Worship by the Book

I have said that conservative Christians reject worship innovations. That is because conservative Christians hold to what is called the Regulative principle. Put simply, this insists that only what is specifically commanded in the New Testament is to be used in New Testament corporate worship, and for that matter, church life. This stands in opposition to the position held by Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists and many, many evangelicals. Amongst these evangelicals are many Baptists, some even flying the Fundamental flag. Their position might be stated as, “If the New Testament doesn’t forbid it, it can be used in worship.” This approach is known as the Normative principle. Indeed, this is where Luther and Zwingli parted company – Luther wanting to retain certain Roman Catholic practices, Zwingli wanting to be rid of anything unauthorised by the Scriptures.

Baptists (and Anabaptists) have held to the Regulative principle , stating in the 1689 Confession of Faith:

But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God has been instituted by Himself, and therefore our method of worship is limited by His own revealed will. He may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan. He may not be worshipped by way of visible representations, or by any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.

Since we believe God has placed into the Scriptures all we need to know to behave properly in the house of God (I Tim 3:15, 2 Tim 3:16), it is wrong to introduce our own innovations simply because the Scriptures do not forbid them. Look around, and see what a harvest the normative principle has reaped: plays and dramas, art exhibitions, strongmen demonstrations, comedians, jugglers, magicians, puppet-shows, flag-waving, movie-screenings, dancing, barking and convulsing- all done as part of ‘worship’. Some of these things have their place in everyday life, but where did God call for any of the above in New Testament worship?

As an aside, worship innovations are nothing new. Infant baptism goes back to the third century at least – but it is still an innovation. Altars, priesthoods, icons are ancient innovations – but they are innovations nonetheless.

We have very clear instruction detailing the things God commands in corporate worship: gathering together (Hebrews 10:25); the reading of Scripture, exhortation and preaching (I Tim 4:13, 2 Tim 4:2); corporate prayer (I Tim 2:1-8 ) [which may include corporate confession of sins, corporate covenanting together]; the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16); the collection of offerings (2 Cor 8, I Cor 16:1-2); the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (I Cor 11:23-34); the administration of baptism (Matt 28:19); and, when necessary, the administration of church discipline (Matthew 18:17-20, I Cor 5:4-5).

Now, amongst conservatives we may find legitimate differences in our application of the Regulative principle. But our differences are not over the validity of the principle, but over how to implement it. Some differ on whether we should use musical instruments or not. The types of music (congregational hymns, chorales, folk spiritual songs, art music for preludes or offertories), where we should meet (the architecture of the building, how often and at what times), the length of our prayer times, our dress and demeanour in our gatherings – these are questions over the circumstances of worship, not the elements themselves.

Understanding how best to implement these circumstances is another matter, for another post or series of posts. The point is, conservatives need to defend the pattern of worship laid out for us in the Scriptures. We need to know what God expects of a New Testament church, and what is strange fire in the sanctuary.

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