by David Murray
Every Christian believes that there is an acceptable and an unacceptable way of worshipping God. Every Christian has a regulative principle, a rule (or rules) which regulates the content and conduct of worship. Even the most extreme worship leader has some limit on what he or she deems acceptable in the worship of God. Some of the most common regulative principles that people use today are:
- The Past: This is the way we have always done it.
- Preference: This is what I like and enjoy.
- Pragmatism: This works, it’s popular, it draws people in.
- Prohibition: Everything and anything goes unless it is specifically prohibited.
- Prescription: True worship is commanded worship; we may only include what God commands.
This last principle, prescription, was recovered by Calvin at the time of the Reformation and was linked to the rediscovery of the Gospel. The reformers saw that the God-centered and God-glorifying salvation they had rediscovered, required God-centered and God-glorifying worship, and that this could only be secured by including in worship only what God had commanded. This principle was based on Scripture (e.g. Lev. 10:1; Deut. 12:32; 1 Chron. 15:13-15; John 4:23-24; Matt. 15:9; Col. 2:23) and the teaching summarized in the Westminster Confession:
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)
In other words, when we are considering the content and conduct of our worship, the biggest question is not “Does the Bible forbid it?” but “Does the Bible command it?” That makes things much simpler because any list of what God forbids in public worship would take an encyclopedia to cover all that the human mind has invented as “worship.”
In something as holy and serious as the worship of God, we cannot trust our fallen and foolish human natures to guess what pleases God in divine worship. Therefore, in His mercy, God has prescribed for us how we may worship Him acceptably. In the area of public worship, what Scripture does not authorize, it forbids – no matter how enjoyable it may feel.
Reformed churches have differed in how to apply that principle, but this basic idea should infuse every decision about what to include or exclude in public worship.
As John Knox put it: “All worshipping, honoring, or service, invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without His own express commandment, is idolatry.”
[David Murray is Professor of Old Testament at Puritan Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Readers who would like to look at the historical issue of worship and the reformation of worship are encouraged to read Carlos Eire, WAR AGAINST THE IDOLS (The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin); Yale University Press for more background.]