A Review of the Regulative Principle

Governing Our Lives

First, I offer a brief word of explanation. These thoughts, untidy as they may be, are shared in hopes that healthy discussion regarding corporate worship might break out among Christ’s churches - particularly among leaders and faithful congregants. If you find my tone irenic, I will be pleased. If it is not, I have missed my mark.

I also acknowledge that I embarked on this study primarily for my personal edification. What I have written is designed to inform and refine my own understanding of corporate worship. As such, I certainly stand open to correction from my fellow laborers in Christ.

Daily Living - Does God Speak?

How should Christians conduct the daily affairs of life? Are there authoritative standards and if so what are they? Genuine believers do think about this. A bedrock commitment to pleasing their Lord drives them to ask hard questions about what is and what is not appropriate behavior. And this is for every area of life; things such as home, vocation, community, marriage, parenting, entertainment, money, possessions, dress, sports, music, arts, speech, food, decisions, education, et al.

Fortunately, the Bible is not silent about how the Christian should navigate daily living. It offers us many practical commands about numerous life situations. They range from general requirements to very specific ones. These directives include both do and do not statements. When the Scripture issues directives regarding a particular issue, debate ceases. There are no options except obedience. In addition, we must acknowledge that there surely exists some obvious implications from Biblical teaching even though the imperative is not employed. For instance, in theological issues, some fairly significant doctrines are implicit teachings rather than explicit. The truth of the trinity comes to mind. We must exercise caution here, but we can not deny the obvious instances of implications carrying the day in the arena of daily living as well. The truth of marriage being between one man and one woman comes to mind. Or condemnation of nineteenth century American slavery.

However, the Bible does not and indeed could not explicitly or implicitly address every issue that a Christian will face in life, whether a first or twenty first century believer. With no specific word from God regarding a select issue, what is the Christian to do?

Again fortunately, the Bible does give us a method for handling the issues it does not specifically address. This method is built upon the great teaching that all believers have been set free from the slavery of sin by the cross-work of Christ ( Romans 8:2, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death”). Simply put it is this: as Christians are unchained from slavery to sin so they are unchained from slavery to legalism in daily living. Freedom in practice flows from freedom in position. The direct statement of this concept is seen in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23, “All things are lawful….” We are free to do as we wish - no restrictions!

This crucial concept is typically referred to as Christian liberty. I, along with others, have chosen to express it as, “anything that is not prohibited is permitted.” No matter how it is expressed, it is an incredible notion. As a basic starting assumption I am permitted to do anything. This is a divine formula for daily living. Wow! Don’t forget it; it is a game changer.

Consequently, Christian liberty means that Christians are free to follow the dictates of their own conscience regarding “all things” (Romans 14:5, “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.”). What a novel and refreshing idea! No wonder Paul boldly declares, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Why would a Christian, in Esau-like fashion, want to trade this liberating birthright for a mess of legalistic stew (Genesis 25:30-34)?

In light of this notion of liberty in the absence of specific directives from God about a particular matter, it is crucial that the believer always asks, “Has God spoken?” Certainly, the principle of liberty is limited by the clear teachings and prohibitions of Scripture. The “all things” must be restricted to things that are not forbidden or commanded by God in Scripture. If He says “don’t” we have no choice – liberty doesn’t apply. If He says “do” we must – liberty doesn’t apply. “All things” cannot be taken in the absolute sense. For example, God says, “do not get drunk” (Ephesians 5:18). Sorry, intoxication is always a sin. He says, “do not be anxious” (Philippians 4:6). Worry is not acceptable. He says, “flee immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18); if you don’t run from it, you sin. You get the idea. God publishes many specific directives as well as general truths regarding daily living.

In other words, moral absolutes do exist. Liberty doesn’t lead to ethical and moral relativism. Wrong is wrong. I know this sounds old fashioned in our current no-boundaries era. But when God clearly speaks through the Word, the matter is settled. Debate over. Conformity is expected. On the other hand, when God is silent, we are free to follow the dictates of individual conscience as informed by the Holy Spirit.

This notion of Christian liberty also means that believers need to sharpen their ability to discern the difference between description and prescription. As a starting point, the former is not binding; the latter is. But, the argument is frequently put forth that under certain circumstances Biblical descriptions have the force of Biblical prescriptions. For instance, do the descriptions of life in the first century church by Luke in the book of Acts require that all churches in all cultures in all eras follow suit? Debate continues by scholarly Christians on both sides of the aisle.

And of course, debate, and sometimes acrimonious debate, rages over whether there are times that implications have the force of prescription and if so when. Are there certain implications of Biblical teachings that should treated on par with explicit directives? For instance, does Paul’s urging older women to encourage younger women to be “workers at home”(Titus 2:4-5) lead to the implication that first century godly wives did not work outside the home and thus today’s godly wives must not work outside of the the home?

Is the Corporate Worship of the Church Included Under the Banner of Freedom?

Certain segments of the Christian community strongly argue that this grand principle of liberty does not apply to the public worship of the New Testament church. It may be satisfactory for private worship, but not for public worship. The perspective is that although liberty is a suitable way to live in the day to day journey of life, it is highly inappropriate for the corporate worship of the church. Rather than worship according to the freedom that generally “anything not prohibited is permitted”, the governing concept is generally that “anything not prescribed is prohibited.”

What is The Regulative Principle?

The Regulative Principle seems to have originated during the Reformation era as a reaction to the worship rituals of Roman Catholicism (see Brian Schwertley’s critique of Steven Schlissel’s articles against the Regulative Principle). The principle shows up in the writings of the Reformers as well as in the well known Reformation creeds. Consequently, even though most believing Christians around the globe are not familiar with the Regulative Principle, it has been mainstreamed in many Reformed circles today. So a brief discussion is in order.

The approach to worship governed by “anything not prescribed is prohibited” is generally known as the Regulative Principle. Because there are variations in defining this principle, nailing down a definition that is satisfactory to everyone ( especially to all proponents) is difficult if not impossible. Here are some samples.

According to a sermon preached by Mark Driscoll in response to a question about methodology, he understands the regulative principle to be “only do the things specifically warranted in Scripture.” This is in contrast to what he calls the normative principle which he understands to be, “things are allowed unless forbidden by the Scripture.” (pjtibayan.wordpress.com accessed 12/14/2015)

Tom Kraeuter considers the regulative principle to be the notion that “…only those elements that are commanded or depicted in the Bible are acceptable in worship.’ (“An Honest Look at the Regulative Principle of Worship” at www.training-resources.org accessed 12/14/2015)

Grant Gaines defines the Regulative Principle as, “…church worship must be restricted to only those practices that are prescribed in God’s Word or that are by logical necessity deduced from God’s Word.” (“Some Problems with the Regulative Principle of Worship and a More Biblical View of Scripture’s Normatively” accessed at grantgaines.net)

The Westminster Confession of Faith states that worship forms must be, “…either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 195; WCF 1.6)

The Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America states the principle as, “…what is not commanded is forbidden.” And further that, “God, in His graciousness, has chosen to reveal to man in His word that which is pleasing to Him in worship. The regulative principle teaches that God has clearly revealed the elements of worship that will enable His people to worship in spirit and in truth.” (paragraph 3 of an ARBCA position paper March 8, 2001).

So broadly speaking, the Regulative Principle is the dictum that the only acceptable public worship components are those expressly commanded by Scripture or clearly implied by Scripture. All else is forbidden.

Hence, regardless of skirmishes over precise wording for a definition of the Regulative Principle and regardless of one’s confessional orientation or lack thereof, an examination of Scripture itself is the starting point.

How does the New Testament Inform Christian Corporate Worship?

A brief look at common New Testament worship passages produces the following observations:

John 4:20-24 - There are no imperatives; however v 20 says that Jews believe that worship must take place in Jerusalem by using δεῖ. (“it is necessary” indicative) while Samaritans said otherwise. Jesus states that the place of worship is not important and that a time is coming when true worshippers will worship in “spirit” and “truth” and that the Father seeks such worshippers (vs 22-23). So, there is a hint of a divine requirement regarding true worship. Then in v 24 the unambiguous statement is made that worshippers must worship in “spirit and truth” (again δεῖ). So, we have a command without using the imperative. Further, the term “worship” (προσκυνέω) itself tells us something of the how of worship. The term means to prostrate or fall down before. Thus, there could be a legitimate implication that only worship that is God focused is acceptable.

Acts 2:42-47 - Luke lists activities that were part of the life of the first church - apostolic teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, prayer, wonders and signs, common property, and temple attendance. However, this is only a description of what these new believers did following their conversion, baptism, and addition. Given the apparent break after v 41, the items of v 42-47 may be categorically separate. Verse 42 describes 4 activities that may describe their corporate worship followed by a description of the community climate (v 43) and the believers commitment to one another (vs 44-47). However, the activities of v 42 are not specifically stated as being embedded into the corporate worship of the early church. Imperatives are not used. (see my “Baptism and Church Membership”)

Matthew 28:19-20 - The apostles are directed to “make disciples” (imperative). Baptizing and teaching are part of this (present participles). By implication, if this extends to the church (yes), and if the public worship is in mind (perhaps), then baptism and teaching were part of public worship of he first century. Consequently, is there a definitive requirement that baptism and teaching be part of the public worship of today’s church?

John 21:15-17 - Jesus commands Peter to feed and tend his flock. By implication, if this extends to the pastors who follow in his train then it might be that this tending and feeding is to be done in conjunction with the public worship of the church. But do these implicational steps serve as a definitive Biblical requirement to include feeding and tending in the public worship of the church?

Hebrews 10:24-25 - Here is an admonishment not to abandon corporate gatherings but elements of worship are not mentioned and there are no imperatives

The Church Letters - implications from these passages carry possible significance because they are written to local churches:

1 Corinthians 11:17-34 - Clearly Paul is addressing the public gatherings of the church in Corinth. It is not clear whether this is a general public worship gathering or one specifically for observing the Lord’s Supper. The passage is a correction to the Corinthian practice and a reminder of the purpose of the observance. There is no command to observe the Lord’s Supper in conjunction with public worship. But it is a description of the practice of the church in Corinth and presumably of first century churches. So, does this description have the force of a prescription?

1 Corinthians 14:23-36 - Again, the subject under discussion is the public gathering of the church and presumably the gatherings are for worship. There is no command to engage in the various public actives described in this passage, rather the passage contains regulations regarding there use. Again, does this description mean that these activities must be part of the public worship life of all churches?

Ephesians 4:11-16 - Paul provides insight to the purpose of God giving pastors (and others) to the church. Presumably, pastors will engage in the listed activities in conjunction with public worship; however there are no commands and no direct tie to public worship. Perhaps there is an valid implication for public worship. If so, does the implication have the force of a prescription for churches today?

Colossians 3:16 - As part of the “put off”, “put on” instructions to the Colossians, Paul directs them to “let the Word of Christ richly dwell within you” (imperative) while teaching and admonishing (participles) each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Churches commonly include singing in their public worship; however there is no tie to public worship and this text could possibly refer to a personal practice.

The Pastoral Letters - implications found in these passages carry possible significance because the addressees were ministering in local churches:

1 Timothy

1:3 - Timothy is to “charge” certain persons at the church in/near Ephesus. Was this to be done as part of public worship?

2:1 - Paul “urge”(s) that “prayer be made on behalf of all men.…” This is not an imperative and there is no indication that public worship in mind.

4:11 - Timothy is directed to “command and teach….” These imperative activities undoubtedly could be viewed as part of Timothy’s ministry in the public worship of the church. Thus, is there a valid implication for public worship in all churches?

4:13 - Paul directs Timothy to attend to “reading, exhortation, teaching”. This imperative could also refer to what he does in public worship. Thus, is an implication for public worship probable?

2 Timothy

2:2 - Timothy is commanded to “entrust” apostolic teachings to faithful men. So, Timothy must incorporate this activity into his ministry. However, corporate worship is not the specified venue for this. But as a friend and respected veteran pastor put it, “If the corporate worship service is not the best place for this instruction, it certainly opens the possibility to Bible studies, Sunday school, and etc.”

2:15 - Timothy should be careful to “accurately handle the word of truth as a diligent workman. Again, corporate worship is not the specified venue and the imperative is not used.

4:2 - Timothy is given five straightforward directives - preach the Word, be ready (however this imperative is likely modifying the other four imperatives or just the “preach” imperative), reprove, rebuke, exhort. In light of the reference toTimothy’s ministry (v 5), and if Timothy was in fact pastoring a local church, is it more probable that by implication these activities should be expected in the public worship of the church in Ephesus and by extension to all churches?

Titus

1:3 - Paul was entrusted with “the preaching”. In light of the variety of Paul’s preaching venues, it is difficult to jump from this statement to a clear implication of preaching as part of the corporate worship gathering of the church.

1:5 - It is doubtful that Paul’s intention to leave Titus in Crete to set things in order and appoint elders in the church meant that these activities were intended to be part of the corporate worship of the church in Crete. No imperatives are given.

2:15 - Titus is directed to “speak”, “exhort”, and “reprove” a catalogue of items (vs 2-14) that are appropriate to sound doctrine (v 1). As in 2 Timothy 4:2, is an implication that these items are to be part of public worship probable?

What about the Regulative Principle Might be Cause for Concern?

As I try to grapple with the relevant biblical data and digest the various arguments promulgated in support of the the Regulative Principle several concerns surface:

First, the regulative principle is superimposed on the Scripture. No such principle can be found in Scripture.

Second, a basic problem with the Regulative Principle is that there are no Biblical commands regarding the specific elements of new covenant worship. I can find no list of prescribed “elements” for new covenant worship. To solve this dilemma, some advocates expand “commands” to include anything the apostles approved or practiced or elements that are described in the Bible. Others include anything that is a “natural deduction”. In light of the lack of explicit commands regarding specific elements of worship, others focus on clear implications. In this case, the debate centers on determining which elements are clear implications of Scripture.

John Frame expresses this well. “… But Scripture gives us nothing like a list of elements for this particular kind of service, either by precept, example, or inference. God does prescribe a “sacred assembly” for the Sabbath day (Lev. 23:3), but He says nothing about what should be done there. Doubtless the Israelites reasoned that since God is generally pleased with public prayer and with the reading and teaching of His Word, that these are appropriate activities for the Sabbath meeting. That is a kind of theological inference, and it is correct; but it falls short of a divine prescription of the particular elements of this specific form of worship. The same is true of the Lord’s Day worship of the New Testament church. We do find in the New Testament some examples of worship activities which most likely23occurred in Christian Lord’s Day worship: the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34), hymns (chosen by the congregation!–1 Cor. 14:26), instruction (1 Cor. 14:26), and the reading of Paul’s letters (Col. 3:8).24But nothing is said specifically about baptism as an activity of Sunday worship (New Testament examples of baptism take place outside of regular public worship). We may determine by theological inference that baptism is an activity appropriate to public worship, but that inference falls short of demonstrating that God requires baptism as an element of the specific service held on the Lord’s Day.25 And certainly we have no normative list of elements for many other forms of worship: private worship, family worship, devotions at community events,26hymn sings, impromptu prayers, to say nothing of worship in the “broad sense.” There is, therefore, no form of worship for which Scripture yields a list of elements as required by the narrow reading of the regulative principle.” (“A Fresh Look at the Regulative Principle: A Broader View” in “Triperspectival Theology for the Church” accessed Nov 18, 2015)

Third, the Regulative Principle lacks the flexibility to deal with things not mentioned in Scripture as well as a variety of cultural issues such as what musical instruments are appropriate, if any, and a whole host of other details regarding corporate worship. This inflexibility commonly leads advocates to routinely make exceptions by adding elements not described in Scripture (such as passing the offering plate) or omitting elements described in Scripture (such as lifting hands). Others address this flaw by adding a catch-all phrase similar to that found in the Westminster Confession, “…or by good and necessary consequence.” (WCF, I. VI ) Still other proponents deal with this problem by differentiating between “elements” of worship and “circumstances” of worship (length of service, order of service, pews, and etc.). (see the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America position paper paragraph 4 and et al; also see Michael Bushell, “Songs of Zion”)

Fourth, reasons advanced in support of the Regulative Principle for worship seem more like invented arguments designed to justify a cherished practice or rebut another practice rather that solid interpretations of Scripture. For instance, see T David Gordon’s “Nine Lines of Argument in Favor of the Regulative Principle of Worship”. His arguments are: the Limit of Church Power; Liberty of Conscience; Faith; the distance between the Creator and the creature as described in the OT; the OT picture of the jealous character of God; OT description of God’s desire for piety; OT punishment for unauthorized worship; the human tendency toward idolatry; and Church History (accessed 12/10/15). I can’t help but notice the lack of citation of even one passage that definitively lays out prescriptions for new covenant worship or one passage that states the Regulative Principle.

Fifth, the Regulative Principle seems to come from the perspective that Scripture should be viewed as a manual of detailed regulations governing every facet of life. But certainly, there is no book of rules regarding new covenant worship to be found in the Scripture.

Sixth, if the Regulative Principle is consistently applied to daily living, Christian liberty is truncated at best and denied at worst.

Thus, in my view, the Regulative Principle goes too far. Obviously, some choose to use the Regulative Principle as a guide for their public worship as well as other facets of life in the church. As a matter of New Testament liberty, they have a right to do so. However, given its absence from the Bible, I do not believe the Regulative Principle can be a compulsory concept for life in the church or Christian life in general. Furthermore, I fear that its practice easily can lead to a dangerous legalism, false piety, or spiritual pride.

Can we appreciate, and perhaps even adopt as our own, some of the specific ways the people of God worshipped God as described in the Bible under the new covenant or in heaven or even under the old covenant? Yes. But, as we examine these descriptions, we must not construe them to be binding rules that necessarily express the will of God or even articulate what does or does not please Him.

These factors surrounding a general discussion regarding the validity of the Regulative Principle also lead me to an observation about life in the church broadly. It is framed by a related question, namely, “what are the essential features of a biblically faithful church?” Or does the Bible even address this? I am of the opinion that we must be careful about being dogmatic here. For instance, I am a strong advocate for the authority and plurality of elders in a local church. I believe I can demonstrate from the New Testament that elder rule best describes the polity of the first century church. And I believe such polity is the best model for today’s church. However, I am not ready to label as anti-biblical those who practice a different governance such as pure congregationalism. I simply do not have a New Testament warrant to do so. Thus, I must guard against giving the impression that my way is the only way to please God or even that it is the best way to effectively serve God.

Conclusion

So, here is what I think I know.

I do not find any Scriptural evidence for a principle that requires the New Testament church to only and always include certain activities in corporate worship. Consequently, I conclude that no such principle exists and thus, that the Regulative Principle is an imposition upon the Scripture.

Also, apart from the John 4 directive to worship in “spirit and truth”, I can find no other definitive prescriptions regarding public worship for the New Testament church. That’s it. Nothing else necessarily rises to the level of divine fiat.

I do find some implications from John 4 under the umbrella of the term “worship” that may be applied to public worship. And perhaps there are additional valid implications from other passages that may inform public worship.

Thus, rather than beginning from the perspective that only those activities prescribed or implied are permitted, my baseline starting point is that any activity is permitted in the public worship of the local church. I build from this platform. However, I must always funnel my worship choices through the filter of the clear New Testament requirement to worship “in spirit and truth”. All possible worship activities must be evaluated according to their fidelity to this requirement. In this sense, local churches are regulated in determining their worship practices. Churches must determine the meaning of “spirit and truth” and work out practical applications to public worship. They must also wrestle with what implications they believe to be valid and specifically how their worship will be informed thereby.

Thus, in harmony with “spirit and truth” and other valid implications, churches are free to adopt various policies and practices to inform their public worship. These policies and practices will undoubtedly be diverse from church to church rather than uniform. Certainly, church leaders are free to persuade other church leaders that their practices are unwise or that their own practices are better. Nonetheless, such churches should not deem their policies and practices regarding worship to be necessarily more biblical than those of other churches.

Addendum

Because I recommend the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, I offer a few observations about the position paper published by the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America. (page and paragraph numbers are as formatted in my digital copy of the position paper)

First is the statement that “…all true Christian worship is to be from the heart by faith.” The Regulative Principle delineates this and the London Baptist Confession of 1689 expresses the theological foundation of the Regulative Principle (para #3 ). The paper does not offer any Scriptural proof for the Regulative Principle, rather it offers 1689 Confession proof. It justifies this by stating that exegesis has been done by other writers. That the definitive statement of the Association does not offer substantial exegetical Scriptural support seems unwise at best and and an admission of a lack of Scriptural support at worst.

Second, “Paragraph 5 of the 1689 Confession carefully delineates the elements of worship, which are: 1) the reading of the Scriptures, 2) preaching and hearing the Word of God, 3) singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs unto the Lord, 4) prayer with thanksgiving for all things lawful, and 5) the administration of the sacraments. These are the non-negotiable elements of worship. They are to be observed in worship as commanded elements from God, not to be withheld from the church nor expanded by additions from “good and necessary consequence.” (p 4). So, one may ask what definitions of “psalms”, hymns, and spiritual songs” are operative? (see p 7 for a hint - only congregational singing?) Or, in any language, what versions constitute the “Scripture” that must be read? And, are all forms of “preaching” acceptable or only certain ones? (see p 7 for implied answer) Is prayer with petition acceptable? Do those who reject the notion of “sacraments” in favor of “ordinances” fail the Regulative Principle test? And will those who practice three ordinances/sacraments be in constant violation of the Regulative Principle? None of these questions can be thrown into the basket of circumstances!

Third, the affirmations and denials section make it clear that the “non-negotiable” elements must be present if genuine worship is to take place (especially #4,5,8) and that no other elements can be present (but see the added “etc” following the listed five elements p 7). Thus, one may ask if a church fails to worship if it does not observe both of the ordinances/sacraments in a given “worship” gathering? Or, what if it only observed the ordinances/sacraments and no other elements?

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2016. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.