How should we worship on Sundays? The Church has often framed this as an argument between the “regulative” and “normative” principles. This is a simplistic grid―these approaches are more complementary than we realize. This article discusses the regulative principle.
Precis of the Regulative Principle Position
The Regulative Principle (“RP”) states “… everything we do in a corporate worship gathering must be clearly warranted by Scripture.”1 Christians often distinguish worship by (1) elements (what we do), and (2) circumstances (how we do it).2 RP advocates may apply it in two ways:
- Track One: The RP applies to the elements only. The circumstances “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”3
- Track Two: The RP applies to both the elements and God’s will for worship “is either expressly set down or necessarily contained” in Scripture.4
RP proponents advance several overarching justifications:
- The 2nd Commandment says we must not worship the true God in a false way.5 So, we must only worship the way He permits.
- Faith is response to God, and we only know how to respond to God from His word, so worship must be based on the word.6
- True piety means we do what God says, so we obey scripture.7
- If we worship God the wrong way, He may kill us (Lev 10:3).
- We wound the conscience of believers by forcing them to worship contrary to the bible.8
- The Church administers God’s rule for worship, and God’s rules are in His word, so worship must be based on the word.9
- We are all prone to idolatry, so we must worship according to scripture.10
The Regulative Principle Doesn’t Pass Muster
Application of the RP varies widely because its interpretation is subjective. Some would argue historical creeds, confessions and scripture support the RP. However,
- Evidence from creeds and confessions is generally weak. Citation support is almost always out of context and inapplicable to the document’s argument―and certainly to the RP.
- The scriptural appeals are either out of context or do not go beyond abstract principles that are not in dispute.
Because of this subjectivity, the RP has no meaningful role as an interpretive grid to structure worship.
Analysis of Extra-biblical Warrant
Belgic Confession, Art. 32 proclaims “do not depart from those things which Christ, our only master, hath instituted.”11 The confession’s citations are out of context and inapplicable.12 It simply advises us to do what Christ says.
Heidelberg Catechism, Q 96 says we must not “… worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word.”13 It cites 1 Samuel 15:23, where Saul disobeyed a direct command from God. Likewise, Deuteronomy 12:30 simply forbids disobeying direct orders.
Westminster Larger Catechism, Q 108 explains the duties inherent in the 2nd Commandment, which are “the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his Word.”14 The catechism mistakenly applies Exodus 20:4-6 to God―it is actually about idolatry. On its own, the catechism says nothing more than “do not worship God in a false way.”
Westminster Larger Catechism, Q 110 describes why we must keep the 2nd Commandment and refers to God’s “revengeful indignation against all false worship, as being a spiritual whoredom.” This is a polemic against idolatry, which has nothing to do with the RP.
Westminster Confession, Art. 1.6 explains “[t]he whole counsel of God … 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.”15 It also mentions circumstances in worship need to be regulated “according to the general rules of the Word …”16 This is the strongest support for the RP. However, because these are general statements about scripture, they are more hermeneutics for life than precepts for worship.
The 1689 London Baptist Confession, Art. 1.6 explains God’s will is “necessarily contained” in scripture.17 Scott Aniol believes this is stricter than the Westminster equivalent.18 However, a modern language version reads “or by necessary inference,”19 and both versions explain “some circumstances” of worship are ordered by “Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word.”20 Evidence indicates the 1689 Confession is not stricter than the Westminster equivalent.
Westminster Confession, Art. 20.2 says our consciences must be free from “any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship.”21 The scripture citations are irrelevant to the RP.22 Application of the RP does not solve the matter of allegedly binding the conscience, because there is no “golden tablet” of RP implications―different congregations implement it in widely divergent ways.
Westminster Confession, Art. 21.1 (cf. 1689 Confession, Art. 22.1) says God instituted the “acceptable way” of worship, and we cannot worship “in any way not prescribed by scripture.”23 It cites Deuteronomy 12:32, which declares we cannot add or take away from God’s commands. This is a general principle, not a manual for worship. Other citations are out of context and irrelevant.24 One wonders what Jesus thought as He worshipped in a synagogue, which is not prescribed by scripture.25
Analysis of Biblical Warrant
Appeals to Exodus 20:4-6 misunderstand the issue. For example, Mark Dever miscites this text and claims it is about how we worship. But, it is actually about who.26 The passage is about idolatry, not worship.
At Exodus 34:13-15, D.G. Hart and John Meuther claim this proves God is jealous and those who contradict or thwart His will are “wicked, irrelevant and profane.”27 However, this reference is out of context. God is telling the Israelites to drive pagans out because their presence will lead to idolatry (Ex 34:11-16). This has nothing to do with worship.
Leviticus 10:3 suggests worship must not be done improperly, but the text does not say what the men did wrong. This cannot go beyond basic principle.
Appeals to Mark 7:6-7 are specious. Here, Jesus criticizes Pharisees for zealously adding to God’s law and perverting what it means to have a relationship with God. RP appeals therefore cast rhetorical foes as damnable legalists. The text says nothing about worship―it is about the nature of a relationship with God.
At Colossians 2:22-23, Paul condemns asceticism as religion. This text is immaterial because RP opponents are not ascetics who teach a false religion. The issue in Colossians is false religion, not “improper” worship style.
In Matthew 28:20, Jesus declares we must observe what He commanded us. Fair enough, but every serious Christian would believe she does what God commands! This citation therefore proves nothing.
At Romans 1:21, Hart and Meuther declare “… those who are in Christ are incompetent to devise by their imaginations, even devout ones, any sort of worship that is appropriate or pleasing to God.”28 This is an abstract point that is functionally meaningless. Without a “golden tablet” of infallible RP implications, it does nothing for us.
Mark Dever declares John 4:19-24 tells us worship is regulated by revelation.29 This principle is not in dispute. What is disputed is how to apply this revelation. This citation resolves nothing.
He repats the same refrain at 1 Corinthians 14.30 However, this is a passage regulating the use of apostolic sign gifts in corporate worship. The most applicable principle here is that worship must be done in an orderly fashion, but this is hardly in dispute.
Track Two of the RP is based on a faulty interpretation of the 1689 Confession. Track One, in its most distilled essence,31 makes good sense but lacks scriptural and extra-biblical support when framed as a dogma.
RP is applied inconsistently and subjectively.32 Ligon Duncan argues for a softer RP that is so generic it need not claim the label.33 However, Hart and Meuther declare pastors are equivalent to Old Covenant priests,34 we cannot do leisure activities on the Sabbath,35 worship is not for our pleasure (misciting Calvin),36 lighting an advent wreath is sinful,37 horizontal worship is specious38 (so much for brotherly love?), only pastors can read scripture aloud,39 we must worship as if at a funeral,40 believers who emphasize God’s love are evangelical Marcionites,41 and only RP believers may claim God’s love.42 They also claim the bible’s silence on an issue is as much a prohibition as a direct condemnation.43 One wonders, then, why Hart serves on the Session for a congregation which boasts a livestream service.44 However, no doubt his congregation reclines at table as it observes the Lord’s Supper and greets one another with holy kisses …45
D. A. Carson correctly observes the New Testament does not furnish a positive example of a worship service,46 RP advocates and their foes share much common content, and “[t]here is no single passage … that establishes a paradigm for corporate worship.”47
The RP is ripe for abuse as a cloak for ecclesiastical preferences48―a vehicle for traditionalism,49 for mistaking dogma as Truth.50 It can concretize liturgy in time,51 or “justify” worship fences over top of revelation.52 The RP concept is sound,53 but one need not claim the mantle to apply what is otherwise known as good hermeneutical sense. It is not a position worth owning.
1 Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), p. 77.
2 D.G. Hart and John Meuther, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002), pp. 85-86.
3 “Westminster Confession of Faith,” Article 1.6, in Orthodox Presbyterian Church, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts (2007).
4 “Second London Confession,” Article 1.6, in Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised, ed. William Lumpkin (Valley Forge: Judson, 1969), p. 251). A modernized version of this confession has the words “or by necessary inference” (Founders.org. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith in Modern English. Retrieved from https://founders.org/library/1689-confession/). This is a rather different interpretation that will not bear the freight Baptist RP advocates wish to see the 1689 London Baptist Confession carry.
5 Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 78.
6 J. Ligon Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice, ed. Philip Ryken (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003; Kindle ed.), KL 1183.
7 “True piety manifests itself in humble obedience to God’s word in our expression of worship and thus urges us to worship that is wholly in accord with Scripture,” (Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1237-1238).
8 Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 84-85. “The regulative principle is designed to secure the believer’s freedom from the dominion of human opinion in worship,” (Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1222-1223).
9 Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1206.
10 Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1229-1252. “… the liturgy, media, instruments, and vehicles of worship are never neutral, and so exceeding care must be given to the ‘law of unintended consequences,’” (Ibid, KL 1334-1337).
11 “Belgic Confession of Faith,” Art. 32, in The Three Forms of Unity (Port St. Lucie: SGCB, 2018).
12 Colossians 2:6-7 is Paul’s exhortation to live life in communion with Christ, which is irrelevant to the RP issue. References to 1 Cor 7:23; Isa 29:13 (cf. Mk 7) and Gal 5:1 are likewise out of context and thus irrelevant to the argument.
13 “Heidelberg Catechism,” Q 96, in Three Forms of Unity.
14 Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
15 Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Emphasis mine.
16 Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
17 “Second London Confession,” Art. 1.6, in Baptist Confessions, p. 250.
18 Scott Aniol, “Form and Substance: Baptist Ecclesiology and the Regulative Principle,” in Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, JBTM 15.1 (Spring 2018), pp. 30-31.
20 “Second London Confession,” Art. 1.6, in Baptist Confessions, pp. 250-251.
21 Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
22 Acts 4:19, 5:29; 1 Cor 7:23; Mt 23:8-10; Mt 15:9. In 1 Cor 1:24, Paul is saying he is not Lord over the faith of the Corinthian church members. The RP has nothing to do with this. Indeed it can easily be flipped against more hardline RP advocates, like Hart and Meuther, who claim their way is the only way.
23 Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
Ex 20:4-6; Deut 4:15-20; Mt 4:9-10, 15:9; Jn 4:23-24; Acts 17:23-25; Col 2:18-23.
25 Derek Thomas criticizes this objection, but curiously fails to answer it. He seems to view the elements of the RP being present at the synagogue, while implicitly dismissing the synagogue context as a circumstance (“The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1757f). However, more hardline RP advocates like Hart and Meuther (who forbid even banners inside a church building; With Reverence and Awe, p. 78) would surely disagree. RP advocates are not made alike.
26 Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 78. Dever makes the same mistake at Exodus 32:1-10 (pp. 78-79).
27 Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 83.
28 Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 83.
29 Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 79.
30 Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 79.
31 I interpret this essence as (1) the elements of reading, preaching, praying, singing, seeing the Word, and (2) the circumstances deduced by good and necessary inference.
32 D.A. Carson (ed.), Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 54-55.
33 J. Ligon Duncan, “Does God Care How We Worship?” in Give Praise to God, KL 583-587. “What is being argued here is that there must be scriptural warrant for all we do. That warrant may come in the form of explicit directives, implicit requirements, the general principles of Scripture, positive commands, examples, and things derived from good and necessary consequences. These formulations of the Reformed approach to worship also acknowledge that lesser things about corporate worship may be decided in the absence of a specific biblical command but in accordance with faithful biblical Christian thinking under the influence of scriptural principles and sanctified reason and general revelation (e.g., whether to use bulletins, what time the services are to begin, how long they are to last, where to meet, what the ministers and congregation will wear, whether to use hymnals, how the singing is to be led, and the like).” Emphasis mine.
34 Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 44.
35 Ibid, p. 72.
36 Ibid, p. 79.
37 Ibid, p. 84.
38 Ibid, p. 97.
39 Ibid, p. 105
40 Ibid, p. 127.
41] Ibid, p. 125.
42 Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 86.
43 Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 78-79. “The only proper ground for doing anything in worship is a command from God in his Word.”
45 In Justin Martyr’s day (ca. A.D. 155), Christians still greeted one another in this fashion (Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1961), p. 5). Consistent application of the RP in a manner Hart and Meuther suggest would also mean we must forego HVAC, microphones, electricity, indoor plumbing, piano, and any electronic devices for preaching.
46 Carson, Worship by the Book, p. 52.
47 Ibid, p. 55.
48 Derek Thomas declares those who believe application of the RP can be subjective because of the interpretive issues are “antinomian,” and remarks, “… it is sometimes apparent that this response is not an objection based on principle, but on prejudice. Citing the hermeneutical caveat is useful in order to extradite oneself from anything that appears to some to be shackling and legalistic. One suspects that reformation in attitude to sola scriptura is needed before progress can be made in advancing the cause of biblical worship practice,” (“The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1698-1701).
49 “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), 1:9. Michael Bird rightly cautions against a fear of tradition, which is very different than traditionalism. He writes, “I am advocating instead for an approach to biblical interpretation that places Scripture and tradition in a continuous spiral of mutual interpretation,” (Evangelical Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), p. 64).
50 Thus, Emil Brunner rightly warns, “Doctrine, rightly understood, is the finger which points to Him, along which the eye of faith is directed towards Him. So long as faith clings to the ‘finger,’ to the interpretive doctrine, it has not really arrived at its goal; thus it is not yet actually faith. Faith is the encounter with Him, Himself, but it is not submission to a doctrine about Him, whether it be the doctrine of the Church, or that of the Apostles and Prophets. The transference of faith from the dimension of personal encounter into the dimension of factual instruction is the great tragedy in the history of Christianity,” (The Christian Doctrine of God, in Dogmatics, vol. 1, trans. Olive Wyon (London: Lutterworth, 1949), p. 54).
51 The historical horizon for RP advocates does not seem to pre-date the Reformation.
52 Terry Johnson and Ligon Duncan crudely suggest having women read scripture in public is a sop to an egalitarian culture. “Sometimes it is done (one suspects) to prove to a suspicious culture that conservative evangelical churches are not knee-jerk reactionaries in their stance against women preachers, and so sometimes women are invited to lead the church in this area, if not in proclamation,” (“Reading and Praying the Bible in Corporate Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 2664-2666).
53 Again, these are (1) the elements of seeing, hearing, preaching, praying and singing the Word, coupled with (2) circumstances deduced by clear implication.