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Topic: The RPW Series

A response to Rev. Schwertley's response

July 31, 2002
Brian G. Mattson
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What is known as the Regulative Principle of Worship has recently come under fire by Reformed Pastor Steven M. Schlissel of Messiah’s Congregation, Brooklyn, New York. Schlissel published his criticisms in a series of articles in his monthly newsletter, Messiah’s Mandate. The articles were hard-hitting— in fact, some of the most challenging material yet seen on the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). The RP-ers are apparently taking note of this fact, as evidenced in the quick rejoinder issued by Reformed Presbyterian Pastor Brian M. Schwertley (RPCNA). Schwertley entitled his response: A Brief Critique of Steven M. Schlissel’s Articles Against the Regulative Principle of Worship.

Schwertley understands the threat Schlissel’s articles pose to his version of the doctrine of Reformed worship, and his article seems to be driven by the discomfort this brings. He notes that [Schlissel’s Articles] received a rather wide audience in Reformed circles and are being referred to by opponents of Reformed worship. He intends to expose [Schlissel’s articles] as false, unscriptural, and based upon poor exegesis and faulty reasoning (p.1). Unfortunately, rather than being the decisive paper it aspires to, Schwertley’s work more resembles a desperate attempt to salvage what is left of the Regulative Principle of Worship.

Scholarship and Superlatives

Confidence is how little you react when falsely accused, teaches Bill Gothard. Notwithstanding some of Gothard’s own theological aberrations, the admonition stands true. The more a person reacts when accused, the less confidence a person has in his or her position. Brian Schwertley’s critique of Steve Schlissel often resembles a reaction that is totally unwarranted by the nature of the debate.

Schwertley charges that Steve Schlissel’s critique is false, unscriptural…based upon poor exegesis and faulty reasoning. Schwertley then launches numerous superlatives to describe how low and shoddy is Schlissel’s work: His arguments are insulting to the Reformers, impugn their Confessions, repudiate the Reformed Faith, they are deceptive, bizarre, absurd, incredibly sloppy, to say the least, [they] completely ignore the historic, discernible, commonly received meaning of the RPW, are absurdly narrow, and include inexcusable misrepresentations. Mr. Schwertley suggests that Schlissel’s arguments are not to be taken seriously at all (though, evidently, Schwertley does not himself believe this). Schlissel’s articles are full of outright misrepresentations and falsehoods, they bid us to forsake sola Scriptura and go down the path to Rome and to ecclesiastical tyrrany, they contradict Scripture and support the foundational principles of Romanism and rabbinical Judaism, Schlissel is unfair to his opponents and offers up…ludicrous arguments; and, lastly, he has totally failed in his attempt to disprove the continuing validity of the regulative principle in the New Covenant era; Schlissel needs to go back and do his homework so that he may have the capability of debating this topic.

Now really, if Schlissel’s papers were this bad, this shoddy, and this ludicrous, why would Schwertley even waste his time writing twenty pages, single-spaced, in response to him? I, for one, however, am glad that he chose to respond to Schlissel, and believe that Mr. Schwertley’s article proves itself desperate at every turn As seen above, Schwertley uses empty rhetoric to steer people away from Schlissel, perhaps hoping to make them think he has nothing in common with the true Reformed Faith and is some kind of abhorrent heretic leading passive followers on the road back to Rome. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Schlissel’s Supposed Caricature

Brian Schwertley is interested in sound reasoning, from the looks of his paper. Lacking any real basis, however, to attack Schlissel he attempts to undermine the presupposition of his arguments, which he says is a false definition of the RPW. In other words, since Schlissel’s arguments are so devastating to the Regulative Principle of Worship, then Schlissel must not truly be representing the regulative principle! This is really what Schwertley’s critique amounts to. Since the regulative principle cannot be refuted, and since Schlissel has refuted it, Schlissel must have refuted a straw man. Schwertley’s defense of the Regulative Principle is thus fallaciously circular. Unfortunately, it is not innocently fallacious, as we shall see.

Schwertley takes on Schlissel’s definition of the regulative principle, which amounts to in worship, if God does not command it, it is forbidden. How Schwertley can turn this into a misrepresentation of the regulative principle with a straight face is bewildering – in fact, an example of the very obfuscation Schlissel initially charged to the Regulativists. Schwertley writes in response, Is the regulative principle merely ‘If it is not commanded, it is forbidden,’ as Schlissel asserts? (p.3)

Problem number one: where did Schlissel assert merely?

Schwertley goes on: The regulative principle refers not just to explicit commands of Scripture, but also to approved historical examples within the Bible and to good and necessary consequence….(3)

Problem number two: Schlissel nowhere denies that the Regulative Principle includes explicit commands and good and necessary consequences.

Schwertley then dedicates a large portion of his paper proving the validity of good and necessary consequence with regard to the regulative principle. But so what!? Schlissel never limited the RPW to explicit commands in the first place! Schwertley has literally placed two words in Steve Schlissel’s mouth that were never uttered by him: merely, and explicit. Is this just nit-picking? It surely would be, if not for the fact that Schwertley’s redefinition of Schlissel’s original definition frames the whole basis of his response. Schwertley writes, Note that Schlissel, throughout all three articles, repeatedly gives and builds arguments upon a false definition of the regulative principle (p.2). That false definition consists of Schlissel’s supposed contention that the RPW requires explicit command as opposed to good and necessary consequence. Schwertley has, in outrageous fashion, made Schlissel to give a false definition! He then has the gall to call this deception by Schlissel, and not only that, but apparently deliberate deception (p.2)! Now really, whose deception is deliberate here?

Schwertley’s application of all this is rather humorous. This false definition of the regulative principle is absurdly narrow (p.7). Are we to understand by this that the regulativists now want to be broad with their application of the Regulative Principle? This is unbelievable, considering the bickering that goes on in regulativist circles about the minutia of worship. Who can forget Carl Bogue, in his work, The Scriptural Law of Worship, carping about candles on a communion table or the clothing the preacher chooses to wear to church (which are sure-fire paths to Romanism!)? Which paraphrase of the Psalms should be used in worship? Is it permissible to sing the Psalms in four-part harmony, or must they be in unison? Or Can we sing other inspired songs in our worship? These are the kinds of debates which go on without end in RPW-land. Yet now we are to believe that the regulativists are much more broad in their application than all that.

It would seem not. When John Frame, who subscribes to the regulative principle, suggested that contemporary worship songs can be used in worship… well, just check the internet sometime to see what the RP-ers have done to him. Anyone familiar with the regulativist literature knows that the assertion of broadness by Schwertley simply mounts the evidence for Schlissel’s charge of obfuscation.

The one quote from Schlissel where Schwertley even approaches what could be called evidence for Schlissel’s false definition of the regulative principle is found, of all places, in one of Schlissel’s footnotes: Though this does not stop them from serving the Lord’s Supper to women. This is an inconsistency in their system, since there is no clear NT command to do so. The same method that leads us to recognize women as fit recipients of the Supper can lead us to see covenant children as fit candidates for baptism. It’s called good and necessary consequence (p.3).

Here it might seem that Schlissel is charging regulativists with failing to believe in good and necessary consequence. But if one reads the original context where the footnote appears, Schlissel is not even talking about regulativists: he is challenging anti-paedobaptists! The them in the quote above (underline added by me) refers to anti-paedobaptists, as any reader of Schlissel’s articles would know, yet Schwertley would have one believe that Schlissel is there speaking about adherents to the regulative principle! He makes it appear that Schlissel is saying that regulativists require an explicit command, when Schlissel is explaining that Baptists (very inconsistently) require this.

Schlissel is arguing, in the context, that the anti-paedobaptist has a form of argument that is circular and inconsistent in practice. Interestingly, he says that the regulativists are remarkably similar, but similar only in their circular form of arguing upon an unchallengeable starting point. The given in each argument determines the outcome. Schlissel’s argument, if it urges anything at the point cited, urges the consistent employment of good and necessary consequence, the very thing which Schwertley had accused him of denying. In a twist of irony, Schwertley chooses this point in his paper to call Schlissel’s argument incredibly sloppy scholarship, to say the least (3).

The Synagogue

One of Steve Schlissel’s most important criticisms of the RPW is that it has virtually no explanation for the worship practices of the synagogue. Brian Schwertley spends all of one page on this issue in his twenty-page treatise. Unfortunately, even that little bit utterly sidesteps the issue and ignores Schlissel’s argument altogether. He quotes Schlissel: And he [the regulativist] knows that he cannot find so much as a sliver of a Divine commandment concerning what ought to be done in the synagogue. Schwertley calls this argument worthless, because good and necessary consequence and approved historical examples are sufficient (6). He then cites Leviticus 23:3 in support of the institution of the synagogue, and quotes a gigantic paragraph from Matthew Henry on that verse, proving nothing more than the synagogue was a legitimate institution. Schlissel would issue a hearty Amen! to this, since he himself has argued in print that Leviticus 23:3 is the founding of the synagogue system (a fact that Schwertley seems unaware of)! But what is the heart of Schlissel’s complaint? Look at the quote above again and note the crucial words, what ought to be done in the synagogue. Schwertley says nothing about what ought to be done except say that from Scripture one can deduce…the basic worship elements of Scripture reading and exposition (p.6). Of course, ten of his biblical citations appear in the New Testament, which could have no bearing whatsoever on the Divinely commanded worship elements of the synagogue as it was in the Old Testament administration!

This is all utterly weak and very disappointing. The whole point of Schlissel’s argument is to show that the synagogue was not regulated by any form of Regulative Principle, because no divine command exists in Scripture, explicitly or otherwise, as to what is to be done in the synagogue. In response, Schwertley proves that the synagogue itself is a legitimate institution, and ignores the tough question. He even fails in his attempt to deduce…the basic elements of Scripture reading and exposition from the Scriptures, because he barely even addresses Schlissel’s argument that all these passages prove is that the Law was to be read in the synagogue, not the Prophets! Yet Jesus read from the book of Isaiah in the synagogue.

Schwertley finds a New Testament passage where the entire Old Testament is called the Law (p.10) and then deduces that all of Scripture may be read. First, this is weak because what was commanded to be read was not simply anything called Law, but rather Moses’ writings, which, of course, is what the Prophets referred to when they used the term. Second, I could only hope that Mr. Schwertley, as an exclusive psalmodist, would be just as accommodating when I argue thus: Because Paul commands us to sing (or speak) spiritual songs, this means that the singing of Spirit-inspired songs, like those of Miriam and Mary (women, no less!), is legitimate for worship. This is a horrific thought to an RPCNA pastor. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

The RPW versus Human Tradition

This is my favorite section from Schwertley. In light of the synagogue argument, Schlissel makes a case that human traditions are perfectly allowable in worship, given all other divine imperatives and considerations. Since this argument cannot be refuted— because divine commands instituting worship practices in the synagogue are nowhere found in Scripture— Schwertley argues that the practices found in Scripture are not human traditions, but divine traditions. …[B]ased on the analogy of Scripture… and the clear need of divine warrant [note the gratuitous assumption here of the RPW –bgm], it is assumed that historical examples that are not accompanied by explicit commands are based on some prior revelation that did not make it into the canon (p.7). He claims that Schlissel assumes that when we encounter worship practices in the Bible that have no prior inscripturated divine imperative, these practices must have originated from human tradition. (Of course, Schlissel’s point is that we have few such examples in the Bible.) He concludes, Schlissel’s procedure of assuming that human traditions are the foundation of worship practices that are not accompanied by explicit inscripturated imperatives violates the analogy of Scripture and cannot be proved from the Bible. It is nothing but an assumption (p.8).

Schwertley’s argument is breathtaking in its implications: he is arguing that the worship practices of the synagogue are founded not upon human tradition, but upon divine imperatives not found in Scripture! Surely the Rabbis would have loved this argument when they were lambasted by Jesus for their traditions that obscured the Scriptures! The Roman Catholics would love this argument today, and, in fact use it all the time to justify their worship practices not found in Scripture! Why worship Mary? It is a divine imperative that did not make it into the canon. It was an oral tradition. Why the sacrificial mass? The immaculate conception? The rosary? Indulgences? They are divine imperatives that did not make it into the canon. Why can’t we pick grain on the Sabbath? It is a divine imperative that did not make it into the canon. You get the idea. In yet another bizarre twist of irony, Schwertley chooses this precise point in his article to say that Schlissel’s argument…contradicts Scripture and supports the foundational principles of Romanism and Rabbinical Judaism (p.8)! Boy, this takes talent…

In reality, the only way to avoid Rabbinical Judaism and Roman Catholicism on these very points is to say that the synagogue practices for which there are no commands in Scripture are human traditions, and, as such, must be utterly subordinated to the Scriptures in their entirety. What is Schwertley arguing? That these are divine oral traditions, on the same level as the Scriptures. Really now, who looks like the Roman Catholic?

Is The RPW Tied to the Temple?

Steve Schlissel very persuasively argues that the worship of God was bifurcated at Sinai: there was a centralized, intensely regulated worship of God in the tabernacle/temple, and a loosely regulated, decentralized worship in the synagogue. The heart of Schlissel’s argument is that the Temple worship was regulated by the Regulative Principle of Worship. But with the end of the Old Covenant Temple system came the end of the Regulative Principle.

Schwertley calls this Schlissel’s cleverest argument (p.12). But he takes issue with this restriction of the Regulative Principle to the temple system for three reasons. First, he attacks Schlissel’s assertion that Deuteronomy 12:32, See that you do all I commanded you; do not add to it or take away from it, relates to the centralized worship of the Temple. He writes, There is no textual reason to assume that since Deuteronomy 12:32 comes in a section that deals with the law of the central sanctuary, it must be restricted to the worship of the tabernacle. But what about the textual reason just given by Schwertley: it comes in a section that deals with the law of the central sanctuary? This certainly seems like a textual reason to me. Schwertley argues that since the passage also speaks of the repression of idolatry and the syncretistic admixture of heathen rites with the service of Jehovah, that Deuteronomy 12:32 may (may, mind you) be more broadly applied. Why does Schwertley assume that the burden of proof is on Schlissel when he himself admits that the passage is mainly speaking of the central sanctuary? It seems more reasonable to conclude that it is Schwertley who must prove that the verse applies more broadly than to just the central sanctuary worship.

Second, Schwertley makes the point that the tabernacle/temple worship contained both ceremonial and non-ceremonial ordinances (e.g., sacrificing of animals = ceremonial, prayer = non-ceremonial). Therefore, he says, the Regulative Principle that undoubtedly existed in the temple included both ceremonial and non-ceremonial aspects. The question one must ask is, so what? Schlissel has not argued that the regulative principle only applied to ceremonial aspects of worship, but rather all worship in relation to the temple, ceremonial or not. Again, this is a major manipulation of Schlissel’s actual argument by Schwertley. He himself equivocates this in the same paragraph. On the one hand he writes, Schlissel…says that the regulative principle applied solely to the temple. Yet he ends the paragraph by saying, Thus, the regulative principle cannot be restricted to ceremonial ordinances. Now, which is it: the temple itself, or ceremonial ordinances? Clearly, Schlissel is arguing that all worship (including non-ceremonial) is bound by the regulative principle in the temple. Since Schlissel doesn’t even argue what Schwertley is refuting, this is a spurious straw man of his own making.

Third, Schwertley believes that if even one passage can be shown that the regulative principle was applied outside the tabernacle/temple system, then Schlissel’s argument is worthless (13). He gives Matthew 15:13 for our consideration where the Pharisees challenge Jesus because his disciples don’t keep the tradition of the elders by washing their hands before they eat. Jesus replies, Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? According to Schwertley and other scholars, such as Rutherford and Ursinus, Jesus is here condemning the Jews because their tradition of hand washing was not divinely commanded. The Pharisees were supposedly engaging in will worship with their peculiar tradition. Rutherford even states that these traditions are not condemned by Christ because they were contrary to God’s word, or impious, but in this, that they were contrary because not commanded (p.12).

There is, of course, one glaring problem with this analysis of Matthew 15:13 by both Rutherford and Schwertly: Jesus is not condemning the tradition about washing one’s hands! The verses in context state,

And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honor his father with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!

A plain reading of the passage shows Jesus condemning the tradition of the elders of not keeping God’s fifth commandment by executing rebellious children! When confronted with this tradition about washing hands, Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees by showing their lack of obedience to the clear commands of God by way of another, disobedient tradition (i.e., Whatever help you might otherwise have received…)! He calls them hypocrites! Jesus simply does not address the issue of washing hands in his reply, rather He gives a very clear example of straining at gnats and swallowing camels. Rutherford, furthermore, has completely misread the verse in saying that Jesus condemns the washing hands tradition because [it] was not commanded. Jesus doesn’t even approach condemning the tradition of washing one’s hands before a meal, but rather violations of the fifth commandment. Thus, it is not Schlissel’s argument that is worthless at this point. Schwertley’s statement is also therefore gratuitous when he claims that Jesus is a champion of the regulative principle (13). If He is, you can’t prove it based on Matthew 15:13.

Schwertley makes another attempt at showing that the Regulative Principle applies outside the temple system by referring to Colossians 2:20-23 (14):

Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why as though living in the world do you subject yourself to regulations – Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using – according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.

However, Schwertly seems to simply assume that the touching, tasting, and handling in this passage is referring to worship service regulations. The passage, on the contrary, is quite clearly dealing with Christian living. Paul is contrasting the legalistic lifestyle that seeks to please God by following human regulations. Since obtaining merit with God is the issue, Paul may clearly call this will worship. Legalists live a life of self-serving worship. But is Paul talking about Christian worship services? That is an exegetical stretch. Schwertley needs to do more work in proving that this passage relates to Christian worship services.

This discussion of will worship leads Schwertley to write like a vintage regulativist: Can man improve upon the worship and service that God has instituted? It is the height of arrogance and stupidity to think that sinful man can improve upon God’s ordinances (p.14). He goes on, We ask our brother: What is lacking in the worship that God has appointed? Why are you so angry with those who just want to adhere strictly to what God has authorized in His word? What is arrogant or wrong with submitting to God’s commands without departing to the right or to the left? (15) Such words have great emotional appeal for regulativists, and they repeat them often. They would actually be great questions, if they were anything but a pure and unadulterated method of begging the question.

What is lacking in the worship that God has appointed? Schwertley asks rhetorically. Let me ask another question: What if the worship God has appointed is a decentralized, loosely-regulated system of worship? The answer to Schwertley’s question is indeed unequivocally Nothing! But the very point in dispute is what worship has God appointed? These emotional appeals from the regulativists simply beg the very question at issue. Moreover, if in fact God has instituted a system of worship based on the synagogue system, with a loose system of regulation, then it certainly would be arrogant and wrong to bind Christians under a system of regulation that God has not instituted! Schwertley’s emotional appeals are question-begging, rhetorical, and in my opinion, self-righteous.

The Which I Commanded Them Not Passages

Schwertley undertakes a rather long discussion of those passages in the Old Testament wherein God condemns the Jews for worshipping in ways that Jehovah Commanded them not (15). He has really wasted his time. Since Steve Schlissel heartily believes that the Old Testament saints were under the Regulative Principle as it related to their temple worship it would only make sense that God would judge them by that standard! The fact that Jehovah punished the Israelites for violations of the Regulative Principle is no argument at all against Schlissel, since the Israelites were under the principle. But Schlissel’s point in addressing these passages is merely to show the pattern of selective quotation in the literature of the regulativists. I will let Schlissel’s article speak for itself on that issue.

A Brief Summary of Schwertley’s Critique

1. Schwertley exhibits in his paper a totally unwarranted reaction toward Schlissel, calling his work: insulting, deceptive, bizarre, sloppy, ludicrous, false, unscriptural, based upon poor exegesis, and not to be taken seriously at all. This is merely a rhetorical tactic to bias the reader against Schlissel, making it seem as though he has nothing in common with the Reformed faith. These are all cheap shots.

2. Schwertley’s charging Schlissel with a straw-man argument is completely spurious, given that he himself has tampered with and modified Schlissel’s definition of the regulative principle. Doing this, he inserts words in Schlissel’s mouth that aren’t there, and he grossly misquotes a footnote by Schlissel, representing that the context of the footnote refers to regulativists, when in fact it is anti-paedobaptists. Schwertley’s then calls Schlissel’s argument deliberately deceptive, and sloppy scholarship.

3. Schwertley completely bypasses Schlissel’s argument that there is no divine warrant for the worship practices of the synagogue. He responds to this by proving (well, I might add) that the synagogue itself is a legitimate institution, as if this were relevant.

4. Schwertley’s critique of Schlissel’s view of human tradition in worship is an argument for non-inscripturated divine tradition, which is a Romanist principle to the core. He then says that Schlissel’s argument…supports the foundational principles of Romanism and Rabbinical Judaism.

5. Schwertley argues that there is no textual reason for assuming that Deuteronomy 12:32 applies only to the central temple worship. He says this after giving an obvious textual reason. He improperly assumes that the burden of proof is on Schlissel, when the situation is opposite.

6. Schwertley deliberately changes Schlissel’s position that the regulative principle applied to temple worship, to it applies to ceremonial ordinances. He then bases a complete argument from this, which is irrelevant.

7. Schwertley seriously mishandles Matthew 15:13 by assuming that Jesus there condemns the Pharisees’ tradition of washing hands before a meal. Jesus does no such thing, he rather condemns the Pharisees violation of the fifth commandment. He also assumes that Colossians 2:20-23 includes Christian worship services, which he did not prove.

8. He engages in emotional and rhetorical appeals that are purely question-begging.

9. Lastly, he wastes much time and space proving that Jehovah condemned the Israelites for violations of the Regulative Principle, which is fully consistent with Schlissel’s view.


Schwertley also ends his discussion in vintage regulativist fashion. He attacks human innovations in modern worship, not with argument but with disdain and ridicule. The pastors and elders in ‘Reformed’ churches which have puppet shows, sermonettes for children, drama groups, musical groups, dance troupes, liturgical calendars, and unauthorized holy days love these articles by Schlissel. Why? Because his articles justify human autonomy…in worship (p.19). This ridicule simply demonstrates a major point of Schlissel’s: regulativists argue by way of an unchallengeable standard. Schwertley seems to choke out the words puppet shows, sermonettes for children etc. as though these things are ipso facto abhorrent violations of God’s Holy Law. But he hasn’t shown this; he merely assumes it as a natural outflow of his assumption of the regulative principle. For all of Schwertley’s complaining about Steve Schlissel assuming things in his articles, Schwertley is a bit more adept at it. This is just another example of question-begging.

By all means, believers should be consulting God’s Word concerning all our practices in worship, taking into account all that God has to say on the subject. But to do this by means of an artificial principle, and then condemn as insulting any other view is not honoring to the Lord. The question is simply not as easy as the regulativists make it sound. In spite of its aspirations, Brian Schwertley’s critique of Steve Schlissel’s arguments is not a substantive contribution to this debate.

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