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Grossmann Letter to the Editor on the "Regulative Principle of Worship"

The Rev. Steve Schlissel's recent articles in favor of junking the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) and replacing it with the Steve Schlissel Principle of Worship (SSPW) are provocative, interesting, and in need of a Reformed response.

  • Robert Grossmann,
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Dear Friends in Christ,

The Rev. Steve Schlissel's recent articles in favor of junking the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) and replacing it with the Steve Schlissel Principle of Worship (SSPW) are provocative, interesting, and in need of a Reformed response. I say, in need of a "Reformed response" because our friend's position is indeed outside of the Reformed position as proclaimed in our creeds, be they the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity. Steve is indeed a good personal friend and we wish none of the following to be taken as a personal attack, as I am certain it is not his purpose that his articles be taken as a personal affront by any who disagree with him. We are happy that at times he expressed himself as being somewhat tentative about his ideas.

First of all, it needs to be clear that the RPW is indeed at the heart of the Reformed Reformation. Worship centered in the Word of God rather than in the sacraments was considered by the Reformed Reformers as an essential Biblical requirement, not as a man-made innovation preferable on the grounds of human reason or esthetics. There is an excellent book on this issue written by Carlos Eire and published in 1986. It has recently been available from Sprinkle Publications. The book is entitled War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin. It is an excellent corrective to the callous disregard for the differences between the Lutheran and Reformed Reformations which has too often been a feature of Reformation studies in the last 100 years.

The SSPW is in historical terms very close to the Lutheran principle, which is that God allows what He does not forbid. I believe there is some confusion on this principle in Rev. Schlissel's articles in that he calls this the Roman Catholic principle. The Roman principle is that worship is to be done as the Church institutes it on the basis of Scripture and tradition.

Certainly this allows what Scripture does not forbid, but it also does a whole lot more. The main point is that Reformed worship is at the heart of being Reformed. The RPW is no more of an option for Reformed people than is the sovereignty of God, which of course is why it is in our creeds.

In our opinion our good brother makes several exegetical mistakes and jumps in logic to reach his position. He also quotes RPW exegesis of peripheral texts by those who are interested in proving Exclusive Psalmody (EP) rather than from exegesis of the main RPW texts (RPW and EP are not co-extensive, indeed EP is a product of the "Second Reformation" rather than of the first in which the RPW was discovered and laid down as a Reformed principle).

Brother Schlissel's main argument against the NT application of the RPW is that it applies even in the OT only to offerings. This is a facile conjecture, but no more than that. The OT does indeed give great detail concerning the offerings made to God, and says little about the form of worship on the weekly Sabbath in each community as required by Leviticus 23:3. However, there are several much better answers to why this is true, than to jump to the conclusion that only the offerings are regulated. First of all, and almost certainly true, is the fact that Hebrew families and their predecessors had been engaging in weekly worship since the time of Adam. They knew what to do; they didn't have to have additional detailed instruction. A good understanding of what worship is makes this quite clear.

Worship is fellowship with God mainly through words (even the sacraments need the word for their validity; as Luther said, "Without the word the sacraments are empty ceremonies"). Worship is, according to Psalm 95 (which speaks nothing of offerings), 1) meeting with God (v. 2), 2) bowing down before God (v. 6), and 3) listening obediently to God's word (vv. 7b-8a). Even in the daily offering, the central meaning of worship is found in "where I will meet you to speak with you" (Ex. 29:42). Worship for the Hebrews consisted in reading or reciting God's words handed down to them, words of song and prayer, and words of confession and commitment. We see this in that Jacob knew exactly what to do when God appeared to him at Bethel (Gen. 28:16-22). The offerings of the OT were sacraments, as is clear from their "shadow nature" (see Heb. 9:23). Their form was very important, and thus the detailed instructions, just as is the form of the sacraments today (a sacrament is a ceremony pointing to Christ's work in which both the form and the keeping of it are commanded).

A second reason that the Hebrews needed little instruction about the weekly "holy convocation" of Leviticus 23 is that its form was simple. Once one knows the essential elements as they are found in the meetings of God with Abraham and his son and grandson, not much else is needed (see, for example, Genesis 18-19, where again there is prayer and fellowship but no offering).

A third answer to this supposed "lack" of instruction, is that there is instruction indeed in Leviticus 23. There are three fundamental instructions, all of them understandable to the Israelites. One, these are "feasts of the LORD." This is not just a day of rest and meeting for worship (the holy convocation); it is a day of celebration. Second, it is a day of rest; ordinary work may not be done. How can they "feast" without working? This is covered already in Exodus 12:16: "that which is necessary to eat - that only may be prepared by you." Third, these days, including the weekly Sabbath, are to be "a holy convocation." Again, Israel had already learned from Moses, if not from their parents while in Egypt, what a "holy convocation" is. This was done during the holy convocations connected with the Passover. If any Israelite did not know what to do at a holy convocation while he was still in Egypt, he did by the time he left.

Therefore Rev. Schlissel's assertion that God regulates only the offerings in the OT is pure assertion. There is no whisper of this anywhere in the words of Scripture, indeed quite the opposite.

Rev. Schlissel's assertion about the RPW applying only to offerings is directly contradicted by the teaching of Scripture. First, the Commandment which requires the RPW is the Second Commandment, as the Reformed creeds agree (Heidelberg Q&A #96, Westminster Confession, Chapter 21, Section 1), a commandment which speaks of the spiritual purity of worship in general and only indirectly of offerings. Indeed, offerings are not even mentioned specifically in the Second Commandment because sacraments are not essential to worship.

The issues in the Second Commandment are the spiritual nature of God, which is why pictures and images are forbidden, and the commitment of men's hearts, which is why the Commandment speaks of loving and hating God as well as of keeping His commandments. Worship and service of God must be done according to His commandments both outwardly in form, and inwardly in our hearts (the NIV does us a disservice by confusing worship and service, see also Paul's allusion in Rom.1:25). The point is that worshipping and serving God must be done according to His laws (see also Dt. 4:2), and not according to the imagination of man's heart, which is the source of idolatrous images and of man-made ideas for worship and service (see Hab. 2:18-20). The latter verses here apply the Second Commandment by saying in effect, "shut off your imagination and listen to God's Word."

There can then be no doubt whatsoever that the Second Commandment applies its restriction to ALL worship and that Rev. Schlissel's assertion to the contrary is simply mistaken.

Much of Mr. Schlissel's assertion about the RPW referring only to offerings rests on His view of Deuteronomy 12. God does in this chapter restrict the place of offerings, to the one place in the promised land that He will choose by "placing my name there." This section on offerings, however, ends with verse 28. Not only is verse 28 clearly a summary of what goes before, verse 29 just as clearly begins a new subject, that not of the place of worship but of how the Israelites are to worship God. Therefore Mr. Schlissel's attempt to apply verse 32 only to the offerings mentioned in verses 1-28 will not work. Remember that the chapters were placed in the Bible during Medieval times, not the best time for perfect selection of subject differentiation. The subject matter of Deuteronomy 12:29-32 is certainly related to the place of worship, but it is indeed a different subject.

Second, the language of Deuteronomy 12:29-32 clearly speaks of worship in general, and is not in any way limited to offerings, which are never mentioned in these verses. The commandment is not to ask, "How did these nations serve their Gods?" This is the most general language one could use. Limiting it to offerings is purely arbitrary and unjustified. This generality of language is also true of Deuteronomy 12:32 itself. It speaks not of offerings but of "whatsoever I command you" with respect to worshiping and serving God. There is indeed a connection between the RPW of Deuteronomy 12:32 and the offerings of verses 1-29, but that is because 12:32 speaks of all worship, and offerings certainly are a part of OT worship. Nevertheless the first 28 verses of the chapter are about the location of worship; these last four verses are about the purity of all worship. Thus the two are not unconnected, but to limit Deuteronomy 12:32 to offerings alone is entirely unjustified by the language and subject matter in the words of Scripture itself.

Another reason for not applying the RPW of Deuteronomy 12:32 is that its commandment about worship, "Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it," is repeated in a negative fashion by our Lord Jesus Christ when talking about worship in the New Testament. Jesus says, quoting Isaiah, "And in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Mk. 7:7). Thus the RPW is repeated negatively both in Isaiah 29:13 and in Christ's own words. What is wrong with human-designed worship is that it is according to man's commandments and not God's commandments. Therefore it is empty; it does not honor God but displeases Him. This is emphasized by Christ's coordinate quote of Isaiah saying, "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" (Mk. 7:6). Worship that is not according to the RPW ends up, as Paul puts it, "worship[ing] and serv[ing] the creature more than the Creator" (Rom. 1:25). It is less than worthless (as Luther held); it is sin (as Zwingli and his Reformed progeny held).

A final text we would look at in this connection is John 4:24, another re-iteration of the RPW. Jesus said, "God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth."

This text not only forbids all but one kind of worship, which is what the RPW is all about; it provides the basis for the Second Commandment and the RPW itself. It is the very nature of God as a Spirit that makes it impossible and sinful to try to worship Him with physical means, such as pictures and images. The Second Commandment forbids pictures and images just for this reason, "God is a Spirit." However, this command of Christ also tells us that we must worship God in truth. This is because God is the source of all truth and all His ways are truth. Is this so of man? Can man design TRUE methods of worship? I am afraid this is the position Brother Schlissel must take if he is to be true to his SSPW. I know certainly that Steve does not want to do this, in fact, I am sure he recoils at the idea as much as we do. And that is the problem with the SSPW; it puts man in an untenable position, the position of being able to ignore God's laws by adding to them, which according to Scripture is just as bad as subtracting from them. The reason for this is, as Christ says, "That which is highly esteemed among men, is abomination in the sight of God." Trusting man to decide what is truly worshipful, or right and wrong in any way, is simply unscriptural.

Another of Rev. Schlissel's arguments against the RPW comes from his distorted view of the place of the Jewish synagogue. What is perverted here is not the fact that the NT Church grew up in the fabric of the synagogue, but the idea that the synagogue as practiced by the Jews at the time of Christ can claim some authority over the Christian church. Associated also with that is the equivalence he makes between the sacrificial system and heavenly worship, claiming a two-tiered system of worship in which the temple-tabernacle system is assumed to be the higher tier and synagogue worship the lower tier. If we had to make a Biblical choice, it would have to be in favor of the worship of fellowship through word, also in the OT, because the Temple was preceded by such worship and it is certainly cast aside in the NT. Even the sacrifice of Christ is not the central element of worship but is designed to facilitate worship by cleansing the worshipers. As Samuel said to Saul, "to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams" (1 Sam. 15:22). Brother Schlissel certainly has an inventive mind. He has produced a number of unique ideas he claims to be scriptural, even though they have never been found before in the history of Bible study. This in itself should put us on guard. Again we would have to point out that this guiding relation of the synagogue of the Jews to the "synagogue of Christ," as he puts it, is not nearly as clear in the Bible as Steve claims. In fact, the Lord Himself calls the unbelieving Jews the "synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 3:9). Also, his two-tiered worship scheme simply finds no evidence whatsoever in the Bible itself. It is possible for us to make this distinction, but making contrasts or separations between things we can distinguish is an old exegetical fallacy. If the words of Scripture do not point us to a separation (as we pointed out, Exodus 29:42 puts the word and sacraments together), then we may not make one for ourselves. This construction, I believe, is an example of just why the principle is "do not add to or subtract from God's commandments."

Brother Schlissel's use of the "moral dilemma tactic" to cloud the issue of right and wrong concerning worship is just that, a tactic that can be used to prove just about anything. The Bible's either/or about sex is not a conjecture borne out of our inability to understand and apply God's law. Sex in marriage is a blessed gift of God; outside of marriage it is an abomination. So the choice is not between hussies or ugly women, but between adultery and chastity. Part of chastity is modest dress. Really not a big deal. When we read Paul in the context of the styles of his day, rings, shiny braided hair, etc. were the dress of prostitutes. No Christian woman should dress like a prostitute. That is why Paul does not say, "I don't allow rings, . . . etc." But, "whose adorning let it not be." It is one thing to outlaw something period, as the Bible does with adultery and uncommanded elements of worship; it is another thing to point to the sinful use of things and warn people to avoid such uses. The same is true, for example, of the use of alcohol in beverages. The Word of God absolutely forbids drunkenness, which is an effect of too much alcohol, but does not forbid the substance itself. Indeed, on several occasions it is commended for its good effects.

To avoid becoming tedious, let us end this response. I think Brother Schlissel's own statements militate against his arguments. He says that he does not want to change Reformed worship but only expunge its foundation in the RPW, which he believes is mistaken. The problem is that what Rev. Schlissel accepts as good worship comes from people who have strictly held to the RPW. Steve might well have titled his articles, "Everything I Know About Worship I Did Not Learn From the Regulative Principle, But I Did Learn From Those Who Hold to the Regulative Principle." In other words, there is somewhat of a contradiction here. I believe our Brother needs to read the classical works of the first Reformation on worship and then think about his position. I find him working against somewhat of a straw man in that respect. The RPW as applied by the Reformers was not picayune. It dealt with the fundamental nature of worship in accord with John 4:24, and with the rejection of idols in accord with the Second Commandment. These men concluded (rightly) that this is a large matter to which God speaks very clearly. The placement of the RPW into the creeds of Reformed churches was no mistake, and it is not one that needs to be changed today.

Let me say that Rev. Schlissel has revived a very important discussion. For quite a number of years Reformed and Presbyterian churches have been willing to give lip service to the RPW but have not applied it very well. Indeed, through this neglect the RPW has become almost the exclusive property of the Exclusive Psalmodists. This writer is convinced that the EPs are mistaken in their application of the RPW, but to drop it as a Biblical principle is to become less than Reformed. My best wishes to Brother Steve, and all of us, as we consider this fundamental question of Reformation theology.

Rev. Robert Grossmann
Garner, IA