The Regulative Principle of “Liturgical Sameness?”

Unlike the author of this article, I am not a Presbyterean, nor am I a part of the PCA, but the principles outlined here by Steve Tipton concerning the Regulative Principle of Worship, I find helpful.

Article: The Regulative Principle of “Liturgical Sameness?” by Steve Tipton (original source here)

In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)–the denomination in which I serve as a minister of the Gospel–quite a number of ministers lament the fact that you can attend five of our churches (all within the same city) only to have five very different worship experiences. Additionally, these same ministers lament what seems to be an utter lack of any kind of corporate worship identity within the denomination as a whole. It is indisputable that there is a lack of uniformity in worship practices within the denomination. In light of that truth, the questions that we should be asking are: “Why is there such diversity regarding worship practices in the PCA?” and “Should we view this diversity as a negative thing?”

Some have suggested that the basis for such divergence in worship practices is due, at least in large part, to a lack of understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW)–a principle that is found in Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Others have suggested that it is due to the fact that the “Directory for the Worship of God” (a section of the PCA’s Book of Church Order) is mostly, non-binding upon the church. Still others have intimated that it is due to what they perceive to be a descent into the dark valley of the Judges, where everyone merely does what is right in their own eyes.

Whatever one may say, of this much we may agree: There is a lack of understanding of the RPW on the part of many who enter into this debate. The PCA’s “Directory for Worship” functions merely as an advisory document; and, apart from chapters 56-58, the Directory has no “force of law” in the PCA. Regardless of that fact, I want to make the following observations about the the greater issues that lie behind the widespread divergence in worship practices in the PCA:

First, I have observed an almost universal lack of understanding as to what the Regulative Principle of Worship actually is. Therefore, there is a lack of understanding of what the RPW is not. In the first paragraph of chapter 21 of the WCF, the Divines explain that however much worship is owed to God by mankind, He must only be worshiped according to the way he has instituted in his Word. God may not be worshipped according to “the imaginations and devices of men or the suggestions of Satan.” Worship, then, must be conformed to the instructions given in Scripture.

As we proceed through the various paragraphs in chapter 21, we discover the various activities (i.e. the “elements” of worship) that are given in the Word: Prayer, the reading of Scripture, the preaching (and conscionable hearing) of the Word, the singing of psalms, and the sacraments as ordinary parts of worship, along with oaths, vows, fasting and thanksgiving upon special occasions.

Interestingly the WCF says nothing about an order, or “liturgy,” for our worship services. It also says nothing about which instruments, if any, should be used to accompany the congregation in their singing. Therefore, it ought to strike us as awfully strange and “unconfessional” to argue that those churches that have a particular liturgy and uses traditional hymns accompanied by a piano are worshipping according to the RPW, whereas those churches that have an different liturgy and sing contemporary hymns accompanied by a guitar – even (dare I say it) an electric guitar – are not worshipping according to the RPW. To be sure, there is nothing in Scripture that gives us the positive warrant to use of a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall half stack turned up to eleven to assist the congregation in singing praise to God. But, to be fair, neither would the Apostle Paul know what a piano was if it ran him over as it rolled down the street. Yet either (at least theoretically) can be used to accompany congregational singing–provided they are circumstances of worship–since they do not run contrary to the RPW.

The RPW tells us what elements are to be present during worship, but the RPW does not tell us how those elements may be circumstantially accompanied and performed. Neither, frankly, does Scripture. There is great freedom to plan and arrange worship, then, within the framework of the RPW. To argue otherwise is to go beyond what the RPW was designed to teach. Therefore to go beyond the basic principles of the RPW is to go beyond Scripture.

Second, I wonder if any of those who refer to the “Directory for the Public Worship of God” in this debate have actually read it. This applies both to those who point to its “unconstitutional” status as well as to those who raise irate opposition when someone suggests that it should become constitutional in our denomination. It is actually quite benign. I read nothing in it by way “regulative principles” that I do not find in the WCF. What it does contain is a wealth of helpful advice-much of which is couched as pious advice-for worship. It prescribes no specific liturgy. It demands no particular forms. No doubt those who state differences with the Westminster Standards on issues related to the Sabbath would have similar concerns with Chapter 48 – yet even those who find the Standards too restrictive on issues of recreation would find much helpful advice in that particular chapter for every other aspect of Sabbath keeping.

I mention the “Directory of the Public Worship of God”, however, to remind those engaged in the worship wars that the Directory does not demand monolithic uniformity in our worship service. Neither the directory nor the confession give the kind of rule and guide that would create any kind of liturgical uniformity such that you would finally be able to attend five different PCA churches and not experience five different worship liturgies or five different expressions of congregational singing. As Derek Thomas has aptly explained in his 2010 Tabletalk article, “The Regulative Principle of Worship:”

[The RPW] “does not commit the church to a ‘cookie-cutter,’ liturgical sameness. Within an adherence to the principle there is enormous room for variation–in matters that Scripture has not specifically addressed (adiaphora). Thus, the regulative principle as such may not be invoked to determine whether contemporary or traditional songs are employed, whether three verses or three chapters of Scripture are read, whether one long prayer or several short prayers are made, or whether a single cup or individual cups with real wine or grape juice are utilized at the Lord’s Supper. To all of these issues, the principle “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) must be applied.”

Third, given that the PRW and the Directory do not, in themselves, provide a set liturgy for the organization of worship (and, therefore, for organizational uniformity within the denomination), upon what basis are local churches to decide how to organize their worship? Clearly, they are to be guided by the elements as they are laid out in Scripture. Clearly, the RPW provides a grid though which to understand both what elements are to be included and what potential elements are to be precluded. And, clearly, the constitutional sections of the “Directory for Public Worship” gives specific guidance to their respective elements. But what else is there to which we are to adhere?
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The Regulative Principle of Worship (Article Series)

What follows is a very helpful series of articles by Dr. Ligon Duncan, written in July 2014 at his blog of

Why how we worship matters
July 12, 2014

Protestants have always believed that how we worship, the manner of our public worship, matters. The main reason for this is because Protestants believe that the Bible itself, in both the Old and New Testaments, commands a number of important things about how we are to conduct ourselves in gathered worship.

There are, of course, historical reasons for this interest in the manner, or how, of public worship as well. For instance, the Protestant reformers believed that the way you worship actually influences and reinforces what you believe. That is one reason they were so interested in reforming the worship practices of the church in their day. They did not believe that you could make a Protestant with Roman Catholic worship. More deeply, they believed that much of Roman Catholic worship was unbiblical (and that it undermined the Gospel), and hence they wanted to reform congregational worship according to the Bible. Indeed, John Calvin said that there were two main issues at stake in the reformation: biblical worship and justification by faith (in that order!). So, for Calvin, how we worship is no small matter.

But isn’t focusing on “how” we worship a little legalistic? Worship is a matter of the heart, right?, and so doesn’t focusing on the outward manner of worship get us off on the wrong track. Well, I hear that objection and I am not unsympathetic to its concerns. Externalism and formalism are both serious problems when in comes to public worship. Certainly the Bible vigorously and extensively condemns hypocritical external piety and shows a prime concern for the state of our hearts in approaching God. But the Bible also show a serious concern about the manner of our worship. Heart and form need not be set in opposition. The Bible shows an interest in both.

Furthermore, Protestants are not concerned with the manner, or how, of worship, with the forms and circumstances of public praise, simply for their own sake, but for the sake of the object and aim of worship.

In other words, Protestants understand that there is an inseparable connection between way we worship and whom we worship. It has often been said that the Bible’s teaching on idolatry shows that we become like what we worship, but it also indicates that we become like how we worship, because the how and the who of worship are linked.

The Protestant reformers (from whom we have learned much about Scripture) understood two things often lost on moderns. First, they understood that the liturgy (the set forms of corporate worship), media, instruments and vehicles of worship are never neutral, and so exceeding care must be given to the “law of unintended consequences.” Often the medium overwhelms and changes the message.

Second, they knew that the purpose of the elements and forms and circumstances of corporate worship is to assure that you are actually doing worship as it is defined by the God of Scripture, that you are worshiping the God of Scripture and that your aim in worshiping Him is the aim set forth in Scripture.

So the Protestant approach to liturgy (not a word Calvin liked, but by it we simply mean: the order of service) is based on this foundation. Protestants care about how we worship not because we think that liturgy/order of service is prescribed, mystical or sacramental, but precisely so that the order of service can assist and get out of the way of (rather than distract and impede) the gathered church’s communion with the living God. The function of the order of service is not to draw attention to itself but to aid the soul’s communion with God in the gathered company of the saints by serving to convey the word of God to and from God, from and to His people. Continue reading

The Regulative Principle of Worship

A Banner of Truth article by Terry Johnson (original source here)

Jesus rejects the worship of the Pharisees saying their worship was futile because they were teaching their doctrines rather than God’s doctrines. They were worshiping according to their will rather than according to His will.

In Taylors, South Carolina on March 11th 2003, the Rev. Mr. Terry Johnson, Senior Minister at Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, opened the spring theology conference for Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary with an address on the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW).

A minister in Central Georgia Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Mr. Johnson began with the subject of the importance of worship, stating, “You can make a case that there is a true sense that the whole Bible is the story of the establishment of the true worship of the true God.” Citing John 4:22, Mr. Johnson proceeded to defend the biblical basis for the regulative principle.

Because the whole Old Testament is in a sense the story of the establishment of the true worship of the true God, Biblically there could be no more important subject, and certainly that is also true of our Reformed tradition.

Carlos Eire, in his War Against the Idols, reminds us that the central focus of the Protestant Reformation was this very issue. Furthermore, the Puritans and the British monarchs battled over it for 100 years, and today the importance of worship is being underscored again. Continue reading

The Regulative Principle

we ask the question within the context of our covenant relationship with God: for what purpose did an all-sufficient God, who needs nothing besides Himself, decide to create us? The Westminster Larger Catechism asks the question this way: “What is the chief and highest end of man?” It answers: “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever” (Q&A 1; cf. WSC, Q&A 1). In short, we exist not only to give God glory, as we speak to God in worship through prayer and praise, but also to enjoy Him as He speaks to us in worship through Word and sacrament.

Because Scripture is our ultimate authority, it defines not only our theology but our piety, what we believe about God and how we respond to Him. Piety, then, is our grateful response to what God has done. John Calvin described piety as “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.” The psalmist spoke this way when he said, “Worship the Lord with reverence, and rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2:11, NASB). The chief and highest way this reverential love is expressed is in public worship.

One aspect that distinguished the Reformed churches from their co-Protestant Lutheran churches was their zeal to engage in the worship of God only on the basis of what the Word of God commanded or implicitly required. To adapt Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” the Reformers believed that worship is of God, by God, and for God. For the Reformed, this meant that all unbiblical ceremonies were abolished for public worship. In fact, Calvin was so adamant about this point that he said the entire project of the Protestant Reformation was about worshiping God in a way that was pleasing to Him. This point even led the great English matriarch, Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), to describe the Reformed churches on the continent of Europe as “more reformed” than the Lutheran churches.

The Belgic Confession of Faith links the Reformed churches’ belief in the sufficiency of the Word of God to the area of worship when it says, “For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an Apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the Apostle Paul saith” (Art. 7). “The whole manner of worship which God requires” is found in the Scriptures. This means we come to worship on God’s terms, not ours; that we do in worship what God wants, not what we want.

Continuing in a later section, the Belgic Confession says: “… we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever. Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God” (Art. 32).

The Word, then, contains all we need in order to know how to worship; therefore, we reject all human-made laws or elements of worship. This is most memorably and succinctly stated in the Heidelberg Catechism, which says:

What does God require in the second commandment?
That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded us in his Word. (Q&A 96)

Over the centuries, Reformed churches came to call these ideas the “Regulative Principle of Worship.” The Regulative Principle of Worship holds that we worship God in the manner He has commanded us in His Word. As the Westminster Confession says, “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited to his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture” (21.1).

In the Reformed churches, we hold to this principle because we take the Bible seriously. It is God’s Word to us for our faith, as well as for our worship and Christian life. Scripture alone is our ultimate rule, and it sufficiently gives us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). So it alone governs the substance of what we do in worship.

The Regulative Principle of Worship

the regulative principle of worship states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded upon specific directions of Scripture. On the surface, it is difficult to see why anyone who values the authority of Scripture would find such a principle objectionable. Is not the whole of life itself to be lived according to the rule of Scripture? This is a principle dear to the hearts of all who call themselves biblical Christians. To suggest otherwise is to open the door to antinomianism and license.

But things are rarely so simple. After all, the Bible does not tell me whether I may or may not listen with profit to a Mahler symphony, find stamp-collecting rewarding, or enjoy ferretbreeding as a useful occupation even though there are well-meaning but misguided Bible-believing Christians who assert with dogmatic confidence that any or all of these violate God’s will. Knowing God’s will in any circumstance is an important function of every Christian’s life, and fundamental to knowing it is a willingness to submit to Scripture as God’s authoritative Word for all ages and circumstances. But what exactly does biblical authority mean in such circumstances?

Well, Scripture lays down certain specific requirements: for example, we are to worship with God’s people on the Lord’s Day, and we should engage in useful work and earn our daily bread. In addition, covering every possible circumstance, Scripture lays down a general principle: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1–2). Clearly, all of life is to be regulated by Scripture, whether by express commandment or prohibition or by general principle. There is therefore, in one sense, a regulative principle for all of life. In everything we do, and in some form or another, we are to be obedient to Scripture. Continue reading