The Regulative Principle of Worship
- Biblical Arguments for the Regulative Principle of Worship
- The Argument of Caution
- Significance of Biblical Examples
- Scriptural Examples Supporting the Regulative Principle of Worship
The worship of God is a serious thing and it concerns the question of how we should approach God both in our private worship and in our public meetings. The Worship of God is a holy thing, a separate thing, which is exclusively devoted to Him.
The term 'worship' throughout the article is used in its wide sense. Along with reference to the act of giving reverence or expressing veneration unto God, the term will refer to prayer, public service unto God and all other activities relating directly to God.
We talk about activities that are exclusively devoted to God. In this context, we do not talk about secular matters, e.g. driving cars, but the matters of holy character and as such are separated from mundane concerns.
The offering of spiritual service to God in the celebration of His Holy Person is one of the highest, noblest employments in which man can engage, the supreme reach of the soul.1
Since worship is one of the highest and noblest employments in which a man can engage, the worship of God is an uttermost serious thing. When we approach God in our worship, we ought to know whether our approach expresses proper respect towards God.
Worship is an act of devotion presented to God in His presence, and addressed to Him personally. That cannot be until the one who would worship has been accepted in the divine presence. He must know the way to the throne of grace. There is but one way, and Christ is that way. We must come by the way of the Cross when we approach God to worship Him. It is only the children of God who can offer true worship in the Father's presence, for only they know the way.2
Our secular culture does not provide this way, but unfortunately modern secular notions of worship have gained a foothold in many Christian churches. We should rather study the Scriptures which will teach us what are the means and proper manner of worship, that it may be acceptable unto God with whom we have to do.
The worship of a Supreme Being seems to be a universal instinct, and because of the sovereignty, majesty, and holiness of God, must be surrounded by such safeguards, restrictions, and sanctities as will preserve the divine honor and secure the acceptance of the worshiper and his worship. (...)
Rather than incur the wrath of heaven by a form of worship that is dishonoring and displeasing to God we should, instead of allowing ourselves ignorantly to worship, seek some divine message declaring what the mind of the Lord is, and follow it. Our worship rendered to God is of the utmost importance. It is rendered to the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth Who created us, Who preserves us, Who saves us, and Who is at last to judge us. Because He is the sovereign Lord of all, because He is infinitely high and holy, and has a watchful care over His worship that it be kept pure and holy, we are to be watchful and conscientious that our worship be rendered according to the divine appointment.3
In our study of the Bible, one important question emerges concerning the Worship. Can we claim a place for rites and services as long as the Scripture does not forbid them? Alternatively formulated, can we introduce new elements of Worship as long as the Bible is silent about them?
A positive answer allowing new elements of Worship adheres to a principle of Worship known as the Normative Principle of Worship. In other words, the Normative Principle of Worship says that the Worship can include elements that are not prohibited by the Scripture. The most common traditions utilizing this are Anglican, Lutheran, Evangelical and Methodist.
A negative answer forbidding new elements of Worship adheres to a principle known as the Regulative Principle of Worship. The principle is also known as the Principle of Silence. The principle says that only what God has explicitly commanded in the Bible should be allowed in the Worship. Alternatively formulated, we are not allowed to introduce new practices of Worship if the Bible is silent about the practice in question. The Regulative Principle is a consequence of another principle known as the Scriptural Law of Worship, which says, "the Holy Scripture prescribes the whole content of worship. By this is meant that all elements or parts of worship are prescribed by God Himself in His word."4 Assuming that the Scriptural Law of Worship is true, we are not allowed to add any new element, since God has given us all elements of worship to follow. If God is silent about some practice, God's silence is a telling one. It tells us that the practice in question should not be allowed in the Worship.
Various Christian Churches and traditions are subscribing to the Regulative Principle such as various Brethren and Anabaptist groups. It is also practiced by the conservative Reformed Churches, e.g. Presbyterian Churches, and Restoration Movement. It finds expression in confessional documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith (see Chapter 21), the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the London Baptist Confession of Faith.
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Biblical Arguments for the Principle of Silence
Commandments explicitly teaching us to obey the Regulative Principle of Worship
Two biblical texts explicitly that state that we are forbidden both to add unto and to remove anything from God's commandments:
Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.5
What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.6
These two God's commandments are quite general because they apply to the whole Law of God and not only to the Scriptural Law of Worship. God's Law is concerned with everything that involves our morality. Morality is concerned with the proper relations that we should have towards God, other people and ourselves. Moral relations involving God belong to the domain of faith and worship. This would include true doctrines concerning God and our proper relation to Him. We cannot have a proper relation to God if we have a wrong doctrinal concept of God not conformed to the revelation of the Bible. The same applies to the questions of how to worship God because it involves our moral relation towards Him. We, thus, see that morality, in this context, is not understood in a narrow sense, but rather is understood as an encompassing interpersonal dimension constitutive to our personal relations to God and other people.
God's law is not concerned with morally neutral activities such as driving cars, mopping the lawn, skateboarding, planting tomatoes, riding a bike, etc. All these activities, in themselves, are neither morally good nor morally evil, but they can be used as means for realizing either a beneficial or a harmful end. God's law is rather concerned about whether our engagement in these activities contributes to something good or harmful.
What does "add unto" or "remove from" God's Law mean? "To add unto God's Law" means to add new moral instructions, but which cannot be inferred from God's Law, and then teach other people to follow these new instructions. Conversely, "to remove from God's Law" means to remove without warrant some of God's moral instructions from His law, and then teach other people to ignore them. In both cases, whether adding unto or removing instructions from God's law, there is a violation of God's Law because of the explicit commandments forbidding us such illegitimate acts, namely commandments of Deut 4:2; 12:32.
The Scriptural Law of Worship is a special case of the application of Deut 4:2; 12:32. It concerns all practices involving our worship and service unto God. It is a moral law because it concerns our interpersonal relation to God. It regulates the proper form of our approach to God. Our God is a holy God and not every form of approach is pleasing before Him. Our proper attitude in worship should be the attitude of the fear of God. Therefore, before we approach God with our form of Worship, we should be certain that our form of Worship is pleasing Him. We can evaluate whether some form of Worship is correct if we examine whether it is commanded or instructed by God. If we are not certain that it is commanded, we should avoid it for the reason of not being in danger of displeasing God by breaking the commandments of Deut 4:2; 12:32. Here it should be stressed that our certainty should be 100 percent, i.e. there should not be any room for doubt regarding the form in question. If there are considerations showing that God is silent about some practice, then we should not allow such practice in the Worship.
However, it is very curious that Mainstream Christianity is very indifferent with regard to the Scriptural Law of Worship. Most Christians engage in forms of Worship of which there are no divine sanctions that could warrant such forms, such as playing music instruments, praying to Jesus, singing human inspired songs and not the Psaltir, allowing images or movies depicting Jesus, etc. Many Christians would say that these practices are not in contradiction with the Bible. Nevertheless, they are in a direct violation of God's commandments of Deut 4:2; 12:32. Thomas E. Peck shows how strange and paradoxical Christian indifference is towards the Scriptural Law of Worship and its attendant Regulative Principle of Silence.
Most professing Christians would be outraged if someone added his own poetry or writings to the Bible. Isn't that what cults do? Most evangelicals would think a person a dangerous heretic who decided to make up new doctrines based solely on his own imagination. Isn't that what the Papal church has done? Yet, when it comes to that very important activity of worshiping God, many professing Christians think virtually anything goes. What would most believers think of a church that decided to eliminate the Lord's supper, or baptism, or the preaching of God's word? They would probably classify such a church as a cult. Yet, the same command that forbids us from eliminating any of the worship ordinances commanded in God's word also forbids us from adding to what God has commanded. We say that the command to add nothing is an organic part of the whole law, as law, and therefore, that every human addition to the worship of God, even if it be not contrary to any particular command, is yet contrary to the general command that nothing be added.7
Thus, by the same logic we classify a church as a cult if the church removes worship ordinances commanded by God. This would also apply for a church that added to what God has commanded. The logic in question is the logic of Deut 4:2; 12:32.
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Christ's words to Pharisees
When Jesus speaks of the Pharisees making void the ordinances of God by their tradition, He says:
But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? (...) But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.8
Pharisees violated God's commandment regarding additions unto the Law because they taught doctrines of their tradition consisting of "commandments of men." Kevin Reed notes the following about Pharisees:
The scribes and Pharisees held to the traditions of their fathers so zealously, that their traditional practices had, in many respects, superceded the precepts of the Old Testament (Matt. 15:2). Hence, the apostle Paul later refers to this traditionalism as "the Jews' religion" (Gal. 1:13-14), indicating that it was not the religion of the Bible.
A conflict was created because the Jews sought to supplement the biblical precepts with practices of their own devising. Jesus rebukes them for substituting man-made duties in the place of God-given responsibilities.9
The Great Commission
The Lord's last commission, which refers not only to the extension of His Church, but to the purity of the doctrine and worship of His Church says:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.10
They were to teach, not what things are not forbidden, but "all things whatsoever I have commanded you."
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The Argument of Caution
Another argument for the Scriptural Law of Worship known as the Argument of Caution is motivated by the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord should be the cardinal virtue and attitude in our interpersonal relations to God and other people.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.11
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments.12
Early Christians were known as the people who walk in the fear of the Lord.
Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.13
The Law of Christ, as revealed through His apostles, instructs us to submit ourselves one to another and perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord.
Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.14
Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.15
The Argument of Caution is formulated as follows:
Since our service and worshiping God is a serious and holy matter, we should know whether we worship God in a correct way. If we are not sure about certain practice then we should not engage in such practice. The assurance has to be absolute in order to avoid the possibility of displeasing our Lord.
The Argument of Caution finds its echo in the apostolic instruction regarding our service unto God.
Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.16
Our worship should, therefore, be inspired by our reverence and godly fear that urge us to caution - to be careful in our approach to God according to His precepts.
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Significance of Biblical Examples
Biblical examples are of tremendous importance for our doctrine and practice. However, it is not implied by this that we should follow every kind of biblical example. Two kinds of examples can be safely ignored.
The first type of examples pertains to mere mundane things, things not concerned with the service exclusively dedicated for worshiping the Lord. We are not concerned with biblical examples giving us reports of daily mundane life. We are only concerned with examples pertaining to the Worship of the Lord. Many Christians confuse these two areas of life. It is certainly true that our actions should be motivated by our love towards the Lord. However, our mundane activities are not Worship. Worshiping God is a holy thing, a separate thing, which is exclusively devoted to Him. If we are, for instance, at a wedding party, we are not there to celebrate God. Confusing these two things would not be prudent.
However, some would object and say that all our life should be Worship. Brian Schwertley addresses this objection by noting the following:
Although, as Christians, everything we do is to be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), and thus we are to live to the Lord (Rom. 14:7-8) and present our bodies as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1), the idea that all of life is worship and therefore no distinction exists between public worship and activities like mowing the lawn is absurd. There are several reasons why we must regard "the all of life is worship" argument as unscriptural.
(...) when the apostle Paul discusses the conduct of believers during public worship, he sets forth regulations that presuppose a sharp distinction between public worship and all of life. For example, women may speak at a barbecue and may teach their children during home school, yet they are strictly forbidden to speak or teach during the public worship service (cf. 1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:12-14). Regarding the Lord's supper, Paul tells believers that they must conduct themselves in a proper manner when coming to the Lord's table. They are to examine themselves and are to make sure that they have a special regard for their brethren (1 Cor 11:17-34). The regulations regarding this sacrament obviously do not apply to the local picnic or volleyball game. There is also a special decorum for public worship that is commanded by Paul. Men are not to wear head coverings in church while women are (1 Cor. 11:2-16). However, men may wear baseball caps at the ball park. If all of life is worship (as some assert), and thus worship is not to be strictly regulated by Scripture, then the apostle Paul's inspired instructions regarding public worship would be superfluous.17
The second type of examples concerns all practices pertaining to Worship and Service exclusively dedicated to our Lord, but which we do not follow for either of two reasons:
- There are clear biblical instructions teaching that a practice is belonging to some obsolete parts of the Mosaic Law, valid under old Covenants only.
- There are clear biblical instructions teaching that we are free regarding them.
In the second case, we can follow them if we wish, but it is not obligatory. For instance, there is nothing wrong in observing the Sabbath, but we are not required to observe it. Paul is quite clear on this point:
For one believeth that he may eat all things another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.18
We are only concerned with examples referring to our Service and Worship of the Lord, but where there is no clear instruction that these examples should be ignored. This kind of examples is very important for the following reasons:
First, biblical examples show us the meaning of key biblical terms and concepts. In general, meaning of the words or expressions is determined by their usage and not necessarily by explicit definitions. Explicit definitions are usually found in dictionaries. However, it is basically through usage and practice that we understand the meanings of our words, and in such way the meanings of words are implicitly given. Moreover, we can never give a full meaning of our terms and expression by explicit definitions alone. We must also consider how these terms and expressions are used. It is basically through practice and examples that we understand our language. Thus, through the study of biblical examples, we attain a greater understanding of the meaning of biblical terms and expressions. It is through the study of examples that Greek and Hebrew scholars have determined the meaning of a great variety of biblical expressions. They have studied how these expressions were used in daily life by also comparing other works outside the Bible. Therefore, the biblical examples are worth to be studied in any serious bible study.
Second, biblical examples serve as an important guide to avoid an introduction of new elements in the Worship that might be alien to God's will. For instance, by observing how Christians in the first century were gathered, I can be assured that God approved their practice of house meetings, and thus not worry whether house meetings are according to God's will. For the importance of gathering in house churches, see the article "House Churches as the True Form of Christian Gatherings."
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Scriptural Examples Supporting the Regulative Principle of Worship
a) Gen. 4:3-5, Cain's fruit offerings of the ground
As William S. McClure notes, "Cain fell under the ban of this principle, in that with respect to the matter and the manner of God's worship he set his own will in the stead of God's will."19 We should observe that it is not reported up till this point in the history of humankind that God forbade offerings of "the fruit of the ground," nor that God forbade it later in the history. God was simply silent about fruit offerings of the ground. However, we only read of the examples of sacrifices that were approved by God during this dispensation, and through these examples we learn how people pleased God.
There were not given explicit directives or commandments of how sacrifices should be offered until the start of a new covenant during Moses. Furthermore, there is no verse in the Bible that forbids us to offer "the fruit of the ground" in the Worship, but we clearly deem such sacrifices as inappropriate. Why could we not offer "the fruits of the ground" in our Worship if the Bible nowhere says that it is wrong? Even the Epistle of Hebrews does not forbid this, an epistle concerned with animal sacrifices.
We could argue that some people in their private worship could express their gratitude to God by giving lovely vegetarian offers, expressing appreciation for God's grace and salvation. They are not ignorant regarding God's grace and Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Their motivation for offering vegetarian gifts is simply of pure artistic considerations. It is obvious that such "artistic considerations" leading to such a false practice are wrong. However, the only principle that can rule out such false practice is the Principle of Silence.
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b) Lev. 10: 1-3, Nadab and Abihu
The offering of incense to God with a fire "which He commanded them not" was the sin for which Nadab and Abihu were struck dead. It is not reported that they were punished because they violated a commandment, but because they introduced a "strange fire" in the sacrifice. They were killed simply because they went beyond commandments concerning the offering of incense, and not because they did something which was explicitly forbidden.
What does the expression "strange fire" mean? Brian Schwertley notes,
The Hebrew word translated "strange" (zar) could also be translated "unauthorized." Nadab and Abihu offered "unauthorized fire." Leviticus 16:12 says that when a priest is to burn incense he must do so using coals taken directly from the altar. Nadab and Abihu used coals from an unauthorized source. The important thing to note is that what they did was not commanded.20
To repeat, there is no commandment where God explicitly forbids offering of incense by using "strange fire." God only forbade Jews to use "strange incense."
Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon.21
But "strange fire" is not the same as "strange incense." We use fire to burn incense. We can have the right incense but not the right fire, and vice versa.
"Strange fire" according to John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible:
And offered strange fire before the Lord; upon the golden altar of incense, which stood in the holy place right against the vail, within which were the ark, mercy seat, and cherubim, the symbol and seat of the divine Majesty: this fire was not that which came down from heaven, and consumed the sacrifice, as related at the end of the preceding chapter Le 9:24, but common fire, and therefore called strange; it was not taken off of the altar of burnt offering, as it ought to have been, but, as the Targum of Jonathan, from under the trivets, skillets, or pots, such as the flesh of peace offerings were boiled in, in the tabernacle.22
According to the Jewish Study Bible (published by The Jewish Publication Society, contributed by Jewish scholars),
Fire, Heb "'esh" here means kindling material (...) The brothers placed unlit coals (or wood for kindling) in the pans, in order to attract the divine fire to light them (see 1 King 18:38). (...)Alien fire, is unauthorized coals. They thus prepared an incense offering upon kindling of their own. Which He had not enjoined upon them: No offering of incense had been ordered; the only legitimate incense offerings are those made daily, by the high priest, upon the sacred altar (see Exod. 30:7-8). In public worship, only what is prescribed is legitimate; what is not is sacrilege.23
While "strange incense" was unauthorized incense, compounded with a formula different from that prescribed.
Burning incense was common in ancient religions. Since here it is part of the complex of daily activities inside the Holy Place that includes kindling lamps (v. 7), it is perhaps regarded as a natural feature of a courtly residence, creating a pleasing aroma inside. (...)Alien, unauthorized, compounded with a different formula from that prescribed in vv. 34-36.24
Thus, "strange fire" is not the same as "strange incense." Although the Law did not explicitly prohibit a ritual act of burning incense with "strange fire," such an act had no divine sanction. Nadab and Abihu were struck dead because they committed a ritual act of which God "commanded them not."
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We have offered many biblical reasons, from clear explicit commandments to biblical examples, for the validity of the Regulative Principle of Worship. We have also observed that the cardinal attitude in our approach unto God is the fear of the Lord, teaching us caution in not engaging in a practice for which we do not have a biblical warrant.
Therefore, we should subscribe to the Regulative Principle of Worship and be careful to question any practice and tradition through a serious study of the Scriptures. We should not take any practice for granted, but put it under the magnifying glass of the Bible to evaluate whether the practice in question has a divine sanction.
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1 John M. Ross, "The Idea of Worship," in: The Psalms in Worship, p. 16 [Back to the text]
2 W. H. McMillan, "The Idea of Worship," in: The Psalms in Worship, p. 11 (Still Water Revival Books, 1992) [Back to the text]
3 William H. Vincent, "The Scriptural Law of Worship," in: The Psalms in Worship, p. 22 [Back to the text]
4 William Young, "The Second Commandment" in: Worship in the Presence of God, Frank J. Smith and David C. Lachman, eds. (Greenville, SC: Greenville Seminary Press, 1992), p. 75. [Back to the text]
5 Deut 4:2 [Back to the text]
6 Deut 12:32 [Back to the text]
7 Thomas E. Peck, Miscellanies (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1895), 1:82. [Back to the text]
8 Matthew 15:3, 9 [Back to the text]
10 Matthew 28:19-20 [Back to the text]
11 Proverbs 9:10 [Back to the text]
12 Psalms 111:10 [Back to the text]
13 Acts 9:31 [Back to the text]
14 Eph 5:21 [Back to the text]
15 2 Cor 7:1 [Back to the text]
16 Hebrews 12:28 [Back to the text]
17 Brian Schwertley, Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principle of Worship, Section 2 "The "All of Life Is Worship" Argument," in: Chapter V "Some Contemporary Objections to Sola Scriptura in the Sphere of Worship Considered and Refuted." [Back to the text]
18 Rom 14:2-6 [Back to the text]
19 William S. McClure, "The Scriptural Law of Worship," in: The Psalms in Worship, p. 35. [Back to the text]
21 Exodus 30:9 [Back to the text]
22 John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible, Commentary on Lev 10:1. [Back to the text]
23 The Jewish Study Bible, Commentary on Lev 10:1 [Back to the text]
24 The Jewish Study Bible, Commentary on Exodus 30:1-10 [Back to the text]