The Article Archives
Topic: The RPW Series
RPW Series (Part 1)
July 30, 2002
All I Really Need to Know About Worship
…I Don’t Learn from the Regulative Principle (Part 1)
Greetings in our Messiah. In surveying just how one the Old and New Testaments are, we haven’t ignored the fact that there are differences in the administration of the covenant. When we insist that the fundamental difference has to do with the inpouring of the Gentiles on an equal footing with the Jews, we are not suggesting that this new Gentile presence in the covenant is the only difference. We do suggest, however, that the other differences may be traced to, or are related to, that one.
Take the difference in worship forms. The uniqueness of what one might call the Sinai approach to God was in the sacrificial system. At least three of its features were unique to the period from Moses to Christ:
It was strictly regulated in terms of place (before Sinai it was not so circumscribed: Deut 12:8-11)
It was strictly regulated in terms of people: its human priestly administration was through the Aaronic/Levitical order exclusively (2 Chron 26:16-20, etc.)
It was strictly regulated in particulars (e.g., Ex 30:37, 38; cf. also Heb 8:5, etc.)
When Christ completed His earthly work, the Sinai approach–which had derived its meaning, value and power from Him– was taken up to heaven in Him (cf. the Book of Hebrews). The sacrifices, the Temple, the priesthood, the calendar– these were pre-incarnational revelations of the Christ. Now that He has come and accomplished the realities of these things on earth– and in the heavens– the church organizes its worship around a sacrifice already accomplished, not one to come, and not one happening each day. Christ’s work is sufficient, once for all.
Christian worship, in light of Christ’s accomplishments, has a different character from Temple worship. It will not continue to foresignify His work. With Christ’s life and work occupying our minds, Christians see Zion, Jerusalem, the Temple and the Priest now established in heaven. Therefore every place on earth can be equally holy because all places are equally near to Christ (though Brooklyn does seem a little bit closer to heaven than most places). With the blood system realized in our Messiah, we draw near to God through His blood, not the blood of bulls and goats offered by human priests. Therefore the remaining earthly offices are ministerial rather than sacerdotal.
Thus we see obvious administrative changes in the New Order resulting from Christ’s work. Compare the New with the first two characteristics that distinguished the Sinai approach: the sanctioned, authorized drawing near to God for atonement, service and fellowship does not involve a special earthly location (cf. Westminster Confession, XXI, 6), nor does it employ an earthly priest (Heb 4:15-16). But what about severe regulation? Is punctiliousness of form in worship going to characterize the New administration?
We Reformed effortlessly detect error when a particular place is elevated, such as Rome or Canterbury. We easily see the error when these same streams of Christendom manufacture chimerical priesthoods and make-believe flesh and blood offerings. But I fear we may be missing error in our own house, the error of those seeking to preserve and enforce the third Sinai distinction.
Rome and her stepchildren want holy places and holy orders. Those who subscribe to the so-called Regulative Principle of Worship unwittingly commit a similar error of motif when they insist upon holy details. Who would’ve thought that the very principle designed to distance us from Rome would actually link us! But all extreme positions kiss, you know.
Each of these errors is covenantally anachronistic. Since we all agree that the errors of the Romish party are, well– errors, I will, in this letter, begin a critique of the regulativists, the party at the other end of the spectrum.
We humans incline toward extremes. Think of the pendulum phenomenon. We see it stuck on one side. Then, using great force to dislodge it, we pass the via media and find ourselves stuck in the other corner.
Some Christian groups, for example, deal with 1 Tim 2:9
…in like manner also, that the women (must) adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing…
by saying, There you have it. No braids, no gold jewelry, no pearls, no Nordstrom. And if that wasn’t clear enough, 1 Pet 3:3 says it again: Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Well, isn’t it plain that women must be plain? They should wear no makeup whatsoever, should not coif their hair and certainly should not wear gold jewelry, pearls or beautiful clothing.
Similarly, there are Christian groups which, recognizing the dangers of alcohol and knowing that drunkards shall not inherit the Kingdom, put forth what to them is the simplest possible solution: Christians may not drink alcoholic beverages. Period.
Again– though appearing less often in history– there have been groups which, seeing the frequent Scriptural warnings against sexual immorality, insist that celibacy is requisite, and that not merely for clergy but for all members. (Funny that one such group was named the Shakers when they weren’t even allowed to shake. I think there might be one Shaker left. All that sublimating, though, got routed into great furniture!)
Now, I would say that in these cases, the radical solution is definitely to be preferred to the radical problem: better to have plain Christian women than hussies; better to drink a pack of nothing than to be a pack of drunks; better to be celibate than sexually profligate. But no careful student of Scripture would be satisfied to let things lie at either of these two extremes.
Why then do we accept the same sort of ultimatum from advocates of the Regulative Principle of Worship? It is either/or, they say. Either Rome’s rule of worship or their rule of worship? The contrast is plain, says one of the RPW’s leading modern defenders (an OPC minister and a personal and beloved friend, by the way). The one says– What is not forbidden is permitted; the other says– What is not commanded is forbidden.
Consider: In the above cases we all can see a third way. In the first case: We know that God created woman an adorner by nature. He bids her in the above passages to keep that instinct under control. Moreover, she can beautify herself better through moderation while focusing on the development of a gorgeous character. God is not against female adornment! When Abraham’s servant gave Rebeccah gold and silver jewelry (Gen 24:53), they weren’t given her to put in a display case. And everywhere in Scripture we read of the normativity of a bride adorning herself for her husband.
In the second case, when we read God’s instructions to the Israelites to spend a portion of a certain tithe on any kind of liquor they wanted (Deut 14:26), when we read of God being praised for wine that makes me merry, when we read of Jesus providing huge vats of vintage Merlot for the celebrants at a feast, then we know that the radical solution has missed something.
In the third case, well, it’s pretty clear that sex within marriage is not only okay, it’s right on– a very wonderful norm from our great and bounteous God!
In all cases we know that both positions– the stated problem (hussies/winos/Don Juans) and the offered solution (ugly women/prohibition/abstinence)– are radical impositions upon the people of God. Yet many seem to miss this dynamic (a radical unbiblical solution offered to a radical problem) when it comes to the Regulative Principle of Worship. Are the radical problem and the radical solution really our only choices, or is this just another instance of the pendulum phenomenon?
Now remember, we have asserted that in all cases the radical solution is to be preferred to the original problem. But why not admit that each of the proposed solutions pulls up short of offering to us a sound distillation of the Scripture’s entire teaching on any of the subjects? The answer to the anti-music of Rap is not silence, however much silence is to be preferred to the problem! There are other solutions!
At the time of the Reformation, the nausea induced in the godly upon their awakening to the sinful Romish excesses and superstitions in worship gave rise to a radical, but not fully thought out, solution, the Regulative Principle of Worship: If it is not commanded in Scripture to be performed in worship, it is forbidden in worship. It is sometimes said in other words: Only that which God has commanded is permitted.
This pendulum swing by the Reformers was certainly a breath of fresh air! Virtually overnight it cleansed the toxins out of Reformed worship like two months of cold turkey cleanses the horse out of a junkie’s veins. Way to go! Out went the relics, the Mariolatry, the adoration of saints, the indulgences, the novenas and the like; in came clear, accessible, God-glorifying, soul-saving, sheep-edifying, Word-centered worship.
Though most excellent and welcome in its historic situation, the Regulative Principle somehow loosed itself from its moorings and took on a life of its own in certain Reformed and Presbyterian circles. Many took it to be not merely a good word on worship but the last word, in fact, God’s last Word on the subject. And as men are wont to do, zealots– who saw in this principle the only way to acceptably approach God– began to extend and apply it more and more rigorously. Like the AA-inspired teetotaler who swears off not only liquor, wine and beer, but rum candy too, the strict regulativist searched for gnats and, not surprisingly, found them abounding. Camels, however, were often overlooked.
Anything which could not pass the somewhat arbitrary test for commanded was viewed with grave suspicion as the very thing which would cause– or begin to cause– the Reformed churches to return to Babylon. And so among some, the RPW means not only no Christmas and no Easter, but no musical instruments, no singing except Scripture texts– Oops! Scratch that! Only certain Scripture texts, namely, the Psalms, may be sung in worship (some say in or out of worship). Not a few reject the use of creeds in worship, and some even frown upon the corporate praying of the Lord’s Prayer in worship.
If you grant to the regulativists their distinctive premise– if it’s not commanded it’s forbidden– you’ll find yourself ever-entangled in this sort of nit-picking mania and hard pressed to defend what are, in the light of tota Scriptura, perfectly acceptable practices.
I might have inserted here further rationales used by its advocates to defend the Regulative Principle of Worship, but I want to get right to the point: while infinitely to be preferred to the problem it was designed to combat, the Regulative Principle of Worship falls short of conveying all that God in Scripture would have us know about regulating worship. It posits a false dilemma which, astonishingly, has bamboozled battalions of my fellow soldiers.
The regulativist tells us: It is either What is not forbidden is permitted, or What is not commanded is forbidden. This simply is not true. It is not Either hussies in church or ugly women. It is not Either slosh-heads or dry prudes. It is not Either STD’s abounding or no sex whatsoever. There are other choices!
In the matter of a principle for acceptable worship, at least one other possibility presents itself immediately upon the most casual reflection, a possibility which, hopefully, will be shown to be the correct alternative to the Romish principle. Let’s call it the Informed Principle of Worship: What is not commanded might be permitted. It depends upon other considerations.
Just what those other considerations are we intend to cover, but for now let us consider just how far short the RPW itself falls when examined in the light of Scripture.
I will offer several reasons for Reformed people to reject the proposition that the Scripture teaches the Regulative Principle of Worship. But please carefully note these qualifications: 1) I am not arguing against the sort of worship found in RPW churches. For my money, it is vastly superior to most other extant worship models (of which I am aware). The RPW is a mistake, but if you have to make a mistake this is a very fine one. 2) By arguing against the regulative principle of worship per se, I’m sorry to say that I demur from the position of many of my colleagues. Most of my compatriots tend to embrace the principle, choosing only to argue whether it is too rigorously or loosely applied in this or that circumstance. No, my argument is not with the application of the principle: it is that the RPW itself is not Biblical.
Where in Scripture is their principle taught? Careful examination of their answer reveals that their case is weak indeed.
One: Regulativists find it where it isn’t
The regulativists isolate many of their alleged proof texts from their larger contexts. This use of Scripture is questionable at best. Rather than providing a firm foundation for their principle, this very selective method suggests that it is built on sand.
It is. Regulativists don’t employ texts: they conscript them. In virtually all regulativist literature the same texts are appealed to over and again without an honest consideration of their contexts. When the contexts are considered we find that their chosen verses & fragments lend no support whatsoever to the principle they had supposedly proved. For you must keep this in mind: it’s not enough to prove that people worshipped sinfully. The regulativists must prove that the sin involved a violation of their principle. Let’s look at a few of their favorite citations and see what we find.
Leviticus 10:1-11, especially verses 1 and 2. Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them, added incense, and offered unauthorized, strange, outside or foreign fire before Jehovah, who then turned them into strange fire. This verse is beat to death by regulativists as somehow proving if it’s not commanded, it’s forbidden.
But a simple consultation with Exodus 30:9 shows the true character of their sin:
Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon.
Well now, doesn’t that affect our interpretation! Nadab and Abihu did not simply do something not commanded, they did something expressly forbidden. You see that even the principle which the regulativists reject takes care of Nadab and Abihu. If it’s not forbidden, it’s permitted, say those at the other extreme. Well, in this case their principle has the base covered: It was forbidden, therefore it was not permitted. Simple, eh? No need for the RPW here.
Furthermore, there is a strong suggestion in the account (v.8) that the boys were drunk when they performed their folly. It is plausible that in an inebriated condition they failed to distinguish between the holy and the common (v.9). God provided an object lesson. But whether or not that is so, their sin clearly consisted in doing what God had expressly forbidden. No RPW here.
You will find the same to be true of Korah’s rebellion (Num 16), Uzzah’s infraction (2 Sam 6), and Uzziah’s presumption (2 Chron 26). Each did what God had forbidden. The Lord had set apart the Aaronites: Korah defied God’s prerogative. David eventually acknowledged that Uzzah’s death resulted from violations of God’s prescribed order (1 Chron 15:13). And Uzziah brazenly encroached into territory from which he was explicitly excluded. All these were doing what was forbidden.
Similarly, the texts regulativists regularly cull (pull?) from the Prophets do not lend any aid to their principle. Their use of Isaiah’s indictment of hypocritical Israel, sad to say, is representative of the sort of proof they offer. The long list of charges against Israel in Isaiah 1 is (audaciously) pared down to a mere particle which (happy coincidence!) seems to support their view.
When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand? (v. 12)
Well, let’s try to answer that question: Who did require what Israel is said to have been doing? If we are going to find the regulativist’s principle here, we would expect the prophet to read a bill of particulars brimming with condemnations of man-made innovations in their worship. So just what does the passage say Israel was doing? They were:
Bringing offerings (as God commanded)
Burning incense (as God commanded)
Observing New Moon festivals (as God commanded)
Observing Sabbaths (as God commanded)
Observing appointed feasts (as God commanded)
Offering prayers (again, as God commanded)
When God asks, Who hath required this at your hand?, if the emphasis is on Who required, the answer is, God!
But if the emphasis is on your hand, ah!– we find the meaning of the indictment. The sin of Israel in Isaiah 1 did not consist in an error in religious form, i.e., in their bringing into worship something He did not command. He commanded everything Isaiah lists! On the contrary, their sin was that they brought it with wrong hands. Their hands, God says, were bloody (v. 15), yet they thought that mere religious ceremony would cleanse them!
This is Isaiah’s version of Psalm 50, especially v.16: To the wicked, God says: ‘What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips? You hate My instruction.’
I don’t need your offerings, the Lord is saying. If I were hungry I wouldn’t ask you for something to eat. Get these offerings out of My face!
Isaiah does not fault Israel for violating the RPW, but for their fulsome formalism. They did all the things God asked except be converted, gave all He required except themselves! Isaiah 1 is a wake-up call to religious hypocrites, all right, but it has nothing whatsoever to say in support of the RPW.
Likewise with Jeremiah. Regulativists like to cite 7:24–
But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in the counsels and in the imagination of their evil heart, and went backward, and not forward.
Again, the context is simply ignored. Quite a different impression is left when the context is supplied:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat meat. For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, 'Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you.' Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but followed the counsels and the dictates of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward.
Yes, that’s right. The broader passage, if it says anything to a worship principle at all, doesn’t say it in support of the RPW. God is saying just the opposite: To appear before Me with just the right form and just the right regulations, but to leave your heart at home, is not to appear before Me at all. Punctilious form without hearts-made-new is rejected: God denigrates His own appointed forms to drive home His concern. This is a Jewish manner of speaking, employed by Jesus and Paul in the New Testament Scriptures, employed by the Lord here: it not to be taken as an absolute denigration, but a relative one in order to make a point. It is as if He is saying, Who asked for your sacrifices? Me? No. I asked for your hearts!
A couple more citations from the regulativist files will demonstrate, I pray, that their typical use of Bible texts is arbitrary and therefore, prima facie, ought to be discounted.
Another portion of the Prophets drafted into the RPW’s army of Bible-snippets is from Jeremiah. I quote a leading regulativist: Thus the Lord declared (by Jeremiah) ‘This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who walk in the imagination of their heart…shall even be like this girdle which is good for nothing.
Ooh, sure sounds like proof of the RPW, doesn’t it? Whatever is not commanded is forbidden, and men’s imaginations are… Hmmm. Wait a minute…I wonder what was in that ellipsis (…)?
Take a look. In fact, look at the original verse in its entirety:
Jer 13:10: This evil people, which refuse to hear my words, which walk in the imagination of their heart, and walk after other gods, to serve them, and to worship them, shall even be as this girdle, which is good for nothing.
Well, isn’t that a different kettle of fish! They were walking after their own hearts into idolatry, they were worshipping other gods, they were doing something expressly forbidden. Thus, here again we find a worship sin adequately covered by that other principle: You may not do what God forbids.
However, our regulativist author claims that the reason given for this strong condemnation– viz., God calling them good for nothing– is that they offered worship ‘which I never commanded nor spoke, no, neither did it come into my mind.’
This last clause, which I italicized, may be the regulativists’ favorite snatchette (Scripture portion snatched from its context). Behold how our author-friend tries to force Jeremiah 19:5 to serve his agenda: Israel’s apostasy from true worship, he says, can be summed up in these words: ‘which I did not command them.’ Because they were not satisfied to do what God commanded, and only what God commanded, they were condemned.
Israel’s apostasy cannot be summed up in those words. To suggest such is to be false to the text. Israel, in 19:5, was condemned for…well, read it for yourself:
They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind.
They were not condemned merely for doing something which God had not commanded but for doing what God had expressly forbidden. Leviticus 18:21 says, Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. Obviously, if God had forbidden it, then neither came it into my mind is not to be read in a wooden fashion, but rather as plainly expressing that God would never take pleasure in such an act.
When the context explicitly reveals that Israel is condemned for worshipping idols, the regulativists leave it out. When the context explicitly reveals that Israel is condemned for child sacrifice to demons (1 Cor 10:20), the regulativists don’t tell you.
I told you before that at some point the RPW took on a life of its own. This is evidenced in the controlling influence it has exerted over their exegetical methodology. The same texts are carted out and mishandled in similar ways in virtually all their works (better get used to it!). RPW advocates edit Scripture in an attempt to make it conform to a conclusion they have determined in advance must be reached. This is completely unacceptable.
So firmly in the grip of this principle is one of their ministers that he actually– in all seriousness– asserted that singing Scripture choruses in worship is, in the sight of God, the moral equivalent of child sacrifice. He used Jeremiah 19:5 as proof!
Sure, we all agree that the RPW has resulted in much good historically. But are we pragmatists? When did William James replace St. Paul in our hermeneutical pantheon? If, upon close examination, we find little or no support in Scripture for the RPW, we should frankly admit it.
Anyway, that’s number one: Regulativists consistently ignore the Biblical contexts of their cited passages. One might say that they have, by sheer force of will, domesticated their pet verses.
Two: Regulativists miss it where it is
We have shown, through a substantial representative sampling, that the regulativists attempt to bolster their position by appealing illegitimately to various texts. They isolates these texts from their meaning-impacting contexts.
Now we will suggest that the point of what might truly be called the Regulative Principle of Worship in Scripture is altogether missed by them. It is a rather astonishing instance of forest-for-the-trees. What I mean is this:
The locus classicus, the most frequent and important textual citation for the RPW is Deuteronomy 12:32. What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it. But here again, the regulativists either ignore or overlook the setting. By isolating this particular verse from its context, its beauty is marred, its force is neutralized, and its power compromised.
Deuteronomy 12:32 appears in an epoch-marking context: we have here a major step in the progress of the religion of the covenant. Before this, covenant keepers could offer sacrifice wherever they felt like it. Henceforth sacrifice would be severely restricted. It would be restricted, as we said up front, in regard to place, in regard to people, and in regard to particulars.
It is here, then, in Deuteronomy 12 that we do indeed find introduced what might properly be called the Regulative Principle of Worship: If it is commanded, you’d better do it; if it is not commanded, it is forbidden (see verse 32). Don’t look to the pagans, either. They do thoroughly whacked-out things that I abominate (verses 28-31). You just do what I say and only what I say.
The point, however, is that what is strictly regulated is the sacrificial system of worship, not worship per se. In fact, mere sacred assemblies are not covered by this rule.
From the beginning God had made known that the path by which man might be restored to Him is a path of shed, substitutionary blood. This was indicated in the animal sacrifice God had made when providing coverings for Adam and Eve, and again in His acceptance of Abel’s blood offering brought in faith. The atoning path of blood was laid out by God.
But in Genesis 4:26 we read that, at that time men began to call upon the name of the Lord. Good old Matthew Henry comments: Now men began to worship God, not only in their closets and families, but in public and solemn assemblies.
We have no evidence or suggestion that there were divinely originating directives for the elements found in these public assemblies. Clearly, prayer was a great part of it (calling upon the Lord), but the point is that they seem to have arisen from the covenant sensibilities of men, not from a known injunction from God.
The matter of sacrifice, on the other hand, was different. That was clearly set forth by God as the norm. We know this both from early Genesis and all subsequent Scripture. However, from the Fall until the entry to the promised land, even this sacrificial worship was largely unregulated. Noah offered sacrifices, as did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These were offered perhaps in a general conformity to a pattern received from Adam or another. Indisputable, however, is the fact that the offerings were decentralized. There was no one place where God caused His name to dwell, where alone sacrifices could be lawfully rendered. They could be–and were– offered anywhere.
However, once Israel would enter the land and God would make known the place where His name would dwell, sacrificial worship would no longer be decentralized. It would be absolutely centralized at one place. From here on, it would be lawfully offered only by authorized persons. No matter how noble the man, if he did not meet the Levitical qualifications, he could not serve at that one authorized location (cf. Uzziah’s sin in 2 Chron 26). And the many particulars of the service were to be strictly adhered to, without addition or subtraction.
This is the context of Deuteronomy 12. We need only quote some of the chapter for this to be clear:
Ye shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes. For ye are not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance… But when ye go over Jordan… then there shall be a place which the LORD your God shall choose to cause his name to dwell there; thither shall ye bring all that I command you; your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the heave offering of your hand, and all your choice vows which ye vow unto the LORD: Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place that thou seest. But in the place which the LORD shall choose in one of thy tribes, there thou shalt offer thy burnt offerings, and there thou shalt do all that I command thee (verses 8-14).
To what service did this refer? Clearly it was not worship per se, but the sacrificial worship of Jehovah, that is, the Tabernacle/Temple service.
This conclusion is firm when viewed in the light of Leviticus 23:3. (Make a careful note of this for we must return to it.) There we read of unregulated, no-instructions-recorded, bloodless, incenseless, non-piacular worship services: There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD.
Why, one naturally asks, was God so lenient concerning sacred assemblies– forbidding to them only what was forbidden in all circumstances– yet so very strict about the Tabernacle/Temple worship? The correct answer is not elusive.
It was because in the Tabernacle/Temple God was displaying, preaching Christ, His Person and work, prior to His incarnation. The rigors surrounding Tabernacle/Temple worship reveal to us the passion, the diligence of our God in protecting the absolute exclusivity of salvation through the work of His Son, our Lord; they demonstrate God’s sovereign determination to guard the glory which belongs exclusively to His beloved Son.
Jesus Christ could only be incarnate once to perform His work in history. Israel is poised, in Deuteronomy 12, to bring about a pre-incarnational explication of that work which would abound with Christ-significance in every element, every ordinance, every article, every order, every day, every month, every year; an explication that would reveal, in a manner fit for that period of history, the Gospel.
God was not fussing over an abstract principle: He was guarding the honor of His Son! He was saying, Hear this, all ye ends of the earth! In My Son, in Jesus Christ the Lord– that is where salvation is alone to be found! In the work performed here according to my decrees, according to my strict and rigorous decrees, you may see My Son in whom I am well pleased. Come behold in Him the marvelous works of the Lord! Come behold Him in the marvelous Temple of the Lord!
Therefore,when Christ came into the world, He said: Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you had no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come– in the volume of the book it is written of Me– to do Your will, O God.’ Previously saying, Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them (which are offered according to the law), then He said, Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God. He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb 10:5-10)
The Temple worship was strictly regulated because the Temple worship was the Gospel of the Messiah. Thus, when we come to the Scriptures composed after Messiah completed His earthly work– fulfilling the service of types (Col 2:17)– the rigors we read in the New Testament concern the Gospel and sound doctrine.
The New Testament application of the Tabernacle/Temple Regulative Principle is discovered in its intolerance to false doctrine. The RPW becomes the RPD: the Regulative Principle of Doctrine! This is why Paul could abide poor motives, so long as the content of Gospel preaching was sound:
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice…
Yet when someone fiddled with the content of the Gospel, Paul would write,
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
It is in zeal for sound doctrine that you find the so-called Regulative Principle in the New Testament: don’t add to it, don’t take away from it.
Worship forms, however, are not the subject of such rigor (beyond, as we hope to demonstrate, general insistence upon good order, proper decorum, propriety, etc.). This is because worship forms in the New administration– the universal administration of the covenant– will vary. The truth, however, will not vary, cannot vary, must not vary. Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.
This means that wherever we find truly orthodox Christianity being practiced we are among those who are abiding by the real Regulative Principle of Worship as found in the Old and New Testaments: covenant-keepers approaching God in faith through the atonement He has provided in His Son, our Lord. This does not mean that any and all things are permissible in worship, or that all manner of worship is equal! I only insist it means that the Biblical RPW is alive and well in orthodoxy, and there only.
Now let me mention the irony I alluded to earlier. So-called Strict Regulativists do not permit musical instruments in worship because, they say, that sort of thing belonged to the Temple order, not the New Testament order. And since we are not commanded to bring instruments into worship in the New Order, and since we may not introduce anything not commanded, New Order worship services must be without instruments.
The irony is this: it is not instruments which belong exclusively to the Temple order, but the Regulative Principle of Worship itself!
That’s the sort of thing that happens when your exegesis becomes controlled by abstractions.
Before moving on to our third point, let me tell you of another irony regulativists are caught in. To see it requires walking through a few steps.
First, as a colleague in a Covenanter communion pointed out, the regulative principle adds a distinct characteristic which differs from our general obligation to obey God. Everyone– regulativists and non-regulativists– everyone who fears the Lord agrees that we are always required to do what He commands and that we are never permitted to do what He forbids. The RPW, however, adds another requirement pertaining to worship, saying that in worship, if God does not command it, it is forbidden.
Second, the regulativist boasts that this principle frees the people of God from having their consciences violated by unscrupulous leaders who might impose non-Biblical worship forms on the congregation.
Third, when we look for Biblical evidence to support the unique third requirement which the RPW adds to our legal obligations under God (reminder: 1 is: doing what He says, 2 is: not doing what He forbids, 3 [peculiar to the RPW] is: if He hasn’t commanded it for worship, if He is silent concerning it, it is forbidden)– when we look for Biblical proof of this we find none. Most of their alleged proofs are fragments put forth without context: when the context is supplied, the proofs evaporate. (Cain did not do what God commanded; Nadab and Abihu did what He had forbidden; the Israelites in Isaiah did what God commanded as far as the elements of worship were concerned but failed to perform worship with clean hands; Jeremiah is condemning the performance of things God forbade: idolatry and child sacrifice; etc.)
Lastly, we have seen that the real regulative principle guarded, not worship per se, but, the sacrificial system as the revelation of the Gospel of Christ, the only path to God. The New Testament bears abundant witness to this in having no regulative principle of worship at all, but an extremely rigorous regulative principle of the Gospel: don’t add to it, don’t take away from it.
Consequently, we find our irony: The regulative principle of worship, said to guard the people of God from the inventions of men, is itself an invention of men and therefore an imposition upon the consciences of those forced to accept it.
I’ll be quick to reiterate: we’ll take plain women over hussies in the church, and teetotalers over winos, but we’ll insist: these are not our only God-honoring choices!
Three: Regulativists skip the synagogue
The New Testament is beyond clear in teaching that the organizational model for the worshipping communities called churches was the synagogue, not the Temple. This is recognized and acknowledged in every standard work on Presbyterianism. For example, John Macpherson, in his excellent volume, Presbyterianism, writes: In general, the Christian forms of worship were modeled on those of the Jewish synagogue, and so where any customs in worship or office in the Christian church are spoken of without explanation, we may reasonably look to the arrangements of the synagogue for enlightenment. And, the earliest Christian congregations…in Palestine were for some time known as Christian synagogues.
In saying that our model is the synagogue we do not overlook temple-like features metaphorically ascribed to the church and/or its service. These are many. Yet these apply to, and are found ascribed to, individual Christians as well. But when we look for the organizational and liturgical antecedents of the church, we find them in the synagogue. (Looking to the Temple, especially for the latter, we remind you, is precisely the error of Rome.)
The very existence of the synagogue, however, undoes the regulativist’s position! For he knows that synagogues existed. And he knows that Christ and the Apostles regularly worshipped at synagogues without so much as a breath of suggestion that they were institutionally or liturgically illegitimate. And he knows that he cannot find so much as a sliver of a Divine commandment concerning what ought to be done in the synagogue. And, according to his principle, if God commanded naught concerning what ought to be done, then all was forbidden. And if all was forbidden then the whole of it– institution and liturgy– was a sinful abomination. But that brings him back to Christ attending upon the service of God there and Christ following its liturgy: did He sin by participating in an entire order of worship that was without express divine warrant? The thought is blasphemy!
But for us the synagogue presents no problem at all. We find that it is sacrificial worship only, from Deuteronomy 12 on, that is absolutely restricted in regard to place, performers and particulars. Such restrictions never governed common sacred assemblies.
First, sacred assemblies were held all over the place: everywhere, wherever you live (Lev 23:3), wherever covenant people dwelt. Every Sabbath there would be one centralized sacrificial service, but there would be an untold number of sacred assemblies throughout the land.
Second, sacred assemblies could be led by any qualified adult male. It is not surprising, therefore, that In the very earliest Christian times, according to Macphearson, any of the male members of the church were called on to preach, and to exercise generally what came afterward to be known as strictly clerical functions. Synagogues were never dependent upon a Levitical order.
Lastly, sacred assemblies, which evolved into synagogues, grew liturgically out of covenant consensus within the general bounds of the Word of God.
We’ll continue this discussion soon, D.V. There are additional flaws in the Regulative Principle of Worship which need to be confronted. Following that we hope to set before you, for your consideration, several components of what we call the Informed Principle of Worship. We don’t wish to be unterstood as suggesting that God is silent concerning what He expects in a worship service!
For now, allow me to close with my sincere thanks for your support of this particular Christian synagogue and its various ministries. If you don’t receive our monthly ministry updates it might be because you haven’t contributed to these ministries in more than a year.
We have met the $15,000 matching grant, with God’s grace and our supporters’ help. Please keep us moving ahead as we seek to be faithful to God’s whole Word. May He inscribe it, through Messiah, into our hearts. Amen.
Yours and His,
Steve M. Schlissel