Sometimes our theology can sound much more complicated than it actually is.
Just trying to navigate through the various terms and phrases can leave us feeling like we’re drowning in confusion. It can be very discouraging, can’t it? The experience reminds me of math class in grade school, when I struggled just to remember the names of all the different angles and equations. Compared to some of my peers, I needed to put in twice the effort to learn.
Eventually I felt like my head was above water, but there was always something new to grasp. The same can be true of studying theology.
With one major difference–theology is a lot more important! And, we have the all-knowing Holy Spirit as our teacher, to guide us as we dig deep into the Word of God.
Which brings me to an extremely significant, yet often misunderstood theological concept: the regulative principle of worship—a mouthful that we will shorten to RPW.
A quick disclaimer here. This is by no means an exhaustive overview of the RPW and everything it entails. It’s a brief look at the basics.
So, what is the RPW and why does it matter?
THE REGULATIVE VS. NORMATIVE PRINCIPLE OF WORSHIP
Basically, the RPW is about how to worship God properly. It involves what the Bible says on the topic of worship and what God requires and desires from us.
And it matters because, as Christians, we want to please the Lord in our worship (and, conversely, avoid displeasing Him). After all, isn’t that what we were created for?
Now, for the nitty-gritty. When it comes to worship (in particular, public worship–more on that distinction in a minute), there are generally two camps, two schools of thought on how we worship God rightly. They’re divided into two basic principles: the RPW, and the NPW (Normative Principle of Worship).
The regulative principle says that God regulates His worship–He directs it with specific rules. Along with that comes the assumption that we should only do in worship what the Lord clearly commands in Scripture; we are not allowed to add or take away from it.
In contrast, the normative principle teaches that we are allowed to do in worship anything that is not explicitly forbidden in Scripture. This means God has a more “open-handed” approach to worship, wherein He permits us to add our own methods, as long as the Bible doesn’t say we can’t.
Having studied both sides, I find myself strongly upholding the RPW rather than the NPW.
THE FOUNDATION: GOD IS HOLY
The Word teaches us over and over that God is holy. That means that He is separate from His creation, distinct in who He is and what He’s like. He is exalted far above us in His perfection, purity, beauty, and glory.
What does that mean for us?
- God is not like us. We can’t automatically know what God wants or thinks about something. That’s why we desperately need His Word. We are imperfect sinners; His ways are higher than our ways, His thoughts than our thoughts. The more we move away from Scripture, the more we stray like sheep into our own paths that are not His.
- God is approachable–yet He requires reverence. Thankfully, the Lord is not so lofty that we can never access Him in worship. On the contrary–through Christ we can approach His throne boldly! Yet when we do come into His presence, we should do so reverently, fearing Him and doing what pleases Him.
- God desires pure worship. We need not be discouraged when we realize how insufficient we are to give the Lord what He fully deserves. He remembers our frame; He knows that we are dust. And He knows that we won’t serve Him perfectly in our lifetimes. Yet we are called to cultivate a pure heart and to pursue worship that honors Christ. Not because He needs it, but because we love Him and He loves us.
THE WORSHIP: DIFFERENT FORMS
We know that as believers, we are called to worship the Lord with our whole being. There’s no such thing as the secular vs. sacred divide. God and His Word apply to all areas of our lives, and we must honor Him every minute of the day, not just during “quiet time” or at church.
Yet there are distinctions the Bible makes when it comes to worship. You could call it Worship with a big W, vs. worship with a small w.
Our entire lives should be Worship to God, as we offer up ourselves as living sacrifices, obeying Him in everything. But there are still special times we set apart for the worship of God, especially public worship with the saints. These special times of worship appear throughout Scripture–when believers would gather in the synagogue together to hear the Word and sing Psalms, or when individuals would devote time to privately appear before the Lord in worship.
THE PATTERN: SIMPLY GOD’S WAY
If you survey the entire Bible, both Testaments, an overall pattern emerges regarding worship (little w)–we do it God’s way, not ours.
And He is gracious enough to tell us exactly what we need to do, so that we have no need of trial-and-error.
The Old Testament
Even though we no longer live in the time of Moses, God’s character hasn’t shifted a bit. And it won’t. We serve an eternal God. Even though the specifics have changed, the general principle of what God desires in worship remains, because it is founded on His character. And what do we see?
We see that the Lord desires that we do only as He commands. Here are a few examples:
- In His plans for assembling the tabernacle (the place of worship), God gave Moses very specific, detailed, step-by-step instructions, and said: “According to all that I show you, that is, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings, just so you shall make it” (Exodus 25:9). There is no way Moses or the people would have ever thought to get a little creative or “think outside the box” while they were building it. Besides, how could they possibly think up something better than what God gave them?
- Well, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, actually gave that a try when they offered up “profane fire” before the Lord in Leviticus 10. They did something in worship that was not commanded, and God destroyed them instantly. This taught the people that God desires holiness and strict obedience to His Word, not innovation.
- While carrying the ark of the covenant (an important part of worship) in 2 Samuel 6, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark and prevent it from falling–but touching the ark was strictly forbidden. Uzzah was struck dead instantly. We could try to defend him by guessing that his intentions were innocent, but in reality, he acted presumptuously. He must have assumed that God wouldn’t mind him touching it, that the situation was exceptional–but the Lord hadn’t told him that. Again, we see God’s holiness preserved.
The New Testament
It may be tempting to think, “Well, that’s just the Old Testament.” But we actually see this pattern repeated in the New Testament church. Consider these examples:
- In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira lied about how much money they were giving to the church, and they were struck dead by God. This evoked fear in the rest of the congregation and reminded them (again) of God’s holiness in worship.
- The apostle Paul firmly rebukes the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 11 for taking the Lord’s Supper wrongly. He points out that they were getting sick or even dying as judgment from God for their behavior.
Each of these passages involves the worship of the Lord, particularly as a congregation. God requires strict adherence to His Word in how we worship Him.
The punishments for doing something outside of what God commanded were often immediate and severe–mainly because the Lord does not desire for His people to regress to the golden-calf-worshippers they once were. He wants us to remember that we are redeemed saints, called to holiness. We must put aside our ways and pursue His ways alone.
THE GOOD NEWS: THE BURDEN IS LIGHT
Yet the good news is that we don’t have to become discouraged when we think about the worshipping God. We don’t need view it as a heavy burden we can’t bear, too strict for us to follow.
In fact, it’s freeing when you realize just how simple the worship God prescribes to us now really is!
Gone are the days of the tabernacle, the temple-worship, the various sacrifices, the ritual cleansings. Christ has fulfilled all those shadows and has left us with Himself as the Substance.
He has not given us a lengthy, complicated list of requirements for worship. The elements–the basic activities that we partake in–are only these:
The preaching/reading of the Word, the singing of the Word, prayer, and the sacraments (Lord’s Supper and Baptism).
Now of course, knowing how exactly to go about preaching or singing or praying or taking the Lord’s Supper or baptizing–that requires some deeper Bible study, and churches will agree and disagree with one another (depending on how strictly they follow the RPW).
But the hope we have is that the Bible contains everything we need to know about how to worship the Lord. The question should never be, “What can we get away with in worship?” It should always be, “What specifically does the Lord say we should do?”
We don’t need to invent new methods or “spice things up” with specials. We don’t need to add frivolous ice-breakers or irreverent games or Star Wars costumes or YouTube video clips to our worship. We don’t need fog machines or dimmed lights or rock-concert-style music. We don’t need man-centered songs or humanistic sermons to replace the sufficient Word.
The danger of the normative principle is that it gives us unwarranted license to commit will-worship–to do what we think is right and acceptable and pleasing to God.
But the regulative principle, as “strict” or “harsh” as it may seem, actually liberates us to joyfully worship God within the gracious boundaries He has given us.
And we know–don’t we?–that God’s boundaries are never enslaving. They are always, only, true freedom in Christ.