How we worshiped one Sunday in September

How we worshiped one Sunday in September

I’d like to share the way our congregation structures its worship service. I have nothing special to offer―only my own reflections on where our congregation is, and perhaps where we’ll go. What we do on Sunday mornings, and how we do it, is important. Perhaps my comments here will be useful.

The Missing Link

Many Christians don’t think critically about what happens on Sundays. This isn’t a rebuke, just an observation. Over 40 years ago, Robert G. Rayburn shared similar misgivings:

… having personally visited in a large number of churches in recent months and years, sometimes as a guest preacher, I have been amazed at the carelessness and insincerity that were evident in the services. The people were going through the motions of worship singing the words of the hymns and maintaining quiet when prayers were being uttered, but with no apparent sincere worship of God. The pastors who conducted the services were also careless in a number of services, for example there was nothing to remind the congregation that it is only the pure in heart who shall see God and it is only those whose lives have been cleansed from evil who are able to pray with the confidence that the Lord will hear them.1

How many of us plan worship services without much thought? By rote? We have a template, and we plug the components in. We have four songs to fill. Maybe we pick them ourselves, maybe we delegate. Maybe they follow a theme keyed to the sermon. Maybe they’re just random songs. Maybe the prayers are deliberate, or maybe they’re extemporaneous―with lots of “umm …” and “just ….”. Maybe we begin with announcements. Maybe we have a call to worship. Maybe we don’t know what a “call to worship” even is! Maybe we suspect it’s a Catholic thing … and we can’t have that, can we?

I say “we,” because that was me until a few years ago. I inherited a liturgy (sorry, an “order of service”), and I copied it. I only knew what I saw modeled. I didn’t think introspectively about what happens on a Sunday morning. I do remember an embarrassing moment during my ordination. I sat in Victory Baptist Church, in Pleasant Prairie, WI. The questioning had been going on for about two hours. Somebody, I forget who, asked “what are the components of a worship service?”

I muttered something like “preaching, singing, reading the scripture … and … umm …” I trailed off. My mind had blanked. Then, Marty Marriot, the President of Maranatha Baptist Bible College, rescued me. He stared at me until I “felt” his gaze, then he bowed his head and made an exaggerated steeple with his hands. “Prayer!” I shouted. The questioning moved on.

My point is that some of us don’t think very hard about why and how we do what we do on Sundays. For a long time, I didn’t. My focus was the sermon. The rest of the service was like previews at the movie theater. Sure, it was all important stuff. But, my focus was the sermon. I’m not alone.

Why do we only post the sermons on our websites? What about the rest of the service? Why is the barometer for a “healthy church” almost always the sermon? We all took several homiletics classes at seminary―how many on a theology of worship?

What We Do on Sundays

I’ve gotten older since then, and a tiny bit wiser. Here is what we do on Sunday mornings, along with some brief comments.


I really don’t like them, but I can’t get rid of them. I’ve tried and failed. I have given up. But, when should we do them? I’ve seen some guys do them at the end, but that’s just weird, in my opinion. It’s a letdown. It ruins the whole impact of the service.

I do them at the beginning,2 because it’s the best bad option. I rationalize this by telling myself the service doesn’t really begin until the Call to Worship, which immediately follows.

1: Call to Worship

Many worship theologians remark that worship is a dialogue where God speaks, and we respond. The Call to Worship is a proclamation from God about what He has done, which provokes a response from us. It can be a scripture reading, a creed recitation, a song of praise―many things.3 But, it should actually call people to worship; it shouldn’t be a random verse that sounds nice.4 Yesterday, we used Isaiah 54:6-8.

1a: Gospel Connection

I stole this idea from my friend, Pastor Ted Clarke, at Radisson Road Baptist Church in Ham Lake, MN. I take two minutes and frame some Gospel remarks to accompany the Call to Worship text I just read. Sometimes it’s an explicit call for a decision, other times it’s more of a “look at God’s grace!” thing. This is what I said yesterday, keyed to Isaiah 54:6-8:

God meant for His people to find comfort in these words. The analogies of the grieving spouse. God as the loving, compassionate husband―our Lord, the Rescuer, who buys us back from the slave market. In the Christian story, this slave market is Satan’s orphanage.

Jesus’ death was the payoff to Satan that bought our freedom. His resurrection was the bait and switch where Jesus took that ransom back and defeated Satan by trickery.

That story of the strong man, from Mark 3, is when Jesus tells us He’s beaten Satan down, gone into his house and is plundering everything Satan has … and that’s us! Jesus rescues everyone who comes to Him.

When we worship, we give Him thanks, and encourage one another to pursue a total-life commitment to Him―to be living sacrifices!

In the event you raised your eyebrows when I presented the resurrection using the Christus Victor model, see my article on the subject. I believe both penal substitution and Christus Victor are valid facets of the same diamond.

1b: Prayer

God has spoken to us, and now we respond to Him.

My public prayers are now very short.5 I’m convinced long prayers are a waste of time because people zone out and start thinking about lunch. I have been writing my prayers out beforehand for some time. But now, following Rayburn’s suggestion, I structure them as collects. This means they’re very short and follow a five-step pattern:

  • Address: I address the Father to open.
  • Acknowledgment. I mention an attribute that is keyed to the need I’m addressing.
  • Petition. What I’m asking for, on behalf of the people.
  • Aspiration. Why I’m asking―why the petition matters.
  • Pleading. We only have access to pray because of Jesus.

The prayer to end the call to worship looked like this, yesterday:

2: Reading

God speaks to us again. We alternate between responsive and solo readings, and the content is either scripture or creeds and confessions. Yesterday we read a scripture selection from the hymnal about God’s comfort.  

3: Songs

We praise God in response to His declaration from the reading. The songs are keyed to the sermon theme, as are the reading and the remaining prayers. Yesterday, in this set, we sang “Because He Lives” and “The Solid Rock.”

4: Prayer of Intercession

Here, we respond to God after praising Him in song. This is also known as the “pastoral prayer.” Again, the prayer is in the form of a collect. Yesterday, the sermon was on Acts 5:12-42 and the prayer was keyed to my exhortation from that text:

5: Offering

We do no prayer for the offering; the Prayer of Intercession swallows it up.

6: Song

Now, in our dialogue, we address God again. We have two more songs, both keyed to the sermon theme. Yesterday, these two songs were “Amen” (by I am They) and “In Your Hands” (by Unspoken).

7: Sermon

God now speaks to us. My sermon was on Acts 5:12-42. The focus was how Luke shows us a picture of a God-honoring Jesus community and a realistic idea about the reception we can expect from the world―a mixture of hatred and admiration, depending on the audience.

7a: Prayer for Illumination

This is otherwise known as “the prayer the pastor does after the sermon introduction.” I’m including these collects because I think they’re important:

7b: Prayer of Confession

I explicitly have a time to confess our sins, keyed to the exhortation from the sermon. I don’t yet have congregation participation, but I’ll likely tiptoe that way. This kind of prayer is a radical departure for many evangelical churches, and I’m treading carefully, here:

8: Charge and Blessing

The service should end with a charge and an assurance of God’s blessing. This isn’t a time to re-preach your sermon. It’s simply a very brief charge to do the thing the entire service was about. This can be done by a scripture reading, a song, or a responsive reading of some sort. Yesterday, we sang one stanza from “Because He Lives,” to center our perspective on God’s grace and our real mission as a congregation.


I’ve found these very helpful, and perhaps you will, too. There are other good helps, but these are my favorites:

  1. Christ-Centered Worship, by Bryan Chapell. The best overview.
  2. O Come, Let us Worship, by Robert G. Rayburn. Penetrating analysis of worship and outstanding practical suggestions.
  3. Engaging with God, by David Peterson. Brilliant theology of worship that takes us beyond the tired regulative v. normative worship wars.
  4. The Worship Sourcebook (2nd), ed. Carrie Steenwyk and John Witvliet. The best sourcebook available. Period.
  5. Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples, ed. Christopher Ellis and Myra Blyth. A very valuable well of model prayers and orders of service for all occasions.
  6. Book of Common Prayer. Does anything need to be said?
  7. Book of Common Worship (PCA). A very valuable sourcebook.
  8. The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration, Tom Fettke. An older hymnal (1986), but it has the best worship helps I’ve seen―especially the selection of scripture readings. I love this hymnal, and our church uses it.
  9. The Book of Psalms for Worship. Beautiful arrangement of hymns set to music.

1 Robert G. Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship: Corporate Worship in the Evangelical Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), p. 19.  

2 Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship, p. 170.  

3 Variety is important. There are many ways to invite people to worship God. Bryan Chapell has some excellent charts and resources about how to achieve a result by employing varying methods, week in and week out, so the liturgy doesn’t grow stale (Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009) pp. 147f).   

4 Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship, pp. 176-177.  

5 See especially Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship, pp. 197-203.  

The regulative principle (again) and worship on Sundays

The regulative principle (again) and worship on Sundays

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:

  1. The basic premise of the RP is sound. The elements, or building blocks, of worship must be regulated by scripture.1
  2. This ship runs aground in discussion of the circumstances of worship―what it looks like, how it is done.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

Dear Lord:

Comfort us. Strengthen us. Rebuke us. Encourage us. Accept our worship this morning. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen!

Scripture Reading

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.

Pastoral Prayer

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 Hart’s blog ( 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).

The Regulative Principle Isn’t Worth It

The Regulative Principle Isn’t Worth It

This article was updated on 06 July 2021.

How should we worship on Sundays? The Church has often framed this as an argument between the “regulative” and “normative” principles. This is a simplistic grid―these approaches are more complementary than we realize. This article discusses the regulative principle.

Precis of the Regulative Principle Position

The Regulative Principle (“RP”) states “… everything we do in a corporate worship gathering must be clearly warranted by Scripture.”[1] Christians often distinguish worship by (1) elements (what we do), and (2) circumstances (how we do it).[2] RP advocates may apply it in two ways:

  • Track One: The RP applies to the elements only. The circumstances “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”[3]
  • Track Two: The RP applies to both the elements and circumstances. God’s will for worship “is either expressly set down or necessarily contained” in Scripture.[4]

RP proponents advance several overarching justifications:

  1. The 2nd Commandment says we must not worship the true God in a false way.[5] So, we must only worship the way He permits.
  2. Faith is response to God, and we only know how to respond to God from His word, so worship must be based on the word.[6]
  3. True piety means we do what God says, so we obey scripture.[7]
  4. If we worship God the wrong way, He may kill us (Lev 10:3).
  5. We wound the conscience of believers by forcing them to worship contrary to the bible.[8]
  6. The Church administers God’s rule for worship, and God’s rules are in His word, so worship must be based on the word.[9]
  7. We are all prone to idolatry, so we must worship according to scripture.[10]

The Regulative Principle Doesn’t Pass Muster

Application of the RP varies widely because its interpretation is subjective. Some would argue historical creeds, confessions and scripture support the RP. However,

  1. Evidence from creeds and confessions is generally weak. Citation support is almost always out of context and inapplicable to the document’s argument―and certainly to the RP.
  2. The scriptural appeals are either out of context or do not go beyond abstract principles that are not in dispute.

Because of this subjectivity, the RP has no meaningful role as an interpretive grid to structure worship beyond defining the elements.

Analysis of Extra-biblical Warrant

Belgic Confession, Art. 32 proclaims “do not depart from those things which Christ, our only master, hath instituted.”[11] The confession’s citations are out of context and inapplicable.[12] It simply advises us to do what Christ says.

Heidelberg Catechism, Q 96 says we must not “… worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word.”[13] It cites 1 Samuel 15:23, where Saul disobeyed a direct command from God. Likewise, Deuteronomy 12:30 simply forbids disobeying direct orders.  

Westminster Larger Catechism, Q 108 explains the duties inherent in the 2nd Commandment, which are “the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his Word.”[14] The catechism mistakenly applies Exodus 20:4-6 to God―it is actually about idolatry. On its own, the catechism says nothing more than “do not worship God in a false way.”

Westminster Larger Catechism, Q 110 describes why we must keep the 2nd Commandment and refers to God’s “revengeful indignation against all false worship, as being a spiritual whoredom.” This is a polemic against idolatry, which has nothing to do with the RP.

Westminster Confession, Art. 1.6 explains “[t]he whole counsel of God … is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”[15] It also mentions circumstances in worship need to be regulated “according to the general rules of the Word …”[16] This is the strongest support for the RP. However, because these are general statements about scripture, they are more hermeneutics for life than precepts for worship.

The 1689 London Baptist Confession, Art. 1.6 explains God’s will is “necessarily contained” in scripture.[17] Scott Aniol believes this is stricter than the Westminster equivalent.[18] However, a modern language version reads “or by necessary inference,”[19] and both versions explain “some circumstances” of worship are ordered by “Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word.”[20] Evidence indicates the 1689 Confession is not stricter than the Westminster equivalent.

Westminster Confession, Art. 20.2 says our consciences must be free from “any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship.”[21] The scripture citations are irrelevant to the RP.[22] Application of the RP does not solve the matter of allegedly binding the conscience, because there is no “golden tablet” of RP implications―different congregations implement it in widely divergent ways. 

Westminster Confession, Art. 21.1 (cf. 1689 Confession, Art. 22.1) says God instituted the “acceptable way” of worship, and we cannot worship “in any way not prescribed by scripture.”[23] It cites Deuteronomy 12:32, which declares we cannot add or take away from God’s commands. This is a general principle, not a manual for worship. Other citations are out of context and irrelevant.[24] One wonders what Jesus thought as He worshiped in a synagogue, which is not prescribed by scripture.[25]

Analysis of Biblical Warrant

Appeals to Exodus 20:4-6 misunderstand the issue. For example, Mark Dever mis-cites this text and claims it is about how we worship. But, it is actually about who.[26]The passage is about idolatry, not worship.

At Exodus 34:13-15, D.G. Hart and John Meuther claim this proves God is jealous and those who contradict or thwart His will are “wicked, irrelevant and profane.”[27] However, this reference is out of context. God is telling the Israelites to drive pagans out because their presence will lead to idolatry (Ex 34:11-16). This has nothing to do with worship.

Leviticus 10:3 suggests worship must not be done improperly, but the text does not say what the men did wrong. This cannot go beyond basic principle.

Appeals to Mark 7:6-7 are specious. Here, Jesus criticizes Pharisees for zealously adding to God’s law and perverting what it means to have a relationship with God. RP appeals therefore cast rhetorical foes as damnable legalists. The text says nothing about worship―it is about the nature of a relationship with God.

At Colossians 2:22-23, Paul condemns asceticism as religion. This text is immaterial because RP opponents are not ascetics who teach a false religion. The issue in Colossians is false religion, not “improper” worship style.

In Matthew 28:20, Jesus declares we must observe what He commanded us. Fair enough, but every serious Christian would believe she does what God commands! This citation therefore proves nothing.

At Romans 1:21, Hart and Meuther declare “… those who are in Christ are incompetent to devise by their imaginations, even devout ones, any sort of worship that is appropriate or pleasing to God.”[28] This is an abstract point that is functionally meaningless. Without a “golden tablet” of infallible RP implications, it does nothing for us. 

Mark Dever declares John 4:19-24 tells us worship is regulated by revelation.[29] This principle is not in dispute. What is disputed is how to apply this revelation. This citation resolves nothing.

He repeats the same refrain at 1 Corinthians 14.[30] However, this is a passage regulating the use of apostolic sign gifts in corporate worship. The most applicable principle here is that worship must be done in an orderly fashion, but this is hardly in dispute.


Track Two of the RP is based on a faulty interpretation of the 1689 Confession. Track One, in its most distilled essence,[31] makes good sense but lacks scriptural and extra-biblical support when framed as a dogma.

RP is applied inconsistently and subjectively.[32] Ligon Duncan argues for a softer RP that is so generic it need not claim the label.[33] However, Hart and Meuther declare pastors are equivalent to Old Covenant priests,[34] we cannot do leisure activities on the Sabbath,[35] worship is not for our pleasure (mis-citing Calvin),[36] lighting an advent wreath is sinful,[37] horizontal worship is specious[38] (so much for brotherly love?), only pastors can read scripture aloud,[39] we must worship as if at a funeral,[40] believers who emphasize God’s love are evangelical Marcionites,[41] and only RP believers may claim God’s love.[42] They also claim the bible’s silence on an issue is as much a prohibition as a direct condemnation.[43] One wonders, then, why Hart serves on the Session for a congregation which boasts a livestream service.[44] However, no doubt his congregation reclines at table as it observes the Lord’s Supper and greets one another with holy kisses …[45]  

D. A. Carson correctly observes the New Testament does not furnish a positive example of a worship service,[46] RP advocates and their foes share much common content, and “[t]here is no single passage … that establishes a paradigm for corporate worship.”[47]

The RP is ripe for abuse as a cloak for ecclesiastical preferences[48]―a vehicle for traditionalism,[49] for mistaking dogma as Truth.[50] It can concretize liturgy in time,[51] or “justify” worship fences over top of revelation.[52] The concept is sound,[53] but one need not claim the mantle to apply what is otherwise known as good hermeneutical sense. It is not a position worth owning.

[1] Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), p. 77.

[2] D.G. Hart and John Meuther, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002), pp. 85-86.

[3] “Westminster Confession of Faith,” Article 1.6, in Orthodox Presbyterian Church, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts (2007).

[4] “Second London Confession,” Article 1.6, in Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised, ed. William Lumpkin (Valley Forge: Judson, 1969), p. 251). A modernized version of this confession has the words “or by necessary inference” ( The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith in Modern English. Retrieved from This is a rather different interpretation that will not bear the freight Baptist RP advocates wish to see the 1689 London Baptist Confession carry.

[5] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 78.

[6] J. Ligon Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice, ed. Philip Ryken (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003; Kindle ed.), KL 1183.

[7] “True piety manifests itself in humble obedience to God’s word in our expression of worship and thus urges us to worship that is wholly in accord with Scripture,” (Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1237-1238).

[8] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 84-85. “The regulative principle is designed to secure the believer’s freedom from the dominion of human opinion in worship,” (Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1222-1223). 

[9] Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1206.

[10] Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1229-1252. “… the liturgy, media, instruments, and vehicles of worship are never neutral, and so exceeding care must be given to the ‘law of unintended consequences,’” (Ibid, KL 1334-1337).

[11] “Belgic Confession of Faith,” Art. 32, in The Three Forms of Unity (Port St. Lucie: SGCB, 2018).

[12] Colossians 2:6-7 is Paul’s exhortation to live life in communion with Christ, which is irrelevant to the RP issue. References to 1 Cor 7:23; Isa 29:13 (cf. Mk 7) and Gal 5:1 are likewise out of context and thus irrelevant to the argument.

[13] “Heidelberg Catechism,” Q 96, in Three Forms of Unity.  

[14] Westminster Confession and Catechisms.  

[15] Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Emphasis mine.

[16] Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

[17] “Second London Confession,” Art. 1.6, in Baptist Confessions, p. 250. 

[18] Scott Aniol, “Form and Substance: Baptist Ecclesiology and the Regulative Principle,” in Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, JBTM 15.1(Spring 2018), pp. 30-31.

[19] The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith in Modern English. Retrieved from Emphasis mine.  

[20] “Second London Confession,” Art. 1.6, in Baptist Confessions, pp. 250-251.

[21] Westminster Confession and Catechisms. 

[22] Acts 4:19, 5:29; 1 Cor 7:23; Mt 23:8-10; Mt 15:9. In 1 Cor 1:24, Paul is saying he is not Lord over the faith of the Corinthian church members. The RP has nothing to do with this. Indeed it can easily be flipped against more hardline RP advocates, like Hart and Meuther, who claim their way is the only way.

[23] Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

[24] Ex 20:4-6; Deut 4:15-20; Mt 4:9-10, 15:9; Jn 4:23-24; Acts 17:23-25; Col 2:18-23. 

[25] Derek Thomas criticizes this objection, but curiously fails to answer it. He seems to view the elements of the RP being present at the synagogue, while implicitly dismissing the synagogue context as a circumstance (“The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1757f). However, more hardline RP advocates like Hart and Meuther (who forbid even banners inside a church building; With Reverence and Awe, p. 78) would surely disagree. RP advocates are not made alike.

[26] Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 78. Dever makes the same mistake at Exodus 32:1-10 (pp. 78-79). 

[27] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 83. 

[28] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 83.

[29] Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 79.

[30] Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 79.

[31] I interpret this essence as (1) the elements of reading, preaching, praying, singing, seeing the Word, and (2) the circumstances deduced by good and necessary inference. 

[32] D.A. Carson (ed.), Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 54-55.

[33] J. Ligon Duncan, “Does God Care How We Worship?” in Give Praise to God, KL 583-587. “What is being argued here is that there must be scriptural warrant for all we do. That warrant may come in the form of explicit directives, implicit requirements, the general principles of Scripture, positive commands, examples, and things derived from good and necessary consequences. These formulations of the Reformed approach to worship also acknowledge that lesser things about corporate worship may be decided in the absence of a specific biblical command but in accordance with faithful biblical Christian thinking under the influence of scriptural principles and sanctified reason and general revelation (e.g., whether to use bulletins, what time the services are to begin, how long they are to last, where to meet, what the ministers and congregation will wear, whether to use hymnals, how the singing is to be led, and the like).” Emphasis mine.

[34] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 44. 

[35] Ibid, p. 72. 

[36] Ibid, p. 79.

[37] Ibid, p. 84. 

[38] Ibid, p. 97. 

[39] Ibid, p. 105.

[40] Ibid, p. 127. 

[41] Ibid, p. 125. 

[42] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 86.

[43] 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.”

[44] See Hart’s blog ( identifies him as a member of the Session at the Calvary Glenside OPC.

[45] In Justin Martyr’s day (ca. A.D. 155), Christians still greeted one another in this fashion (Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1961), p. 5). Consistent application of the RP in a manner Hart and Meuther suggest would also mean we must forego HVAC, microphones, electricity, indoor plumbing, piano, and any electronic devices for preaching.

[46] Carson, Worship by the Book, p. 52.

[47] Ibid, p. 55. 

[48] Derek Thomas declares those who believe application of the RP can be subjective because of the interpretive issues are “antinomian,” and remarks, “… it is sometimes apparent that this response is not an objection based on principle, but on prejudice. Citing the hermeneutical caveat is useful in order to extradite oneself from anything that appears to some to be shackling and legalistic. One suspects that reformation in attitude to sola scriptura is needed before progress can be made in advancing the cause of biblical worship practice,” (“The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1698-1701).

[49] “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), 1:9. Michael Bird rightly cautions against a fear of tradition, which is very different than traditionalism. He writes, “I am advocating instead for an approach to biblical interpretation that places Scripture and tradition in a continuous spiral of mutual interpretation,” (Evangelical Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), p. 64).

[50] Thus, Emil Brunner rightly warns, “Doctrine, rightly understood, is the finger which points to Him, along which the eye of faith is directed towards Him. So long as faith clings to the ‘finger,’ to the interpretive doctrine, it has not really arrived at its goal; thus it is not yet actually faith. Faith is the encounter with Him, Himself, but it is not submission to a doctrine about Him, whether it be the doctrine of the Church, or that of the Apostles and Prophets. The transference of faith from the dimension of personal encounter into the dimension of factual instruction is the great tragedy in the history of Christianity,” (The Christian Doctrine of God, in Dogmatics, vol. 1, trans. Olive Wyon (London: Lutterworth, 1949), p. 54). 

[51] The historical horizon for RP advocates does not seem to pre-date the Reformation.

[52] Terry Johnson and Ligon Duncan crudely suggest having women read scripture in public is a sop to an egalitarian culture. “Sometimes it is done (one suspects) to prove to a suspicious culture that conservative evangelical churches are not knee-jerk reactionaries in their stance against women preachers, and so sometimes women are invited to lead the church in this area, if not in proclamation,” (“Reading and Praying the Bible in Corporate Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 2664-2666).

[53] Again, these are (1) the elements of seeing, hearing, preaching, praying and singing the Word, coupled with (2) circumstances deduced by clear implication.

Preaching to the straw man choir?

Preaching to the straw man choir?

Jonathan Cruse’s book What Happens When We Worship has a simple point. Something important happens between us and God when we worship (p. 1). He presents a theology of worship (ch. 2-7), the pieces of a proper worship service (ch. 8-13), and some brief remarks about how to prepare for worship (ch. 14-15).

This is a book written with more zeal than tact.

The author is Very ReformedTM, which is something better experienced than described. He repeatedly impugns the motives and intent of millions of Christians across the world with broad brush accusations of mercenary pragmatism, and straw men caricatures. This is Cruse’s default rhetorical device. It doesn’t work well if you desire to reach and persuade an audience that doesn’t already agree with you. For example:

  • Cruse suggests that, for Christians, “[g]oing to church gets the same checkmark in the to-do list as going to the grocery store or doing homework,” (p. 1). This is unhelpful. Would Cruse really characterize his own congregation this way? Or, is he just talking about “other churches?”
  • He claims some Christians “dutifully suffer through the service while secretly wishing church wasn’t an obligation,” (p. 3). Who are these people? What real Christian would describe his habitual attitude this way?
  • Cruse writes, “Sadly, many Christians think the only way to worship with joy and gladness is through manufactured means,” (p. 3). Note his use of “many.” He then declares most churches either have an (1) entertainment approach, or (2) a mystical approach (pp. 4-8). His descriptions drip with sarcasm and scorn. He declares, but does not prove, that churches that disagree with him are motivated by mercenary pragmatism. “[I]t wins people to worship with something that will tickle their fancies and yet never save their souls,” (p. 5).

If you don’t do worship the way Cruse thinks it ought to be done, you get the impression you have compromised in some fundamental way. The problem is that Cruse never defines “worship,” and because he makes broadbrush characterizations of his targets you don’t really know who he’s talking about. Is he attacking something like Hillsong NYC? Or, my own congregation? Would Cruse accept that the local Calvary Chapel engages in authentic worship? You don’t know, because Cruse doesn’t tell you.

… when we capitulate our worship to the trends of the culture, we have lost something powerful that is meant to be happening in worship: we are meant to be separated from the world.

p. 71

I agree. But, Cruse never defines the aesthetic style that he believes is “holy,” and so we have no idea what this means. I presume the local Calvary Chapel thinks their worship style is holy. According to Cruse, are they wrong? If so, why?

The entire book proceeds in this manner. Cruse’s seems impatient with congregations which are not Very ReformedTM and don’t practice his peculiar form of the Regulative Principle. Unfortunately, this negates his entire message unless you already agree with him.

The author’s historical horizon seems to begin with the Reformation. He locates orthodoxy within a framework that begins at Calvin and ends with the Puritans. He appears to lack a catholic sense of solidarity or familiarity with the global church, past and present, as betrayed by his cursory comments about mysticism (pp. 6-8). He likes to provide quotes from famous theologians from secondary sources (p. 5 (fn #2), p. 19 (fn #4-5), p. 175 (fn #2)), which is sloppy.

Cruse sees evangelism as something that happens through the means of grace during worship. He argues the only imperative verb in Mt 28:19 is “make disciples,” and cites a book in support, but not the Greek text itself (p. 21, fn. 7), which I presume he can read. He admits that, yes, you must make disciples by evangelizing, but you really make disciples by having true worship, so that’s the key thing. The church fulfills the Great Commission when it gathers for worship (pp. 21-22). The “divinely mandated” methods for church growth are the ordinary means of grace―word and sacrament (p. 115). Cruse thus unfortunately embodies the old stereotype of Reformed folks as the “frozen chosen.” His theology of evangelism is therefore unhelpful.

He has a truncated version of God as the celestial policeman. There is little love or grace. God is the stern judge, ready to kill. Cruse writes:

One pastor I know sometimes opens the worship service by saying, ‘If you are not a Christian, we are glad you are with us today. We hope you will be encouraged by your time with us. But I must warn you that we come to meet with God today, and if you are not right with Him, you may not like what He reveals to you about Himself.’ That’s the idea.

pp. 72-73

Cruse appears to lack a category for God as the grieving husband (Hosea 1-3) who seeks His darling child―whose heart yearns and aches to rescue His people (Jer 31:20) and who loves His chosen with an everlasting love (Jer 31:3). His Calvinism swamps his theology proper, and so Cruse topples off the tightrope and presents a God of profound anger. In short, I think John Gill would have liked the author very much.

The otherwise positive contributions the author does make are discussed more substantively in other volumes. I suggest Hughes Old’s Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Ministers as a guide to incorporate the traditional aspects of Western liturgy into your service, to the extent practicable. I think Cruse would appreciate much of what Olds has to say. In that respect, I’m suggesting an alternative to Cruse that upholds some of his own ideals.

I believe this is a book written for Very ReformedTM people who want to feel those warm tickles inside that tell them that, yes, they are right to be Very ReformedTM. This is fine, but it isn’t a book calculated to persuade. I’m off to listen to an Unspoken song. Unfortunately, I suspect Cruse would not approve.