A Principled Approach to the Worship of God: The Regulative Principle


In this post we come to the principle most traditionally thought of when considering a principled approach to worship, namely the Regulative Principle of Worship. If the Vertical Principle of Worship helps us to answer the question of who our worship is oriented toward, the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) helps us to answer the pressing question of what we are to actually do in the worship of our God.

The RPW Defined and Defended

The examples of worship in Scripture are not chaotic; there is structure and order to what is done. Furthermore, God always takes an active interest in the worship that is offered to Him, even giving exacting instruction and punishing those who deviate from his expressed commands. If worship is the act of giving honor and adoration to our God, then it is critical that we understand our God’s blueprint for His own exaltation.

The RPW shows us how the Bible functions as our guidebook for worship. It would probably be difficult to find a Bible believing Christian who would disagree that the Bible is our guide to worship, but there is in our modern context widespread misunderstanding concerning how the Bible is to function as our guide. There are essentially two possible approaches to this issue. On the one hand, we can approach the Bible and ask the question, show me where it says we can’t. In this view, while the Scriptures function as a convenient point of reference, and they may give us many good ideas and general boundary markers, we are basically free to worship God in any manner that is not forbidden by the Bible. This is the mentality that prompts someone, when challenged on some aspect of their church worship, to respond by putting the burden of proof on God and say “show we where the Bible says I can’t do this.”

This approach opens wide the doors of the church to bring into the worship of God virtually any activity or idea which is not specifically banned by a literal prohibition in the Bible. As this study was being prepared, a very illustrative contemporary example presented itself. A church in Ohio rearranged their sanctuary for a week and built a fully functional horse corral. Their pastor (who just happened to be a former rodeo cowboy, how convenient) managed to mount a bucking bronco during the service as an illustration of “taming the beast of sin within our hearts.” I’m not using this example to mock fellow believers, nor to say that every church that doesn’t hold to the RPW will soon have a rodeo in the sanctuary, but it is an extremely clarifying test case. If we are to object to such activities, we must have a better argument than putting the burden of proof on the Bible. It is true, after all, there is no direct command against worship via rodeo in the Bible.

Thankfully, the RPW furnishes us with a much better approach to worship, one that it will be demonstrated is actually a binding Biblical principle. If the approach described above (which is sometimes call the Normative Principle of Worship) can be summarized as the show me where it says we can’t approach to worship, the RPW is the search for where it says we must approach. The RPW can be simply summarized as follows:

We must worship God in all the ways and only the ways he has commanded in His Word.

This can be well illustrated by a familiar oath taken in our courtrooms. In our courts we lay our hands upon a Bible and solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. Similarly, in the RPW I lay my heart upon the Word of God and swear to worship God as he has commanded, in all the ways he has commanded, and in nothing but the ways he has commanded, so help me God.

The Word of God must rule the Worship of God. If we are truly committed to that maxim, what it practically means is that elements of worship (the basic things we do) must be those things commanded by God, and we do not have the right to add new elements he has not commanded. We don’t get to add rodeos, or labyrinth walks,[1] or even something like dramatic skits to the worship of God.[2] We don’t have the right to do that. Equal in weight to this, the practical implication of the RPW is that if God has commanded it, we must do it. We don’t get to decide to eliminate preaching, singing, the sacraments, or any other commanded element of worship. We simply don’t have the right to either add or subtract from God’s plan for His own worship.

Before any nuance is offered to what has been said (and there is certainly nuance to offer), we must back up these bold assertions with Scripture. Because, as has been asserted, the Word is king.

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. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

This is the classic text proving the RPW. Note that Nadab and Abihu were not struck down for offering praise to Baal and Ashtoreth. They were actually engaged in the worship of the true and living God, but they were going beyond the bounds of God’s expressed command for how he is to be worshiped. They were worshiping the true God in a false manner, and the result was a stunning judgment.

It is critical to understand that the standard is that which is authorized. The offered unauthorized fire and from their example we learn that that which is unauthorized by God is forbidden by God. This text alone is probably sufficient to establish the RPW, but the objection could be made that perhaps this standard was peculiar to the Old Covenant. Might not a part of the blessed liberty of the New Covenant be an easing of the RPW? The following three citations from the New Testament will show that the RPW is never overturned, and continues to be a binding principle in this current age of the Christian church.

“‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matthew 15:8-9)

Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13 as a part of His stinging rebuke against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Note that he explicitly connects their illegitimate religion to their worship! It is always wrong to introduce that which originated in the minds of men into the worship of God, as though it were his idea all along. We must teach God’s Law as God’s Law and keep our law out of it.

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23, ESV)

 Although the context of this quotation is dealing directly with a religious legalism that obscures the free grace of the gospel, there is an application to be made to the RPW. The point made by Christ in Matthew 15 is made here by Paul and applied to a specific situation. Again, the practice of teaching that which is man-made as though it is divinely binding upon the conscience is condemned. This has reference to the paradoxical liberty that was described at the beginning of this study of worship principles. Bringing practices and pursuits into the worship of God makes them binding on all those assembled in the church. In the RPW God has set his children free from the imposition of worship practices which are not commanded and are therefore unauthorized fire upon the spiritual altar of the church at worship.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Although the great commission is not often thought of regarding the RPW, it is actually a rich text in that regard. The church’s mission is to make disciples of all nations, and that discipleship is given a carefully delineated scope. It is the commandments of Christ that are to be imparted, not novel approaches to life, doctrine, and worship. Furthermore, we are commanded to teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded. When considered in that light, the great commission sounds a lot like the RPW:

We must worship God in all the ways and only the ways he has commanded in His Word.

The RPW is all over Scripture; sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Just think of all the times we are told to do all the Lord commands, and take nothing away. It is an extremely helpful guide in thinking through what we do in worship. However, there are carefully nuanced distinctions to keep in mind. Some have heard a presentation of the RPW and immediately responded with a reducto absurdum– that is an attempt to reduce the RPW to absurdity and therefore discredit it. They try and impose a rigid literalness to it, asking questions about where we see things like pews, hymnals, and pulpits explicitly commanded in Scripture. Thankfully, this objection has an answer.

Circumstances and Elements

Those who adhere to the RPW make a distinction between those things which are elements of worship and those things which are circumstances. That which is elemental is the essence of the command, the basic function God requires of us. An easy example of this is congregational singing, which is commanded in both of the following texts:

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;

let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;

let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psalm 95:1-2)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)

So the commanded element is congregational singing. This element is nonnegotiable and must be present in church worship. But elements will always be surrounded by a whole cloud of details that are purely circumstantial. In these circumstances, there is much more liberty. To continue the example of singing, examples of circumstances include what instruments are used (if any), what particular songs are sung, how many are included in the worship service, and even the particular style of music. It’s possible that two different churches might work out these circumstances in pretty different ways, but both still be faithful to the RPW. In these circumstantial issues, we simply apply wisdom, Biblical principle, and make sure that they highlight rather than obscure the element they serve.

At this point a real challenge should be acknowledged. Sadly, the RPW is sometimes misunderstood to apply to circumstances as well as elements. In these situations the proponents of the RPW do their own cause no favors, and actually end up ironically going against the very principle they are so zealous to apply. If we take away liberty in matters purely circumstantial we go beyond the RPW and begin to teach as doctrines the commandments of men. We can tweak that phrase a bit and say that a misapplied RPW teaches as elements the circumstances of men.

The point of the RPW is not to enshrine our traditions, culture, or preferences as universal binding law. All of those considerations are very important, but the RPW is weakened and becomes hard to defend when it is applied to things it isn’t actually concerned with. Yet we must not allow ourselves to overreact and think that God doesn’t care about our circumstances! As it was stated above, circumstances must always serve to highlight rather than obscure an element. This is admittedly somewhat subjective, but so are circumstances. No one said this was easy.

Considering briefly the first two principles we have examined, we can already see how a thoughtful application of the VPW and the RPW can do wonders to shape our worship along Biblical lines. When we realize that the fundamentally vertical orientation of worship centers us on the desires of the Lord in heaven, not the man on the street; and when we see that God requires of us that we worship him in all the ways and only the ways He has commanded in His Word, then we can begin to truly conform our worship more and more to the desires of our holy God. These two principles are absolutely essential, and so my next statement may come as a surprise. They’re not enough. To the VPW and the RPW, we must still add one more essential principle of Biblical worship, which we will do in our next post.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

[1] Walking a “labyrinth” (a sort of intricate pattern drawn on the ground) is an increasingly popular “worship art,” and this author has personally observed an installed “prayer labyrinth” on the grounds of a Protestant church.

[2] I am familiar with the arguments that drama can be considered a subset of preaching, but remain unconvinced.

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10 thoughts on “A Principled Approach to the Worship of God: The Regulative Principle

  1. It’s all worship (Romans 12:1). That is, the Christian’s entire life is one long continuous act of worship. Every word the Christian utters, yeah, every thought he thinks, he broaches in the Holy of Holies. Our sense that we come and go from the presence of God is an illusion we should take care not to perpetuate.

    1. I actually have a post about this I may get to in the near future, so I’ll withhold extensive comment until then 😉

      I do agree that all of life is lived in the presence of God, and that Romans 12:1 calls us to live “all of life” as a worshipful sacrifice to the Lord. I think you say that well.

  2. Thank you so much for clearly articulating so many of my thoughts on this subject. As a leader of a Home fellowship with people from a foreign culture coming to faith in the Son, it is very helpful in determining how to properly worship God without sliding into syncretism and yet without demanding that they become western.

  3. What about choirs? Are they biblical? Is it a matter of circumstances or do choirs distort the element of congregational singing?

    Many thanks!

    1. Good question Theo. There are many who would strongly object to choirs on the grounds of the RPW, but I’m not so quick to do so.

      If you just mean a choir up front that accompanies the congregation I think that’s pretty clearly circumstantial. Most all churches have someone leading the singing, and I think saying that the RPW requires that to be only one person at all times rather than a group is somewhat arbirtary. That being said, they’re certainly not my preference and I do think it’s important to think through whether or not they end up obscuring the element rather than highlighting it. But that might be somewhat situational to a given congregation.

      Choirs, or just one person for that matter, singing ‘special music’ for the congregation to listen to in the context of the church at worship is little bit more challenging, but I agree with the position paper that the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches in America (ARBCA) published on the RPW at this point-

      “While congregational singing is to receive the emphasis in public worship, the regulative principle does not of necessity exclude the use of special music. Each church will have its own convictions regarding the suitability and frequency of special music. To prevent special music from becoming entertainment driven, the elders of the church should stress to those providing special music, that the purpose of special music is still that outlined in Colossians 3:16. Those who provide special music should be carefully and clearly instructed that the purpose is not entertainment but edification as commanded by the Apostle Paul. The elders of each individual church must assume the responsibility for such instruction and carefully monitor the situation so that the special music meets the same biblical criteria as congregational singing.”

      I hope that’s helpful.

  4. Thank you Nicolas, this a clear position.

    Does this position paper include a biblical basis to support this conclusion?

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