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Worship – Elements and Circumstances

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Last week I posted an article about the freedom God gives us in worshipping Him. In that article I suggested that there may be some merit to what is known as the Regulative Principle. I would like to comment further on this topic.

Allow me to comment first on the Regulative Principle of worship (also known as The Regulatory Principle), restating the brief definition I provided last time. 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. We should note that this principle generally only applies to the worship service.

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 plenty of Scriptural support for their position – sufficient support that they can build a convincing argument.

The Regulative Principle is built upon the following five biblical commands concerning worship:

  1. We are to worship God in ways that edify our local church. 1 Corinthians 14:26
  2. We are to worship God in a proper and orderly manner. 1 Corinthians 14:40
  3. We are to worship God in Spirit and truth. John 4:24
  4. We are to worship God in reverence. Hebrews 12:28-29
  5. We are to worship God in awe. Hebrews 12:28-29

In reading the discussions stemming from articles about the Regulative Principle, I have seen plenty of confusion as to how the principle actually effects worship services. To understand this it is crucial that we make one important distinction – the distinction between Elements and Circumstances of worship. Let’s examine a few questions about worship services. How are the following to be governed according to the Regulative Principle?

  • Should a worship service be held on Saturday or Sunday?
  • Should a worship service be held at 10 AM or 11 AM?
  • Should a worship service be 2 hours long or 12 hours long?
  • Should dance be permitted during the worship service?
  • Which psalms and hymns should we sing in church?
  • Should we permit voice amplification in the service?
  • Should we use hymn books or Powerpoint projection?

To answer these questions, we need to understand the difference between the elements of worship and the circumstances (or form) of worship. It is important to note that this understanding transcends only Reformed worship and is a helpful way to understand all that happens in worship services, even in evangelical or Roman Catholic churches.


Said simply, the elements of worship are the “what” of worship – the parts that are fixed according to 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 stated in Scripture.

The following list of elements is compiled by Reisinger & Allen in their book entitled Worship (hat tip to Craig at Avoiding Evil):

  1. The reading of Scripture (Acts 15:21, Rev. 1:3)
  2. The preaching of the Word of God (2 Timothy 4:2)
  3. The hearing of the word of God (James 1:19)
  4. The singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19, James 5:13)
  5. Baptism (Matthew 28:19)
  6. The Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23, Acts 2:42)
  7. The Collection of Offerings (Gal. 2:10; 1 Cor. 9:3-12)


The circumstances of worship are the “how” of worship – 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.

  • Should a worship service be held on Saturday or Sunday? – According to most Christians who adhere to the Regulative Principle, this question is answered clearly in the Scripture. Worship services are to model the New Testament example by being held on the Lord’s Day – the first day of the week.
  • Should a worship service be held at 10 AM or 11 AM? – This is a circumstance, not an element. Thus the leaders of the church should decide on a time that best suits the church. There are any number of considerations. For example, a rural church may need to work around the schedule of farmers to allow them to attend church; a church that rents a building may have to worship later in the day, and so on.
  • Should a worship service be 2 hours long or 12 hours long? – This is a circumstance. While a service should be long enough to incorporate the elements the Scripture lays out, a service that is too long might lose its effectiveness.
  • Should dance be permitted during the worship service? – This is an element. There is no place in Scripture where dance is permitted as an element of worship. Thus dance should not be permitted during the worship service.
  • Which psalms and hymns should we sing in church? – This is a circumstance. Scripture commands we sing but does not dictate exactly what we should sing. I will point out that some people believe that only the singing of Psalms is allowed in the New Testament, and thus we should sing only Psalsm in our worship services.
  • Should we permit voice amplification in the service? – This is a circumstance. If necessity dictates voice amplification, it is expedient to use it.
  • Should we use hymn books or Powerpoint projection? – This is a circumstance. Displaying words in a book or on a screen is circumstantial. However, if the Powerpoint projection includes pictures many who adhere to the Regulative Principle would argue that the Scripture does not allow images in worship, and thus we must project only plain text.

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.

It seems, then, that the Regulative Principle is a useful standard for determining how we ought to worship God. It ensures that we worship Him in ways that are consistent with the Scripture, while allowing great freedom within that framework. As Craig wrote, “God and His revelation of Himself is an adequate guide to lead us in proper worship. Humans are fallible; at the very heart of anything we create will be fault and failure. However, the Bible is the infallible and sufficient Word of God that leads us into all truth. If we follow God’s lead in worship through Scripture we can rest assured that our worship is not in vain.”

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