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What is the regulative principle of worship? Put simply, the regulative principle states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded on specific directives of Scripture. Put another way, it states that nothing ought to be introduced into gathered worship unless there is a specific warrant of Scripture.

Let us be clear: we worship God in “all of life”—when fishing, playing golf, eating breakfast, or driving a car. Paul makes this very clear: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to 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).

Because of this, some have argued that there is no special set of rules for gathered worship. There’s just worship. But this ignores some very important issues. True, there is a regulative principle (a set of general rules) for what we might call “all of life” worship. Everything we do must have in view the glory of God. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). We might call this a general regulative principle. But is there a more specific application of this principle for gathered worship? The Reformers (John Calvin especially) and the Puritans answered yes. God is especially concerned as to the question of how we worship in public gatherings.

Typical by way of formulation are the words of Calvin: “God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his Word,” 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.”

the westminster assembly

When the Westminster Assembly gathered, its primary directive was to answer this very question. It soon began to address other issues, but it was the issue of worship that dominated its initial agenda. It would later publish a Directory for the Public Worship of God. The term directory is itself important; it is not a Book of Common Prayer as the Anglicans had. They were very clear that the directory functioned in a very different way.

The very first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith is about Scripture. It was a way of saying that before we can say anything about God or humanity or sin or the church, or worship, we need some basis of authority. And that sole authority is the Word of God. All of Scripture is a product of God’s outbreathing (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Men spoke as they were driven along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). For the Westminster tradition, then, we begin with Scripture.

God is especially concerned as to the question of how we worship in public gatherings.

It is in this opening chapter on Scripture as the foundation of all knowledge that the regulative principle appears:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (WCF 1.6)

The point being made is that Scripture lays down certain principles about two particular issues (there are others): the form of church government and public worship. The same principle appears again in the chapter on worship:

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. (WCF 21.1)

The point is that Scripture (that is, God Himself, since Scripture is God’s Word) prescribes how we worship God. The word prescribe carries the idea of authority. When you go to the drugstore and you need some medicine that isn’t an “over the counter” drug, you need a prescription—it used to be a piece of paper signed by the doctor (these days it is usually done electronically).

And why did the Westminster divines (the theologians who gathered at the Westminster Assembly) think this was so important? The answer to that lies in the previous chapter of the confession, which is arguably the most important chapter in the confession and one that is set in a very special context in the seventeenth century—the chapter on liberty of conscience. It contains this vitally impor­tant statement: “God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship” (WCF 20:2).

To insist on a certain action in worship that Scripture does not expressly command is to violate freedom of conscience. That was a vital issue in the seventeenth century. For the founding fathers of the United States of America, for example, this was a vital issue. Freedom of conscience was the only guarantee of religious liberty.

The Westminster Assembly was established in the wake of attempts on the part of the king (and the Church of England) to impose a manner of worship upon Scotland. And some of the Scots weren’t having any of it. There is the compelling story of Jenny Geddes, for example. In 1637, Charles I attempted to impose an English-style prayer book upon the nation of Scotland. The legend goes that “when Dean James Hannay began to read from it, . . . a local woman named Jenny Geddes hurled at his head the folding stool on which she had been seated, shouting, ‘Dinna say Mass in my lug!’ (‘Don’t say Mass in my ear!’).”

To impose rituals and ceremonies with religious significance that do not have express scriptural support is to violate conscience.

scriptural warrant

Where does the Bible teach the regulative principle? 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). Add to this the judgment pronounced on Cain’s offering, which suggests that his offering (or his heart) was deficient according to God’s requirement (Gen. 4:3–8); the first and second commandments, which show God’s particular care with regard to worship (Ex. 20:2–6); the incident of the golden calf, which teaches 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, KJV); 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 these indicate a rejection of worship offered according to values and directions other than those specified in Scripture.

To impose rituals and ceremonies with religious significance that do not have express scriptural support is to violate conscience.

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 ethelothrskia (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 (1 Cor. 14:29–32). 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 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, and ascension of Jesus
  • Praying the Bible—the Father’s house is “a house of prayer” (Matt. 21:13)
  • Seeing the Bible in the two sacraments of the church—baptism and the Lord’s Supper, something Augustine referred to as “visible words” (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 WCF 21:5).

And that’s it!

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.

The regulative principle is just that—a principle. It doesn’t answer every single question one may throw at it. And because of that, it does not commit the church to a “cookie-cutter,” liturgical sameness. Within an adherence to the principle there is considerable 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 used at the Lord’s Supper. To all these issues, the principle “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) must be applied.

Some employ the regulative principle to construct a worship service that is more liturgically “heavy” than others. Scottish and Irish Presbyterianism, for example, followed the liturgical pattern of the Puritans and therefore are liturgically “light.”

However, if someone were to suggest that 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 is 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 (in a state of undress!) 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.

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 obey when it is a matter of God’s express prescription is true liberty; anything else is bondage and legalism.
Editor’s Note: Excerpt adapted from Let Us Worship God by Derek W.H. Thomas, © 2021.

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