Our Worship is Simple Because God wants it to be simple, so that no person can "lord over" your conscience.
The Regulative Principle of Worship
by Derek Thomas
Put simply, the regulative principle of worship states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded upon specific directions of Scripture. On the surface, it is difficult to see why anyone who values the authority of Scripture would find such a principle objectionable. Is not the whole of life itself to be lived according to the rule of Scripture? This is a principle dear to the hearts of all who call themselves biblical Christians. To suggest otherwise is to open the door to antinomianism and license.
But things are rarely so simple. After all, the Bible does not tell me whether I may or may not listen with profit to a Mahler symphony, find stamp-collecting rewarding, or enjoy ferretbreeding as a useful occupation even though there are well-meaning but misguided Bible-believing Christians who assert with dogmatic confidence that any or all of these violate God’s will. Knowing God’s will in any circumstance is an important function of every Christian’s life, and fundamental to knowing it is a willingness to submit to Scripture as God’s authoritative Word for all ages and circumstances. But what exactly does biblical authority mean in such circumstances?
Well, Scripture lays down certain specific requirements: for example, we are to worship with God’s people on the Lord’s Day, and we should engage in useful work and earn our daily bread. In addition, covering every possible circumstance, Scripture lays down a general principle: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1–2). Clearly, all of life is to be regulated by Scripture, whether by express commandment or prohibition or by general principle. There is therefore, in one sense, a regulative principle for all of life. In everything we do, and in some form or another, we are to be obedient to Scripture.
However, the Reformers (John Calvin especially) and the Westminster Divines (as representative of seventeenth-century puritanism) viewed the matter of corporate worship differently. In this instance, a general principle of obedience to Scripture is insufficient; there must be (and is) a specific prescription governing how God is to be worshiped corporately. In the public worship of God, specific requirements are made, and we are not free either to ignore them or to add to them. Typical by way of formulation are the words of Calvin: “God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his Word” (“The Necessity of Reforming the Church”); and the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689: “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures” (22.1).
Where does the Bible teach this? In more places than is commonly imagined, including the constant stipulation of the book of Exodus with respect to the building of the tabernacle that everything be done “after the pattern … shown you” (Ex. 25:40); the judgment pronounced upon Cain’s offering, suggestive as it is that his offering (or his heart) was deficient according to God’s requirement (Gen. 4:3–8); the first and second commandments showing God’s particular care with regard to worship (Ex. 20:2–6); the incident of the golden calf, teaching as it does that worship cannot be offered merely in accord with our own values and tastes; the story of Nadab and Abihu and the offering of “strange fire” (Lev. 10); God’s rejection of Saul’s non-prescribed worship — God said, “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22); and Jesus’ rejection of Pharisaical worship according to the “tradition of the elders” (Matt. 15:1–14). All of these indicate a rejection of worship offered according to values and directions other than those specified in Scripture.
Of particular significance are Paul’s responses to errant public worship at Colossae and Corinth. At one point, Paul characterizes the public worship in Colossae as ethelothreskia (Col. 2:23), variously translated as “will worship” (KJV) or “self-made religion” (ESV). The Colossians had introduced elements that were clearly unacceptable (even if they were claiming an angelic source for their actions — one possible interpretation of Col. 2:18, the “worship of angels”). Perhaps it is in the Corinthian use (abuse) of tongues and prophecy that we find the clearest indication of the apostle’s willingness to “regulate” corporate worship. He regulates both the number and order of the use of spiritual gifts in a way that does not apply to “all of life”: no tongue is to be employed without an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:27–28) and only two or three prophets may speak, in turn (vv. 29–32). At the very least, Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians underlines that corporate worship is to be regulated and in a manner that applies differently from that which is to be true for all of life.
The result? Particular elements of worship are highlighted: reading the Bible (1 Tim. 4:13); preaching the Bible (2 Tim. 4:2); singing the Bible (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) — the Psalms as well as Scripture songs that reflect the development of redemptive history in the birth-life-death-resurrection- ascension of Jesus; praying the Bible — the Father’s house is “a house of prayer” (Matt. 21:13); and seeing the Bible in the two sacraments of the church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38–39; 1 Cor. 11:23–26; Col. 2:11–12). In addition, occasional elements such as oaths, vows, solemn fasts and thanksgivings have also been recognized and highlighted (see Westminster Confession of Faith 21:5).
It is important to realize that the regulative principle as applied to public worship frees the church from acts of impropriety and idiocy — we are not free, for example, to advertise that performing clowns will mime the Bible lesson at next week’s Sunday service. Yet it does not commit the church to a “cookie-cutter,” liturgical sameness. Within an adherence to the principle there is enormous room for variation—in matters that Scripture has not specifically addressed (adiaphora). Thus, the regulative principle as such may not be invoked to determine whether contemporary or traditional songs are employed, whether three verses or three chapters of Scripture are read, whether one long prayer or several short prayers are made, or whether a single cup or individual cups with real wine or grape juice are utilized at the Lord’s Supper. To all of these issues, the principle “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) must be applied. However, if someone suggests dancing or drama is a valid aspect of public worship, the question must be asked — where is the biblical justification for it? (To suggest that a preacher moving about in the pulpit or employing “dramatic” voices is “drama” in the sense above is to trivialize the debate.) The fact that both may be (to employ the colloquialism) “neat” is debatable and beside the point; there’s no shred of biblical evidence, let alone mandate, for either. So it is superfluous to argue from the poetry of the Psalms or the example of David dancing before the ark (naked, to be sure) unless we are willing to abandon all the received rules of biblical interpretation. It is a salutary fact that no office of “choreographer” or “producer/director” existed in the temple. The fact that both dance and drama are valid Christian pursuits is also beside the point.
What is sometimes forgotten in these discussions is the important role of conscience. Without the regulative principle, we are at the mercy of “worship leaders” and bullying pastors who charge noncompliant worshipers with displeasing God unless they participate according to a certain pattern and manner. To the victims of such bullies, the sweetest sentences ever penned by men are, “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. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also” (WCF 20:2). To obey when it is a matter of God’s express prescription is true liberty; anything else is bondage and legalism.
Liberty in Worship
Another line of argument must be considered. Were it not for the Regulative Principle, our liberty would regularly be violated in corporate worship. This may sound backwards, but it is not. You say, "But the Regulative Principle stops me from doing what I want." Perhaps, but lets look at Christian Liberty a bit more closely, considering the classic case I mentioned above.
Paul says that eating meat is a matter of liberty; you may eat or not eat. In other words, Christian Liberty teaches not only that I may eat meat, but that you have the right to abstain from eating. My liberty should never coerce you. If I know that you are a conscientious vegetarian, I must not invite you to dinner at my house and serve ribs. Liberty protects both of us.
Worship, though, is by its very nature a corporate activity. We are required to assemble together for worship. What happens to the worshiper who disagrees with some portion of the service? Say the service that day includes a dramatic skit, and some of the worshipers find this offensive. They do not wish to watch, but they are compelled by others to participate in an act of worship which they find offensive. They have been compelled, against every principle of Christian Liberty, to violate their own conscience.
But, you say, that could happen with any element of worship. What if someone objects to preaching? There is a significant distinction in that case. If a worshiper objects to sermons, he objects to God, not man. It was God who commanded His servants to "preach the word." One man is not to grasp at authority over his brother's conscience, but God is the Lord of the conscience. If He commands us to do something, our liberty does not excuse us.
Worship which is not regulated by God's Word, though, regularly violates the conscience of believers in a myriad of ways. It robs them of their liberty, constraining them (if they would obey God's command to assemble for worship) to do that which God does not Himself require. There is no liberty in such worship - only bondage to the latest fads of men.
We need not pit the Regulative Principle against Christian Liberty. While God regulates corporate worship differently than He does our private lives, in both He grants us true liberty within His Law. That Law, the very one which regulates worship, is essential to our liberty. Without it, we are at the mercy of men, and must follow them into every imagination and device which they would add to worship, regardless of the dictates of our consciences before God. - Tom Gentry
Westminster Confession Chapter XXI
Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day
I. 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.
II. Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to Him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.
III. Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of His Spirit, according to His will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.
IV. Prayer is to be made for things lawful; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter: but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.
V. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.
VI. Neither prayer, nor any other part of religious worship, is now, under the Gospel, either tied unto, or made more acceptable by any place in which it is performed, or towards which it is directed: but God is to be worshipped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself; so, more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or wilfully to be neglected, or forsaken, when God, by His Word or providence, calls thereunto.
VII. As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, He has particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week: and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord's Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.
VIII. This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.