The third problem with some formulations of the regulative principle is when it is applied in a dispensational, semi-Marcionite way. For some people the regulative principle means that we only look to the New Testament for biblical warrant. Only what the New Testament expressly prescribes ought to be done. All that ceremony and ritual, well, that was Old Testament worship. The Old Testament had a lot of "outward" and "material" religious ceremonies, but in the New Testament our worship is inward and spiritual.
More often than not, popular Protestant imagination inadvertently links Roman Catholic worship with Old Testament worship, as if Catholicism is somehow a throwback to Old Testament worship. The Puritans tended to make this mistake. For example, John Owen (an independent Puritan) does not like the Lord’s Prayer. Why? Because it was part of Old Testament worship structures:
Our Savior at that time was minister of the Circumcision, and taught the doctrine of the gospel under and with the observation of all the worship of the Judaical church. He was not yet glorified, and so the Spirit was not as yet given; I mean that Spirit which he promised unto his disciples to enable them to perform all the worship of God by him required at their hands, whereof we have before spoken. That, then, which the Lord Jesus prescribed unto his disciples, for their present practice in the worship of God, seems to have belonged unto the economy of the Old Testament. Now to argue from the prescription of, and outward helps for, the performance of the worship of God under the Old Testament, unto a necessity of the like or the same under the New, is upon the matter to deny that Christ is ascended on high, and to have given spiritual gifts unto men eminently distinct from and above those given out by him under the Judaical pedagogy (Owen, Works, vol. 15, p. 14).Frank J. Smith asserts “Romanism . . . retained much of the Old Covenant sacrificial system” (Worship in the Presence of God, eds. Frank J. Smith and David C. Lachman (Greenville, SC: Greenville Seminary Press, 1992), p. 11). What exactly does this mean? How can Roman Catholicism be said to have “retained” Old Covenant sacrificial practices? Did the error of the Mass develop because the church returned to the liturgical elements of the Old Testament ceremonial system? Or did it develop as a result of the influence of alien philosophical (Aristotelian) categories on biblical teaching? Does Frank Smith want to suggest that the God-given sacrificial system was Romanist? Are we to believe that the corruption of the medieval church came about because of the influence of the Old Testament on the church’s liturgy? This kind of argument is historically and theologically erroneous.
There is a disconcerting penchant among Reformed theologians, from the Reformation on, for disparaging Old Covenant sacrificial ritual by identifying it too closely with Roman Catholic errors. This erroneous identification became more and more prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even though it is not about worship per se, I highly recommend Henning Graf Reventlow’s The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985). Reventlow chronicles the rise of Deism in England and Germany as the precursor to higher criticism. In the process of his research he shows how English Protestants, particularly the Puritans, displayed a deep-seated hostility to anything that smacked of material ceremony and ritual, and that they read the Old Testament with these colored lenses such that they tended to interpret Old Testament religion as a kind of Catholicism before Rome.
Furthermore, according to Reventlow, this moralistic, anti-ceremonial bias fed right into (or possibly even “caused”) the rising humanistic antipathy to revealed religion, particularly that of the Old Testament, leading to the rise of higher critical methodologies that deconstruct the first four-fifths of the Bible. At any rate, Reventlow’s research on the anti-ritual “spiritualism” of the English post-Reformation theologians is extremely troubling. This work reveals something of the shortcomings of our own anti-liturgical, spiritualistic heritage.
Another odd characteristic of much of Reformed polemics on the regulative principle has been the appeal to synagogue worship over against the Old Testament biblical regulations regarding the temple liturgy. I say it is odd because there are no explicit biblical regulations concerning synagogue worship. We know that the people of Israel worshiped weekly in local assemblies since a Sabbath day “holy convocation” or “assembly” was commanded by Yahweh in Leviticus 23:3: “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to Yahweh in all your dwelling places.”
Now, it is true that the local Sabbath worship was not explicitly regulated. That is, God did not lay out a how-to list like he does in Leviticus. But that doesn't mean that wise Levites and elders in the local towns would not understand that the regulations of the Temple and sacrificial system applied mutatis mutandis to the local services over which they presided. We have a great deal of evidence to suggest that this is exactly what synagogue worship became: sacrificial worship without the animal sacrifices. Synagogue practice was modeled on the temple (e.g., prayers were described as "sacrifices," similar to the New Testament and the synagogue itself was considered holy space). Although a staple of much Reformed anti-liturgical polemics, the notion that synagogue worship was “simple” and a-liturgical and therefore must function as a model for “simple” New Testament worship lacks credible support.*
Add to this the fact that the New Testament everywhere talks about the church as the fulfillment of the Temple. There's very little to connect the synagogue and church. But all the imagery and symbolism of Israel's Temple comes to fulfillment in the life of the church. Going to the OT and reading it through the lens of it's fulfillment in Christ in order to learn about corporate Christian worship is the great need of the day. This is why, for example, the order or sequence of the "offerings" in the sacrificial worship of Israel is so important.
I could say a lot more about this topic, but I think I'll stop here. The bottom line is that we need to be whole-Bible Christians when we reflect on how the Bible regulates congregational worship.
*See Peter J. Leithart, “Synagogue or Temple? Models for Christian Worship,” Westminster Theological Journal 64:1 (Spring 2002): 119-134; Leithart, From Silence to Song, chapter 6; John W. Kleinig, The Lord’s Song: The Basis, Function and Significance of Choral Music in Chronicles (JSOT Supplement #156; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993); and Donald D. Binder, Into the Temple Courts: The Place of the Synagogue in the Second Temple Period (SBL Dissertation Series 169; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997).