Is the Regulative Principle Biblical?

In last week’s blog (read it here), I compared the normative principle of worship and the regulative principle of worship.  Churches that practice the normative principle say if the Bible does not forbid something then it is ok for the worship service.  This includes things such as candle lighting, bell choir, holiday decorations, non-worship music, skits and plays, and much more.  Churches that practice the regulative principle only practice what the Bible commands for corporate worship.  To summarize, the normative principle says, “whatever is not forbidden is permitted,” but the regulative principle argues that “whatever is not commanded is forbidden.”

As I stated in last week’s blog, the regulative principle, “whatever is not commanded is forbidden” should be practiced in the church.   The reason for this will be argued from the Bible itself in this article.   I agree with Derick Thomas who states, “it is difficult to see why anyone who values the authority of Scripture would find such a principle objectionable. Is not the whole of life itself to be lived according to the rule of Scripture? This is a principle dear to the hearts of all who call themselves biblical Christians. To suggest otherwise is to open the door to antinomianism and license.”[1]  Yet I find most churches are far from the regulative principle, hence the need for this defence.

Biblical Doctrines

I begin my argument first with several overarching biblical doctrines that point to the necessity of the regulative principle, and then transition into specific biblical examples and texts.

Doctrine of Sin

As Christians, we must recognize our fallen nature and our distorted view of life apart from God’s perfect revelation.  Ultimately, when left to ourselves we generally mess things up.   Even when our intentions are good, we utterly fail to please God apart from His revelation to help.  This reality leads us to reach out for the scriptures – our guide for life and worship.  Even Jesus Himself says “the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what He sees the Father doing.  For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19).  Though Jesus has cleansed us of our sins and is now making us holy, there still remains corruption, blindness, and sin that continually influences us and distorts our choices.  If Jesus, our sinless savior and example of human perfection, did nothing on His own but relied upon God the father for everything, should we not do the same?

Sufficiency of Scripture

As Christians, we believe that God’s word is not only true and without error, but it is also sufficient.  “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 also see 2 Timothy 3:16).  The sufficiency of Scripture assures us that we do not need to add to the Scriptures as it is already perfect, complete, and sufficient.  God has told us how He is to be worshiped, there is no need to add extra things to the list as if God forgot to include them.

The Power of Scripture

As Christians, we desire for our gathering to edify, equip, correct, and train the church for the work of ministry.   The question that is asked though is what is the best possible way of bringing that about?  Paul tells us the answer by saying, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  So the word of God, the Scriptures, are the most effective tool in transforming and edifying the church.  This would explain why the Scriptures themselves command us to sing the Bible in psalms and hymns, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, and see the Bible in the sacraments.  We should never take time away from these commanded, powerful practices in order to do less effective practices that the Bible has not commanded.

The Doctrine of the Church

As Christians we recognize that we are a community of believers who gather together under the authority and headship of Christ (Colossians 1:18).  This means that what we do as a church must not come from our creativity and imagination or from our desire to gather more people. This would be the case if the church were simply another organization for the community such as the Boy Scouts or 4H.  Instead, everything the church does must first be under the Lordship of Christ and must align with his word.  This is what it means for Christ to be the head of the Church – he writes our order of service, not us.

Specific Old Testament Examples/Texts

The First Two Commandments

Exodus 20:1-6 And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

What we see in these two commandments is that the Lord alone is God and is to be worshiped as He has instructed us.  The people were accustomed to following the pattern of surrounding cultures of making images that represents God or gods but the Lord demands that He be worshiped as He commands.  Worshiping out of creativity or the traditions of man is idolatry as we see in the next example.

The Golden Calf

Exodus 32:1-6 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.

Exodus 32:21-24 And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”

If you pay careful attention, you will notice that in their cultural context, the people were being very religious.  It even says they were going to make a feast to the Lord (v. 5).  In their eyes, this calf was simply an image of the Lord who brought them out of Egypt and was their means of worshiping the Lord.  In other words, their major sin was not a failure to worship, their major sin was a failure to worship the Lord as He commands.

Construction of Tabernacle

Exodus 25:40 And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.

Exodus 31:2-11  See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is on it, and all the furnishings of the tent, the table and its utensils, and the pure lampstand with all its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin and its stand, and the finely worked garments, the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments of his sons, for their service as priests, and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense for the Holy Place. According to all that I have commanded you, they shall do.

God gave the Israelites specific instructions on their plans for worship down to the colors, materials, and measurements.  The Lord makes clear that he is not OK with the builders adding to the instructions.  The Lord is saying that he is only to be worshiped in the manner that he prescribes.  I would be curious to see how God would have responded if the builders decided to add a fog machine at the entrance to the holy place.  Based on the story of Nadab and Abihu, I do not think it would have gone over very well.

Nadab and Abihu

Leviticus 10:1-7, Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace. And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, “Come near; carry your brothers away from the front of the sanctuary and out of the camp.” So they came near and carried them in their coats out of the camp, as Moses had said. And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar his sons, “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; but let your brothers, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning that the Lord has kindled. And do not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you.” And they did according to the word of Moses.

Once again, Nadab and Abihu’s great sin was not a lack of worship.  The great sin that they committed was rather worshiping the Lord in a way that was not commanded. They offered “strange” or “unauthorized” fire before the Lord. This was a sacrifice that God did not directly forbid, yet was an “unauthorized” sacrifice.  The same goes today within the church.  We must not practice that which God does not command for our gathering, lest we follow in the footsteps of Nadab and Abihu.  The text even says that their death was not to be mourned, even by their father lest more people die!  Anyone that mourns the death of Nadab and Abihu would have died before the Lord in His holiness.  We must see and fear the holiness of God in worship.  Consider and heed what the Lord said after consuming Nadab and Abihu with fire, “I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (v. 3).  Also see Korah’s rebellion which tells a similar story (Numbers 16).

Saul’s Offering

1 Samuel 13:11-14 Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the Lord.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.”

In this text we see Samuel do something that appears minor.  He offers a sacrifice to the Lord after Samuel the priest does not show up in time.  We must sympathize with Saul considering his situation.  He is there with only 600 Israelites who are trembling in fear (v.6-7, 15), surrounded by “thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude” (v. 5) all ready to kill him.  Samuel told Saul to meet him at Gilgal and after seven days Samuel would arrive to offer the sacrifice (1 Samuel 10:8).  Samuel does not arrive after seven days so Saul offers up the sacrifice himself.  Seems minor right?  Yet because of this offence, his kingdom is taken away from him and he is rejected by the Lord.  Samuel tells him it is “because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you” (v. 14).  Considering the context however, we must ask the question: To which command is Samuel referring to?  Saul was never told not to offer the sacrifice.  What we see then is that when it comes to the worship of the Lord, what He does not command is forbidden.  We must heed the word of the Lord by not taking anything away from, or adding to, God’s instruction in worship.

Uzzah

2 Samuel 6:1-7 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark. And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.

We see demonstrated in this text God’s holiness and demand that worship be done according to His command.  Taking away from or adding to God’s instructions do not honor the Lord.  What Uzzah did in reaching out his hand seems minor and harmless yet we know from God’s response that this was no minor offence.  The Lord never said “Thou shalt not carry the ark on a cart,” but God did not command it therefore the people must not do it. They were only to do what the Lord commanded, nothing more, nothing less. David, when he brings up the Ark of God in a second attempt, explains his error, “Because you did not carry it the first time, the Lord our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the rule” (1 Chronicles 15:13).  God demands that his people worship Him according to what he commands.  Israel most likely got the idea of carrying the Ark on a cart from the Philistine example (1 Samuel 6:11).  It never turns out well when people worship and serve the Lord by following the example of others instead of the Lord himself.

King Jeroboam

1 Kings 12:32-33 And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings.

Notice the careful wording of this text Jeroboam appointed a feast (v. 32). He instituted a feast in the month “that he had devised from his own heart” (v. 33).  Furthermore, the text repeats and emphasizes the place of sacrifice: Bethel instead of Jerusalem.  The Lord had appointed feasts and a place of worship, yet Jeroboam made another feast and another place of worship beyond what the Lord had commanded.  The great sin of Jeroboam was worshiping the Lord in a manner that the Lord had not commanded.  It even makes clear that Jeroboam was still, in a sense, worshiping the Lord, he was simply doing it in a manner that he devised in his own heart.  When we practice the normative principle, “what God has not forbidden is allowed,” we quickly fall into the same sin.  It is by Jeroboam’s action that he “caused Israel to sin” (1 Kings 15:30), ultimately leading to their exile by the Assyrians.

King Uzziah

1 Chronicles 26:16-21 But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the LORD his God and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense. But Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the LORD who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary, for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the LORD God.” Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead in the presence of the priests in the house of the LORD, by the altar of incense. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead! And they rushed him out quickly, and he himself hurried to go out, because the LORD had struck him. And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the LORD.

Once again we see an example of someone worshiping the Lord in a way that is not commanded by the Lord.  King Uzziah in his pride enters the temple with fire to offer to the Lord.  He was doing a religious practice of worship to the Lord, but in a way that the Lord did not command.  In response, the Lord strikes him with leprosy.

King Ahaz

2 Chronicles 28:3 He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his sons in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations (II Chron. 28:3).

Jeremiah 7:31 they have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire — something I did not command nor did it enter my mind

We might assume that the main offence of Ahaz is that he and the people were sacrificing children on the altar.  In our eyes that is the most detestable thing in the text, but this is not the only thing  the Lord focuses on.   The greatest sin of Ahaz was not simply that he offered children on an altar, as bad as that was, but that they were worshiping God in a way the Lord did not command.  Notice the careful wording of the Lord in Jeremiah 7:31, “something I did not command nor did it enter my mind.”  The Lord did not say, “How dare you offer children on the altar” but, rather, “How dare you do something in worship which I did not command you to do?”   We must worship the Lord based on what he has commanded without adding things which He has not commanded.

My conclusion from these OT texts is this: “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you” (Deut. 4:2).

Specific New Testament Examples/Texts

When reading the NT, what was just examined in the OT regarding worship and the nature of God is, for the most part, assumed and taken for granted.  Even so, Jesus still speaks to the issue of worship and His apostles correct the church in their practices as well.  Through this we will see that God calls his people to gather to worship Him by doing what He commands without adding or taking away.

Pharisees

Mark 7:5-9 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And He said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And He said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”

The context of this text is not worship or church gatherings, yet the principle is important.  God desires that his people listen to His voice instead of the voice of tradition or prevailing ideas.  The Pharisees’ problem was that they were adding to what God had commanded while neglecting the actual commands of God.   As a church, we must not add to what God has commanded us to do.  By doing this, we will ultimately neglect what He has actually called us to do.

The Samaritan Woman

John 4:23-24 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.

Jesus here gives two specific attributes of Christian worship. This worship must be in spirit and in truth.  These two attributes are profound when fused together as they express God’s will for New Covenant worship.  Let us be clear then on this point: truth is nothing less than what God has revealed.  Therefore to worship the Lord in truth is to worship Him in line with His Word.  The same can be said of the Holy Spirit, author of God’s Word.  When we diverge from the Holy Scriptures in worship, the experience can be both “charismatic” and “religious” in many ways, yet it will be devoid of both spirit and truth.  According to Jesus, worship that is not Biblical cannot be called true Christian worship.

The Great Commission

Matthew 28:19-20 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

The second half of the great commission is to teach what Christ has commanded.  This idea of “obeying Jesus” and “doing all that is commanded” is often wrongly labeled “legalistic.”  Legalism is practiced when we obey Jesus thinking that our obedience will earn grace from God and the forgiveness of sins. Obeying Jesus’ commands is simply part of what it means to be a Christians (John 14:15).  So in the great commission we are told to teach all that Jesus commands, yet if we practice things in our time of worship that Jesus does not command, are we not teaching new disciples to obey what Jesus has not commanded?  New disciples can quickly become confused regarding what is commanded and what is simply “extra.”  It is a better and safer path that eliminates much confusion when we simply do and teach what Jesus commanded, no more and no less.

The Church of Rome

Romans 12:1-2 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Here the church is told how they are to worship the Lord in a way that is holy and acceptable to God.  We are to present our bodies to the Lord, not becoming like the world but rather being transformed by the renewing of our minds.  The question that the church needs to ask then is, “When we as a church do things in worship which the Lord has not commanded, where did we get the idea?”  Generally, the answer is either from Old Covenant ritual worship which has been fulfilled and therefore abolished in Christ, or from the world. Concerning the former, I address this below from Galatians, Colossians, and Hebrews.  Concerning being conformed to the world, Paul is quite clear: Don’t be conformed to the world!  Let us do what the Bible commands, nothing more, nothing less.

The Church in Galatia

Galatians 4:9-11 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.

The book of Galatians is the only letter of Paul that we have beginning with a rebuke instead of a blessing.  Paul says that they are turning to a different gospel which cannot save.  A central theme of this false gospel is commandments and practices that the Lord does not command.  They are rebuked in 4:9-11 quoted above, not for doing something the Lord forbade, but for doing things which the Lord did not command of New Covenant Christians.  They are “observing days and months and seasons and years.”  They are going back to the rituals of the Old Covenant which were fulfilled in the work of Christ.  We must not follow in the footsteps of the Galatians.

The Church in Colossae

Colossians 2:16-23 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

What we see in the Colossian church is that some are insisting on following practices not commanded by God upon New Covenant believers.  These include dietary restrictions, fasting regulations, festivals, Old Testament Sabbath observance, among other things. Notice in verse v. 18 and v. 23 that they are insisting on asceticism which is a religious practice.  Paul says that these things have no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.  He says these are promoting “self-made religion” (v. 23).  This is so key to the regulative principle of worship.  We as a church must stand far away from self-made religion by practicing what God calls us to practice while avoiding that which God has not commanded.  When we integrate our own ideas into our community of worship, we are creating “self-made religion,” which has “no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

Book of Hebrews

The entire book of Hebrews speaks against ceremonial worship to which the church was tempted to return.  G. I Williamson puts it well when he writes, “The whole book of Hebrews is, among other things, an extended application of the regulative principle. It argues that the whole system of worship, commanded by God under the Mosaic administration of God’s covenant, is now obsolete (8:13). And what do we have in its place? The answer is that we have ‘the real thing’ — not the old ‘copies’ of heavenly things, but — ‘the heavenly things themselves’ (9:23). Whereas the people of God, in the time of Moses, came to an earthly mountain (12:18), we ‘come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,’ and so on (12:22). The church today, in other words, is supposed to live in the realm of heavenly realities, and not any longer in the realm of shadowy symbols.”[2]

What we see in this summary is that God is utterly concerned about how He is worshiped.   Not only this, He calls us not to add to, or take away from, what He has commanded us as a church.   I hope and pray this article was helpful for you and I would love to converse with you about it.  Feel free to leave a comment.  The next post will be the application of the regulative principle for the church.

Also See:

Part 1 What is the Regulative Principle of Worship?

Part 3 How do we Apply the Regulative Principle?

 

[1] http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/regulative-principle-worship/

[2] http://www.westminsterconfession.org/worship/the-scriptural-regulative-principle-of-worship.php

One thought on “Is the Regulative Principle Biblical?

  1. This article is much needed and is Holy Spirit inspired. Thank you Jonathan for taking time to seek scriptural truth. Praying that those called by God will once again seek to adhere to His words.

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