The reformed principle known as the regulative principle of worship states that God alone determines the content, motivation, and aim of worship. He teaches us how to think about him and how to approach him. The further we get away from his directions, then, the less we actually worship.
In corporate worship, then, there must be scriptural warrant for all we do. That warrant may come in the form of explicit directives, implicit requirements, general principles of Scripture, positive commands, examples, or things derived from good and necessary consequences.
The key benefit of the regulative principle is that it helps to assure that God—not man—is the supreme authority for how corporate worship is conducted, by assuring that the Bible (God’s own special revelation) and not our own opinions, tastes, likes, and theories is the prime factor in our conduct of and approach to corporate worship.
I want to suggest the main reason why many evangelicals have a hard time embracing the regulative principle is that they don’t believe that God tells us (or tells us much about) how to worship corporately in his Word.
The main reason why many evangelicals have a hard time embracing the regulative principle is that they don’t believe God tells us (or tells us much about) how to worship.
Evangelicals have for a century or more been the most minimal of all the Protestants in what they think the Bible teaches us about the church and in their estimation of the relative importance of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). In general, they don’t believe church government is established positively in the Word. They don’t see the local church as essential to the fulfillment of the Great Commission or to the task of Christian discipleship. They’re suspicious of order as restrictive of freedom. They juxtapose the priesthood of believers and local church autonomy against the didactic authority of established church norms, confessional theology, and the testimony of the communio sanctorum through the ages.
Consequently, since the doctrine of worship is part of what the Bible teaches within the doctrine of the church, they’re not predisposed to expect much definitive teaching about the conduct of corporate worship. In part, this may be the result of understandable confusion about the precise nature of the discontinuity between how God’s people worship in the old covenant and the new covenant.
Evangelicals, by and large, get the point of Hebrews and the rest of the New Testament on the coming of Christ as the end of the types and shadows of the elaborate ceremonial worship of the old covenant. Consequently, though evangelicals know that the Old Testament has instructions on what Israel was to do in worship, they tend to think that there are few if any abiding principles to be gained for Christian worship from the Old Testament.
Some think the New Testament emphases on the heart, the activity of the Holy Spirit, and all-of-life worship displace these Old Testament principles. Or they think the New Testament has correspondingly little or nothing to say about the “how” of corporate worship. Others even think the category of corporate worship disappears altogether under the new covenant.
Does God Care How We Worship?
God makes it amply clear, however, throughout the Bible that he does indeed care very much about how we worship.
Where does the Bible teach this? One place is in the detailed provisions for tabernacle worship found in Exodus 25–31 and 35–40, as well as in Leviticus. Exodus 25, for instance, in the middle of its divine instructions for the sanctuary and its furnishings, insists upon at least three aspects of the way God’s people are to worship.
1. Worship’s Motivation
Israel’s worship was to be willing worship. It’s to be “every man whose heart moves him” (25:2) who contributes to the sanctuary (note the contrast in the golden calf incident in 32:2). If worship doesn’t spring from gratitude for God’s grace, if it’s not the heartfelt response to who God is and what he has done, then it’s hollow.
2. Worship’s Goal
True worship has in view spiritual communion with the living God. God orders construction of the tabernacle that he “may dwell among” his people (25:8). That is God’s purpose in the old-covenant ordinances for worship, and so the people were to bear that goal in mind as they built and came to the tabernacle. “I will be your God and you will be my people” is the heart and aim of the covenant—and the heart and the aim of worship. If worship aims for anything less than this, it’s not worship at all but a vacuous substitute.
3. Worship’s Standard
Worship of God is to be carefully ordered according to his instructions. God’s initiative is prime in the design of the tabernacle (again, in contrast to the golden calf incident). God demanded that the tabernacle and all its furnishings be made “after the pattern . . . shown to [Moses] on the mountain” (25:40). God’s plan, not the people’s creativity, was to be determinative in building the place where his people would meet him (and indeed, in all the actions of the priests who would serve in this worship).
This is essentially what the reformers saw as a fundamental principle for Christian worship (an approach that came to be known as the regulative principle).
Pervasive Biblical Emphasis
‘I will be your God and you will be my people’ is the heart and aim of the covenant—and the heart and the aim of worship.
But many fine evangelical theologians object at this point and say: “Yes, this principle was true for tabernacle worship, but not for worship under the new covenant.” The idea behind this objection is that because of its unique typological significance, Old Testament tabernacle worship was guarded by unique requirements that God did not apply elsewhere in the Old Testament or in the New Testament to the corporate worship of his people. So, they say, though our worship should be guided by biblical principles (in the same way as is the rest of life), it’s not restricted to what is positively warranted by the Word (as was tabernacle worship).
However, the whole Bible contradicts this position (e.g., Ex. 20:4–6; Deut. 4:15–19; 12:32; Matt. 4:9–10; 15:8–9; Acts 17:24–25; 1 Cor. 11:23–30; 14:1–40; Col. 2:16–23). The Bible emphasizes God’s concern for the “how” of worship not only in the ceremonial code but also in the moral law, not only in the Pentateuch but also in the Prophets, not only in the Old Testament but also in the New, not only in Paul but also in Jesus’s teaching.
Does God care how we worship? Yes, he does.