Jesus’s confrontation with the Pharisees during his earthly ministry highlights the fact that God rejects worship based on the traditions of men; rather, he insists that worship be regulated by his inspired Word.
The key biblical text that emphasizes the authority of God’s Word is 2 Timothy 3:16–17:
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 complete, equipped for every good work.
Scripture was literally breathed out by the Spirit of God, and thus the Bible contains all of the authority of God within its pages. This inspired revelation is authoritative and sufficient to teach us, to reprove us, to correct us, and to train us in righteousness. The Word of God is authoritative and sufficient to perfectly equip us for every good work, including—or perhaps better, especially the good work for which we were created, the worship of God. And this is why all of our theology and practice of corporate worship must be founded is the authority and sufficiency of what God has spoken—his divine revelation.
This doctrine of the authority of Scripture over worship has historically been a fundamental concern for Baptists and Presbyterians. In the seventeenth-century, Presbyterians and Baptists objected to the Church of England, which had added worship rituals and requirements beyond what the New Testament teaches. Instead, they insisted that our worship must be regulated by Scripture. The London Baptist Confession says it this way:
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.
The authority and sufficiency of Scripture is a critical doctrine to grasp for every aspect of our lives as Christians, but it is especially important when we think about worship, and there are three primary biblical reasons:
Worship Depends Upon God’s Revelation
First, the very idea of worship itself begins with God’s self-revelation. Worship exists only because God revealed himself. God’s speaking the world into existence was in its very essence an act to create worship. God created the universe out of nothing through his spoken word for the express purpose of displaying his own glory (Ps 19:1), and he created Adam in his image in order that Adam might witness that glory and respond in worship. God’s chief end is to glorify himself, and he calls all men everywhere to fulfill their purpose in life by doing the same (Isa 43:6–7).
The fact that God’s first words created the very existence of worship leads to a recognition that all worship begins with what God said. God is the initiator of worship, and in particular, God’s revelation of himself is what provides the basis for all true worship.
This is one reason our corporate worship must be grounded in the authoritative, sufficient Word of God.
God Rejects Worship That He Has Not Prescribed
Second, throughout Scripture, both in the Old and New Testament, examples abound of God rejecting 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.
One of the most striking examples is found in Leviticus 10:
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 unauthorized 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.
We have already seen this same problem with the Pharisees of the New Testament, whom Jesus strongly condemned, but the same problems also continued later in the early church with the “Judaizers,” Christian converts who taught that it was necessary to adopt Jewish religious practices from the Law of Moses. The church first encountered this when some Jewish Christian converts traveled to Antioch and insisted to the Christians there, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). This resulted in the formation of a council of church leadership in Jerusalem, including James, Peter, and Paul, to debate the matter. The council concluded that requiring such religious practices not prescribed for the church was “a yoke on the neck of the disciples” (v. 10).
Again, the bottom line is that God alone has the right to determine how we worship, and he has communicated sufficient revelation for how he desires to be worshiped in his inspired Word. Therefore, we must be sure that how we are worshiping is what God has prescribed.
The 1689 London Baptist Confession put it this way:
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. (LBC 22.1–7)
Extent of the Church’s Authority/Liberty of Conscience
Third, Scripture is clear that Christians have liberty of conscience in spiritual matters. This limits even pastoral authority. No pastor or other church leader has the authority to impose upon another a spiritual practice—no matter how it has “an appearance of wisdom” (Col 2:20–3)—that does not have explicit biblical warrant.
This principle is clearly laid out in the New Testament because again, in the early years of the church, 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 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 14, Paul is dealing specifically with those Christian Jews who desire to maintain religious restrictions and observances from the Mosaic Law, things like Jewish feasts and dietary restrictions. In response, 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 Jewish sacred days that have not been prescribed for Christian 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 in his Word. 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.
Again, in the seventeenth century, Presbyterians and Baptists insisted upon biblical authority over worship practice, 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 church authorities in the Church of England, had the right to constrain a worshiper to participate in an activity of worship that had no Scriptural directive. The London Baptist Confession of 1689 summarizes the point well:
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. (LBC 21.2)
This principle, far from being restrictive, is actually quite liberating. Pastors do not need to worry about chasing after the latest popular worship fads or conducting preference polls of their people. Likewise, church members need not fear the next worship novelty, nor will they need to deliberate over what best worship practices they should adopt. The church simply follows the clear instructions of Scripture.
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.