The Article Archives
Topic: The RPW Series
A Reply to Rev. G.I. Williamson on the Regulative Principle of Worship
July 31, 2002
Brian G. Mattson
A recent contribution to the current debate regarding the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) comes from the pen of a highly esteemed advocate of Reformed Presbyterianism in this century. Rev. G.I. Williamson, a retired minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, now living in Iowa, has joined others in taking issue with Steve Schlissel, the pastor of Messiahís Congregation in Brooklyn, New York. Schlissel wrote a series of articles disproving the Regulative Principle (If it isnít commanded in worship, it is forbidden). These articles have produced a veritable firestorm of controversy in some Reformed circles: the RPW has been and still is a dearly held conviction of a significant portion of the Reformed community.
Regretfully, Rev. Williamsonís recent critique of Steve Schlissel does not approach the level of scholarship weíve often seen coming from his pen during his fifty years of service in the OPC. First, his critique lacks timeliness. As of this writing, Schlissel has devoted five issues of Messiahís Mandate on this issue, and Rev. Williamson takes into account only the first two. Williamsonís critique was not published on the Internet until spring of 2000; four of Schlisselís five installments had been widely disseminated by that time. Yet The Blue Banner (the website of First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett, TX), has posted Williamsonís response as their official reply to Steve Schlissel. This is a significant failing: Schlisselís case was strengthened with each of the five issues and appears to be, if not impregnable, at least worthy of a fully thought out response which takes his entire argument into consideration.
Second, in spite of Rev. Williamsonís ten pages, only two are dedicated to what one might call an argument. Beginning on page 7ómore than halfway through the critiqueóhe writes Now, let me respond to the entire line of argument presented in these [i.e., Schlisselís] papers. Shortly thereafter he asks, What then is our conclusion? Between those two points is found the whole of his critique. The other eight pages are filled with irrelevant material. For instance, a discussion of ordination vows does not help us answer the question, Is the RPW Biblical? Yet that is the subject to which pages 1-2 and 9-10 are devoted. Pages 3-6 are a recapitulation: there we read Rev. Williamsonís perceptions of Schlisselís views. Thus, only pages 7-8 provide argument.
Third, it is nothing short of breathtaking that there is not one reference to any of Steve Schlisselís exegetical arguments. There is no response to Schlisselís treatment of Deuteronomy 12, Esther, Zechariah, the book of John, etc., etc., etc. One gets the impression from Rev. Williamsonís critique that Schlisselís entire argument is based on speculative theological grounds. This is simply not true, as anyone who has read Schlisselís corpus on the subject knows.
These three failings of Rev. Williamsonís critique move us to sympathize with Rev. Schlisselís complaint that there has been no serious interaction with his arguments concerning the Regulative Principle of Worship. The responses weíve seen amount to little more than It must be true. Therefore, it must be true. We are beginning to believe that Rev. Schlisselís arguments have not been rebutted because they cannot be rebutted.
The astute reader will notice two fundamental, unproved presuppositions in Rev. Williamsonís thought. The first is the idea that a rejection of the RPW necessarily involves a rejection of sola scriptura. In fact, one finds this assertion in Dr. Richard Baconís introduction to Rev. Williamsonís piece. This unproved (and untrue) idea is present throughout the ensuing critique. Writes Dr. Bacon: Sad to say, Pastor Schlissel abandoned that principle [the RPW Ė bgm] in a follow-up series that was seemingly intended to undermine the principle of sola Scriptura as it applies to our worship, commonly called in our day, the Regulative Principle of Worship (p.1). Rev. Williamson expresses this sentiment fully himself: The Bible is sufficient. It teaches everything that I am to believe concerning God, and the whole duty that God requires of me, especially in the sphere of worshipÖ. [T]he great need at the present time is for a new Reformation. And the bedrock foundation of true reformation is a return to Ďsola scripturaí (p.10). The insinuation is obvious: to deny the Regulative Principle of Worship is to deny sola scriptura.
The problem, of course, is that this assertion is merely assumed, never argued. The reality of the situation, however, is exactly the opposite: it is the Regulative Principle of Worship which undermines the principle of sola scriptura! Allow me to briefly explain why. The RPW teaches that in worship, Godís people may do only that which God has commanded in Scripture. But in Leviticus 23:3, in the very context of giving commands for worship, God creates an institution, the local sacred assembly (i.e., synagogue). He gives no commands, either in Leviticus 23 or any place else, providing for what is to be done in these sacred assemblies. According to the RPW then, people were allowed to do nothing in the synagogue because nothing was commanded.
It has become the habit of our regulativist brethren at this point to respond with something like this: There must have been a prophet of God who directed them how to worship in the synagogues. Now, remember well that this argument is coming from those who believe the RPW is indispensable to sola scriptura, that Godís written Word alone is sufficient. But in order to defend the RPW, the regulativist appeals to a non-inscripturated, supposedly Divinely-instituted, oral tradition! What happened to Scripture alone!?
This appeal to oral tradition is blatantly anti-sola scriptura, and viciously circular: There must have been commands for the synagogue. But there are no commands to be found. Oh, but there must have been commands!
So much for the Regulative Principle being inextricably bound to the doctrine of sola scriptura. The second presupposition held by Rev. Williamson is that the RPW is indispensable to being Reformed. As we mentioned, he begins his critique with a lengthy discussion of subscription vows as they relate to the Reformed Confessions. He blasts Schlissel for allegedly breaking his ordination vows (to the Three Forms of Unity) because in those vows was a requirement to not publicly nor privately propose any personal differences with the confessions, but rather to bring the matter before the Consistory, Classis, or Synod (p.2).
Rev. Williamson goes on to relate how when Schlissel began writing these articles he wrote and pleaded with him to cease this public attack on the regulative principle, and instead to bring his concerns forward in a proper ecclesiastical manner (p.3). He concludes that Schlisselís refusal to cease and desist is the equivalent of going over the heads of all the pastors and elders of these churches to tell their people that their Reformed Confessions are wrong in what they teach (p.3).
The problem here is threefold. First, Rev. Williamson alleges concern for proper church order, yet he has not pursued his concern with the Elders responsible for overseeing Rev. Schlisselís life and ministry. According to the church order of Messiahís Congregation, Rev. Williamson has standing to challenge Rev. Schlissel before his Elders. He has been told of this opportunity. Bypassing proper ecclesiastical order, Rev. Williamson chose instead to publicly question Schlisselís integrity, including (ironically!) the charge that Rev. Schlissel bypassed proper order!
Second, Rev. Schlissel is no longer part of the denomination whose Form of Subscription Rev. Williamson alludes to in his critique, and was not an officer in that denomination when the material in question was published. This fact alone moots Rev. Williamsonís criticism. For all he knows, the Form of Subscription under which Rev. Schlissel currently ministers may contain explicit repudiation of the Regulative Principle of Worship! Rev. Williamsonís tactic here is like trying a case in Iowa under the laws of New Yorkó without even knowing just what the laws in New York might be. Rev. Schlissel has not been part of the Christian Reformed Church since 1993, a fact known to Rev. Williamson, but omitted by him in his critique.
Third, Rev. Williamson simply assumes that subscription to the Three Forms of Unity requires conscientious subscription to the Regulative Principle of Worship. In fact, Schlissel has arguedóvery convincingly, in my viewóthat subscription to the Three Forms most certainly does not require belief in the RPW. Many ministers in the Dutch tradition, of which Rev. Schlissel had been a part, had never heard of the RPW, and their Book of Church Order clearly demonstrates that they did not hold to it! (See Part V of the worship series in Messiahís Mandate. Rev. Schlissel even arguesópersuasivelyóthat not even the Westminster Standards taught the RPW consistently).
Rev. Williamson makes no argument whatsoever as to how the Three Forms of Unity teach the RPW, let alone require belief in it. Kindly read his critique and see that this is so. He simply assumes it. But this is not an innocent assumption. By making it, he feels justified in proceeding to charge Steve Schlissel with unfaithfulness and unethical behavior. He ends his critique, as bad as Steve Schlisselís ethics are with respect to the vow he once tookÖI do appreciate his honestyÖ.But that doesnít take anything away from the serious damage that he has done by his irresponsible, and unaccountable, attack on the Reformed Confessions (p.11). Steve Schlissel, according to Rev. Williamson, is an irresponsible, unaccountable, destructive, unethical man who is to be praised for his honesty! His entire inflammatory denunciation of Schlissel is nothing more than a replay of the proverbial prosecutor who asks, So when did you stop beating your wife?
The paper itself is poorly organized. Rev. Williamson initially gave it as a spoken lecture. It was transcribed and edited by Chris Coldwell of First Presbyterian Church in Rowlett. Considering the lengthy endnotes which appear to have been added, we feel entitled to expect that the paperís organization should have been improved before posting. But after much sifting and shifting, after all is said and done, Rev. Williamsonís critique looks like this.
Premise 1: The Church is the Temple! (p.7)
Premise 2: Paul regulated the Churchís worship practices. (p.8)
Conclusion: And right there you have the historic regulative principle by good and necessary inference (p.9).
The above three statements are the sum and substance of Rev. Williamsonís critique of Steve Schlisselís 37,000 word argument. My reply will be closer to G.I.ís in length.
Rev. Schlissel has asserted that worship was not uniformly regulated in the Old Testament period. Alongside the strictly regulated, sacerdotal, centralized Temple worship there can be found a differently regulated, lay, decentralized worship. This latter (seen clearly in the institution of the synagogue) constitutes the regulation-model for the New Testament (and forward) church. Rev. Williamson counters, Rev. Schlisselís whole split-level concept of worship is without merit. It is without merit because the New Testament says the Christian Church is the Temple Ė Godís final Temple. Rev. Williamson then speaks of certain aspects of this Temple as heavenly; that is, part of the church is in heaven with Jesus.
It is not so much what he does say as what he does not say which concerns us at this point. Rev. Williamson makes the statement that the church is the Temple without any qualifications whatsoever. Unless one is willing to follow Rome in their conclusions flowing from the church as Temple concept, such qualifications are necessary. Williamson rightly cites relevant New Testament passages describing the church as the Temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16, 17), but doesnít shed any theological reason explaining just why and how the church is the Temple. The answer, of course, is that the church is united to Christ, who is Himself the true Temple (John 2:19, 21). He fulfills all the types and shadows of the former Temple, abolishing their ordinances of divine service (Heb. 9:1) by His sacrificial death. The church is the Temple of God precisely because it is united to Jesus Christ by his cleansing blood (Eph. 2:19-22).
The true Temple has come and, thus, the old is obsolete (Heb. 8:13). What Rev. Williamson and regulativists who argue like him fail to come to grips with, is that the old which is now obsolete includes the Regulative Principle. The RPW, the strict regulation governing Temple worship, was a pointer to Christ, teaching one way of salvation, by the blood of the sacrificed mediator! Now that that Mediator has actually come and accomplished His work, the pointer is taken up in Him, leaving us with the decentralized, differently regulated worship which God has provided as a pattern for us.
Not surprisingly, Rev. Williamson provides no details as to what it means for the church to be the Temple. But this omission reduces his argument to sloganeering. For his assertion to have value, he must explain why, while being the Temple, we no longer have a Levitical order, earthly priests, or an earthly headquarters, not to mention no incense, no blood, no altar. Rev. Williamson knows full well that New Testament worship differs radically from Temple worship, yet he makes no attempt to explain why this is so or what bearing this fact has upon the question at hand. The very issue in debate is the fulfillment of the Temple, itís typology and shadows. By completely ignoring the issue, he does not meet Schlisselís argument. Schlissel writes:
Regulativists donít have a human priesthood, which [Deuteronomy 12:32] protectedó they believe in a priesthood of all believers. They donít have a human-constructed Temple, made according to exact requirements, which the verse guardedóthey make church buildings any way they please. They donít have daily, weekly, monthly, or annual blood offerings, which the verse oversawóthey use no blood at all in their rituals. They donít do pilgrimages, they donít honor the dietary restrictions, they donít refrain from mixing cloths, they donít keep the same calendar, they donít do any of the things demanded in the verseís immediate context! And all this is well and good. They see in so many ways that all this must be interpreted in light of the whole Word of God. But when it comes to the principle which was part of the same package which terminated upon Christís sacrificial workÖLike men in a swoon and afraid of falling, they reach out to steady themselves with a principle rather than the Christ who was therein honored. They are left embracing a verse when all the while the verse was given only so that we might embrace the Christ! Its meaning is found in Him. (Messiahs Mandate, Fourth Letter, 1999)
Following his undiscussed and unqualified proof that the church is the Temple, Rev. Williamson begins a rather odd campaign of showing that the worship of the New Testament church was regulated. I must admit that I am at a total loss as to whom Rev. Williamson is directing this. Steve Schlissel has never said that the churchís worship was not regulated! Schlisselís papers are replete with admonitions for churches to worship in accordance with the commands and principles of the Scriptures. That is the very nature of the Informed Principle of Worship itself. What Schlissel does say is that the RPW of the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in strictly regulating and guarding the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the New Testament (Gal. 1:6-9. Notice that the RPW regulated the same thing in both Covenantsóthe gospelóunder its different administrations. Exquisite continuity). But nowhere is it denied that the churchís worship was regulated. In yet another instance of assuming what ought to be proved, Rev. Williamson casually equates regulations with the Regulative Principle of Worship.
It is not necessary even to comment on the rest of his argument to this effect. He simply gives many examples of how the fathers of the New Testament church provided regulations as to how to worship. But Rev. Williamson goes way past the evidence when he writes, [A]s the Apostle constantly insisted, worship practice was also regulated strictly. And right there you have the historic regulative principle by good and necessary inference (p.9).
I donít think we need to dwell much upon this non sequitur. Showing that Paul made regulations concerning practice, even strict regulations, does not even suggest, much less prove, that if he didnít command it, it is forbidden. Because Paul gave commands regarding practice does not mean that practice required commands! If my boss tells me to be at work at 8am, it does not mean that I arrive there and just sit for want of my next command! (Or maybe sitting is forbiddenóafter all, it was not commanded!) Because she regulated one aspect of my job (and she was very strict about it!), should I therefore, by good and necessary inference, conclude that she will regulate the rest of my work time in the same way: by command? That would be absurd. Just as it is absurd to read the New Testament in this fashion.
The Missing Link
J.C. Ryle quipped, Scientists know everything about the missing link except that it is missing. Similarly, regulativists seem to know that the RPW somehow applies to synagogue worship except the commands regulating it are missing. Consistently, Steve Schlisselís opponents are completely oblivious to this deafening silence in the Scriptures. Like Rev. Brian Schwertley, Rev. Williamson devotes just a single paragraph to this issue in his critique. The reader should see above my comments regarding the synagogueís own prima facie refutation of the RPW, but Rev. Williamsonís comments on this crucial issue should be noted.
He writes, I cannot go into this at length here, but let me also add that I am not at all persuaded that the ancient synagogue worship was as loose and unregulated as Rev. Schlissel seems to think (p.8). So does he produce the regulations that Schlissel has overlooked? No, instead he concludes by simply explaining that the synagogue was mental participation in Temple worship, made necessary because of distance. The worshippers knew that without the shedding of blood, in temple worship, there could be no remission. So, even then, their worship was really centered on the temple.
Well, having Rev. Williamsonís insight into the nature of synagogue worship is interesting, but where are the regulations for how to mentally participate in temple worship? Rev. Williamson may not be at all persuaded, but until he produces the regulations, his persuasion is a mere opinion, not an argument.
Writing a conclusion is difficult. I have attempted in this brief reply to note the salient features of Rev. Williamsonís critique. I have avoided several irrelevant issues he raised which serve only to cloud the issues. I have largely ignored the heavy-handed rhetoric against Schlissel found throughout his piece. The two pages of actual argument are nearly impossible to follow without intense scrutiny. He has failed to deal with three of Schlisselís five articles. He has failed to produce even the barest critique of Schlisselís exegesis of Scripture. Rev. Williamson incorrectly assumes that the RPW is indispensable to sola scriptura. He incorrectly assumes that the Three Forms of Unity require ascent to the RPW. He very wrongly assumes that the Christian Reformed Church held/holds to the RPW. (Even granting this, we are still baffled trying to understand why Rev. Williamson would assume that ministers no longer in the Christian Reformed Church would be bound by its Form of Subscription!) Rev. Williamson fails to qualify or explain the nature of the church as the Temple. He fails to meet Schlisselís argument. He commits a grand non sequitur by concluding the RPW from the mere fact that Paul gives regulations to the church. He ignores the fact that regulations for synagogue worship do not exist, telling us only that he is not persuaded that they donít exist.
This is The Blue Bannerís official response to Steve Schlissel. I, for one, had hoped for something better. I had actually hoped for a response.