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

We have shown, through a substantial representative sampling, that the regulativists attempt to bolster their position by appealing illegitimately to various texts.

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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[When last we met, this series was called, "The Informed Principle of Worship." Above is the real title. Last time we asserted that regulativists "find" their principle where it isn't. Now we assert...]

Regulativists Miss It Where It Is

We have shown, through a substantial representative sampling, that the regulativists attempt to bolster their position by appealing illegitimately to various texts. They find it where it isn't by consistently ignoring the contexts of their favorite passages. They isolate texts from their meaning-impacting contexts. One might say that they have, by sheer force of will, domesticated their pet verses.

Now we will suggest that the point of what might truly be called the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) in Scripture is altogether missed by them. It is a rather astonishing instance of "forest-for-the-trees." What I mean is this:

The locus classicus, the most frequent and important textual citation for the RPW is Deuteronomy 12:32: "What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it." But here again, the regulativists either ignore or overlook the setting. By isolating this particular verse from its context, its beauty is marred, its force is neutralized, and its power compromised.

Deuteronomy 12:32 appears in an epoch-marking context: we have here a major step in the progress of the religion of the covenant. Before this, covenant-keepers could offer sacrifice wherever they felt like it. Henceforth sacrifice would be severely restricted. It would be restricted, as we said up front, in regard to place, in regard to people, and in regard to particulars.

It is here, then, in Deuteronomy 12 that we do indeed find introduced what might properly be called the Regulative Principle of Worship: If it is commanded, you'd better do it; if it is not commanded, it is forbidden (see v. 32). Don't look to the pagans, either. They do thoroughly whacked-out things that I abominate (vv. 28- 31). You just do what I say and only what I say.

The point, however, is that what is strictly regulated is the sacrificial system of worship, not worship per se. In fact, "mere" sacred assemblies are not covered by this rule. From the beginning God had made known that the path by which man might be restored to him is a path of shed, substitutionary blood. This was indicated in the animal sacrifice God had made when providing coverings for Adam and Eve, and again in his acceptance of Abel's blood offering brought in faith. The atoning path of blood was laid out by God.

But in Genesis 4:26 we read that, at that time "men began to call upon the name of the LORD." Good old Matthew Henry comments, "Now men began to worship God, not only in their closets and families, but in public and solemn assemblies."

We have no evidence or suggestion that there were divinely originating directives for the elements found in these public assemblies. Clearly, prayer was a great part of it (calling upon the Lord), but the point is that they seem to have arisen from the covenant sensibilities of men, not from a known injunction from God.

The matter of sacrifice, on the other hand, was different. That was clearly set forth by God as the norm. We know this both from early Genesis and all subsequent Scripture. However, from the Fall until the entry to the Promised Land, even this sacrificial worship was largely unregulated. Noah offered sacrifices, as did Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These were offered perhaps in a general conformity to a pattern received from Adam or another. Indisputable, however, is the fact that the offerings were decentralized. There was no one place where God caused his name to dwell, where alone sacrifices could be lawfully rendered. They could be — and were — offered anywhere.

However, once Israel would enter the land and God would make known the place where his name would dwell, sacrificial worship would no longer be decentralized. It would be absolutely centralized at one place. From here on, it would be lawfully offered only by authorized persons. No matter how noble the man, if he did not meet the Levitical qualifications, he could not serve at that one authorized location (cf. Uzziah's sin in 2 Chr. 26). And the many particulars of the service were to be strictly adhered to, without addition or subtraction.1 This is the context of Deuteronomy 12. We need only quote some of the chapter for this to be clear:

Ye shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes. For ye are not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance ... But when ye go over Jordan ... then there shall be a place which the LORD your God shall choose to cause his name to dwell there; thither shall ye bring all that I command you; your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the heave offering of your hand, and all your choice vows which ye vow unto the LORD: Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place that thou seest ... But in the place which the LORD shall choose in one of thy tribes, there thou shalt offer thy burnt offerings, and there thou shalt do all that I command thee. (vv. 8-14)

To what service did this refer? Clearly it was not worship per se, but the sacrificial worship of Jehovah, that is, the Tabernacle/Temple service.

This conclusion is firm when viewed in the light of Leviticus 23:3. (Make a careful note of this, for we must return to it.) There we read of unregulated, no-instructions- recorded, bloodless, incenseless, non-piacular worship services: There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD.

Why, one naturally asks, was God so lenient concerning sacred assemblies — forbidding to them only what was forbidden in all circumstances — yet so very strict about the Tabernacle/Temple worship? The correct answer is not elusive.

It was because in the Tabernacle/Temple God was displaying, "preaching" Christ, his Person and work, prior to his incarnation. The rigors surrounding Tabernacle/ Temple worship reveal to us the passion, the diligence of our God in protecting the absolute exclusivity of salvation through the work of his Son, our Lord; they demonstrate God's sovereign determination to guard the glory which belongs exclusively to his beloved Son.

Jesus Christ could be incarnate only once to perform his work in history. Israel is poised, in Deuteronomy 12, to bring about a pre-incarnational explication of that work which would abound with Christ-significance in every element, every ordinance, every article, every order, every day, every month, every year; an explication that would reveal, in a manner fit for that period of history, the gospel. God was not fussing over an abstract principle: He was guarding the honor of his Son! He was saying, "Hear this, all ye ends of the earth! In my Son, in Jesus Christ the Lord — that is where salvation is alone to be found! In the work performed here according to my decrees, according to my strict and rigorous decrees, you may see my Son in whom I am well pleased. Come behold in him the marvelous works of the Lord! Come behold him in the marvelous Temple of the Lord!"

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: "Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you had no pleasure. Then I said, 'Behold, I have come-in the volume of the book it is written of Me-to do Your will, O God.'" Previously saying, "Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them" (which are offered according to the law), then He said, "Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God." He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb. 10:5-10)

The Temple worship was strictly regulated because the Temple worship was the gospel of the Messiah. Thus, when we come to the Scriptures composed after Messiah completed his earthly work — fulfilling the service of types (Col. 2:17) — the rigors we read in the New Testament concern the gospel and sound doctrine.

The New Testament application of the Tabernacle/ Temple Regulative Principle is discovered in its intolerance to false doctrine. The RPW becomes the RPD: the Regulative Principle of Doctrine! This is why Paul could abide poor motives, so long as the content of gospel preaching was sound:

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice....

Yet when someone fiddled with the content of the gospel, Paul would write:

I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.

It is in zeal for sound doctrine that you find the so-called Regulative Principle in the New Testament: don't add to it, don't take away from it.

Worship forms, however, are not the subject of such rigor (beyond, as we hope to demonstrate, general insistence upon good order, proper decorum, propriety, etc.). This is because worship forms in the new administration — the universal administration of the covenant — will vary. The truth, however, will not vary, cannot vary, must not vary. Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever.

This means that wherever we find truly orthodox Christianity being practiced we are among those who are abiding by the real Regulative Principle of Worship as found in the Old and New Testaments: covenant-keepers approaching God in faith through the atonement he has provided in his Son, our Lord. This does not mean that any and all things are permissible in worship, or that all manner of worship is equal! I only insist it means that the Biblical RPW is alive and well in orthodoxy, and there only.

Now let me mention the irony I alluded to earlier. So-called "Strict Regulativists" do not permit musical instruments in worship because, they say, that sort of thing belonged to the Temple order, not the New Testament order. And since we are not commanded to bring instruments into worship in the New Order, and since we may not introduce anything not commanded, New Order worship services must be without instruments.

The irony is this: it is not instruments which belong exclusively to the Temple order, but the Regulative Principle of Worship itself!

That's the sort of thing that happens when your exegesis becomes controlled by abstractions.

Before moving on to our third point, let me tell you of another irony regulativists are caught in. To see it requires walking through a few steps.

First, as a colleague in a "Covenanter" communion pointed out, the regulative principle adds a distinct characteristic which differs from our general obligation to obey God. Everyone — regulativists and non-regulativists —everyone who fears the Lord agrees that we are always required to do what he commands and that we are never permitted to do what he forbids. The RPW, however, adds another requirement pertaining to worship, saying that in worship, if God does not command it, it is forbidden.

Second, the regulativist boasts that this principle frees the people of God from having their consciences violated by unscrupulous leaders who might impose non-Biblical worship forms on the congregation.2

Third, when we look for Biblical evidence to support the unique third requirement which the RPW adds to our legal obligations under God (reminder: 1 is: doing what he says, 2 is: not doing what he forbids, 3 [peculiar to the RPW] is: if he hasn't commanded it for worship, if he is silent concerning it, it is forbidden) — when we look for Biblical proof of this we find none. Most of their alleged proofs are fragments put forth without context: when the context is supplied, the "proofs" evaporate. (Cain did not do what God commanded; Nadab and Abihu did what he had forbidden; the Israelites in Isaiah did what God commanded as far as the elements of worship were concerned but failed to perform worship with clean hands; Jeremiah is condemning the performance of things God forbade: idolatry and child sacrifice; etc.)

Lastly, we have seen that the real regulative principle guarded, not worship per se, but, the sacrificial system as the revelation of the Gospel of Christ, the only path to God. The New Testament bears abundant witness to this in having no regulative principle of worship at all, but an extremely rigorous regulative principle of the gospel: don't add to it, don't take away from it.

Consequently, we find our irony: The Regulative Principle of Worship, said to guard the people of God from the inventions of men, is itself an invention of men and therefore an imposition upon the consciences of those forced to accept it.

I'll be quick to reiterate: we'll take plain women over hussies in the church, and teetotalers over winos, but we'll insist: these are not our only God-honoring choices!

Regulativists Miss the Synagogue

The New Testament is beyond clear in teaching that the organizational model for the worshipping communities called "churches" was the synagogue, not the Temple. This is recognized and acknowledged in every standard work on Presbyterianism. For example, John Macpherson, in his excellent volume, Presbyterianism, writes: "In general, the Christian forms of worship were modeled on those of the Jewish synagogue, and so where any customs in worship or office in the Christian church are spoken of without explanation, we may reasonably look to the arrangements of the synagogue for enlightenment." And, "the earliest Christian congregations . . . in Palestine were for some time known as Christian synagogues."

In saying that our model is the synagogue, we do not overlook temple-like features metaphorically ascribed to the church and/or its service. These are many. Yet these apply to, and are found ascribed to, individual Christians as well. But when we look for the organizational and liturgical antecedents of the church, we find them in the synagogue. (Looking to the Temple, especially for the latter, we remind you, is precisely the error of Rome.)

The very existence of the synagogue, however, undoes the regulativist's position! For he knows that synagogues existed. And he knows that Christ and the apostles regularly worshipped at synagogues without so much as a breath of suggestion that they were institutionally or liturgically illegitimate. And he knows that he cannot find so much as a sliver of a divine commandment concerning what ought to be done in the synagogue. And, according to his principle, if God commanded naught concerning what ought to be done, then all was forbidden. And if all was forbidden then the whole of it — institution and liturgy — was a sinful abomination. But that brings him back to Christ's attending upon the service of God there and Christ's following its liturgy: did he sin by participating in an entire order of worship that was without express divine warrant? The thought is blasphemy!

But for us the synagogue presents no problem at all. We find that it is sacrificial worship only, from Deuteronomy 12 on, that is absolutely restricted in regard to place, performers and particulars. Such restrictions never governed common sacred assemblies.3

First, sacred assemblies were held all over the place: everywhere, "wherever you live" (Lev. 23:3), wherever covenant people dwelt. Every Sabbath there would be one centralized sacrificial service, but there would be an untold number of sacred assemblies throughout the land.

Second, sacred assemblies could be led by any qualified adult male. It is not surprising, therefore, that "In the very earliest Christian times," according to Macphearson, any of the male "members of the church were called on to preach, and to exercise generally what came afterward to be known as strictly clerical functions." Synagogues were never dependent upon a Levitical order.

Lastly, sacred assemblies, which evolved into synagogues, grew liturgically out of covenant consensus within the general bounds of the word of God.

We'll continue this discussion soon, D.V. There are additional flaws in the Regulative Principle of Worship which need to be confronted. Following that we hope to set before you, for your consideration, several components of what we call the Informed Principle of Worship. We don't wish to be understood as suggesting that God is silent concerning what he expects in a worship service!

For now, allow me to close with my sincere thanks for your support of our particular Christian synagogue in New York City and its various ministries. If you don't receive our monthly ministry updates it might be because you haven't contributed to these ministries in more than a year. Let's hear from you.


  1. That's right. Even if Nadab and Abihu's sin was doing what was not commanded, since it was in the service of the Tabernacle/Temple, it was illegitimate.
  2. It should not be disputed, and I do not dispute it, that the RPW has been a great boon in keeping the church free from just such impositions. That, however, is not my point. Teetotalism, too, has kept many from excess. The question is not only, does it work? But more importantly, is it what God requires?
  3. They were, of course, strictly bound by a negative principle: it was not permitted to do in them what God had expressly forbidden. But we should carefully note that expressly forbidden in these assemblies was not only pagan exercises, but any sort of ritual sacrifice whatsoever. That was reserved for the Tabernacle/Temple. Similarly, faithful churches do not pretend to practice any sort of ritual sacrifice, but rather rely on the sacrifice of Christ. That is where the articles of our undoubted Christian Faith direct us.

  • 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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