How the Regulative Principle Liberates

D. G. Hart
Thursday, July 5th 2007
Mar/Apr 2000

Typically in discussions about worship, the regulative principle plays the role of bad cop. It is restrictive, confining, and downright narrow, according to its opponents. After all, the word "regulative," implies regulations and rules that will cramp a church's worship "style."

To be sure, the regulative principle limits corporate worship (that is, worship overseen and called by a session or consistory) to what The Westminster Confession of Faith calls the "ordinary" elements of Scripture reading, preaching, singing of praise, the sacraments, and prayer. If we seek to please God in worship, since he is our audience, then we have no better guide to what pleases him or to what we should do in worship than the Bible. And the Bible, Presbyterians and Reformed believe, commands us to worship God in this way and no other.

But we miss a significant element of the regulative principle if we forget that its chief design is to protect liberty of conscience. The Confession of Faith also teaches that "God alone is Lord of conscience" and has "left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word, or beside it in matters of faith and worship." This statement is the flip side of the idea that we may only worship God as he commands. If a session or consistory includes in its worship services something not commanded by God, then it is binding the consciences of those gathered for worship. Only the Lord may bind our conscience, and we know that under his reign we find true liberty. But when the church sanctions a practice for which it cannot find clear biblical warrant, then it is usurping Christ's Lordship. If the church is not able to say of its worship practices, "Thus saith the Lord," then it is substituting the commandments of men for those of God.

Recognizing its close connection to the doctrines of the Lordship of Christ and Christian liberty frees the regulative principle from its negative reputation. Instead of restricting what we do in worship, it actually protects the liberty of individual Christians from the tyranny of human wisdom. Or to put it differently, the regulative principle puts limits upon what church officers may require in public worship, but it gives individual believers the freedom to object to practices not warranted by Scripture. So while this doctrine means that sessions and consistories may not use banners in worship (a violation of the second commandment) it also frees individual believers (including ministers and elders) from being forced to worship in a church cluttered with banners.

As T. David Gordon has written ("Some Answers about the Regulative Principle," Westminster Theological Journal, Fall 1993), the regulative principle is chiefly a doctrine of ecclesiology that is "designed to protect liberty of conscience against the abuse of church power." The issue is not one of distinguishing between how the Bible regulates worship and how it governs the rest of the Christian life. Rather, its sole purpose is to distinguish between those aspects of life governed by church officers and those that are not subject to the power of the church. Church officers have been given the responsibility to see that corporate worship conforms to Scriptural teaching. And in this solemn obligation, the regulative principle instructs that they must be very careful not to abuse the prerogatives of their office. (1)

1 [ Back ] Reprinted from the May 26, 1997 issue of Christian Renewal.
Thursday, July 5th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology