By the reading and hearing of the Word, the preaching of the Word, the singing of the Word (particularly, the Psalms), and the receiving of the sacraments (the signs and seals of the Word), God’s people worship him in accordance with his Word. Moreover, note the way in which the Sabbath is particularly appointed as the proper day for the worship of God.
All Christians treasure worship. Worship is where we respond to the high and holy summons that are included throughout the Bible. For example: “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!” (Ps. 100:1–2). While the Scriptures command us to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), we glorify God in a special way when we gather with fellow believers to enter into corporate (i.e., public) worship.
For Presbyterians, worship has an extra level of significance in the way that we view worship as something that is entirely regulated by God. We do not worship God as we please, but only in accordance with the commands he has given us in his word. This is called the “Regulative Principle of Worship.” In worship, we may not add to what God has commanded, and neither may we subtract from God’s commands. Instead, we must be careful to do all that God has commanded us, and nothing more.
The Regulative Principle of Worship
Presbyterians come to the Regulative Principle of Worship by both precept (i.e., clear teaching and commands) and example in the Bible. The first clear example of the Regulative Principle of Worship in action arises almost at the very beginning of the Bible, in the story of Cain and Abel. We read:
 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground,  and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering,  but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.  The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen. 4:3–7)
The narrative of Genesis does not tell us explicitly why the Lord “had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” Nevertheless, the text gives some subtle clues. First, we should notice that it is not merely that God accepted/rejected the offerings of each respective brother, but that first God accepted/rejected the brothers: “Abel and his offering…Cain and his offering.” Much of the reason for accepting Abel’s offering, and for rejecting Cain’s offering, then, was tied to the person making the offering—that is, to the heart of the worshiper.
Second, though, as Allen Ross observes, Abel went “out of his way to please God…: ‘He brought the fattest of the firstlings of his flock,’” while Cain merely brought “an offering of the fruit of the ground.”1 Once again, we see an indication of the heart of each respective worshiper. Nevertheless, we also see here an obedience to principles for worship that God will eventually command explicitly in both Abel’s willingness to offer the fat portions in sacrifice (e.g., Ex. 29:13), or to offer the firstborn of his flock to the Lord (e.g., Lev. 27:26). Genesis does not tell us how Abel came to understand what kind of sacrifice he was to offer; however, the fact that God reminds Cain that he will be accepted if he “does well” implies that Cain knew what was required of him, but fell short.
An even subtler example that underscores the Regulative Principle of Worship occurs when the Israelites make the Golden Calf in Exodus 32. It is important to see that the Israelites do not believe that they are making a different god by the image they create. Rather, they are explicit that they are worshiping “your gods [אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙; ’elōheykā; alt. translation: ‘your God’] who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4). Then, to make the point explicit, Aaron declares to the people, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD [YHWH]” (Ex. 32:5). The sin of Israel in Exodus 32 was not to worship other gods; rather, their sin was to worship God in a manner that he had forbidden.
In terms of precept, the Bible gives extensive teaching to clarify this point:
- Deuteronomy 5:32  You shall be careful therefore to do as the LORD your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. (ESV)
- Deuteronomy 12:32  “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. (ESV)
- Matthew 15:7–9  “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:  ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;  in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (ESV)
- John 4:23–24  “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (ESV)
The Westminster Shorter Catechism identifies this as the main point of the Second Commandment:
Q.50 What is required in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his word.
Q. 51 What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshiping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.
Thus, we see the Regulative Principle Westminster Confession of Faith, then, summarizes the Regulative Principle of Worship:
The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth 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 worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped 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. (WCF 21.1)
Notice that our Confession acknowledges that natural revelation (the “light of nature”) does reveal some truths about our worship of God—namely, that there is a God, and that we owe him our worship. Nevertheless, when we start to ask how we should worship God, our worship is rightly limited by the practices of worshiping that he himself has laid out for us in the Scriptures.
The Regulative Principle of Worship, then, is clear from Scripture both in precept and example, and Presbyterians are right to confess this principle as biblical. Still, we need to clarify our terms a bit more tightly so that we understand precisely what we mean by this. Particularly, we need to distinguish between elements, circumstances, and forms of worship. Then, we will discuss why Presbyterians have typically prepared a Directory for Worship.
Elements of Worship
Presbyterians define the elements of worship as what we offer to God as our worship. While we may, during a corporate worship service, make use of microphones and sound systems, bulletins, pews, and even things as basic as clothing, we do not say that these are the elements of worship. Instead, the elements of worship are limited to ways prescribed in the Holy Scripture.