Christian Worship: the Regulative Principle

The Regulative Principle was defined by John Calvin as follows: “God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word.” (from the tract, ‘The Necessity of Reforming the Church’ in John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Vol. 1, p. 128).

In elaborating this principle, however, Calvin and his successors are much clearer on the negative than they are on the positive.  Their focus falls on what is not prescribed or authorised and is therefore forbidden.  Calvin’s own personal concern is not with the questions which troubled later Puritanism (e.g., vestments, psalms/hymns), but with the abuses of Roman Catholic worship: for example, the use of images, the worship of saints, appeal to the mediation of angels, the adoration of relics and the sacrifice of the Mass.  It is worth noting here that such practices are not only not sanctioned by scripture but are forbidden by it.  In application and practice, the Regulative Principle may not differ hugely from the Lutheran/Anglican principle that what is not forbidden is permitted.

Calvin and his Puritan successors are much less full and clear on the positive side, laying down little detail as to what is actually prescribed.  One reason for this is that the New Testament itself gives little detail with regard to the actual worship of the apostolic church; and much of what it does give is ad hoc (for example, the teaching on the Lord’s Supper in First Corinthians Eleven).  Another reason is that worship in the New Testament was public (in our sense) only to a very limited extent.  For example, the Upper Room was hardly public; and it is not at all clear that the language of Ephesians 5.19 refers to “public worship”.  Their singing was an out-flowing of their being filled with the Spirit, and it was a speaking to each other rather than vertical worship of God.  To add to the complications, many of the “rules” laid down (in, for example, 1 Corinthians 12 and 14) refer to charismatic practices such as prophesying and tongue-speaking, which are no longer part of our worship.  Other directions (such as the direction that women cover their heads) either relate to the prevailing cultural situation or are shrouded in complete mystery.

Short on detail

All this means that when it comes to working out what is prescribed (and therefore is not forbidden) we are very short on detail.  We know that when the early Christians assembled together (Hebrews 10.25) they read the scriptures (including the Pauline epistles), they prayed, they sang, they celebrated the Lord’s Supper and they (at least sometimes) brought their collections.  Beyond that, we have little but general principles.  It is not even clear that baptism was ever part of “public worship”.  What is stressed by Paul, for example, is the importance of decency (to avoid giving offence, even to pagans), order (as against confusion), edification (as against mystification) and, above all, love: First Corinthians Thirteen is all of a piece with chapters 11-14, giving us apostolic guidance as to how we should conduct ourselves when we are gathered together.  It is very hard to construct an Order of Service out of such materials, which is why the Westminster Assembly limited itself to a Directory which laid down only general principles (doing little more, indeed, than listing the essential elements of worship and offering some guidance as to how these might be addressed).

All this probably reflects the fact that the New Testament is not, like the Old Testament, an era of strict regulation, but an era of comparative freedom; and the further fact that the New Testament church is not for one people or culture, but for all nations; and what is decent and orderly in one culture is not necessarily what is decent and orderly in another.  There may (and for Presbyterians perhaps must) be a degree of uniformity within one particular culture, but there cannot be uniformity in detail across cultures.

Disagreement on the application of the principle

It follows from this that even where there is agreement on the validity of the Regulative Principle itself there may be significant disagreement on its application.  There may even be a very selective approach to it.

    • Some of the most ardent advocates of the Regulative Principle refrain from implementing practices which are clearly authorised in scripture such as (1) congregational Amens! after prayer [1 Cor. 14.16] (2) receiving the Lord’s Supper seated around a table [a practice also required by Act of the General Assembly, 1647] (3) using the Lord’s Prayer in public worship  (4) the holy kiss  (5) foot-washing (6) praying with uplifted hands [1 Timothy 2.8].


    • Many advocates of the Regulative Principle have sanctioned, and sometimes insisted on, ecclesiastical actions for which there is no clear scriptural authority such as (1) clerical dress (2) Communion tokens (3) baptismal services [the NT does not lend support to the rubric laid down in the Directory for Public Worship that baptism must always be administered “in the face of the congregation”] (4) the use of special Communion cups and plates (5) elders ‘serving’ the Table.


    •  There is a wide variety of opinion among the most authoritative Reformed doctors with regard to what is permitted under the Regulative Principle.  Calvin himself believed, for example, that it allowed the singing of the Apostles’ Creed.  John Knox used the Apostles Creed in his Order for Baptism.  Charles Hodge believed in a service of Confirmation for adolescents who had been baptised as infants.  Hodge and Thornwell disagreed on whether elders should lay hands on ministers at their ordination.  Some (especially English Puritans) profoundly disapproved of the notion of Common Prayers (read from an authorised liturgy).  Others, like John Knox and Alexander Henderson, had no problem with it.

All this reminds us that the Regulative Principle, as Cunningham points out, must be interpreted and explained in a common sense way (The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p.32).  All who seek to live by it must approach its application with humility, and respect the sincerity of others who hold it equally sincerely, but interpret some of its details differently.

The elements and the circumstances of worship

In seeking to implement the Regulative Principle, a distinction was often drawn between the elements of worship and the circumstances of worship.  The elements were those things which were clearly prescribed by scripture and were therefore essential to worship: prayer, the singing of praise, the reading of the scriptures, the Lord’s Supper and teaching/preaching.  The circumstances related to such questions as when, where, how often, and how long; and which versions of the psalms and of the scriptures should be used.  As far as the elements were concerned, there was no discretion.  They were mandatory.  But as far as the circumstances were concerned there was always a large degree of discretion.  They were to be adjusted by the light of nature and Christian prudence (Westminster Confession, 1.6)

However, is it is not always clear what is an element and what is a circumstance.  For example, is posture in prayer an element (prescribed) or is it a mere circumstance?  Is having Communion around a table an element or a circumstance?  Must we use wine in the sacrament, or will any beverage suffice?  Is musical accompaniment a mere circumstance (some people and some cultures never sing without accompaniment)?  And is the question of what we sing a mere circumstance, God commanding us to bring the praise of our lips and to sing spiritual songs, but not stipulating what songs these are to be.  On all these questions, opinion is divided.

Yet the mere fact that something is a mere circumstance should not encourage a cavalier attitude towards it.  There may be a very good reason for it, and it may be an abuse of power to alter it, especially if alteration threatens the unity of a congregation.  During his time in Geneva Calvin refrained from trying to impose weekly Communion (which he strongly favoured) on the ground that the church had already endured enough controversy on the issue.

A pretext for unthinking conservatism

Sometimes the Regulative Principle becomes a pretext for unthinking and unyielding conservatism.  In other words, circumstances become elements.  One of the best examples of this is the use of candles.  Time was when churches were poorly lit (or had no windows at all), and candles were essential.  But they were retained long after they were necessary, because they seemed to have some sacred symbolic value.  The same has happened in the case of Communion Tokens (and cards), and the habit of “coming forward” to the Table (originally necessary because one table couldn’t accommodate everyone, but still retained in some places because we think it is “very solemn” or ‘very moving’).  Clerical collars fall into the same category: totally without warrant in terms of the Regulative Principle, but still linked with it emotionally, as if conservatism were a mark of loyalty to biblical Puritanism.  To make matters worse, even “circumstances” can sometimes be canonised.  This is why even a proposal to change the time of a service can threaten the unity of a congregation.

We generally confine the Regulative Principle to “public” worship, but it is hard to justify this.  It must be extended to worship in all its forms.  The root of the principle lies, after all, in the Second Commandment, and this was clearly not confined to public worship.  Graven images were no more permitted in private or domestic situations than they were in public; nor, on the assumptions currently prevailing in the Free Church, could women be permitted to lead worship at home any more than they could lead it in public.  Similarly, if the Psalter is the only authorised manual of praise for public worship, it must equally be the only permissible manual for private.

We may place alongside this the fact that the rubrics which are laid down for public worship are often deduced from scripture data relating to private worship.  For example, public prayer must be modelled on scripture, yet the key sources on which we rely for guidance (the Lord’s Prayer and such passages as Philippians 4.6) refer in the first instance to private prayer.  Similarly, the key passage on ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ (Ephesians 5.18-20) has nothing to do with public or corporate worship, but with the melody in the believer’s heart.  It deals, in the first instance, with what kind of songs should be habitually sung by the Spirit-filled person, and emphasises not the vertical, liturgical and God-word movement of the songs, but their horizontal, human-ward direction.  We are to use ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ to speak to one another.  In fact, Ephesians 5.18-20 is more relevant as a warning against young Christians going about with their ears habitually plugged into pop-music than as a warning against the use of ‘uninspired materials of praise’ in public worship.

The Regulative Principle and Christian Liberty

There is significant overlap between the Regulative Principle and the principle of ‘Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience’ (see the Westminster Confession, Chapter 20).  As invoked by the Puritans, the main function of the Regulative Principle was to protect the church and its ministers from the excesses and abuses of power, particularly the power wielded by king and bishop acting in close alliance (as in the case of Charles I and Archbishop Laud).  It was an abuse of power, they argued, and a breach of liberty of conscience, to bind ministers to the slavish use of the Book of Common Prayer and to such other canons as the wearing of vestments.  These things, if not against scripture, were “beside it” (Westminster Confession 20.2).  They were “doctrines and commandments of men”, and our consciences could not be bound by them.

This is an important issue.  The courts of the Church have every right to insist on the elements of worship.  The liturgy must include prayer, sung praise, scripture, preaching and sacrament.  But at the same time the courts must be extremely careful what they impose when it comes to circumstances, since all such impositions amount to a curtailment of the liberty of individuals and congregations.  Every requirement and every restriction has to be justified on the basis that it contributes to reverence, decency, order and edification; and at the same time all requirements must carry the consciences of the people along with them.  Otherwise we gravely imperil the unity of the church.

The reverse side of this, however, is that a group may sometimes use the threat to leave (divide?) the church as a means of getting their own way.  This is intolerable, especially in the case of office-bearers (ministers, elders and deacons) who have sworn to submit to the courts of the Church, and who always have the opportunity to clear their consciences by dissenting from decisions which offend their principles.  To carry dissent to the point of secession is contumacy; and only the current fragmented state of the church makes it possible.  If things were as they should be, there would be no other ‘church’ to secede to, and the idea of setting up a ‘new’ one would be abhorrent.