Freedom of Worship

In recent days and weeks there have been some interesting discussions in the forums about worship. A couple of these were kick-started by book reviews or articles I had written while others were started by readers in the General Discussion forum. A patter began to emerge that I would like to discuss briefly. This is a pattern I have seen often in these types of discussions. It seems that many people believe that for us to have worship that is pure and free, it must be predicated by on as few rules as possible. In other words, in order for us to worship in spirit, as God commands, we must worship in ways that we have originated with us and make us feel good.

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One of the first articles I ever posted on this site was called “The Rules of Freedom.” In that article I discussed the Christian view towards freedom, and showed that we are only truly free when we are bound by rules. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but allow me to bring out a few of the points I made in that article.

America is a nation of freedom. Why is it that this nation is the “land of the free?” Quite simply, it is because the country is governed by a set of laws that guarantee freedom. America is not a nation that is unburdened by rules. Rather, it is a nation bound by strict rules which protect the rights and freedoms of its citizens. Consider a nation that had absolutely no laws; no governance; no constitution. Would that be a land where people would have true freedom? No! There would be terrible chaos and bloodshed and that nation would undoubtedly be an awful place to live.

Allow me to draw a parallel with my vocation. I am a Web designer by trade, and as such I need to be able to create. To be a successful Web designer and to create Web sites that are functional and attractive I need to operate within a set of rules. There is a governing body, the World Wide Web Consortium, that oversees standards and governance for the Internet. These standards guarantee that every Web page that adheres to them will be visible by every Internet user. They ensure that a novice computer user operating a 4-year old computer will see a Web site identically to an expert using a brand-new computer.

For example, the rules dictate that every Web page needs to have a piece of code at the beginning that looks like this:

<body>

That small piece of code tells a Web browser that everything after that tag is HTML code (HTML is the programming language Web pages are written in) and should be displayed as such. Without that piece of code, the page would display only as a list of programming code. Similarly, at the end of the document there must be a piece of code that looks like this:

</body>

That “tag” tells the browser that the page has completed. Anything beyond that code will not be displayed in HTML formatting. There are hundreds of similar rules governing HTML coding. As a designer, I have the freedom to ignore those standards and write a Web page however I see fit. The problem, though, is that ignoring the rules will lead to any number of problems. The page may be formatted in a way that makes it very difficult to read. It may display as a combination of properly-formatted text and HTML code. It is even possible that the Web page will not display in any Web browser.

Imagine the headaches if every designer designed his sites to a different set of standards. One designer might create his sites to work only with a specific browser while another might make his work only if a computer is of a certain speed. Needless to say, browsing Web pages would be, at best, burdensome, and in many cases, impossible.

The alternative to operating outside the rules is to create Web pages within the necessary boundaries. When I learn of the rules and operate within the framework of those rules, I have total freedom to create a site that is functional, artistic and useful. I do not think anyone would consider that to be burdensome! On the contrary, it is necessary to have the Internet function with some semblance of order.

I believe this makes a strong parallel with the freedom we enjoy as Christians. Of course this understanding must be predicated upon a biblical understanding of human depravity and Divine holiness. We must understand that as sinful human beings, our innermost desires run directly contrary to what God commands us to do. As Paul laments, the things he does are the very things he does not want to do, and those things that he wants to do are the very ones he does not do. Because there is nothing we can do in ourselves to please God, we must accept His guidance to learn what is acceptable in His eyes. The rules for what we can and cannot do our laid out in Scripture.

When we abide within God’s rules, we experience freedom far greater than what any unbeliever can experience. God gave us rules for a reason – to protect us from ourselves and our own sinful desires, allowing us to live in close communion with Him.

So what does this have to do with worship? Let me address that question now.

As I suggested earlier, it seems that many Christians believe that freedom to worship God indicates the freedom to worship him in the way we want. When they speak of “heart-felt” worship, or “worship in spirit,” they seem to indicate that this would not be possible unless it was unrestricted. For example, one person commented, “we should be shepherding people to worship God as an expression of their heart and true worship will surface.” But this does not necessarily align with Scripture, nor does it align with an understanding of hyman depravity. As I attempted to show with my analogy about Web design, we are never more free than when we are bound by God’s loving concern for us. We can only show Him acceptable worship within the set of rules He has given us.

Allow me to comment briefly on the Regulative Principle of worship (also known as The Regulatory Principle), a principle that seems to cause great alarm among evangelicals. This principle states that the only acceptable worship is that which is explicitly taught 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. Churches that adhere to the Regulatory Principle will insist that God, in His wisdom, provided certain ways in which we are to worship Him. The ways in which we are to worship are outlined in Scripture. Means of worship that we may invent will not be acceptable to a perfect and holy God.

Churches that do not hold to this principle will take the opposite approach and say 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 is acceptable in God’s sight.

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.

The London Baptist Convention of 1689, which is based on the Westminster Confession, stated the same principle in nearly identical words. Proponents of the Regulative Principle offer several texts as proof of their belief.

Matthew 15:3,8,9 – Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?… ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'”

Leviticus 10:1-3 – Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD , contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD . Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: “‘Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.'” Aaron remained silent.

And of course, the most common proof is Deuteronomy 12:32 which reads, “See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.”

I do not adhere to the Regulative Principle, though I often wish that I could. After all, it must take most of the guesswork out of worship. The primary reason I do not adhere to it is that I am not certain it is biblically-mandated, but I also do not know that we can consistently adhere to it in all areas of worship. I have often wondered, though, if those who adhere to the Principle do not have the greatest freedom in their worship. After all, everything they do in worship is drawn directly from Scripture. They do not even have to consider adding dance and crosses and candles to their services, for these are all non-issues. But I digress.

I do not believe it is true, within the light of Scripture, that the best worship is that which is the least-bound by Scripture. I believe instead that the more rules we draw from Scripture using proper rules of biblical interpretation, for we are not creating rules merely for the sake of rules, the more freedom we will have to worship God in spirit and truth. I believe strongly that God wishes to give us freedom to worship Him, but acceptable worship must be established on the rules He has given us in His Word. We cannot have true freedom until we have allowed ourselves to be bound by the testimony of Scripture.