The Need for the Regulative Principle in Worship

I appreciate David Murray’s post entitle Everyone Has a Regulative Principle. For those who do not understand the phrase regulative principle, it is a phrase coined in the Reformation about the guidelines the church has when it comes to worshipping God. Just bringing up the fact that there were guidelines and principles governing worship brings about an ire from so many in our day. This should not be something we rejoice over, but lament because when it comes to worship, so many are doing what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25).

In other words, the worldly have stolen worship from the people of God and told us we need to worship like the pagans do at rock concerts. I call this boom-boom worship because you can hear the bass drums from the street. When you boil this type of worship down to its driving force, it’s nothing more than idolatry that satisfies the flesh and is not concerned with what God has prescribed. It’s worship that appeals to the hormone-driven 17-year-old, not the worship of mature believers in communion with God and one another.

This is why we need to return to the Protestant regulative principle. Murray helps break down the many views of worship and helps us to see the need to return to what God commanded:  Here are the five main positions:

  • The Past: This is the way we have always done it.
  • Preference: This is what I like and enjoy.
  • Pragmatism: This works, it’s popular, it draws people in.
  • Prohibition: Everything and anything goes unless it is specifically prohibited.
  • Prescription: True worship is commanded worship; we may only include what God commands.

This last principle, prescription, was recovered by Calvin at the time of the Reformation and was linked to the rediscovery of the Gospel. The reformers saw that the God-centered and God-glorifying salvation they had rediscovered, required God-centered and God-glorifying worship, and that this could only be secured by including in worship only what God had commanded. This principle was based on Scripture (e.g. Lev. 10:1; Deut. 12:32; 1 Chron. 15:13-15; John 4:23-24; Matt. 15:9; Col. 2:23) and the teaching summarized in the Westminster Confession:

The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture (WCF 21.1)

In other words, when we are considering the content and conduct of our worship, the biggest question is not “Does the Bible forbid it?” but “Does the Bible command it?” That makes things much simpler because any list of what God forbids in public worship would take an encyclopedia to cover all that the human mind has invented as “worship.”

The WCF gives us what is acceptable in worship: preaching and reading of God’s word, prayer, baptism, communion, along with the taking of lawful oaths and vows. I know, sounds boring. But when done with hearts in submission to God’s expressed will, this can be some of the most spiritually fulfilling worship the believer can experience on this side of glory.

I know there are those who will look at this list and wonder at what point would such worship allow for personal emoting that goes on in boom-boom worship. You know the type of emoting I’m talking about: like some love-struck Romeo telling his Juliet of his undying love. This is what you get when emotions drive worship and not truth.

Truth be told, at one point I was drawn to such worship, worship where we were yanked along by our emotions. We were all like sheep being led to the slaughter as the worship leader drew us along in the direction he wanted to take us. Some days we were to be happy Christians, and other days, we were to be guilt-ridden Christians, because guilt is such a fun tool to use in the hands of a manipulative worship leader.

Hardly godly.

What happened to me was that my life was a wreck with the sufferings all Christians go through and the music leader was emoting that I should just feel happy in Jesus. It was more of the don’t worry, be happy type philosophy that is found in so many worship programs. But what about the lament? What about suffering? What about those times when life is really hard? Do we just ignore such times, and be a happy idiot pursuing the legal tender?

I can’t do that. I need music that is reverent and truthful. I need music that will lift up my spirit because of the truth found in the songs, not because some worship leader says I should clap my hands. I need music that is focused upon God and His goodness, not some emotion brought about by the worship leader.

BTW, just the phrase “worship leader” would have been foreign to the Reformers. The pastor was the “worship leader” and lead through proclamation of the word, through prayer, through preaching and the administration of the sacraments. Just having a specific role for someone who is called “worship leader” shows how off base we are.

Now, I do need to be upfront about my views, for I’m just as opposed to worship leaders who do the same thing with “traditional” music as I am to those who use boom-boom music. It’s not a particular music style that is the problem. It’s usually the attitude and the loudness of the music. I visited a church this past Sunday that had traditional worship, and they had a song-leader. To me, he was just as offensive and just as much a stumbling block as those who had the boom-boom music in their worship. Why? Because the entire portion of the worship service when we were singing was devoted to him singing loudly into a microphone, and the choir singing loudly into their microphones to the point that the worship was drowning out the congregation.

Whether it is traditional worship or boom-boom worship, the moment I can’t hear the person next to me sing is the moment that the worship leader and his cohorts have gone too far. Worship is to be congregational, not professional. This was a mark of the Reformation, giving worship back to the congregation. We need to do the same thing today. Turn off the microphones, un-amp the piano, kick the drumset to the curb, and let the congregation sing to our LORD, not be sung too about our LORD. True worship involves the entirety of the congregation lifting up our voices together, not being drowned out by a worship bozo and his team of professionals singing to us. If we want that, we can go see U2 in concert and actually have a much better show.

For more on this, and true biblical worship, go to Scott Aniol’s piece here. He traces how worship has developed through history and helps paint a picture of what it means to follow the regulative principle for worship.


One thought on “The Need for the Regulative Principle in Worship

  1. The “prescription” principle can be taken too far, as did the Restorationsts, today’s Churches of Christ. It is quite true that by a plain reading, the New Testament never describes instrumental worship.

    The Catholic Church generally agrees with this principle. Excluding the progressive fruits and nuts of the post–Vatican II era, innovation has always been frowned upon. As far as the “extra” sacraments: they are all there in Scripture, if one knows where to look, and that’s where Tradition gives us a light.


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