Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 9 – Heeding God’s Prescriptions for Worship

Biblical worship is the worship revealed in the Bible as pleasing to God. Since the Bible reveals God’s nature, will, and works, we should expect that God prescribes how He wants to be worshipped in Scripture. Both Old Testament principle and New Testament precept (1 Tim 3:15) combine to show us that God’s worship is not regulated by preference, popularity, or pragmatic concerns. God’s worship is regulated by His revealed Word.

Believers in the Regulative Principle of Worship, or the Rule of Prescription, believe that a worship practice can be admitted to the worship of the church if such a practice is unequivocally and positively grounded in Scripture.1  However, while all believers in the validity of the Regulative Principle accept that Scripture must command a worship practice before it can be instituted, not all believers agree on which worship practices have been commanded, or how Scripture makes such imperatives explicit.

Among proponents of the Regulative Principle, broad and narrow interpretations and applications exist. All believers in the validity of the Regulative Principle accept that Scripture must command a worship practice before it can be instituted; not all believers agree on which worship practices have been commanded, or how Scripture makes such imperatives explicit.

Conservatives see fewer elements. For example, D.G. Hart sees Reformed worship as consisting in the reading and preaching of the Word, prayer, song, the collection, and the sacraments. 2  Ligon Duncan recites the Puritan formula for New Testament worship: to read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible and see the Bible (the sacraments). 3

Proponents of a looser application of the Regulative Principle see other elements as having biblical sanction. John Frame sees the elements as greetings and benedictions, reading of Scripture, preaching and teaching, charismatic prophecy (when it operated), prayer, song, vows, confession of faith, sacraments, church discipline, collections and offerings, and expressions of fellowship which Frame sees in things like the love feast and the holy kiss. 4  Bryan Chapell lists seventeen: calls, prayers, Scripture readings, music, offerings and collections, creeds and affirmations, benedictions and charges, rubrics, sermon, sacraments, expressions of fellowship, testimonies and ministry reports, oaths and vows, ordinations and commissionings, church discipline, fasting, and other unnamed possibilities.

As a pastor, I find myself uncomfortable with Frame’s interpretation of the Regulative Principle, but also aware that conservatives like Hart may not have fully dealt with other possible elements, such as mutual edification in corporate worship (1 Co 14:26). Like any pastor who holds to the Regulative Principle, I try to wrestle with the New Testament evidence to see what has been commanded or exemplified. This is what a conservative Christian church will have to do: determine which elements of worship are biblically prescribed.

Once determined, the church will need to include only those elements and ruthlessly exclude everything else. This may be difficult when certain traditions have set in. If your church determines that drama has not been prescribed, then what about the Sunday School skit? Or the Christmas play? If your church determines that the handshaking time falls outside of God’s prescriptions, will it be able to drop it altogether? For that matter, if your church has failed to include one of the biblical elements of worship, will it be able to begin practicing it?

Here some teaching on each element of New Testament worship will be useful. If a pastor devotes a sermon to each element, he is able to show the biblical rationale and reasonable application for what is included in his church’s worship services. Very often, such compelling sermons are all that is needed to show why other elements are not included.

A few more thoughts about pastoral involvement in the planning of corporate worship are in order, which will the subject of the next post.

1. Ligon Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God ed. Philip Ryken, Derek W.H. Thomas and J. Ligon Duncan III (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2003), 64.

2. D.G. Hart and John R. Muether,With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2002), 150.

3. Ligon Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, 68.

4. John M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company), 56.

5. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 146.

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