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Topic: The RPW Series
RPW Series (Part 2)
July 30, 2002
All I Really Need to Know About Worship
…I Don’t Learn from the Regulative Principle (Part 2)
Greetings in our Messiah. We have been arguing that the Regulative Principle of Worship— if it is not commanded, it is forbidden— is not the principle given by God to regulate worship in the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Important as it is for us to worship Scripturally, we ought to recognize that in the advocacy of the RPW we are confronted with something which extends beyond worship alone. As we have seen, we have here a matter inextricably bound up with the way we approach and handle the Bible. In this it is not unlike the issue of baptism.
Antipaedobaptists insist that the New Testament is so entirely new that our obligations are limited to what is commanded therein. Moreover, if it is not commanded in a certain way it is still forbidden, particularly regarding sacraments. Hence, for Baptists, the absence of a clear NT command to baptize babies, joined to the many clear examples of adult baptisms following profession, leads to their conclusion that babies, covenant or otherwise, may not be lawfully baptized. This conclusion is inevitable once their premises are granted, but it is precisely their premises which are in need of repair.
You see a remarkably similar handling of Scripture by regulativists. They assume their principle and make it the unchallengeable starting point. Once the RPW is baptized as a given, all worship sins in the Bible are subpoenaed to support it, just like adult baptisms are enlisted to prove that infants may not be baptized.
But where did this worship principle come from in the first place? Does the Bible really teach that only that which God has commanded may be done in worship? We chose to begin our consideration of the RPW with an examination of its ostensible Biblical justification. In that examination we found a pattern of obfuscation rather than explication. For example, where God condemned Israel for flagrantly idolatrous practices, the regulativists in their citations would conveniently hide the contexts and pretend Israel’s condemnation was solely for adding to God’s requirements. We even found them creating versettes, citing verse fragments which appeared to support their view. These are hermeneutical no-no’s for which they remain unapologetic.
At the opposite extreme of the RPW is what regulativists call the Romish or High-Church Principle (HCP): if it is not forbidden, it is permitted. All Reformed agree that the HCP is inadequate. However, inadequate as it is, in virtually every example of worship sin cited by regulativists, no sin would have occurred if the HCP had been honored. In other words, regulativists regularly cite instances of Israel doing what God had forbidden— sins covered by the HCP— and then make believe that only the RPW could have prevented those abuses. Not so.
In fact, the only credible proofs for the RPW could be whittled down to those examples garnered from the strictly regulated Tabernacle/ Temple service. But here, we said, the significant change between the Old and New administrations of the covenant must be fully taken into account. In the New Testament, the Gospel goes global. With that change, the punctiliousness that once characterized the Temple service now characterizes the guarding of the Gospel instead. New Testament anathemas are not issued for those who sin in worship matters, as the regulativists would have it, but for those who tinker with the contents of the Gospel. This is as plain as day on the pages of the New Testament.
Remember: Old Testament worship from Sinai forward was bifurcated. There was a rigidly controlled, centralized, Levitically administered worship at the Tabernacle/ Temple, and there was a less controlled, decentralized, democratically administered worship throughout the land in what would evolve into synagogues.
To be sure, New Testament worship is anchored to the Tabernacle/ Temple in heaven: Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man (Hebrews 8:1-2).
However, while it is anchored in the heavenly Temple, it takes place on earth in Christian synagogues. My brethren, hold not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, (the Lord) of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come into your synagogue a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing… (James 2:1-2 [ASV])
We worship in Christian synagogues. The only blood we have is Christ’s, made known through the Gospel. It is the Gospel, therefore, which is heir to the strict regulations which governed the Tabernacle/ Temple service. The synagogue was never so regulated and is not now. That the synagogue was the model for the organization and worship of the apostolic church is disputed only by two groups: Romanists (and their stepchildren) and regulativists (when it suits them).
Thus our first three headings of argumentation: Regulativists see their principle where it is not, they miss it where it is, and they skip the significance of the synagogue. So much for review. Let us now proceed.
Regulativists stumble over ‘special days’
The Regulative Principle of Worship has resulted in much good but its advocates have committed many offenses. Sometimes it seems that for every worship error which offends them, they commit two exegetical errors in retaliation. A leading scandal is their filtering out of anything in Scripture which refuses to yield to their demand for servile texts. One prime example of this is the matter of special days.
As you know, consistent regulativists are adamantly opposed to the observance of any day but the Lord’s Day. They have a sea of books, tracts and articles devoted to this one topic going all the way back to the Reformation. Farel, Viret, Calvin and Knox were all in favor of rejecting all special days sanctioned and revered by Rome.
Undoubtedly, this served a good purpose in its time. It immediately distinguished the Reformed, both on the Continent and in Scotland, from Rome, whose calendar was blanketed with such days. So the Reformation was well served in its early days by such a clear line of demarcation.
But are we to take a position which was manifestly adopted in and due to unique historical circumstances and enshrine it as if it were the Word of God itself on the subject? I think not. In this I stand with the sons of the Reformation from the Netherlands, and elsewhere.
Some Reformers and their regulativist heirs went looking for verses to justify their rejection of special days. And I, for one, am glad they did! It served a good purpose. But does that make their use of Scripture on this point above criticism? Certainly not.
In fact, the very rationale used to justify jettisoning holy days is one which could properly be used to justify their qualified observance. It would depend on various other considerations. Let me explain.
The alleged Biblical basis for rejecting all days but the Lord’s Day is in two parts: 1) the Lord’s Day is (supposedly) clearly commanded, and 2) the observance of special days is supposedly forbidden in Galatians 4:10.
The church was well-served by having a day of rest distinct from the day of the Old administration. No argument here. But to grasp this is to be near to understanding why the disapproval of day observance in Galatians was, like the same disapproval during the Reformation, historically conditioned and not necessarily normative.
For the problem Paul was fighting in Galatians was not the observance of days per se. It could not have been! A reading of Acts 20 and 21 finds our beloved Apostle eager to get back to Jerusalem for Pentecost and more than willing to observe Jewish customs, even ritualistic/ Temple-centric customs. Notice what rumor Paul hoped to put to rest by the observance of the latter:
Paul was told that Jewish believers have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs (Acts 21:21).
This charge was false. Paul did not tell Jews they must reject those practices which formerly set them apart, but rather that they must accept Gentiles as coequals without imposing upon them the obligation to keep Jewish ceremonial distinctives. This agrees with what James and the other elders told Paul during the same meeting: But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality (v. 25).
The problem at Galatia, then, could not have been the observance of days per se because Jewish Christians were never told that they must not celebrate their distinctive calendar. Rather, the problem was that some were teaching that Gentiles could not be saved unless they, too, observed all the Jewish ceremonial distinctives. That Paul was addressing only Gentile believers in this passage, and was concerned to dissuade them from adopting Sinai distinctives, is glaringly evident from the fact that Paul warns, Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. But it was only Gentiles who could have considered becoming circumcised: the Jewish Christians already were!
Remember, remember, remember that the issue in New Testament polemics was this: Must Gentiles become Jews in order to become Christians? Keep that issue front and center and difficulties evaporate.
Paul couldn’t care less about days per se, just as he couldn’t care less about circumcision. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts. And again: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. And again: Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. (1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6; Gal 6:15)
Consequently, there is nothing in Paul’s argument in Galatians which would lead us to believe that the observance of days per se was wrong, evil, unacceptable. What he was battling for was a Gospel which held out to the whole world a free and accessible salvation, one not tied to Jewish distinctives.
One might even justly say that Paul was, in effect, arguing that the Regulative Principle of Worship does not apply to the Gentiles. That is, he was arguing on the assumption that the Temple system in its entirety had been realized in such a way in Christ— realized for all nations— that to impose the Sinai worship strictures on the Gentiles would be untrue to the Gospel. The reign of Christ from heaven makes those strictures irrelevant to Universal Judaism.
Therefore, Galatians 4:10 is seeking to keep the Gentiles— not from day-observance, as if they’d offend God by honoring Christ’s birth (for example), but rather— from being caught up in a system which could easily cause them to overlook the very core difference of the New administration: the Gospel is now global, not local. You do not have to become a Jew to become a Christian. That’s the issue. None other.
So it was Jewish days that Gentiles were not obligated to keep. Mind you, to read Paul’s whole theology makes the conclusion irresistible that he would not have objected to Gentiles observing Jewish holidays if they did it for good reasons. He was fighting against an imposition which threatened the universal character of the Gospel.
I trust that seeing the Galatians argument in this light is helpful. It makes the Reformers appeal to it legitimate within bounds. If their intention was to deliver the people of God from having holy days imposed upon them by the dozens, they were being true to the text and its meaning. But if they would go further and say that the observance of days is essentially sinful, they would be going too far. The community of faith has always been free to corporately adopt a day or days to honor God’s great works in history on behalf of His covenant people.
Just as Judaism was destined to grow up and become Christianity, so the Reformed faith could grow up when historical circumstances warranted. Early adolescence, some say, is characterized by a teen fighting for who he is not. Maturity comes when he recognizes who he is. Distinguishing themselves from Rome by having no special days was very helpful. But a time would come, and has come, when the Reformed could freely choose to observe days, in moderation, to honor Christ in distinctly Reformed ways, making identification with Rome for that fact most unlikely.
But besides all this we find within Scripture itself sufficient warrant for the people of God to observe days commemorating God’s great acts of intervention on their behalf. Since I am writing this on Purim, 5759, let me start with that. Purim is the holiday celebrating the deliverance of the Jews from, and their victory over, their would-be destroyer, Haman. The events surrounding the holiday are, of course, found in the Book of Esther.
Its origin as a day to be observed is explicitly recorded for us in Esther 9:27-28. The passage is enough to cause convulsions in a strict regulativist: The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them, so as it should not fail, that they would keep these two days according to their writing, and according to their appointed time every year; And that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed.
There you have it. The covenant people themselves, quite apart from any divine precept or command, took it upon themselves and their descendants to observe a special holiday every year, forever. Quite a problem for the regulativists’ interpretation of You shall not add to it. Not only are we given to understand that there was no prophetic guidance, and no immediate divine instruction, to which authorization for this feast could be traced, but we find it originating in a book which has no mention of the name of God at all. Yet, it is in our Bible, man-made day and all.
And we, who reject the RPW, have no problem with this whatsoever. We think it is absolutely normal for God’s people to mark His extraordinary acts of deliverance with special observances and activities. And Purim wasn’t the only time the people of God did it. They did it with Chanukah, too.
Before discussing Chanukah, let me briefly tell you of the truly pathetic accounting of these Scriptural facts offered by the regulativists. They say, It appears, that these days of Purim were only appointed to be days of civil mirth and gladness… Consider where this rationale leads: The people of God and their descendants may remember, honor and celebrate miraculous interventions and extraordinary deliverances of them by their covenant God everywhere except in the churches which bear His name!
This is not merely an example of extremism in the regulativist camp; it is an example of their principle logically applied and carried out. The principle pits itself not only against the Scripture from which it supposedly arose, but also against the historical sense and self-consciousness of God’s people. It is not merely the application which is errant: it is the principle itself.
Now let us move on to Chanukah. The word Chanukah means dedication. Thus in John 10:22 we read, Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon's Colonnade.
The Form for the Solemnization of Marriage, as used in Reformed churches, says, Our Lord Jesus honored marriage by His blessed presence at the wedding in Cana. He similarly honored Chanukah by His presence at its celebration in John 10:22.
Chanukah is a commemoration of the divine victory over Antiochus Epiphanes at the hand of Judah Maccabee. The events surrounding the recapturing and rededication (hence the name of the feast) of the Temple are recorded in the apocryphal books, 1 & 2 Maccabees. Since the holiday is traced to that period there can be no question of it being instituted or authorized by a divinely inspired prophet, for there were none during that period. Nevertheless, God was active on behalf of His people and His covenant.
In 2 Maccabees 10 we find the record of the origin of the celebration, a record which would surely induce hives in any regulativist: It happened on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.
And Jesus didn’t seem to mind. But then, the Lord Jesus Christ is not a regulativist.
Regulativists stumble over ‘traditions
Sure, it is easy to offer a misleading caricature of our Lord by portraying Him as altogether opposed to any human traditions whatsoever in the service of God, but such a portrait would be false.
Without doubt, our Lord condemned any human tradition which obscured, nullified, set apart or contradicted the Word of God (e.g., Mark 7:9 and context). But there is no indication that He opposed traditions which supported, magnified or drew attention to the Word and works of God. It is not, for us, a question merely of whether an observance can be traced to human tradition, but it is also a question of fidelity to Scripture, propriety in worship, and profitability to the people of God.
All the New Testament authors are comfortable with tradition. The Epistles brim with references to uninspired texts and practices. Jannes and Jambres (2 Timothy 3:8)— for one, tiny example— are named by Paul in accordance with a Jewish tradition. The Apostles absorbed their Jewish traditions and lived them and repeated them in stride, so long as they met the criteria in the preceding paragraph.
To see how comfortable Jesus was with human traditions which properly honored God, it is only necessary to see Him in the synagogue. When we find Him attending synagogue, as was His custom, we must remember that He was attending a service of worship at an institution which had no divinely authorized blueprint. The standards for establishing one, administering one or disestablishing one were all derived from human tradition.
Moreover, when we find Him reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, we find His endorsement of one of many human traditions which constituted the worship of God in the synagogue. We take readings of the Prophets so for granted that the point could easily be lost, but according to the Regulative Principle of Worship, that reading of Isaiah by our own Lord in worship might have been called an act of presumptuousness— what they call will worship.
Slow down— I am not being ridiculous. Consider this: the only Scripture we find God commanding to be read in public worship is the Law (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). It is the Law, or portions of it, which you find publicly read throughout Israel’s history whenever any liturgical readings are referred to. Even in the great scene described in Nehemiah 8, a scene which most regard as revelatory of the synagogue order of that day, the Scripture read is the Law (8:2).
Who, then, has the authority to introduce into worship the public reading of the Prophets? If we may only do what God explicitly commands, we’d need a command to legitimate the reading of anything besides Moses in public worship. An OT-regulativist need not have discounted the Prophets’ inspiration to argue that an obedient people, following the RPW, would simply trust that God had His reasons for commanding only the Law be read in public assemblies, and that to add even inspired Prophetic books was nothing but effrontery. That, in fact, is the very argument advanced today by regulativists for singing only Psalms!
If the RPW is correct, it was sheer temerity on the part of the Jews to allow non-Mosaic readings. That such readings were customary by the time of Jesus is obvious. That He took them up and hallowed them is also obvious. Equally obvious is this: they were contrary to the RPW. But, since the RPW itself is not Biblical, we shouldn’t be concerned about that.
One more example of benign tradition can be found in what is really a network, an entire fabric, of human traditions: the Passover observance in which our Lord freely participated.
Jewish and Christian scholars alike recognize that The Bible includes extensive discussions of Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread; however, these descriptions do not correspond with later observances of the holiday. That the Seder evolved quite apart from express divine warrant is an inescapable conclusion, unless one is prepared to adopt a Jewish/Romish view which would posit an independent, secondary source of equal authority with the Word of God contained in Scripture.
If the Regulative Principle of Worship is true, and if the Passover is an institution of divine authority, given by God to His people as a means by which He was to be remembered, honored, praised and thanked (in other words, worshipped), then nothing could have been lawfully added to it by man.
Yet that is exactly, and indisputably, what happened. Therefore, either the holiday was not of divine origin (but it was), or it was not a means of worship (but it was), or the RPW is false (it is). For when we come to the inspired New Testament Scriptures, we find our Lord and Savior celebrating the Last Seder with, among other things, wine.
I will ask that we be concerned here with none of the other elements save the wine. Where is the command of God to use wine in the Passover service? It is not there. Commanded were the pesach, the matzoh and the m'rowr, i.e., the Passover lamb, the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs.
Yet by the time of our Lord we find not only the introduction of wine into the Passover service, but the organization of the entire Seder around four discreet cups of wine, every one of human origin.
If Jesus our Messiah was a regulativist, I tell you, He would have turned over that Seder table that night! Instead, He took the cup of wine called Thanksgiving and said, This cup is the New Covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.
The RPW— if it is not commanded, it’s forbidden— is not Biblical. If it were, we wouldn’t have our Savior approving of the predicate of what He made into the Lord’s Supper, the very emblem of Christian worship.
Regulativists stumble over themselves
Thus far we have sought to prove that the Regulative Principle of Worship is untrue to Scripture. We have done this by demonstrating the regulativists’ flawed appeal to texts wherein they imagine to find it when it simply isn’t there.
We have also shown that regulativists miss the meaning of the principle where it is found— in the Tabernacle/ Temple administration which terminated upon and in Christ.
We then noticed how regulativists (conveniently) fail to notice the synagogue. It is tough to miss an entire institution unless you’re really trying.
Then we proved that special days are not necessarily the evil they are cracked up to be by regulativists. Israel was not allowed to add Tabernacle/ Temple-dependent feast days, it is true, just as we are not allowed to add to the Gospel. But outside of that OT Gospel system, they were free to appoint for themselves days to remember extraordinary deliverances by their God. No harm done, no offense taken by God. Christ Himself gives us the Amen to that.
And lastly, we saw how regulativists blithely overlook an abundance of New Testament (not to mention Old Testament!) evidence that human tradition is not necessarily evil. It certainly may be evil— there is no shortage of historical evidence proving that possibility. But human tradition is not necessarily evil. The Regulative Principle of Worship serves as proof of that.
Now we would move on to challenge the arbitrariness in the regulativists’ applications of their principle. But before we do, please permit a reiteration and clarification. I happily stand squarely in the tradition of RPW-style worship, but I stand here on grounds other than those advanced by regulativists. I propose that there is more consistency in worshipping in the RPW-style while rejecting its arguments than in paying lip-service to its arguments but rejecting the style of worship to which it leads. Some who call themselves believers in the Regulative Principle of Worship, believe a version of it that is so elastic as to make it truly unrecognizable as the RPW to any honest observer.
A close colleague of mine, for example, a man I love and respect, proclaims, All Protestants must believe in the Regulative Principle. But he defines regulate so broadly as to make his principle completely at odds with the historically received RPW.
God regulates in different ways, he says, arriving at an understanding of regulate which makes his theory indistinguishable from those who reject the RPW outright. Why doesn’t he just say he doesn’t believe it?
No aureole is waiting to alight upon the heads of those who would turn their professed principle into a wax nose, twisting, distorting, reshaping it, then calling themselves its loyal sons. The RPW has a historic, discernible, commonly received meaning. It is passing strange that some who (quite properly) are at odds with deconstructionist methodology would then attempt to pass themselves off as regulativists when they have first divested the word of its historical meaning and injected it with an entirely opposite meaning. We would not take kindly to a man who tries to convince us that a cow is an animal with two legs, feathers and gills. He’s describing something other than what we call a cow, no doubt about it. So also, true regulativists are those who at least attempt to apply a discreet principle— if it is not commanded, it is forbidden— even if their attempts include improvements. The key is that they own it in a way which leaves the principle recognizable as the one historically received.
It is better to confess up-front that the regulative principle, being unscriptural, ought to be rejected. We respect the earnest adherents of the RPW, and we treasure the sort of worship God has providentially allowed to flourish in their courts. We would adopt and maintain that worship— indeed, we’d even propagate it— we’d just do so on other premises.
Onto applications. Perhaps the favorite application of the principle by those who regard themselves as strict or consistent regulativists is exclusive Psalmody. We have no quarrel with singing Psalms exclusively, in corporate worship, if the practice is defended on proper grounds and recognized as a tradition. Unfortunately, regulativists regard it as anything but.
Beginning with their principle, they go through the New Testament looking for commanded elements. And at Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, according to one RPW authority, the difficulty begins. I don’t think they’ve even begun to consider the difficulty which, for them, begins there.
The texts in question, as you know, read as follows: Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; and, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
The regulativist row over these verses typically revolves around the triple designation, psalms, hymns, spiritual songs. The strict regulativist argues, not without power, that these three words all refer to the Psalms, the Psalter as contained in our Christian Bibles. Their evidence for this is that the Septuagint Bible, in common use in the days of our Lord and His Apostles, and known to the recipients of these letters, had these three Greek words variously serving as headers over respective psalms: some would say A Psalm…, others would say, A Hymn…, others might be denominated as a Spiritual Song.
We will grant, for argument’s sake, the regulativist’s contention here. What he hasn’t proved, however— whatever these songs might be— is that they are to be sung in Christian worship services at all, on his principles.
For what we do not find in the Ephesians or Colossians passages is evidence to suggest that Paul is giving instructions for what is to take place in a Christian worship service. The fact that a command is found in a letter to a church is no proof that its fulfillment was to take place in a worship service. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. However much we believe that, very few today would suggest that this is a command to be fulfilled in public worship (though the New Testament indicates that there were some at that time who were not beyond just such a suggestion: see Jude and 2 Peter).
The contexts of both the Ephesians and Colossians verses indicate that public worship was not in view. The contexts of both citations are general rules for covenant-keeping in all of life. They are found within rules for God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. They include commands which aid in the maturation of Christian character, Christian graces, Christian virtues. In both Ephesians and Colossians the commands are immediately followed by sets of commands for domestic life and vocational life. Nothing suggests that these are rules governing worship services.
In those contexts where we do find Paul’s explicit, inspired will for what is to take place in worship, we find no command to sing. See, for example, 1 Timothy 2-3 or Titus 1-3.
Yes, Jesus sang at Passover, but that was a) during the pre-Pentecost administration, b) in the home, not the synagogue, and c) after the required elements of service had been performed. (I’m not being any sillier in explaining things away here than regulativists ordinarily are; I just beg you to bear in mind, this is not my position!)
Paul and Silas sang in prison, not a church service. And even Paul’s dictum, I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind, though found in a context dictating worship order, is not normative because (it could be argued) it was regulating the charismata, gifts which most regulativists agree have run their ordained course. We are no more to sing (it could be said) than we are to speak in tongues.
That leaves us with no clear command to sing in Christian worship services. In fact, Conrad Grebel, in his Letter to Thomas Muntzer, Zurich, 5 September, 1524, argued along similar and other lines that singing may not be introduced into Christian worship. Behold! The consistent regulativist!
We understand that you have translated the Mass into German and composed new German Hymns. This cannot be good, because we find in the New Testament no teaching or example about singing. Paul scolds the Corinthian scholars more than he praises them for murmuring in the congregation, as though they were singing, just as Jews and Italians pronounce their liturgy in the manner of songs. Second, because singing in the Latin language arose without divine teaching and apostolic example, and has not brought about anything good, it will edify still less in German and will create an external, specious faith. Third [watch this one!— sms], Paul most clearly forbids singing in the fifth chapter to the Ephesians and in the third chapter of his letter to the Colossians. He does this by saying that people should talk and instruct one another with psalms and spiritual songs; and if one wants to sing, one should sing and give thanks in one’s heart. Fourth, what we are not taught with clear sayings and examples should be as forbidden to us as if it were written: ‘Do not do that; do not sing.’ Fifth, Christ tells His messengers to preach only the word that is in the Old and New Testaments. Paul also says that the speech of Christ, not song, should dwell among us. Whoever sings poorly is frustrated; whoever sings well is arrogant. Sixth, we should not add to the word what we think good, nor should we subtract from it. Seventh,…
So, on the regulativist’s professed principle, we would not say he has gone too far in advocating a cappella psalmody exclusively. Rather, we’d insist that he has not followed his professed principle far enough. He should insist upon no singing at all in corporate worship. Then he would approach consistency.
In all this we have let alone other weighty, oft-lodged arguments which point out the embarrassing twists regulativists put themselves in: 1) Their Psalms-only position results in the exclusion from worship of other divinely-inspired hymns (1 Samuel 2:1-10; Exodus 15:1-18; Luke 1:46-55; not to mention Deuteronomy 32!) & other singable Scripture portions. 2) They are opposed to hymns and so must ignore the presence of hymns or hymn-fragments in the New Testament itself (e.g., Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Timothy 3:16). 3) They are opposed to man-made hymns in worship but (most) allow them outside of worship. Yet the passages they rely on to justify exclusive Psalmody, as we have seen, cover life outside of corporate worship. 4) They oppose man-made hymns but accept man-made prayers and sermons, an amazing tension! 5) They say, Psalms alone are permitted in worship, and so, if consistent, would ironically have Christian worship characterized as that where the words Jesus Christ would never be sung, for that matchless Name is not found in that form in the Psalter. We’ll leave it at five.
It is not my intention, I remind you, to overthrow or even to challenge the legitimacy of worship as it is found in churches which adhere to the RPW. After all, that is the very sort of worship one finds in our church, Messiah’s Congregation. On the contrary, the two modest things I would hope to accomplish are, 1) to encourage the establishment of regulative-style worship on firmer principles, that is, on principles less vulnerable to exegetical overthrow, and 2) to take some of the arrogant wind out of the sails of RPW zealots who speak contemptuously of all non-RPW worship as, for that very reason, an abomination to God.
It is precisely because I believe that regulativist-style worship is the most God-glorifying and sheep-edifying worship that I want to see it more widely accepted, adopted and perhaps improved. But if it is to be argued for, it must be argued for on the grounds that it is demonstrably the best sort of worship, not on the grounds that all other worship is, by definition, an abomination.
We must get to the point where honesty prevails and we acknowledge that regulativist worship is a tradition. I happen to believe, and I believe I can demonstrate, that it is the best form of worship, and that for a variety of reasons; but I cannot, with good conscience, pretend that it can be established on the traditional premises, viz., that God forbids in worship anything He has not expressly commanded. I trust we have seen that it is impossible to believe that and the whole Bible, too.
For we have shown that regulativists, in arguing for their particular shibboleth, bend the Bible to make it appear to say what they wish. The say they’ve found the RPW where, upon closer examination, it is not to be found. And they miss it where it is: in the sacrificial system which has been taken up in Christ in such a way as to void blood-administrations on earth. We now approach God through the Gospel of the blood of the Messiah. It is the Gospel which is strictly regulated in the New administration of the covenant, for we have no blood rites and we have no orders dependent upon them. The blood that saves us is sprinkled upon the altar in heaven. Its shedding is not to be, cannot be, repeated upon earth, but is to be believed on and celebrated.
I do sympathize with the apprehension which grips some regulativists. They fear that if their principle is overturned, chaos will reign in worship, that anything will go. These fears should not govern our exegesis.
In fact, they are just the kind of fears we hear expressed in arguments against the Reformed doctrine of sola gratia. If you tell people they are saved by grace through faith alone, and not by works of the law, chaos will ensue! People will be unrestrained! Sin will abound!
Our fathers— thank God!— steamrolled over such objections. First, they said, the Bible teaches that we are justified by grace through faith. Second, they insisted, good works are most necessary (Heidelberg Q&A 86-87). We only insist that God is not put into our debt by them. Rather, they are ever-present evidences of thankful hearts set free. If we could be justified by what we do, Christ died for nothing.
Thus our fathers met the challenge of those who said that the Scripture doctrine of grace would lead to antinomian chaos. They followed Paul with a loud, God forbid! (Romans 6:1,2ff). So, too, must we insist that if the Regulative Principle of Worship is not taught in Scripture, we serve no one well by pretending that it is.
The solution that offset the fears of those alarmed over the proclamation of free grace was the proclamation of the whole counsel of God. The answer to the question of how, if we are delivered from the RPW, we are to order Christian services of worship, will be found along the same path: the whole counsel of God.
In our next letter we will set forth (D.V.) what we call The Informed Principle of Worship: If it is not forbidden, it might be permitted. Whether it is permitted depends on other Biblical requirements and considerations. None are esoteric. They are there lying right on the surface of Scripture for anyone to use. Each serves as a filter by which faithful churches may test proposed elements and aspects of a worship service.
It is our prayer that the Informed Principle of Worship will help in some small way to move us toward a Reformed consensus which honors Christ, orthodoxy and Reformed history, all in the light of, and according to, God’s whole Word. Just let us not so misidentify seventeenth century Presbyterianism as to mistake it for the equivalent of God’s last Word spoken to or through the church!
The last word for this edition of Messiah’s Mandate, however, will be given to a late-seventeenth century Presbyterian, a man widely regarded (from that day until this) as perhaps the greatest Presbyterian of the period: Richard Baxter. I came across these words of Baxter in a book by Robert S. Paul, The Assembly of the Lord.
Mr. Paul explains how Baxter on the one hand, acknowledged the highest admiration for the [Westminster] assembly and its works, but he recognized the problems associated with synods such as Westminster and Dordt in trying to establish standards of orthodoxy for all time.
Baxter left a record concerning the time he had been approached by a bookseller to write an introduction to the papers of the Assembly. The bookseller was keen to have Baxter stress how the fruits of the Assembly’s labors could be profitably used by families. Baxter accepted, with conditions. He asked that his introduction be examined by other theologians, then used or discarded, as they wished. Only, he insisted, print it in its entirety or not at all. He went on to relate that,
The bookseller gets Mr. Manton to put an Epistle before the book, who inserted mine in a different Character in his own, (as mine, but not naming me): But he leaveth out a part, which it seems, was not pleasing to all. When I had commended the Catechisms for the use of Families, I added, That I hoped the Assembly intended not all in that long confession and those Catechisms, to be imposed as a Test of Christian Communion; nor to disown all that scrupled at any word in it; if they had I could not have commended it for any such use, though it be useful for the instruction of Families, &c. All this is left out, which I thought meet to open, lest I be there misunderstood.
Brother Baxter, I pray we all understand your sentiment perfectly— and that we all agree. Amen to your words, amen to your exception, amen to the spirit in which it was written.
It is our intention to write to you soon. If you have not written to us lately, now is a good time. Yes, it is.
In the hope that I have been of use to you and Him, I remain
Yours and His,
Steve M. Schlissel