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How Can We Conserve Biblical Worship? Part 2

Conservative Christians will commit to worship regulated by the Word of God.

Ever since Cain and Abel, God’s people have been asking, “What is the best way to worship God?” Answers to this question have generally fallen into one of two categories.

On the one hand are those who believe that as long as we do not do something that God has expressly forbidden, we may worship in whatever ways we think will be most glorifying to God and beneficial for his people in our time, culture, and circumstances. Since times change, cultures differ, and circumstances vary, godly church leaders should strive to discern what will work best for their particular situation, as long as they avoid those things clearly forbidden by God.

On the other hand are those who say that we may worship God only in the way that he has expressly prescribed in his Word. Whatever is not prescribed for worship is forbidden. We may not add or subtract any elements from our worship

The first position, traditionally called the Normative Principle of Worship, has characterized Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans, and is basically the default position of most American churches today.

Presbyterians, Puritans, and Baptists have historically held the second position, traditionally called the Regulative Principle of Worship. In fact, the RPW was arguably the defining principle of the English separatists who later became Baptists. They argued that all of the innovations of the Church England were beyond what God had prescribed, not the least of which was the baptizing of infants. Note the following passages from the London Baptist Confession of 1689:

LBC 22.1: 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, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.

John Fawcett, an English Baptist pastor in the mid-1700’s summarized this characteristically Baptist conviction:

No acts of worship can properly be called holy, but such as the Almighty has enjoined. No man, nor any body of men have any authority to invent rites and ceremonies of worship; to change the ordinances which he has established; or to invent new ones . . . The divine word is the only safe directory in what relates to his own immediate service. The question is not what we may think becoming, decent or proper, but what our gracious Master has authorized as such. In matters of religion, nothing bears the stamp of holiness but what God has ordained.

Conserving New Testament Worship

Conservatives desire to preserve biblical worship by preserving the elements of worship that God has prescribed for the Church in the New Testament. God has clearly prescribed those elements that he desires be part of New Testament worship:

  • Reading the Word (1 Timothy 4:13)
  • Preaching the Word (1 Timothy 4:13, 2 Timothy 4:2)
  • Singing (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16)
  • Prayer (1 Timothy 2:1)
  • Baptism/Lord’s Supper (Matthew 28:19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-34)
  • Collection of offerings (2 Corinthians 8, 1 Corinthians 16:1-2)

Six simple, straightforward, clear elements of acceptable worship. We must have these six elements in our worship, and if we believe that God rejects worship based on our own creativity as he illustrates throughout Scripture, then we cannot have any other elements in our worship besides these six. So what about elaborate rituals and ceremonies? No, God did not prescribe those as acceptable elements for worship. What about skits and drama? No, God did not prescribe drama as an acceptable element for worship. What about visual aids in worship? No, God did not prescribe visual aids, and in fact He forbids them.

This is why conservative churches who believe that God has the prerogative to determine what is acceptable worship tend to have very simple, unadorned services. Churches that believe that we can add any elements to our services that we think are good have much more extravagant services, whether in the liturgical tradition with rituals and ceremonies or in the “free” tradition with drama and visual elements.

But if we rightly conclude that it is God alone who has the prerogative to determine what elements may be part of acceptable worship, then we must limit what we include in worship to these six simple categories.

Rejecting Innovations

A corollary to this commitment, then, is that conservative Christians will reject any human creativity and innovation with the elements of corporate worship. A conservative church will reject contemporary innovations like drama, holy laughter, slaying in the spirit, and karate demonstrations.

But a conservative church will also reject older innovations, for they are still innovations. Many churches claim to be conservative because they reject contemporary innovations while they nevertheless retain older innovations. The clearest example of this is the Romans Catholic Church, which claims to be the conservative church because of what it retained in spite of the Protestant Reformation. But what it “retained” was nothing more than older innovations. A conservative church will reject such ancient innovations as priests, altars, incense, elaborate rituals, icons, prescribed liturgies, and prayers to saints.

However, the same is true for many churches today that call themselves conservative. They call themselves that because they reject the worst of contemporary worship innovations, and yet they retain and even defend innovations that were introduced in the early 19th century. They reject contemporary innovations, not because they are innovations, but because they don’t think they’re good innovations.

Innovations are innovations, and a truly conservative Christian will not trust his judgment concerning which innovations to accept and which to reject. A conservative Christian will commit to worship that is limited by the Word of God.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

12 Responses to How Can We Conserve Biblical Worship? Part 2

  1. Can you please cite the New Testament reference for visual aids being forbidden in worship? Thanks.

  2. Exodus 20:4 "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."

  3. Not quite sure that' is a New Testament reference, Scott. You were pretty specific in your post about the source of your regulations for today's church. It's not my desire to be needlessly argumentative, and I'm generally sympathetic to your position on the issue under discussion. But it seems that you are picking and choosing NT or OT regulations to suit your preferred outcome..

  4. Ah, didn't see your request for NT reference!

    When it comes to what we may allow, I believe we must stick with the NT because the Church did not exist in the OT. However, there are transdispensational principles in the OT that can and should inform our worship.

    So another example of this would be music. Music is clearly prescribed in the NT, so once we have the prescription, I believe that we can look to the OT for guidance on what forms it may take.

    In other words, we must get our elements from the NT, but then we can use the whole of Scripture to inform the way we implement those elements.

  5. And, by the way, this is not my preferred outcome. My personal preference would be elaborate services with rich ceremonies and liturgies. I would personally prefer the involved, sensory worship of the OT. But I have to limit myself because of my convictions about the RPW.

  6. Thanks for the answer. When do you think the New Testament chuch abandoned the sensory Hebrew worship that all of their members would have grown up with? Was it with the addition of Gentile converts? The writing of the Epistles? Somewhen else?

  7. It seems the case you've made for the RPW itself is entirely from the traditions of men. Can you cite any NT scriptural support for that? Furthermore, the appeal to Cain is tricky, since the objectionable element there may have been entirely within Cain himself.

  8. Hi, d4v34x.

    This was not intended to be a thorough defense of the RWP. For a more detailed biblical defense of the principle, please see this post:&nbsp ;

    Further, the appeal to Cain was not a direct appeal for the RWP, but simply an illustration of the fact that people since the beginning have been struggling with the worship issue.

    Thanks for your comment!

  9. Scott,

    You see the RPW as a homogenous belief, but in reality there are numerous different versions of it. Historically, many churches that subscribed to it adopted exclusive a cappella psalmody, but most of those now permit hymns and instruments. And, whilst drama isn't mentioned in the NT, what if the purpose of the drama is to teach?

    The elephant in the room is, of course, the room itself, for church buildings have no biblical authority!

    I could say more, but basically the RPW is a man-made invention that is used to justify the status quo in certain churches by means of a selective interpretation of the Bible.

  10. I also wanted to add a comment on "prescribed liturgies". Whilst I personally am not a fan of liturgy, most scholars have concluded that first century Jewish worship, both in the temple and the synagogues, was liturgical in nature. It's almost certain that the early disciples (who were obviously Jewish) continued in this fashion as they met for worship…

  11. Anastasis,

    On the contrary, I readily admit that there are many gradations within the RWP, however, most of the differences have to do with form and not with the elements themselves. The examples you cite, for example, are mostly to do with form. Everyone agrees that the elements of music is acceptable, there is just disagreement as to what form it will take.

    Drama, however, is a unique element that has no biblical warrant, except for baptism and the Lord's Supper.

    Church buildings is another step removed. It has to do with the circumstances of worship, which allow for even more liberty. I would suggest you read my more thorough discussion of the RPW here:&nbsp ;

    RE: liturgies. I am not against liturgy at all. We all have liturgy. In fact, I am all for a formal liturgy in worship. What I am against is the kind of prescribed liturgy of the Church of England or the RCC that prescribes certain prayers to be spoken and other extra-biblical elements to be included.

    Of the course the RPW is a man-make system. It is simply an honest attempt by conservative Christians throughout the ages to allow God to determine how he wants to be worship instead of relying on our own creativity and ingenuity. It is an attempt by godly pastors to protect the consciences of their people.

  12. Scott, I have studied the RPW, and the division of worship into elements, forms (sometimes called modes), and circumstances has always struck me as extremely arbitrary and chosen to suit a pre-determined conclusion. For example, those who do not allow instruments or hymns specifically say that these are regulated elements. Others like yourself allow some other types of music and treat them as a matter of form. John Frame subscribes to the RPW but provoked controversy when he wrote that it permits dancing!

    With drama, if the purpose of the drama is to teach, surely it is a form of teaching? Do we not have liberty as to how we teach? Is the sermon the only permissible form of teaching? You could make a strong case from the Bible that teaching should be interactive. And what about a dramatised Bible story? That could be considered both a scripture reading and a teaching.

    I also thought about the Scripture itself – for example when Paul wrote his letters (which were most of the references you gave), the NT canon had not been compiled and so he was undoubtedly referring to the Jewish bible. So you could say that there is no NT mandate for reading the NT in church! What about baptism – as far as I know, all biblical examples were done in public, in the open air, and not inside a building behind closed doors. So the Bible appears to clearly specify not just the element of baptism, but also some aspects of its form and circumstances. The argument could be made that as baptism is a public profession of faith, then it is an essential element of baptism for it to be done in a public place. The meaning of the element is affected by the form and circumstances.

    On liturgies, I have worshipped in the Church of England and there is actually considerable flexibility. Most evangelical Anglican churches don’t use much in the way of set prayers, and there are many different liturgical options to choose from. I don’t know what the “extra-biblical elements” you mentioned are.

    The truth is that the RPW can be interpreted however you want. Hence my view that it is simply a way to justify the status quo. It is a completely meaningless and irrelevant concept that falls apart under close examination.

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