The Regulative Principle of Worship
Thinking Biblically about Elements, Circumstances, and Forms in Worship
Note: These are the lecture notes for the sixth class of an 8-week series that I am teaching at Harvest Community Church, called “What Does it Mean to be Presbyterian?” Links to the other class lecture notes may be found at the end of this post.
All Christians treasure worship. Worship is where we respond to the high and holy summons that are included throughout the Bible. For example: “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!” (Ps. 100:1–2). While the Scriptures command us to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), we glorify God in a special way when we gather with fellow believers to enter into corporate (i.e., public) worship.
For Presbyterians, worship has an extra level of significance in the way that we view worship as something that is entirely regulated by God. We do not worship God as we please, but only in accordance with the commands he has given us in his word. This is called the “Regulative Principle of Worship.” In worship, we may not add to what God has commanded, and neither may we subtract from God’s commands. Instead, we must be careful to do all that God has commanded us, and nothing more.
The Regulative Principle of Worship
Presbyterians come to the Regulative Principle of Worship by both precept (i.e., clear teaching and commands) and example in the Bible. The first clear example of the Regulative Principle of Worship in action arises almost at the very beginning of the Bible, in the story of Cain and Abel. We read:
 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground,  and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering,  but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.  The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen. 4:3–7)
The narrative of Genesis does not tell us explicitly why the Lord “had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” Nevertheless, the text gives some subtle clues. First, we should notice that it is not merely that God accepted/rejected the offerings of each respective brother, but that first God accepted/rejected the brothers: “Abel and his offering…Cain and his offering.” Much of the reason for accepting Abel’s offering, and for rejecting Cain’s offering, then, was tied to the person making the offering—that is, to the heart of the worshiper.
Second, though, as Allen Ross observes, Abel went “out of his way to please God…: ‘He brought the fattest of the firstlings of his flock,’” while Cain merely brought “an offering of the fruit of the ground.”Once again, we see an indication of the heart of each respective worshiper. Nevertheless, we also see here an obedience to principles for worship that God will eventually command explicitly in both Abel’s willingness to offer the fat portions in sacrifice (e.g., Ex. 29:13), or to offer the firstborn of his flock to the Lord (e.g., Lev. 27:26). Genesis does not tell us how Abel came to understand what kind of sacrifice he was to offer; however, the fact that God reminds Cain that he will be accepted if he “does well” implies that Cain knew what was required of him, but fell short.
An even subtler example that underscores the Regulative Principle of Worship occurs when the Israelites make the Golden Calf in Exodus 32. It is important to see that the Israelites do not believe that they are making a different god by the image they create. Rather, they are explicit that they are worshiping “your gods [אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙; ’elōheykā; alt. translation: ‘your God’] who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4). Then, to make the point explicit, Aaron declares to the people, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD [YHWH]” (Ex. 32:5). The sin of Israel in Exodus 32 was not to worship other gods; rather, their sin was to worship God in a manner that he had forbidden.
In terms of precept, the Bible gives extensive teaching to clarify this point:
Deuteronomy 5:32  You shall be careful therefore to do as the LORD your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. (ESV)
Deuteronomy 12:32  “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. (ESV)
Matthew 15:7–9  “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:  ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;  in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (ESV)
John 4:23–24  “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (ESV)
The Westminster Shorter Catechism identifies this as the main point of the Second Commandment:
Q. 50. What is required in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his word.
Q. 51. What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshiping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.
Thus, we see the Regulative Principle Westminster Confession of Faith, then, summarizes the Regulative Principle of Worship:
The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped 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)
Notice that our Confession acknowledges that natural revelation (the “light of nature”) does reveal some truths about our worship of God—namely, that there is a God, and that we owe him our worship. Nevertheless, when we start to ask how we should worship God, our worship is rightly limited by the practices of worshiping that he himself has laid out for us in the Scriptures.
The Regulative Principle of Worship, then, is clear from Scripture both in precept and example, and Presbyterians are right to confess this principle as biblical. Still, we need to clarify our terms a bit more tightly so that we understand precisely what we mean by this. Particularly, we need to distinguish between elements, circumstances, and forms of worship. Then, we will discuss why Presbyterians have typically prepared a Directory for Worship.
Elements of Worship
Presbyterians define the elements of worship as what we offer to God as our worship. While we may, during a corporate worship service, make use of microphones and sound systems, bulletins, pews, and even things as basic as clothing, we do not say that these are the elements of worship. Instead, the elements of worship are limited to ways prescribed in the Holy Scripture.
The biblical elements of worship, then, include:
Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of his Spirit, according to his will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue. (WCF 21.3)
The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner. (WCF 21.5)
As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord's day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath. (WCF 21.7)
By the reading and hearing of the Word, the preaching of the Word, the singing of the Word (particularly, the Psalms), and the receiving of the sacraments (the signs and seals of the Word), God’s people worship him in accordance with his Word. Moreover, note the way in which the Sabbath is particularly appointed as the proper day for the worship of God.
Circumstances in Worship
As mentioned earlier, however, there are other things that take place during the course of worship that we must distinguish from the elements of worship. So, our confession speaks of the circumstances concerning worship:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, 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. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (WCF 1.6)
While the elements of worship deal with issues of biblical faithfulness, the circumstances of worship deal with biblical wisdom. Such circumstantial details of worship would cover a number of decisions, including (but not limited to) the following:
The time to gather for worship on the Lord’s Day (that we must gather on the Lord’s Day biblically required, but when we gather on the Lord’s Day is a circumstance of worship)
Whether we schedule Sunday School classes before or after Lord’s Day worship.
Whether to use a microphone/sound system
Whether to use pews, chairs, etc.
Whether to sit, or whether to stand
Which biblical songs to sing (that they must be biblical is an issue of the elements of worship; however, which biblical songs to sing, out of all the biblical songs to sing, is circumstantial)
Which passages from the Bible to read
Which passages from the Bible to preach from, how the sermon is to be ordered, and how long the preacher is to preach
In all of these decisions, we must adhere to the “general rules of the Word” as much as possible. Nevertheless, these are decisions that are not mandated by the Scriptures. Therefore, these are issues of biblical wisdom, not biblical faithfulness.
Who, though, makes these decisions? The power to make circumstantial decisions regarding the ordering of public worship is a power reserved for the elders of the church, in what theologians call the “diatactical power” (from the Greek words διά, dia, “through”; and τάξις, taxis, “order”; v. 40) of the church. On this power, James Bannerman writes this:
There is the ‘potestas διατακτικη [diataktikē],’ the power belonging to the Church in the way of administering ordinances and government in the Christian society. This power comprehends the right to carry into effect the institutions and laws which Christ has appointed within the Church: it does not involve the power to bind the conscience or obedience of its members to the observance of new or additional ordinances, enacted by itself. In regard to ordinances, the authority of the Church in the dispensation of them is purely administrative; the Church communicating to them no authority and no virtue from itself, but dispensing them solely as the appointed channels through which the Spirit of God conveys a spiritual influence to those who use them in faith, and not as charms to which the Church has imparted grace of its own. In regard to laws, the authority of the Church is no more than declaratory, and can neither enforce the obedience nor punish the transgression of them by any other than the authority wherewith Christ has made them binding, or the censures wherewith Christ has given sanction to their hold on the conscience.
Notice how carefully circumscribed this power is. The elders of the church do not have the power to legislate new elements by which we worship God. Instead, the elders of the church only have the power to administer the elements that God has already commanded. This requires ministerial power to plan and to organize the administer God’s worship, but this power may never exceed the limitations of the Regulative Principle by adding to or subtracting from the elements we offer as worship.
Forms in Worship
The final aspect of worship are the forms of worship. A form of worship refers to the particular form that our worship takes—i.e., the formulas we use for worship. The best example of this is the Lord’s Prayer, which our Catechisms call a “form of prayer” (WLC 186, WSC 99). In the Lord’s Prayer, we have a useful guide to use for forming other prayers; however, we also have a set form of prayer that we may use as a prayer:
WLC Q. 187. How is the Lord’s prayer to be used?
A. The Lord’s prayer is not only for direction, as a pattern, according to which we are to make other prayers; but may also be used as a prayer, so that it be done with understanding, faith, reverence, and other graces necessary to the right performance of the duty of prayer.
A worship service that is done “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) will necessarily require forms for worship so that all may participate together with one voice in the songs we sing, in the Scripture we read together, and in the prayers that we pray corporately. Any forms that guide the worship of the whole church ought, then, to be thoroughly biblical, so that it remains the Word of God the guides our worship.
Directory for Worship, not Set Forms
This question of the proper forms of worship is one of the primary points of distinguishing Presbyterians from Anglicans. Anglicans have the Book of Common Prayer, which is filled with set prayers to pray in worship, ordered according to the (so-called) Christian liturgical calendar, the lectionary readings for the day, and the liturgical order of service.
For Anglicans, the Book of Common Prayer is the heartbeat of what it means to be Anglican. In comparison to Presbyterians, for example, Anglicans are more indifferent about the precise form of church government, and their Confession of Faith (the 39 Articles) is far less precise than the expansive Westminster Standards. (The English Parliament called the Westminster Assembly to revise the 39 Articles.) So, while different Anglican communions may have wide differences in their church polity and their doctrine, it is the set forms of worship that makes Anglicans Anglican. There may be slight differences in the liturgy from different revisions of the Book of Common Prayer; however, the prayers, Scripture readings, and homily text for an Anglican service in Africa, England, or the United States will have a tremendous amount of similarity on a given Sunday.
Presbyterians, on the other hand, struggle to demand that degree of uniformity of worship for a very simple reason: because the Bible doesn’t demand it. So, while the Presbyterians are strict about the elements of worship as they are biblically commanded, Presbyterians are not willing to prescribe the precise forms for how those various elements should be observed from church to church.
Yet, Presbyterians do not have quite the same degree of flexibility as still other Christians like Baptists, where any kind of formality is often frowned upon. Charles Spurgeon, for example, taught his ministerial students never to use a written prayer, but instead to try to learn to pray extemporaneously in a manner so thoroughly forged in the fires of private prayer that the prayers would sound written.
Instead, Presbyterians have traditionally sought to find a balance between rigid formality and formless flexibility by creating a Directory for Worship. In the Directory, Presbyterians give guides or suggestions to shape worship according to certain principles, but that stops short of assigning specific prayers. The Directory is meant to give principles and examples, rather than ready-made forms.
We must remember that this is one of the quirks of the Presbyterian Church in America: our denomination never adopted our Directory for Worship. We have a Directory in the back of the Book of Church Order, but only a few small portions are considered fully constitutional. Thus, we have principles and examples for people to follow, but without any real requirement that they do so. For this reason, worship in the PCA has been notoriously diverse from church to church. It is not only that you will not find the same set prayers and lectionary readings in two PCA churches (as you would in two Anglican churches), but you will also not necessarily find that the same overall approach, order, and structure of a worship service in two PCA churches.
Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (1987; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 157.
The Sabbath is not an element of worship per se, but a “necessary condition” for worship. See R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 295–37.
Roger W. Schmurr, “Setting the Menu: Sunday School or Worship First?”, in New Horizons (August 2020), 3–5. <https://opc.org/nh.html?article_id=1034>. Accessed March 1, 2022.
For more, see the sermon by Jacob Gerber, “‘Decently and in Order’ (1 Corinthians 14:26–40)”, <https://harvestpca.org/sermons/decently-and-in-order-1-corinthians-1426-40/>, September 27, 2020. See also the sermon notes: <https://harvestpca.org/wp-content/uploads/sermons/2021/09/1-Corinthians-1426-40-Decently-and-in-Order.pdf>. Accessed March 1, 2022.
James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church (1869; repr., Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2015), 237.
“Our Public Prayer,” in Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1875), 84–111.