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

I'll now risk getting myself into a lot of trouble for the sake of (one hopes!) making things clearer. Let me minimize that risk by stating that I am not, in what follows, calling for the introduction of dance as an element of the weekly worship service.

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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Dance, Dance, Dance
I'll now risk getting myself into a lot of trouble for the sake of (one hopes!) making things clearer. Let me minimize that risk by stating that I am not, in what follows, calling for the introduction of dance as an element of the weekly worship service.

I've mentioned already the regulativist's habit of simply assuming, in the face of whatever evidence there might be, that the RPW is "just true, period." This has often been made evident when, on a number of occasions, during a challenge to the RPW, we'll be told, "Why, then you'll have dancing in worship!" And that, it seems, settles the matter.

Is this what the RPW is all about? To save the church from dancing? Perhaps they should just call themselves Michalites. For when Michal, in the famous incident recorded in 2 Samuel 6:16-23 and 1 Chronicles 15:29, "saw King David dancing and celebrating, she despised him in her heart." The fact that the Lord cursed her with barrenness thenceforth doesn't seem to give anyone the slightest pause in condemning dance. It is, for us moderns, quite self-evident that it must be forbidden.

It is difficult to find someone willing to discuss this subject dispassionately. The difficulty, however, lies in culture rather than Scripture. And it is just here that the Informed Principle of Worship (IPW) can be very useful, while the RPW is not.

The reason regulativists utterly reject dancing before the Lord, without so much as "entertaining" the question, has more to do with 1) their Northern European heritage, 2) the failure of some Reformed to utterly break with a Roman overview of worship, and 3) our contemporary culture, than it does with God's express will revealed in Scripture. What I mean is this:

The knee-jerk reaction against dancing has a lot to do with its being linked to sensuality or entertainment. But David's dancing was not lascivious and it was not intentionally entertaining. The problem here seems to be a simple lack of proper dancing "models." We do have such in the Jewish world. On special occasions, Jewish men can be found dancing in synagogues, especially around the Torah (the Word of God, written on scrolls); the dancing might even, on very special occasions, move out into the street. At these infrequent times of infectious, unrestrained joy, there is no thought of unseemliness. It is, at the moment, most normal. It is a cultural thing.

The IPW would say that dancing is not ordinarily warranted or desirable, but that it might be appropriate under certain circumstances. First, Biblical dancing, so far as I can tell, is never inter-gender. Second, Biblical dancing is not for viewing but for doing. Just these two considerations overthrow the legitimacy of virtually all the contested dancing that is discussed today, for such is usually practiced by misguided mainliners or wannabe mainliners looking to provide a greater thrill for the "audience."

The so-called "Davidic dance" which has spilled over from the Messianic movement even onto some Presbyterians, is (based on my personal observation) contrived, forced, phony, and inter-gender.

The so-called "liturgical dance" encountered too often in the PCA and church-growth-type "worship centers" is actually, in part, a radical outworking of a Roman Catholic, as opposed to synagogal, worship structure. Romanist worship consists of actors up front and an audience in the pew.

Against "Davidic" and "liturgical" dance is covenantal dance. If dancing ever takes place in a synagogue (and it doesn't in all), it is done by the worshippers, not by a troupe, and the genders are strictly separated.

My point in bringing this matter up is not to advocate dance. We do quite well without it, I think. I mention it only to say that it is by no means inconceivable that dance, under certain circumstances, may be regarded as proper and acceptable before Jehovah as an expression of unmitigated joy. Such circumstances are difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce in modern congregations of Northern European extraction, so one should not try. As I indicated, the contemporary efforts of "Davidic" and "liturgical" dance advocates reach no higher than the banal.

But there might well be occasions when dancing is most fitting: the end of a gruesome war comes to mind, or the provision of food after famine. Not your everyday events, but should they happen, don't let the regulative principle frighten you. "Praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp." Yes, "praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute." Say to the Lord, "You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy." Because there is "a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance" (Ps. 30:11; 149:3; 150:4; Ecc. 3:4).

What we've written thus far in this installment has been written only to demonstrate the difficulty we encounter in having fruitful discussions with regulativists who make the RPW into the "indispensable presupposition of all intelligible predication" concerning worship. Can't we let the whole Bible speak?

Were this matter part of our ecumenical creeds, perhaps such a truculent posture would be understandable. But in view of its place in the scheme of things, RPW adherents should be willing to discuss the matter. Unfortunately, its advocates too often look like those who were described by one author as having "backed up into their convictions." We should remember the butcher who backed into his meat grinder and got a little behind in his work. Some regulativists, too, have backed up, "syllogized" themselves, into a position before considering it thoroughly and now they are afraid to admit that there's a problem.

Well, there are lots of problems with the RPW. But if for no other reason than to humor a poor, misguided Jew, I appeal to you, allow me once again to explain my read on the Scripture's teaching concerning the RPW. And after a brief brief, we'll continue to show (perhaps in the next installment) why all is not lost if we yield to the Scriptures' entire testimony on the subject. We will discover, I trust, that we have not been left adrift to do simply anything we might want in worship.

On the contrary. We are here simply insisting that the Westminster Confession's admission concerning "circumstances" of worship "that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed" is, in truth, a far more comprehensive statement of God's will for New Order worship than is recognized in some quarters.

These "general rules" or, as I've labeled them, the elements of the Informed Principle of Worship, are adequate guides precisely because the Confession is correct when it says that "under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected." For the Regulative Principle of Worship, as found in the Bible, belongs to the ceremonial law. Let me show you why I think so.

Standing On Ceremony
The regulativist motto, taken from Deuteronomy 12:32,1 "Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it," is a seriously abused text. In fact, it has been stretched by some as badly as 12:21 has been stretched by the rabbis. The Jews have a very exact, elaborate, and strict method for the ritual slaughter of animals which are to be eaten. Yet, "[a]ll that R. Judah Hanasi could adduce in proof of this practice are the three words of Deuteronomy 12:21: vezabahtakaasher tziviticha, 'and thou shalt slaughteras I commanded thee.'"2 From these three words it was assumed that God must have given numerous details to Moses, who would initiate their oral transmission. Then, through an unbroken succession, they would be codified in the Mishna.

That's a lot to ask from Deuteronomy 12:21. But the Jews, at least, concede that their methods involve stretches. Listen to this heartening confession: "The Mishna frankly states that for some laws (halachot) there are but slender Scriptural proofs." Some halachot "are like mountains suspended by a hair; their scriptural basis is scant and the halachot are abundant" 3

"Strict" regulativists ask as much from 12:32 as the rabbis ask from 12:21, but they don't admit it. The words of 12:32 are stretched way beyond their contextual meaning. The context (12:1-16:17) deals with the coming centralization of worship at the place where the Lord would cause His name to dwell. Consider how abundantly clear this context is as you read these verses from chapter 12:

But you shall seek the place where the Lord your God chooses, out of all your tribes, to put His name for His dwelling place; and there you shall go. There you shall take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the heave offerings of your hand, your vowed offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice in all to which you have put your hand, you and your households, in which the Lord your God has blessed you. You shall not at all do as we are doing here today, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes, for as yet you have not come to the rest and the inheritance which the Lord your God is giving you. But when you cross over the Jordan and dwell in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies round about, so that you dwell in safety, then there will be the place where the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide. There you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the heave offerings of your hand, and all your choice offerings which you vow to the Lord. And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion nor inheritance with you. Take heed to yourself that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every place that you see; but in the place which the Lord chooses, in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you.

Give Me My Allowance
No reasonable reader could disagree that what we have here is law for centralized, sacrificial worship. Israel was not permitted to sacrificially approach Jehovah except in the place where His name would dwell and then strictly according to His prescribed manner.

But God, in this passage, expressly allows Israelites to slaughter animals for private consumption if they follow general rules: blood could only be used for expiation and that only according to His prescriptions. Otherwise, the blood would be poured on the ground.

However, you may slaughter and eat meat within all your gates, whatever your heart desires, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, of the gazelle and the deer alike. Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it on the earth like water.

One commentator noted: "12:20 allows for secular meat-eating anywhere; it's only ritual sacrifices which must be offered at the central shrine." By this allowance it is made even clearer that what was being strictly regulated in this passage was ritual, sacrificial, soon-to-be centralized worship. That, and that alone, is what God was here marking off and codifying, not worship per se. Anyone who thinks otherwise must still bring the firstborn of his flocks and herds to Jerusalem. Or put another way, anyone who is not bringing burnt offerings, sacrifices, tithes, heave offerings, vowed offerings, freewill, and other offerings to Jerusalem is implicitly acknowledging that this chapter is regulating things which do not obligate Christians, at least not in the same way they had once bound Israel.

Still, one regulativist, quite representatively, puts it plainly: "Verse 32 is an explicit statement of God's regulative principle of worship." But to isolate verse 32 from its context, and then make it an obligatory, governing principle for all worship, is just as arbitrary and unsound as saying that Christians who have a running sore must have it examined by an Aaronic priest. I hope no one has such a sore, but if you do, try finding an Aaronic priest!

Remember, a regulativist who pleads the normativity of 12:32 must, to be consistent, plead the normativity of what 12:32 was guarding, in context. Once he says that he is not obliged to bring all his offerings to a single earthly location, or to do this or to do that, he has violated his own principle: he has taken away something God had, in that very context, commanded.

The New and Living Way
What is the message of Deuteronomy 12 for Christians? The message, in light of the New Testament, is very clear: reconciliation with God can only be had along the path of the God-provided atonement. Since the blood of bulls and goats merely bore witness to the blood of Christ, it is that blood with which Christians are concerned. For the New Covenant is in His blood (Lk. 22:20); He purchased us with His own blood (Ac. 20:28); Christ was set forth by God as a propitiation by His blood (Rom. 3:25); in Him we have redemption through His blood (Eph. 1:7); Gentiles, who once were far off, have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:13); we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:14); it was not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood that He entered the Most Holy Place once for all (Heb. 9:12); we may have boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus (10:19); it is the blood of Jesus Christ His Son which cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn. 1:7); for He loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood (Rev. 1:5).

Therefore, if we believe in and guard the way opened up by Christ's blood, we are fulfilling the so-called Regulative Principle of Worship. Deuteronomy 12:32"Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" is properly understood only when seen as an insistence upon the exclusivity of God's gospel. When a person is trusting in the blood of Jesus Christ for his salvation, not adding to His work or taking away from it, that person is obeying 12:32 in its fullness.

That is why you read a great deal about the blood of Christ in the New Testament but nothing about the need for Christians to continue to bring blood offerings and nothing about one single principle regulating worship. When we believe in His blood, His atoning sacrifice, His exclusive work, we are doing exactly what God requires of us in Deuteronomy 12:1 through 16:17.

If our thesis (that Deuteronomy 12:32 is given as a regulation governing only the centralized, sacrificial system) is correct and it certainly appears to be! then the implications for the matter under discussion are significant.

For it would mean that regulativists may not, without qualification, appeal to texts dealing with the sacrificial system as support for their principle. Out goes Nadab and Abihu, out goes Uzzah and Uzziah. They don't go "out of the canon," and they don't go out as sources of instruction. They go out as supposed "proofs" of a tortured principle, a principle which was never given to regulate worship in light of Christ's historical accomplishments. The lengthy litanies of instances cited by regulativists, wherein God reproves His people for violations of the centralized worship system, are at most only indirectly germane to the matter at hand. Once they trim the explicit requirements of Deuteronomy 12, regulativists trim their own principle, too.

Some regulativists will attempt to broaden their appeal to the "principle" found in 12:32 by saying that it is found also in Deuteronomy 4:2. But this only further undoes their assertions. The passage reads, "Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers giveth you. Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you."

If the regulativist would bring this passage to bear on the question of worship, he has gone even further from the path leading to the light. For this passage refers to all the law of God, not simply to laws governing worship. Very few regulativists would seriously argue that God's intent here is to forbid Israel from doing anything whatsoever in any area of life that is not specifically commanded in the law. I suppose those Amish who eschew buttons for want of finding them mentioned in Scripture might look somewhat favorably on this interpretation, but they'd be mighty lonely in so doing.

Yet that is precisely the conclusion which cannot be evaded if 4:2 is cited as supportive of the regulativist's reading of 12:32. Deuteronomy 4:2 is a general rule, requiring a life that conforms to God's disclosed will in its entirety. The NIV Study Bible note is to the point: "The revelation the Lord gives is sufficient. All of it must be obeyed and anything that adulterates or contradicts it cannot be tolerated."

God did not intend that the recipients of this verse (4:2) would literally do nothing not mentioned therein (e.g., no skateboarding, using electricity, driving automobiles, or eating lemon ices). Thus, 4:2 as a parallel demonstrates that 12:32 is not to be taken in an absolute sense. If you find a similar phrase used by the same author in the same book, you need to justify applying a radically different sense to each. If it is agreed that 4:2, referring to the whole law, was not to be taken absolutely when it forbids additions and subtractions, neither is 12:32 to be taken as an abstract and absolute rule. Both are to be interpreted in terms of the whole Word of God, a Word that simply does not teach: if it is not commanded, it is forbidden.

Listen, please, and be patient with me. Try to see what our regulativist friends have done. They've taken a "principle" and yanked it from its context wherein sacrificial worship, and that alone, was being regulated. Nevertheless, these same folks, recognizing that the system was to be observed only until the Christ, abstract the principle and then absolutize it. They themselves no longer practice the things the verse was (in context) given to guard, yet they continue to regard the verse as having an independent existence!

Regulativists don't have a human priesthood, which the verse protected; they believe in a priesthood of all believers. They don't have a human-constructed temple, made according to exact requirements, which the verse guarded: they make church buildings any way they please. They don't have daily, weekly, monthly, or annual blood offerings, which the verse oversaw: they use no blood at all in their rituals. They don't do pilgrimages, they don't honor the dietary restrictions, they don't refrain from mixing cloths, they don't keep the same calendar, they don't do any of the things demanded in the verse's immediate context! And all this is well and good. They see in so many ways that all this must be interpreted in light of the whole Word of God. But when it comes to the principle which was part of the same package which terminated upon Christ's sacrificial workLike men in a swoon and afraid of falling, they reach out to steady themselves with a principle rather than the Christ Who was therein honored. They are left embracing a verse when all the while the verse was given only so that we might embrace the Christ! Its meaning is found in Him.

Careful now! We are not saying of this whole matter, "That was the Old Testament!" Rather, we are saying of the sacrificial system, "That was gospel declaration in the Sinaitic administration." The gospel declaration today is guarded precisely the way it was then: it is forbidden to add to it or take from it (Galatians 1:8 makes that reasonably clear!).

Jesus Paid It All
Thus with one eye-opening truth, viz., that the rigorous RPW of the Old Administration was unto Christ, by far the greatest amount of regulativist "evidence" becomes inadmissible because their citations become explicable on grounds other than those they advance. Their arsenal is neutralized once we see that the "principle" was a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ.

"Thou, O Christ, art all I want, more than all in Thee I find," not in an abstracted and tortured "principle." But then, strict regulativists are not permitted to corporately worship Christ by singing the words of "Jesus, Lover of My Soul." Their principle forbids it, regarding such an act as presumptuous impiety and a form of idolatry. Let them say this more loudly into the microphone. It is easy to see why nearly the entire Christian world for all of its history has not recognized the RPW as something taught by our Jesus. Imagine, forbidden by "a principle" to express our devotion to our Savior, by name, in corporate song. Yes, speak up into the microphone.


1. Yet even there it was not as rigid as some of its modern advocates assert. More anon.

2. In the Hebrew division it is 13:1. Thus it is seen by the Jews as a heading for the warnings against false prophets who might lead them to worship other gods.

3. Samuel S. Cohon, Essays in Jewish Theology, (Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati. 1986), 63.

4. Hag. I.8, cited in above.

  • 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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