Freedom in Worship:

T. David Gordon
Thursday, July 5th 2007
Mar/Apr 2000

The argument for the regulative principle main-tains that God has, in Scripture, revealed his zeal to direct his own worship. That it is contained in the Westminster Standards and reflected by the adherents of those standards in Scotland, England, and America is sufficient to warrant its observation by the Church. It is a mandate "from above," if you will, demonstrating that the true and living God himself, the object of worship, has revealed that he will be worshiped only in a manner consistent with his revealed (though not necessarily explicit) will (within the regulative principle one can see Christian liberty).

This argument from above is a sound one and an adequate rationale to render us morally culpable if we fail to observe the principle. What follows is an argument "from below." Whereas the traditional argument is an argument from above, which intends to demonstrate the compatibility of the regulative principle with our love for God, the following argument is one from below, which intends to demonstrate the compatibility of the regulative principle with our love for our sisters and brothers in Christ. This is intended to demonstrate that the regulative principle of worship is the only principle that protects, honors, and advances the demands of charity as those demands are expressed in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8.

The Demands of Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8

I will not repeat here the exegetical arguments that have been advanced in the history of the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 8 or Romans 14, but will, rather, refer the reader to the discussion of these texts by John Murray, "The Weak and the Strong," found in the fourth volume of his collected writings, and also in the twelfth volume of the Westminster Theological Journal (1950). I concur with Murray's understanding of these texts and with the conclusion that charity requires us not to do anything that induces another believer to act contrary to conscience. That is, these two passages do not teach that we must agree with the scruples of another's conscience nor even that we must act consistently with the scruples of another's conscience. Rather, the texts teach that we must not say or do anything that we believe will have the effect of inducing another to act inconsistently with conscience.

The "wounding" addressed in these passages is the wounding of the conscience that occurs when an individual does something contrary to what he or she believes is right. Even if the scruples are improper scruples, that is, not mandated by revelation, we must still never encourage the violation of scruples held as a matter of conscience. Paul, in fact, refers to the believers in question as "weak" believers because their understanding of the faith is such that they hold conscientiously beliefs not required by revelation. He nevertheless argues that charity requires us not to offend the conscience of such sisters and brothers, even though their scruples are incorrect (see accompanying box on the "regulative principle").

Implicit in Paul's arguments is the duty of the Church to instruct the weak, so that the weak will overcome their weakness. That is, Paul does not consider these scruples to be appropriate, but inappropriate, or weak. (1) In Paul's vocabulary, this term is normally employed to refer to that which is unredeemed, or characteristic of the unredeemed state. For example, he can refer to the "weak and beggarly elemental spirits" (Gal. 4:9) as those associated with the time "when you did not know God." In his discussion of the grandeur of divine love, he describes it as that which God lavished upon us "while we were still weak" (Rom. 5:6), and follows this with parallel expressions, "while we were yet sinners" and "while we were enemies" (Rom. 5:8, 10). And when Paul uses the term regarding believers, it is always in a circumstance when he is discussing the yet-incomplete nature of redemption, as we await the return of Christ in the midst of a yet-cursed world. This is how he employs the term, for example, in Romans 8:26, "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness," following a lengthy discussion (8:18-25) of "the sufferings of this present time" in contrast with "the glory that is to be revealed to us." Therefore, Paul does not consider the scruples of the weak to be scruples that are to be considered acceptable in and by the Church because they are scruples associated with a lack of familiarity with redemption. A person who is weak is a person who, in some particular way, is needful of a fuller enjoyment of the privileges, benefits, or duties of the redeemed state.

Wounding the Conscience and the Regulative Principle of Worship

The demands of charity regarding religious scruples require two things: That we not in any way encourage an individual to act contrary to conscience; and that we instruct those who are weak, so that their understanding will conform to what the Scriptures teach about the privileges and duties of being redeemed. These demands must be related to the question of public worship.

First, it is unavoidably the case that the liturgy of public worship binds the conscience. That is, people may be free to follow the scruples of their own consciences when engaged in private worship, but when engaged in corporate worship, people either follow and observe a common liturgy (for the day and particular circumstance; we are not discussing a liturgy in a formal or binding sense upon all congregations), or chaos will result. For example, if the congregation is invited to sing hymn 205 but one individual's conscience inspires him to sing 206, bedlam results. If the worship is to be corporate, as opposed to private, it must be unified. Thus, if the liturgy demands something, the individual believer has only one of two options: to participate or to not participate. If one cannot participate on grounds of conscience, one cannot participate in the corporate worship of God. Thus, the framers of the liturgy must recognize that what they include in the liturgy may exclude individuals from corporate participation. What complicates the matter more is that corporate worship is itself required of believers. The individual believer, whose conscience forbids participation in a particular aspect of the liturgy, is placed in a catch-22 situation wherein refusal to participate violates the divine mandate to participate in corporate worship, and willingness to participate in the particular matter violates the conscience.

To illustrate this, let us suppose an admittedly ridiculous hypothetical situation, wherein not a single element of a particular service of worship is required by Scripture. Let us suppose, for instance, that the bulletin of a particular service includes three items: dancing a jig, shaking hands with a neighbor, and eating grape jelly. The pious believer, having come to church that Sunday out of obedience to God's command that his people worship him in public assembly, attends the assembly, but cannot participate, because conscience forbids the individual to dance, shake hands, and eat grape jelly as elements of corporate worship. In such a circumstance, the church's liturgy forces the individual to wound the conscience and only permits the individual to select in what manner to wound the conscience; by disobedience to the command to worship publicly, or by disobedience to the commands as to the elements of public worship. If the framers of the liturgy know that there is an individual who believes that dancing a jig is a violation of what one may do in public worship, they knowingly cause such an individual to wound the conscience, thus violating the demands of charity as expressed in 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14.

In a less extreme example, let us suppose a better liturgy in which there are prayers, the Word read and preached, and the jig. In this case, the individual participates in the prayers and the ministry of the Word but is excluded, by conscience, from participating in the jig. This seems like an acceptable situation because the individual obeys the command to assemble for corporate worship and actually participates in at least portions of that worship. However, the problem even here is that the principle of corporate worship itself is offended if different members of the congregation are opting in and out of the worship service as it proceeds. We cannot increase and enhance the degree of corporate participation in worship if we include elements that we know exclude individuals from participation.

One goal of the framers of liturgies for public worship, therefore, is not to include elements that exclude individuals from participation. However, it may be asked, are the framers of public liturgies responsible to be sensitive to an infinite variety of scruples? If there is an individual who has a scruple about prayer, do we omit prayer from the service? Would we exclude the ministration of the Word or the Sacrament in order to satisfy a scruple? If we were to do so, we would satisfy one divine command (to not wound a conscience) at the expense of another (to pray in public assemblies), which requires those elements as regular elements of worship. That is, if the only guideline in the preparation of liturgies were the known scruples of the congregation, we would have only a negative guide, and one which, hypothetically, would require that we do nothing.

It is, therefore, hypothetically possible that there will be occasions when the Church will knowingly wound a conscience out of obedience to the requirement of Scripture that certain elements are elements of public worship. Hypothetically, if not actually, we would have to determine which is the higher principle: obedience to the revelation of God regarding public worship, or obedience to the revelation of God regarding wounding a conscience. The issue for the framers of public liturgies then is twofold: First, what elements are we so sure we are mandated to do (higher principle) that we will do them even if it means violating a conscience (lower principle). Second, what we will do with those whose consciences are momentarily violated in the process.

What Christ Requires as a Higher Principle

Since we do not wish to violate any requirement of Scripture, we would never wound an individual's conscience if it is avoidable without being disobedient to Christ, the Church's head. If the jig wounds a conscience and we consider therefore removing the jig, we must ask ourselves, "Does removing the jig constitute disobedience to Christ?" If Christ positively requires the jig (higher principle), then we must jig even if it wounds someone's conscience (lower principle). But if, in our search of the Bible, we find that Christ in fact nowhere requires the jig (higher principle silent), charity demands (lower principle not silent) that we not require it of the individual whose conscience is wounded by it. Thus, if there are any elements of our liturgical service that are known to wound the conscience of any individual (lower principle), we may not include those elements unless there is a divine mandate (higher principle).

Of course, this charitable concern for conscience would mean in practice, that if there is any individual in the congregation who holds to the regulative principle, then charity requires the observation of the regulative principle in that church. That is, even if the regulative principle were not adopted on the grounds of principle, it would be adopted in that congregation on the grounds of charity.

Some might object, however, by asking, Isn't it uncharitable of the non-jigger to impose such restraints upon the jiggers? There are two replies to this: First, the non-jigger imposes no such restriction on the jigger when the jigger jigs at home (or in other private contexts). The non-jigger is merely pleading that corporate worship in the public assemblies of the church restricts itself to those matters that the entire corporate community can participate in heartily. Those who have joined the church, vowing to attempt to follow Christ as his will is revealed in Scripture, have publicly agreed to do what is revealed in Scripture. But they have nowhere agreed or covenanted to follow the will of other believers. Second, it is hypothetically possible that the non-jigger would, in some private situations, attempt to impose an inappropriate restraint on another's liberty; to do so would be sinful. But two sins do not cancel out one another, and the jigger's insistence on requiring others to do what they consider to be sinful would remain sinful.

Offending a Weaker Conscience

In the hypothetical situation where an individual objects to prayer, the Church would pray nevertheless, out of obedience to the requirement of Scripture. However, it would know that this practice was offending the (extremely weak) conscience of a particular member. What would charity require in this instance? Charity would require a vigorous attempt, through instruction, prayer, and personal visitation, to bring this individual's conscience into conformity with the teachings of Scripture (following the example of Paul, who addressed the weak believers and instructed them regarding their weakness). How could we knowingly permit a person to remain weak and not perceive that as being uncharitable?

Therefore, those who do not believe in the regulative principle of worship, who know there are members of their congregation who do believe it, are bound by the demands of charity to attempt to demonstrate why the regulative principle violates the teachings of the Bible. Anything less is to leave the individuals who believe in the regulative principle in their state of alleged weakness. Only after they have convinced all known holders of the regulative principle of its alleged nonbiblical character may they reintroduce into their public liturgies other elements. Charity permits no other course.

Elements of Worship Commanded by God

I believe that the regulative principle and the principle of charity are, in fact, not competing principles, and that God has not put us in a catch-22 moral bind. This apparent moral bind is produced by those who do not, on the grounds of principle, adopt the regulative principle. Their failure to adopt this principle puts them in a moral bind even with regard to the moral principle of charity, with its attendant demands regarding the wounding of consciences. Failure to observe the demands of God's revelation in one area make it difficult to obey the demands of his revelation in another.

It is hoped, therefore, that the reader, if not currently convinced of the regulative principle, would be led by this discussion to reconsider its merits. It is equally hoped that the reader will, at least for the sake of the demands of charity, not disenfranchise from corporate worship those who do believe in the regulative principle by including in corporate worship things that are not commanded by God.

Prayers (spoken or sung), the Word read and preached, the Sacraments, and collections for the saints are elements indisputably and universally recognized as appropriate elements of corporate worship. Introducing other elements, thereby requiring their observation by those present, introduces the offense of wounding the consciences of those who do not recognize their propriety. For the sake of charity, if not that of principled commitment to the regulative principle of worship, I appeal to officers in the church not to introduce such offenses.

1 [ Back ] Note Paul's own practice. He writes the Romans and the Corinthians about "weak" believers, calling them weak and instructing them regarding their error. He does not regard their conscientious scruples, as many apparently think today. Their erroneous opinions are to be addressed as such as being sacrosanct, confronted (lovingly) as such, and corrected, where they do not accord with biblical truth.
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T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon (PhD) is a retired professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College. He has contributed to a number of books and study Bibles, published scholarly reviews and articles in various journals and periodicals, and his books include Promise, Law, Faith: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians (Hendrickson, 2019).
Thursday, July 5th 2007

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