As I’ve reflected on the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) often in the past, I’ve wrestled through what has been a repeated criticism of it. Many theologians, such as John Frame, have criticized how the RPW has been formulated in the Puritan tradition in particular, arguing that Scripture does not provide a separate principle for corporate worship than it does for the rest of life. In other words, Frame argues that the all of life is regulated by Scripture, with worship included as a subset of that.
Those who are committed to the Puritan tradition on this question cry foul, saying that he has radically reinterpreted the RPW, making it into what it was never intended to be. And they argue that the RPW applies only to worship, and not to the rest of life, as we have freedom to do whatever we wish–within the general confines of Scriptural commands and godly wisdom–outside of worship, but that in corporate worship, we must have a specific command–or at least clear inference, such as the example of apostolic practice–in order to include something in worship.
So part of my own study on worship in general, and the RPW in particular, has been on whether or not Scripture does teach the RPW specifically as a separate principle for corporate worship in distinction from the rest of life. There are a few verses that are regularly used to support the RPW, verses that Frame and others have argued don’t give a separate principle for worship than for the rest of life.
Deuteronomy 4:2 “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.”
Deuteronomy 12:32 “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.”
Obviously there are other passages that are critical for any discussion of the RPW (such as Leviticus 10, the story of Nadab and Abihu). But my purpose here is specifically to discuss whether or not verses like these two from Deuteronomy support the idea of a Regulative Principle of Worship that can be distinguished from how we guide the rest of our lives.
My basic conclusion is that there is a more helpful–though not entirely new–way of formulating the issue. The question is not whether or not Scripture gives a separate principle for worship. The regulative principle is–as Frame says–applicable to all of life and to corporate worship. But that does not mean that the Puritans were wrong either. Because the RPW was never intended to regulative literally everything we do. That is, when it says, “Do not add or take away from God’s words,” it did not mean don’t do anything beyond what you were commanded. We weren’t commanded to watch TV, or play sports, or listen to our iPods, or go hiking, and so on, and yet I believe we can do those things. Likewise, we weren’t commanded to have the air conditioning on in worship, we weren’t commanded to meet at 10:30am, we weren’t commanded to have pews, and so on, but we can. Why? Because the RPW, drawn from Scripture, says that we cannot take away anything from God’s word, and also that we cannot add anything to God’s Word. That is, we cannot make any of our own words to be binding on others as God’s Word.
And this is how it relates to whether or not the RPW applies only to worship or to all of life: it is the same principle in both situations, but because in corporate worship, God’s people are gathered together for the express purpose of praising him, and because it is supposed to be a corporate activity in which all are involved, to add anything would be to make it binding on others as the word of God. Likewise, to take anything away from corporate worship (such as, say, not observing the Lord’s Supper), would be to take something away that Scripture clearly commands. In the rest of life, we can do other things like play basketball, enjoy a movie, and so on without violating this principle because we are not making them God’s words. We are not saying that everyone else must do these things. But in worship, if the leadership were to add something to worship (or take away), and if all believers are obliged to come and participate in worship (which they are are, Hebrews 10:25), then this would cause something that is essentially being made a new addition to God’s word. It is restricting the liberty of conscience of believers, because it is requiring something of believers that God does not require of them.
Now of course this doesn’t solve all the problems. We still have to grapple with the Puritan distinction between elements and circumstances of worship. And of course we still need to do the hard work of evaluating whether or not Scripture does command what we do in worship. But hopefully this at least indicates that the RPW is indeed taught by Scripture, particularly those in Deuteronomy, despite the doubt that some have expressed on this.
I would love to hear thoughts on this as to whether or not I’m off base here.Read More