benediction literally means “blessing”. So I looked up “benediction” in various dictionaries. None of them said that a benediction must be a reading of Scripture. Of course the Scriptural benedictions are normative. But I don’t find that the Bible itself requires a benediction pronounced at the end of a worship service to be a quotation from Scripture.
Dictionary Definitions of “Benediction”
- Merriam-Webster: the invocation of a blessing; especially : the short blessing with which public worship is concluded
- Dictionary.com: the form of blessing pronounced by an officiating minister, as at the close of divine service
- Oxford: The utterance or bestowing of a blessing, especially at the end of a religious service
I’m glad I had the chance to do this little study. What I’ve concluded is I committed no foul. I will normally read a Scriptural benediction as the pronouncement of God’s blessing, but I will also keep in my pastor’s toolbox (1) the privilege of expounding any part of what is read, and (2) the use of Scriptural adaptations for benedictions. It seems clear to me that such practice is squarely in the conservative Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, it is permitted by our elders, and it is expressly allowable in the PCA BCO.