Issue #34 Bring Back the Regulative Principle
Churches do silly, and sometimes shameful, things in Sunday worship services. I recently saw a post from a pastor who, to illustrate the doctrine of propitiation, put a pacifier in his mouth during his sermon. His point was that God was pacified by Jesus’ death on the cross. Call me an old grumpy fundamentalist, but I haven’t seen that kind of irreverence in quite a while.
Churches need to bring back the regulative principle. The regulative principle was born during the Reformation. It is an extension of Sola Scriptura. It teaches that only what is prescribed in Scripture is acceptable to perform in the worship of God. Scripture tells us how to worship God. We don’t get to choose. While there may be variations based on eras, culture and tradition, the Christian church is required to consult and obey the Bible to determine how its members approach and worship the Lord.
David Peterson defines worship as “an engagement with God on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible.”
John Calvin said that “God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His word.”
Is the regulative principle biblical?
Consider passages like Exodus 32. Aaron, Israel’s High Priest, led the people to worship the Lord by making a golden calf. When the idol was constructed, Aaron “built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” (V.5). In Aaron’s mind, he was leading the people to worship the Lord, but he did so not according to the word of the Lord. God’s response was anger. “Let me alone” He told Moses “That my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (V.10). God did not permit Israel to worship Him however they pleased.
The sons of Aaron made the same error as their father. In Leviticus 10, we’re told that “Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (V.1-2). Commentators debate what exactly the sons of Aaron offered on the altar. What is clear, however, is that it was unauthorized (strange) fire that the Lord “had not commanded them.” In both cases, Exodus 32 and Leviticus 10, God’s response to improper worship is anger and death. It matters to God how we worship Him.
The regulative principle guards from error and the fear of man. Consider these thoughts from Ligon Duncan.
- The regulative principle frees us from bondage to the whims of men.
- There is a god we want and a God who is, and the two are not the same.
- The basic problem of humanity is not atheism, it is idolatry.
- Adding to God’s Word is like taking away from it.*
*Does God Care How We Worship? Ligon Duncan. Pg 7-8.
So, what should the church do in worship? 9 Marks has been helpful here.
The New Testament says that when churches gather they should read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible, and see the Bible.*
Read the Bible: Paul told Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). Churches should read Scripture, out loud, in their gatherings.
Preach the Bible: Paul told Timothy, “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). Paul himself declared “the whole counsel of God” to the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:27). Church gatherings today should center on sermons that take the main point of a passage of Scripture, make it the main point of the sermon, and apply it to life today.
Pray the Bible: Paul urges that prayers be made in the gathered church (1 Tim. 2:8, 3:14-15). The content of these prayers should be biblical in order to edify all present (1 Cor. 14:12, 26). This doesn’t mean that the prayers in a church service should be dry and formal, but they should be biblically rich.
Sing the Bible: Paul told the church in Colossae, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). This doesn’t mean that churches should sing only Psalms or only the words of the Bible, but it does mean that churches should sing songs that are soaked in the language and theology of the Bible.
See the Bible: We say “see the Bible” because the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are, to use Augustine’s phrase, “visible words.” In baptism and the Lord’s Supper we see, smell, touch, and taste the Word. Christian churches should celebrate baptism and the Lord’s Supper during their gathered, public services (1 Cor. 11:17-34).