Recently a headline about Union Theological Seminary in NYC caught my attention. It said, “Union Students Confess to Plants.” The article explained that during a chapel gathering, students spent the time sitting on the floor before a number of plants. One student explained what happened in a tweet, “Today in chapel, we confessed to plants. Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor.” Now this seems strange to many, especially coming from a school which purports to train Christian ministers. However, it touches upon an important issue: namely, how are Christians to worship? While I am not insinuating that these students were worshiping the plants (at least I hope not), it is notable that this happened during a time set aside for corporate worship.
The idea that local churches are to gather together in order to corporately worship God is important; but the principle matter here is how Christians are to worship. Does it matter what elements of worship take place within the church? Are Christians permitted to worship God however they see fit, so long as their hearts are in the right place? Finally, does God care about how His people come before Him in worship? Writing in Give Praise to God, theologian Ligon Duncan argues that God certainly does care! Further, he asserts that God has provided all the resources needed for worship within the pages of Scripture. He writes, “God’s Word itself must supply the principles and patterns and content for Christian worship. True Christian worship is by the book.”
Duncan explains the historic unity between Protestants when it came to following the biblical patterns of worship. The reformed church led by Calvin, the Scottish tradition under Knox, the Puritans, the Baptists, and the Congregationalists all used the Bible alone as the guide for corporate worship. These ideals merely grew out of the church’s understanding of sola scripture, that the Bible alone is the authoritative means through which God directs His church. Because of this, the church must heed its instructions concerning worship. Duncan explains, “The Bible alone ultimately directs the form and content of Christian worship.”
“This strong and special emphasis on the corporate worship of God being founded positively on the directions of Scripture came to be known as the regulative principle,” writes Duncan. The regulative principle states that God dictates the activities and practices of true worship through biblical warrant. Duncan writes, “That warrant may come in the form of explicit directives, implicit requirements, the general principles of Scripture, positive commands, examples, and things derived from good and necessary consequences.” The regulative principle is the key to biblical worship.
The Bible itself lays the foundation of the regulative principle throughout the Old and New Testaments. In Exodus during tabernacle worship, we see how the detailed instructions for both the creation of the instruments of worship and the implementation of worship are direct indicators that God does indeed care about how He is worshiped. Duncan explains, “God’s plan, not the people’s creativity, nor even that of the artisans who would build it, was to be determinative in the making of the place where His people would meet Him.” It was these and other passages that were instrumental in formulating the regulative principle in minds of various reformed thinkers.
Finally, Duncan explores what the New Testament has to say regarding the regulative principle worship. This is first seen in Jesus’ rejection and critique of Pharisaic worship. While Pharisees are generally regarded as being too legalistic in their understanding of the law, Jesus rebukes them for putting the traditions of men before the law of God. He questions them, “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3) The man-made traditions had become more important than God’s revealed will. Duncan notes, “It is [the Pharisees’] laxity about God’s law and their tenuous casuistry that undermined the prime force of the moral law and drew His ire.” In rejecting the Pharisaic worship, Jesus shows that He cares about the how of worship as directed by the unadulterated Word of God.
Especially helpful is Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth. As they struggled with the assembly of worship, the Apostle Paul has no qualms with giving directions. Duncan writes, “Paul is perfectly willing to regulate the form and content of charismatic worship” as it was happening in Corinth. This is an important insight as Paul is pointing out there are right and wrong ways to approach God in worship.
Before his letter to the church, the Corinthians were worshiping incorrectly; that is, not in line with the Word of God. Paul had to step in to regulate what was unregulated. Paul gives directives on what is to happen in the corporate worship (cf. 1 Cor. 14:27-28) and even on who can do what in the assembly (cf. 1 Cor. 14:34-35). Duncan concludes that Paul’s interaction with the Corinthian church is an example of the regulative principle in action. “The major thrust of this whole passage is that God cares very much how we worship; He cares not just about our attitudes and motives, but about our actions and order.”
The regulative principle is not simply a doctrinal position held by particular Christian traditions; rather, the regulative principle is derived from the Scripture. The idea that the church is to base its worship practices solely on the direct teaching of the Bible is to be believed because it is in the Bible. Therefore, to disregard the regulative principle is to disregard the Word of God. Next week, we will examine the specific elements of worship Scripture lays out for us, and how the form and content of our worship can be applied in a way that honors and glorifies God.
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By Pastor Nick Jones
Maranatha Baptist Church
1320 E. Saguaro Dr. Globe, AZ