How does the Regulative Principle work?

Before we can discuss how the Regulative Principle works we must have a common understanding of the vocabulary being used. “Elements” are the parts of the worship service such as singing, praying, reading Scripture, collecting an offering, and preaching. The elements are the “what” of worship. “Forms” refers to how those elements are practiced. For example, the element of an offering may be practiced in the form of members bringing their tithes to the front of the sanctuary or it may be practiced in the form of passing a collection plate. Forms are the “how” of worship. Everything else in the worship service such as the announcements, the pews, or the air-conditioning are the “circumstances” of worship. (We will examine circumstances tomorrow.) With these definitions we are now ready to discuss how this idea works.

The Philadelphia Confession of 1742 describes the Regulative Principle with these words, “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 imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.” (Chapter 22, Paragraph 1) [Emphasis added] According to this statement acceptable worship is first comprised of the elements God has instituted in Scripture and second limited only to those elements. No more and no less is the idea of the Regulative Principle.

Because all of the proper elements of worship are contained in Scripture we need to know how to go about finding them. As everyone instinctively knows, not every activity described in Scripture is an element of worship. For example prostitution, gambling, and even murder are not acceptable elements of worship even though they are described in Scripture and may even be described in the context of (false) worship. For true worship we must carefully, precisely examine if elements are instituted by: 1) a command pertaining to worship, 2) an example set for our imitation in worship, or 3) a principle from Scriptures for worship.

These three words: command, example, and principle are time tested guides. They have been used to order the Church’s worship for hundreds of years. For example the preacher Jeremiah Burroughs (d. 1646) not only used these three ideas but taught them and the Regulative Principle to his congregation. In his powerful sermon Drawing Nigh Unto God Burroughs writes, “But when we come to matters of religion and the worship of God, we must either have a command or something out of God’s Word drawn from some command wherein God manifests His will, either by a direct command, or by comparing one thing with another, or drawing consequences plainly from the words.” Jeremiah’s directions to us will take time, consistency, hard work but the rewards of knowing Scripture better, understanding the mind of Christ more clearly, and bringing pleasing worship before God are more than enough reward. Anyone who leads or plans worship should ask themselves, “Are the elements of our worship those pleasing to God as he has instituted in Scripture by command, example, or principle?”