The Regulative Principle Made Simple

God created man for worship. Jesus declared that the Father is seeking worshippers who will worship Him "in spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24). Not surprisingly, the Shorter Catechism begins by affirming, "Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." But this raises the question, “How should God be worshiped?”  To be more precise, “What kind of worship pleases God?” The answer is vital. Thankfully, it's not that complicated. Even a child may understand. 

Red Light: "Stop!"

TrafficLight - RedIt may seem a bit stifling to start with a negative, but that's where God himself begins:

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them" (Exod 20:3–5).

We can't just approach God on our terms. It ultimately doesn't matter whether it seems good, feels good, or looks good to us. God doesn't accept "manmade" religion (Matt 15:1-9; Col 2:20-23; 1 Tim 4:1-5). As the Supreme Object of human worship, God reserves the right to define the terms by which men may offer to him acceptable love, service, and devotion. And when God says, "You shall not!" we must not. Period! In the words of the Baptist Confession, "The acceptable way to worship God is instituted by Him, and it is delimited by His own revealed will" (22.1).[1] Which brings me to the next point.

Green Light: "Go!"

Trafficlight - GreenThe Bible doesn't just tell us what to avoid in the worship of God. It also tells us what kind of worship is pleasing to God. As noted above, Jesus defines it as "worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24). Simply put, we're to worship God through Jesus (John 4:25-26; 14:6; 17:3; Acts 4:11-12), from the heart (Psa 111:1; Isa 29:13; Phil 3:3; Heb 10:22), and according to biblical directives.[2] These biblical directives define for us what is essential for true worship. When it comes to corporate worship,[3] these essentials are called "elements," and they include ...

  • Preaching and teaching God's Word (Acts 2:42; Rom 10:17; Eph 4:11-14; 2 Tim 4:1-2)
  • Reading Scripture (Luke 4:16-19; Acts 15:21; 1 Tim 4:11)
  • Offering corporate prayer (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor 11:3-5, 16; 14:14-19; 1 Tim 2:1-8)
  • Singing congregational praise (Psa 100:1-5; 1 Cor 14:15, 26; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16)
  • Observing baptism and the Lord's Supper (Matt 28:19-20; 1 Cor 11:23-26)
  • Engaging in Christian community (Acts 2:42, 44-46; Rom 15:14; 16:16; Heb 10:24-25)
  • Proclaiming the gospel to the lost (Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 14:23-25; 1 Pet 2:9)
  • Giving financially to support the ministry of the church (Mal 3:8-10; Mark 12:41-44; 1 Cor 16:1-2; 2 Cor 9:1-6)

The elements above are intrinsic to New Covenant worship.[4] Accordingly, the church is obligated to incorporate those elements in her worship that God's Word requires whether through direct command, binding precedent, biblical principle, or necessary inference. Conversely, the church may not introduce any "new" elements into her worship that do not have positive warrant from God's Word. To cite the Confession again, "[God] may not be worshipped ... in any other way that is not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures" (22.1).

What about those things the Bible doesn't explicitly forbid or command?  That brings us to point three.

Yellow Light: "Move Ahead with Care"

Trafficlight-yellowAs noted above, the church is not authorized to institute new rites and ceremonies that don't have positive warrant from Scripture. We have to stick with the elements God has ordained. Nevertheless, while God has told us what to do, he has not in every case given us detailed instructions regarding precisely how to do it in our specific historical and cultural setting.

For instance, the Bible commands pastors to preach the Word. But it doesn't specify exactly how long their sermons should be. It doesn't indicate whether they should preach from memory or from notes. Nor does it say whether pastors must teach sitting or standing or behind a pulpit. And whether they preach with unaided voice or with some form of voice amplification is not specifically addressed.

Moreover, the Scripture enjoins the saints to sing songs of praise to God. But it doesn't indicate how many songs they should sing. It does not specify whether they should employ the aid of written lyrics or musical notations. Neither does the Scripture say whether those lyrics and/or notions should be printed in a hymnbook or projected on a screen. Indeed, there's no directives regarding what tunes or styles of music to use in corporate song. And while musical instruments seemed to be an intrinsic part of Old Covenant worship, they don't appear to be intrinsic to New Covenant worship.

The examples cited above are called "circumstances" of worship as opposed to "elements" of worship. They help make worship "happen" in a given place and time ("circumstance"). They have to do with such things as the order followed, the decorum cultivated, and the aids employed to carry out the elements of worship. As such these circumstances, unlike the elements, are not transcendent or absolute. They are, rather, relative to the historical and cultural setting of each congregation.

This is the case because Christ commissioned the church to take the gospel to every nation until the end of the age (Matt 28:18-20). So as churches are planted at different times and in different places, the elements will remain the same but the circumstances may have to change from time to time in order to ensure that the church's worship and ministry are intelligible, effective, and edifying (Deut 30:14; 1 Cor 9:19-23; 10:31--11:1; 14:1-26). Once more, we'll draw from the wisdom of our Puritan forefathers:

"We recognize that some circumstances of the church are common to human actions and organizations and are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian wisdom, following the general rules of the Word, which must always be observed" (1.6).

Thus, in principle churches have the freedom to employ circumstantial aids in worship, such as pulpits, pews, hymnbooks, musical instruments, audio/visual technologies, etc.[5] But that freedom is not unbounded. It must be appropriate to the congregation's historical and cultural place of ministry. And the "appropriateness" of any given circumstance is ascertained on the basis of (1) the general principles of God's Word and (2) sanctified common sense. What one congregation feels the liberty to do another congregation may not feel the liberty to do. Each congregation should respect the liberty of other congregations to differ in matters that are not intrinsic to New Covenant worship but are circumstantial in nature.[6]

Summing It Up

As my friend Pastor Ted Christman has succinctly put it: "Do what God requires. Avoid what he forbids. Enjoy what he allows. It's that simple." With these three principles in view, allow me to highlight two important lessons.

1. Worship by the Book

The Bible alone (sola Scriptura) regulates true worship. In the words of the Shorter Catechism, “The word of God, namely the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him."At one level, this applies to every area of life. The Scriptures provide the ethical guidelines to enable the Christian to raise children, run a business, or rule a country in a manner pleasing to God. At another level, this applies especially to the life and worship of the church, since the church is the object of God’s special care and agent of His redemptive purposes in the earth. So when Paul assures Timothy that the inspired Scriptures are sufficient to equip him unto every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17), he's primarily thinking of the work of ministry in the context of the local church.

2. Unity and Diversity

Regulated worship does not necessarily imply that the worship services of local churches will look exactly identical. Though the elements should be identical, the circumstances may vary according to historical, societal, cultural, and other factors (such as community and congregational demographics).[7] The best analogy would not be identical twins but fraternal twins. Many so-called "worship wars" might be averted if Christians and churches would recognize these distinctions. Might I commend the following creed for our worship:

"In Elements Unity. In Circumstances Liberty. In All Things Charity!"

Dr Bob Gonzales

[1] Confessing the Faith: The 1689 Baptist Confession for the 21st Century (Founders Press, 2012).

[2] The authoritative standard for New Testament worship is the New Testament Scriptures, and also the Old Testament Scriptures when they are interpreted and applied in light of the New. Under the New Covenant, Old Testament ceremonial types and shadows found their fulfillment in Christ and the gospel (Matt 5:17; Col 2:16-17; Heb 8:1-6; 10:1-4). Therefore, the worship of New Testament believers must conform to the “spirit-truth” realities of the New Covenant (John 4:20-24), which are revealed in the New Testament Scriptures (Eph 2:20). The Old Testament is still normative for New Testament worship (2 Tim. 3:16-17), provided that it is interpreted and applied in light of the New Testament gospel (Acts 2:17-21; 15:16-17; 1 Cor 10:1-11; 14:20-25, 34; 2 Cor 6:16-18; Gal 3:8-29; 4:21-31; 5:6; 6:15; Phil 3:3; 1 Tim 2:13-15; Heb 7:17, 21; 1 Pet 2:1-10).

[3] In a broad sense, the Christian’s entire life is to be an act of worship (Rom 12:1, 2; James 1:26, 27). As Paul reminds us, “Whether [we] eat or drink, or whatever [we] do, [we are to] do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). In this sense, there is no absolute dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. On the other hand, the Bible also refers to worship in a more narrow sense. In this sense, worship refers toformal acts of devotion (Psa 95:6-7; 96:8-9; John 4:20-22; Acts 24:11; 1 Cor 14:23-26; Heb 10:25). Thespecial time for formal corporate worship is the Lord's Day along with other special occasions (see Gen 2:1-3; Exod 20:8-11; Lev 23:2; Isa 58:13; Luke 4:16; John 20:19; Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2; Rev 1:10).

[4] This doesn't mean that every one of the elements listed above must be present every time the church gathers for worship or engages in ministry. It does mean, however, that the church is "out of order" if it completely excludes one of these elements from his worship and ministry.

[5] See my lectures on "Technology & Church Ministry."

[6] This is where the Lutheran and Anglican views of worship err. They hold that the church universal has the right not only to introduce but also to impose on all local congregations rites, forms, or customs not proscribed by Scripture as obligatory for all local churches and as, therefore, intrinsic elements of worship.

[7] In addition to differences in circumstances, there are sometimes differences among Reformed churches over certain applications of the regulative principle. For example, some apply the principle in a more restrictive fashion and allow only for the singing of psalms in worship. Others apply the principle more loosely and allow for special music and choirs. Yet, both the “strict” and the “loose” regulativists are committed to worship by the Book. Let us be charitable in such matters.