John Frame is among one of the most influential theologians to defend contemporary worship music and practice, particularly through his two popular books, Worship in Spirit and Truth and Contemoprary Worship Music. What many may not realize is that his philosophy expounded in these books emerges from a softening and redefinition of the governing doctrine of his Presbyterian tradition, the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). This softening first appeared in a 1992 journal article in the Westminster Theological Journal, which raised “Some Questions About the Regulative Principle.”1 In that article and subsequent writings, Frame argues that the Regulative Principle should apply not just to worship, but to all of life. In arguing this way, Frame softens the RPW to be simply God’s sovereign rulership over all of life and the believer’s responsibility to do all to the glory of God.
Before challenging Frame’s conclusions regarding the RPW, however, we must define the RPW. John Calvin was among the first to clearly articulate the principle:
We may not adopt any device [in our worship] which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunctions of him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have him approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed. . . . God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word.2
This doctrine influenced the puritans in English through John Knox, who in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Article 21, paragraph 1 state:
The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. 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.
In other words, in terms of corporate worship, what is not commanded is forbidden.
In contrast to the RPW is the Normative Principle of Worship (hereafter NPW) which says that what is not forbidden is permitted. Historically, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists have ascribed to the RPW, while Lutherans and Anglicans have followed the NPW.
In his journal article, John Frame rejects any distinction between all of life for the believer and worship, a necessary differentiation implicit in the RPW. Instead, Frame insists that “all human actions are ruled by divine commandments. There is no neutral area where God permits us to be our own lawgivers. There is no area of human life where God abdicates his rule, or where his word to us is silent.”3 He sites passages such as 1 Corinthians 10:31 and Romans 12:1 to demonstrate that all of life is worship for the believer. Pulling all of life under the umbrella of the RP, then, allows Frame to significantly soften the requirements of the RP
since who would insist that “what is not commanded is forbidden” applies in normal life situations?
Two passages in Romans that bear immediate significance upon Frame’s redefinition of the RPW are Romans 12:1 and Romans 14. A closer look at these passages will reveal they they do not, in fact, support Frame’s redefinition of the RPW.
After eleven long chapters of theological development, Paul begins chapter 12 with an injunction for believers to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” Frame uses this passage, among others, to argue that since all of life is worship, all of life should be placed under his softened RPW.
However, Paul’s description of all of life as worship does not automatically prove that God intends for corporate worship to be subsumed under a loose category of “all of life.” Paul’s use of worship language here and elsewhere is significant in this regard. The word “worship” (latreia) here certainly carries with it “cultic imagery”4 of liturgical Jewish worship. However, this particular word, most often rendered “service” or “ministry” connotes individual services of worship in contrast with other more corporate language used to describe the Church. For example, in Ephesians 2.21–22 and 1 Corinthians 3.16-17 Paul uses temple language (in this
case naos — the term for the Holy Place) with reference to the gathered Church. In other words, by the specific worship language employed by Paul, he seems to see a distinction between
individual all-of-life worship and corporate, Church worship.
Principles set forth in Romans 14 also discredit Frame’s redefinition of the RPW and demonstrate his apparent ignorance of the Principle’s original purpose. In context, Romans 14 addresses issues directly related to the subject of corporate worship such as ceremonially unclean (koinon) food and sacred days. Any proper discussion of so-called “Christian liberty” must be framed in this context.
Paul’s primary admonition in this section is particularly instructive with regard to the RPW. Within a context of “[making] every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (v. 19), Paul insists in verse 5 that “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” concerning sacred days, and in verse 23 he warns that “the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” In other words, one must be careful not to impose upon his own conscience or the conscience of another that of which they are not fully convinced.
The Westminster divines had this principle of “liberty of conscience” in mind when they wrote in article 20, paragraph 2 of their Confession:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word; or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.
The authors of the WCF understood the context of Paul’s “liberty of conscience” discussion in Romans 14, and applied it to their current, very similar situation. The Puritans of the WCF were debating with their fellow Anglicans over the ritualistic excesses retained from the Roman Catholic Church. Delivuk summarizes their problem well:
From the time of the vestments controversy of the latter sixteenth century, the Anglican additions to worship had given many sincere believers serious conscience problems. They believed that these innovations were not worship. Therefore, they had problems of conscience every time they participated in worship. A major goal of the Westminster Assembly was to protect believers with sensitive consciences.5
Therefore, the original purpose for the RPW was not to unnecessarily restrict corporate worship, but to liberate stricken consciences from practices within corporate worship that were not expressly set forth in the Scriptures. They insisted that no man, including ecclesiastical authorities, had the right to constrain a worshipper to participate in an activity of worship that had no Scriptural directive. Gordon summarizes this well:
The issue that gave birth to the regulative principle was the nature and limits of church power. The issue was not, for them, “worship” versus “the rest of life,” but “those aspects of life governed by the church officers” versus those aspects of life not governed by the church officers.6
The contexts of both Romans 14 and the original formulation of the RPW demonstrate clearly a biblically-warranted distinction between corporate worship and the rest of life, along with the RPW’s particularly instructive application for the Church — “In worship, the church is forbidden to add rites and ceremonies to those found in the Bible, because the conscience is to be free of human requirements.”7 What is not commanded is forbidden.
And thus Frame’s softening of the RPW by subjecting all of life to its control is invalid. T. David Gordon, in his “Answers” to John Frame proclaims,
Frame’s attempt to put “all of life” under one umbrella . . . is doomed to futility, because it does not address the very issue the regulative principle was designed to address, the limits of church power and the liberty of conscience. If there is no distinction between what is lawful for an individual and what is lawful for the church to require of everyone, then Paul’s discussions in 1 Corinthians 7–9 and Romans 14 make no sense.
Such texts presuppose, and in fact positively teach, that there are things an individual may freely do which cannot be required of others.8
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.