The Regulative Principle


The worship that is practiced in most of the modern church today does not even remotely resemble that which was known in the early church. An examination of the early church reveals a simplicity in worship and in church order in general that is completely unheard of in this present day and time. The worship that characterized the early church was simple in its design because it was first and foremost biblical, by direction of the inspired apostles. Simplicity is the chief characteristic of everything set forth by God in the New Testament concerning its form of religion. This is in sharp contrast to the Old Testament form of religion that God set forth for the nation of Israel. In that economy a much more elaborate scheme of rituals and regulations made up its identity as a religion. That public expression of God’s congregation and kingdom had its specific purpose in the will of God that supported the elaborate nature of it.

New Testament Christianity on the other hand, being simple and uncomplicated in its design has its particular form too, according to the mind of God. But this is where a particular sort of problem arises when it comes to the question of form. There is in the Old Testament a very well documented order of practice spelled out by God to His people concerning their religious observances in the Scripture. This order of worship is prescribed in minute detail to Moses and the people of Israel. Israel was said to be established as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation to God (Ex. 19:6). As such, Israel was required to perform the mind and will of God in all that they did. Certainly, God will be worshiped in no other way than that which He determines.

When it comes to the New Testament church, the exact opposite of Old Testament worship seems to be the case, or rather, so it would seem at a glance. There are similarities of course, between the Old and New Testaments in that both of them have prescribed forms of worship that was given through leaders appointed by God. For Israel, God’s congregation in the Old Testament, it was Moses who was appointed to be the one through whom worship was to be established. The first five books of the Bible were called the law of Moses, or, the Pentateuch, and was the original canon of Scripture from which Israel found its religious identity. The New Testament church is no different, in that God appointed leaders called Apostles, to be the vehicle through which He would establish His congregation known as the church of Jesus Christ.

In actuality, the New Testament church is said to be founded upon both the Prophets of the Old Testament, and the Apostles of the New (Eph. 2:20). What this means is that even though the Christian church is new, there is something about it which is old too. The New Testament church has an economy of religion with a particular administration of all its functions. The New Covenant worship is a progression from the Old, indicating that simplicity is of a higher spiritual order when it comes to the realm of true religion. Israel was an earthly theocracy which the present New Testament church is not. God’s kingdom is not of this world, as Jesus said to Pilate, so that it’s idea of progress is completely opposite of the world’s idea of progress (John 18:36). The world views the concept of progress as something more complex than what preceded it beforehand.

God’s purpose in the New Covenant is to establish a higher spiritual expression of worship than that which was done under the Old Covenant (Jer. 31:31-33). The New Covenant is by design the establishment of God’s kingdom within the heart of all who reside within the Christian church. The New Covenant ideal renders the circumstances of the Old Covenant economy in worship obsolete (Heb. 8:13). This explains the reason why the pages of the New Testament are devoid of the same elaborate rituals which characterized the Mosaic system. Apostolic instruction presents a greatly reduced number of outward events related to New Testament worship. The fulfillment of the ceremonial law in Christ strips away all of the pomp and ceremony that were present in the Old Testament worship of Israel.

The worship practiced in the Old Testament by Israel was done so according to the pattern given to it by God through Moses (Ex. 25:9). It was to be carried out in every detail by the people of God under the Old Covenant economy. Even though there is a marked difference which exists between Israel and the church in the matter of form and ritual, there is no difference in principle to New Testament worship. This fact is made clear by the Apostle Paul speaking to Timothy when he wrote, “I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God” (I Tim. 3:15). The worship and conduct of the church in the New Testament are defined by God just the same as in the Old. The difference lies in that it is simple in form and practice, yet it is still defined in the New Testament, just as surely as it was defined in the old.

To think otherwise about worship in the New Testament betrays a way of thinking about God that is false and unbiblical. The God of the New Testament is the same God as in the Old Testament for He declares Himself to be unchangeable (Mal. 3:6). There are some in the church today, most notably those who are of a Dispensational point of view, who do think otherwise about God. Dispensationalists, as well as one other group called New Covenant Christians, suppose that God was all about law in the Old Testament, but is now all about Grace and love in the New. Forgetting what God says about the immutability of His nature, they imagine that God has had a change of mind and heart in His dealings with men on such matters as the law, salvation and worship. Time and space will not be devoted here to addressing the errors of these groups but suffice it to say that they are wrong on what they believe about worship.

Even though there are profound differences between Israel and the church when it comes to worship, every principle that applies to one concerning God, applies to the other. The New Testament is a progression in the purpose of redemption that reveals much more about God to His people now and provides their faith with much more doctrinal information in which to serve and worship Him. This explains the simplicity that is seen in the New Testament church overall, but especially as it concerns the various aspects of its worship. New Testament faith and practice have more to do with principle than with ritual in many respects, the reason being that everyone in the church, is at least in principle, supposed to be regenerate (John 1:12,13). This was not true of everyone then, nor even of most of the people under the Old Covenant economy (Rom. 9:6).

Dispensationalists, as well as those who think like them, are not the only ones in the church that tend to err in what they suppose about New Testament worship. There are a large number of Reformed churches today that seek to import Old Testament forms of worship into the New Covenant church. Some of these even employ forms of worship that have no Biblical basis to them at all, and yet, will still call themselves Reformed. In both these cases there is a failure on the part of these folk to obey God in what is explicitly taught about worship in the New Testament epistles. The first type is the folk that will use only the Psalms in their worship, but they are representative of only a small number of churches. Exclusive Psalm singers have a desire to be obedient to God, in that they look to Scripture as a means of regulating their worship in the use of Psalms only.[1] These Christians have adopted this view about worship from the Reformers and Puritans, views that require much more theological development to them in terms of being fully reformational in nature.

The latter of the two types of Reformed view mentioned however, are quite different and more numerous than the first, in that they suppose that the worship is something far less defined in Scripture than it actually is. In believing this, these Christians allow their personal preferences concerning worship style to rule the matter. The problem with this error seems to stem from a combination of two basic things. The first is the inability to correctly discern the difference between explicit commands, and implicit principles in Scripture. The second is an outright embrace of a worldly spirit that allows them to excuse almost anything in the name of serving God. There is an inability prevalent in the church today, to discern what the word of God has to say about many things, but this is especially true of worship. This fact, betrays an attitude in those who think like this, of a certain lack of concern for theological preciseness. And it is of the same sort of mentality that characterized worship in a generation of Christians in the not too distant past. We refer to the sentimentalism of late nineteenth, and early twentieth century revivalism.

The long term exposure to children from Christian homes, of public education in America, combined with an excessive use of various electronic gadgets of distraction, has taken its toll on the modern Christian intellect. The novelty of entertainment is the only thing that will keep the attention of a great many people who sit in churches today. If faith comes by hearing, as the Apostle Paul says, it presupposes a mind that can adequately comprehend propositions of truth when they are spoken (Rom. 10:17). Worldliness, as it has been adopted into the church in many different forms, is nothing but outright sin (I John 2:15-17). To imbibe in worldly opinions when it comes to the worship of God is a very serious matter for the church of Jesus Christ. To be told that ones worship is unbiblical, and therefore, totally unacceptable to God, is a hard thing to consider. But nevertheless, consider it we must, for the church is the Lord’s, and it is only His church that He is committed to uphold.

I. Scripture is regulative of Christian practice

The mess created by the Roman Catholic church for Christianity in the middle ages still has not been eradicated, in spite of the great period of reformation which took place at the end of it. Perhaps the worst part of the Catholic church’s assault on true Christianity, has been on what it did to the Scriptures in terms of it’s understanding of authority. Following the Apostolic era, the early church had no problems of this sort. They certainly had many other problems to be sure, such as how to interpret Scripture and how to fully understand the implications of its doctrines. But one thing the early church did not have trouble over concerning the Scripture was the extent of its authority. A high view of Scriptural authority gave rise to the various Ecumenical councils that took place both in the pre and post Nicene era. Battles raged till the fourth century also, over exactly what the canon of Scripture consisted of in terms of inspired letters. Why was this so? It was so because authority from God concerning His church, is derived solely from Scripture.

Once the Apostolic era had come to an end and the canon of Scripture was closed, the church wrestled over how to arrive at a correct understanding of such doctrines as God being a Trinity of Persons in one nature, and of Jesus Christ being two natures in one person, fully human while being fully God. These were the things in Scripture that were debated, and finally settled by the Ecumenical councils. The question of Scriptural authority to dictate the government and practices of the church, such as its discipline, its ordinances and its worship, was never a matter of dispute. The early church received the Scriptures left to them by the Apostles, as completely authoritative and sufficient for everything to do with Christian faith and practice. It was only in time that this view came to be challenged.

The church fathers appealed to Scripture authority in their writings, in direct opposition to those who said that oral tradition, or, even the light of nature is sufficient to derive its faith and practice. Gregory of Nyssa put it like this in his treatise “On the Soul and the Resurrection.” “The generality of men still fluctuate in their opinions about this, which are as erroneous as they are numerous. As for ourselves, if the Gentile philosophy, which deals methodically with all these points, were really adequate for a demonstration, it would certainly be superfluous to add a discussion on the soul to those speculations. But while the latter proceeded, on the subject of the soul, as far in the direction of supposed consequences as the thinker pleased, we are not entitled to such license, I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.”

There are three key things in this excerpt from Gregory on authority and Scripture that are worthwhile to consider about the attitude of the church in the second century. The first of these things concerns what Gregory says about license. The church has no license to believe or practice what it thinks apart from Scripture; to do so is licentiousness not liberty. The second thing that Gregory said about Scripture was that it was the rule and measure of every tenet of the Christian faith. Indeed Scripture itself says “for whatever is not from faith is sin.” (Rom. 14:23c). But faith does not exist where Scripture does not provide it the proper object. “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Rom. 10:17). The third thing Gregory said about the authority of Scripture, was that it relied not only on explicit commands, but a harmony of teaching derived from the overall intention of the writings; A principle of regulation is present in Scripture.

It is clear from the writing of Gregory of Nyssa, and many other church fathers, that widely held opinions about faith and practice were at the forefront of their fight to maintain and perpetuate the Christian faith. The sad reality is that the time came when false opinions about tradition won out in direct relation to the rise of the Roman Catholic church. By the decree of Emperor Constantine, Christianity gained acceptance in the Roman empire at the beginning of the fourth century. By the sixth century however, adherence to Scripture in the church began to wane. The papal system with all of its blasphemous pomp and circumstance, set out to replace the authority of Scripture with the authority of man. The Roman Catholic church argued then, as it does now, that the Scriptures cannot be understood and agreed on by all, therefore, only the Pope alone is authorized by Jesus Christ to define it. It is little wonder that this organization gave rise to armies of men who waged bloody wars of conquest over territory and people in the name of Christianity.

One other very sad example in the middle ages of this departure from Scripture, is seen in the divide that took place between the Christian church in the east and the Christian church in the west. This divide took place over each ones claim that they were the only true church who kept to the oral traditions of the Apostles, those which were not spelled out in Scripture. Each of these two churches pointed to what the Apostle Paul said about holding to tradition, yet failed to see that only that which is recorded by the Spirit of God in Scripture can be accurately appealed to for any authority (II Thess. 2:15). If there is any tradition of the Apostles which is not recorded in Scripture, it has no authority for us today of any kind; There is no claim to be made to Apostolic tradition apart from it, by any church, which has any merit.

It is not necessary for us to look to the early church either, in order to determine any matter of authority in faith and practice, only to look at the Scriptures themselves in what they have to say about these things. Jesus Himself removed all doubt about authority in worship and service in the church, in giving to His disciples the great commission (Matt. 28:17,18). Oftentimes the words “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” are the only words listened to regarding this commission to the church, as though that were all that was said (Matt. 28:19a). The thing most important here to see, are the words of Jesus in this passage contain the only legitimate authority by which anything else that is commanded by Him can be done in the church. And it applies to the church throughout the entire world too (Matt. 28:19,20). Jesus made His authority the foundation of this commission He gave to the disciples. And, it was absolutely clear to the disciples too, who later on would become the Apostles and writers of the New Testament.

And what exactly did Jesus tell those future Apostles? Jesus told them that they were to propagate His word, and establish the church throughout the earth, by faithfully teaching not only the doctrines of His free grace, but the proper practice of worship and ministry in the church as well. The object of the Christian churches commission according to Jesus, is not only in the calling of God’s people through the gospel to salvation, but in the establishment of His worship and ordinances. Christ’s authority is attached to these practices only as His words are faithfully executed in the church. It is very instructive, that this commission is given to the church so that the words of Christ are not to be something stored away and held in reserve. Nor are they only to be made available to the church’s ministers, and the content disposed with at their discretion. These words of Jesus Christ are to be taught and observed by all who are within the church (Verse 20).

The gradual apostasy of the Roman Catholic church away from the authority of Scripture in it’s faith and practice, left a huge chasm in church history. One false doctrine after another was introduced by the Roman church over the span of many centuries, leaving its adherents in spiritual darkness. In a span of no more than two hundred years after the Christian church joined itself to the Roman state, literacy among its citizens declined rapidly, to the point where virtually no one could read the Scriptures for themselves. Eventually, the Roman Catholic clergy became the only literate and educated people in Christian lands. And they were taught only the church’s traditions as put forth by the Pope, in his claim to authority on earth.

Both of these events, public illiteracy and papal authority, developed together and went hand in hand as the stratagem of that great foe of the church, Satan. When the words of Christ are removed from His people, they are at the mercy of frauds and charlatans when it comes to their faith and practice as Christians. The very men whom Jesus appointed to be the ministers of His word to the church often became its enemies, and the very anti-christs warned of in Scripture (I John 2:18,19). It is no wonder then that the period of time that spanned between the ascendency of the Roman Catholic church, and the renaissance, is referred to in the history books as the dark ages. The darkness which enveloped Europe during this time was not just intellectual, or cultural, but eminently spiritual in nature. The fact that God tolerated this situation is evident both of His marvelous attribute of forbearance in general, and of His covenant commitment through His Son to preserve and prosper the church (II Peter 3:15; Matt. 16:18).

II. The doctrine of the regulative principle

The reformation reintroduced the primacy of Scripture back into the true church of Jesus Christ, over and against the false teaching and practices of the apostate Roman Catholic church. This was a situation which had existed for more than a thousand years. The tremendous spiritual void produced by the Roman church in every area of the Christian faith was long and wide. The very first thing at issue in the reformation was the role Scripture plays in relation to church authority. As men began to awaken unto spiritual life through the preaching of the Reformers from Scripture, they began to question nearly every aspect of doctrine and practice that previously had been accepted. The authority of the Pope was previously unquestioned by few, being taken entirely at face value from the word of Bishops and Priests in the Roman Catholic church.

There were several fundamental issues that were at the forefront of the Reformers struggle against the authority of the Pope, that arose from the word of God. The very first of these was the doctrine of the word itself, defined by the Protestants as Scripture alone, or Sola Scriptura in Latin. The Protestant Reformers clearly understood the necessity of returning the church to its original New Testament definition. The only way for this to happen was through the return to a practice of what the New Testament teaches, on everything related to the church’s order and worship. Sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe witnessed a tremendous amount of contention and upheaval related to these questions. An order of worship gleaned directly from the New Testament was to become the very hallmark of Protestantism. From this crucible of events a clear definition from Scripture emerged concerning its authority in all these matters, and it was called the regulative principle.

The term regulative principle like so many other doctrines in the Bible cannot be found in a concordance. To suppose therefore, that it is not there is an extremely foolish notion, for it most certainly is present as a clear teaching to be found within the pages of Holy Writ. Scripture contains explicit propositions both of a negative and a positive sort. When the Old Testament is read for instance, it is abundantly clear that God gave to His people many specific commands that were preceded by “You shall” or by “You shall not” (Ex. 23:24,25). Certainly, these two phrases are very legal sounding, something which is often considered to be characteristic of the Old Testament in general. But straightforward command is not all that is contained in the Old Testament. The Lord called Israel to consider His words, meaning all of them, to be regulative of not only their life, but also, of everyone that inhabits the earth (Deut. 8:3). God’s command to Israel was that His word is regulative in nature, whether it happens to be given in the form of a declarative, imperative, interrogative, or simply an exhortative statement.

In the New Testament, obedience to the ordinances and worship of God is defined as the keeping of commandments (Matt. 15:8,9; Luke 1:6). The Apostles themselves communicated the commandments of God to the church, concerning the Lord’s will in what they did (Acts 1:2; I Thess. 4:2). Specific command however, is not the only form of authoritative language used in the pages of Holy Writ to communicate the express will of God to His people. The use of command according to principle is used as well in Scripture in both Testaments. One example of this is the Book of Proverbs. It is referred to as wisdom literature because it often teaches God’s will in the form of principle, rather than by direct command (Prov. 1:7,20,29,30). But even in those areas of the Old Testament that specific commandments are given, principles regarding conduct arise as well from them (Matt. 5:21,22,27,28,38,39,43,44).

The entire book of the Bible is one of regulation as well as one of revelation. It gives specific commands at times, and principles that apply them at others, but all in all it is the same. The word of God is authoritative in all that it addresses to the people of God, regarding their conduct whether it is personal or public. The word of God is not just a book of suggestions that might be given consideration as to whether they will be followed or not. It is the word of a holy God whose judgements are severe to those who do not obey. Perhaps there is no better example of this, than God’s prohibition to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16,17). God expressed His will to them in no uncertain terms, if they ate of the fruit they would die, and die they did, as the consequence of their disobedience.

The revealed will of God to Adam and Eve in the Garden carried specific consequences of monumental proportions. Along with the explicit prohibition against eating of that one tree, God gave to them an implicit ordinance of life in keeping His command. Again, another example is made of this when the sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, were to bring their offering to the Lord but only one of the two was accepted (Gen. 4:3-5). Why was this? Because only one was offered in faith, which requires specific information to act upon (Heb. 11:4). God made His will known to them both as to how He was to be worshiped, but only one of the two obeyed His will. The implication made in the Book of Hebrews, chapter eleven is that Cain had no faith. The word of God therefore, is not only regulative in what we believe, but also in what we do. The two go hand in hand together.

God has given specific commands to specific people on many occasions, all of which have been recorded throughout Scripture. In the Old Testament era, God commanded Noah to build an Ark, which he was to do exactly as he was instructed, according to the design given to him (Gen. 6:13-16). Noah’s failure to do as instructed, would have resulted in the loss of himself, his family, and ultimately all mankind in the flood, as well as all the animals that God had purposed to preserve with them. At the time of their deliverance from Egypt the Israelites were instructed by God to observe a Passover ordinance (Ex. 12:1-11). Failure to observe this ordinance of the Passover as instructed by the Lord would have resulted in the death of the firstborn of any family not displaying its blood on their door (Ex. 12:13).

After Israel received their deliverance from Egypt, they were given instructions by God to build a tabernacle as a place of congregational meeting with Him for worship. Every detail in the construction of that tabernacle was given to the Israelites by God, along with detailed design instructions to its builders, as well as the peculiar ability to perform it (Ex. 25:1-27:19, 31:1-11). The temple under Solomon was no different in that he received the command from God to go forward with it, and the specific instructions necessary for its construction (I Kings 5:5, 6:38). The rebuilding of the temple and the commencement of its services in Ezra’s day was done according to the word of God (Ezra 6:14,16-18). Throughout the Old Covenant every aspect of worship and service to the Lord was done according to specific instructions given by Him.

The Old Covenant economy was typically one in which God communicated His will directly to His people in various ways, for the express purpose that it would be clear in every detail according to what He required. In coming to the New Testament, in that period of time before the Scriptures in their present form were completed, God did the same thing in communicating His exact will to the church through the Apostles. This God did, just as He had done to Israel through the Prophets. The Apostles are the inspired Prophets of the New Testament church which is established by their joint testimony (Eph. 2:20). In fact, this is made even clearer to us by the writer of the Book to the Hebrews, who did not think it necessary to mention them at all concerning the unified nature of God’s revelation in Scripture (Heb. 1:1,2). When the Apostles spoke, they spoke the words of Christ as though He were speaking through them.

Perhaps the most notable example of God instructing an Apostle was when the Lord confronted Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, which resulted in his conversion (Acts 9:3,4). Saul was instructed by the Lord where to go, who to see, and what to do in what would be his new role as an Apostle (Acts 9:6,11-16,20). As one who was used mightily of God in the spread of the gospel, and of the establishment of the church, the Apostle Paul received a great deal of direct communication from God. So did the other Apostles up until the time of the Scripture becoming a closed canon. The Scriptures themselves are the final communication of God through the Apostles to His church. The Lord Himself pledged to send His Spirit in order to unlock His revealed will to His people in this final age, unlike that which He did through prophets under the Old Testament era (John 14:25,26; Num. 27:21).

The New Testament era is one having a closed canon of revelation, one in which principles, rather than direct commands of Scripture are often more prominently displayed. Even though this is true, the New Testament writings are still full of direct commands given by God to observe as well. So, the New Testament relies then on both direct commands and principles, which when taken together and properly applied, become regulative of the churches instruction. Someone might ask the question, why is it like this in the New Covenant, what about Christian liberty? The answer has to do with the spiritual nature of the New Covenant and the church age in which it is administered. This age is one in which every covenant member enjoys the presence and power of God’s Spirit. This was not the case under the Old Covenant. Of course, every believer then was born again just as Jesus pointed out to Nicodemus, but not every believer was empowered for prophetic service (John 3:7,9,10; I Sam. 10:10,11).

The Christian church is not an earthly theocratic kingdom that receives its instruction by direct prophetic revelation, but a spiritual body spread throughout the entire world, that receives its instruction through the prophetic word. If anyone in the church has the attitude that this is not true, they have made themselves an authority above God. There are plenty of people around today who claim that they do indeed receive direct revelation from God. We should close our ears from people who make such a claim as this, and correct them if it is possible. There is however, another type of person in the church whom we should not listen too, as well. This is one who claims to be instructed by Scripture, but who nevertheless, makes himself to be a recipient of Gods will not through Scripture, but according to his own uninspired opinion (Mark 7:9). This person has less than a right view of Scripture in matters of faith and practice. Therefore, it is necessary to correct them also, showing them that God will not accept any offering from anyone that He has not asked for beforehand in His word, or, shown by principle to be acceptable (I Cor. 14:40; Phil. 4:8,9; I Pet. 2:5).

III. Faith in God requires a regulative approach to Scripture

The Protestant Reformation was concerned more than anything else with the question of how one is to be saved. Of course, this was not by any means the only theological issue of importance to the Reformers. But if there was one specific theological issue that was of supreme importance to them, it was the question, how was one to be saved? The answer to that question found in Scripture, was that faith alone justifies a sinner, or, as it was put in Latin, Sola Fide (Rom. 3:22). The great doctrine of Sola Fide is based however, on another great doctrine known in Latin too, as Sola Scriptura, which means Scripture alone. Scripture prescribes the manner in which a sinner may be justified. The Roman Catholics had stripped every Christian doctrine of its theological integrity, and ultimately its spiritual substance, when it had undermined the authority of Scripture in the Middle Ages. The recovery of the gospel was the greatest thing to have happened in history since the days of Pentecost. If men are not saved, then what use is any religion at all? It is simply vain and useless if it is without a true saving knowledge of God.

The issues at hand with the Catholic church were very similar to those revealed in the gospel narratives of Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees. These men searched the Scriptures diligently, but being dead in their sins, they did not see Jesus in them (John 5:39). These very Scriptures were most certainly able to make them wise unto salvation, but the problem was in their unbelieving attitude toward God. “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14). The Pharisees therefore, did not see Jesus in the Scripture because they were but natural men, not born again, nor able to discern anything spiritual in them. Because of the extent of learning the Pharisees did have from Scripture, it is not hard to see they had a lot of external things right. In fact, Jesus taught His disciples that unless their righteousness exceeded that of the Pharisees they would be lost, indicating that external conformity to God’s will is just as much a true principle as the internal principle of faith (Matt. 5:20). But one without the other, is a denial of the totality of Christian faith and practice.

It is hard to imagine that someone who has seen Jesus in the Scriptures in a saving way does not also see in Scripture God’s regulative principle for their life as well. In fact, there is no true Christian who does not at least in theory, if not in reality, hold the Scripture to be the authoritative source of all their personal faith and practice. If anyone says otherwise, they should be informed of their need to repent and believe the gospel immediately, which is the express command of God to all people. The trouble, is that not everyone does see it the same way, or, as accurately as they should. What is the explanation for this reality? The reason for this is explained by the presence of remaining sin and its fruits which every true believer in God is perpetually subject to. Sadly, in the last one hundred and fifty or so years there have been probably fewer believers in Christ who have been committed to a proper view of the regulative principle in Scripture, than those who have not.

Since the beginning of Modernism, and the subsequent Evangelical movement that followed it, there have been many Christians who have been content to be somewhat accurate concerning doctrinal content in the matter of salvation, but with little else in the Christian life. There has even been of late a return to the historic doctrines of grace, by those known as Neo-Calvinists, who at the same time are contemporary in their view of most other aspects of Christianity. As important as it may be to have the gospel right, that is not all that is contained in the Scripture. A focus which is primarily on the doctrine of salvation, to the exclusion of all else in Scripture, is basically a man-centered view of Christianity. The fact of the matter, is that God chooses to save people to Himself for far more than just the personal benefit they receive from it. God saves people for His own glory, and more than anything else, for His own glory alone (Rom. 11:36, Col. 1:16). This is why belief in the regulative principle is essential to the Christian life.

Because submission to God is essential to Christian faith, it is therefore, wrong to refer to Scripture as simply normative. Scripture must also be viewed as regulative too. In fact, this is the very way in which the Protestant Reformers viewed Scripture, and the reason for their use of the Latin term Sola Scriptura. Use of the word normative only in reference to the word of God, means that it is as a description, or, standard of what is normal for faith and practice, not prescriptive, or, regulative. Because God saves people primarily to glorify Himself, worship is the primary practice that should consume the interest of all Christians. Personal holiness is vitally important and essential to a Christian profession of faith. Proclaiming faith in Jesus Christ is an important function of every Christian’s life. But there is nothing more important or essential to a Christian profession than the practice of worship. Mark this down clearly on note paper. There is nothing else (John 4:23).

Yet, even though this is so, there are still many who put the subject of worship at the bottom of their list, as though it were a matter of personal preference and not one of definite command. The Scripture concept of normal, means every part of the Christian’s life is to be regulated by what Scripture says, whether by command, or by principle. Nothing in the Christian life is to be done according to personal preference or opinion any more than the doctrine of salvation itself is. But worship, with all of its attendant elements, are at the very top of God’s list of essentials for His people and the church (John 4:24).

Scripture declares itself to be authoritative in the Christian life (II Tim. 3:16,17). It is reasonable to see in Paul’s assertion of a high view of Scripture-based instruction, that a low view of Scripture regulation in ones Christian walk suggests that it is lesser than an equipped experience. The question to be asked, is equipped for what? Timothy was in training for the ministry. Timothy would not be equipped to teach the Christian church how to worship and serve God aright, unless it was according to what is prescribed in His word. Faith is often looked at by many Christians as a purely passive thing in regards to salvation. Certainly, that is true concerning the doctrine of justification. But no other part of a Christian’s walk is like that of being justified, and that is certainly true of worship. Worship is the spiritual and physical activity of giving ones self to God in praise and adoration.

But then the question comes, how is worship to be performed by us, is it any old way or in one particular way? Is it by command or by principle, or is it by both? It is true that the New Testament does not give us the kind of ritual and service in the New Covenant church that it did to Israel under the Old Covenant. In contrast, New Testament worship is simple yet it is still prescribed. When Jesus commanded His disciples to go forth in the world, He did not leave it to them to decide what they should do to further His kingdom (Matt. 28:19,20). No, Jesus gave them very explicit instructions in what they should do. These instructions Jesus gave to His disciples, were also followed by them. Those who believed Peter’s preaching and were converted to Christ at Pentecost, did exactly as they were told by the Apostles, concerning their conduct of worship in the church (Acts 2:41,42).

It is the legacy of the Protestant Reformation that a true Christian church is to be constituted according to a confession of faith, in which all of its members are then required to subscribe. This was done not only by the composition of a church confession with a catechism, but also with a document of church order, by which the truths of Scripture concerning faith and practice were defined. On the European continent, all of the Reformed churches of Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and France wrote their confession and church order documents. The Lutherans of Germany, Scandinavia and Finland wrote theirs. All four of the major denominations of Britain did the same, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists. The Westminster Confession of faith is perhaps the most prominent of all these documents to be created, and it puts forth the Regulative Principle as a doctrine contained in Scripture.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXI, Paragraph 1 reads as follows on worship: “But 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.” In other words, Scripture should be considered as regulative when it comes to how God is worshiped by His people in the church. In fact, the sentiments expressed in the Westminster Confession were universally accepted by all of the Calvinistic Reformed churches in Britain, as stated in their various church documents.

In an excellent Sunday school handout prepared by Dr. T. David Gordon [2] on the place of Scripture in worship, he gives ten reasons why the Regulative Principle should be believed by Christians. These arguments echo what both Scripture and the Westminster Confession teach.

1. Argument from the character of God as jealous, Ex.20:4-5; 34:14. 

2. Argument from those passages where piety is described as doing exclusively what God wishes, Isa. 66:1-4; Dt.12:29-32; Lev. 10:1-2; 1 Sam.13:8-15; 15:3-22.

3. Argument from the severity of the temporal punishments inflicted upon those who offer to God worship other than what He has prescribed (this is the “heart” of the traditional argument), Lev. 10:1-2; 1 Sam. 13:8-15.

4. Argument from the sinful tendency towards idolatry, Rom.1:19ff.

5. Argument from the nature of worship as covenant renewal.

6. Argument from the Limits of Church-Power, Matt. 28:18-20; 2 Cor. 1:24; Rom. 14:7-9.

7. Argument from Liberty of Conscience (or argument from charity), Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8:4-13.

8. Argument from Faith, Rom. Rom.14:23; Heb. 11:6, and entire chapter.

9. Argument from the distance between the Creator and the creature, Isa. 40:12-14; Deut. 29:29; Isa. 55:9; Prov.25:2.

10. Argument from Church History.

With such strong arguments and Scripture proofs as this, it is safe to say that the Regulative Principle is indeed a Biblical doctrine which must be received as part of the normal Christian faith. As such, it is to be a prescription for Christian worship in every area that it involves. Defining the Regulative Principle is another thing altogether.[3] But whether there is a Regulative Principle or not in Scripture should stand without any debate whatsoever by the Christian, whose faith is grounded on that same Scripture. To put it another way, the normal Christian practice in worship is founded upon a regulative view of Scriptural authority. With this idea in mind, the Christian must consult the Scripture to determine if what he is being encouraged to do in worship by his church is legitimate or not. It is not left up to human will, reason, or invention by God as to what is acceptable to Him when it comes to worship.

IV. The historical view of Scripture

There is another entirely different view of Scripture which has been around in the Christian church since the days of the Protestant Reformation. As it has already been set forth in the previous section, the Regulative Principle in Scripture has not always been obvious to all who have confessed faith in Jesus Christ. This particluar view of Scripture, one which has been in competition with the regulative view since the Reformation, is called the historical interpretation.[4] Beginning in the sixteenth century through to the seventeenth, the Puritans of England fought in order to correct this view from control in the national church. Of course, the Bible is a historical book written by men from different ages, reflecting in them things peculiar to that age and circumstance. Many have concluded from this then, that the Bible should be viewed solely as a historical document to be interpreted differently, in different times and places. This is done without regard to commands and principles that transcend the original circumstance in which they were given.[5]

When theological Liberalism became dominant in the seminaries in the second half of the nineteenth century, it became a major influence within the church at large, especially in how Scripture should be interpreted. This thinking is expressed in a view of Scripture which lays heavy emphasis on the literary analysis of the Bible rather than its theology. According to this method, the Bible should be viewed as a book of church tradition, with nature and reason as the regulating principle underlying it. The Modern view of Scripture, is that current practice takes precedence over strict application of past practice, simply because it is modern. Evangelicals in theory rejected Liberalism, and yet, were in many ways influenced by their thinking. Evangelicals do consult the Bible as a rule, but they also, hold to a historical view of it too. Most Evangelicals today, seem only interested in certain aspects of its teaching, such as the work of God in creation, God’s moral law, and the person of Jesus Christ. But when it comes to matters of worship involving rites and ceremonies, nature is to them their guiding light.

A historical view of Scripture interpretation, in reliance of human reason, is why the Roman Catholic church became what it did in the Middle Ages. The twelfth-century Roman Catholic church doctor, Thomas Aquinas, championed the idea of nature and grace being combined to form a consistent doctrine of the Christian religion. By the time that Thomas Aquinas was around, the Roman church had already been reduced to functional paganism in its ideas and practices. The Roman Catholic church is in form and substance a natural religion. Aquinas relied heavily upon Greek philosophy, as did Anselm and many other churchmen before him. They saw the Scriptures as having been inspired of God, but lacking a clear view of its epistemology, they supplemented their knowledge of it with reason. The Aristotelian philosophy of Tabula Rasa was what Thomas based his theology of God on. In short, this was a view of knowledge that was gleaned from natural revelation. Thomas was impressed with Aristotle’s empiricism, based entirely on the axiom that knowledge is obtained through the experience of nature.

The Greeks theorized that nature and religion were synonymous with each other. It is true that before the fall the two were in harmony with each other, but certainly not so after it. That is why the world, who knew of God, did not worship Him as such but turned instead to idols (Rom. 1:19-32). The Roman Catholic church, in the course of its development from the early Christianity, became a religion based primarily on nature and human tradition. It did this in spite of officially recognizing the early Ecumenical creeds which established biblical orthodoxy. In the process of time, it was no longer necessary for them to consult the Bible in matters of faith and practice. The Pope, who assumed the pre-eminent position in the Roman church, became the one who decided what was relevant from Scripture for the church, and what was not, if indeed there were anything at all. The Pope decided what the rites and ceremonies of the church should be in its worship, all the while claiming fidelity to apostolic tradition.

As a result of the Protestant Reformation, Scripture became once again elevated to its rightful position of authority in the church, as is expressed in the Latin phrase Sola Scriptura, or, Scripture alone. Again, as already stated previously, the doctrine of justification as it relates to salvation, was of primary interest and concern to the Protestant Reformers. But since that time, not all Protestants have progressed in their understanding of a great many issues regarding the Christian faith, especially when it comes to the doctrine of the church and it’s worship. This accounts as a failure on the part of certain sections of the Protestant church, in not reforming itself as it ought, by conforming to the Scripture standard. There are two particular Protestant churches in view here, the Lutherans and the Anglicans. These two churches have influenced much of modern day thinking in Evangelicalism, especially in the area of worship.

Martin Luther did not set out originally to establish a new competing church with Rome, but rather, he believed in the concept of Roman Catholicism as the true universal church. Lutheranism as a church movement, only came into being after it became obvious that the Roman church would not allow itself to be reformed. This is why the Lutherans to this day hold to a great deal of Roman Catholic practice. Even Martin Luther’s reformed understanding of the Eucharist was but halfway between that of the Romanists and the other Protestants. But perhaps the greatest factor in this has to do with the maintenance of the Episcopal system in the Lutheran church. It is true that the Pope was removed, but the hierarchical system of rule within the Lutheran church, guaranteed that it would continue to be based on tradition rather than Scripture.

Though differing from Rome in many respects, the Lutherans maintained much of the Romish ceremony in its worship. In spite of its similarities, the Lutherans were persecuted for being outside of the true church, according to Rome. And disagreement arose among the Lutherans on this matter of how they should view Scripture concerning church tradition and worship. The issue was summed up in this question, are the Scriptures regulative of what the church does, or, is it simply a pattern to follow, defined by the peculiar historical situations that existed at the time of their writing? Their answer to this question is evident in what they wrote in their church creed. What is especially noteworthy about the view the Lutherans arrived at is their insistence that tradition regarding worship is a matter of indifference, or, Christian liberty. Below is the section taken from the Lutheran Confession called The Articles of Concord on church rites.

Article X. Church Rites, Which are [Commonly] Called Adiaphora or Matters of Indifference.

1] Concerning ceremonies or church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word, but have been introduced into the Church for the sake of good order and propriety, a dissension has also occurred among the theologians of the Augsburg Confession.

Chief Controversy concerning This Article.

2] The chief question, however, has been, whether, in time of persecution and in case of confession, even if the enemies of the Gospel have not reached an agreement with us in doctrine, some abrogated ceremonies, which in themselves are matters of indifference and are neither commanded nor forbidden by God, may nevertheless, upon the pressure and demand of the adversaries, be reestablished without violence to conscience, and we may thus [rightly] have conformity with them in such ceremonies and adiaphora. To this the one side has said Yea, the other, Nay.

Affirmative Theses. The Correct and True Doctrine and Confession concerning This Article. 

3] 1. For settling also this controversy we unanimously believe, teach, and confess that the ceremonies or church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word, but have been instituted alone for the sake of propriety and good order, are in and of themselves no divine worship, nor even a part of it. Matt. 15:9, In vain they do worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

4] 2. We believe, teach, and confess that the congregation of God of every place and every time has the power, according to its circumstances, to change such ceremonies in such manner as may be most useful and edifying to the congregation of God.

5] 3. Nevertheless, that herein all frivolity and offense should be avoided, and special care should be taken to exercise forbearance towards the weak in faith. 1 Cor. 8:9; Rom. 14:13. 

6] 4. We believe, teach, and confess that in time of persecution, when a plain [and steadfast] confession is required of us, we should not yield to the enemies in regard to such adiaphora, as the apostle has written Gal. 5:1, Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again in the yoke of bondage. Also 2 Cor. 6:14, Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers, etc. For what concord hath light with darkness?Also Gal. 2:5, To whom we gave place, no, not for an hour, that the truth of the Gospel might remain with you. For in such a case it is no longer a question concerning adiaphora, but concerning the truth of the Gospel, concerning [preserving] Christian liberty, and concerning sanctioning open idolatry, as also concerning the prevention of offense to the weak in the faith [how care should be taken lest idolatry be openly sanctioned and the weak in faith be offended]; in which we have nothing to concede, but should plainly confess and suffer on that account what God sends, and what He allows the enemies of His Word to inflict upon us.

7] 5. We believe, teach, and confess also that no Church should condemn another because one has less or more external ceremonies not commanded by God than the other, if otherwise there is agreement among them in doctrine and all its articles, as also in the right use of the holy Sacraments, according to the well-known saying: Dissonantia ieiunii non dissolvit consonantiam fidei, Disagreement in fasting does not destroy agreement in faith.

What the Lutheran church calls a matter of indifference in their confessional statement, they consider a matter of Christian liberty. However, they make no distinction in their thesis between the elements and the circumstances of worship. And, nowhere in this statement does the confession point out that God in Scripture has established worship as a matter of truth which accords with His nature (John 4:24; Ps. 31:5, 138:2, 145:18). When God’s own words about worship in relation to His nature are stated in Scripture this way, liberty cannot be used as the fundamental criteria for defining it. To do so is to strike at the very heart of God’s essence. Is God what He is, or, is He what we want Him to be, that is the question? Liberty has to do with circumstances of the Christian faith, not the essence of it. Are we at liberty to believe or say anything we want about salvation? Certainly not, nor are we at liberty to believe or practice anything we want in worship. This is what separate paganism and idolatry from true religion, and, we might add, from the living and true God (Jer. 10:10; I Thess. 1:9).

The Anglican church in many respects became little different from that of the Lutherans. The early Protestant Christians in the church of England were mostly Lutheran in their thinking from the start. Later, when Puritanism arose, the issue of Scripture rule became supreme in all the contentions which dominated sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Again, just like the Lutherans, Episcopalian rulers in that church defended the historical approach to understanding the Scripture. To them, as long as certain obvious things from Scripture were upheld, there was in their minds a great deal of latitude afforded to them by God in deciding what shape the ordinances of the church would take. Every rite and ceremony connected to worship should be subject to nature and reason, rather than to any strict Biblical rule. This, the English church did, according to a purely historical view of Scripture, which they had adopted as their own position. Under such a view of Scripture as this, it was easy for the Anglican Bishops to defend their church model according to the Erastian philosophy, which defines the church as a function of the state.

And likewise, the church of England’s confession, The Thirty Nine Article’s of Faith, echoes the same sentiment as the Lutherans on tradition, but in the context of their own state church.

Article XXXIV. Of the Traditions of the Church.

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren. Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, Ceremonies or Rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.

The English Puritans rejected this notion of the Episcopalians, and suffered greatly for it. An Act of Uniformity was decreed on two occasions (1558, 1660) by the English Monarchy, on behalf of the Anglican Bishops. The first Act of Uniformity resulted in the persecution and even death of many Christian ministers. The second Act of Uniformity, led to the ejection of two thousand Christian Pastors from their churches. Under the Erastian system, those who refused to conform to state sanctioned unbiblical worship, forfeited a state approved, license to preach. Tradition-based forms of worship according to the prescription of church leaders, rather than adherence to the Regulative Principle, have always been, and still is the norm in all Episcopal churches. The Anabaptists in Germany, while not necessarily committed to the Regulative Principle, nevertheless were severely persecuted by the Lutheran state church for their unwillingness to conform. The Wesleys and Whitefield were thrown out of the Anglican church for preaching the gospel outside of its walls.

V. The spread of broad church historicism

Episcopalians however, have not been the only Protestants to adopt a historical view of Scripture. There are a great many Protestant churches today that have done essentially the same thing as them. These churches maintain the same idea of Scripture as the Episcopalians do, though they may practice a wide array of different things in their own particular settings. And, it’s because of this philosophy that we see such a wide divergence of opinion on what constitutes legitimate church worship in the broad church. One thing can be said about the Anglican church. It gave birth to many other church movements, both good and bad. These movements are the heritage of what we see today in America. We can trace many of these movements back to Anglicanism, by seeing the connection to it through the same philosophy of Scripture. The difference is of course, in how it has been applied to a particular set of individual circumstances.

The English Puritan movement came about as the result of an unsuccessful attempt to reform the Anglican church, according to the regulative principle of Scripture. The Puritan movement gave birth to three separate churches which share the same confessional heritage. These are the Presbyterian, the Congregational, and the Baptist churches. All three of these churches, at least from a confessional perspective, share the view that Scripture is regulative of every part of ecclesiastical government, ministry, and worship. Deviations that are seen today among these churches have only come about over time, through the corrupting influences of this false, unbiblical philosophy we call the historical principle of Scripture interpretation. And though there is a diversity of errors associated with this philosophy, in each case there is a road that leads back from it to this original source, from this particular philosophy.

The most influential movement to come out of the Anglican church was that of the Plymouth Brethren in the early part of the nineteenth century. This movement has for the most part, been fairly obscured as a movement since it began. It has never had large numbers of people in it. It has also been a very fractured church, due to an endless number of schisms that have taken place in it since their beginning. But aside from this, the Brethren movement has also been probably the most influential movement, in terms of its impact on the broad Protestant church, since the days of the Puritans. The unfortunate thing about it, is that it has not been for the better concerning the reformation of the church, but rather, for the worse. And this is due in large part, to what it took from the Anglican church and transferred to those other churches which have been the most influenced by them. And yes, what this movement did to the Scriptures by way of interpretive method, has turned biblical Christianity on its head.

Time and space will not permit an exhaustive examination of the Plymouth Brethren and their errors. But several things about them and their church must be brought to light, if anyone is to understand what has taken place in today’s church as a result of them. Most of the thinking that permeates the broad church in America, no matter what type it may be, is directly traceable to them. This has happened through the Fundamentalist, Modernist controversy that took place around the turn of the twentieth century (1910ff). Fundamentalism, and its cousin, Evangelicalism, are the offspring of the Brethren movement. Fundamentalism is inextricably joined together with a system of theology called Dispensationalism, which was crafted by the Plymouth Brethren, much of it out of whole cloth. A man named John Nelson Darby was the chief proponent of this movement (1825ff), whose written contributions to this novel system were of great influence in it. Darby was trained as a minister in the Anglican church, and although he disagreed with much of its doctrine, he still managed to import many of their ideas into his own system of thought.

Before taking a look at the Brethren movement and its overall impact upon broad church Christianity, explanation should be given of how and why they came into being in the first place. The reasons lie in the history of seventeenth century England, and in the contentions which rocked that nation and the church. Beside the war that raged in England between Puritanism and Anglicanism, a new philosophy emerged in reaction to it called the Enlightenment movement. These people were nominal Christians within the church who hated conflict over doctrine, as well as the violence which followed it. The Enlightenment men were interested in science, government, and economy rather than orthodoxy in faith and practice of religion. They also were highly individualistic, skeptical of dogma, and in favor of much personal liberty. Enlightenment men tended to be humanistic, man centered in their view of religion. They also gravitated away from Puritanism, which championed the reformation principle of God’s sovereignty in every affair of man. Instead, these men gravitated toward Anglicanism, which had become made up mostly of Arminian and Amyrauldian concepts regarding mans ability.

In the later part of the seventeenth century (1689), following the act of toleration, many Anglicans adopted a view called Latitudinarianism. This was a belief that uniformity of doctrine in matters of faith is really unimportant to the church. Latitudinarians believed that God was concerned with the moral state of people, rather than such things as church government and religious ceremony. Also, they held that these things are simply matters of personal liberty. The original idea is attributed to Anglican Theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600). Hooker was concerned with tolerating those who disagreed with Anglican high churchism, but maintained a biblical doctrine of salvation. The Latitudinarians, as they were pejoratively called, went much farther than Hooker did however, claiming that doctrinal pluralism is a necessary principle in the Christian church. Differences in doctrine, the Latitudinarians held, was acceptable as long as organizational identity within the established church was maintained. The doctrinal perspective of the Puritans called the Regulative, or, Scripture principle, was considered by the Latitudinarians to be narrow and divisive. They reasoned that such a view was a threat to Christian conscience, and therefore, the peace of the church too. The basic mentality behind Latitudinarianism, is that any church is free to establish it’s accepted tradition, and once having done that, no further test of orthodoxy should be entertained in the matter. Enlightenment thinking went far beyond even that, allowing diversity of opinion on such major tests of orthodoxy as the doctrine of God, salvation, and the inspiration of Scripture itself. This philosophy as it was distributed throughout the Anglican church explains why there have always been such a large number of men in their clergy, which have held to positions on all ends of the theological spectrum. So it was in this kind of philosophical atmosphere that Brethrenism was born.

Darby and the others that formed the early Plymouth Brethren movement were highly critical of the church of England. This was primarily due to the similarities between them and the Catholics, which the Brethren abhorred. One major difference between the two was that Anglicans were Episcopalian and denominational. The Plymouth Brethren on the other hand, were Presbyterian and independent. The Anglicans made no qualms about their rites being based on mere church tradition, but the Plymouth Brethren claimed their rites were taken directly from the pages of the New Testament. Indeed, there was much more about the Brethren movement that can be rightfully called Evangelical in the purest sense of the term, than that of the Anglicans. But the Brethren shared with them the same philosophy of Scripture that if something is not expressly forbidden, it therefore, must be all right. And, conversely, if something is not expressly commanded, it therefore, must not be required. This sort of thinking by Anglicans however, would eventually lead many of them back to Rome. But in the case of the Brethren, it did the exact opposite.

There was one particular doctrine of the Plymouth Brethren that was heavily influenced by the Anglican church, and it was that of an almost idolatrous view of the Eucharist. Although the Plymouth Brethren made the Lord’s supper a separate part of their normal worship, it was made the central feature of it, just like all other Episcopalians do. Brethren worship to this very day is divided into two different events. One part is considered a public service with teaching and singing of praise. The other involves a closed communion service made up of only the invited members of the church. The New Testament teaches that both teaching and communion are but two elements of true worship (Acts 2:40-41). But central to that worship is the word of God preached (verse 40). Preaching is the proclamation with application of doctrine, and as such, it defines all the other elements of worship. When this is set aside, or, minimized, the result is sacramentalism.

The Brethren view of the sacrament when taken by the worshiper, is believed to provide them a mystical experience of Christ. This is very similar to what the Anglican and the Lutheran churches believe. The idea of a mystical presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist came from Martin Luther, and has become the standard belief in all Episcopalian churches outside of Rome. Luther rejected the literal body and blood of Christ that Rome taught called Transubstantiation, naming his new view Consubstantiation, or, the mystical presence. Luther based this view on Luke’s account of Christ’s post resurrection appearance to the disciples (Luke 24:30-32). Luther focused on the experience described by the disciples that followed the supper, rather than the word of God which Christ opened to their understanding that defined it.

Because of this fixation on the Eucharist in the Brethren churches, teaching on certain pet doctrines on prophetic themes, became preferred by them to preaching Christ in relation to the doctrines of grace. Teaching itself was something considered almost incidental to the centrality of the Eucharist in worship. In fact, one interesting feature of the Brethren was their disdain for formerly trained and called clergy. They made their pulpits open to anyone who claimed to have authority to speak in the assembly. And what naturally followed this was the sending of untrained men to perform other necessary functions of the church in Missions. While Darby may have had some formal training as a minister in the church of England, most of the men who followed him in the movement did not. Yet, many of the early Brethren became prolific writers like Darby, propagating their peculiar doctrines to anyone who would listen.

The Plymouth Brethren might have vanished into total obscurity if not for what took place toward the end of the nineteenth, and beginning of the twentieth century. All of the major denominations had become infected with theological liberalism. This left the remnant of true believers within them to fend for themselves in terms of their own spiritual nourishment. The seminaries of these denominations turned out pastor after pastor into the churches who preached science, politics, and everything else other than the gospel. Liberalism makes a wholesale denial of the Bible as the inspired, innerant word of God. They denied miracles such as the virgin birth, the hypostatical union of Christ, as well as His vicarious atonement on the cross. They denied Christ’s resurrection from the grave, followed by His ascension into glory. Liberalism was really the heritage of the Enlightenment, with its philosphy in full religious bloom for all to see.

It was in just such an environment as this, that a man named Cyrus Scofield published a study Bible bearing his name. Scofield was an avid student of J.N. Darby and his system of theology called Dispensationalism. The notes of the Scofield study Bible contained the whole gambit of the Plymouth Brethren version of Christianity in its pages. Christians in the liberal denominations bought this Bible, and commenced to reading these notes and adapting it’s theology to their own way of thinking. This Bible with its notes, became the fuel that fired the movement known today as Fundamentalism. It was designed by Scofield for this very purpose. It was so an average lay person in the pew might study the Bible with some commentary on it that was conservative, rather than liberal. The term Fundamental was used in reference to essential foundational truths of Scripture, which were necessary for someone to believe in order to be saved. So when Fundamentalism came along, the teachings of the Plymouth Brethren received a whole new breath of life to it.

Fundamentalism wasn’t confined to only the readers of the Scofield Bible. There were still defenders of reformed orthodoxy such as B.B. Warfield, and J.Gresham Machen. These men did contend for the same doctrines under attack as the Fundamentalists. The main difference between the two types of Fundamentalism had to do with Dispensationalism, confessionalism, and historicism. Dispensationalism was a form of Premillenial Eschatology that changed the entire structure of the Bible from what it once was believed as covenantal, into something else. What Dispensationalism does is reverse the progressive development of redemption as it has been revealed in Scripture, instead to that of regression. Dispensationalists see Israel, not the church, as Gods main interest. The church is incidental to the fulfillment of Jewish promises. Once Christ came and accomplished redemption, thereby instituting the church, His intention was to return and subject it to a revived earthly Jewish kingdom. No one in eighteen hundred years of church history ever believed such a thing.

Because of a literal, historical view of Scripture that undergirded this assertion, Dispensationalism was of necessity Premillenial. Premillenialism is similar to it in that it interprets many figurative things in Scripture related to Eschatology, in the same literal way. It had been around since the days of the early church, but largely abandoned as an Eschatological view. It was really the importation of Jewish ideas of literal fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, toward a future kingdom on earth for them. The early church adopted some of this thinking, even though it did not see the promises of God fulfilled by Israel, but rather in the church itself. As confessional Christianity developed, and so a proper theological understanding of God’s covenant with it, these ideas were largely abandoned for a better system of thought.

Because Dispensationalism was new and not orthodox in any true sense of the word, it was also not confessional. Fundamentalists rejected the historic confessions of the church in part because they believed them to be a replacement for the Bible, one that had contributed to theological liberalism. Their focus on the fundamentals of the faith being a small number of essential propositions, gave them the impression that their confession was the Bible, and not some man-made document. Of course, by adopting the Dispensational system from the Scofield study Bible, Fundamentalists unwittingly adopted an entirely new paradigm of thought about the Bible and everything to do with redemption. And once divorced from confessional orthodoxy, Fundamentalists formed an entirely new form of Christianity which affected every area of teaching in the church, including its polity, its practice, and its worship. The Dispensational system believes in what is called a Historical-Grammatical method of interpreting the Scripture. The Historical part of this method is exactly that, a historical view of Scripture rather than a Regulative view. The Grammatical part is a rigidly literal approach to Scripture interpretation that dissects its contents into logically incoherent pieces of proof texts, strung together for effect. The two main theological themes that emphasize the Dispensational scheme are that of End Time Prophecy and militant world Evangelism. Both of these themes focus heavily upon man and his actions in the Dispensational world view, showing it to have tremendous congruity to a historical approach in understanding Scripture. Worship for Fundamentalists has always taken a back room position to these other two subjects. It is common for Fundamentalists to express an abhorrence for organized religion in favor of what they perceive as a higher spiritual plane of Christian experience.

It is hard for anyone today to see the Episcopalian form of worship being practiced in Fundamentalist churches. There is no rite or ceremony among them that resembles what the Episcopalians do in their churches. Episcopalians employ much pomp and ceremony in their worship. This includes such things as processionals by the choir with the carrying of candles and crosses, vestments on the Priests, the use of liturgy, and the offering of the Eucharist at an altar in much the same way that the Catholics do. None of these things are found in a modern Fundamentalist worship service. Even though this is true, the attitude which the Episcopalians have about the Bible being historical rather than regulative is there anyway. It is just not expressed by the same outward display as that which the Episcopalians engage in.

Fundamentalists have their own worship tradition which does not conform to the Regulative Principle of Scripture either. This tradition is made up of such things as the altar call, choirs and special music, the use of religious symbols in the sanctuary and many others. Evangelicals are not far removed from Fundamentalists, for they are cousins who originated from the very same anti Modernist movement. The difference between the two is that Evangelicalism is more liberal minded in many of their ways, rejecting certain distasteful elements of Fundamentalism. Evangelicals are mostly Dispensationalists too, who do most everything that the Fundamentalists do in their worship. Evangelicals however, often go even farther afield in their worship by employing such unbiblical things as drama presentations and contemporary rock music instead of sound biblical preaching and praise. Pentecostals are Dispensationalists too, who believe that bizarre acts of outward behavior such as speaking in tongues and jumping up and down are legitimate forms of worship.

VI. Broad church worship today

Worship today in the modern church is just like everything else in modern society, if it isn’t new, innovative, and complex, it just isn’t acceptable to modern man. The reason for this is anything but modern, instead, it is quite ancient. It is called sin. Sinful man is always in pursuit of some new thing to satisfy his corrupt desires, therefore, he invents his own mode of worship. Sinful man always glories in what he designs and puts into practice, especially when it comes to the subject of religion and worship. This is the very reason that God has given His people a regulative principle in His word in prescribing exactly what they should practice in worship. There is a clear testimony of God that can be seen in nature by all men, even something of His nature and attributes (Ps. 19:1-6, Rom. 1:20). But how to know God in a saving manner and to worship Him aright can only be found in the pages of Scripture (Ps. 19:7-14).

If it were left up to man, he could not and would not worship God aright. And if left to man, the act of worship itself which is the purpose of all true religion, is turned into nothing but the glorifying of man. Perhaps there is no better example of this in the church today than in what is usually considered to be worship music. Every kind of music is thought of as acceptable for the worship of God today. Yet, there are very few churches that concern themselves with whether their particular brand of music has any warrant in the word of God or not. And there is a vast difference between worship and entertainment. Much of that which passes for worship today is nothing more than entertainment. There is nothing wrong with being entertained in the right place and context, God created it for mans benefit. A worship service in a Christian church however, is not one of those right places or contexts.

Even in traditional churches that subscribe to a Reformed confession of one sort or another the Regulative Principle has become the relative principle. There are Reformed men who teach that there is no Regulative Principle to be found in the New Testament. There are men in the Presbyterian church today who currently deny that the Regulative Principle even exist. The way in which they do this is not by any kind of frontal assault, but rather by falsely defining what Scripture has taught about worship from the Bible. These men say that what the Reformers taught on the Regulative Principle can be summed up in the dictum, whatever is not commanded in Scripture is forbidden. The rationale behind every argument made against the Regulative Principle comes back to this interpretation of Scripture. The problem with the statement ‘everything not commanded is forbidden’ is that it overlooks the positive nature of the Scripture principle.

The Westminster Confession (I:VI) state that not only is it the explicit words of God that are to be obeyed but that “Good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture” too. That is what constitutes a principle. In the same paragraph in reference to worship the Confession rightly says 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.” What constitutes a circumstance are such things as what time to meet and worship, where to worship, whether to stand or sit, and so on? The totality of the word of God is always the guiding principle, not what is of popular interest at any given time. The question that should be asked about anything in regard to the Regulative Principle, is does it comport with the analogy of faith clearly laid down in the Bible? In other words does this thing agree with, or, does it conflict with the Scripture rule?

A typical argument founded upon a misrepresentation of the Regulative Principle is usually based entirely on such Old Testament Scriptures as are found in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter twelve verses 28-32. This argument says that Old Testament commands were specifically for the nation of Israel then, and not for the church today. This argument is not unlike that which the Dispensationalists make when they assert that God somehow was disposed to act differently toward His people in the Old Covenant era than He does today. This is the kind of thinking that has led to the error that the law of God was only meant for the Jews to observe, and has no relevance to the Christian today. This idea overlooks what Jesus Himself said about the law to His disciples (Matt. 5:17,18). Of course, the ceremonial requirement of the Mosaic law does not apply to the Christian church because it is fulfilled by Christ. And the civil part of the Mosaic law does not apply either, for there is no earthly theocracy like that of Israel. But the law Jesus is talking about is not the Mosaic but the moral law which transcends all time. The point is that God has an unchanging moral character (Mal. 3:6).

The difference between the Old and New Testament is one of administration, not of substance. There is also progression involved as well in the covenantal purpose of God. Certainly the Old Covenant was more legal in many respects than the New Covenant, but God is still the same God. There are fewer commands in the New Testament concerning the specifics of worship, but this does not imply that God has left anything up to human invention. It only means that there is more in the New Testament by way of principle to be gleaned from it. The New Covenant principle is one which is established in the heart of the believer unlike the Mosaic Covenant which was entirely external (Heb. 8:8-11). Does this mean that believers under the Old Covenant did not have the law written in their hearts? Certainly not, for both we and they have the same faith (II Cor. 4:13).

The Regulative Principle is just like the moral law of God in that both of these involve the very nature of God who says that He does not change (Mal. 3:6). The Apostle Paul wrote Timothy saying to him that there is a manner in which everything in the house of God should be conducted (I Tim. 3:15). First of all, it is not Paul’s ideas that are here in view with Timothy, but God’s. Second of all, the conduct Paul spoke of to Timothy about the church includes the worship. To go even farther, it includes the worship music. Prevarication of the truth on the part of some Reformed ministers has been responsible for all sorts of allowances being made with the music used in worship. Some of this liberality is a reaction against what some within the Reformed church insist on concerning the exclusive use of Old Testament music from the Psalms. This reaction however, is one of personal preference and not of Scriptural fidelity.

Calvin and the Reformers were responsible for the reintroduction of congregational singing back into the church which the Roman Catholics had removed. It is entirely a historical fact that the Reformers argued for the exclusive use of the Psalms to be sung in worship too. But be that as it may, at least they based their argument for it on the Regulative Principle. If one was to sing only Psalms there would be no conflict whatsoever with the Scripture Principle, for after all, the Psalms are Scripture. A good Scriptural case however, can be made against the exclusive use of Psalm singing only. Scripture makes a distinction between Psalms and hymns [6] which should not be ignored (Col. 3:16). But whatever position one has on Psalm singing, to deny that Scripture regulates the use of music betrays a lack of proper respect toward God. This kind of an attitude exalts personal preference in music above all else.

Personnel preference ruling any aspect of the Christian church is extremely dangerous, let alone it’s worship music. Anyone with a minimal amount of discernment should be able to see that the church today lacks spiritual authority and influence in society. If God is not pleased with the church’s worship should it be a surprise to anyone? Yet, entertainment value is often the very reason why there is a certain type of music employed in a worship service today. There is a certain type of logic that says if the music is contemporary in style people will be drawn to the church where they will then hear the gospel. Is that really what God is interested in concerning the church? Is God impressed when people come into His sanctuary because there is something interesting and worldly in it? Certainly not, for it is God Himself that draws a sinner to where His Son is made known (John 6:44). Jesus is not interested in crowds of superficial people, or their superficial faith; Jesus does not commit Himself to such people (John 2:22-25).

On the other hand, there is a sense in which God does intend to draw people to the place where His word is proclaimed. Because salvation is a matter of God’s sovereignty, not man’s free will, so isn’t the drawing of those to His church that hear the gospel, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt. 22:14). In First Corinthians 14 Paul makes a major point of this very thing when he writes to the church about the order of their worship. Paul is concerned of those who might come in and observe what is going on, especially in relation to God’s presence in their midst (I Cor. 14:23,40). The point made to the Corinthian believers, is that God cares about what goes on in His worship service because it may, or, may not reflect Him to those whom He might bring into it. If things are done His way in the church then He will be known by it, if not, then some false god is being represented instead.

The kind of argument made for contemporary forms of music in worship is deficient on multiple levels. As it has already been affirmed, God has not changed, therefore, His worship must be according to what He prescribes in His word. The Regulative Principle is contained in the Bible and is not some mere human invention. The purpose of worship is just that, to worship God! Contemporary forms of music in worship are nothing less than entertainment because they fail to adhere to the Regulative Principle of Scripture. Whatever God commands to do must be done because He has commanded it. A special note should be made in regard to this that contemporary worship is usually referred to as a celebration. Celebration is what someone does at a party. Worship is what someone does in the presence of God.

When Joshua and Moses came back from their meeting with God and their reception of the two tablets of the law, what did they hear as they approached the camp? There was a celebration going on as the people danced around the golden calf that had been fabricated for the purpose of their worship (Ex. 32:17,18). What they heard was idolatrous entertainment in the form of singing. Worship that is not of God is pagan and idolatrous. Perhaps the best way to understand what God thinks of this kind of worship, can be seen in Moses reaction to what he encountered (Ex. 32:19,20). Moses as a type of Christ showed the same indignation that Jesus did when He encountered commercial banking in the Temple (John 2:14-17). We should ask the question, what does the Lord think of partying going on in His house on Sunday?

To sum up the matter, the will of God is not contained only in direct commands alone in Scripture but in the spiritual principles layed out which dictate what form those commands are to take. When Paul says to do things in the worship service in a decent and orderly fashion (I Cor. 14:40), he does not say exactly how that is to be done, why is this? Spiritual principles must be taken from Scripture and judiciously applied to fulfill this command from God. There are no Urim and Thumim in the New Covenant to consult, just the New Testament Scripture. When Paul says whatever things are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of a good report and praiseworthy are to be meditated upon (Phil. 4:8), is he not giving a propositional imperative based upon Scripture principles? This is just one example of how to judge things not specifically spelled out, there are many more which could be used.

Finally, worship and praise that is not ordered by God is idolatry plain and simple. The inclination to do what is personally pleasing is inherent in man (Eph. 5:29). There is a sense in which this inclination can be something which works for the good. God did create in man a desire for the preservation of his own life (Ex. 20:13). For that reason, there is nothing wrong with entertainment in general, or in music that entertains. Certainly, when Paul used the same point in his analogy of marriage, he was referring to something good which God created. Sin however, has marred everything good in man that God has created concerning his nature. There is a tendency in sinful man to join his own personal desire together with what should be set apart as holy unto God. It’s not surprising then that in today’s compromising church situation general forms of entertainment are brought into the church and given a religious face to certify them as Christian. God is not pleased with such activities as this when conducted in His name before the world.


[1] It is not our wish here to address the arguments for and against the legitimacy of exclusive Psalm singing in worship. A discussion surrounding this will be addressed in a folow up essay to this one entitled, Music in Worship.

[2] Used by permission. See for the complete document.

[3] Dr. Gordon gives the four categories of definition in the Regulative Principle as element, circumstance, form, and rubric. See “Some Answers about the Regulative Principle” Westminster Theological Journal (1993) 55 (2): 321–29.

[4] Historical principle is used for lack of a better term. Reformed Baptists typically use the term “Normative Principle” to describe the same thing in their writings. See “The Regulative Principle of the Church,” a 18-part series of articles by Dr. Sam Waldron. Use of the term “Normative” by those to whom it is applied is almost nonexistent in their writings. Even Presbyterians refrain from using it altogether either, or, use it in a more general way. The word “normative” simply means a standard or rule. Scripture therefore, is certainly normative in many ways, but it is also regulative as well concerning that for which it is intended.

[5] An especially grievous example of this, is the current fascination by some scholars with Biblical Theology, to the exclusion of Systematic Theology. When revelation is interpreted solely on the basis of its historical appearance, without concern for the overall analogy of the faith, disastrous results occur in terms of Christian orthodoxy.

[6] Exclusive Psalm singers make the argument that the word hymn (Gr. Humnos) means Psalm. The word hymn can refer to a Psalm. The trouble with holding to this interpretation exclusively is in the unnecessary redundancy that a verse like Col. 3:16 presents. Paul says Psalm and hymn in this verse, clearly intending to make some kind of distinction in what he was saying.

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