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Topic: The RPW Series

RPW Series (Part 5)

July 31, 2002
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All I Really Need to Know About Worship
…I Don’t Learn from the Regulative Principle (Part 5)

Dear Friends,

Greetings in our Messiah. When I was recently instructed to take the Nassau Expressway to get my Rebeccah to a certification course, I thought, “Where is the Nassau Expressway? It sounds familiar but I just can’t place it.”

It turns out that it was the first road listed on a sign near Kennedy Airport, a sign which I had passed thousands of times. But because I had never needed to take that particular thoroughfare I had never paid any attention to the first line.

Our ability not to see what is right in front of us for want of really looking is a well known fact of experience. In this series on worship we have been attempting to point out that there are a great many things in Scripture which, it seems, regulativists have overlooked, things which negate the proposition that the Regulative Principle of Worship is an adequate principle to govern worship in the New Order ushered in by Christ’s completed work. We have been pleading with those who tenaciously hold to the RPW—if it is not commanded, expressly or by good and necessary consequence, it is forbidden—to consider if they may have missed lines on the sign, lines which would redirect them in their search for the actual will of God on this matter.

We began by expressing our sympathy for the RPW. Like other extreme remedies, it offered a sort of relief. The teetotaler is preferred to the drunk, the prig to the strumpet. But these are not our only choices when we consider all that the Scripture says. Temperate use of alcohol is permitted by God, no matter how much it might be abused by the weak and/or foolish. Adornment is permitted to women regardless of how many brazen trollops give make-up a bad name. The wrong use of a thing does not disprove the propriety of its moderate, fit use.

So also, the Scriptures, taken in sum, simply do not teach that unless God has commanded a thing, it may not be done in worship. The RPW may be an effective shortcut to a desirable sort of worship service, but when it pretends to be God’s own definitive word on the matter it must be reined in. And there is no better way to rein in errant theologies than to look at the whole Word of God. For it seems my regulativist brethren were looking only at the lines on the sign that they thought pertained to them. They ignored, to a greater or lesser degree, the rest. And we have merely been seeking to point out some of “the rest” in this series.

The first thing we did was pull the camera back from their favorite texts. We discovered that their so-called proof texts were consistently isolated from meaning-impacting contexts.

Next we explained how the real RPW governed only centralized Temple worship in the Old Testament and was never the rule—before or after Sinai—for decentralized sacred assemblies. Similarly, in the New Order, it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is strictly regulated, not sacred assemblies.

We demonstrated that regulativists fail to account fairly for an abundance of so-called “man-made” worship elements found in Scripture which God regarded as benign or fine.

And we looked at some of the failures of regulativism which would, if applied consistently, leave the New Order churches songless and with other pitiable maladies.

In short, we sought to measure the Regulative Principle against the standard of God’s Word. It was measured and found wanting. In what might be considered a corroborating proof of our thesis, no cogent, coherent refutation of this evidence has been offered. Of course this does not mean that one could not be offered, but we have not seen it. Instead we have been treated to tomes which tell us how terrible Steve Schlissel is. But we thought that was an incontrovertible fact. Otherwise, we could have proven that proposition to your satisfaction, and proven it sooner, more fully and with abundant examples and illustrations. We just didn’t think that was the issue under discussion.


The issue under discussion has been the Regulative Principle of Worship—if it is not commanded, it is forbidden. And, as we’ve said before, our colleagues on the other side of the aisle seem unable to argue for it without first assuming it and dismissing any and all of the abundant Biblical or historical evidence which goes against it. They are like the trawlermen who, after boasting that their net caught all kinds of fish, were shown several varieties their net had missed. “Oh, those ain’t really fish!,” they replied.

Regulativists 1) assume the RPW in Bible history even when it isn’t found, 2) assume it in the Westminster Confession when it isn’t uniformly applied in the appended Directory of Worship, 3) assume it in the Law when it’s not what the Law says, and 4) assume it in all Reformed churches when it isn’t what all Reformed churches have held. As the famous preacher, Jerry Lee Lewis, once (sort of) said, “There’s a whole lot of assumin’ goin’ on.”

Our first example of this assuming behavior: In our treatment of the question, we considered the glaring fact that there are no commands in the Bible concerning the elements of worship to be employed in the synagogue, an institution recognized by most as providing the organizational foundation of the Christian churches. [1] If, as the regulativists claim, sacred assemblies may do only what God has commanded to be done, and if there are no discernible inscripturated commands telling Israel what they may do in sacred assemblies, then Israel (if RPW-compliant) was permitted, in fact, to do nothing in the synagogues.

Feeling the weight (if not the power) of this argument, regulativists, unable to find inscripturated commands governing the elements of synagogue worship, resort to assumptions. Their response has been uniform: Since we cannot find where God has commanded what was to take place in sacred assemblies, but since the RPW must be true no matter what, therefore God must have told some prophet how to organize the worship in the synagogue.

Now just hold on to their assertion a moment and add to it another. Regulativists have argued that “the regulative principle grows out of the sola scriptura rule of Protestant theology.” Never mind that they run around in a circle here, assuming that the RPW is God’s mind revealed in Scripture on the matter (while it most certainly is not). I wish only to draw your attention to their claim that the RPW and sola scriptura are organically linked.

Those who hold to the Informed Principle of Worship—if it is not commanded, it might be permitted: it depends—account for the synagogue without resorting to sleight of hand. IPW-ists find no command, other than one which requires synagogues, or decentralized sacred assemblies, to exist (Leviticus 23:3). The elements employed therein would and did develop within the bounds of revealed Scriptural principles as understood by the covenant community. No explicit command was required. Sola scriptura stands firm.

But how do regulativists imagine themselves as supporting the doctrine of sola scriptura when they argue that the synagogue elements must have been revealed in some non-inscripturated source? In fact what they very clearly do here is negate the doctrine of “Scripture alone” by making their system dependent upon an uninscripturated word. They postulate a word which was supposedly given to govern the synagogue service, a word we know nothing about, a word that is merely assumed to have been. And clearly the only reason they insist that it must have been given is because, as always, they start out with their principle, not the Bible, as the unchallengeable given and then seek to force the Bible to conform to it. If it’s not in the Bible, they’ll invent an authoritative tradition that surely must have said what they think should have been said in the Bible.

This whole line of reasoning is hauntingly familiar to me. Let me tell you where I’ve heard it: In the Jewish “proofs” for the necessity of the Oral Law. Listen carefully to those a bit more self-conscious in their denial of sola scriptura:

At Exodus 35:3—“You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day”—the Stone Edition of the Torah contains this note: “The Torah can be understood only as it is interpreted by the Oral Law, which God taught to Moses, and which he transmitted to the nation. The Oral Law makes clear that only the creation of a fire and such use of it as cooking and baking are forbidden, but there is no prohibition against enjoying its light and heat.” A shot is then taken at Jews who have suggested that the Bible, as given, is sufficient: “Deviant sects that deny the teaching of the Sages [i.e., the Oral Law—sms] misinterpreted this passage…they sat in spiritual darkness all their lives.”

Meyer Waxman, in The History of Jewish Literature, argues that the traditions of the Scribes as recorded in the Oral Law were not “new additions, but merely an unfolding of the contents of the Law.” He believes, like the regulativists, that the Law itself implicitly requires the positing of an Oral Law. Waxman says,

As an illustration of the insufficiency of the Written Law, if taken literally, and that if it was practiced, it must necessarily have been supplemented…, we will cite [the following example]. The injunction that one who desecrates the Sabbath is [to be] punished by death is repeated several times, but nowhere is there a definition given as to what is meant by the term, work. Only three kinds of labor are specified, kindling of fire (Ex. 35:3), walking beyond a certain limit (Ex. 16:29), and cording or hewing of wood (Numb. 15:32-36). But, it is self-evident that there are hundreds of forms of labor which fall under the term work. How then could the Sabbath be observed without any supplementary instruction as to what constitutes work and what not? Undoubtedly, such instructions and supplements have existed from the very time of the giving of the Law, and they were included in the Mosaic Oral Law.

It seems never to have occurred to those who hold this Jewish view that God’s mind might, indeed and in fact, have been adequately revealed in the very generality of the prohibitions and that He has neither requested nor required such detailed supplementation.


So too, the regulativists. The idea that God had not given inspired, explicit instructions concerning what was to be done in the synagogue is simply unimaginable to them. But while both the orthodox Jews and the regulativists treat the Word of God as insufficient, only the Jews admit it. [2] The regulativists introduce the idea of uninscripturated commands as a deus ex machina. But by so doing, they undermine their own principles while they beg their own questions. And, instead of supporting sola scriptura, they lead us to ask if what we have now might best be regarded as a Vestigial Bible, those former revelations having somehow fallen away.

At this point perhaps we can begin to see how easily regulativism can become yet another body for the spirit of the Pharisees [3] to inhabit. Dr. J. Douma’s analysis of the Sabbath controversy between the Pharisees and our Lord [4] provides to-the-point insight. The Pharisees were dissatisfied with God’s general command forbidding work. Ultimately, the Mishna would provide 39 discrete categories of forbidden labor. This desire for exhaustive control of the covenant people has its mirror in the RPW which (ostensibly) forbids anything not commanded.

“Without a doubt,” says Dr. Douma—whom I will quote freely in this section—“underlying the extensive work of the scribes was a deep-seated respect for the Sabbath.” So also, underlying the intentions of regulativists is a deep-seated respect for the corporate worship of the Triune God. Would that all God’s people would yearn after God-centered, God-glorifying worship! The danger, of course, is when, in the pursuit of a noble end, one displaces or distorts, according to the dictates of man, Scripture’s actual words. As in the case of the RPW, so in the case of the Pharisaical Sabbath, “Not Scripture, but the tradition of the ‘ancients,’ functioned authoritatively.” Here we need to listen carefully to Dr. Douma:

Within a detailed casuistry, it is no longer possible to quiet one’s hunger on the Sabbath by plucking heads of grain in a grain field. For whoever picks a head of grain is busy harvesting [one of the 39 forbidden categories of labor], and whoever rubs that head of grain between his fingers is busy threshing [another forbidden category]. Someone who healed a man on the Sabbath, as Jesus did, was performing work that could have waited until the following day. Someone who picked up his mattress and walked away with it, after he had been healed, was making himself guilty of Sabbath desecration because he was carrying a burden on the Sabbath from one place to another.

So, too, the regulativist sifts through his artificial grid any element of worship for which he can find no authorizing command. “No ‘man-made’ hymns!,” he cries, suggesting that the corporate singing of “All Glory Be to Thee, Most High” is unmitigated effrontery. “No musical instruments!,” he demands, calling their employment in any form indulgent sensuality and carnality. “No this, no that, no the other. God approves only what we say He approves, no matter what He might say to the contrary!”


As Douma noted,

Jesus condemned this casuistry [regarding the Sabbath]. Although it can be dressed in clothes of piety, it can nonetheless be a form of hypocrisy. What people withhold from others (permission to work, for example) they grant to themselves.

As we have seen, regulativists grant to themselves the right to sing in worship when such can be easily controverted on their principles. But beyond that, the RPW, despite its apparent simplicity, is ultimately like the Mishna: arbitrary in what it permits or forbids. For good and necessary consequence is, in the end, a measure which exists mainly in the mind of the beholder.

Even in the vaunted Directory for the Publick Worship of God of the Westminster Assembly—a perfectly lovely order of worship, on our principles—we discover numerous requirements which can claim justification neither by express command nor by necessary consequence. [5] One can account for this anomaly by suggesting that the Westminster Divines did not intend to teach the Regulative Principle, or that they found it inconvenient or impossible to apply. In any case, there is certainly “room” for those who subscribe to the Westminster Standards to challenge the proposition that subscription requires strict adherence to the rule: if it is not commanded to be performed in worship, it is forbidden.

For in the preface to the Directory for Publick Worship, the divines use the language of the Informed Principle, stating that their “care hath been to hold forth such things as are of divine institution in every ordinance; and other things we have endeavoured to set forth according to the rules of Christian prudence, agreeable to the general rules of the word of God.”

Consider what my Presbyterian friend, Chris Coldwell, has to say about the Directory’s authority: “The Directory was approved by ‘Act of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland’… The Government of Scotland approved and established the Directory three days later. Thus the Directory for Worship was actually more widely authorized than the Confession of Faith, or Larger Catechism, which never received the assent of the English Parliament. It represents the approved views regarding worship of not only the Assembly, but of the governments of England and Scotland, as well as the Church of Scotland.” [6]

Fine. Let me cite two areas in the Directory—the first a bit lengthy (dealing with Christian baptism), the second quite brief (dealing with Scripture reading)—where the Westminster divines forsake the standard which requires command (RPW) and embrace the standard of agreement with the general rules of the Word (IPW). Some have recently said that “all Protestants hold to the Regulative Principle.” I disagree. Many, no doubt, hold to it pro forma, but in practice it is another matter. The Directory for Worship suggests that, behind the rhetoric, all Reformed people actually hold to the IPW. Witness:

First, the administration of Christian baptism is saddled in the Directory with requirements neither commanded in Scripture nor the result of good and necessary consequence. We’ll focus on two requirements (man-made impositions?) which we find particularly noteworthy, especially for their being found in the Directory for Worship of the supposedly strictest of the RPW-leaning confessions.

The Directory’s rule is that baptism must be performed by a minister. Yet this does not comport with Scripture. Thus its origin is in man, i.e. in a human tradition. [7] The Old Testament antecedent, circumcision, did not require the rite to be performed by someone specially called. Zipporah’s circumcision of her and Moses’ son was valid. God Himself approved of it and accepted it (Exodus 4:25, 26).

The same unconcern with administrators is true in the New Testament. Kistemaker, commenting on the baptism of Cornelius’s household in Acts 10:48, is unafraid to accept the obvious: “Peter, as the Greek text implies, orders the… Jewish Christians to baptize the Gentile converts.” These Jewish Christians were simply “some of the brothers” (Acts 10:23)—the common term— not “some other ministers.” The apostle apparently regarded these ordinary, male Jewish Christians as covenantally competent to perform the rite of baptism. “The apostles, then, place the emphasis not on themselves but on the name of Jesus.” Barnes agrees, explaining that “it seems not to have been the practice of the apostles themselves to baptize very extensively.” J.A. Alexander is forceful on this point: “It can scarcely be a mere fortuitous coincidence, that Peter, Paul, and Christ himself, should all have left this rite to be administered by others. ‘Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples’ (John 4:2). ‘I thank God that I baptized none of you, save Crispus, etc.’ (1 Cor. 1:14). ‘Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel’ (ib. v. 17).”

Baptisms were performed under the apostles’ supervision, but not necessarily by their hands. Such was obviously good enough for Peter and Paul, but not for the Westminster Assembly.

Perhaps the stalwarts of the faith who composed the Standards really were, in the last analysis, practitioners of the Informed—not the Regulative—Principle of Worship. “If it is not commanded, it might be permitted: It depends!” The idea is plausible.

For the Directory further requires that baptism be performed as part of Christian worship services. It insists that baptism is not “to be administered in private places, or privately, but in the places of publick worship, and in the face of the congregation…” Here, contrary to their alleged principle, they add an element to worship. Where is it commanded in Scripture that baptism is to be performed during a public worship service? Nowhere. Then perhaps we can find examples of such which would constitute “good and necessary consequence”?

Alas, no. In the case of circumcision, the antecedent of Christian baptism, there is not a trace of evidence that God required it to be performed either in the Temple or in the synagogue. And as for baptism itself, in the instances found in the New Testament, none is performed in what we would call or recognize as a worship service.

The three thousand on the Day of Pentecost were baptized in conjunction with, at most, an evangelistic meeting, not a worship service. The same is true of the Samaritans in Acts 8. Saul was not baptized at a worship service but at the house of Judas on Straight Street by Ananias (a “mere” disciple, by the way—Acts 9:10—, not a “minister”). Cornelius’s family was baptized in his house without benefit of it being part of a “worship service.” The Philippian jailer was certainly not baptized in a worship service. Lydia was baptized after hearing the message at a prayer meeting. (Such prayer meetings were substitutes for worship services, Jewish tradition requiring that worship services not be performed with less than ten men.) Crispus (Acts 18:8) was baptized after a worship service.

Baptism tied to evangelistic meetings? Perhaps. Prayer meetings? Maybe. Homes? Sure. Church worship services? No. One might even reasonably conclude from the Scripture’s evidence that one had to be baptized outside the church service in order to gain the right to enter. Yet the Directory forbids baptism from occurring any place except a church service! Hardly very RPW-ish. After all, there was no need for such an “intrusion upon the consciences of God’s people.” There was a ready work-around available.

For just as regulativists believe all Christian children ought to be catechized, yet don’t require (or allow!) that catechizing to be done in worship services, so they could have easily demanded that all Christian children (and other fit candidates) be baptized in public but without adding the requirement that it be done in public worship. In fact, on their principle they ought to forbid that it be brought into a worship service since it is lacking in Divine command. [8] Most regulativists allow hymn-singing and instruments in private worship, [9] excluding them from corporate worship only because these elements, they say, are not commanded to be enjoyed therein. They should do the same with baptism, if they believed their principle. Now in my mind’s ear I can hear my regulativist brothers groaning, “That’s ridiculous!” Why is it any more ridiculous to exclude baptism than to exclude hymns if the basis for inclusion is express warrant or approved example?

Already we can begin to see that, while many at that great Assembly may well have held in principle to the RPW, in practice they—like a very great number of Reformed churches since the Reformation—were clearly governed by the covenantal freedom expressed in the Informed Principle of Worship. [10] Perhaps it’s time to let the cat out of the bag: there are no “strict regulativists” in practice. And the 57 varieties of those who claim to be such only prove that it is, at bottom, a subjective principle.


Second, the Directory dictates, “It is requisite [required, necessary, indispensable—sms] that all the canonical books be read over and in order…and, ordinarily, where the reading in either Testament endeth on one Lord’s day, it is to begin the next.” No one should deny that this, like baptizing during worship, is a fine practice—if a church so chooses it. But where in Scripture has God commanded this? From what might this “requirement” be deduced as necessary? How does this differ from the use of, say, Scripture songs (non-Psalms) being made requisite in worship, a practice condemned by “strict” RPW-ites?

The sons of Westminster who insist on a strict RPW must be forced to admit that such a strict principle was not in their foundational documents taken as a whole. The Directory, after all, required that the main prayer occur before the sermon, a requirement for which there can be found no command in Scripture.

But it seems that even strict regulativists allow to themselves what they deny to others: freedom to employ covenantal good sense. As Douma said, “And what else can you expect? Legalism always lives in tension with the normal development of life and sooner or later will shipwreck on the realistic and wholesome demands of practicality.”

What the Pharisees did to the Sabbath, regulativists often do to worship. “The attitude [of the Pharisees] robbed the Sabbath of its characteristic gratitude for liberation. Gratitude had to make way for precisionist obedience, freedom was replaced with a new bondage.” If you have any doubt how accommodating the RPW-flesh is to the Pharisee-spirit, it will be dispelled when you read its most consistent advocates.


Several regulativist brethren have sought to teach me that the critical point in this debate is the Second Commandment. “The Second Commandment,” they claim, “is where the Regulative Principle is not only taught, but carved in stone as an eternal rule for the worship of the church.”

Okay. Let’s look at the Second Commandment. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”

Where is the RPW here? I do not see it. The commandment forbids making images. It seems to me that discovering the RPW here is at best a bit ticklish. First, the RPW claims to govern corporate worship. Would the regulativist suggest that this command’s scope is limited to corporate worship, that it is okay to make idols for use outside of corporate worship? Of course not.

But would the regulativist then ask that this command be applied exhaustively so as to exclude the making of any image whatsoever for use in any area of life? Would the regulativist suggest that all sculpture, all painting, all photography, all image-containing adornment, is excluded by this command? Of course not. God Himself commanded various “images” and representations to be made, even for use in Tabernacle/Temple worship! (Ex.26:1;28:33;37:7ff; etc.)

In the first case the regulativist concedes that the command is not limited to corporate worship. In the second, he concedes that it does not absolutely prohibit images. Sounds IPW-ish so far. How then does this command support the Regulative Principle of Worship? Perhaps he is thinking of the exposition of the Second Commandment in the Heidelberg Catechism? There we read:

Q 96. What does God require in the second Commandment? A 96. That we in no way make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.

So far so good. The question then becomes, “Just how has God commanded in His Word that He be worshipped?” I answer, “He has forbidden certain things, as this commandment, among other texts, proves. He has also commanded that He be approached only through His own provided atonement. He has also given us many principles which serve as borders within which we may freely employ faithful, covenantal sense, taking into consideration always the general rules of the Word.” That is how He has commanded that He be worshipped.

The regulativist, however, answers by saying, “God’s will is that if He has not commanded a thing, it is forbidden.” But where does he find that in the Second Commandment? He does not. He has obviously first assumed it and then imposed it.

In fact, what the Second Command does—and this might be a shock to some—is to forbid idolatry and the use of images as representations of God or as objects of worship. Most humble readers of the Bible would conclude this without help.

Indeed, this simple truth has not been lost in our Reformed tradition. Dr. Nelson Kloosterman has brought to my attention “G. Voetius’ two-volume treatment (compendium, really) on the Heidelberg Catechism. In his five-page question-and-answer exposition of Heidelberg #96, Voetius nowhere discusses ‘the RPW,’ but rather focuses on why and for what purpose God forbade images of Himself as worship aids. In Voetius, we find page after page about the idolatry of Papists, Jews, and Mohammedans, page after page about the superstitious ceremonies and rituals of Romanists, but no exposition about ‘what is not commanded is forbidden.’ (You'll notice the same lacuna with regard to ‘the RPW’ in Herman Hoeksema's Triple Knowledge.)”

I might add that you’ll find it, too, in Dr. Douma’s treatment of the Second Commandment, and, indeed, in most places where the RPW has not first been assumed.


Moreover, the regulativist has not generally proven Himself faithful to the flip-side of his principle. Many examples could be given, but let’s be brief. If God forbids in worship all that He has not commanded, may we not rightly assume, following regulativist-style reasoning, that He requires in worship all He has commanded? If it is God’s will that only Psalms be used in worship, does He require that we sing all the Psalms? If so, during what period of time should they be completed? Once in every service? Month? Year? Never?

This is not as ridiculous a question as one might suppose. Many Jews, for example, do indeed typically recite the entire Psalter (very often performed by heart, I might add) at least once, and in some cases thirteen or more times, in any given year. It seems that the Jews, by this practice, trump the regulativists who well may sing only Psalms but not all the Psalms, at least not each year.

And what about men being commanded to “lift up holy hands” in prayer? This, of course, they reduce to a “circumstance” that does not have to be obeyed. And what about greeting one another with a holy kiss? Here we find a command issued four times over to the churches of Christ. Greet one another with a holy kiss. Greet one another with a holy kiss. Greet one another with a holy kiss. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. (Romans 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26.) Do regulativists obey it? Their principle becomes very flexible when it causes them social discomfort, it seems. Or else their principle is extremely arbitrary, wouldn’t you say? Meticulously excluding what they can’t find commanded, while excluding much that is commanded.

And we haven’t even mentioned the explicit command not to forbid speaking in tongues. I’ve yet to hear tongues employed in an RPW church (a fact which should move us all to rejoice). [11] No, the RPW is profoundly inadequate if advanced as the rule to govern worship in the churches. The point is they want to invert the Second Commandment (saying it forbids what is not commanded when all it says is that what is forbidden may not be done) but they won’t flip their own principle (by saying that what is commanded must be done).

Allow me just one more flip-flop illustration, please. In Answer 99 (part 4) of the Westminster Larger Catechism, we read as a rule for interpreting the commandments, “where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded.” Now let’s apply that to the Second Commandment. We are forbidden to bow down to idols. Is it not then commanded that we do bow down to the Lord? But regulativists do not bow down in their worship services. I remind you that such an omission is perfectly acceptable if we are governed by the IPW, but I cannot understand its absence in RPW churches. What is the excuse? That the architecture and layout of the churches make it inconvenient? Then change the architecture. Islamic worship, you surely know, requires bowing down and their worship centers are built to accommodate their practice. RPW advocates should do the same. Is it just a circumstance of worship, a (convenient) category which provides latitude in compliance? Then why not do the same for instruments or hymns? Where is the list in Scripture which tells us which things are flexible “circumstances” and which are fixed “elements”? The word “humbug” comes to mind.

Thus, when we peek inside RPW churches we see therein not only the supposed exclusion of things not commanded, we find the actual exclusion of things certainly commanded.

I trust you are able to see just how impossible it is to accept the proposition that the Regulative Principle of Worship—if it is not commanded, explicitly or by good and necessary consequence, it is forbidden in worship—is an adequate rule reflecting Scripture’s actual teaching. And understand this, I beg you: If the RPW is presented as anything but a stand-alone, fully adequate rule, it is not the RPW you are looking at. For once a man says there are other considerations besides what is stated in the RPW, he has embraced the IPW: If it is not commanded, it might be permitted. It depends. (See 1 Cor. 10:23.)

This is an important point because many, legion, are they who want to continue using the title “regulativist,” but who, in fact, do not believe the Regulative Principle as historically received. Such posturing is not helpful. Well could Rev. John van Popta (of the Canadian Reformed Churches) complain to a “strict” regulativist:

What do you understand to be the practical working out of “what is not commanded is forbidden”? What has been commanded? Is silent prayer in the worship service commanded? If not, is it forbidden? May there be a call to worship? Is the votum commanded? The salutation? The blessing? Or are these only because of good and proper inference? The (infamous) handshake (of many Reformed churches), has it been commanded? And if not should I tell my elders that we must cease and desist forthwith for we are engaged in self-styled worship? Are liturgical forms for baptism, and the Lord's Supper commanded? Should office-bearers be ordained in a worship service? Where are the commands for this? The list could go on. I think that the RPW “strictly applied” is a wraith and a phantom that has no reality in history.


Speaking of history, let’s move on to it. For the regulativist has imposed his RPW assumption not only on the Bible’s history, not only on the Westminster Assembly’s actual teaching, not only on the Second Commandment, but he’s also sought to impose it on Continental Reformed churches. We now hear the rather audacious assertion that no one can honestly call himself “Reformed” unless he subscribes to the RPW. With the stroke of a pen a vast segment of the Reformed world is simply removed from the roster. It seems that some regulativists not only cannot abide Scripture’s testimony against their tradition, they feel compelled to revise history, too.

Now before we proceed with a discussion of this point, let us reiterate that we do not wish to dispute that this or that Reformer, or even a majority, may have personally adhered to the RPW like wet on water. (We do not regard as blasphemy the proposition that Calvin or others were wrong on points.) So let us grant for the sake of argument that the hymn-writing Calvin was really a regulativist. Fine. What we do dispute is the assumption that all ministers and churches in the Reformed tradition have regarded the RPW as an essential component of our Reformed confession.

For we have recently heard the charge that a minister who signs a subscription to the Three Forms of Unity (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt) cannot retain his integrity as an oath-keeper if he rejects the Regulative Principle of Worship. Such a charge—that one cannot legitimately claim to be Reformed unless one holds to the RPW—viewed against Continental (and other) Reformed history, leaves one breathless. We are led to wonder if the advocates of the RPW can honor any limits in controlling their urge to assume what they ought to prove.

In an effort to keep this brief (Heidelberg #96 has already been discussed) I will hunt and peck for evidence to demonstrate that the above allegation is not merely untrue, it is unbecoming. Let’s begin with the man who supervised the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism. Frederick III was, “to the end of his life, the great supporter by both troops and money of the Reformed church in both France and the Netherlands.” [12] But was he a regulativist?

Not according to the yardstick employed by some sons of Westminster. Rev. Robert Davis, a Reformed (RCUS) minister, has shown that “when Frederick III came to power the need for a German Reformed Hymnal was a high priority after the Catechism and Directory of Worship was printed in 1563. Work on the hymnal was begun in 1565 and by 1567 the first Palatinate hymnal was in circulation….The musical section of the hymnal is separated into three divisions: Psalter, Canticles, and Hymns. This German Reformed Hymnal had 44 Psalms and 66 Hymns. The sources for the canticle and hymnal sections are as follows: 21 are from Martin Luther, 21 are from other Lutheran authors, 11 stem from Reformed circles, 6 from the Bohemian Brethren, 3 from Bonn, 2 are pre-reformation and 2 unique to the Palatinate itself.”

So much for exclusive Psalmody being a condition of Reformed-ness. As van Popta has written, “A careful reading of [the] data demonstrates that throughout history the Reformed Churches had a thread that allowed for hymns. One might dispute the validity of hymn singing, but one cannot dispute that the Reformed churches have sung hymns in church for centuries.”


But there is much more. The Second Helvetic Confession “was adopted, or at least highly approved by nearly all the Reformed Churches on the Continent and in England and Scotland.” [13] Its author, the esteemed Henry Bullinger, exerted “a commanding influence throughout the Reformed Church,” second only to Calvin. He was “in friendly correspondence with Calvin, Bucer, Melanchton, Laski, Beza, Cranmer, Hooper, Lady Jane Grey, and the leading Protestant divines and dignitaries of England.”

“As to theological merit, [the Second Helvetic] occupies the first rank among the Reformed Confessions.”

Have you ever read it? It’s marvelous! Here is an excerpt from Chapter XXIV. Reading it will make it plain that the Reformers were by no means of one mind concerning “special days,” and hence, they were not of one mind concerning the RPW. Thus it is spurious to make the RPW a determinative factor in deciding who may be called Reformed. Listen to how balanced the Reformed faith is:

If in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord's nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. But we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.

No man in his right mind could have written this while believing, “If it is not commanded, it is forbidden.” Yet, next to the Heidelberg, the Helvetic “is the most widely adopted, and hence the most authoritative of all the Continental Reformed symbols” (Schaff; italics added). It is most interesting that the religious celebration of Christmas, etc., is justified with an appeal to the First Table, home of the Second Commandment! Moreover, the church is seen as exercising its “Christian liberty” in choosing to celebrate such events, whereas regulativists claim they are guarding Christian liberty by forbidding such celebrations. Hmmm.

Bullinger picks up the theme of liberty again in Chapter XXVII: If different rites are found in churches, no one should think for this reason the churches disagree. Socrates [not the Greek philosopher; the church historian, surnamed Scholasticus, 380-405] says: “It would be impossible to put together in writing all the rites of churches throughout cities and countries. No religion observes the same rites, even though it embraces the same doctrine concerning them. For those who are of the same faith disagree among themselves about rites” (Hist. ecclesiast. V.22, 30, 62). This much says Socrates. And we, today, having in our churches different rites in the celebration of the Lord's Supper and in some other things, nevertheless do not disagree in doctrine and faith; nor is the unity and fellowship of our churches thereby rent asunder. For the churches have always used their liberty in such rites, as being things indifferent. We also do the same thing today.

Well, not all of us. Please pay careful attention. Chris Coldwell brings to our attention a very different spirit which emerged 80 years later and continues to today. “The appendix to the [Westminster] Directory [of Publick Worship] is entitled, ‘An Appendix, Touching Days and Places for Publick Worship.’ The key clause of interest to this study is, ‘Festival days, vulgarly [commonly] called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.’ The Directory is explicitly against the observance of set ‘holy days,’ and in light of the wide adoption of the document noted above, it is clear that this rejection was endorsed by the governments and churches of England and Scotland.”

It seems fair to conclude that some sons of Westminster began to use the RPW like a blanket. They smothered the spirit of liberty which had characterized the earlier Reformed faith, the very liberty articulated by Bullinger and widely embraced in subscription to “the most authoritative of the Continental Reformed” creeds. Their blanket—woven from unproved assumptions—is now routinely tossed by regulativists upon everything that stands against their theory, from the Bible to history. It’s time to pull the covers.

Rev. John Barach (United Reformed Churches of North America) is among several of my friends who has called my attention to significant insights from church historian, Hughes Oliphant Old. The following is especially pertinent, demonstrating as it does that the RPW was by no means uniformly held by Reformers.

We take it as a basic principle of our inquiry, then, that it is to Scripture, first of all, that we must go when we would try to find an answer to our questions about the meaning of worship. That our worship should be according to Scripture is obviously one of the principles that we have inherited from the Protestant Reformation. Early in the Reformation it was expressed by Martin Bucer in his Grund und Ursach. It was developed with particular clarity by John Oecolampadius, who distinguished the principle from a naive biblicism. There had been those who felt that worship was biblical as long as nothing was done that was expressly forbidden in Scripture. On the other hand, there were those who insisted that for worship to be biblical, only that could be done which was commanded in Scripture. As Oecolampadius saw it, neither of these approaches is satisfactory. He developed the principle that our worship should be “according to Scripture.” To be sure, we do not find a ready-made liturgy in the Bible, but we do find many teachings about worship. In the sacred pages we find all kinds of examples of worship that was genuine, true, and spiritual. We discover general principles for doing things “decently and in order” that we should follow in our worship. That our worship should be according to Scripture is a sound principle. [14]

So much for the notion that the Informed Principle of Worship is a novelty emanating from some Jewish fiction writer in Brooklyn. This is an approach that goes right back to the center of the Reformation, and I mean the center: It rejects both extremes.

It is an indisputable fact of history: the churches which have employed the Three Forms of Unity as summary statements of their Biblical convictions have not heard them say what regulativists force them to say. The books in which the Three Forms of Unity were bound were Psalter-Hymnals. The Church Order to which subscribers were bound included the requirement that “Worship services shall be held in observance of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost, and ordinarily on Old and New Year’s Day…” The men who adopted these Confessional statements and the church order were not schizophrenic, and neither are their sons. They knew very well that there are no commands to worship on the days indicated. Nor is there a command to worship twice on the Lord’s Day. Yet they felt, and continue to feel, no contradiction between these practices and sincere subscription to the Three Forms.


The problem is not a Reformed one. To be perfectly frank, it is a Presbyterian one. Not all Presbyterians are guilty, to be sure, just as not all Reformed are innocent. But the RPW is held as a given far more commonly among Presbyterians. And it is often joined to the conviction that all the wide world must be compelled to conform to this odd and extra-biblical principle. It stands against Christian liberty just as other oddities of a like fundamentalism do: no long hair for men, no short hair for women, no pants for women, no kilts for men, no smoking, no drinking, no movies, and so on. I’ve already written that there are many good reasons that will lead sincere worshippers toward a worship style that very much resembles regulative worship. But these reasons must be advanced along a path paved with wisdom. Wisdom has fallen on hard times. Like Dylan said, “We live in a political world. Wisdom is thrown into jail. It rots in a cell, discarded as hell, leavin’ no one to pick up the trail.” We should be able to commend Reformed worship to people without relying upon unproved assumptions, legalisms and impositions. A colleague in Virginia characterized the RPW as “Presbytyranny.” Too often this is true. For regulativists sometimes blithely eschew the sound reasoning that might persuade people of whatever wisdom there may be in the practices or convictions they advocate. Instead they try to impose them upon God’s people.

Some have objected to this characterization. One friend from the OPC has recorded, “I am constrained to point out that this is a serious misrepresentation! I do not know, and I have not even heard, of anyone who has ever been ‘forced’ to accept the RPW.” Allow me to enlighten my brother. Space limits me to two examples. [15] We could start a “Recovering Regulativists Anonymous” movement.

Dear Rev. Schlissel, I am writing to tell you how much I have been blessed and helped by your series on worship. Three years ago our new, struggling, [denomination-named-here] church plant was literally torn in two by the first pastor we called. A few months into the call it became evident that he was a minimalist. He became very contentious over things such as offertory music and preludes as we gathered for worship. Finally he revealed that he was an exclusive Psalmist. That was pretty unheard of “around these parts.” Needless-to-say, we got a crash course in “Reformed” worship. He became an authority on the evil motives of anyone's worship that did not agree with his. It was a horrible ordeal that scattered the small flock we had labored for 2½ years to gather.

Notwithstanding the dreadful introduction the above-quoted correspondent had to RPW-style worship, this child of God could still write to me: “In spite of that experience I am very convicted that I need to learn to sing the Psalms. Which Psalter would you recommend for a neophyte like myself? Are there any good tapes to help one learn to sing the Psalms?” This person became “convicted” of the need to sing Psalms from hearing a series on the Informed Principle of Worship.

In another incident, in another state, a “recovering regulativist” could write to a colleague:

Dear Pastor, Thank you for forwarding the email on the RPW. It is more familiar than you know. We were just talking about this last night. The three of us and one of [Name’s] friends were singing some chorus songs and reflected on it afterwards. We found that there was still a feeling of guilt; a sense that we could not sing some of these songs from the heart or with a pure conscience. Things such as private and public worship regulations were swimming around in our heads. Old sermons preached on the importance of exclusive psalmody in the worship service popped back into our memory. One of us said “[unnamed pastor] was so intelligent I couldn't even question him.” We couldn't even question his conclusions. He used scripture like the good exegete that he was! It was so difficult to fight back even though deep down I knew there was something wrong.

Good friends around me began to embrace this doctrine; they were dropping like flies. I also had my moment of embrace but I soon saw the fruit of this doctrine. My questions and rebuttals would be thrust back into my face with the arrogant comments, “Don't you see?! You are in direct rebellion against the teaching of the Bible.” This was a painful arrow that was thrust through my chest into the fabric of my being. The worst part of it was that this arrow was shot at me from someone on the same side of the battle field as me, a friend. I was then shot through the back with an arrow named heretic and left for dead.

It still affects us today even after we left that church. The archers behind the arrows have been forgiven and we strive for relative peace, but our hearts have been bruised and our worship has become sour. [Name, Name] and I have difficulty gathering as believers to sing praise songs to God in fear of his displeasure. We are in a period of recovery now, and we must seek the Lord for our repair. Despite all of this, glory to God for his continual loving kindness. He sheds his mercy upon us always through these difficult times. Glory to God in the highest for his hand of salvation has rescued us from death and given us life. We now forge forward with scars that will remind us of the past; but our future is bright as we wait upon the Lord and his coming glory.


There is a very big difference between the regulativists and the Continental Reformed in their respective approaches to many things, worship being just one. It is the covenantal character of the Reformed that Presbyterians have sometimes been unable to understand and rarely have been able to emulate. (Speaking as a re-engrafted son, it's hard enough keeping it alive among ourselves!) This difference in “approach” is discovered in the character of the Westminster Shorter Catechism compared to the Heidelberg. We might put it this way: In the Shorter Catechism we hear someone tell us what a Christian ought to believe. In the Heidelberg we hear the Christian who believes it. In the Shorter, the Word comes from outside. In the Heidelberg, it only comes to us after it has been absorbed by a transformed child of God. As such, our catechism is militantly anti-abstractionist whereas the Westminster Standards, for all their magnificence, have come to us in a form which allows, invites or even encourages abstractionist theology.

This is a difference of note (and I’ll expound on it in the future if you ask me to). It helps explain why it is difficult for a Regulated Presbyterian to hear what is being said on this issue. It helps explain why our Confessions (particularly our catechism), while expressing the same truths as West­minster, express them in such a vitally different manner.

The Regulative Principle of Worship—and I refer to it here as it is understood and pressed by its “strict” adherents—is expressive of what might be a fundamentally different way of looking at the Law, the Bible, the Confessions and, in a very real way, expressive of a different way of looking at God. When the RPW (in the strict sense) becomes a core holding, a different character comes to inhabit the church. And that character is not compatible with the rich covenantal legacy as it has come down to us and as is presently enjoyed in some of our Reformed churches.

I may be wrong in this view, but I am not alone in it. One correspondent from the Protestant Reformed Churches wrote to me: Your observation about the Continental vs. Presbyterian view of things struck a deep chord in me. I have recently come to the conviction that there is a barrier between the two views. The Presbyterians view things more in a legalistic construct, whereas the Continental (Reformed) have greater liberty: not contrary to the law, but within the framework of the law. I think what you said about ‘covenant’ is absolutely right, except I think when a Presbyterian thinks of that word he thinks about contracts with stipulations, etc. I do not believe that the Westminster Assembly represents the ‘high water mark’ of the Reformed Faith.

Neither do I.

Let me review what I’ve tried to prove. 1) The regulativists never establish from Scripture—because they cannot—that their principle is taught therein. Instead, they assume it and bring it to the Bible. 2) They’ve been so busy assuming the RPW that they failed to detect the IPW stealthily alive and there in the Westminster Standards. 3) Regulativists refuse to deal fairly with the Second Commandment. The only reason they find it there is because they put it there. God certainly didn’t. 4) Some regulativists go so far as to seek to impose their principle on the entire Reformed world, denying the name “Reformed” to anyone who dissents from their unbiblical view. This is assumption run amok. And it’s got to stop.

Some have tried to stop the controversy by redefinition. While we much appreciate the spirit of a peacemaker, peace cannot be found if the truth is veneered. By asserting that “all Protestants are regulativists,” those attempting to be consistent regulativists rightly get their ire fired up. Any truly staunch regulativist knows what his principle is and he wants to press it to the bone. He doesn’t take kindly to people claiming his initials while functionally denying what those letters have stood for. Dylan again: “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.” The Reformed churches have never had one mind on this matter.

But as we pursue a common mind let us not fall into the trap of Reformed primitivism, an affliction wherein the Reformation period—or a slice of it—is made the best, the last, the only word in what God wills for His church. 1563 was not the best, nor was 1618-19 nor 1645. The best is yet to come.

One of the great regulativists has written that it is obvious “that the visible unity of the Apostolic Church was not grounded in uniformity in organization, forms of worship, or even details of faith.” [16] We all have much to learn, we all have a long way to go. Let’s continue to discuss these issues vigorously, lovingly and honestly.

I had hoped to conclude our present subject with this issue. Alas, one more is needed. Next time I hope to restrict myself to explaining some of the other principles employed by the Informed Principle of Worship. If you are interested in the polemical side, we’ll likely be confining it to our website. [17]

If you are interested in supporting us, we beseech you to do so now. We have been awarded a matching grant. Messiah’s Ministries gets $25,000 if you (plural!) give $25,000 by June 30. That’s mighty good news. We are near the $7,000 level as of this writing. That’s mediocre good news. Help push us over the top, por favor. See the enclosed card for details.

The Lord bless you and watch over you and your family. May He use you to bring glory and honor to Himself and to His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Yours and His,

P.S. We preached a sermon against “body modification” that many have found useful. If you’d like a copy, request “Slaves of Fashion” when you send your next donation.

[1] Some have suggested that what the synagogue did/ offered was not properly called “worship” at all, thus thrusting us back to the Temple as our only legitimate model for “worship.” I would ask those entertaining such a notion: Is your church ruled by priests or by elders? Are these assisted by Levites or by deacons? Is the order of service built around recurring sacrifices and ceremonial washings or around the reading/ preaching / hearing of the Word of God? Is there an altar or a pulpit? Is there an area into which no one ordinarily may enter? Is there a separate section for women? A separate section for those outside the covenant? What’s that you say? You have elder-supervised, deacon-aided, Word-centered, family-oriented and inviting worship? Well, welcome to synagogue “worship”— or whatever you care to call it. For in the last analysis, suggesting that the synagogue and Reformed church services are not “worship” leads to little more than word-wrangling. On that, see 2 Timothy 2:14. It is also worth noting that Scripture reading itself was not part of the Temple service at all before the Babylonian Period, and is not commanded to be an element of Temple service in Scripture, as far as I know. Note further that prayer was, at best, a very minor part of the Temple service, and what was commanded was given in the form of rote, liturgical—not spontaneous—prayer. The Temple doesn’t really help in the quest for a stand-alone Biblical worship model for the church.

[2] One difference: the regulativists invent these missing texts only here and only to escape this one dilemma. Another difference: the Jews claim to be able to show us the “texts” as (now written) Oral Law. Regulativists make no such claim.

[3] Let me quickly add two notes. a) The Pharisees were by no means all bad, and b) I am not merely hurling epithets here but rather seeking to make a valid comparison. I hope this will become evident.

[4] In his The Ten Commandments: A Manual for the Christian Life (Translated by Dr. Nelson Kloosterman). A must-own volume, available from Westminster Discount Books, 914-472-2237.

[5] Since we have seen our views (no doubt inadvertently) misrepresented before, let us be careful to say here that we hold the Westminster Standards in very high esteem. We have taught the Shorter Catechism to our children and the Confession of Faith to adults in our various ministries. We do not, however, receive them as perfect. Nor do we judge them to be as excellent as the Three Forms of Unity. The latter we regard to be superior in approach and style, if not in content (at certain points). We luxuriate, though, in being blessed to have access and recourse to both sets of documents. In a few instances, if truth be told, the Westminster Standards do seem to attempt to say more than they should. One place this overstepping is evident is in their pleading the RPW in the Confession. When they go on to employ the IPW in the Directory, their border violation becomes evident.

[6] Chris Coldwell, The Religious Observance of Christmas and Holy-days in American Presbyterianism, The Blue Banner, 8, 2, (September/October 1999), page 1. [article on-line]; available from:

[7] Remember that the IPW allows for certain human traditions if they are in agreement with the general rules of the Word.

[8] For the record, the Informed Principle of Worship offers no objection to ministers performing baptisms in regular worship services.

[9] Some will not. When I asked this question on a forum I received this reply: “Yes, I do believe that a strict regulativist believes that the same rules apply to corporate, family and private worship. Therefore I do only sing Psalms in corporate and family and private worship without instruments.” Those who hold this view must regard Hannah (Hannah’s Song) and Mary (the Magnificat) as sinful will-worshippers. Interesting.

[10] I ought to mention that I preferred calling it The Reformed Principle of Worship, but passed on it for two reasons. One, while the IPW certainly is indicative of the principle employed by many Reformed, as opposed to Presbyterian, churches, it would plainly be untrue to say that the IPW is identical to the Reformed philosophy of worship. There is more than one Reformed version of worship, in my judgment. I have no wish to even breathe the suggestion that my brothers who disagree with me are not Reformed. Second, the initials would be the same, making shorthand difficult.

[11] Of course there are good theological/historical reasons to exclude tongues. But the use of such reasoning comports well with the Informed Principle, not the RPW. For RPW-ites reject good theological/historical reasons to sing non-Psalms, citing only the alleged absence of a command for justification. With each instance of arbitrariness, their principle can be seen to decrease in value.

[12] The Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church by Elgin S. Moyer.

[13] Quotes in this and the next paragraph are from Schaff’s The Creeds of Christendom.

[14] Hughes Oliphant Old, Themes and Variations for a Christian Doxology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), p. 10. Old adds, “For a detailed study of how Oecolampadius developed the principle of ‘reformed according to Scripture,’ see my study, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992), pp. 119ff.”

[15] Regulativists don’t seek to impose their will on God's beloved people? Then what is it called when they tell them that God hates their worship (which conforms not to their RPW), when they tell people that God abominates their remembrance of Christ's birth in corporate worship on a designated day, that our covenant God is so offended by the singing of man-made hymns such as Abide With Me that He regards it as being on the same moral level as child sacrifice?

[16] B.B. Warfield in True Church Unity: What It Is. Reprinted as a booklet and available from Messiah’s Ministries.

[17] It has been pointed out that our website provides links to both RPW and IPW positions. The websites advancing the RPW have not done the same—perhaps because they were not commanded to do so? Well, that’s liberty! May it live long!

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