I receive all kinds of interesting questions from readers of this site. Recently one of these, a friend, asked my opinion of lighting advent candles in worship services. “Would you say the lighting of advent candles fit under the category of imagery,” he asked, “or would it be considered symbolism? What’s the difference? Does observance of advent violate the Regulative Principle?” I would like to consider this question today and will focus primarily on the third portion of the question, dealing with the Regulative Principle.
Let’s begin by defining the Regulative Principle (also known as the Regulatory Principle). This principle is no longer widely practiced in the Christian world but not too many years ago was observed in most Protestant churches. It continues to find support today in a variety of predominantly Reformed Baptist and Presbyterian congregations. It is important to note that this principle applies only to worship services and not to other elements of life.
The Regulative Principle of worship states that the only acceptable worship is that which is explicitly taught or modelled in the Bible. By extension then, anything that is not explicitly taught in the Bible is implicitly forbidden. The Regulatory Principle is most often applied to music in the worship service, but can also apply to the use of drama, the administration of the Lord’s Supper (how is it celebrated and how often?) and any other number of situations (including the use of advent candles). Churches that adhere to the Regulative Principle will insist that God, in His wisdom, provided particular ways in which we are to worship Him and these are outlined in Scripture. Means of worship that we may invent will not be acceptable to a perfect and holy God. In the New Testament God has given us certain rules and restrictions just as He gave to the Israelites in the Old Testament. Like the Israelites of old, these rules are given for our protection and within them rules we have great freedom to worship the Lord. Churches that do not hold to the Regulative Principle may take the opposite approach and assume that God desires to be worshipped in spirit and in truth. As long as all of our worship is edifying and does not directly contradict a practice that is forbidden, it will be acceptable in God’s sight. This is the view of worship held by the majority of evangelical churches.
The definitive statement regarding the Regulatory Principle can be found in the Westminster Confession, Chapter 21, paragraph 1 which reads, “The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. 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.” This statement is echoed in the London Baptist Confession of 1689, showing that the confessions undergirding both Baptist and Presbyterian churches once held to this principle.
The Regulative Principle is built upon the following five biblical commands concerning worship:
Despite the fact that the Regulative Principle has been utilized by churches for centuries, there is still a great deal of discussion and disagreement about what aspects of the worship service are to be governed by it. To understand what falls under the purvey of the Regulative Principle it is crucial that we make the crucial distinction between elements and circumstances of worship. Let’s consider a few questions that may arise when discussing worship services and see whether these can rightly be governed according to the Regulative Principle?
To answer these questions, we need to understand the difference between the elements of worship and the circumstances (or form) of worship. The Regulative Principle can seen daunting or terribly restrictive, but I feel it seems far less so when properly understood, for the Principle is really meant only to apply to elements. It is important to note that this division transcends Reformed worship and is a helpful way to understand all that happens in worship services in all Christian traditions. The service of your local church is divided into elements and circumstances and you may find it helpful to consider which is which.
Said simply, the elements of worship are the “what” of worship - the parts that, according to the Regulative Principle, are fixed by God in Scripture. Examining the New Testament will show the elements that are permitted and commanded by Scripture. These include reading Scripture, prayer, singing, preaching the Word and celebrating the sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper. The worship service should incorporate each of these elements, though there is some disagreement on whether each element must appear in each service, especially in regards to celebration of the Lord’s Supper. T. David Gordon writes, “It is not difficult to conclude that the elements which are anticipated by our Lord’s instructions to the disciples, which are observed in the churches under apostolic oversight, which are regulated by inspired epistle, are the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, spoken and sung prayers and praises, and collections for the relief of the saints.” It is likewise not difficult to conclude that these are the only elements that are explicitly modelled in New Testament worship. In churches that do not hold to the Regulative Principle, the elements can extend to a variety of other practices and activities such as drama, foot washing and prophecy to name only a few.
The following list of elements, typical of a church that adheres to the Regulative Principle, is compiled by Reisinger & Allen in their book entitled Worship:
If the elements of worship are the “what,” the circumstances of worship are the “how” - the conditions that determine the best way to worship God within the structure provided by the elements. The Westminster Confession says, “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and the government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (1.6). The Directory of Worship for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church states, “The Lord Jesus Christ has prescribed no fixed forms for public worship but, in the interest of life and power in worship, has given his church a large measure of liberty in this matter.” While there is little freedom in the elements of worship, there is great freedom within them according to circumstances. However, as with every area of life, this freedom must be exercised cautiously and in a way consistent with Scripture.
So let’s turn again to the questions we asked earlier and determine which are elements and which are circumstances. I will attempt to answer each in a way that is consistent with the Regulative Principle.
When we understand the difference between the elements and circumstances of worship, we can put to rest many of the questions about the Regulative Principle. Any questions that have to do with the elements can be answered quickly by comparing the element in question with what is permitted in Scripture. Questions regarding circumstances are moderately more difficult to answer clearly, but we are given more freedom in the way we answer them in ways appropriate to particular settings for they are not directly governed by the Principle.
This article has already gotten lengthy, so I will conclude it tomorrow by applying the Regulative Principle to advent candles. I will also provide my beliefs about this Principle and its usefulness for churches today.