Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Principles of Worship: The Regulative Principle

Over the next three weeks, I will cover five principles that govern Christian worship. These are principles that are held and practiced particularly by Reformed and Presbyterian churches, although some of them we hold in common with the church at large. The first one I will cover here is what has been called the "regulative principle of worship" and it seeks to answer the question: what determines our worship practices? Why do we worship the way we worship?

The regulative principle argues that our worship should be regulated by holy Scripture. As the Westminster Confession of Faith explains,
“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).
In other words, God - not us - decides and reveals what is pleasing to Him. He calls us to worship and to worship on His terms. Therefore we can only do in worship what God tells us to do. Leviticus 10:1-3 gives a gripping example of this principle:
“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the LORD has said: “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.”’ And Aaron held his peace.”
This principle does allow that
“there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God … 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)
In other words, God tells us what to do in worship, but some of the details of how we do them is left to the general rules He gave us like “Let all things be done unto edifying” and “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:26, 40).

This principle ensures that we are worshipping God as He wants, making Him the center, rather than putting ourselves at the center - focusing on our felt needs and preferences. It also ensures that we are worshipping the God revealed in Scripture, not some figment of our imagination.
“Only when the elements of worship are those appointed in God’s Word, and the circumstances and forms of worship are consonant with God’s Word, is there true freedom to know God as he is and to worship him as he desires to be worshiped." (OPC Directory of Worship)
So here are a few case studies to show how this works:

- Would a vow of perpetual celibacy be proper worship of God? No, it is without biblical warrant.
- Would kissing or bowing to images be proper worship of God? No, not only is it not prescribed, but it is also explicitly forbidden by the second commandment.
- Would a play or skit be a proper element of worship? No, even though preaching and participatory worship is “dramatic,” this is different than adding a play or skit, which is not used or commended in Scripture as an element of worship.
- Would singing with instruments be proper worship of God? Yes, even though the New Testament warrant for the use of instruments is debatable, we can draw instruction from Old Testament worship, especially from those aspects which were not symbols of Christ.
- Would worshipping without singing be proper worship of God? On occasion perhaps, but not as a common practice; the regulative principle does not only exclude things, but also requires things.

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