Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1. The light of nature sheweth 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 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.It is crucial to remember that God does regulate what happens in worship much more tightly than he does the rest of life. That's a biblical principle. It's all over the Bible.
Nevertheless, questions remain. What counts as worship “instituted by God himself”? How exactly does the Bible regulate worship? Can we look to the principles or examples in the Bible or must we have a direct command? Are we restricted to what is commanded or exemplified in the New Testament or can we also use the Old? I cannot address all of these questions in this short chapter. What I propose to do here is widdle the issues down a bit by cutting off some of the more unacceptable misconstruals of the regulative principle. Unfortunately, the regulative principle of worship has too often been sloganized and applied so narrowly as to be unworkable, not to mention unbiblical. There are at least four unworkable conceptions of the regulative principle of worship (RPW).
The first unacceptable way of understanding the RPW we might call the Reactionary Regulative Principle of Worship. The RPW must not be defined or applied primarily in reaction to Roman Catholic or Episcopal worship. Historical factors in our own history, particularly the life-and-death struggles between the Presbyterian Scots and the Episcopal English, have led to very one-sided rules about what the Bible supposedly forbids in worship. Although it is a bit of a caricature, we often think like this: if a practice involves ceremony or ritual and Catholics and Episcopals do it, it must be unbiblical. There are, of course, very understandable historical factors behind this attitude.
The attempt to impose the Anglican Prayer Book on the Scottish church, often by violent means, did not endear the Presbyterians to the English liturgy. For just this reason, “we will not do what the Anglicans or Catholics do” is deeply embedded in the historical consciousness of many Presbyterians. If Anglicans kneel for prayer, we will not kneel (even if God’s people bow down and kneel in the Bible). If the Anglicans used printed prayers, we will not (however, we will ignore the fact that God often provided his people with exemplary prayers, like the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer). Anglicans use litanies as congregational prayers; therefore litanies are works of the devil (but we’ll pretend that Psalm 136 isn’t in the Bible). Do the Anglicans incorporate congregational participation in the worship? This must be unbiblical. The pastor should do it all.
To our shame this last "reform" is exactly what our some of our Presbyterian forefathers proposed at the Savoy Conference in the mid-17th century (1661). At Savoy Presbyterians opposed the Book of Common Prayer and asked “to omit the repetitions and responses of the clerk and people, and the alternate reading of Psalms and Hymns, which cause a confused murmur in the congregation.” They went on to argue that “the minister being appointed for the people in all Public Services appertaining to God . . . the people’s part in public prayer to be only silence and reverence to attend thereunto and to declare their consent in the close, by saying Amen.” Is that biblical worship? Must we ban all congregational responsive prayers, readings and tolerate no dialogue, no praying in unison of the Lord’s Prayer or any other, all because the Anglicans do this? Must the ministers do all the praying, the people following along silently? Hardly. We are no longer at war with the Episcopals. We need not react against their liturgical forms. After all, they were not the only ones who used these forms. The Reformed churches on the continent had been worshiping like this since the 16th century Reformation.
In addition to this, in their polemic against Anglican and Roman Catholic abuses, Protestant churches often accused their ecclesiastical enemies of imposing their liturgies. So much so that the warning against the imposition of liturgies has become a slogan. Unfortunately, on American soil the older argument against the imposition of Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgies by States on dissenting communities has been transformed into the individual’s supposed right to be free from a local church’s “imposition” of worship forms that he opposes.
That individual Christian “consciences” should be free to decide how to and how not to worship was not the issue in historical Reformed debates. Just as a pastor has the “power” to choose a text and "impose" it on the congregation each week, so also a pastor and/or elders have the power to ordain a time and place for worship, choose hymns and prayers, and decide on an order of worship. If this is “imposing a liturgy” on people, then the only alternative is absolutely free worship. Indeed, why should I even have to gather with others only to hear them pray about and say things that I don’t want to hear? There can be no genuine corporate worship without some “imposition” of liturgical content and forms.
Consider the “church year calendar,” for example. Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches do it, so it must be wrong. Right? And where in the Bible are we commanded to have Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter? Confusion arises when statements like the following are advanced against the use of the church year calendar: “Our heritage is rightly suspicious of the creation of ceremonies and rituals not authorized in Scripture.” The problem with this is that technically the church year does not introduce new ceremonies or rituals; rather, it organizes and directs our Scripture readings, prayers, hymns, and sermons according to the life of Christ.
For the life of me, I don’t see how a church that celebrates Christmas, remembering Christ’s birth by singing, praying, and learning more about this particular event in the life of Christ is introducing new “ceremonies and rituals.” Now, there are a few traditional rituals associated with Christmas and Lent, like Advent candles and ashes applied to the foreheads of worshipers; but these need not enter into the discussion at this point, since they are not part of the essence of the celebration of the church year.
The question of liberty of conscience should not enter into the discussion at all. The members of the church promise to submit to their leaders in the area of worship. Are pastors guilty of an “abuse of church power” when they regularly choose the hymns for the congregation, select prayers and Scripture readings, and arrange the order of their Sunday services according to their own preaching schedule? What’s the difference? Do the Scriptures mandate or authorize pastors to force such an order on their congregations? Why should the congregation have to submit to worship services where the singing, praying, and Bible readings are correlated to 3 years of sermons through the book of Romans and yet be free to reject a year of prayers, readings, and songs organized around the life of Christ? What’s the difference? One has to suspect that the real reason we rail against the church year has to do with our passion to remain distinct from Roman Catholics and other liturgical churches and not because we think that such a way of ordering one’s readings, hymns, and sermons is forbidden in the Bible.
If this is what the RPW is—avoiding what certain churches do in worship—then it's just pitiful.