Reformed believers and churches may not differ as to the fact and importance of the regulative principle of worship. As the preceding editorial demonstrated, the regulative principle is confessional. The importance of the regulative principle, according to the confessions, is nothing less than this, that it is the truth of the second commandment of the law.
Difference among Reformed and Presbyterian Christians and churches has to do with the functioning of the principle in the worship service. The difference can be divisive.
The question is: How does the rule that God determines the manner of worship apply to the public worship of the church?
Misunderstanding of the application of the regulative principle, on the part of some of its most ardent advocates, is responsible for a great deal of the division between Reformed and Presbyterian churches which are, in fact, one in the gospel of sovereign grace.
Generally, the regulative principle applies to the content, or elements, of the public service of worship. The function of the regulative principle is to prescribe the elements of the public worship of the church. The regulative principle limits the church to these prescribed spiritual activities as the means of communing with God, praising God, and being edified ourselves.
What these elements are, the Reformed and Presbyterian churches have known ever since the Reformation. Both of these ecclesiastical sisters have made these elements a matter of confession in their official creeds. The Reformed have done this in Lord’s Day 38 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The Presbyterians have done the same in Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
According to Lord’s Day 38 of the Catechism, in which the Catechism is explaining the fourth commandment, Scripture prescribes as the elements of the only worship that is pleasing to God the following: the reading and preaching of the Word; administration of the sacraments; prayers and singing; and offerings, particularly for the poor.
No other activity is permitted. Whatever is not commanded is forbidden.
It is not the regulative principle that there must be an express biblical command for everything that goes on in a worship service, for example, what the minister wears; whether we stand or sit to pray and sing; how the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are distributed; whether the singing is accompanied by an organ, begun with a pitch-pipe, or led by a precentor, and the like.
Some zealots like to present the regulative principle as requiring biblical warrant for every detail of a worship service, but this is to mistake the principle. The southern Presbyterian worthy John Girardeau was guilty of this error. His is the dubious honor of having authored what may be the most violent assault upon instrumental accompaniment of congregational singing ever launched. He called the accompaniment of congregational singing by an organ or piano “heresy in the sphere of worship.” But Girardeau brought instrumental accompaniment under the condemnation of the regulative principle by misstating the principle. He described the regulative principle this way: “Whatsoever in connection with the public worship of the church, is not commanded by Christ … in His Word, is forbidden” (Instrumental Music in Public Worship, 1888, repr. New Covenant Publication Society, 1983, p. 200; emphasis added).
In fact, the church has liberty “in connection with public worship” to arrange a great many details of her worship: what time she meets; how often the Supper is administered, and how; the order of worship; sitting or standing for prayers and songs; form prayers in administering the sacraments and in exercising discipline; instrumental accompaniment of the singing, and more.
There are “circumstances” attending worship, as well as the elements themselves, and one reduces the regulative principle to an unworkable principle, if not to absurdity, if he attempts to apply it to every detail of worship. The New Testament church has liberty in Christ to arrange the details of her worship, and this liberty is important. The Belgic Confession claims this liberty for the Reformed church. In the context of “the worship of God,” the Confession states that “it is useful and beneficial that those who are rulers of the church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the church” (Art. 32).
Can we agree that the elements of worship are regulated by express command of Christ in Scripture? And can we agree what these elements are? If so, we are a long way toward oneness in worship, and we ought to be encouraged to pursue oneness of mind on the differences that remain.
Let us bravely consider certain of these differences regarding worship that divide Reformed and Presbyterian churches which are truly one in the gospel of grace.
There is the issue of instrumental accompaniment of congregational singing. Instrumental accompaniment of the singing of the congregation is not an element of worship. The element of worship is the singing of the congregation. Instrumental accompaniment is merely an attending “circumstance” intended to serve the singing of the congregation. The regulative principle is completely uninterested in instrumental accompaniment, has nothing to say about it. The church has liberty here. She is free to use an organ or piano; she is free to get started singing by means of the twanging of a pitch-pipe; she is free to have a strong-voiced precentor lead the singing; she is free to sing without any accompaniment.
The second commandment has as little to do with instrumental accompaniment as it does with the means by which the deacons take the offerings, whether by a plate or by a bag or even by a box in the corner with a hole in the top.
If only the instrument serves the singing of the congregation!
Then there is the matter of occasional use of form (as opposed to free) prayers, the reading of the law, and the congregation’s confession of her faith by means of the Apostles’ Creed. These are legitimate aspects of the elements of worship that God prescribes. Godrequires prayers. Some may well be form prayers. Some can better be form prayers. The prayers that are part of the administration of the sacraments and of the exercise of excommunication, precisely declaring the doctrine and exactly spelling out the application to the lives of the people, should not be left to the phraseology of the individual minister. The Lord’s Prayer is a form prayer. The important thing about the prayers offered at church is that they display the “requisites” of those prayers that are acceptable to God and that He will hear (see the Heid. Cat., Q. 117).
God requires the reading of Scripture. The law is part of Scripture. Reading the law every Lord’s Day is proper under the regulative principle, to say nothing of the benefit of doing so.
God requires praise, including confession of His truth. Reciting the Apostles’ Creed is such confession. Reciting the Apostles’ Creed is proper under the regulative principle, to say nothing of the benefit of doing so.
Some Presbyterian advocates of the regulative principle vehemently denounce Reformed churches for observing Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Christmas with special worship services. Such observance is alleged to be violation of the regulative principle. Their argument is that God has not commanded the church to worship on April 21 or December 25 in observance of Good Friday or Christmas. In reality, they charge Article 67 of the Church Order of Dordt and thus the synod of Dordt and the entire Dutch Reformed tradition with image worship.
The charge rests on a misunderstanding of the regulative principle. The regulative principle prescribes the content of the public worship, not the time when the church worships. It is the fourth commandment that prescribes the time of public worship. And, although the fourth commandment insists that the church worship on the Sabbath Day, it permits the church to worship also on other days. The Heidelberg Catechism explains the fourth commandment this way: “… that I, especially on the Sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God.”
In the heyday of the Reformation, there were preaching services virtually every day of the week. As regards the Reformed church’s observance of the great events in the ministry of Christ, one of the earliest and most respected Reformed creeds, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566)—not a Dutch creed!—explicitly approved it, “highly,” as an aspect of the church’s “liberty”:
Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly (Chapter 24).
One may like Dordt’s rule in Article 67, or one may dislike it, but observance of Christmas and the other “Christian festivals” has absolutely nothing to do with the regulative principle whatever. What the regulative principle requires is this: If you have a service of worship to remember Jesus’ birth on December 25, this service must consist of the same elements as the worship on Sunday. The special Christmas service must consist of preaching, praying, congregational singing, and giving of alms. It may not take the form of dramatic presentations of the manger scene, liturgical dance, instruction by means of banners, and the like.
I plead with our Presbyterian brothers and sisters not to find differences that divide where none exist.
There remains the question, whether the regulative principle requires exclusive Psalmody. Does the regulative principle demand that the Reformed church sing only the Psalms at church, or does it allow for the use of certain hymns? This is a controversial issue. Treatment of the issue in the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) has sometimes been ambiguous, leaving both members and those without in doubt, what precisely the stand of the PRC is.
This aspect of the application of the regulative principle, we will look into in a subsequent issue of this magazine, God willing.
(to be concluded)