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First Thoughts

How Should Baptists Apply the Regulative Principle to Worship?

Whenever anyone asks me if I am an adherent to the Regulative Principle (RP), I cannot give a simple “yes” or “no” response. I must first ask about their version of the Regulative Principle. For those who do not know what I am talking about, the RP is a means of governing the corporate worship life of a church that affirms the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. John Calvin seems to be the first to formally codify it in response to the Reformation, and Westminster later enshrined it in their 1647 Confession. It has been applied in so many different ways since I must know the terms of the application before I can confirm or deny my allegiance to their version. The way Baptists first affirmed it is shown below:

The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself and so limited by his own revealed will that he may not be worshiped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, 22.1).

The key phrase in this statement is “prescribed in the Holy Scripture.” This is where things can get murky and testy. What does the Bible clearly say should be in worship, and what things should be considered adiaphora (“indifferent”)? It is agreed that the Bible doesn’t speak to everything about worship. It doesn’t tell us what time to meet, what we should sit on, what we should wear (though some would like to argue this), etc. So, when someone asks me if I am an adherent to the RP, I want to know what they consider its parameters of scriptural application and what they believe is “indifferent.”

I have found the writing of many scholars helpful on the subject, but for brevity, I will articulate my view here (for those who know the prominent voices on the matter, you can trace my thoughts back to particular authors). First, here are some Biblical principles that are helpful.

  • The RP should be a means of inspiration, not condemnation.
  • Changes in worship should result from the clear teaching of scripture, not from some special knowledge or insight into scripture that others cannot see. Some, in an effort to scrutinize scripture for worship’s regulation, have inadvertently added to scripture!
  • There is much grace for teaching about and learning to improve our worship. No one has been a modern-day “Uzzah” (1 Chronicles 13:5–14) or “Hophni and Phinehas” (Leviticus 10:1–2) that I am aware of. Consider the widely regarded “Principle of Accommodation” on this matter.
  • The Bible speaks to NT worship predominantly with general principles, not specificity (in contrast to the OT). I believe this is at the heart of John 4 (“neither this mountain nor in Jerusalem”). Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT prescriptions.
  • Where the Bible does specify, we must adhere to what it says.
  • Where the Bible does not specify, we should apply the whole counsel of God’s word as an act of Biblical wisdom, as we do for the rest of life (which is our greater act of worship).
  • Clarity of the gospel is a Biblical priority for our worship today.
  • All decisions regarding worship require Biblical wisdom and love for one another.

Where is the Bible clear? I believe Scripture prescribes four elements of a worship service. We must preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2), pray the Word (Matthew 21:13), sing the Word (Colossians 3:16), and read the Word (1 Timothy 4:13). As you can see, I believe the Bible should be the source of inspiration and regulation of the content for each of these. I think giving (e.g., tithes, offerings, collections for the needy, etc.) is advisable to be included in the worship gathering, though not mandated (for example, I believe the matter of giving is mandated, but the manner of collecting it is not). I believe two ordinances—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—when practiced, should be part of the gathered worship service.

I don’t believe the Bible specifies the circumstances of worship. This would include the time and place. It would include the décor in the room or the attire of those participating or leading (suits and ties are not Biblically mandated). There are some other things that fall into this category, but suffice it to say that there is little disagreement about whether the Bible is trying to govern the minutiae in worship. It does not. Biblical wisdom and common sense should be applied here.

The area of disagreement over what is prescribed versus what is adiaphora (i.e., “indifferent”) falls into a category of what I will call the modes of worship. How are we to perform the elements of worship? Should we preach expository or topical sermons? Should we sing traditional hymns, modern contemporary worship songs, or metrical Psalms? Should the congregation only perform singing, or can a soloist or choir sing? Can instruments be used in worship? (Some even consider these last two musical examples as circumstances rather than modes, which further relegates their regulation.) Should we pray pre-planned, scripted prayers or spontaneous utterances? Should the public reading of scripture be corporate or by an individual reading while others listen? What about celebrating special holidays such as Christmas and Easter? Unfortunately, the RP has been used to “lower the boom” on some of these practices in the name of attempting to worship in a manner that is pleasing to God. What has been neglected is the reality that Jesus has made our worship pleasing to God, not our performance. Our efforts to “get it right” in worship are not for acceptance but from acceptance (See the book of Hebrews on this matter).

As much as some would like for the Bible to be more specific than it is, it governs the majority of these matters by principle, not specific mandate. “Preach the Word” can be either expository or topical preaching, as long as the Word’s authority and its gospel are clear. “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” can be a variety of Biblically-informed musical settings as long as the people sing them. There are examples of choirs in scripture, but there is no mandate. (I will add here that when used correctly, they are incredibly beneficial for congregational singing.) Instruments are demonstrated as appropriate for worship (and very helpful for congregational singing), but again, there is no command for their use (nor a prohibition against any particular instrument). The two aspects of worship where the mode is clear are baptism (by immersion) and the Lord’s Supper (bread and the fruit of the vine).

Flexibility for the gospel to travel into any culture is apparent here. In his wisdom, God has provided his Word to inform our worship and allow true worship to flourish in any cultural or geographical setting, wherever the gospel has gone. The gospel must go forth and make worshipers of all people everywhere. This is the mandate!

Scott Connell (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Worship Pastor at First Baptist Church Jacksonville.

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