The Regulative Principle of the Church 11: Its Necessary Clarification—Parts and CircumstancesSubscribe
Chapter 1, paragraph 6 of the 1689 Confession provides an important clarification of the regulative principle.
…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.
When the Confessions says, therefore, that what is not commanded in public worship is forbidden, we are speaking of the substance and parts of worship, not its circumstances. Note paragraphs two through six of Chapter 22 and especially paragraphs 2, 3, and 5.
2 Religious worship is to be given to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creatures; and since the fall, not without a mediator, nor in the mediation of any other but Christ alone.
3 Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one part of natural worship, is by God required of all men. But that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of the Spirit, according to his will; with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and when with others, in a known tongue.
5 The reading of the Scriptures, preaching, and hearing the Word of God, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord; as also the administration of baptism, and the Lord’s supper, are all parts of religious worship of God, to be performed in obedience to him, with understanding, faith, reverence, and godly fear; moreover, solemn humiliation, with fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, ought to be used in an holy and religious manner.
While the parts and substance of public worship are divinely limited, God has left the circumstances of worship to be determined by the light of nature, Christian prudence, and the general rules of Scripture. This distinction naturally and necessarily suggests this question: How may we distinguish between the parts of worship and its circumstances? This is a difficult and important question. Much of the contemporary opposition to and revision of the regulative principle is based on problems and objections raised by the distinction between the parts and circumstances of worship.1 To it I have several responses.
First, Pastor Bob Fisher in his teaching on this subject points out that Chapter 1, Paragraph 6 of the Confession limits these “circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church” to things “common to human actions and societies”. We have seen that it is the unique identity of the church which requires its special regulation. It makes sense, then, that those things which the church has in common with other societies should be regulated in the same way that those societies are governed. Pastor Fisher mentioned the times of the meetings (as long as the Lord’s Day is observed), the place of the meetings, the posture in which people attend the meetings, whether standing or seated on the floor or chairs, the order of the meetings, if the meeting involves singing whether that singing is accompanied by a guitar or a piano or a pitch-pipe or a flute as illustrations of such circumstances.
Second, 1 Corinthian 14 contains two examples of such general rules which God demands that we apply to our specific circumstances. They are the rules of edification and order (vv. 26 and 40). God demands that these two rules be followed, but He has not given us a detailed list of what they mean in every situation and culture.
Third, the circumstances of corporate worship and church government must be understood in light of what we believe to be the parts or elements of worship. Once those parts or elements of worship are defined it becomes much easier to see what things are the circumstances required to carry out or implement those elements of worship. For instance, once we understand that corporate worship requires the assembly of the church for among other things the hearing of the proclamation of the Word of God, it will follow that such circumstances as place, posture, and time will have to be worked out in such a way as to best implement that part of worship. In my view, as well, once it is determined that singing the praise of God is a part of worship (as I believe it to be2), then the issues of circumstance which must be decided become clear. Will there be musical accompaniment? How shall the songs be pitched if there is not? Who will lead the singing? How will everyone know what to sing? Will a song sheet, hymnal, overhead projector, or PowerPoint presentation be used? How long shall we sing? How many songs shall we sing?
Fourth, churches may differ as to where the line is drawn between circumstances and parts of worship without ceasing to be true churches. Just as churches may differ from us on certain doctrinal matters without becoming heretical, so also some differences on this issue of the regulative principle ought not to be a cause of division between churches. Reasonable differences should not be made the source of division. Let the elders of each church be fully assured in their own mind. Differences in application of the regulative principle may be tolerated as long as each church recognizes its unique identity as the house of God and holds seriously to the regulative principle. We may (and must!) be charitable in such things, as long as the substance of the regulative principle is sincerely embraced.
Fifth, a godly fear will result from a genuine embrace of the principle that we must worship corporately only as God has appointed. This must certainly inject an element of caution and conservatism into what we justify as legitimate circumstances of corporate worship. Such caution must not, of course, lead us to adopt the strictest and most conservative application of the regulative principle. Such a reactionary position leads too often to the contradiction of other principles of Scripture.
1Gore in Covenantal Worship, 47-51, rejects the regulative principle partly because of difficulties he sees with this distinction. Frame in Worship in Spirit and Truth, 40-41, bases much of his revision of the principle on similar difficulties.
2Interestingly, Frame does not believe it to be a part of worship, but believes it is a kind of mode by which we do other parts of worship. Cf. Worship in Spirit and Truth, 57.