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The So-called “Regulative Principle of Worship”
A Response to Jackson Watts
The following post is a response to a recently authored piece that first appeared at fwbtheology.com, then was reposted here at Churchatopia. I’m pleased to have Dr. Robert Picirilli share his thoughts on this valuable subject.
Dr. Watts, I appreciate your giving me an opportunity to raise some questions—rightly perceived as including objections, no doubt—to what you called the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). In my comment on your post (on fwbtheology.com), I asked a couple of pointed questions, which you graciously answered on the website. In a separate email to me you also sent me a link to an article on the subject by John Frame, which I greatly appreciated.
I offer, first, a very brief response to your two answers. To my question whether the RP itself is stated in the Bible, you agreed that it is not but that it is a construct based on biblical material, much like the doctrine of the Trinity. As I see it, there is no shortage of material in the Bible that, when put logically together, requires some sort of construct at least similar to the traditional way of defining the Trinity. I don’t find anything like that in regard to the way the RPW is generally stated, especially since it is a principle referring to practice and not a way of defining a doctrine that has come to be held by the whole Christian church almost.
My other question was whether the “regulative principle” applies only to worship and not to other aspects of church practice. At least part of your reply was to send me Frame’s article, which supports my view that it ought to apply, if it applies at all, to all aspects of church life, including church government and discipline as well as the expectations of the church covenant about behavior. In that regard I am much more inclined to agree with Frame than with limiting it to worship. I see no logic that can limit its application to worship—except that it was developed by people arguing for a certain form of worship who claimed Scriptural authority for it, apparently without considering that it should apply to all aspects of church life. Indeed, Frame applies it to all of life (not just church life), in that “all of life is worship”—a common truism that has a certain appeal.
As far as I can recall, I first heard of the RP a few years ago—and at my age “a few” can easily include twenty-five or so. In all my education at FWBBC, and in my graduate work in theology and New Testament at Bob Jones, I don’t recall ever encountering it. (This included a thoroughly “Reformed” professor who baptized us in the Reformed texts; and neither of the two Reformed stalwarts, Berkhof or Shedd, has “Regulative Principle” in its index.) Perhaps that isn’t important. I would find it helpful, however, if someone could provide me with an example of a Palmer movement Free Will Baptist, from the beginning in 1727 until, say 2000, who published anything on the RPW. It was interesting to me that I only heard of it when the “worship wars” broke out among us and some felt the need to resist contemporary worship practices—although I realize that the RPW is much older than that and had a different motivation when the Protestants were severing ties with the Roman church and its trappings.
It is fascinating to me that both Presbyterians and Baptists can argue for the RP. Obviously, then, it is convenient that they can limit it to worship, since they couldn’t possibly argue for it in terms of their conflicting principles of church government. And yet, how the church is organized and governed—whether by elders or by the congregation itself—is a vital and integral part of the life of the church, every bit as important as its forms of worship, and every bit as logically under the aegis of the RP’s restriction to doing only what the Bible directly or indirectly (at least by example) teaches.
Given that a local church is a covenant relationship, and that stated relationship includes how its members conduct themselves, that too ought to be governed by the same principle. Surely, “the sufficiency of Scripture”—a phrase often used to imply the RP—is as strong about what is right and wrong as it is for what is and is not to be done in worship. I am a great believer in the fact that, in all matters where the Scripture does not directly address a given issue, we are expected to take the principles of Scripture and apply them, conscientiously and with concern for our fellow-believers, in life. And this will mean that not all mature believers will arrive at exactly the same practical applications.
If you’ll put worship under the same “principle” as that, I’ll vote for “regulative principle”: namely, we should only use in worship what we can justify on the basis of the principles taught in Scripture.
The article by Frame, which you sent me, is helpful, and I find myself agreeing almost entirely with him. He points out that all who use the traditional RPW make some sort of distinction between essentials and non-essentials. In other words, they will not use—as do our Churches of Christ friends—the RPW to rule out instrumental music, since instruments in worship are non-essentials, they say. But, as Frame points out so well, that distinction is not itself found in Scriptures; this is the very same point I’m making about the whole RPW. It is a fact, of course, that the (non-instrumental) Churches of Christ rule out pianos (and other instruments) on the basis of the RPW (although they may not call it that) and “the sufficiency of Scripture.” Yet they use pitch pipes, and they aren’t in the New Testament either! No doubt they would classify pianos as essentials and pitch pipes as non-essentials! It is not logically or practically possible to have a satisfying RPW without making an artificial distinction between so-called essentials and non-essentials (regardless of the terminology used, like “accidentals” for non-essentials).
It’s amazing how little is said about Sunday worship services in the New Testament. First Corinthians 14 has several verses about what I assume was such a service (verses 23 and following), and it treats how to regulate those who speak in tongues and prophesy, thus exercising gifts that most of us believe are no longer being given in the worship life of the church. There is such a service in Acts, which I assume started on Sunday evening, when Paul spoke all night long, but with no description of a “sermon.” Interesting how little of a modern church service is described, directly or indirectly, in the New Testament. For example, there is not a single example of what we call a Sunday sermon there (unless Paul’s all-nighter was such). Indeed, in the whole New Testament there is not a single reference to a collection for the church being taken in the service. There is a collection in 1 Corinthians 16, yes, but it is a special offering for others and not an offering for the church. (Believe me, I can go on and on about what isn’t in the New Testament; I’ve gone through the New Testament and made notes about every possible reference to church services and what should occur in them.)
The problem with my “arguing” like this is that I wind up sounding like “anything goes” as long as it isn’t expressly condemned in the New Testament. No, that’s just another kind of “regulative principle” that isn’t justified. In fact, I’m just as concerned about what takes place in our worship services as anyone who defends the RPW, and the truth is that I’m pretty conservative. But I haven’t found an easy way to rule out certain things by claiming a principle that does it for me. I’m left with the same need I have in other issues: namely, to analyze carefully and evaluate and try to apply the principles that are in the New Testament the best I can. That’s a harder way, and it’s one where we won’t all agree about every practical application we adopt. The truth isn’t relative, but neither is it easy. Yes, the Scripture is sufficient, but how do we make use of that sufficiency?
We won’t all agree regardless what approach we take, so stating a regulation to use as a solution doesn’t wind up being very helpful. Those who want to use overheads and guitars—or more serious innovations—are going to do so, regardless how firmly anyone stands on the RPW or any other grounds. I wish that weren’t so, and I wish we would think carefully, critically, and deeply about all we do, and that we would do it collectively and not just individually—like the folks in the days of the judges, maybe?
One of my favorite one-panel cartoons of all time came out many years ago in the pages of Christianity Today. One old geezer stood up in church and said, “I have a word from the Lord; the Lord says He’s sick to death of guitars and tambourines!” It’s all too easy for us to believe, sincerely at that, that God has spoken about the things we hold dear.
I conclude with a couple of paragraphs from Frame that I found myself rejoicing in when I read what you sent.
God never rules His people by giving them exhaustive lists of things they must do, and forbidding them to do anything else. Rather, He teaches them in general terms what pleases Him, and then He allows them to work out the specifics through their own godly wisdom, in line with the broader principles of His Word. That is what it means to live according to divine prescription.
The regulative principle itself warns us not to add to the Word of God. We need to remind ourselves that one way we are tempted to add to the Word is to try to make it more precise and specific than it is. That was one error of which Jesus accused the Pharisees. We might wish that God had given us more specific guidance as to what pleases Him in public worship and in the rest of life. But we must be content with what He has actually revealed to us, turning neither to the right nor to the left.