The problem with the regulative principle: part 1, Saying too much...

Error message

The Regulative Principle of Worship is an oft-cherished extension of Reformed theology to the realm of worship. Simply put, the Regulative Principle teaches that any form of worship not expressly commanded by God in Scripture is unlawful and therefore idolatrous.

The Westminster Confession of Faith states the Regulative Principle in these terms:

But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture. WCF 21.1

Among the Scriptural proofs for this portion of the Westminster Confession is Exodus 20:4, the second commandment which forbids idolatry.

Despite my appreciation of the Reformers' intentions in formulating the Regulative Principle, I am increasingly concerned that the Regulative Principle as currently conceived by the Reformed community says both too much and not enough in its definition of idolatrous worship.

Too much, in that by defining as illicit any form of worship not positively commanded in the Word of God the Regulative Principle comes very close to making Christ Himself an idolater.

We assume that all Christ did in worship was in accord with an Old Covenant application of the Regulative Principle. But was it?

Scripture tells us that Jesus went to the synagogue in Galilee on the Sabbath as was His habit, and there publicly read the Word of God, explaining Isaiah's significance to the assembled people. In any Reformed church such action would be viewed as the the height of worship. Yet where in the Old Testament do we find express biblical warrant for synagogue worship? Where is routine public worship outside the realm of temple worship and public feast days positively commanded?

Nor is Christ's participation in synagogue worship the only place where Scripture records worship by Christ which seems to fall short of the Regulative Principle's demands.

In John 10 we read that Jesus went to the Temple in Jerusalem at the Feast of Dedication (Chanukah), a feast celebrating the Maccabean victory over Antiochus Epiphanes, not one of the Biblically-mandated feasts of Jewish worship.

Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, Jesus worshipped at a temple which was viewed by many in His day as defective and illegitimate for a number of significant reasons:

First, the holy of holies of Herod's temple was barren, lacking the ark of the covenant and mercy seat, together with the tablets, Aaron's rod and jar of manna of the original tabernacle and temple.

Second, Herod's temple was built by a godless half-Idumean, half-Samaritan pretender to David's throne.

Third, there is no record of Herod's temple ever enjoying the filling of the shekinah glory of God experienced by both Solomon's temple and the tabernacle.

Fourth, the high priests of Herod's temple were illegitimate political appointees rather than the linear descendants of Aaron specified by Scripture.

These deficiencies of Herod's Temple caused portions of the Jewish nation to reject its legitimacy altogether. Rejection of second temple worship was a common theme among the Essenes and it is debated whether the Qumran community observed second temple sacrifices at all.

By a strict application of the Regulative Principle the conclusion that worship at Herod's Temple was illegitimate, and thus idolatrous, seems inescapable.

Yet just as Jesus worships in the synagogue without objection, so He worships without objection at Herod's temple.

What Jesus does object to in the temple is not the empty Holy of Holies or illicit priesthood, but the selling of animals and the changing of money in its outer courts, activities seemingly less offensive because of their non-worshipful nature than many other temple activities Jesus freely participated in.

Thus, it would seem that when advocates of the Regulative Principle claim that an activity in worship is idolatrous unless it is expressly commanded in God's Word, they say more than Christ said.

Yet on the basis of the Regulative Principle Reformed churches have staunchly opposed as idolatrous worship practices ranging from the celebration of church holidays (Easter and Christmas) to the singing of non-biblical songs to the use of instruments generally and specific instruments in particular.

Such objections seem incredible in light of Christ's earthly practice. Christ clearly rejects more in worship on the basis of heart issues than He does on the basis of non-compliance with formal positive prescriptions in Old Testament law. How else do we make sense of Jesus cleansing the temple courts of merchants and money-changers (a trade anticipated and approved in Deuteronomy 14:24-26) while at the same time accepting the sacrifices of illicit priests in the inner courts of that same temple?

This does not mean the Regulative Principle has no place in Reformed worship, only that the Regulative Principle should be handled cautiously, and that our demand that every element in worship be grounded in express Biblical prescription be taken no further than Christ Himself took it. (Honesty should also compel us to admit that advocates of a rigorous application of the Regulative Principle frequently manage to find Biblical justification for worship practices which just happen to mirror their own tastes.)

I will argue further in an upcoming post that while the Reformed world often goes too far in condemning worship practices as illicit on the basis of the Regulative Principle, there are certain obvious applications of the Second Commandment which modern advocates of the Regulative Principle tend entirely to ignore--areas in which we do not go far enough.

For an excellent and far more exhaustive challenge to expansive views of the Regulative Principle than contained in this post, see John Frame's Some Questions about the Regulative Principle.