In a previous article, I outlined a brief case for why the regulative principle of worship (“RP”) wasn’t a label worth owning. I still believe that. Here is a modified version of the argument I presented there:
- The basic premise of the RP is sound. The elements, or building blocks, of worship must be regulated by scripture.1
- This ship runs aground in discussion of the circumstances of worship―what it looks like, how it is done.
- Thus, application of the RP varies widely because its interpretation is subjective. Some would argue historical creeds, confessions and scripture support the RP. But, these often say less than advocates want them to say. Evidence from creeds and confessions is generally weak. Citation support is almost always out of context and inapplicable to the document’s argument―and to the RP beyond the impetus to define the elements. The scriptural appeals are either out of context or do not provide direct help in solving disputes about the circumstances of worship.
- Because of this subjectivity, the RP has no meaningful role as an interpretive grid to structure worship beyond defining the elements.
I don’t like the RP label because it communicates little. It’s about as informative as saying, “I believe the bible!” I don’t like the RP label for the same reason I don’t like the term “fundamentalist.” Central Seminary, Maranatha Seminary and Fairhaven Baptist Bible College are fundamentalist institutions―but that label is pretty elastic. So it is with the RP.
One preacher declares that to conceive of worship (the entire service, not simply the music) as an “experience” is to surrender to mysticism out of a mercenary desire to escape the “banality” of Reformed worship.2 Another states that advent wreaths are sinful,3 claims the bible’s silence on an issue is as much a prohibition as a direct condemnation,4 yet the author is on session in a congregation which boasts a livestream service.5 Still another theologian reasons, “only the most self-absorbed congregation would say that it does not need to be concerned about making its worship relevant to the present generation.”6
Each one of these men agree with the RP. Each disagrees with the other.
So, I am unsatisfied with the label, even as I own its basic ethos. I don’t like the paradigm. I’ll own it when I have to use insider language, but (like “Calvinism”) it isn’t a t-shirt I’ll wear to Wal-Mart.
Rather than claim a label that communicates little, I prefer to say “scripture regulates how we do things on Sunday.” To identify the circumstances (the style and form of these elements), I prefer to use a rubric Dr. Larry Oats taught us (in a context I forget!):
- Is there an explicit warrant for it? Go for it.
- Is there an implicit warrant for it? It’s likely ok, if the interpretation is legitimate.
- Is there a principle that guides us, here? Likely ok, but get confirmation from some trusted Christians.
To get down to brass tacks, I’ll present the “liturgy” from our service on 25 July 2021. I believe this will generate some helpful discussion. Though my headings here do not explicitly echo the standard Protestant liturgies,7 they contain the same ingredients:
Call to Worship
This opens the service. It’s meant to set our hearts and minds and ask God to bless our worship. If you have a good hymnal, it will have an index of suggested calls to worship in scripture or song that will be invaluable for your service planning. I have several resources at my desk for this purpose.8
Read Psalm 100
I recently began making a “Gospel connection” to each call to worship, so I know I’ve given the Gospel each and every service. This lasts no more than two minutes and is always keyed to the call to worship reference I just read:
Whoever you are, God’s loyal love endures forever. His faithfulness, His promises, are eternal―not like ours.
Serve Him with gladness. Come in from the cold and join His family. Jesus is the Revealer who tells about this world and ourselves, the Reconciler who came to heal our alienation from God, and the Ruler of the coming kingdom.
Jesus is the hinge of the Christian story. He explains this world and ourselves, and He calls us to repent and worship Him. In exchange, He offers us a place in His coming kingdom community―which is what He made us for!
I then offer a short prayer:
Comfort us. Strengthen us. Rebuke us. Encourage us. Accept our worship this morning. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen!
This reading is always keyed to the sermon. We alternate between solo readings, and response readings with the congregation participating. Every six weeks we recite a creed. This week was a solo reading, which any church member (man, woman, boy, girl) can do. This reading was done by a mentally handicapped woman. She struggles mightily to read aloud coherently, and I often help her. I feel her participation in worship outweighs the aesthetic “loss” of not having a “smooth” reader. I select all the readings in advance.
Read 1 Corinthians 13.
Worship in Song
We typically do a blended selection of songs. We have a song leader, with either a piano or guitar accompaniment. We rotate two song leaders (one boy, one woman), and two pianists (one boy, one woman). One of the pianists (the boy) also sometimes plays guitar in lieu of piano.
The songs, like the scripture reading, echo the sermon theme―in this case, brotherly love and community.
Sing “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart”
Sing “Brethren We Have Met to Worship”
Sing “Come Thou Fount (I Will Sing).” This is a Chris Tomlin remix.
I do not select the songs. We have a living document with the sermon passage, the assigned reading, and the sermon “theme.” The song leaders choose songs based on the theme.
We don’t do a “prayer for the offering.” The pastoral prayer has subsumed that. Like the reading and the songs, this prayer is keyed to the sermon theme. I script every prayer, and almost never do extemporaneous prayer. This one is patterned after the scripture reading.
All our gifts are nothing without love for one another. We may have knowledge, but without brotherly love we are nothing. We may give up our property and even our lives, but if we don’t have love, we gain nothing.
Lead us to bear all things, to believe the best about our brothers and sisters, and to hope that we can have the community you want us to have.
The offering then follows.
Worship in Song
Sing “Oh, the Deep, Deep Love” (Bob Kauflin)
Sing “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” (Peter Scholtes)
Here is one of the songs:
Worship by the Word
My sermon was on Acts 2:42-47:
Prayer of Confession and Petition
We don’t yet have a dedicated time for confession in the worship service. But, I have been using the “closing prayer” of the sermon as the prayer of confession, keyed to the sermon theme. Again, this is always pre-scripted. Today, I was supposed to lead into the prayer with the following preamble. But, for reasons even I don’t understand, I skipped it. But I’ll re-produce it here anyway:
God tells us that the sacrifice He most desires is a broken and contrite heart. Honest sorrow for sin and resolve to love Him more, rather than dead ritual
As we think of our community, of our church, of what it could be, and what it is, of what God wants it to be, and the distance we still have to go … let’s bring Him that sacrifice in our prayers now, and in our actions this coming week.
Now, the prayer of confession begins. The prayers are often paraphrases of scripture, with my own bridges as transitions. You saw that in the pastoral prayer, and the method continues here:
Lord, your word tells us that if you love us, then we also ought to love one another. That if we love one another, then we can know you abide in us. And your love is completed and perfected when we reflect it to one another in your family.
Forgive us for our bitterness, for our anger, for our “busyness,” for our self-centeredness, for our misplaced priorities.
Forgive us for the things our hearts are set and eyes are fixed on that so often have little to do with your Gospel and your community.
Lead us to find new ways, better ways, good ways, wholesome ways to reflect you in our community here.
Charge and Blessing
This is often a stanza from a relevant hymn, or the standard doxology, or perhaps a scripture reading (again, see the index in your hymnal for help, here). Today, the song leader was balancing another member’s toddler on her lap and motioned that the “last stanza” thing wasn’t going to happen.
So, I improvised with this:
Jesus loves us, and gave His life so that we might be free. Go and love Him and spirit and in truth, and let’s love one another, too. God bless.
That was the worship service. It took 77 minutes. The proper elements were there. It accords with the RP. We can quibble about what it looked like―the circumstances. But, I believe most congregations with a self-consciously conservative philosophy of worship would accept it. I hope our own small example is a blessing to you as you consider worship in your own context.
1 Scripture shows us five elements: (1) we see the scripture in the ordinances, (2) we read the word, (3) we preach the word, (4) we sing the word, and (5) we pray the word.
2 Jonathan Cruse, What Happens When We Worship? (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2020), p. 6.
3 D.G. Hart and John Meuther, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002), p. 84.
4 Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 78-79. “The only proper ground for doing anything in worship is a command from God in his Word.”
5 See https://www.calvaryglenside.org/. Hart’s blog (https://oldlife.org/about-2/) identifies him as a member of the Session at the Calvary Glenside OPC.
6 Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), p. 137.
7 Adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition and intercession, instruction, communion/fellowship, charge and blessing.
8 These include, (1) The Hymnal for Worship & Celebration, ed. Tom Fettke (Waco: Word, 1986), (2) Baptist Union of Great Britain, Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples, ed. Christopher Ellis and Myra Blyth (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2005), (3) Book of Common Prayer from the Episcopal Church (Feb. 2007), (4) Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Lifeway, 2008), (5) Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections, 2017).