Article 7: On Scripture Regulated Worship
This is a series to further explain the articles of “A Conservative Christian Declaration.” .
We affirm that the worship of God is regulated through his Word. Innovation, however well-intentioned, is “will-worship” (Col. 2:23), violates the free consciences of individual Christians (Rom. 14:5, 23), and is therefore displeasing to God (Matt. 15:9). We affirm that the circumstances of worship are matters of prudence, informed by the sound judgment that comes through ordinate affection (Prov. 9:10).
We deny that God desires or is pleased by innovation in matters of faith. We deny that silence from God’s Word on the circumstances of worship renders them amoral, or their mode of implementation a matter of indifference.
The Christian church is founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 17:1–8; 28:18). Jesus has purchased the church with his own blood, and he owns it absolutely (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 3:11, 23). He gave himself for it that he might present it to himself, holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:27). He appointed his apostles and prophets to speak his words to his followers as he revealed them by his Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; Acts 1:21–22; 1 Cor. 2:10, 13). Since the apostles and prophets are no longer living, Christians esteem their writings, canonized in the New Testament, as the authoritative teaching of Christ himself (Matt. 10:40; John 13:13–15, 20; Acts 1:2; 1 Cor. 15:3; 1 Thess. 2:13). Since they communicated the word of Christ, the apostles and prophets serve as the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:19–22; Eph. 4:11–16; 1 Cor. 12:28; cf. Matt. 16:18; Rev. 21:14). Their teachings are fully authoritative, as from Christ himself. Consequently, Paul told believers to hold fast to the apostolic tradition (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Cor. 15:1–3), for this tradition comes from Christ. Paul further commanded the Corinthian church, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). This doctrinal foundation, given to Christ’s apostles, is the “good deposit” of apostolic teaching that Timothy was to guard (1 Tim. 6:20; cf. 2 Tim. 1:14; Jude 20). Although apostles could commit personal errors (Gal. 2:11–14), disobedience to an apostle’s commands—i.e., disobedience to apostolic Scripture—constitutes disobedience to Christ himself (2 Thess. 3:14–15).
This robust understanding of the authority of the Word of God leads us to assert that Christian churches must worship God in ways that are prescribed and regulated by God through Christ’s apostles. Since Christ alone has authority over the church, he has the right to say how we must worship. Any attempt to innovate, whether in doctrine or in forms of worship, constitutes a usurpation of the authority of Christ.
The apostle Paul observed that some in Colossae were inventing new doctrines, regulations, and forms of worship that had not been authorized by Christ through his apostles (Col. 2:16–22). Paul designated these innovations as etheolothreskia, a term that means will worship (KJV) or self-made religion (ESV). He made it clear that this kind of roll-your-own-at-home religion was a form of idolatry. In other words, the faith that Christians profess is not self-made. God has revealed it. As he has prescribed our doctrine, God has prescribed our worship.
By attending to New Testament commands and practices, we can ascertain which activities or elements of worship God wishes a church to employ.
Exalting God through the proclamation his word was commanded by Christ, by Paul, and by Peter (Matt. 28:20; 2 Tim. 4:2–5; 1 Peter 4:11). Such preaching was actually heard in the assemblies of early Christian churches (Acts 6:2; 14:7, 21–22; 15:35; 18:24, 27; 20:7–9, 26–32; cf. 1 Cor. 1:17; Eph. 4:11ff; Col. 3:16; 1 Tim. 4:13). We regard biblical preaching as a required element of worship.
The apostle Paul directly commanded the public reading of Scripture in the churches (1 Tim. 4:13; cf. Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27). As the historical record shows, the reading of Scripture was a regular practice of the apostolic churches. We regard the reading of the biblical text as an authorized element of corporate worship.
Public prayer was both commanded and practiced (Acts 1:14, 24; 2:42; 3:1; 4:31; 6:4; 12:5; 13:3; 16:25; 20:36; etc.; 1 Cor. 11:4–5; 14:15–16; Eph. 6:18; Phil. 4:6; Col. 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:17; James 5:13; etc.). One way that the church prayed was by singing to God (1 Cor. 14:15). Furthermore, the apostolic churches were specifically commanded to sing (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:17–20; James 5:13; cf. 1 Cor. 14:26). We regard both prayer and singing as necessary elements of corporate worship.
Sometimes the early church accompanied its prayer with fasting (Acts 13:1–3; 14:23; cf. Matt. 9:15). While fasting was never specifically commanded of New Testament churches, it was clearly practiced. We regard it as a permissible, though not a required, element of the church’s corporate worship.
The apostolic churches regularly practiced giving. Paul referred to the monetary support churches gave their spiritual leaders an “offering,” a term that carries distinct liturgical overtones (Phil. 4:18). Paul further commanded churches to care for needy believers, and to take up the collections for them when they were gathered (1 Cor. 16:1–4). We regard regular giving as a necessary element of corporate worship.
Jesus himself commanded Christian churches to partake in the Lord’s Supper, and this command was elaborated by the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 11:23–26). Jesus and his apostles also commanded believers to be baptized (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:1–4). Baptism is also an act of worship, not only for the person baptized, but also for those who, while observing it, are reminded of the work and perfections of God represented in that holy sign of the profession of our faith. Both baptism and the Lord’s Table were widely practiced in the churches of the New Testament. We regard these ordinances as indispensable elements of corporate worship.
The New Testament provides the authoritative pattern for worship. To introduce some other element is to ask Christians to go beyond what the apostles have given them authority to do (Matt. 15:9). Consequently, adding other practices besides that that are revealed in the New Testament violates the consciences of sincere Christians whose souls are bound to their Lord as Master (Rom. 14:5, 23). We urge those who so desire to add elements to their worship that Christ has not prescribed to consider carefully what is at stake; they may be building with combustible materials or, even worse, doing damage to Christ’s temple (1 Cor. 3:10–17).
Nevertheless, we do not believe that following the apostolic pattern requires us to do exactly what they did in exactly the way they did it. The New Testament prescribes the elements of worship, but it does not always specify the circumstances by which those elements are to be implemented. For example, the New Testament does not require Christians to use a specific language, to gather under specific lighting, to amplify their voices through specific architecture or other technologies, or to order their services in a specific sequence (though we are commanded that our services be done decently and in order; 1 Cor. 14:40).
In other words, while Christians are told what they may do in worship, they are not always told exactly how they are to do it. We recognize that churches exercise liberty in their choice of these circumstances. Nevertheless many (often overlooked) Biblical teachings do provide principles for worshipping God with the prescribed elements. Therefore, while the choice of circumstances is a matter of prudence, it is not a matter of indifference. The fact that circumstances are not prescribed does not make them amoral or indifferent. The worship of the True and Living God is the principal business of all Christians, and they must exercise discernment in how they go about this business. Christian leaders above all must choose carefully and wisely how to apply these passages, leading their churches to worship the true and living God (Prov. 9:10).
Furthermore, the fact that the elements of worship are prescribed in Scripture does not imply that every element must be present in every act of corporate worship. For example, baptisms may not occur in every worship service. Some services may appropriately focus on only some of the elements. The overall worship of the church, however, must incorporate all of those elements and only those elements that are prescribed by the New Testament if that worship is to be genuinely biblical.
About Ryan Martin
Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).