Regulativists Stumble Over Themselves
Thus far we have sought to prove that the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) is untrue to Scripture. We have done this by demonstrating the regulativists' flawed appeal to texts wherein they imagine to find it when it simply isn't there.
We have also shown that regulativists miss the meaning of the principle where it is found — in the Tabernacle/Temple administration which terminated upon and in Christ.1
We then noticed how regulativists (conveniently) fail to notice the synagogue. It is tough to miss an entire institution unless you're really trying.
Then we proved that special days are not necessarily the evil they are cracked up to be by regulativists. Israel was not allowed to add Tabernacle/Temple-dependent feast days, it is true, just as we are not allowed to add to the gospel. But outside of that "OT gospel" system, they were free to appoint for themselves days to remember extraordinary deliverances by their God. No harm done, no offense taken by God. Christ Himself gives us the "Amen" to that.
And lastly, we saw how regulativists blithely overlook an abundance of New Testament (not to mention Old Testament!) evidence that human tradition is not necessarily evil. It certainly may — be evil there is no shortage of historical evidence proving that possibility. But human tradition is not necessarily evil. The Regulative Principle of Worship itself serves as proof of that.
Now we would move on to challenge the arbitrariness in the regulativists' applications of their principle. But before we do, please permit a reiteration and clarification. I happily stand squarely in the tradition of RPW-style worship, but I stand here on grounds other than those advanced by regulativists. I propose that there is more consistency in worshipping in the RPW-style while rejecting its arguments than in paying lip-service to its arguments but rejecting the style of worship to which it leads. Some who call themselves believers in the Regulative Principle of Worship, believe a version of it that is so elastic as to make it truly unrecognizable as the RPW to any honest observer.
A close colleague of mine, for example, a man I love and respect, proclaims, "All Protestants must believe in the Regulative Principle." But he defines "regulate" so broadly as to make his principle completely at odds with the historically received RPW.
"God regulates in different ways," he says, arriving at an understanding of "regulate" which makes his theory indistinguishable from those who reject the RPW outright. Why doesn't he just say he doesn't believe it?
No aureole is waiting to alight upon the heads of those who would turn their professed principle into a wax nose, twisting, distorting, reshaping it, then calling themselves its loyal sons. The RPW has a historic, discernible, commonly received meaning. It is passing strange that some who (quite properly) are at odds with deconstructionist methodology would then attempt to pass themselves off as regulativists when they have first divested the word of its historical meaning and injected it with an entirely opposite meaning. We would not take kindly to a man who tries to convince us that a cow is an animal with two legs, feathers and gills. He's describing something other than what we call a cow, no doubt about it. So also, true regulativists are those who at least attempt to apply a discrete principle — if it is not commanded, it is forbidden — even if their attempts include improvements. The key is that they own it in a way which leaves the principle recognizable as the one historically received.
It is better to confess up-front that the regulative principle, being unscriptural, ought to be rejected. We respect the earnest adherents of the RPW, and we treasure the sort of worship God has providentially allowed to flourish in their courts. We would adopt and maintain that worship — indeed, we'd even propagate it — we'd just do so on other premises.
On to applications. Perhaps the favorite application of the principle by those who regard themselves as strict or consistent regulativists is exclusive Psalmody. We have no quarrel with singing Psalms exclusively, in corporate worship, if the practice is defended on proper grounds and recognized as a tradition. Unfortunately, regulativists regard it as anything but.
Beginning with their "principle," they go through the New Testament looking for commanded elements. And at Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, according to one RPW authority, "the difficulty begins."2 I don't think they've even begun to consider the difficulty which, for them, begins there.
The texts in question, as you know, read as follows: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;" and, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord."
The regulativists' row3 over these verses typically revolves around the triple designation, "psalms and, hymns, and spiritual songs." The "strict" regulativist argues, not without power, that these three words all refer to the Psalms, the Psalter as contained in our Christian Bibles. Their evidence for this is that the Septuagint Bible, in common use in the days of our Lord and His apostles, and known to the recipients of these letters, had these three Greek words variously serving as headers over respective psalms: some would say "A Psalm . . . ," others would say, "A Hymn . . . ," others might be denominated as a "Spiritual Song."
We will grant, for argument's sake, the regulativist's contention here. What he hasn't proved, however — whatever these songs might be — is that they are to be sung in Christian worship services at all, on his principles. For what we do not find in the Ephesians or Colossians passages is evidence to suggest that Paul is giving instructions for what is to take place in a Christian worship service. The fact that a command is found in a letter to a church is no proof that its fulfillment was to take place in a worship service. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that "The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband." However much we believe that, very few today would suggest that this is a command to be fulfilled in public worship (though the New Testament indicates that there were some at that time who were not beyond just such a suggestion: see Jude and 2 Peter).
The contexts of both the Ephesians and Colossians verses indicate that public worship was not in view. The contexts of both citations are general rules for covenant-keeping in all of life. They are found within "rules for God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved." They include commands which aid in the maturation of Christian character, Christian graces, Christian virtues. In both Ephesians and Colossians the commands are immediately followed by sets of commands for domestic life and vocational life. Nothing suggests that these are rules governing worship services.
In those contexts where we do find Paul's explicit, inspired will for what is to take place in worship, we find no command to sing. See, for example, 1 Timothy 2-3 or Titus 1-3.
Yes, Jesus sang at Passover, but that was a) during the pre-Pentecost administration, b) in the home, not the synagogue, and c) after the required elements of service had been performed. (I'm not being any sillier in explaining things away here than regulativists ordinarily are; I just beg you to bear in mind, this is not my position!)
Paul and Silas sang in prison, not a church service. And even Paul's dictum, "I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind," though found in a context dictating worship order, is not normative because (it could be argued) it was regulating the charismata, gifts which most regulativists agree have run their ordained course. We are no more to sing (it could be said) than we are to speak in tongues.
That leaves us with no clear command to sing in Christian worship services. In fact, Conrad Grebel, in his "Letter to Thomas Muntzer," Zurich, 5 September, 1524,4 argued along similar and other lines that singing may not be introduced into Christian worship. Behold! The consistent regulativist!
We understand that you have translated the Mass into German and composed new German Hymns. This cannot be good, because we find in the New Testament no teaching or example about singing. Paul scolds the Corinthian scholars more than he praises them for murmuring in the congregation, as though they were singing, just as Jews and Italians5 pronounce their liturgy in the manner of songs. Second, because singing in the Latin language arose without divine teaching and apostolic example, and has not brought about anything good, it will edify still less in German and will create an external, specious faith. Third [watch this one!— sms], Paul most clearly forbids singing in the fifth chapter to the Ephesians and in the third chapter of his letter to the Colossians. He does this by saying that people should talk and instruct one another with psalms and spiritual songs;6 and if one wants to sing, one should sing and give thanks in one's heart. Fourth, what we are not taught with clear sayings and examples should be as forbidden to us as if it were written: "Do not do that; do not sing." Fifth, Christ tells His messengers to preach only the word that is in the Old and New Testaments. Paul also says that the speech of Christ, not song, should dwell among us. Whoever sings poorly is frustrated; whoever sings well is arrogant. Sixth, we should not add to the word what we think good, nor should we subtract from it. Seventh....
So, on the regulativist's professed principle, we would not say he has gone too far in advocating a cappella psalmody exclusively.7 Rather, we'd insist that he has not followed his professed principle far enough. He should insist upon no singing at all in corporate worship. Then he would approach consistency.
In all this we have let alone other weighty, oft-lodged arguments which point out the embarrassing twists regulativists put themselves in: 1) Their "Psalms-only" position results in the exclusion from worship of other divinely-inspired hymns (Sam. 2:1-10; Ex. 15:1-18; Lk. 1:46-55; not to mention Dt. 32!) and other singable Scripture portions. 2) They are opposed to hymns and so must ignore the presence of hymns or hymn-fragments in the New Testament itself (e.g., Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Tim. 3:16). 3) They are opposed to "man-made hymns" in worship but (most) allow them outside worship. Yet the passages they rely on to justify exclusive Psalmody, as we have seen, cover life outside of corporate worship. 4) They oppose "man-made hymns" but accept man-made prayers and sermons, an amazing tension! 5) They say, "Psalms alone are permitted in worship," and so, if consistent, would ironically have Christian worship characterized as that where the words "Jesus Christ" would never be sung, for that matchless Name is not found in that form in the Psalter. We'll leave it at five.
It is not my intention, I remind you, to overthrow or even to challenge the legitimacy of worship as it is found in churches which adhere to the RPW. After all, that is the very sort of worship one finds in our church, Messiah's Congregation. On the contrary, the two modest things I would hope to accomplish are, 1) to encourage the establishment of regulative-style worship on firmer principles, that is, on principles less vulnerable to exegetical overthrow, and 2) to take some of the arrogant wind out of the sails of RPW zealots who speak contemptuously of all non-RPW worship as, for that very reason, an "abomination" to God.
It is precisely because I believe that regulativist-style worship is the most God-glorifying and sheep-edifying worship that I want to see it more widely accepted, adopted, and, perhaps, improved. But if it is to be argued for, it must be argued for on the grounds that it is demonstrably the best sort of worship, not on the grounds that all other worship is, by definition, an abomination. We must get to the point where honesty prevails and we acknowledge that regulativist worship is a tradition. I happen to believe, and I believe I can demonstrate, that it is the best form of worship, and that for a variety of reasons; but I cannot, with good conscience, pretend that it can be established on the traditional premises, viz., that God forbids in worship anything He has not expressly commanded. I trust we have seen that it is impossible to believe that and the whole Bible, too.
For we have shown that regulativists, in arguing for their particular shibboleth, bend the Bible to make it appear to say what they wish. They say they've found the RPW where, upon closer examination, it is not to be found. And they miss it where it is: in the sacrificial system which has been taken up in Christ in such a way as to void blood-administrations on earth. We now approach God through the Gospel of the blood of the Messiah. It is the Gospel which is strictly "regulated" in the New administration of the covenant, for we have no blood rites and we have no orders dependent upon them. The blood that saves us is sprinkled upon the altar in heaven. Its shedding is not to be, cannot be, repeated upon earth, but is to be believed on and celebrated.
I do sympathize with the apprehension which grips some regulativists. They fear that if their principle is overturned, chaos will reign in worship, that "anything will go." These fears should not govern our exegesis.
In fact, they are just the kind of fears we hear expressed in arguments against the Reformed doctrine of sola gratia. "If you tell people they are saved by grace through faith alone, and not by works of the law, chaos will ensue! People will be unrestrained! Sin will abound!"
Our fathers — thank God! — steam-rolled over such objections. First, they said, the Bible teaches that we are justified by grace through faith. Second, they insisted, good works are most necessary (Heidelberg Q&A, 86-87). We only insist that God is not put into our debt by them. Rather, they are ever-present evidences of thankful hearts set free.8 If we could be justified by what we do, Christ died for nothing.
Thus our fathers met the challenge of those who said that the Scripture doctrine of grace would lead to antinomian chaos. They followed Paul with a loud, "God forbid!" (Rom. 6:1, 2ff.). So, too, must we insist that if the Regulative Principle of Worship is not taught in Scripture, we serve no one well by pretending that it is. The solution that offset the fears of those alarmed over the proclamation of free grace was the proclamation of the whole counsel of God. The answer to the question of how, if we are delivered from the RPW, we are to order Christian services of worship, will be found along the same path: the whole counsel of God.
In our next article we will set forth (D.V.) what we call The Informed Principle of Worship9: If it is not forbidden, it might be permitted. Whether it is permitted depends on other Biblical requirements and considerations. None are esoteric. They are there lying right on the surface of Scripture for anyone to use. Each serves as a filter by which faithful churches may test proposed elements and aspects of a worship service.
It is our prayer that the Informed Principle of Worship will help in some small way to move us toward a Reformed consensus which honors Christ, orthodoxy and Reformed history, all in the light of, and according to, God's whole Word. Just let us not so misidentify seventeenth-century Presbyterianism as to mistake it for the equivalent of God's last Word spoken to or through the church!
The last word for this present article, however, will be given to a late seventeenth-century Presbyterian, a man widely regarded (from that day until this) as perhaps the greatest Presbyterian of the period: Richard Baxter. I came across these words of Baxter in a book by Robert S. Paul, The Assembly of the Lord.10
Mr. Paul explains how Baxter "on the one hand, acknowledged the highest admiration for the [Westminster] assembly and its works, but he recognized the problems associated with synods such as Westminster and Dordt in trying to establish standards of orthodoxy for all time."
Baxter left a record concerning the time he had been approached by a bookseller to write an introduction to the papers of the Assembly. The bookseller was keen to have Baxter stress how the fruits of the Assembly's labors could be profitably used by families. Baxter accepted, with conditions. He asked that his introduction be examined by other theologians, then used or discarded, as they wished. Only, he insisted, print it in its entirety or not at all. He went on to relate that:
The bookseller gets Mr. Manton to put an Epistle before the book, who inserted mine in a different Character in his own, (as mine, but not naming me): But he leaveth out a part, which it seems, was not pleasing to all. When I had commended the Catechisms for the use of Families, I added, That I hoped the Assembly intended not all in that long confession and those Catechisms, to be imposed as a Test of Christian Communion; nor to disown all that scrupled at any word in it; if they had I could not have commended it for any such use, though it be useful for the instruction of Families, &c. All this is left out, which I thought meet to open, lest I be there misunderstood.11
Brother Baxter, I pray we all understand your sentiment perfectly — and that we all agree. Amen to your words, amen to your exception, amen to the spirit in which it was written.
(Part V in August)
1. It's important to bear in mind that the Old Testament saints participated in Christ, by faith, through the means appointed for them precisely as we participate in Him through the means appointed for us in the New administration. We should also remember that errors of religious formalism may be committed just as easily today as before Christ's advent. This is a danger in all Christian communions, whatever their principle of regulating worship.
2. G.I. Williamson, The Singing of Psalms in the Worship of God; available at http://www.lancenews.infi.net/~englandmgiwill.htm.
3. Pronounced "rou," this word means a big uproar; a brawl.
4. I am indebted to Mr. Timothy Wilder for bringing this to my attention.
5. My kids are Jewish Italians!
6. Grebel is accurate here.
7. Thomas Manton, near the top in my personal Puritan pantheon, author of the Epistle to the Reader which still graces the front of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland's edition of the Westminster Standards, acknowledged that orthodoxy does not require exclusive psalmody. In his commentary on James, p. 442, Manton wrote: "I confess that we do not forbid other songs [beside Psalms]; if grave and pious, after good advice they may be received into the Church. Tertullian, in his apology, showeth that in primitive times they used this liberty, either to sing scripture psalms or such as were of a private composure." So much for the oft-heard claim that subscription to the Westminster Standards requires a commitment to exclusive psalmody.
8. "Good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness. . ." (WCF, XVI, ii). Q. "How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily? A: Three things: First, the greatness of my sin and misery. Second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery. Third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption" (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A #2).
9. Feel free to call it something else.
10. Thank you, Rev. Jack Carter, for the book!
11. p. 542; italics as in R. S. Paul's book.
- 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.