Disclaimer: My travails with Regulative Principal began while studying Anglican worship. Later I found Steve Schlissel’s essays on RPW, & discovered RPW to be rather unscriptural. More at this link. However, I do not subscribe to Schlissel’s congregationalist approach to ceremony, believing there are general restrictions like common order and edification which restrain pastoral innovation.
The Westminster Confession (WCF/ACR) defines the Regulative Principal (RPW):
WCF 21.1. 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.
In otherwords, “In the worship of God whatever is not commanded by Scripture is forbidden”. The RPW allowed Presbyterian-Puritan party within the Church of England to draw stark lines between what was called “true” and “false” worship, especially after 1571 dividing Anglican and Presbyterian . True worship must have a sola scriptura warrant, either:
- an explicit command of God, deduced by good and necessary consequence from scriptural passages
- or derivation from approved historical example as witnessed in scripture (e.g, Acts)
Within Regulativism a surprising amount of worship that comes from biblical interpretation is tenuous at best. For instance, how is the sequence or even necessary elements of worship determined without referencing a precedent? Even Sunday worship is not absolutely clear in scripture without prior assumptions. Too often regulativists impose a double standard, insisting worship be proved according by “plain and clear” command while their own is not. Regulativists forget Calvin’s treatment of the Lord’s Supper was heavily mediated by secondary, patristic sources such as the Fourth Ecumenical Council and later Nicaean formulas. Are Anglicans or Lutherans allowed similar appropriations?
Let’s keep in mind there are actually two parts of the RPW:
- In worship we must do what God commands– not breaking or neglecting any of His commands. (#1)
- We are forbidden to worship in a manner that God has not prescribed or is silent. (#2)
“We must do what God commands.” (#1)
This is a non-sequitur argument. Lutherans, Anglican, and even Rome agree that God’s express commands must be obeyed! There is no doubt that worship ought to be ruled by God’s Word– i.e., commands, scriptural example, and necessary consequence (#1). These categories surely provide sufficient standards for worship. However, necessary consequence and the iterations of proof texts required to show forth God’s intent can be very problematic. For example, “Do ordained or lay declare the sacrament with the Words of Institution?”, “do we use leaven or unleavened bread in the rite?”, “Should grape juice or wine be given to the young?”, or “In what posture should the body of Christ be received?” There are many other ‘distinctions’ contested even amongst Presbyterian old siders confess RPW– e.g, are instruments permitted, dancing, or even singing allowed? Obviously not all truth is plain and evident, so the church must grant deliberation, calling synods and the like.
Not all things Commanded are Plain or Clear
Answers to these questions are not easily conluded. In fact they took several centuries to formulate amidst back-and-forth exegesis within the Church. When the deductive reasons of church doctors are instantly leveled (e.g., by calls for ‘plain and clear’ scripture), arguments that took hundres of years (even upon blood of martyers) to establish but then must be rebuilt with no guarantee of less error than before. Even minoritarian opinion deserves its day in court, its deductions and proofs granted a chance to air not smugly dismissed in knee-jerk reactions as unbiblical or even ‘anti-christ’. The 9th commandment is the basis for this judicial deliberation. We must obey God, not man; but God’s special revelation has been given to the church, of which we are members. Those areas requiring deduction can be found and defended, but must be determined with communion in mind.
“Worship is forbidden where scripture is silent” (#2)
… Now this is the stickler! If scripture condemns what is not commanded, then there should be specific examples of this error. In other words, can RPW produce its own biblical defense without confusing “God’s silence” for His “expressed prohibition?” For example, WLC and WCF’s “proof texts” do not argue RPW at all. Instead, these ‘proofs’ ironically vindicate the Anglican and Lutheran position (#1)– God punishes men for worshipping in a manner expressly forbidden, aka, “Normativism” or NPW. We have yet to find a clear example of men chastised for worship where God is silent. To demonstrate the weakness of the RPW’s position, let’s look at the three classic examples that are levied as defenses for #2.
Offering Strange Fire
In Leviticus 10:1 Nadab and Abihu give strange fire to the Lord, “not by his command”. In verse three Moses reminds Aaron why Nadab and Abihu were destroyed, “Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.” Moses is making reference to Ex. 19:10-12 where God instructs Moses that Israel cannot draw near to God upon pain of death unless first consecrated and prepared. Even priests must approach God in a prescribed, consecrated manner (v. 22). Nor could Moses withstand the direct glory of God (Ex. 33:20). Lev. 16:1-2 deals with the problem of Aaron’s sons, indicating it was Nadab and Abihu’s approach that spurred death by fire, “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons…Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain”.
This implies Nadab and Abihu’s sin was an unauthorized entering the Most Holy Place. Nadab and Abihu’s were not High Priests yet in Lev. 10 they appear to officiate as such, thus possibly usurping Aaron’s exclusive responsibilities before the Ark (Ex. 30:7; 28:9, 29:30; Nu 18:3-4; Lev. 16:17). The only place censers are commanded before God’s presence without the assembly watching was during the priestly approach toward the Holy of Holies.
“He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die” (Lev. 16:12-13)
Regulativist will counter Nadab and Abihu were punished simply for ‘strange’ or ‘unlawful’ (Nu. 3:4) fire. However, regulativists cannot explain what made this fire ‘unlawful’. Was it the fire itself or the incense burning upon it? Was it the manner it was applied? Incense had to be a precise type (Ex. 30:7-9, 34). Only Aaron was allowed to swing censers around the mercy seat. Moreover, Aaron sons had priestly duties to maintain an ever-burning fire in the courtyard altar (Lev. 6:12-13). In Lev. 9:24 this altar had been given a ‘new’ fire, and it appears censers could take their coals from it (Nu. 16:46).
So, if the issue was as simple as ‘unlawful fire’, then this fire would have been unlawful for any combination or single reason above. But we have other reasons to think more transgressions were involved, namely Nadab and Abihu usurping the job of High Priest. In this respect the connection between censers and Korah’s rebellion is telling. Moreover, we have enough evidence to infer Aaron’s sons violated God’s holiness not by RPW but by breaking rules of approach.
Grabbing the Ark
According to RPW Uzzah “reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled” (2 Sa 6:6). God struck him down. Uzzah’s grabbing is allegedly an example of breaking the RPW.
But did Uzzah instead violate God’s expressed command? Exodus 25: 12-15 explains the Ark was designed to be carried by acacia poles. Like the bread which could not be removed from the table of presence (Nu 4:7), these poles were to stay inside the rings of the ark, not one pole could be withdrawn (v. 15). Numbers 4:15 says, “they shall not touch any holy thing lest they die”.
<When David finally brought the Ark into Jerusalem, David confessed that Moses command the Ark to be carried with poles upon their shoulders, ”We did not enquire of him about how to do it in the prescribed way. So the priests and Levites consecrated themselves in order to bring up the ark of the Lord. And the Levites carried the ark of God with poles on their shoulders, as Moses had commanded in accordance with the word of the Lord” (1 Chr. 15:11-15). Thus, transport of the Ark was allowed if carried upon the shoulders of the Kohathites (Duet 10:8, Nu 1:51, Nu. 7:9). It cfould not be touched and acacia poles were given for its move.
God is not like an idol, nailed to a cart so He should not topple (Is. 41:7). Yet Uzzah treated the Lord’s Ark like an idol, and he suffered the consequences of violating the expressed word of God—not its silence.
The Lord rejected Cain’s “plant” offering, yet God accepted Abel’s. Abel’s kept flocks and gave the fat portions of these flocks from the firstborn to God. RPW would say the Lord rejected Cain’s offering because the Word had stipulated only animal life for sacrifice (Gen. 3:21). But wouldn’t this alone render Cain’s offering a violation of an expressed command?
Sacrifice was implied in Gen. 3:21, but as soon as the next chapter (4) God builds upon the details of this sacrifice, “fat portions from the firstborn of the flock were given” (v. 4). Throughout the book of Leviticus sacrifice of cloven animals are called “‘food for God” (e.g, 3:11; 21:6, 8, 21; 22:25). Interestingly, the fat portions are called God’s own (Lev. 3:16). From Moses we know Abel gave an adequate sacrifice for sin (Lev. 17:11) while the grain offering could not atone for sin by itself without a great kind (Nu. 28:3-6; Nu 6:14-15; Nu. 9:4). There is no need to assume RPW with Cain. Instead, we have plenty of expressed commands.
I believe regulativists go beyond their own rules in their insistence for an explicit command in forms and orders of worship