As Paul McCartney once pleaded, "Try to see it my way." These articles against the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) — if it is not commanded, it is forbidden — are written by one who had been taught the RPW, who had tried to believe the RPW, and who had sought to defend it. But the testimony of the whole Bible is stubborn and would not yield. Its evidence made it quite clear that the RPW, however salutary, however convenient, however helpful, is simply not scriptural. It is a tradition of men. I have been seeking to demonstrate why I have been overtaken by that conviction seeking in such a way as to retain what is best from the tradition. I am no enemy of RPW worship. But where there is a claim to Biblical authority that rests on a series of faults, it's best to let those who build their homes along that line know that their domiciles are vulnerable to earthquakes.
Many of you have become convinced along with me that the RPW does not serve well as a single, governing principle of worship; you recognize that there's just too much Biblical data the RPW can't account for. Others are skeptical, but open. Still others refuse to consider for so much as a moment that the Scriptures could possibly say anything other than what they've held them to say.1 That is, for some the RPW cannot, not even for argument's sake, be imagined not to be true. No evidence whatsoever is admitted, period. This makes discussion difficult. Let me give you one of many examples of the methodological problems encountered in discussions with such regulativists. The Informed Principle of Worship reasons like this:
- Major premise: There are no inscripturated commands concerning the elements, order, or performers required for lawful synagogue worship services, and no full, explicitly normative examples of such prior to the appearance of the institution.
- Minor premise: Jesus, the perfectly righteous One, regularly — religiously — participated in synagogue worship, which had been pretty well codified before His incarnation.
- Conclusion: Therefore, the rule of righteousness in worship cannot be: if God has not commanded it, it is forbidden.
Regulativist reasoning, however, seems to work somewhat differently. Some adherents look at the data this way:
- Major premise: The Regulative Principle of Worship is true.
- Minor premise: There are no inscripturated commands concerning the elements, order, or performers required for lawful synagogue worship services, and no full, explicitly normative examples of such prior to the appearance of the institution, but Jesus went to synagogue.
- Conclusion: Therefore, there must have been uninscripturated divine commands that we don't know about wherein God told someone what to do and how to do it.
Same Old Same Old
Their major premise is always the same. As you can see, people who start with such a given seek to force all proposed data to "harmonize" with the major premise. It is a method derived from Procrustes. No contrary evidence is permitted: it's either lopped off or stretched to fit. This is so even if an "answer" requires the introduction of an uninscripturated, yet binding and normative, oral tradition. And the kicker, of course, is that regulativists say that the Informed Principle of Worship is incipient Romanism. That shoe be on the other foot!
Let's see if we can make this point a little clearer: The Regulative Principle of Worship undermines itself. By a) insisting that, to justify a worship element we need a clear command (by precept or normative practice) revealed in God's Word, and b) acknowledging that the elements of the synagogue service Jesus participated in originated and developed with no such commands recorded in His Word, c) they are left to insist upon uninscripturated words, thus defeating their own principle. "We have to have a command, except when we can't find one. Then we have to assume that it must have been there, somewhere." No evidence to the contrary is admitted.
Let me give another example which causes consternation in discussions with my regulativist brothers. Those who regard themselves as the most regulated of all regulativists, let's call them "super-regulativists", typically disallow two elements of worship commonly found in other church services, viz., the singing of anything other than Psalms and instrumental music. Hymns and instruments are variously labeled as carnal, inventions of sinful men, intrusions, wicked devices of Satan, and on and on. Here is a paragraph from one RPCNA minister explaining why instruments must not be used:2
Since the New Testament teaches that all the ceremonial aspects of temple worship have been abolished,3 the passages that speak of the use of musical instruments in public worship, under the old covenant, do not provide biblical warrant for the use of musical instruments in public worship today. Jesus Christ rendered the whole ceremonial Levitical system obsolete with the perfect sacrifice of Himself on the cross (cf. Heb. 7:27, 9:28). The inferior (Heb. 9:11-15), the shadow (Heb. 10:1; 8:4-5), the obsolete (Heb. 8:13), the symbolic (Heb. 9:9), and the ineffectual (Heb. 10:4) have been replaced by Jesus Christ and His work. Christians have no more business using musical instruments in public worship than using priestly vestments, candles, incense, altars, and a sacerdotal priesthood.4
Notice, the regulative principle (a principle derived from the very order here acknowledged to be defunct!) disallows instruments because they belonged to the Levitical shadows (and, they add, instruments are not commanded to be used in the New Testament, leaving Revelation aside). Of course, we pointed out in a previous installment that this method of argument should lead "super-regulativists" to the conclusion that no singing at all be permitted in worship. When this argument against singing was reiterated to the above-quoted minister, this was his response:
...the objection that there is no biblical warrant for singing in public worship is rather astonishing. Once again, if we are using the biblical, broad definition of the RPW, this assertion is ludicrous. There are many examples of singing praise in public worship (e.g., 1 Chron. 16; 2 Chron. 5:13; 20:21; 29:30; Ez. 3:11) and there are many commands to praise Jehovah with the singing of psalms (e.g., Ps. 95:1-2; 81:2; 98:5; 100:2; 105:2). Once again the opponents of the RPW have resorted to straw-man arguments.
Do you see why I feel quite at a loss? First, we see in this response special pleading, for our correspondent is anything but a "broad-definition" regulativist. When he is asked to be consistent with his narrow rhetoric, he responds that we should be broadminded. OK, I'm all for broadmindedness.
But when he is prodded further, he ends up using the very argument, the very texts! He had elsewhere utterly rejected as baseless and irrelevant to the question at hand. If one appeals to the Levites' use of instruments to justify their use today, he is accused of imposing shadows on the people of the New Testament. But when told how this very method is part of a chain of reasoning that leads to a songless church, the reply is, "Nonsense! Astonishing! How could you say such a thing! Look! The Levites sang!"
The same must be said about our brother's appeal to the Psalms. Super-regulativists dismiss, out of hand, appeals to the Psalms for worship elements with which they are not comfortable. They do this by saying, "Well, the Psalms also call for sacrifices (e.g., Ps. 50:14; 66:15; 107:22; 116:17). Therefore we cannot say, 'It's in the Psalms, therefore it's OK.'" This, from men who insist that Psalms alone may be sung in worship.
The foregoing should highlight the simple, apparent fact that the Regulative Principle of Worship does not do justice to the whole of Scripture's actual teaching on the subject. That's why its proponents get themselves hopelessly entangled in these sorts of contradictions.
Lord willing, we'll soon return to an exposition of other elements of the Informed Principle of Worship. Until then, as our regulativist brothers won't be heard saying, have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Yours and His,
1. If you have Internet access, allow me to encourage you to visit this site: http://www.messiahnyc.org/notabilia.html. There you will find links to two papers. One is a critique of this series written by a fellow Reformed minister, Rev. Brian Schwertley, a "strict" regulativist who is currently seeking to plant a church in the Lansing, MI, area. The other paper is a reply to Rev. Schwertley, written by Mr. Brian Mattson of Montana. Both papers may be downloaded and/or distributed.
2. Many articles defending the RPW, by Rev. Brian Schwertley and others, can be found at www.reformed.com. This quote was taken from his work against instruments in worship, posted there under /pub/music.htm. I should note that there are other, fine articles, on this site. Serious students would do well to bookmark it.
3. Including the RPW! — sms
4. Rev. Schwertley cites John Calvin as concurring: "I have no doubt that playing upon cymbals, touching the harp and the viol, and all that kind of music, which is so frequently mentioned in the Psalms, was a part of the education; that is to say, the puerile [i.e., immature] instruction of the law: I speak of the stated service of the temple. For even now, if believers choose to cheer themselves with musical instruments, they should, I think, make it their object not to dissever their cheerfulness from the praises of God. But when they frequent their sacred assemblies, musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things from the Jews. Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostle is far more pleasing to him" (Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Vol. 1, p. 539). It might be a shock to some, but John Calvin was often wrong. There — I said it.
- 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.