Application of the Regulative Principle in the Contemporary Church
Certain theological words gain such defined meaning in the history of theology that to affirm that one holds to them is equal to affirming their historical meaning. The Regulative Principle holds to this standard, so affirming the Regulative Principle of worship and yet holding different views is simply misleading to one’s theological convictions. The foundational premise of the Regulative Principle is the idea of sola scriptura. Once the Reformation churches affirmed sola scriptura, a determination had to be made whether the Scriptures alone were sufficient or could tradition have a place in ordering the worship of the church. Paul clearly stated that Scripture is what makes us “complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17); therefore, to add extra-biblical elements of worship to our service is “a denial of the sufficiency of Scripture.”
David Peterson proposes that worship of God is regulated differently than the rest of life. God gives men the precepts of His Word and allows them the freedom to live as they see best. Worship, on the other hand, is regulated in a more restrictive and defined way. Accordingly, sola scriptura has a different application to matters of faith and worship than it does to the rest of life because the church is holy in a way that the rest of life is not. Peterson suggests that it is the special holiness of the church that gives rise to the particular regulation of the church encompassed in the Regulative Principle of worship.
Differences arise, however, among Christians and churches regarding the functioning of the principle in the worship service. The divisive question is: How does the rule that God determines the manner of worship apply to the public worship of the church? Most agree that the regulative principle applies to the content, or elements, of the public service of worship. What these elements are, are not in question. The only elements of worship that are pleasing to God are the following: the reading and preaching of the Word; administration of the sacraments; prayers and singing; and offerings, particularly for the poor. No other activity is permitted, and whatever is not commanded is forbidden. The regulative principle does not stipulate that there must be an express biblical command for everything that goes on in a worship service, such as personal attire, sitting or standing, the method of the distribution of communion, or whether the singing is accompanied by an organ or worship band.
The Reformed Tradition and the Westminster Standards specifically distinguish between the elements, the forms, and circumstances. All agree that God specifically commanded the elements He desired in worship, including reading the Word, preaching the Word, singing, prayer, and administering the sacraments, oaths, and vows. All agree that to and from these, we may neither add nor take away. As for the form of the elements, however, there will be some variations. For example, different prayers will be prayed, different songs sung, different Scriptures read and preached, the components of worship may be rearranged from time to time, and elements such as the sacraments may be performed at different times. There must be, out of necessity, some human discretion exercised in these matters.
Regarding the circumstances, such as whether we sit or stand, have pews or chairs, sing from a hymnal or from a PowerPoint, what time services are to be held, and more, these things must be determined in the absence of explicit biblical direction. However, they must be decided in accordance with “the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word.” Reformed theologians agree that the entire substance of worship must be biblical. This does not only include the words from Scripture. Rather, it is commanded that all that is done and said in worship is in accordance with sound biblical theology. The content of each component must come from the mind of God and reveal His truth.
While we are given some freedom regarding the form and circumstances, we must be diligent in using our discretion humbly and wisely. We are not free to do whatever we want or whatever feels good. Worship must be Christ-centered and Gospel-oriented. It must convey the true characteristics of God. “Jesus condemns the church leaders of His day for holding to extra-biblical traditions…Any worship that comes from the mind and heart of man is suspect because the heart and mind of every human is corrupted by sin. True worship is that which comes from the mind of God. Anything else is tainted by our own depravity.”
There is a lesson to be learned as we consider a twenty-first century application of the Regulative Principle. The common search for Christ-centered, Gospel-oriented, heart resonant, and culturally relevant worship has taken several turns over the last half century. If our goal of worship is to tell the story consistently, then there must be aspects of our worship that remain consistent. These consistencies should reveal ways the Gospel has shaped worship in the past and how it should still shape worship in the present. God wants worship that enables us to praise Him and reflect His glory. This awareness brings a desire to shape our worship by the Gospel, not by tradition or the idols of our innovation. “We design our worship to proclaim the gospel so that others can see His glory dancing in our hearts—and join the dance.”
Footnotes:  Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship, Ch, 2.  Griggs, Worship According to the Word: An Introduction of the Regulative Principle of Worship, 19.  David Engelsma, Reformed Worship: Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2004, Ch. 3, Kindle Edition.  Johnson, Reformed Worship: Worship That is According to Scripture, 42.  Duncan, Does God Care How We Worship, 15.  Ibid., 16.  Ibid., 15.  Griggs, Worship According to the Word, 21.  Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009), 193, Kindle Edition.