Word Regulated Worship


Does God have an opinion about how His creatures should worship Him? Yes He does. He has expressed Himself repeatedly on the subject. The first commandment tells us who to worship (“You shall have no other gods before Me,” Exodus 20:3) and the second tells us how to worship (“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6).

God even killed Nadab and Abihu for their unjustified antics in worship (Leviticus 10:1-4). As R.C. Sproul once remarked, we can all be grateful that the Lord was simply making a point and not establishing a pattern when He did this. But the fact that the Lord does not strike dead everyone who approaches Him inappropriately in worship should not lead us to conclude that He no longer cares about how He is approached. Nor should we think that in the new covenant worship is less important to the Lord than it was in the old.

Jesus told the woman at the well that “an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). Spirit and truth–with internal devotion and external guidance. Since God’s Word is truth (John 17:17), shouldn’t the Bible at least be consulted before we plan what we intend to do in a service we call “worship?”

The progress of God’s revelation from old covenant to new is the progress from type, promise and shadow to antitype, fulfillment and reality. In worship it is a move from detail prescriptions and ceremonies to simplicity that encourages full focus on Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3). What we find, then, in New Testament worship is from the heart and according to the Word. The essential elements of worship (which we ascertain from the Word–public reading of Scripture, preaching, praying, giving, observing baptism and the Lord’s Supper) must all be regulated by the Word.

This does not mean that every corporate worship service will look the same or have the same “feel” wherever or whenever it occurs. Quite the contrary. This approach to worship safeguards it from cultural captivity. Word regulated worship will seek to be authentically expressed within any culture while following God’s revealed will for how we are to approach Him. The elements of worship will remain the same while the heartfelt employment of them may vary widely from culture to culture.

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7 Responses to “Word Regulated Worship”

  1. Tom:
    Some examples of what you think is “in bounds” and “out of bounds” Biblically would be helpful.

    I am preaching through the book of Acts and during the series, when relevant, I have played video clips about Nate Saint and Jim Elliot from “beyond the gates of splendor”. Occasionally (usually on sunday nights) I have played clips from movies portraying the lives of Eric Lidell and Martin Luther and of Martin Burnham a modern martyr.

    In your opinion is that acceptable?

  2. Tom:
    What a great discussion to open up. I feel a great need for more dialogue in this area. As someone who is thoroughly convinced of the doctrines of grace, church discipline, church reform, etc…I have often wondered just exactly what a “reformed” (lower case r) Southern Baptist Church looks like. Last year, at Southern Seminary, I personally hosted Rev. (Dr.) John Frame for 3 days on campus and had him speak on Reformed Apologetics AND on Regulative worship w/ Bro. Stam in the worship school at SBTS. His position was very informative. While strictly holding the line and adhering to the Westminster Confession (we joked with him about this) and calling himself a believer in the regulative principle, he basically allowed for enough freedom to make even a normative holder happy! Rev. Frame is himself a VERY talented musician and has given much thought and study to the area of worship, and yet he SEEMED to have no problem with many trends that strict Regulative principalists would choke on! I understood him to be OK with trends such as drama, contemporary choruses, and I even recall the question of dance coming up (although I don’t recall his position on that). He seemed to be OK with banners, etc…JUST SO LONG AS ALL WAS DONE IN A DOCTRINALLY ACCEPTABLE WAY THAT DID NOT COMPROMISE THE GLORY OF GOD OR DIRECT ATTENTION TO THE EFFORTS OF MAN.

    I remember leaving his lectures a bit confused, hearing him say he was a regulative principalist (he is a good Presbyterian after all!) but interpreting his position as very open. Since then, I have often wondered what “reformed” worship looks like?!?!

    I understand the terms, and I know the dangers of many of the modern trends. But most of the trends that I have rejected, I have done so on the grounds that their MESSAGE was wishy-washy or entertainment based, not because they were innovative or different.

    As a pastor of a church where we practice blended worship (choruses and hymns), choir numbers, special music, children’s sermons, and even member testimonies, I wrestle with this issue, and would appreciate the insight of brethren. I seriously researched and considered the statements of the Puritans, along with many ARBCA churches, and found that, in my opinion, most of their complaints directed toward modern worship methods were MESSAGE based more so than METHODOLOGY based.

    Why can’t a “founders-friendly” pastor allow for contemporary choruses if they are Christ-honoring? (i.e. RUF offers great music here) Why could we not allow our teens to participate in a drama ministry, so long as they did not compromise the gospel in their message? Though I have never seen interpretive dance done well (nor do I plan on allowing it anytime soon until I know more about my position!), I am hesitant to reject it solely on the grounds that it is “worldly.”

    Don’t we also hold, as reformers, to the concept of taking “every thought captive” to the obedience of Christ, and re-claiming every area of life marred by the fall and reclaiming it for the glory of God?

    I’m glad you posted this. I hope this thread can raise some interesting points.

  3. Pastor Leap,

    I’m with you on this issue. The caution, as you peppered throughout the post, is important: THE MESSAGE CAN NOT BE COMPROMISED. Everything we do should support the Gospel, not dilute it. Most of the disagreement will come from people who view any element that is contemporary (broadly defined as anything not traditional – which also is a broad term) with a distortion of the Gospel.

  4. This issue is sadly neglected and Pastor Leap is a good example of how we are so very confused as to how to adhere to the regulative principle in our worship service and ecclesiology. I have found Ernie Reisinger’s book helpful on this issue as well as reading some historical accounts of worship services (the Philadelphia Minutes, etc.) I can sympathize with Terry regarding Dr. Frame’s lecture and book as it leaves one thoroughly confused. Many young pastors who are reformed in their theological understanding have no idea of how to reform worship according to the Scriptural guidelines and so remain guided by cultural norms.


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