Without the regulative principle, we are at the mercy of “worship leaders” and bullying pastors who charge noncompliant worshipers with displeasing God unless they participate according to a certain pattern and manner. To obey when it is a matter of God’s express prescription is true liberty; anything else is bondage and legalism.
What is the regulative principle of worship? Put simply, the regulative principle states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded on specific directives of Scripture. Put another way, it states that nothing ought to be introduced into gathered worship unless there is a specific warrant of Scripture.
Let us be clear: we worship God in “all of life”—when fishing, playing golf, eating breakfast, or driving a car. Paul makes this very clear: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1–2).
Because of this, some have argued that there is no special set of rules for gathered worship. There’s just worship. But this ignores some very important issues. True, there is a regulative principle (a set of general rules) for what we might call “all of life” worship. Everything we do must have in view the glory of God. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). We might call this a general regulative principle. But is there a more specific application of this principle for gathered worship? The Reformers (John Calvin especially) and the Puritans answered yes. God is especially concerned as to the question of how we worship in public gatherings.
Typical by way of formulation are the words of Calvin: “God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his Word,” and the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689: “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 imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.”
The Westminster Assembly
When the Westminster Assembly gathered, its primary directive was to answer this very question. It soon began to address other issues, but it was the issue of worship that dominated its initial agenda. It would later publish a Directory for the Public Worship of God. The term directory is itself important; it is not a Book of Common Prayer as the Anglicans had. They were very clear that the directory functioned in a very different way.
The very first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith is about Scripture. It was a way of saying that before we can say anything about God or humanity or sin or the church, or worship, we need some basis of authority. And that sole authority is the Word of God. All of Scripture is a product of God’s outbreathing (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Men spoke as they were driven along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). For the Westminster tradition, then, we begin with Scripture.
It is in this opening chapter on Scripture as the foundation of all knowledge that the regulative principle appears:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and 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. (WCF 1.6)
The point being made is that Scripture lays down certain principles about two particular issues (there are others): the form of church government and public worship. The same principle appears again in the chapter on worship:
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. (WCF 21.1)
The point is that Scripture (that is, God Himself, since Scripture is God’s Word) prescribes how we worship God. The word prescribe carries the idea of authority. When you go to the drugstore and you need some medicine that isn’t an “over the counter” drug, you need a prescription—it used to be a piece of paper signed by the doctor (these days it is usually done electronically).