Monthly Archives: September 2017

On the regulative principle of worship

I was asked the following question on curious cat, but I was told my reply was too long, so here it is:

How do you make sense of the Regulative Principle of worship, a position so counter-intuitive that at its extremes it begets incoherence? Especially given that the churches to which you’ve belonged will have practiced this principle differently?

The regulative principle of worship (RPW) is one of the things I was most unsure of in my move towards Presbyterianism, but I’ve grown to appreciate, even if I have lots to learn about it. For clarity, I understand the principle to be that in corporate worship we may only worship God in ways that he has told us to worship him in Scripture. I would start by questioning whether the RPW is as unintuitive as you suggest. If God is as the Bible describes him (holy) then it makes sense that we could not make up our own ways to worship him.

1. However the very point of the RPW is that we need Scripture to guide us in corporate worship. So what does Scripture say?

– Immediately after the fall, the first issue we encounter is the question of how to worship God rightly. Cain thought he could bring any old animal from his flock to worship God with. But he was wrong. Undoubtedly there is a heart issue here too but as so often, heart issues make themselves known in formal ways.

– Under the law the principle is made clear in the second commandment and spelled out in great detail in the various ceremonial laws. Not only is God alone to be worshipped (1st C) but he is to be worshipped in the way that he chooses: not through idols, but (implicitly) as set out in his word (2nd C). The case of Nadib and Abihu, consecrated priests of God, offering ‘strange fire’ is the classic example. No idolatry, but an offering made to God in a way that he had not commanded.

– Under the gospel we worship God ‘in Spirit and in truth’. Although there is a characteristic NT emphasis on our heart, it’s not clear to me that this means that the forms no longer matter. Paul teaches that ‘when we come together’ special rules apply. We meet on the first day of the week. We remember that God is still a consuming fire, even if, as during much of the OT period, God does not immediately consume the false worshipper! We have a high priest who has gone through the heavens, so that part of our worship is accomplished by faith in him, but we still offer God a ‘sacrifice of praise’. I don’t know Hebrews very well, but it seems that a good deal of what it is doing is showing that it is inappropriate to continue with OT ceremonies under the New Covenant. The argument is not that forms are irrelevant, but that the forms of New Covenant worship are now simpler, because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Historically, this is exactly what has happened: the important breaks with the RPW have been attempts to supplement the simplicity of gospel worship with a variety of Old Covenant style sensory spectacles.

2. I’ll add two broader arguments that I find persuasive:

– worship is faith expressed. Just as the church has no right to create dogmas that are not in the Bible, so too the church has no right to create additional ways of worshipping God that are not in the Bible. E.g. mandating fasting during lent

– the RPW is freeing. Without the RPW the worshipper is at the mercy of the church authorities who can impose whatever forms they like, as long as they are not contradicting the word of God. History shows that all manner of things can flourish in these circumstances. Remembering that our hearts are idol-factories, the RPW frees us from many sinful inventions.

3. Qualifications

– none of this means it is easy to move from Scripture to public worship without serious thought and learning from other Christians who have gone before us. It’s not just about proof-texting.

– none of this means that traditional ways of worship have no authority.

– none of this guarantees that our worship is acceptable. It is a brake not a barrier.

– none of this means that there isn’t some responsibility on the church to order our corporate worship. But they should not involve new ways of worship.

Of course, there is much debate about what a ‘way’ is. But that’s a discussion we want to have, because the principle is a good one, I think. Perhaps you want to elaborate on how you see it producing incoherance?

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