The Liberating Regulative Principle of Worship
Uncertainty reigns today in churches over whether or not certain service elements are really helpful for congregational worship. What is acceptable? Sacred dance? Liturgical painting? Puppet shows? Drama?
Some godly Christians, attempting to enhance their worship, believe they have freedom to anything to their worship that they think good. Other godly Christians are then constrained to participate with something against their conscience. How can they be certain that the elements they are including are indeed pleasing to God?
This question has been debated for centuries, and answers to this question generally fall into one of two categories.
The first group follows what has come to be known as the Normative Principle of Worship. Typically Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans follow some form of this principle, which says that as long as the Bible doesn’t forbid a particular practice, it may be introduced as an element in a public worship service.
The second group follows what has come to be known as the Regulative Principle of Worship. Groups that split from the Roman Catholics (such as Presbyterians) or Anglicans (such as Puritans or Baptists) developed this principle, which says that whatever has not been prescribed by God in His Word as an acceptable element of public worship is forbidden. This was meant to be a liberating principle since all Christians could say with assurance, “We know that God wants this element as part of public worship.” They meant to free the individual consciences of Christians to worship with elements clearly prescribed in the New Testament.
Three general principles govern the Regulative Principle of Worship:
1. The Sufficiency of Scripture
2 Timothy 3.16-17 teach that the Bible is sufficient as the rule of our faith and practice.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
Would God leave us without instruction in the most important issue on earth – His worship? Certainly God, and God alone, has the prerogative to determine the means through which He is worshiped. The London Baptist Confession says it this way:
LBC: “The rule of this knowledge, faith, and obedience, concerning the worship and service of God, and all other Christian duties, is not man’s inventions, opinions, devices, laws, constitutions, or traditions unwritten whatsoever, but only the Word of God contained in the Canonical Scriptures.”
2. God Rejects Worship That He Has Not Prescribed
Throughout Scripture, both in the Old and New Testament, examples abound of God rejecting (often violently) worship that includes elements that He has not prescribed. Rarely are these elements introduced with malicious intent – usually the motive is to enhance the worship of Yahweh. But God nevertheless rejects worship that includes such extra-biblical elements.
Golden Calf – Exodus 32.1-10
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.”
People often assume that the children of Israel were attempting to worship a pagan god in this instance. However, closer examination will show that they were simply trying to worship Yahweh using means He had not prescribed.
In verse 1 the people say, “Come, make us [Elohim]…” The same term is used in verse 4 when they say, “These are [this is] Elohim, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” Translators render this word, elohim, as “gods,” because it is a plural reference to deity, and because they assume the people of Israel are seeking to worship other gods. However notice what Aaron says in verse 5: “Tomorrow shall be a feast to [Yahweh].” There is no doubt here that they people attempting worship Yahweh, who they say brought them up out of Egypt. The name Elohim is often used to refer to Yahweh. The plural form signifies majesty and honor. This point is made even more clear when Moses relates this incident in Deuteronomy 9.16:
And I looked, and behold, you had sinned against the LORD your God. You had made yourselves a golden calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the LORD had commanded you.
Moses says that they sinned against Yahweh Elohim. And He severely punished them. Why? Because they were attempting to worship another god? No. Because, as Moses says, they had “turned aside quickly from the way that the LORD had commanded [them].” They had introduced elements into the worship of Yahweh that He had not prescribed.
Nadab and Abihu – Leviticus 10.1-3
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'”And Aaron held his peace.
In this passage Nadab and Abihu offer an unauthorized fire – literally a “strange” fire – to the Lord, and they were killed for it. Why were they killed? There was nothing inherently evil or profane about what they were doing. But the fact that, as verse 1 says, the Lord had not commanded this element of worship, they were killed. God is very serious about this. The only acceptable worship is that which He Himself has commanded.
Pharisees – Matthew 15:8-9
This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.
Jesus is scolding the Pharisees who have added their own ingenuity to worship, and they are requiring others to take part in these same worship elements that God has not prescribed. Were these added elements evil in and of themselves? No. But the fact that they are not commanded by God renders the worship vain.
Calvin: I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them – being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow – is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of Go. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct; ‘Obedience is better than sacrifice.’ And ‘in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.'” (1 Sam. 15.2 Matt. 15.9).
In summary, God is the only one who has the right to determine how we worship. The London Baptist Confession says it well:
LBC 22.1-7: 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. . .
3. Extent of the Church’s Authority/Liberty of Conscience
The third principle is clearly laid out in the New Testament since this very debate was significant since some Christians insisted upon introducing Jewish worship elements into Christian worship – elements that had not be prescribed for Church worship. Paul deals with this issue specifically in Romans 14ff.
Romans 14:5-6 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
In Romans 14ff, Paul is dealing specifically with those Christian Jews who desire to maintain religious restrictions and observances from the Mosaic Law.1 The important thing to remember here is that these are religious restrictions of ceremonially unclean (koinon) food and observances of sacred days. Any proper discussion of so-called “Christian liberty” must be framed in this context. In other words, while 1 Corinthians 8-10 applies to general things with negative associations from the pagan world like meat offered to idols, Romans 14 deals with the more narrowed topic of adding requirements to religious life. So this passage has direct application to the issue of public worship, and the formulators of the RPW applied it that way.
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.” The question is, should we observe sacred days that have not been prescribed for church worship? Paul says that in order to institute something like that, each person must be convinced in his own mind. One must be careful not to impose upon his own conscience or the conscience of another that of which they are not fully convinced. And what is the only way that we can be convinced that God wants us to observe a particular sacred day? Only if He has prescribed it for the Church. If you as an individual are convinced for some reason that you should observe it, then you have every right to do so in your home. But we cannot extend such observance to gatherings of the church where we have dozens or hundreds of individual consciences that must be convinced from the Word of God that such observance is necessary.
Formulators of the RPW applied this to their situation of all the extra observances the Church (whether the Roman Catholic or Anglican) were adding to public worship. These Church authorities had no right to do so because since the NT did not prescribe them, every man could not be convinced that they were necessary.
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.2
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 worshiper 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.3
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.”4 What is not commanded is forbidden.
LBC 21.2: God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or not contained in it. So that to believe such doctrines, or obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also.
This issue is also addressed in Colossians 2.20-23:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations- 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 ( referring to things that all perish as they are used)- according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
Here Paul is chiding Christians who are adding to their religious life elements that are merely requirements of men. Again these “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” requirements are in the context of the Body (vv18-19), and have reference to specific religious restrictions carried over from the Mosaic Law. Paul is saying that for the sake of the unity of the Body, we must limit ourselves to religious requirements that are clearly prescribed in the NT. He even says that these kinds of things do indeed have an appearance of wisdom and spirituality. But because they have not been commanded by God, they render the worship unacceptable to Him.
This passage was quoted often by the Reformers against the corrupt and burdensome ordinances of Roman Catholicism. It was again used by Puritans against the Anglicans.
The Regulative Principle of Worship
Now what, exactly, does the RPW address? Does it address the debate concerning whether we may use pop music? Does it address whether we should sing from hymnals or overhead projectors?
The formulators of the RPW divided the discussion of its application into four general categories that will help us apply it to contemporary situations.
The substance of worship must be explicitely prescribed in the Word of God.
Duncan: “Reformed theologians argue that the whole substance of worship must be biblical. Not that only words from the Bible can be used, but that all that is done and said in worship is in accordance with sound biblical theology. The content of each component must convey God’s truth as revealed in his word” (23)
Worship must be through the merits of Christ, in spirit and truth. We cannot worship false gods, but must worship the true God of the Bible. All Christians, whether or not they follow the RPW, would agree to this point.
So what are the elements that God has determined should be a part of acceptable worship? For the answer to this question we must look at the entirety of the New Testament. For dispensational reasons, we must find approved elements within the NT – specifically the Epistles – only.
Those who hold to the Regulative Principle of Worship – the idea that we may worship God only as He has prescribed in Scripture – usually recognize six basic elements that God has determined to be part of acceptable New Testament worship. We’ll just quickly survey these.
Reading the Word
The first is the public reading of Scripture. 1 Timothy 4.13 says:
Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture,
And then he goes on to include “exhortation and teaching,” which leads to the second element of acceptable worship:
Preaching the Word
God commands that we preach the Word. In numerous New Testament passages, including 2 Timothy 4.2, pastors are commanded to preach the Word.
Singing is the third element of acceptable worship prescribed by God. Ephesians 5.19 and Colossians 3.16 are key passages that command us to sing as an expression of our worship.
The fourth prescribed element is prayer. Paul urges Timothy in 1 Timothy 2.1 to pray publicly for all sorts of different people. Paul told the Colossians to continue earnestly in prayer. The first church in Acts 2.42 was devoted to prayer.
The fifth prescribed elements is actually a category of elements: the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Again, in Acts 2 we see the first church devoted to these things, and in passages like 1 Corinthians 11 Paul passes on instructions about the Lord’s Supper to the Church.
And the final element determined by God to be part of acceptable worship is giving. For instance, Paul commands the Church in 2 Corinthians 16 to collect money when they meet on the first day of the week.
Six simple, straightforward, clear elements of acceptable worship: reading the Word, preaching the Word, singing, prayer, ordinances, and giving. We must have these six elements in our worship, and if we believe that God rejects worship based on our own creativity, 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 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.
Although God has prescribed the specific elements he desires for public worship in the Church, He has not prescribed their exact forms. Duncan explains:
Duncan: “As for the form of the elements, there will be some variations: different prayers will be prayed, different songs sung, different Scriptures read and preached, the components of worship rearranged from time to time, the occasional elements (like the sacraments, oaths, and vows) performed at various chosen times, and the like. There will be, of necessity, some human discretion exercised in these matters. So here, Christian common sense under the direction of general scriptural principles, patterns, and proportions must make a determination” (23).
The forms we use must be governed by principle and examples in Scripture, but they do not necessarily need to be explicitly prescribed. And while we limited the elements of Church worship to the NT, if we find similar elements in OT worship, we may use them as examples for what kinds of forms may be acceptable.
The circumstances of our public worship have even more freedom. The Bible does not prescribe for us the practical circumstances that make public worship possible.
Duncan: “Finally, as to circumstances – whether we sit or stand, have pews or chairs, meet in a church building or storefront, sing from a hymnal or from memory, what time on the Lord’s Day services are to be held, and more – these things must be decided upon in the absence of specific biblical direction, and hence they must be done (as with the case of the forms above) in accordance with ‘the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word’ (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6; Baptist Confession of Faith 1.6)” (23-24).
The Regulative Principle of Worship was historically an important distinctive of Presbyterians and Baptists especially. Unfortunately, however, churches (especially those in America) have lost an understanding of this biblical doctrine, and have introduced elements into public worship that are merely commandments of men.
Some may insist that this doctrine is restrictive – it is legalistic. On the contrary, however, we have seen that both the Bible and the original intent of the formulators of the RPW was that it be a liberating doctrine – it frees the consciences of believers to worship publicly using elements that they can be certain God approves.
This is not to imply that when someone introduces an extra-biblical element that he is doing so maliciously. We are not calling motives into question here. Neither does it imply that such extra-biblical elements never have any real spiritual meaning or significance. Sometimes such elements really do impact people spiritually.
But there’s the rub. No Church leader can insist to the people that such-and-such an extra-biblical element must be spiritually significant to all believers in the Church. He cannot do so because he does not have biblical authority to do so. But if someone says, for instance, that they see no real purpose behind singing or observing the Lord’s Supper, a Church leader can say with authority, “This must be spiritually significant to you, because God has prescribed it for public worship in the Church.”
Much – not all – but much of the debate over public worship today would be solved if churches would recover this liberating dotrine of the Regulative Principle of Worship. Church members are liberated from fear about whether the next inovation their Church leaders introduce really pleases God. Church leaders are liberated from having to make decisions about what should or should not be introduced into public worship.
This is the strength of the liberating doctrine of the Regulative Principle of Worship.
About Scott Aniol
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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.
- See Mark Snoeberger, “Weakness or Wisdom? Fundamentalism and Romans 14:1-15:1” (http://dbts.edu/pdf/macp/2007/Snoeberger,%20Weak%20or%20Wise,%20Rom%2014%2015.pdf). [↩]
- John Allen Delivuk, “Biblical Authority and the Proof of the Regulative Principle of Worship in The Westminster Confession,” Westminster Theological Journal 58, 2 (Fall 1996), 242. [↩]
- T. David Gordon, “Some Answers About the Regulative Principle,” Westminster Theological Journal 55, 2 (Fall 1993), 323. [↩]
- Delivuk, 242. [↩]