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All I Really Need to Know About Worship... I Don't Learn from the Regulative Principle (Part III)

By Steve M. Schlissel
June 30, 1999

We have been arguing that the Regulative Principle of Worship — if it is not commanded, it is forbidden — is not the principle given by God to regulate worship in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Important as it is for us to worship scripturally, we ought to recognize that in the advocacy of the RPW we are confronted with something which extends beyond worship alone. As we have seen, we have here a matter inextricably bound up with the way we approach and handle the Bible. In this it is not unlike the issue of baptism.

Antipaedobaptists insist that the New Testament is so entirely new that our obligations are limited to what is commanded therein. Moreover, if it is not commanded in a certain way it is still forbidden, particularly regarding sacraments.1 Hence, for Baptists, the absence of a clear NT command to baptize babies, joined to the many clear examples of adult baptisms following profession, leads to their conclusion that babies, covenant or otherwise, may not be lawfully baptized. This conclusion is inevitable once their premises are granted, but it is precisely their premises which are in need of repair.

You see a remarkably similar handling of Scripture by regulativists. They assume their principle and make it the unchallengeable starting point. Once the RPW is "baptized" as a given, all worship sins in the Bible are subpoenaed to support it, just like adult baptisms are enlisted to "prove" that infants may not be baptized.

But where did this worship principle come from in the first place? Does the Bible really teach that "only that which God has commanded may be done in worship"? We chose to begin our consideration of the RPW with an examination of its ostensible Biblical justification. In that examination we found a pattern of obfuscation rather than explication. For example, where God condemned Israel for flagrantly idolatrous practices, the regulativists in their citations would conveniently hide the contexts and pretend Israel's condemnation was solely for "adding" to God's requirements. We even found them creating "versettes," citing verse fragments which appeared to support their view. These are hermeneutical no-nos for which they remain unapologetic.

At the opposite extreme of the RPW is what regulativists call the Romish or High-Church Principle (HCP): if it is not forbidden, it is permitted. All Reformed agree that the HCP is inadequate. However, inadequate as it is, in virtually every example of worship sin cited by regulativists, no sin would have occurred if the HCP had been honored. In other words, regulativists regularly cite instances of Israel doing what God had forbidden — sins covered by the HCP — and then make believe that only the RPW could have prevented those abuses. Not so.

In fact, the only credible "proofs" for the RPW could be whittled down to those examples garnered from the strictly regulated Tabernacle/Temple service. But here, we said, the significant change between the Old and New administrations of the covenant must be fully taken into account. In the New Testament, the gospel goes global. With that change, the punctiliousness that once characterized the Temple service now characterizes the guarding of the gospel instead. New Testament anathemas are not issued for those who sin in worship matters, as the regulativists would have it, but for those who tinker with the contents of the gospel. This is as plain as day on the pages of the New Testament.

Remember: Old Testament worship from Sinai forward was bifurcated. There was a rigidly controlled, centralized, Levitically administered worship at the Tabernacle/Temple, and there was a less controlled, decentralized, democratically administered worship throughout the land in what would evolve into synagogues.

To be sure, New Testament worship is anchored to the Tabernacle/Temple in heaven: "Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man" (Heb. 8:1-2).

However, while it is anchored in the heavenly Temple, it takes place on earth in Christian synagogues. "My brethren, hold not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, (the Lord) of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come into your synagogue a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing..." (Jas. 2:1-2 [ASV]).

We worship in Christian synagogues. The only blood we have is Christ's, made known through the gospel. It is the gospel, therefore, which is heir to the strict regulations which governed the Tabernacle/Temple service. The synagogue was never so regulated and is not now. That the synagogue was the model for the organization and worship of the apostolic church is disputed only by two groups: Romanists (and their stepchildren) and regulativists (when it suits them).

Thus our first three headings of argumentation: Regulativists see their principle where it is not, they miss it where it is, and they skip the significance of the synagogue. So much for review. Let us now proceed.

Regulativists Stumble Over "Special Days"

The Regulative Principle of Worship has resulted in much good, but its advocates have committed many offenses. Sometimes it seems that for every worship error which offends them, they commit two exegetical errors in retaliation. A leading scandal is their filtering out of anything in Scripture which refuses to yield to their demand for servile texts. One prime example of this is the matter of special days.

As you know, "consistent" regulativists are adamantly opposed to the observance of any day but the Lord's Day. They have a sea of books, tracts, and articles devoted to this one topic going all the way back to the Reformation. Farel, Viret, Calvin, and Knox were all in favor of rejecting all special days sanctioned and revered by Rome. Undoubtedly, this served a good purpose in its time. It immediately distinguished the Reformed, both on the Continent2 and in Scotland, from Rome, whose calendar was blanketed with such days. So the Reformation was well served in its early days by such a clear line of demarcation.

But are we to take a position which was manifestly adopted in and due to unique historical circumstances and enshrine it as if it were the Word of God itself on the subject? I think not. In this I stand with the sons of the Reformation from the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Some Reformers and their regulativist heirs went looking for verses to justify their rejection of special days. And I, for one, am glad they did! It served a good purpose. But does that make their use of Scripture on this point above criticism? Certainly not.

In fact, the very rationale used to justify jettisoning holy days is one which could properly be used to justify their qualified observance. It would depend on various other considerations. Let me explain.

The alleged Biblical basis for rejecting all days but the Lord's Day is in two parts: 1) the Lord's Day is (supposedly) clearly commanded,3 and 2) the observance of special days is supposedly forbidden in Galatians 4:10.

The church was well-served by having a day of rest distinct from the day of the old administration. No argument here. But to grasp this is to be near to understanding why the disapproval of "day observance" in Galatians was, like the same disapproval during the Reformation, historically conditioned and not necessarily normative.

For the problem Paul was fighting in Galatians was not the observance of days per se. It could not have been! A reading of Acts 20 and 21 finds our beloved Apostle eager to get back to Jerusalem for Pentecost and more than willing to observe Jewish customs, even ritualistic/ Temple-centric customs. Notice what rumor Paul hoped to put to rest by the observance of the latter: Paul was told that Jewish believers "have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs" (Ac. 21:21).

This charge was false. Paul did not tell Jews they must reject those practices which formerly set them apart, but rather that they must accept Gentiles as coequals without imposing upon them the obligation to keep Jewish ceremonial distinctives. This agrees with what James and the other elders told Paul during the same meeting: "But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing,except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality" (v. 25).

The problem at Galatia, then, could not have been the observance of days per se because Jewish Christians were never told that they must not celebrate their distinctive calendar.4 Rather, the problem was that some were teaching that Gentiles could not be saved unless they, too, observed all the Jewish ceremonial distinctives. That Paul was addressing only Gentile believers in this passage, and was concerned to dissuade them from adopting "Sinai distinctives," is glaringly evident from the fact that Paul warns, "Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all." But it was only Gentiles who could have considered becoming circumcised: the Jewish Christians already were! Remember, remember, remember, the issue in New Testament polemics was this: Must Gentiles become Jews in order to become Christians? Keep that issue fr der to become Christians? Keep that issue fr der to become Christians? Keep that issue front and center and difficulties evaporate.

Paul couldn't care less about days per se, just as he couldn't care less about circumcision. "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts." And again: "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." And again: "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation" (1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6; Gal. 6:15).

Consequently, there is nothing in Paul's argument in Galatians which would lead us to believe that the observance of days per se was wrong, evil, unacceptable. What he was battling for was a gospel which held out to the whole world a free and accessible salvation, one not tied to Jewish distinctives.

One might even justly say that Paul was, in effect, arguing that the Regulative Principle of Worship does not apply to the Gentiles. That is, he was arguing on the assumption that the Temple system in its entirety had been realized in such a way in Christ — realized for all nations — that to impose the Sinai worship strictures on the Gentiles would be untrue to the gospel. The reign of Christ from heaven makes those strictures irrelevant to Universal Judaism.

Therefore, Galatians 4:10 is seeking to keep the Gentiles — not from "day-observance," as if they'd offend God by honoring Christ's birth (for example), but rather — from being caught up in a system which could easily cause them to overlook the very core difference of the New administration: the gospel is now global, not local. You do not have to become a Jew to become a Christian. That's the issue. None other.

So it was Jewish days that Gentiles were not obligated to keep. Mind you, to read Paul's whole theology makes the conclusion irresistible that he would not have objected to Gentiles observing Jewish holidays if they did it for good reasons. He was fighting against an imposition which threatened the universal character of the gospel.

I trust that seeing the Galatians argument in this light is helpful. It makes the Reformers' appeal to it legitimate within bounds. If their intention was to deliver the people of God from having "holy days" imposed upon them by the dozens, they were being true to the text and its meaning. But if they would go further and say that the observance of days is essentially sinful, they would be going too far. The community of Faith has always been free to corporately adopt a day or days to honor God's great works in history on behalf of His covenant people. Just as Judaism was destined to grow up and become Christianity, so the Reformed Faith could grow up when historical circumstances warranted. Early adolescence, some say, is characterized by a teen fighting for who he is not. Maturity comes when he recognizes who he is. Distinguishing themselves from Rome by having no special days was very helpful. But a time would come, and has come, when the Reformed could freely choose to observe days, in moderation, to honor Christ in distinctly Reformed ways, making identification with Rome for that fact most unlikely.

But besides all this we find within Scripture itself sufficient warrant for the people of God to observe days commemorating God's great acts of intervention on their behalf. Since I am writing this on Purim, 5759, let me start with that. Purim is the holiday celebrating the deliverance of the Jews from, and their victory over, their would-be destroyer, Haman. The events surrounding the holiday are, of course, found in the Book of Esther.

Its origin as a day to be observed is explicitly recorded for us in Esther 9:27-28. The passage is enough to cause convulsions in a strict regulativist:

The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them, so as it should not fail, that they would keep these two days according to their writing, and according to their appointed time every year; And that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed.

There you have it. The covenant people themselves, quite apart from any divine precept or command, took it upon themselves and their descendants to observe a special holiday every year, forever. Quite a problem for the regulativists' interpretation of "You shall not add to it." Not only are we given to understand that there was no prophetic guidance, and no immediate divine instruction, to which authorization for this feast could be traced, but we find it originating in a book which has no mention of the name of God at all. Yet, it is in our Bible, "man-made" day and all.

And we, who reject the RPW, have no problem with this whatsoever. We think it is absolutely normal for God's people to mark His extraordinary acts of deliverance with special observances and activities. And Purim wasn't the only time the people of God did it. They did it with Chanukah, too.

Before discussing Chanukah, let me briefly tell you of the truly pathetic accounting of these Scriptural facts offered by the regulativists. They say, "It appears, that these days of Purim were only appointed to be days of civil mirth and gladness. . . ."5 Consider where this rationale leads: The people of God and their descendants may remember, honor and celebrate miraculous interventions and extraordinary deliverances of them by their covenant God everywhere except in the churches which bear His name!

This is not merely an example of extremism in the regulativist camp; it is an example of their principle logically applied and carried out. The principle pits itself not only against the Scripture from which it supposedly arose, but also against the historical sense and self-consciousness of God's people. It is not merely the application which is errant: it is the principle itself.

Now let us move on to Chanukah. The word "Chanukah" means "dedication." Thus in John 10:22 we read, "Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon's Colonnade."

The Form for the Solemnization of Marriage, as used in Reformed churches, says, "Our Lord Jesus honored marriage by His blessed presence at the wedding in Cana." He similarly honored Chanukah by His presence at its celebration in John 10:22.

Chanukah is a commemoration of the divine victory over Antiochus Epiphanes at the hand of Judah Maccabee.6 The events surrounding the recapturing and rededication (hence the name of the feast) of the Temple are recorded in the apocryphal books, 1 and 2 Maccabees. Since the holiday is traced to that period there can be no question of its being instituted or authorized by a divinely inspired prophet, for there were none during that period. Nevertheless, God was active on behalf of His people and His covenant.

In 2 Maccabees 10 we find the record of the origin of the celebration, a record which would surely induce hives in any regulativist:

It happened on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals.7 Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.

And Jesus didn't seem to mind. But then, the Lord Jesus Christ is not a regulativist.

Regulativists Stumble Over "Traditions"

Sure, it is easy to offer a misleading caricature of our Lord by portraying Him as altogether opposed to any human traditions whatsoever in the service of God, but such a portrait would be false.

Without doubt, our Lord condemned any human tradition which obscured, nullified, set apart or contradicted the Word of God (e.g., Mk. 7:9 and context). But there is no indication that He opposed traditions which supported, magnified or drew attention to the Word and works of God. It is not, for us, a question merely of whether an observance can be traced to "human tradition,"8 but it is also a question of fidelity to Scripture, propriety in worship, and profitability to the people of God.9

All the New Testament authors are comfortable with tradition. The Epistles brim with references to uninspired texts and practices. Jannes and Jambres (2 Tim. 3:8) — for one, tiny example — are named by Paul in accordance with a Jewish tradition. The Apostles absorbed their Jewish traditions and lived them and repeated them in stride, so long as they met the criteria in the preceding paragraph.

To see how comfortable Jesus was with human traditions which properly honored God, it is only necessary to see Him in the synagogue. When we find Him attending synagogue, "as was His custom," we must remember that He was attending a service of worship at an institution which had no divinely authorized blueprint.10 The standards for establishing one, administering one or disestablishing one were all derived from "human tradition."

Moreover, when we find Him reading from "the scroll of the prophet Isaiah," we find His endorsement of one of many human traditions which constituted the worship of God in the synagogue. We take readings of the prophets so for granted that the point could easily be lost, but according to the Regulative Principle of Worship, that reading of Isaiah by our own Lord in worship might have been called an act of presumptuousness — what they call "will worship."

Slow down—I am not being ridiculous. Consider this: the only Scripture we find God commanding to be read in public worship is the law (Dt. 31:9-13). It is the law, or portions of it, which you find publicly read throughout Israel’s history whenever any liturgical readings are referred to. Even in the great scene described in Nehemiah 8, a scene which most regard as revelatory of the synagogue order of that day, the Scripture read is the law (8:2).

Who, then, has the authority to introduce into worship the public reading of the prophets? If we may only do what God explicitly commands, we’d need a command to legitimate the reading of anything besides Moses in public worship. An OT-regulativist need not have discounted the prophets’ inspiration to argue that an obedient people, following the RPW, would simply trust that God had His reasons for commanding only the law be read in public assemblies, and that to add even inspired prophetic books was nothing but effrontery. That, in fact, is the very argument advanced today by regulativists for singing only Psalms!

If the RPW is correct, it was sheer temerity on the part of the Jews to allow non-Mosaic readings. That such readings were customary by the time of Jesus is obvious. That He took them up and hallowed them is also obvious. Equally obvious is this: they were contrary to the RPW. But, since the R PW itself is not Biblical, we shouldn’t be concerned about that.

One more example of benign tradition can be found in what is really a network, an entire fabric, of human traditions: the Passover observance in which our Lord freely participated.

Jewish and Christian scholars alike recognize that, “The Bible includes extensive discussions of Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread; however, these descriptions do not correspond with later observances of the holiday.”11 That the Seder evolved quite apart from express divine warrant is an inescapable conclusion, unless one is prepared to adopt a Jewish/Romish view which would posit an independent, secondary source of equal authority with the Word of God contained in Scripture.12

If the Regulative Principle of Worship is true, and if the Passover is an institution of divine authority, given by God to His people as a means by which He was to be “remembered,” honored, praised and thanked (in other words, worshipped), then nothing could have been lawfully added to it by man.

Yet that is exactly, and indisputably, what happened. Therefore, either the holiday was not of divine origin (but it was), or it was not a means of worship (but it was), or the RPW is false (it is). For when we come to the inspired New Testament Scriptures, we find our Lord and Savior celebrating “the Last Seder” with, among other things,13 wine.

I will ask that we be concerned here with none of the other elements save the wine. Where is the command of God to use wine in the Passover service? It is not there. Commanded were the pesach, the matzoh and the m’rowr,i.e., the Passover lamb, the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs.

Yet by the time of our Lord we find not only the introduction of wine into the Passover service, but the organization of the entire Seder around four discrete cups of wine, every one of human origin.

If Jesus our Messiah was a regulativist, I tell you. He would have turned over that Seder table that night! Instead, He took the cup of wine called “Thanksgiving” and said, “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

The RPW—if it is not commanded, it’s forbidden—is not Biblical. If it were, we wouldn’t have our Savior approving of the predicate of what He made into the Lord’s Supper, the very emblem of Christian worship.

  1. Though this does not stop them from serving the Lord’s Supper to women. This is an inconsistency in their system, since there is no clear NT command to do so. The same method that leads us to recognize women as fit recipients of the Supper can lead us to see covenant children as fit candidates for baptism. It’s called “good and necessary consequence.” WCF, I, vi.
  2. A CRC church order commentary notes that the Synod of Dordt, 1574, held that the observance of all days except the weekly Sabbath should be discouraged. Again, in 1578, the Synod of Dordt declared the desirability of observing Sunday only. Yet concessions were made almost immediately until, at the great Synod of Dordt, 1618-19, Article 67 was adopted which called for the churches to “keep,” beside Sundays, Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and other days. Now, since Calvinism has historically, in no small measure, been defined by that Synod, can we glibly assert that it is unreformed to observe special days? We cannot. For though the Bible does not command us to observe them, the Reformed Synod said, “Go right ahead—in moderation.” Therefore it is perfectly just to affirm that holding to the Reformed Faith does not require adoption of the RPW.
  3. Without getting too far afield, let me just say why I inserted “supposedly” in #1. It modifies the word “clearly” not the word “commanded.” I do believe we have more than adequate Biblical justification for observing the first day of the week. But I can see why some have suggested that the church, if it was to continue to have a Sabbath, would have done fine with keeping it as Saturday. There may be more than an ounce of truth to the suggestion that the church eagerly embraced Sunday to distinguish itself from the Jews. Be that as it may, we have apostolic example as well as Christ’s own resurrection and appearances to justify a change of day, not to mention great theological reasons. And beyond that we have the nearly universal practice of the church from earliest times, something which should really help settle the matter for those with lightweight objections. So, we accept #1, above. Happily, the Bible requires a Lord’s Day rest in our Creator-Redeemer-Sanctifier.
  4. Further, Jesus assumes continued Saturday observance by Jews at least through A.D. 70. Matthew 24:20.
  5. George Gillespie, A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies, 264.
  6. Sermons by SMS which more fully explain the origins and customs of Chanukah are available from Covenant Media Foundation, (800)553-3938.
  7. The careful reader will recognize this phrase from Hebrews 11:37-38. It is not the only allusion in Hebrews 11 to the events surrounding Chanukah and its chronicling in 1 and 2 Maccabees. Both John Owen and John Brown affirm without reservation that it was to the incidents of Chanukah that the inspired author of Hebrews refers in chapter 11.
  8. Traditions are inescapable and unavoidable: the Regulative Principle of Worship, after all, is a human tradition. And if its advocates would only admit that, our articles dealing with it would be greatly abbreviated!
  9. These grounds would argue for a minimalist approach to traditions, an approach 1 gladly embrace.
  10. ln other words, we don’t find its details in Scripture, and you don’t find a suggestion in Scripture that God otherwise gave an uninscripturated blueprint. The synagogue evolved in the community of the covenant.
  11. Baruch M. Bokser in The Origins of the Seder, xi.
  12. For the Jews this authority is imagined to be possessed in the Talmud, for Rome in the Magisterium of the Church. Quite obviously, Protestants reject the claimed authority of both these sources.
  13. The reconstruction of the Last Seder can be found in many sources, including Edersheim. It is laden with non-Biblical (not anti-biblical!) elements and ordinances.

Topics: Biblical Commentary, Old Testament History, Church, The, New Testament History

Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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