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

We humans are easily inclined toward extremes. Think of the pendulum phenomenon: we see it stuck on one side. Then, using great force to dislodge it, we pass the via media and find ourselves stuck in the other corner.

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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Radical Solutions
We humans are easily inclined toward extremes. Think of the pendulum phenomenon: we see it stuck on one side. Then, using great force to dislodge it, we pass the via media and find ourselves stuck in the other corner.

Consider how some Christian groups deal with 1 Timothy 2:9: ". . . in like manner also, that the women [must] adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing. . . ."

There you have it. No braided hair, no gold jewelry, no pearls. And if that wasn't clear enough, 1 Peter 3:3 says it again: "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes." Well, isn't it plain that women must be plain? They should wear no makeup whatsoever, should not coiffure their hair and certainly should not wear gold jewelry, pearls, or beautiful clothing.

Similarly, there are Christian groups which, recognizing the dangers of alcohol and knowing that "drunkards shall not inherit the kingdom," put forth what to them is the simplest possible solution: Christians may not drink alcoholic beverages. Period.

Again — though appearing less often in history — there have been groups which, seeing the frequent Scriptural warnings against sexual immorality, insist that celibacy is requisite, and that not merely for clergy but for all members. (Funny that one such group was named the Shakers when they weren't even allowed to shake it, baby, shake it. I think there might be one Shaker left. All that sublimating, though, got routed into great furniture!)

Now, I would say that in these cases, the radical "solution" is definitely to be preferred to the radical problem: better to have plain Christian women than hussies; better to drink a pack of nothing than to be a pack of drunks; better to be celibate than sexually profligate. But no careful student of Scripture would be satisfied to let things lie at either of these two extremes.

Why then do we accept the same sort of ultimatum from advocates of the Regulative Principle of Worship? "It is either/or," they say. Either Rome's rule of worship or their rule of worship? "The contrast is plain," says one of the RPW's leading modern defenders (a personal and beloved friend, by the way). "The one says — What is not forbidden is permitted; the other says — What is not commanded is forbidden."

Consider: In the above cases we all can see a third way. In the first case: We know that God created woman an "adorner" by nature. He bids her in the above passages to keep that instinct under control. Moreover, she can beautify herself better through moderation while focusing on the development of a "gorgeous" character. God is not against female adornment! When Abraham's servant gave Rebecca gold and silver jewelry (Gen. 24:53), they weren't given her to put in a display case. And everywhere in Scripture we read of the normativity of a bride's adorning herself for her husband.

In the second case, when we read God's instructions to the Israelites to spend a portion of a certain tithe on any kind of liquor they wanted (Dt. 14:26), when we read of God's being praised for wine that makes men merry, when we read of Jesus' providing huge vats of vintage Merlot for the celebrants at a feast, then we know that the radical solution has missed something.

In the third case, well, it's pretty clear that sex within marriage is not only okay, it's right on — a very wonderful "norm" from our great and bounteous God!

In all cases we know that both positions — the stated problem (hussies/winos/Don Juans) and the offered solution (ugly women/abstinence/abstinence) — are radical impositions upon the people of God. Yet many seem to miss this dynamic (radical, unbiblical "solution" to a radical problem) when it comes to the Regulative Principle of Worship. Are the radical problem and the radical solution really our only choices, or is this just another instance of the pendulum phenomenon?

Now remember: We have asserted that in all cases the radical "solution" is to be preferred to the original "problem." But why not admit that each of the proposed solutions pulls up short of commending to us a sound distillation of the Scripture's entire teaching on any of the subjects. The answer to the anti-music of Rap is not silence, however much silence is to be preferred to the problem! There are other solutions!

The Radical Solution at the Reformation
At the time of the Reformation, the nausea induced in the godly upon their awakening to the sinful Romish excesses and superstitions in worship gave rise to a radical, but not fully thought-out, solution, the Regulative Principle of Worship: If it is not commanded in Scripture to be performed in worship, it is forbidden in worship. It is sometimes said in other words: Only that which God has commanded is permitted.

This pendulum swing by the Reformers was certainly a breath of fresh air! Virtually overnight it cleansed the toxins out of Reformed worship like two months of cold turkey cleanses the horse out of a junkie's veins. Way to go! Out went the relics, the Mariolatry, the adoration of saints, the indulgences, the novenas and the like; in came clear, accessible, soul-saving, edifying Word-centered worship.

Though most excellent and welcome in its historic situation, the Regulative Principle somehow loosed itself from its moorings and took on a life of its own in certain Reformed and Presbyterian circles. Many took it to be not merely a good word on worship but the last word, in fact, God's last word on the subject. And as men are wont to do, zealots — who saw in this principle the only way to acceptably approach God — began to extend and apply it more and more rigorously. Like the AA-inspired teetotaler who swears off not only liquor, wine and beer, but rum candy too, the strict regulativist searched for gnats and, not surprisingly, found them abounding. Camels, however, were often overlooked.

Anything which could not pass the somewhat arbitrary test for "commanded" was viewed with grave suspicion as the very thing which would cause — or begin to cause — the Reformed churches to return to Babylon. And so, among some, the RPW means not only no Christmas and no Easter, but no musical instruments, no singing except Scripture texts — oops! Scratch that! Only certain Scripture texts, namely, the Psalms, may be sung in worship (some said in or out of worship). Not a few reject the use of creeds in worship, and some even frown upon the corporate praying of the Lord's Prayer in worship.

I might have inserted here further rationales used by its advocates to defend the Regulative Principle of Worship, but I want to get right to the point: while infinitely to be preferred to the problem it was designed to combat, the Regulative Principle of Worship falls short of conveying all that God in Scripture would have us know about regulating worship. It posits a false dilemma which, astonishingly, has bamboozled battalions of my fellow soldiers.

Other Choices
The regulativist tells us: It is either "What is not forbidden is permitted," or "What is not commanded is forbidden." This simply is not true. It is not "Either hussies in church or ugly women." It is not "Either slosh-heads or dry prudes." It is not "Either STD's abounding or no sex whatsoever." There are other choices!

In the matter of a principle for acceptable worship, at least one other possibility presents itself immediately upon the most casual reflection, a possibility which, hopefully, will be shown to be the correct alternative to the Romish principle: "What is not commanded might be permitted. It depends upon other considerations." Just what those "other considerations" are we hope eventually to cover. But for now let us consider just how short the RPW itself falls when examined in the light of Scripture.

I will offer seven broad reasons for Reformed people to reject the proposition that the Scripture teaches the Regulative Principle of Worship. But please carefully note these qualifications: 1) I am not arguing against the sort of worship found in RPW churches. For my money, it is vastly superior to most other extant worship forms (of which I am aware). The RPW is a mistake, but if you have to make a mistake, this is a very fine one. 2) By arguing against the regulative principle of worship per se, I'm sorry to say that I part company from many of my colleagues. Most of my compatriots tend to embrace the principle, choosing only to argue whether it is too rigorously or loosely applied in this or that circumstance. No, my argument is not with the application of the principle: it is that the RPW itself is not Biblical.

We can begin to see that this is so when we examine the typical arguments used by regulativists in attempting to establish their case. Examination will show that their case is weak indeed.

The (Weak) Case for RPW
The regulativists typically isolate the alleged "proof" texts from their larger contexts. This use of Scripture is questionable at best, deceitful at worst. Rather than providing a firm foundation for their principle, this very selective method suggests that it is built on sand.

In virtually all regulativist literature the same texts are appealed to over and again, nearly always, it seems, without an honest consideration of their contexts. Such consideration would so qualify the meaning of the chosen verses as to reveal that they lend no support whatsoever to the principle they supposedly prove. In short, the regulativist doesn't employ texts: he conscripts them into thralldom. Let's consider a few of their favorites to see if this isn't so.

Leviticus 10:1-11, especially verses 1 and 2. Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them, added incense, and offered unauthorized, strange, "outside" or foreign fire before Jehovah, who then turned them into strange fire. This verse is beat to death by regulativists as somehow proving "if it's not commanded, it's forbidden."

But a simple consultation with Exodus 30:9 shows the true character of their sin:

Ye shall offer no strange incense thereon, nor burnt sacrifice, nor meat offering; neither shall ye pour drink offering thereon

Well now, doesn't that affect our interpretation! Nadab and Abihu did not simply do something not commanded, they did something expressly forbidden. You see that even the principle which the regulativists reject takes care of Nadab and Abihu. "If it's not forbidden, it's permitted," say those at the other extreme. Well, in this case their principle has the base covered: It was forbidden, therefore it was not permitted. Simple, eh? No need for the RPW here.

Furthermore, there is a strong suggestion in the account (v. 8) that the boys were drunk when they performed their folly. It is plausible that in an inebriated condition they failed to distinguish between the holy and the common (v. 9). God provided an object lesson. But whether or not that is so, their sin clearly consisted in doing what God had expressly forbidden. No RPW here.

Likewise with the texts regulativists cull from the Prophets. Their employment of Isaiah's indictment of hypocritical Israel, for example, is representative of the sort of "proof" they offer. The long list of charges against Israel in chapter 1 is (amazingly) pared down to a mere particle that (happy coincidence!) seems to support their view. "When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand?" (v. 12)

Well, let's try to answer that question: Who did require what Israel is said to have been doing? If we are going to find the regulativist's principle here, we ought to expect the prophet to read a bill of particulars brimming with condemnations of man-made innovations. So just what does the passage say Israel was doing?

1) They were bringing offerings (as God commanded)
2) Burning incense (as God commanded)
3) Observing New Moon festivals (as God commanded)
4) Observing Sabbaths (as God commanded)
5) Observing appointed feasts (as God commanded)
6) Offering prayers (again, as God commanded)

When God asks, "Who hath required this at your hand?", if the emphasis is on "Who required," the answer is, "God!" But if the emphasis is on "your hand," ah!, we now find the meaning of the indictment. The sin of Israel in Isaiah 1 did not consist in an error in religious form, i.e., in their bringing into worship something he did not command. He commanded everything Isaiah lists!

On the contrary, their sin was that they brought it with wrong hands. Their hands, God says, were bloody (v. 15), yet they thought that mere religious ceremony would cleanse them! This is Isaiah's version of Psalm 50, especially v. 16: "To the wicked, God says: 'What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips? You hate My instruction.'" "I don't need your offerings," says the Lord. "If I were hungry, I wouldn't ask you for something to eat."

Isaiah does not fault Israel for violating the RPW, but for their stinking, hypocritical formalism. They did all the things God asked for except be converted! Isaiah 1 is a wake-up call to religious formalists, all right, but it has nothing whatsoever to say in support of the RPW.

Likewise Jeremiah 7. Regulativists like to cite verse 24:

But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in the counsels and in the imagination of their evil heart, and went backward, and not forward.

Again, the context is simply ignored!What a different impression is left when the context is supplied:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat meat. For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, "Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you." Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but followed the counsels and the dictates of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward.

Yes, that's right. The broader passage, if it says anything to a worship principle at all, doesn't say it in support of the RPW! God is saying just the opposite: "To appear before me with just the right form and just the right regulations, but to leave your heart at home, is not to appear before me at all." Punctilious form without a heart made new is worthless. God denigrates his own appointed forms to drive home his concern. This is a Jewish manner of speaking, employed by Jesus and Paul in the New Testament Scriptures, employed by the Lord here: It not to be taken as an absolute denigration, but a relative one in order to make a point. It is as if he is saying, "Who asked for your sacrifices? Me? No. I asked for your hearts!"

A couple more citations from "the regulativist files" will demonstrate, I pray, that their typical use of Bible texts is arbitrary and therefore, prima facie, ought to be discounted.

Another portion of the Prophets drafted into the RPW's army of Bible snippets is from Jeremiah. I quote a leading regulativist: "Thus the Lord declared (by Jeremiah) 'This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who walk in the imagination of their heart shall even be like this girdle which is good for nothing.'"

Ooh, sure sounds like proof of the RPW, doesn't it? "Whatever is not commanded is forbidden," and men's imaginations are . . . Hmmm. Wait a minute . . . I wonder what was in that ellipsis (". . .")?

Take a look. In fact, let's look at the original verse in its entirety:

This evil people, which refuse to hear my words, which walk in the imagination of their heart, and walk after other gods, to serve them, and to worship them, shall even be as this girdle, which is good for nothing. (Jer. 13:10)

Well, isn't that a different kettle of fish! They were walking after their own hearts into idolatry, they were explicitly worshipping other gods, they were doing something expressly forbidden. Thus, here again is a sin adequately covered by that "other," dreaded principle: You may not do what God forbids.1

The RPW author who conscripted Jeremiah, however, says, "[T]he reason given for this strong condemnation [that they'd become good-for-nothingsms] is that they offered worship 'which I never commanded nor spoke, no, neither did it come into my mind'" (He here references Jer. 19:5). "Israel's apostasy from true worship," says our friend, "can be summed up in these words: 'which I did not command them.' Because they were not satisfied to do what God commanded, and only what God commanded, they were condemned."

This is patently false to the text. Israel was there condemned — and that explicitly — not for failing to follow the RPW but for doing what God had forbidden. They worshipped idols. That's what God says they did. But what God says is edited out by RPW advocates to conform to a conclusion they have determined in advance must be reached.

Finding little support in Scripture for a principle that all (should) agree brought so much blessing to Christendom was apparently intolerable to its proponents. Their escape? Do violence to the Scripture to make it speak their language.

Perhaps their most offensive redaction occurs with Jeremiah 19:5, alluded to above. The edited verse ("They offered worship 'which I never commanded nor spoke, no, neither did it come into my mind") leads readers to believe that God's disapproval of what Israel did is rooted in this: they did something, however innocuous, which he had not commanded, thus violating the RPW.

In fact, what is there condemned is . . . well, read it for yourself:

They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind.

I told you before that at some point the RPW took on a life of its own. This is evidenced in the controlling influence it has exerted over the exegetical methodology of many of its champions. The same texts are carted out and mishandled in similar ways in virtually all their works (better get used to it!).

So firmly in the grip of this principle is one minister presently in their ranks that he actually — in all seriousness — asserted that singing Scripture choruses in worship2is the moral equivalent of child sacrifice in the sight of God. He used Jeremiah 19:5 as proof. I cannot but wonder if his is the same religion as mine, so different are our approaches to Scripture!

Anyway, that's number one: Regulativists consistently ignore the Biblical contexts of their cited passages. One might say that they have, by sheer force of will, domesticated their pet verses.

Number two, next month (Isaiah 8:20)


1. I should mention that I do agree with regulativists that this "high church" principle is not completely adequate for all cases; however, it happens to be more than adequate to cover most of the problems they cite!

2. No other portion of the Bible may be sung, you see. Psalms, in his view, have exclusive right to be found on the lips of God's gathered people.

  • 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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