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Even though I grew up in a Reformed church, until seminary I was one of the multitude of Christians who had never heard of the regulative principle. It’s not been at the core of my identity. But over the years I’ve come to appreciate the regulative principle more and more.

Simply put, the regulative principle states that “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself and so limited by his own revealed will” (WCF 21.1). In other words, corporate worship should be comprised of those elements we can show to be appropriate from the Bible. The regulative principles says, “Let’s worship God as he wants to be worshiped.” At its worst, this principle leads to constant friction and suspicion between believers. Christians beat each other up trying to discern exactly where the offering should go in the service or precisely which kinds of instruments have scriptural warrant. When we expect the New Testament to give a levitical lay out of the one liturgy that pleases God, we are asking the Bible a question it didn’t mean to answer. It is possible for the regulative principle to become a religion unto itself.

But the heart of the regulative principle is not about restriction. It is about freedom.

1. Freedom from cultural captivity. When corporate worship is largely left to our own designs we quickly find ourselves scrambling to keep up with the latest trends. The most important qualities become creativity, relevance, and newness. But of course, over time (not much time these days), what was fresh grows stale. We have to retool in order to capture the next demographic. Or learn to be content with settling in as a Boomer church or Gen X church.

2. Freedom from constant battles over preferences. The regulative principles does not completely eliminate the role of opinion and preference. Even within a conservative Reformed framework, worship leaders may disagree about musical style, transitions, volume, tempo, and many other factors. Conflict over preferences will remain even with the regulative principle. But it should be mitigated. I remember years ago at a different church sitting in a worship planning session where people were really good at coming up with new ideas for the worship service. Too good in fact. We opened one service with the theme song from Cheers. Another service on Labor Day had people come up in their work outfits and talk about what they do. Everyone had an idea that seemed meaningful to them. The regulative principle wouldn’t have solved all our problems, but it would have been a nice strainer to catch some well-intentioned, but goofy ideas.

3. Freedom of conscience. Coming out of the Catholic church with its host of extra biblical rituals, newly established Protestant churches had to figure out how to worship in their own way. Some were comfortable keeping many of the elements of the Catholic Mass. Others associated those elements with a false religious system. They didn’t want to go back to the mess of rites they left behind, even if by themselves some rites didn’t seem all that harmful.

This was the dynamic that made the regulative principle so important. Reformed Christians said in effect, “We don’t want to ask our church members to do anything that would violate their consciences.” Maybe bowing here or a kiss there could be justified by some in their hearts, but what about those who found it idolatrous? Should they be asked to do something as an act of worship that Scripture never commands and their consciences won’t allow? This doesn’t mean Christians will like every song or appreciate every musical choice. But at least with the regulative principle we can come to worship knowing that nothing will be asked of us except that which can be shown to be true according to the Word of God.

4. Freedom to be cross cultural. It’s unfortunate most people probably think worship according to the regulative principle is the hardest to transport to other cultures. And this may be true if the regulative principle is mistakenly seen to dictate style as well as substance. But at its best, the regulative principle means we have simple services with singing, praying, reading, preaching, and sacraments–the kinds of services whose basic outline can “work” anywhere in the world.

5. Freedom to focus on the center. Usually when talking about corporate worship I don’t even bring up the regulative principle. It is unknown to many and scary to others. So I try to get at the same big idea from a different angle. I’ll say something like this: “What do we know they did in their Christian worship services in the Bible? We know they sang the Bible. We know that preached the Bible. We know they prayed the Bible. We know they read the Bible. We know they saw the Bible in the sacraments. We don’t see dramas or pet blessings or liturgical dance numbers. So why wouldn’t we want to focus on everything we know they did in their services? Why try to improve on the elements we know were pleasing to God and practiced in the early church?” In other words, the regulative principle gives us the freedom to unapologetically to go back to basics. And stay there.

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54 thoughts on “The Freedom of the Regulative Principle”

  1. Mike Carnicella says:

    Thank you for this post Kevin. There aren’t many people out there who are supporting the Regulative Principle and expressing it in these terms. This is a much needed message, you should probably right your next book on this topic. :)

  2. Kenny Taylor says:

    Worship by the book – good stuff. Question – how do you look at tithes/offerings in this worship framework? Thanks brother

  3. Bob Montgomery says:

    I’ve heard it said that the book of Acts is more descriptive than prescriptive, in other words just because it’s not found there is no reason to keep it out of worship today. I think that the NT serves as good beginning point to our discussion of what is appropriate in worship today but I would hate to limit the Holy Spirit. After all, we are told to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

  4. Henry says:

    One thing that I always find odd in Presbyterian churches who regularly esteem the regulative principle is how different their church services actually look from what you find in 1Cor14.

    How in the world does one get such a clerical view of the ministry with one man dominating the service from passages describing a church meeting like this:

    1Co 14:26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.

    To me it seems like anabaptists, Plymouth brethren and many charismatic groups have church services that much more closely resemble the kind of participatory services we see in scripture.

    In part it depends on smaller churches which is why I often feel mid-week bible study more more closely resembles ‘church’ as it was in the NT that the Sunday services.

  5. Henry says:

    In addition, my experience has been that churches that tend to the more ‘clerical’ end of the spectrum actually end up having members who are very weak and emaciated in their theological knowledge.

    It is interesting to note that members the Plymouth Brethren are widely regarded as being particularly strong in their knowledge of the word compared to others. Surely this is partly because the manner of their meetings encourages the members to contribute and as such they pay attention to being prepared.

  6. Henry says:

    Not to negate the gifting of those that have special gifts of teaching, here is a comical rendition of 1Cor14 somebody wrote that more accurately describes today:

    How is it then, brethren? When ye come together, the pastor hath a doctrine, and the minister of music hath psalms. Let all things be done unto edifying.

    If anyone besides the pastor hath a doctrine, let him not speak; let him hold his peace. Let him sit in the pew, and face the back of the neck of the person which sitteth ahead of him.

    Let the people keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith church tradition. But if they will learn anything, let them ask their pastor after the service, for it is a shame for a layman to speak in the church. For the pastor, he hath a seminary degree, and the layman, he hath not so lofty a degree.

    If any man desire to remain a church member in good standing, let him acknowledge that what I write to you is the command of the denominational headquarters. But if any man ignore this, he shall be promptly escorted out the door by the ushers.

    Wherefore brothers, covet not to speak in the church. Let all things be done decently and in the order in which it hath been written in the church bulletin.

  7. Chad Pierce says:

    I am not so sure that most modern churches today fully understand this principle. 1 Corinthians 14 talks about worshiping in a way that all may understand. Because when people don’t understand it causes confusion and “… God is not the author of confusion, but peace…” I believe this is sentiment behind the Regulative Principle. Even though expressing ourselves to God in our own way may not be a sin, it also may not be beneficial for the congregation as a whole. And worship is a congressional thing.

    I live in a country where most “Evangelical” churches put on a show for you every Sunday with dancing and everybody praying out loud when the leader of worship is offering his prayer for the congregation to God. I am not a stooge but as an outsider to this culture this can be very distracting. Worship is designed for God not for man, we shouldn’t make worship what it isn’t, a man centered thing. Allow for people to come and worship God, but to worship him on HIS terms which is what he wants anyways.

  8. Glenn says:

    A well written article Kevin. This is a conversation I have recently taken up with the members and leadership of my church. None of them were aware of this like the regulative or normative principles. Any suggestions on how to teach them about this topic? Perhaps a book or teacher you would suggest?

  9. Bill says:

    I struggle with this principle because to me, it contradicts the reformed doctrine of infant baptism, especially when taken to the extreme of the Reformed Presbyterians (only singing, no instruments in worship).
    Part (not all) of the reformed doctrine of infant baptism is that even though Acts has no explicit examples of infant baptism mentioned, we cannot assume there were none. If I understand the Regulative Principle at its extreme level, we should not use instruments in worship because the New Testament has no examples of them being used, even though the OT does. Its important to point out the OT, because Reformed doctrine of baptism says what is done in the OT (infants are part of the covenant) should be done in the NT unless otherwise stated that we shouldn’t.
    Can’t we use this same principle for methods of worship?

  10. Larry Wilson says:

    Thank you very much for the good article, and the interesting discussion. May I point out that while these are good questions that Henry raises, they are not new questions that no one has ever thought of before? If you’re interested, a good place to start is chapter 9 of Edmund P. Clowney’s book, THE CHURCH (IVP, 1995). Or for briefer, less extensive introductions, my own attempts in “REVERENCE OR JOY IN WORSHIP?” — and “HOW TO LAY OUT OUR WORSHIP SPACE” — . Dr. W. Robert Godfrey has written many good articles on this topic. And for more extensive treatment, there’s James Bannerman’s 2-volume, THE CHURCH OF CHRIST.

  11. Henry says:


    Although I have benefited from some of the OPC articles before (on the question of women and speaking in church), in this particular case it seems to me that the two articles you link to do not engage what the text actually says:

    1Co 14:26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up…

    1Co 14:31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged…

    It seems these import of these texts (plus many others) is clearly not permitted in many churches since ministry is strictly confined to a one or two of the men during the course of the service.

    A hypothetical question for you – if the fairest reading of scripture did indicate that your pattern of worship was wrong, would you be willing to be reformed by Scripture on this point?

  12. Phil says:

    The following post is intentionally written in a sarcastic tone entirely as a literary device in order to make a sincere point. Hopefully the point can remain the point.

    The freedom I really appreciate about the regulative principle is that whomever has the most power or influence among the church leadership in any given gathering of believers has the freedom to define it however we choose. We can do only what is prescribed, but need not do all that is prescribed. We can pick and choose instruments, means of communication, styles, translations, transitions, orders, clothing, biblical particulars, and outdated styles that were once shiney and new for inclusion and then hide behind the rule of a well thought out theological principle while we coerce, cajole, and control the less influential with our own, admittedly, sin-tainted preferences. We can effectively limit the honest and meaningful expression of worship by those who would naturally worship their God and Creator more freely and creatively from their own God-given hearts in a style or manner that is favored by some less influential believers. We can make the multi-faceted body of Christ into a easily defined and defended rendition of corporate worship that suits some of it’s members and turn our noses up at the rest in good conscience. We can do this until the only Christians left worshipping with us are just like us, agree with us, and validate the version of freedom to which we have chosen to be chained.

  13. Henry says:

    On a more pragmatic note,

    why is it that the common feeling one seems to hear with the various conferences that happen is that the most beneficial parts were often (not exclusively) the Q&A sessions?

    I suggest if we allowed more such interaction/engagement/iron sharpening in our church services people would often not be so bored!

    This is not a novel idea, the apostle Paul clearly seemed to think Q&A was a part of church services:

    1Co 14:35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home.

    This statement is meaningless unless the asking of questions did indeed form part of the service.

  14. Larry Wilson says:

    Warm greetings, Henry. I’m sorry if you were waiting for an answer from me. I’ve only just checked back.

    If my articles were unhelpful, so it goes, and I’m sorry for pointing you there instead of to more detailed discussions. Because, believe me, the Reformers and their immediate followers who articulated this principle were nothing if not in dead earnest about submitting to God and his Word.

    So, your “hypothetical” question is actually a very practical question for each of us, is it not? Will we submit to King Jesus as he wields the sceptre of his Word by the agency of his Holy Spirit? Well, that certainlyis my goal and earnest desire. For what it’s worth (which is not much), I probably have several decades on you. I did not grow up Reformed, or evangelical. I grew up in a liberal Protestant home, and rejected that for neopaganism as a teenager. I was converted as a young adult and started a meandering pilgrimage which is too boring to recount, except to mention that I used to champion the view that you are championing. It took a long time, but it was actually wrestling with 1 Cor. 14 that was partially instrumental in my changing my views. Frankly, I do sincerely think that the fairest reading of 1 Corinthians 14 in its context (chs. 12-14 being a unit, and the whole book being a unified epistle) does describe something very like historic Reformed worship. Briefly, in the verses you cite, “each” and “all” cannot mean each and every member of the congregation, can it? In the immediate context God commands all women and some men to remain silent, so it cannot include them. |Moreover, in the immediate context he commands that only 2 or 3 be permitted to speak in the solo voice in a given worship service. Add to that the broader context that not every member has the gifts to do the things listed in 1 Cor 14. Frankly, my study of this text, and many others, has led me to believe that what it descibes looks more like historic Reformed worship than like the pentecostal worship that dominates today. But, thank God, it’s not really about me, is it? Because this understanding of worhip was hammered out — with sweat, tears, and literal blood — long before I was even a gleam in my father’s eye. But even more importantly, because I am a sinner who has no hope except the sheer grace of God in Christ. Blessings.

  15. David says:

    I have a lot of problems with the regulative principle.

    I think many churches use it as a means of justifying the status quo and preventing change. They conveniently regard their style of service as biblical, to the exclusion of everything else. In addition, interpretation of the regulative principle varies, both over time and between different groups. In a previous age, it was universally used to justify psalms-only and no musical instruments. These days, most (but not all) churches that subscribe to the regulative principle are OK with hymns and instruments.

    The question over infant baptism was mentioned – but did any form of baptism happen in the context of a church meeting in the Bible?
    And if we accept the Bible’s authority over the content of our meetings, why don’t we accept its authority over the location? There’s no mention of dedicated church buildings in the Bible! The division of worship into regulated elements and non-regulated circumstances seems very arbitrary.

    Preaching is of course biblical – but what about the use of visual aids such as powerpoint, or even showing a film clip?

    It strikes me that the principle needs so much interpretation that how it’s applied becomes a highly subjective matter.

    Having said all that, I like the idea of focussing on the center. Anything that gets away from the pop concert approach that is sadly becoming increasingly prevalent has to be a good thing!

  16. Henry says:


    many thanks for your response.

    Regarding the words ‘each’ and ‘all’ I agree they cannot refer to each and every member of the congregation because the women are commanded to hold their peace. It clearly can only refer to the men, but this contextual qualifier is right in line with verses 26 and 39 which explicitly address the ‘brothers’ (not ‘brothers and sisters’ – see this link for the gender-neutral issue and the question of broader application to women: )

    But that is very different than saying, as I understand you to say, that ‘each’ and ‘all’ refer only to 1 or 2 men! That interpretation does not do justice to the breadth of application communicated in the terms ‘each’ and ‘all’. In fact if you count all the different elements present – psalms, prophecy, interpretation, lessons, questions etc… then you get at least 6 people.

    Regarding the men Paul commands to be silent, this is different because that is only a temporary silence whilst another speaks or else a prohibition on just one form of speech (tongues – if no interpreter). Thus they are still free to contribute to the service as appropriate.

    For the record, I would not say Pentecostal’s have it all right since many of their services to are dominated by one man (or woman!) – but at least there is some greater freedom for other men to contribute.

    Thanks again for your interaction,

  17. Henry says:

    Regarding this whole matter a provocative book on the topic called ‘House Church’ has been written by Steve Atkerson of NTRF, I believe the first copy is free:

    Maybe Kevin DeYoung would consider reviewing it?

  18. David says:

    Larry Wilson, since you’re obviously floating around here, and you seem to be a regulativist, please could you answer some of my rather cheeky questions. How can the inclusion of a pulpit and font in a church be justified? How can baptisms by sprinkling and/or infants be allowed? Indeed, as I said before, how can baptism itself be included in a service? There’s no Biblical basis for any of these.

  19. Henry says:


    I think a more fundamental question, is what biblical argument is there for adopting the regulative principle as it is usually stated?

  20. John Thomson says:

    I enjoyed Kevin’s article and he makes a number of valid points. However, I find myself agreeing with Henry. The problem is presbyterians (and there are many I respect) really are a bit disingenuous when they claim this high ground for as Henry points out they blithely ignore many glaring examples of NT local church practice (or find hermeneutics to discount it). (My words not Henry’s.)

    Incidentally, I do not claim to be without sin in this regard.

    An added point I would make is that while I do not for a moment subscribe to ‘what is not forbidden is acceptable’ (a clearly ludicrous principle) neither am I totally happy with ‘what is not revealed is forbidden’. This seems to me to militate against the spirit of freedom in the NT where prescription seems very limited and results in an unwarranted legalism.

    In my view we should seek to value what the NT values and understand the dynamics of the church as a temple, body and house sourced in heaven yet living on earth. I know this does not provide easy answers however we must have confidence in the Spirit of God to lead the people of God through the Word of God into the mind of God.

  21. Larry Wilson says:

    I felt a bit badly about injecting my thoughts into this conversation because, on second thought, it seemed that Henry was not really questioning the so-called regulative principle (the point of Kevin’s post), but rather the application of that principle. But I suspect some of our difficulty relates to just what is that principle.

    So what is the regulative principle? Popular summaries can be helpful in some respects, but they also tend to oversimplify and confuse, as we see in this discussion.

    A first area of confusion is that these over-simplified formulations tend to neglect important qualifications. Kevin pointed to the Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF] 21.1, “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped 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” (WCF 21.1). That statement is properly understood only against the backdrop of WCF I.6b, “We acknowledge … that 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.” So, the Reformed make a distinction between the ELEMENTS of worship (what we do) and the CIRCUMSTANCES of worship (how we do them). Of the latter, the WCF says there is considerable latitude and freedom. In this distinction, they are simply reflecting God’s own instructions, “All things [the ELEMENTS] should be done decently and in order [the CIRCUMSTANCES]” (1 Cor. 14:40). Again, these are not new questions that no one has ever thought of before.

    A second area of confusion is that sometimes the principle is reduced to “whatever is not explicitly commanded in the New Testament is forbidden.” But no Reformed confession says anything like that. It’s a distortion. Rather the point of the principle is that the things we do in worship (the elements, in distinction from the circumstances) must have Scriptural warrant, implicit or explicit, from the whole Bible rightly understood (the Reformed hold not only to “sola scriptura” but also to “tota scriptura”).

    So, to take a stab at briefly answering some of the questions raised here, whether we have pulpits and pews, or musical accompaniment, or buildings at all, are “circumstances.” Each church and her leaders must and may make judgment calls about these things, “ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word.” How can baptisms by sprinkling and/or infants be allowed? Because, in a nutshell, the Reformed sincerely believe that God commands that the sign of covenant initiation be given to believers and their seed, and they see no Scriptural warrant for changing the Old Testament mode of baptizing to immersion, while they do see Scripture warrant for sprinkling or pouring.

    As for any disingenuousness and abuse of these principles on the part of Presbyterians, I’ve often said (speaking of myself and my denomination), “At least we practice what we preach. We preach the doctrine of human sin, and we practice it too.”

    Seriously, if you really want to delve more deeply into this topic, then I’d suggest that you all look at chapter 9 of Edmund P. Clowney’s book, THE CHURCH (IVP, 1995). Dr. W. Robert Godfrey has written many good articles on this topic. There are some excellent discussions of this and surrounding issues in the book, GIVE PRAISE TO GOD, edited by Phil Ryken, Derek Thomas, and Ligon Duncan (P&R, 2003. And for more extensive treatment, there’s James Bannerman’s 2-volume, THE CHURCH OF CHRIST. If you want to move on to a major-league discussion of this, dig up stuff by George Gillespie, who was one of the Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly.

  22. sean carlson says:

    Not being from conservative Reformed circles, I’ve never heard of this term. Having read the article I still can’t exactly say what it’s about. Whatever it is it seems to be a point of contention so would you Reformed brethren kindly keep it to yourselves.

  23. Rose says:

    I find it helpful to realize that the RPW is hand-in-glove with the doctrine that Jesus is the only Savior. Though general revelation is enough to make men without excuse, the special revelation of the Word is necessary for salvation. We are people of the Word because we are Christians, with all the claims made on us by our Savior and Lord, and Jesus is the Word of God. The Spirit has been poured out on us individually and corporately to lead us into all truth and to remind us of what Jesus taught. The Spirit speaks through the Word. We do not understand as we ought, but we continue through the ages to make progress in our understanding, until we see face-to-face. Our worship of God must be founded on the Word. It is very troubling to me when instrumental worship eclipses the Word or is used to produce emotions more easily than could be produced by the Word. Though we are to make our requests known to God in prayer, and preaching, as long as it is submissive to the Word and not speculative or self-indulgent, is helpful and good, I don’t understand why the church prefers in corporate worship to use the words of Bob Kauflin or Fanny Crosby or anyone else, rather than those of the Spirit. I have seen congregations make great strides in learning to pray the Bible and preach the Bible, but singing the Bible? Not so much. There is huge resistance. I do think it is will-worship, strong emotional attachments, and wanting to have our say, rather than using thankfully the praise God has supplied.

  24. Tom Chantry says:

    Kevin, excellent points, esp. #3 and #5.

    re. #3: Few realize it, but corporate worship always and in every case constrains the conscience of every participant. If worship is to be corporate, each decision about what to do puts a constraint upon the participant. If I come to church and the leaders of worship have decided to show movie clips, I am constrained to watch movie clips with them, unless I wish to break the fellowship by not participating. The same thing goes if I come to worship and those who lead have decided to read and exposit a passage from Luke. The question is, will my conscience be constrained by the ideas of men or by the commands of God? In the first case, I am not free, for another man’s idea of worship has been imposed on me; in the second, I am free, because nothing but the Word of God constrains me to listen.

    re. #5: I once listened from across the room as a first time visitor asked a very new member what the word “Reformed” in our name meant. I was nervous, uncertain whether the new member could pull it off. He said nothing at all about sovereignty or the Reformation, instead he said, “Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I think it means that if it isn’t in here (pointing to his Bible), then it isn’t in there (pointing to the sanctuary).” Nice definition.

  25. Tyler says:

    John 4:21-24 pretty clearly describes the appropriate method of worship – in Spirit and in truth. II Timothy 3:16 clearly indicates that all Scripture is profitable for instruction, correction, training, and rebuke. It seems that both Old and New Testaments make it clear how God is to be revered and worshipped. We worship a God who “turns our mourning to dancing (Ps. 30)” and who is at the same time a “consuming fire (Heb. 12)”. He sings over us (Zeph. 3), yet Moses and others could not even look upon Him for fear of being killed. We worship a God who knows the number of hairs on our head, is fully aware of the sin which plagues our past, yet He still chose us from the foundation of the world. I think often our hiccups about worship is because we have a poor understanding of God and His relation to us. Yes, He is holy, just, and sovereign. But to His children He is also Father, Counselor, Friend. We are not under the law but under grace. And there should be condemnation for those in Christ. The moment we try to regulate worship is the moment we have placed ourselves into the position of God. His Word is clear, the early church set the standard – He doesn’t need us in the 21st century defining His idea.

  26. david carlson says:

    I would be more convinced if there were any scriptural support for the regulative principle. Also I would be more inclined if supporters actually demonstrated their beliefs with their actions as to things the bible actually says rather than that which is just their particular hobby horse.

    Great anyone with a holy kiss lately?

  27. Rose says:

    There is much Scriptural support for the RPW. In fact, if one has his eyes and ears open to the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures, it is hard to open your Bible without running across something that makes reference to it. Again that is tied to the reality that “there is none other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.” But my favorite support for the RPW is, “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them.”

  28. Ethan says:

    David Carlson,

    The main Scriptural proof for the RPW is Deuteronomy 12. I’ll just quote verse 32: “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.”

    Greeting with a holy kiss has been culturally altered to greeting with a handshake in most churches in the West. Like someone has already said, it’s not about the “circumstances” of the act but the principle. Besides, greeting with a holy kiss was not technically instituted in the Scriptures for public worship (unless I’m forgetting a particular passage).

    Your uncharitable comment simply exposes your lack of knowledge of what the RPW is.

  29. Henry says:

    brother Ethan,

    in context that verse is prohibiting binding peoples consciences with additional laws that God has not given (or negating some of God’s commands).

    This is very different from permitting freedom to choose what manner of worship service to have (within the boundaries of God’s Word) because nobody is adding an additional ‘law’ of worship manner that everyone else is obligated before God to follow.

    So I do not see how that verse works for the RPW.

  30. Ethan says:

    Brother Henry,

    I, and the rest of the Westminster Divines, respectfully disagree.

  31. John Thomson says:


    The text you quote helps to highlight the problem. It is a taxt from the OC demanding that every law given be kept. This was the nature of the OC. Every detail of worship (corporate and life as an act of worship) was prescribed in a law. The people were treated as children (Gals 3,4). Rules governed their behaviour.

    In the NC it is not so. The details are not prescribed though the principles are. The NC trusts the Holy Spirit to lead and direct through the apostolic Word and the gifting he gives to the church; we are to worship in Spirit and truth. This is part of the ‘freedom’ that Paul is so jealous to protect. Of course ‘freedom’ gets grossly abused but the answer is not a return to laws and rules. All must be done with the purpose of edifying (building up in faith).

    Having said this, I do think the RP principle is helpful by and large; Kevin’s observations are wise. It encourages us to worship within the wisdom of early NT practice. The trouble is that we all tend to claim for our practices more NT warrant than they actually have.


    The problem with ‘elements and circumstances’ is that the distinction is not as clear cut is it? One man’s element can easily be another man’s circumstance (or vice versa).

    In any case circumstances themselves are not so neutral. Take a church building. I would argue that the practice of building cathedral like buildings intended to express the grandeur and glory of God is OC in principle and quite opposed to the NT simplicity of worshipping in Spirit and truth; it confuses aesthetics with spirituality.

    Similarly preaching can easily become rhetoric and performance where the preacher is valued for his rhetorical skills and charisma; again aesthetics trump spiritual concerns.

    Or take the idea of ‘ordination'(element or circumstance?) I find no NT call for a formally trained and ordained ministry – a clergy/laity divide. In fact, quite the opposite. 1 Cor 14 is an embarrasment to a clerical system. I would argue that the whole clerical system is a sin against the Holy Spirit’s freedom to gift and direct his people. The result is pew-fillers with often a low spiritual awareness. (My criticism is of the system not godly men who serve within it).

    Size of church is presumably a circumstance. Yet is it so neutral and unimportant. The whole notion of a mega-church seems to me to run counter to NT body-life.; organization occluding organic.

    The answer to some of these is not a rule/law, though it is so tempting to go that way. The answer is people truly guided by the spiritual wisdom of the Word and people of God. We must pray for the Spirit to break through our hard and often worldly hearts and bring us back to the simplicity of life in Christ’s body and what this means for local church living.

  32. david carlson says:

    Ethan. Really?

    Duet is applicable but the clear, repeated NT instruction by Paul is not? Of course not! Ipse Dixit!

  33. david carlson says:

    We don’t see dramas

    Ezekiel, anyone? And what is a parable, other than a verbal drama? Loaves and Fishes and the 5,000? Passover is an entire day of drama designed to teach. Communion can be seen as a drama. When Jesus talked about the faith and the mustard seed, do you think it was behind a podium (that’s scriptural) or in front of the mustard plant?

    If you don’t see drama used in the bible, it’s because your not looking.

  34. Kathy Stegall says:

    What does the Regulative Principle regulate?

  35. Stephen Shead says:

    My problem with the regulative principle is not its potential usefulness as a “principle”, but the form of expression (specifically, in WCF). Kevin’s 5 points are all valid in terms of saying, “This can be a really helpful way to avoid cultural captivity, focus on the center, etc.” But it is actually expressed as NT Law, as it were: implicitly, if we include anything in a gathering of believers that is not expressly permitted or commanded in Scripture, we are being disobedient or unfaithful.

    This seems to me to take an issue which requires wise, biblical, gospel-based thinking (e.g.: let’s be very careful of people’s consciences), and turn it into a clear-cut, inflexible law – one which is not found in Scripture, no less! Despite Kevin’s “freedom” theme, I simply don’t think he rescues the WFC from undermining Christian freedom as expressed in the NT. Wise thinking with Bible firmly in hand and a healthy respect for church tradition will come up with the same 5 points, without saying “The Bible doesn’t permit dramas (nor baptisms!) in a church service, therefore they are not acceptable before God”.

    Oh, and for a whole host of reasons which seem fairly obvious to me, I do not think Deut 12:32 directly applies to what elements we are permitted (or forbidden) to include in the regular gathering of Christian believers.

  36. Margaret says:

    As I’m currently in foreign lands and worshiping outside my own denomination in a church that does things differently but certainly strives to worship faithfully, I’m finding this article and the comments helpful. Has anyone here read “Worship by the Book,” edited by D A Carson? I’m reading it now and finding the varied perspectives presented to be both challenging and thought-provoking.

  37. John Thomson says:


    Yes, it is a helpful book – especially Carson’s own article.

  38. Rose says:

    Another favorite RPW passage, Mark 7: 6-9. Also, Jeremiah 19:5. The application of these, and of Deut. 12:32 is not to teach us “what elements to include” in worship, but to teach us the principle that “what is not commanded by special revelation is forbidden”. It is called the Regulative Principle of Worship, not the list of acceptable worship practices. These passages teach us the object of our worship and point us to the content. If God is the one we are worshiping, we wait upon His direction concerning what pleases Him. To think somehow that our imaginations are so sanctified that we will naturally, without His direction, do what pleases Him is presumptuous.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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