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

We've sought to show why the Regulative Principle of Worship — if it is not commanded, it is forbidden — cannot survive when measured against the Scripture.

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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We've sought to show why the Regulative Principle of Worship — if it is not commanded, it is forbidden — cannot survive when measured against the Scripture.

RPW chauvinists:
  1. "Discover" it where it is not. They isolate words and incidents from their qualifying contexts.
  2. Miss it where it is. The Tabernacle/Temple system was indeed strictly regulated, but why? Because it was the gospel, not because it was worship.
  3. Miss the humongous implications of the synagogue, a "man-made" worship institution functioning alongside the Temple system.
  4. Fail to fairly account for the approbated celebration of "man-instituted" special days in Scripture.
  5. Fail to fairly account for approbated "man-made" traditions, some of which modified even explicit divine instructions.
  6. Fail to be consistent with their own principle, upon which singing in New Testament-era worship services cannot be justified.
  7. Have landed themselves in so many pickles they could open a deli.

Speaking of pickles, not more than one or two sourpusses have responded bitterly to our series so far. Sweet mail received from ministers and elders (TR-variety) in the PCA, the OPC, and other Presbyterian denominations were almost uniformly positive (a pleasant surprise), with many expressing sincere gratitude for the salty series.

The responses certainly have been interesting. It's been about six months since our first critique of the RPW was sent out. We estimate that our arguments have been sent to well over 11,000 ministers, elders, churches, and Reformed families. Yet the only feedback resembling an argument against the position taken in these pages was received independently from two men from the same church. We'll let the minister of that church be the spokesman. A proud-to-be-strict-RPW brother, a good and well-loved man whom I rejoice to call my friend (though we certainly disagree on this issue!) — expressed in a colorfully worded question what we suspect is on the minds of many: If there's no RPW, then "rock `n' roll bands, longhaired hippies, dancing in the aisles, `slain in the Spirit,' incense waving, smoking peyote, singing of my latest poem I wrote two weeks ago, are all OK in worship?"

To this we must say, first, we are not seeking to overthrow the sort of worship found in churches which seek to abide by the RPW. Rather, we are hoping to advance that very sort of worship, but on grounds less vulnerable to informed, Biblical challenge. That is the nail-on-the-head issue: Must we impose a man-made principle, such as the RPW,1 in order to have God-honoring, people-of-God-edifying worship? Our answer is a flat "No. We do not need a manufactured principle. We have many clear Biblical principles which, if applied, lead to the desired results."

Second, one goal of replacing the RPW with what is hopefully a stronger set of principles is to allow dialogue and debate in terms of "good, better, best," as opposed to those recurring, barren ultimatums of "true/false" or "acceptable/abominable." The ultimatum approach has stagnated the progress and propagation of Reformed-style worship. Further, where it has prevailed it has frequently bequeathed to the church a cadre of Tartuffes who make certain Pharisees look like rank amateurs.2

Third, as we suggested in our last installment, the sort of argumentation which insists that chaos is the alternative to the RPW is precisely the sort which Reformed people can reject with a laugh, or even a humble swagger. For it is an argument of identical construction to that which has ever been waged against the Reformed doctrine of justification, a doctrine regarded by many as residing at the very heart of the true Christian faith.

Faith Works
"If you tell people they are justified — declared forensically righteous by God — apart from their own works, sin will know no restraint, chaos will abound!"

Such arguments against the doctrine of justification by grace through faith were refuted more than 400 years ago in the Heidelberg Catechism. Q64: But does not this doctrine make men careless and profane? A64: No, for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.

A free and gracious justification was and is regarded as a reality inseparable from sanctification, expressed through good works as defined by God's law. No symbols on earth exalt the law of God, in its rightful place, like the Reformed symbols. The Westminster Confession's treatment of Good Works (Chapter XVI), is excellent. Section II says, ". . . good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith."

The Second Helvetic, in its time the most widely held Reformed confession, speaking of justification by faith in Chapter XV, says, "Wherefore, in this matter we are not speaking of a fictitious, empty, lazy and dead faith, but of a living, quickening faith. It is and is called a living faith because it apprehends Christ who is life and makes alive, and shows that it is alive by living works. And so James does not contradict anything in this doctrine of ours. For he speaks of an empty, dead faith of which some boasted but who did not have Christ living in them by faith (James 2:14 ff.). James said that works justify, yet without contradicting the apostle (otherwise he would have to be rejected) but showing that Abraham proved his living and justifying faith by works. This all the pious do, but they trust in Christ alone and not in their own works."

Earlier (in Chapter XII), Helvetic II refuted antinomianism in a most concise manner: We condemn everything that heretics old and new have taught against the law.

And these have not been mere paper convictions! Reformed and Presbyterian communities have a well-deserved reputation for living out the Puritan sayings, "Justified by faith alone, but faith which appears alone [that is, without good works] does not justify," and, "Faith proves justification; good works prove faith." We Reformed have been a people who have lived lawfully without seeking justification by merit. It is obvious, therefore, not only from the Bible but from the lives of those who believe it, that the fears of bedlam overtaking a freely justified people were unwarranted.

Such a sort of argument, then ("The bogeyman will get you!") — whether offered to retain works-righteousness or the RPW — is weak. In fact, the very offering of this as the only argument left in the case before us may represent the swan song of the RPW. When its advocates can only say — "Oh yeah? Well, wadda ya gonna do without us?"3 — we suspect that the time is short till the Reformed and Presbyterian world recognizes that the RPW may be put to rest, without fear, as a once popular but nevertheless extreme view. The RPW is giving way, even among orthodox Presbyterians, to the far more Biblical and balanced covenantal view of worship. Shedding the RPW does not leave us with nothing! A faithful husband is not such because he is being followed by a shamus, but because he lawfully loves his wife. We have a heavenly Father we seek to lawfully worship, a blessed Savior we seek to serve, and a Holy Spirit who has given us 66 covenantal books to guide us in so doing.

Continental Divide
On the Continental Reformed side of our feedback, we received "So what else is new?" mail. Though some Continental Reformed, through cross-pollination from Puritans, have embraced a version of the RPW, very few have been in the "strict" camp.4 Nevertheless, the Continental Reformed have long been a people who worship in a God-centered, orderly, and covenantal manner without the RPW.5 Rev. Donald Van Dyken, pastor of an Orthodox Christian Reformed Church, wrote to us, "I must say that I never heard of the Regulative Principle of Worship until exposure to my ministerial colleagues here in the OCRC's who were from Presbyterian background."

Rev. Van Dyken provided us with an instructive outline. "My understanding of worship is governed by the Covenantal Principle. That works itself out in several ways, all of them, I believe, covenantal:

  1. Covenant is relationship, and the relationship we are concerned with in worship is between the Covenant God (Triune) and His people. Worship, therefore, consists of communion between these two: God and His people.
  2. As God initiates covenant, and covenant demands response, so worship basically consists of God speaking and His people responding.
  3. Worship as a covenant body means every soul in the church (no ecclesiastical daycare centers for children) gathered as covenantal family units.
  4. Worship in the New Covenant grows out of the Old and is characterized by immediacy because of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. The vicarious character of Old order worship is removed, the congregation of the Lord not being dependent upon human mediators or priests.
  5. The New Covenant brings the wonderful liberty of maturity.

"I don't know where people miss the boat on this thing," says Rev. Van Dyken. "The maturity of the church gives her the freedom to work out varying practices so long as they are consistent with the principles in which she was supposed to have been soaked in her OT childhood. New Covenant is covenant maturity. Maturity means work, and perhaps that is why so many want to revert to childhood."

Rev. Van Dyken's thoughts emit the clean fragrance of covenantal air. And his notation concerning maturity is particularly appropriate. But I doubt that our RPW friends are averse to work.

In some ways we might view maintenance of the RPW as more work. An illustration of what I mean by "more work" occurred in the course of ministry here. God provided us an opportunity to witness to an official from a United Nations delegation whose native country is still plunged deep in communist darkness (may God deliver them!). Every contact we had with him, though, was not with him alone: he was accompanied by a "chaperone." Though the cost and inconvenience of assigning the chaperone were great, the commies thought it not only worth it, but necessary. They treat their own officials like infants — nay, like recreants just itching to switch sides.

My RPW friends who are terrified of what might happen to worship without the RPW are a bit like the Communist Party officials afraid of what might happen to their delegates without chaperones. The presupposition is the same in both cases: the people who are supposed to be friends and servants are actually regarded as enemies, turncoats-in-waiting.6 Such a view sees the church void of friends-of-God. That such is our state by nature, we heartily agree. To think that such is our state by grace, however, turns grace into nothing.

For our purposes, the chaperone in the above example represents the unbiblical "principles" of both extreme positions dealing with the regulation of worship. Both Rome and regulativists treat their votaries as people not to be trusted, ready to bolt at the first opportunity, in desperate need of the Watchful Eye.7 Rome is totalitarian in what it imposes while regulativists are totalitarian in what they exclude.8 Both Rome and regulativists treat the people of God like infants, incapable of maturity or sound judgment. Rome tells her minions that they must observe special days (for example; the list of "musts" is long). Those confined to the regulativists' barracks are told that they must not observe special days (the list of "must nots" is nearly as long).

The Informed Principle of Worship, based on a covenantal view of things, rejects both extremes and insists upon considering worship in the light of tota scriptura.

All parties agree that what is forbidden must be excluded.9 But for the rest, what? High-churchers say, "Not forbidden, then fine." Regulativists say, "If it is not commanded, it is forbidden." Both propositions fail to meet the test of tota scriptura. We propose the IPW: What is not forbidden might be permitted. It depends. Biblical worship is in harmony with the whole of Scripture and keeps a focused eye on Christ's covenantal achievements in history and the impact of His completed work on worship in the New Order. We'll consider some particulars of the IPW momentarily. First, let's see why the church is to be addressed as bound by principles which approach her as mature. For in capturing this we can see how our appeal on behalf of Reformed worship is more like this: "You should not worship in a manner which is beneath your calling," than this: "You abominable, idolatrous wretches! God hates you, and your worship too!"

Coming of Age
When children are small, loving parents regulate their behavior down to minutiae. As the children grow the regulations cascade like scales. They fall not to the emergence of antinomian behavior but (one hopes) to the living out of those principles which they learned as children. We forbid our children to go in the gutter when they are toddlers; when they mature, they apply that principle by guarding life. For God's will for us in the sixth commandment is ". . . that I do not harm myself, nor willfully run into any danger."10 The toddler prohibition was an in-order-to matter. A 36 year-old who is afraid to cross the street has a problem.

There is no need to rehearse the New Testament Scripture's praise of maturity, but we will remind you that the Pentecost event recorded in Acts 2 was the covenantal equivalent of the church emerging into a new maturity. In fact, it was then that the church became capable of "reproduction." Pentecost was the adolescent church's first hormonal rush.11 The church wasn't born at Pentecost: it was bar mitzvah'd.

Just as each individual is reckoned to be the same person though passing through several stages en route to maturity, so also the one church grew up in accordance with God's plan. We confess that the church, from Adam forward, is organically one. Our catechism properly teaches that "the Son of God, through His Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for Himself a community chosen to eternal life and united in true faith."

The one church has been from Eden, but, like a child on its way to adulthood, the church has not had its affairs identically administered at each stage of its development. There was continual, superintended growth of the covenant, leading — according to God's express plan — to "the Christ event" and its consequent fruit which ripened at Pentecost. It was only then that the church could truly "be fruitful and multiply," being freed to carry the meaning of the Tabernacle/Temple system around the world in the very portable form of the gospel. The truth was no longer tied to the apron strings of an earthly center. "Headquarters," Zion, Jerusalem, was now fixed in heaven, equidistant from all earthly locations. The kingdoms of this world had, in principle, become the kingdoms of our Lord.12

When Jesus our Savior had accomplished His incarnation, perfect life, substitutionary death on the cross, burial, resurrection, and ascension, the one church (which had existed from the beginning) could enter upon a new phase of its being. It could grow up and begin to live out, in all the world, the principles it had learned from infancy. From Moses to Pentecost the church, like a child, was "kept at home," more or less confined to one geographical location. Now, with the Spirit of maturity, it could leave home, reproduce, and encompass the earth.13

Looked at this way, the Spirit's outpouring at Pentecost was less the goal of Christ's work than the provided means to empower her and enable her to accomplish the set goal. That goal was clearly articulated by our Lord before His ascension: to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations, to baptize all nations, and to teach all nations to obey everything He has commanded.

The self-identification of a people bound to one geographical location, united by a common language and common customs, and distinguished by an exclusive access to God — for such a people to achieve and maintain a strong self-identification as a people is a rather simple affair. But to give people from all the disparate nations of the earth, speaking different languages and having different customs — to provide a common identity in Christ to this group required a special operation of the Spirit. That is the unity in the Spirit of which Paul speaks.14 That is how Jews and Gentiles are made one: not by common access to an earthly Temple, but by common reception of the Spirit of Truth, by whom they have access — from anywhere on earth — to the heavenly Temple.

Thus the New administration is characterized by a universalism which forbids the imposition of Jewish — that is, Sinaitic — worship forms upon the Gentiles. Any honest reading of the New Testament Scriptures reveals this to be the administrative issue confronting the church at that time.15 To impose upon the Gentiles now a principle which regulated only the Temple service during a specific developmental phase of the covenant would be as improper, as covenantally anachronistic, as wrongheaded, as requiring Gentile males to be circumcised or to visit Jerusalem thrice annually. Such regulation belonged to another day.

Yet some regulativists seem positively terrified of treating churches as maturing entities. They would keep them bound to the old Jerusalem's precincts via punctilious regulation.

Such an approach is backwards. It reminds me of the suburban sot who lived on a tree-lined acre. Night after night, driving home from his favorite pub in an intoxicated stupor, he would smash into yet another tree. The tippler's solution was to cut down all the trees on his property. A good regulativist answer. There was a better way, however. He should have controlled himself.

This difference of approach is evident if we examine how the Apostle reasons with God's people.16 Though this is an argument from "texture" — or as they'd say today, "look and feel" — it is nonetheless instructive. Simply compare any standard regulativist tome with St. Paul's admonitions to, say, the Corinthians. To the Corinthian mantra — "Everything is permissible for me" — Paul responds thus: "But not everything is beneficial." And again: "But I will not be mastered by anything." And once more: "But not everything is beneficial." And lastly: "But not everything is constructive."17

Paul spoke to his beloved churches as if they were adult entities; he always spoke to them in terms of their calling.18 He knew that the nurturing and development of Christian character would yield the desired results: the living out of a God-glorifying life in all spheres.

When Paul devotes several "chapters" to dealing with worship irregularities, he does so without once suggesting that the Corinthian problem was soluble simply by forbidding whatever was not expressly commanded.19 He could have saved himself a lot of effort! But then, he was constrained by God's actual will.

There are Biblical arguments to govern our behavior and restrain excess which appeal to simple principles, e.g., "Nobody should seek his own good but the good of others." There are also "arguments" which rely on mere authority. When God has spoken on a subject, mere authority is a good form of argument! But when He has not — as is the case with many New Order worship details — one must pursue other avenues of argumentation. Consider church architecture.

"Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount."20 It can be justly said that from Moses to Messiah the architecture of the "House of God" was as strictly regulated as the worship within it. Yet God has not given to the post-Pentecost church a blueprint for its architecture. To see this freedom that we now have — in fitting church form (architecture) to function (the activities occurring within) — is to see the church exercising one of its many prerogatives as a mature entity in Christ. God treats us as grown-ups; regulativists treat us as toddlers. Instead of basing their appeals for improvement on higher sensibilities and principles, as one would reason with an adult, they seek simply to "child-proof" every house with their "must nots." There are locks everywhere because God's covenant people, in their view, are not to be trusted.

  1. Obviously, we are assuming that the evidence thus far presented in this series satisfactorily demonstrates that the RPW is not true to Scripture. Therefore, the RPW’s source is to be found in man—no crime in itself, if only it would be admitted.
  2. One further thought about methodology. I’ve been told by some reguiativist brethren that without the R PW we have no grounds to correct either high-chuchers or those who have adopted modern evangelical excesses. First, I don’t believe that’s so. All schools of worship may be tested by the Informed Principle of Worship. Second, I ask, “Has having the RPW in hand aided you in the conversion of many churches to the Reformed way of life?” I didn’t think so. Third, all of us would agree that, in any case, principle is above pragmatism. Therefore, this is a non-issue.
  3. We don’t want to do without them, just their imposed principle.
  4. You will recall that by 1619 they codified the observance of non-prescribed holidays into their church order and calendar.
  5. We are aware of those who would enlist in their RPW cause A.96 of the Heidelberg (which teaches that God’s will for us in the Second Commandment is that we “in no way make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word”) and perhaps Article 32 of the Beigic (“. . . that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, has instituted”). But this is nothing but a grand case of question-begging, for the question remains as to just what God has taught us in His Word about worship, and just what Christ has instituted. We assert that it was God’s will, revealed and recorded in His Word, that He be worshipped in a synagogue, for which He did not give “If I have not commanded it, you may not do it”-type instruction. We further assert that it is Christ’s express will that the church pattern its worship along synagogual lines.
  6. This blatantly anti-Biblical attitude is one which appears in many places, not just in the R PW camp. It is endemic to certain morbidly introspectionistic communions where the children of believers, and the people gathered before the pulpit, are addressed, not as reconciled friends, but as enemies of God.
  7. Both positions depend upon and foster an ecclesiocentrism that consolidates clerical power, swiped from the pool of power conferred by God upon the community of covenant men. The power grab is more subtle in some precincts of the Reformed and Presbyterian world, but it is not less real. We still need to confront Protestant sacerdotalism.
  8. One correspondent wrote to us describing what he felt to be “the stifling, narrow, almost retentive way in which the [reguiativist] crowd expects one to worship. Both my wife and I are struck by the Roman Catholic ‘feel’ we have when we are in an R PW service. Just as you say, Rev. Schlissel, ‘who wouid’ve thought the very principle designed to distance us from Rome would actually link us. But ail extreme positions kiss, you know.’ How very, very true.” I thought his comments interesting, though I do not share his opinion. I was referring to principles, not “look-and-feel.” Personally, I find RPW-style worship exhilarating, glorious, secure, and man-at-his-best type worship. But I was not at the church these folks visited. Perhaps it carried the RPW to such an extreme that it experientially kissed Rome.
  9. Though not ail carry out that conviction.
  10. Heideiberg, #105.
  11. Adolescence is important but it too must yield to further growth. The early manifestations of the Spirit were not normative for the rest of church history. We are always to be growing, maturing, “aiming for perfection” (2 Cor. 13:11).
  12. Rev. 11:15.
  13. We are not here asserting that the spiritual experience of covenant believers after Pentecost was superior to the subjective experience of those before; in fact, we deny it.
  14. See Eph. 2:11-22; 4:3; 1 Cor. 12:13.
  15. Acts 15 is just the beginning. The basis of Gentile inclusion in the covenant is the issue, either expressly mentioned or alluded to, in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians (see chapter 2), Colossians, Philippians—we could go on.
  16. Unless they tampered with the gospel.
  17. 1 Cor. 6:12 and 10:23-4.
  18. Eph. 4:1, e.g.: As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.
  19. In fact, regulativists themselves use the Informed Principle of Worship (viz., “It depends”) when they come to 1 Cor. 14:39 where God says, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues.” Of course, finding an RPW church which does not forbid speaking in tongues—in a worship service!—is a tough task. And well it should be, on our principles. Tongues, like the RPW, belonged to another day.
  20. Heb. 8:5.

  • 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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