The Regulative Principle of Worship

Reformed theology is very vogue these days among a certain demographic of Evangelicals. However, what is often not understood is that Reformed theology is more than just TULIP and Reformed Soteriology. Reformed theology refers to much more than just soteriology and hermeneutics. Today I want to talk about a Reformed Principle that was not only part of the protest against Rome, but also a substantial part of the disagreement between the Reformed and Lutheran groups in the Reformation. In fact, the very word “Reformed” comes in large part because of this principle.

The Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) is basically defined as follows:

Christians ought to only worship in ways that are positively prescribed in Scripture

Now, this may actually take a few different forms. For the sake of simplicity and brevity I will address two basic forms. What I will call “Weak” and “Strong” forms of the RPW.

The strongest form of the RPW would say that unless there is an explicit, positive command regarding a particular kind of worship activity, that Christians must not engage in a given kind of worship. This includes particular postures, choice of musical instruments, or even tools like Power Point. I have heard people extend this to the very genre of songs that can be sung. Since Paul commands us to sing to each other in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16) that we can sing the canonical Psalms, songs following the structure known as Hymns, and songs within a certain category known as “Spiritual Songs.” Any other musical genre is not only inappropriate for worship, but is actually sinful. In addition, since only certain instruments are mentioned explicitly in Scripture, (eg Tambourine, cymbal, possibly a lute) worship is to be a capella or with a very limited set of instrumental support. This tends to be most common in Church of Christ and other Hardline Fundamentalist groups.

A weaker form of RPW takes the same line of approach, but recognizes that Scripture is a culturally situated text that gives us principles by which to operate. This argument would say “We can use any kind of song that is oriented toward worshiping God” and “We can use any kind of instrument that is not inherently sinful.” But would still reject introducing entirely new practices into worship that have no presence in the Principles of Scripture. For example, they would not (at least in theory) have an objection to using an Electric Guitar in worship, but would object to introducing some kind of new ritual or mode of expression beyond singing and music..

Now, I guess I would say that I hold to a weak form of the RPW, and would object to an entirely new ritual. It is important to note that the RPW only directly applies to the context of worship. The RPW cannot be used to object to the practice of having staff meetings, paying the janitor, or other routine activities of the church. It is only a principle that is applied to Worship itself. However, I think we ought to be careful.

In general, I think that there should be a balance of freedom and structure in the worship service. I don’t think that those who call using an electric guitar, or power point, sinful are correct. However, I do see the value of a strong RPW in certain context. For example, in demographics where Biblical literacy is low among both the clergy and laity, the RPW can provide a good boundary to avoid sliding into unhealthy worship practices. Another example might be in a context where there is a large influence of the indigenous religions (the fusion of indigenous Mexican religion and Catholicism in parts of Mexico comes to mind, or the mixture of African ancestor worship and Pentecostalism in parts of Africa). In these contexts, it is easy for the practices of other religions to seep into our sanctuaries, and a strong stance toward the RPW is helpful in creating a buffer to protect the flocks from being improperly influenced.