The regulative principle of worship?

2227885639One of the distinct marks of the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions is the belief that the public worship of God should be governed by the revealed will of God in Scripture.  There are a number of arguments in favour of what is known as the regulative principle of worship.  Below are some suggested by T. David Gordon (HT: here):

A. Argument from the Limits of Church-Power
Brief description of the argument. The Church is an institution; instituted by the positive command of the risen Christ, and authorized by Him to require obedience to His commands and participation in His ordinances. The Church is given no authority to require obedience to its own commands, and is given no authority to require participation in ordinances of its own making. The Regulative Principle of Church-Government lies behind the Regulative Principle of Worship. Sample of relevant texts–Mat. 28:18-20; 2 Cor. 1:24; Rom. 14:7-9
B. Argument from Liberty of Conscience
Brief description of the argument. To induce people to act contrary to what they believe is right is sinful. Further, God requires us to worship Him only as He has revealed. Therefore, to require a person, in corporate worship, to do something that God has not required, forces the person to sin against his/her conscience, by making them do what they do not believe God has called them to do. Sample of relevant texts–Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8:4-13
C. Argument from Faith
Brief description of the argument. Where God has not revealed himself, no faithful response is possible, by definition. And, without faith it is impossible to please God. Therefore, God cannot be pleased by worship which is unfaithful, that is, worship which is not an obedient response to his revelation. Sample of relevant texts–Rom.14:23; Heb. 11:6, and entire chapter.
D. Argument from the distance between the Creator and the creature
Brief description of the argument. God’s ways and thoughts are above ours as the heavens are above the earth. What makes us think we can possibly fathom what would please God? Sample of relevant texts–Isa. 40:12-14 Deut. 29:29; Isa. 55:9; Prov.25:2
E. Argument from the character of God as jealous
Brief description of the argument. God’s character as a jealous God is introduced into texts which prohibit certain things (creating images) in the worship of God. Thus, the prohibition of creating graven images or any other likeness of anything in heaven or earth is grounded in God’s character as a jealous God, and thus is not grounded in some peculiarity of the Sinai covenant. Sample of relevant texts–Ex.20:4-5; 34:14
F. Argument from those passages where piety is described as doing exclusively what God wishes.
Brief description of the argument. In many passages, the wicked are described not as doing what is contradictory to God’s will, but what is beside His will. Similarly, the pious are described by their trembling in God’s presence, by their doing exclusively what God wishes. Sample of relevant texts–Isa.66:1-4; Dt.12:29-32; Lev. 10:1-2; 1 Sam.13:8-15; 15:3-22
G. Argument from the severity of the temporal punishments inflicted upon those who offer to God worship other than what He has prescribed.
Brief description of the argument. There are places where people offer worship to God, in an apparently good-faith desire to please Him, yet they do so in some manner not prescribed by God, and His punishment of them is severe. Sample of relevant texts–Lev. 10:1-2; 1 Sam.13:8-15
H. Argument from the sinful tendency towards idolatry (Rom. 1).
Paul’s point in Romans 1:19ff is that the human race, in its revolt against God, has “worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” Further, this is not due to ignorance, but to moral defilement: “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give him thanks?” cf. Thomas E. Peck, Miscellanies, vol. I, pp. 96-97: “Man, then, is incompetent to devise modes of worship, because he knows not what modes are best adapted to express the truth or the emotions which the truth is suited to produce.”
I. Argument from Church History
Brief description of the argument. Church history amply demonstrates that fallen creatures, left to their own devices, inevitably produce worship which is impious. Especially the Reformation, as an historical movement, bore testimony to the corruption which creeps slowly into worship when worship is not regulated by the revealed will of God.

In our weekly Bible study, we are currently looking at the second commandment.  In Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 35 we looked at how the the second commandment has direct bearing on our public worship and the idea that it is regulated by the Word of God:

96. What does God require in the second Commandment?
That we in no way make any image of God,1 nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.2
1 Deut 4:15-19; Isa 40:18-25; Acts 17:29; Rom 1:22-24; 2 Lev 10:1-7; Deut 4:23-24, 12:30-32; 1 Sam 15:22-23; Mt 15:9; Jn 4:23-24

41H0WSGF75L._SY346_Among the many objections to the Reformed idea of the regulative principle is the claim that the Word cannot surely govern everything we do in worship because it does not say anything about things like the time or place of worship and the exact order of service.  In response to this challenge, it is important to understand that we differentiate between elements, forms and circumstances in worship.  Very simply put, the proper elements of worship are those activities set forth in apostolic teaching or practice (see, e.g., Acts 2:42).  They consist of the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, prayer, song and offerings.  Circumstances are the when of worship: like what time to have the service, which is left up to the freedom of each church council to decide.  The forms are the how of the various elements of worship.  For instance, the ministers sermon will take on a different form depending on which passage he preaches.  The Lord’s Prayer is one example of a form of the element of prayer.  In terms of the bigger picture, the form that the worship service takes as a whole should be one of decency and order (1 Cor 14:40).   What is more, the elements of worship should produce, and be informed and enveloped by the appropriate emotions or feelings toward God: such as godly fear, love, praise and trust.  (For the source of these observations and more, see Darryl Hart’s very useful book called With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship.)


  1. According to the Regulatory Principle, the only acceptable worship is that which is explicitly taught in the Bible. This principle is inter alia applied to music in the worship service and the administration of the Lord’s Supper. For reformers like John Calvin and John Knox this was the norm. However, deviation from the Regulatory Principle led to the decay of the Reformed Tradition. Liberal theologians are more prone to endorse the Normative Principle, which teaches that whatever is not prohibited in Scripture is permitted in worship.

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