Recently, my wife, Jordan, and I took the family to an ice cream parlor. Like you, I have my go-to flavor (cookie dough…not ashamed). But I was completely unprepared to choose from the forty flavors that stared up at me from beneath the frosted glass. Forty flavors! I began a sampling spree and quickly built a small mountain of tiny tasting spoons. Eventually, my little girls lost their patience with me: “Hurry up Daddy!” Defeated by the delicious diversity, I went with a cup of coffee ice cream. Likewise, the many flavors of worship within Protestant churches are dizzying; from high liturgy to low liturgy to no liturgy; from rock bands to bell choirs to acapella; from one-hour sprint services to three-hour marathon medleys. The discerning Christian must wrestle long and hard with the question: How should God be worshiped?
Historically, Protestants have answered this question in two ways. One camp believes that although Scripture outlines the normal features of public worship, elements not expressly forbidden (dance, cinema, drama, painting, etc.,) may be acceptable. This is known as the Normative Principle of Worship. The other camp (Presbyterian and Reformed) holds to the Regulative Principle of Worship as articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “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” (WCF 21:1). If God hasn’t said it, we don’t do it.
But is the Regulative Principle biblical? You bet it is! If the first commandment identifies the “who” of our worship, the second commandment addresses the “how” of our worship: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). God rejects worship that is the product of man’s imagination and innovation. Consider His instructions to Moses, “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32). Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, learned that lesson the hard way when they attempted to offer “unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them (Leviticus 10:1)” and were destroyed for their disobedience. Likewise, Jesus condemned the way in which the “traditions of the elders” had oozed into public worship and mingled with the commandments of God (Mark 7:1-8).
What elements has the Lord prescribed in His Word? The Bible teaches that the proper elements of Christian worship are reading the Bible (1 Timothy 4:13), preaching the Bible (2 Timothy 4:2, Acts 20:7), singing of psalms and hymns (Ephesians 5:19), prayer (Matthew 21:13), confessing the faith (Hebrews 4:14, 10:23), observing the sacraments (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Matthew 28:19), the collecting of offerings (1 Corinthians 16:1), and occasionally, lawful oaths and vows (Nehemiah 10:28-29). Every item of our liturgy must be an expression of one of these biblically sanctioned elements. We dare not approach the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God on any terms but His own. May we find true satisfaction, joy and freedom in worshiping God, God’s way.