THE REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE IN PUBLIC WORSHIP
So-called “worship” today includes films, plays, dramatic sketches, “gospel rock”, repetitive chorus singing, “open worship”, prophecies and tongue-speaking, jocular chairmanship, and a host of other things too numerous to mention. Hand-clapping, dancing, embracing and kissing add a further dimension, until the overall ef feet in the minds of many people – including non-Christians – is one of confusion. Churches differ so widely that it is next to impossible to establish any kind of “norm” in public worship. Services range from comparative simplicity to what is little less that a rather riotous and disorderly “party”!
Why is this? It is due to the absence of any real principle except that of expediency – that is, whatever the particular minister or readers consider to be expedient at that particular time. “Anything goes” is the order of the day, and in the last analysis personal and subjective judgment reigns supreme.
This of course is a very crucial matter. I cannot personally see any middle ground between either an authority outside ourselves which
regulates the contents and manner of public worship, or this principle of expediency which comes from within ourselves.
Some would say that there is middle ground in that whatever the Scriptures do not forbid is acceptable in public worship. But this is merely an extension of the principle of expediency, since the number of things the Scriptures do not forbid is so great that the adoption of this principle leaves the way open for almost untold excesses, all of which become the subject of personal opinion.
Let us then examine these two opposites. The first, known as the “Regulative principle”, states broadly that unless something is commanded or sanctioned by Scripture, it is forbidden in public worship. The second, known as the “Normative principle” (though I prefer to call it the principle of expediency) is that whatever is not forbidden in the Scriptures is allowable. Historically, Calvin, the Puritans and Scottish Reformers adopted the Regulative principle, whereas Luther and the Anglican Church adopted the Normative principle.
The Normative Principle
If we really want to evaluate a principle, I believe it is a good thing to drive it as far as it will go, and see where it leads. If we adopt a principle, we cannot, as I see it, suddenly stop it halfway. We either go all the way with it, or we must abandon it. We cannot say “Stop the world at this point, I want to get off!” Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones used this form of test in some of his earlier Friday evening meetings at Westminster Chapel – following up a false principle step by step until its ultimate direction was clearly revealed.
Let us apply this to the vexed question of hand-clapping to the rhythm of a hymn or chorus. The next step to hand-clapping is stamping. There is no difference essentially between rhythmic movement of the hands in clapping, and rhythmic movement of the feet in stamping. The next step of course is dancing – there is no essential difference between rhythmic movement of hands and feet whilst remaining stationary, and rhythmic movement of the feet and body in dancing. If anyone wishes to say “I think hand-clapping is allowable, but I draw the line at dancing”, let me emphasize that the deciding words are “/ draw the line”. Personal opinion. Subjective judgment. What “I” or “We” consider expedient. You cannot decide to draw such a line on any principle save that of expediency.
We may pursue this matter to the point of ridicule, and I wish to do that quite deliberately. Why not bring fish and chip suppers into our time of evening worship? Nowhere does Scripture forbid it! Now I know that the suggestion is far-fetched, and most people would be horrified at the profanity of adopting it. But on what principle would we forbid it? General offensiveness? Lack of decency? Lack of respect for the house of God? But who is to be the arbitrator? It can only be “I think” or “We think” or “The Church
thinks” – so we are straight back to the principle of expediency -subjective opinion without any authority save that which comes from within ourselves, shaped by our conditioned culture.
This seems to me to be the great weakness of the Normative principle – that whatever is allowed in public worship, unless forbidden by Scripture, is governed by the culture and thought forms of the day, judged subjectively by those who lead and participate in public worship. Human thought forms, habits and ideas become the criteria.
Is there any answer to this basic weakness of the Normative Principle? We may argue that godly and able men are given discernment. But we must immediately ask, “Whence comes this discernment?” Is it from Scripture? If we say that men are given discernment by the Holy Spirit, the question arises, “Does the Holy Spirit give discernment apart from Scripture?” Immediately we depart from the sole authority of Scripture we are again adrift on the uncharted sea of un-Biblical subjectivism.
Now I readily concede that godly men are given discernment in the framework of their thinking. But such discernment is not infallible, nor is it always stable. Thus in the same church what is “discerned” as being good in one year is “discerned” by the same minister or church to be undesirable the next year. So instability in the form and content of worship becomes the order of the day, and the same church may sway violently in its services from year to year. The very atmosphere of the service may change beyond recognition.
One does not have to look far in Church history to see able and godly men of sincerity and prayer, whose discernment led them seriously astray and wrought havoc in the Church. Edward Irving, and some of the early Anabaptists at Munster illustrate this.
No! Subjective judgment and human opinion governed by the culture of the day remain the great weakness of the Normative principle. It leaves the door open to the gravest excesses, and there is no stopping its course unless by a further application of yet more subjective judgment and human opinion. In my view it scarcely deserves the name of “principle” at all. So we turn to examine its opposite.
The Regulative Principle
“Only what is commanded or sanctioned by Scripture is allowable in public worship”. I have read with gratitude and deep interest the excellent articles by Malcolm Watts in the “Sword and Trowel” [1984,5), and Ernest Reisinger’s “Thoughts on the Regulative Principle” (Shepherding God’s Flock), together with Cunningham’s “Reformers and the Regulative Principle”
(Reformation Today). Nevertheless I wish to pursue the argument for this principle along slightly different lines, and propose to do this by seven logical steps.
(1) God has laid down strictly in the Old Testament the manner in which He was to be worshipped.
This is summarized perhaps best in the second commandment, “Thou shalt not make UNTO THEE any graven image …” Human whim, idea, or opinion is ruled out here. Calvin rightly comments
“Although Moses spoke of idolatry, yet there is no doubt that, as in the rest of the law, he condemns all fictitious services which men in their ingenuity have invented”. Thus into the vast multiplicity of
ways of worship invented by human ingenuity. God broke, saying in effect, “This, and this alone, is how I am to be worshipped”.
I need not go into detail as to how strictly God enforced this principle. The cases of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10) and Uzzah (2 Sam. 6) stand out as illustrations. Take particularly the case of Uzzah, who seems to me to have acted sincerely and with the best of motives, as did David in setting the whole scene of bringing back the sacred ark. But that scene was all wrong! God’s express commands had been disobeyed. The ark should not have been on a cartat all, and Uzzah’s unsanctified hands should never have touched it! The end of this whole “happy” occasion was utter dismay, disintegration and fear, as some 30,000 men found their festivity abruptly terminated by direct Divine action in holy anger which suddenly blazed forth. One can imagine the pipes and harps suddenly dying away like an organ when the wind supply fails, as the whole multitude stood aghast at what God had suddenly done in their midst. And they were only trying to please Him, after all!
This is of course the Old Testament, but two abiding principles emerge for all time.
(i) That godly sincerity and the desire to please are not good enough when they disobey the plain commands of God.
(ii) That God is strict to enforce His commands. Bishop Hall observes: “It is a dangerous thing in the service of God to depart from His own institutions. We have to do with a God who is wise to prescribe His own worship, is just to require what He has prescribed, and powerful to revenge what He has not prescribed”.
If we cannot draw these two fixed principles from this story, and
from that of Nadab and Abihu, then I fail to see why they have been left on record at all!
(2) Has God subsequently changed His ground?
It is true He has changed the outward form of worship in several
ways. The outward symbolism, the outward temple, the animal sacrifices, and the human priesthood have all gone, but only the form has changed. The symbolism has given place to reality. But the abiding principle remains untouched, that God alone can prescribe and has prescribed, how He is to be worshipped. John Willison of Dundee wrote “It is no wise likely that God would remove the ceremonies of His own institution to make way for men’s inventing others in their room”.
(3) So can we learn from Old Testament worship-details what is permissible now in public worship?
The answer to this must surely be NO! The whole scenario has changed. Consider the central facts of Old Testament worship.
(i) There were no regular Sabbath worship services as we know them today.
(ii) Instead there were the great annual festivals at Jerusalem, to which most people could not go, in any case.
(iii) Individual regular worship was house-centred (Deuteronomy 6).
(iv) Until the dispersion and exile the Jews had no meeting houses to correspond with church buildings today.
Thus we cannot really take details of music, ceremony and ritual and transplant them from Temple worship into today’s worship services. There is no parallel. (There is, however, a great deal of superficial thinking today about such items as dancing and clapping hands, and some would want to pick and choose items from Temple worship on a subjective basis as being suitable for and permissible in, public worship today.) But we have no grounds for such selectivity, except personal preferences!
(4) How then did God prescribe how He is to be worshipped in New Testament times?
Has He in fact done so at all? Or has He merely left us with a few guidelines? We have seen that we cannot pick and choose items from Temple worship to form the worship-content of the New Testament Church. So what in fact has God done to make His will clear to us today?
The answer begins to take shape in the growth of synagogue worship. In Ezekiel 11.16 God assures His true people that though He has scattered them, yet HE will be to them a “little sanctuary”. The importance of this cannot be over-emphasized. Jewish minorities interpreted this to mean that in their world-wide dispersion Israel could have the synagogue as a miniature sanctuary
to replace the Temple, which for most of them had become permanently lost.
Menes tells us that “the synagogue served as a substitute for the Temple … it became the cradle of an entirely new type of social and religious life … a gathering point and a meeting place. God was now brought to the people wherever they dwelt”. (Italics mine.)
This all began to take place during the exile, and though Temple worship was in measure restored, synagogues continued to multiply. They served as places for prayer, instruction, reading the Scriptures and corporate worship, and by the first century A.D. they existed wherever Jews lived. It is estimated that there were between 394 and 480 synagogues in Jerusalem alone in A.D. 70 at the time of its destruction by the Romans.
They were well organized, governed by competent elders who supervised the conduct of meetings and had power to punish or ex-communicate. They had leaders capable of translating, paraphrasing and teaching the law. They administered almsgiving. The Sabbath was appointed for public worship, which consisted of prayers, the reading of the law and the prophets, an exhortation or ‘sermon” drawn from Scripture, and a concluding benediction.
Two great principles emerge from all this, each of the utmost importance and far-reaching consequences. These are:
(i) The Sovereignty of God in leading, through human history and even through the sin of the people, from a single worship centre in one geographical location, to thousands of worship centres spread all over the world.
(ii) The Sovereignty of God in moving worship away from the complexity (and burden) of Temple worship – which by now had fulfilled its function of establishing the truth through symbolism – to an infinitely simpler form of worship (which incidentally bears striking similarities to the basic worship services today).
In these two principles we see the hand of God quietly at work in preparing the basis for world-wide worship centres. “Where’er they seek Thee Thou art found, and every place is hallowed ground”. I do not think it can be denied that the whole movement was away from complexity towards simplicity, and that it was Divinely ordained and appointed in preparation for the coming of the Gospel, the birth of the New Testament Church, and the world wide spread of Christian Truth.
(5) Our Lord Jesus Christ sanctioned this form of worship.
By His customary attendance, and on at least one occasion His spoken address, at synagogue services, I believe He set the stamp of Divine approval on them in an unmistakeable way. I cannot feel He
would have either attended or spoken if the principle of synagogue worship was wrong!
(6) From this simple gathering of people to seek God, the New Testament Church grew.
True, the synagogues were left behind as they rejected apostolic teaching and preaching. But the New Testament Church did not leave behind the basic simplicity of public worship. Instead, it literally grew out of the format of synagogue worship, bringing the Gospel as the fulfilment of the symbolism of the Old Testament. A notable exception was the Church at Corinth, where complexity and disorder were rebuked by Paul. The rapid onset of corruption in the New Testament Church in no way nullifies its basic principles and format, which were established under apostolic sanction.
(7) Thus emerges a fairly clear picture of what is Biblically commanded in public worship.
Apostolic sanction I take to be the equivalent of Biblical command. The basic principles of New Testament public worship may be summarised briefly as follows:
(i) It is basically simple in form – this is the governing keynote.
(ii) It is free from “will-worship” (Greek ethelothreskia) – that is, ideas springing from self-will. This is condemned in Colossians 2.23.
(iii) It is orderly. Paul rejoices in the Colossian “order”, and sends Titus to Crete to “set things in order”. As Owen remarks “all order consists in the due observation of rule”.
(iv) It adheres to Christ’s words in Matthew 28.20 – “teaching them to observe (Greek tereo – to watch) all things which I have commanded”.
The contents of New Testament public worship may also be summarized as follows:
(i) The Reading of Scripture (Colossians 4.16, Acts 17.10-11).
(ii) Apostolic doctrine, preaching and teaching (Acts 2.42).
(iii) Breaking of bread and fellowship (Acts 2.42).
(iv) Prayers (Acts 2.42).
(v) Singing. This is too large a subject for this short article, but I Feel in Ephesians 5.19 and Colossians 3.16, together with Mark 14.26 there is sufficient to indicate, without due reference to the Greek, that psalms, hymns of praise, and “odes” were sung when believers met for worship.
The question of instrumental music does not really arise in the public worship of the New Testament, and I can therefore only give
a personal opinion that since musical instruments are mentioned in heavenly worship (Revelation 5.8, 14.2 and 18.22) they are not amiss or prohibited in earthly worship!
Nothing more, as I see it, is sanctioned.
It is worth noting that complexity is inevitably distracting to true spiritual worship. When worshippers simply do not know what happens next in a changing and constantly varied pattern, and even have to be told when to sit and stand, it is small wonder if their minds are too much affected by outward things.
The derogatory description “hymn sandwich” is a contemptible term. I believe it shows the height of insensitivity when used (as it usually is) as a scornful criticism. It seems to me a sinful and frivolous way of describing a simple form of worship which has been used to bring untold blessings on many humble souls in Christ’s flock. Unhappily those who critically use this phrase never seem to depart from it – all they do is to cram and thicken it into a multiple sandwich until people choke over it!
The departure from what I believe to be Biblical simplicity has been brought about largely by the desire to “liven things up” in worship until it becomes enticing and acceptable to natural hearts. A mere glance at any true revival will reveal the utter folly of this approach. I am emphatically not arguing for dull services. I am saying that we need less human invention and more Spiritual power, and that the Holy Spirit simply does not need our puerile efforts to liven Him up! But I believe He does wait for a greater intensity and even agony in prayer from all who lead or attend public worship.
(i) The regulative principle is a principle – not a strait jacket or a code of minutiae. The so called “adiaphora”, or things indifferent, may be many and varied. But when the principle is adopted, it makes pastors and leaders, as well as churches, very concerned to bring everything in public worship to the touchstone of Scripture with reverence and godly fear.
(ii) The principle, once adopted by a church, prevents the pastor from being “pig in the middle”. Many pastors today are under constant tension and pressure for new things in worship. If they allow them, one part of the church is often upset, and if they disallow them, the bringers of novelty become upset. Pastors are sometimes heard to say “We cannot win”. This situation should never arise, and would certainly be far less of a problem if churches as such adopted the regulative principle.
(iii) There seems little or no middle ground. Departure from the regulative principle must inevitably lead to subjectivism which can only be stopped, and may be expanded, by more subjectivism.
(iv) The regulative principle, where adopted, has generally in history preserved the outward simplicity and purity of public worship, whereas the normative principle can be, and often is, guilty of confusing sensual with spiritual, leading to psychological conversions. Sensual uplift can too easily be mistaken for true spiritual blessing, and the danger of this cannot be over-estimated.
“The principle is a very wide and sweeping one. But it is purely prohibitive or exclusive, and the effect of it, if fully carried out, would be to leave the church in the condition in which it was left by the apostles …. a result, surely, which need not be very alarming . . . .” (William Cunningham).
D. J. Bradshaw