Regulative principle of worship?

Should we only worship in accordance with the instructions for worship and according to the examples given in Scripture?

It seems the regulative principle of worship is actually too restrictive, should we have a similar principle of Scripture reading in church, and only read Scripture publicly in the worship service (that is what is commanded, and no other types are reading are mentioned!), and not open our Bibles and follow along?

And why isn’t the Sermon on the Mount the only allowed sermon, along with the sermons recorded in Acts? Remember, we are to speak “as one speaking the very words of God” (1 Pt. 4:11). Should we also have a regulative principle of sermons?

Jesus said “This is how you should pray” in Mt. 6:9, and “When you pray, say…” in Lk. 11:2, but no one thinks this restricts us so we can only pray these words! We could insist in a similar vein that the only way to praise God in prayer is to say “Hallowed be your name,” and the only way to make requests in prayer is to say “give us today our daily bread,” and the only way to confess sins is to use the words Jesus gave, because these words are commanded, and we have no command to use other uninspired words in prayer.

We are even given a “Book of Teaching,” “given for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11), “useful for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16), and we are commanded to teach each other by speaking from this book (Col. 3:16)! So why do we not have a similar restriction for teaching, that we can only teach by quoting from the Bible?

The regulative principle seems to derive from the very strict judgments that fell on people who crossed the guidelines in the OT for prescribed worship rituals and observances. But even these OT restrictions were not strictly followed in other instances:

Luke 6:4 He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.

2 Chronicles 30:18-20 Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God– the Lord, the God of his fathers– even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.

So I don’t think a strict principle, and strict limits, were the point even of the judgments of Nadab and Abihu in the temple. Here is an example, immediately after Nadab and Abihu died for offering “strange fire,” Moses and Aaron are discussing just this point, the question of actions in worship that were not commanded:

Leviticus 10:19-20 Aaron replied to Moses, “Today they sacrificed their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, but such things as this have happened to me. Would the Lord have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?” When Moses heard this, he was satisfied.

And if we are asking “Where is the command to compose songs?”, “Sing to the Lord a new song” will do, that implies writing songs, to me…

And if we ask “Where is the spiritual gift or office of hymn-writing?”, how about “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord”? I don’t think we have to restrict ourselves to melodies that David wrote! There are two items here, “sing” (Paul doesn’t say what to sing), and “make music” (I think that includes a good Bach piece), “to the Lord” (there’s the restriction). So different melodies are certainly allowed, and different words, too, I think.

And we need not restrict ourselves to only singing Psalms, which some who hold to the regulative principle of worship would do:

REV 5:12 In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

Shouldn’t the words of this song be allowed to be sung in worship? Why can’t churches sing these words? Or these words, they are attributed to Moses, even:

REV 15:3 … and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages.”

Now each word (“psalm,” “hymn” and “song”) is found in the titles of the Psalms in the Septuagint (not the best of translations, by the way), but not “spiritual song.”

But let us assume those titles are correct, that the translators chose the right word, and Paul meant “spiritual psalms,” odd as that might seem. This still does not prove that the translators of the Septuagint, or Paul, meant only psalms when they used the words “hymns” or “spiritual songs.” That is an assumption. Not a well-founded one, either, for the word “hymn” in Greek has never had this specialized meaning, it is used to refer to pagan hymns, and thus certainly included songs other than Scripture, in the days when the Septuagint was translated, and in Paul’s day, too.

Now someone might object that “It would be an utterly unreasonable hypothesis to maintain that the apostle would require that songs be inspired while psalms and hymns might not.”

But Paul might have mentioned “spiritual songs” to make it clear which songs he meant for worship, since not all songs can be sung to the Lord, but all psalms and hymns can be. There might reasonably be a question about what songs were appropriate, I would say, thus Paul made it a point to emphasize “spiritual songs,” rather than secular songs about beauty or love, etc.

And why is this unreasonable, with regard to hymns? Sermons are not inspired, yet they are preached every Sunday in church, along with Scripture reading.

1TI 4:13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.

Scripture is inspired, while preaching and teaching are not. Thus I think we can have songs that are not Psalms in worship, this would be appropriate.

And if all the allowed songs we may sing are Psalms, then none of them are new. Thus we are being disobedient when we just sing songs that are not new, “Sing to the Lord a new song.”

And the tunes seem to have been specified for some of the Psalms! So shouldn’t we refrain from singing those Psalms, if we don’t know the tunes that were to be used?

Psalm 6 For the director of music. With stringed instruments. According to sheminith.

Shouldn’t we follow the instructions given, and at least insist on stringed instruments accompanying this Psalm?

As far as the example of the early church, there are early hymns in both Greek and Latin. And I would expect that there were such hymns written before these, which we don’t have.

“Yet from at least the second century hymns were written by the orthodox … Clement of Alexandria [circa A.D. 200] concluded one of his works with a hymn to Christ in classic Greek metre.” (A History of Christianity, Kenneth Latourette)

There are no detailed directions for procedures for worship in the NT, that I know of. The closest I can think of is 1 Cor. 14, which gives guidelines and principles, but not an order of worship, and I expect was not meant to be exhaustive and giving mandatory requirements in what it mentions. Otherwise people must speak in tongues, and interpret, in all worship services!

1CO 14:26 When you come together, everyone has … a tongue or an interpretation.

PS 150:5 praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals.

Should we not therefore insist on having cymbals as part of each worship service? Resounding cymbals! And “trumpets … and tambourine and dancing … with the strings and flute…”

And nowhere do I know of a verse that says a new song must be written under divine inspiration. Some songs were! (2 Sam. 23:2). But that does not define for us exactly what a new song must be.

And “new” cannot mean “for new mercies,” it does not qualify what the song is about, or how it is sung, it qualifies the song itself. It is an adjective, not an adverb!

Now we might say that “a new song” means a song that has new meaning in the NT, but this command was given to OT believers, as well as to us.

PS 40:3 He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.

This refers to a past event, thus here most certainly it has to mean the same thing for both OT and NT believers. And I think that implies it has the same meaning, a really new song, in the other places this phrase is used. We see new songs being sung in the future:

REV 5:9 And they sang a new song… REV 14:3 And they sang a new song.


And in both cases we have the song as well, it is one that was really new, not a previous song with new meaning, and not a psalm.

“One newly composed on account of recent mercies received.” (John Gill – who actually held to the regulative principle of worship)

“The use of musical instruments was not essential to singing…” (John Gill)

But the whole point of the regulative principle is that we should follow the instructions of Scripture in worship. Did instruments pass away with the new covenant?

MT 24:31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call…

REV 5:8 Each one had a harp …

I don’t think they did! Thus if we insist on carefully following instructions in worship to only sing Psalms, we should also follow the instructions given for the way we are to sing them. I don’t think it “buries the gospel” to play a flute when people sing! John Calvin to the contrary, but I don’t see why that makes some kind of bad impact on the message.

“Athenogenes, a martyr, in the second century, as he was going to the fire, delivered an hymn to those that stood by, in which he celebrated the Deity of the blessed Spirit. Clemens Alexandrinus, Anno 190, or 200, speaking of a good man, says, “His whole life is a continual holy day, his sacrifices are prayer and praise, the scriptures are read before eating of food; and, whilst eating, psalms and hymns are sung. … and he himself composed an hymn to Christ, which is still extant at the end of his Paedagogue.” (John Gill)

So Gill called Clement’s poem a hymn, and Athenogenes’ song as well, so he considered hymns to be used in the early church, so in his opinion, they were not simply psalms.

As far as considering the worship scenes in Revelation as examples for today, with their altars and dragons and beasts and incense and thrones and locusts and judging a harlot by fire (which might seem to make them inapplicable for NT worship):

PS 118:27 With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. PS 89:10 You crushed Rahab like one of the slain… PS 91:13 You will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent. PS 141:2 May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice. PS 122:5 There the thrones for judgment stand, the thrones of the house of David. PS 105:34 He spoke, and the locusts came, grasshoppers without number PS 106:39,41 They defiled themselves by what they did; by their deeds they prostituted themselves. … He handed them over to the nations, and their foes ruled over them.

There verses are all from the Psalms, so the Psalms have these elements found in Revelation, too.

It actually seems unclear where the regulative principle comes from. Does it come from NT instructions on worship? That would seem to be 1 Cor. 14, but the regulative principle doesn’t follow those instructions to the letter. Is it OT instructions on worship? But the Levitical worship is over, so we do not follow these instructions to the letter, either, we do not include animal sacrifices as part of worship. Singing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” in Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 is not actually instruction for worship, it is a general command, “speaking to each other,” which would seem to apply all the time:

Colossians 3:17  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus…

If “psalm, hymns and spiritual songs” is only Psalms, then does this therefore restrict songs on all occasions, for believers, to only be Psalms? Why is this only applicable to worship?

Ephesians 5:19-20  Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything…

This instruction applies all the time! As in the similar verse in Colossians. Thus this cannot be simply instruction for worship, and cannot be used to restrict what songs may be sung then, or else you have restricted what songs believers may sing at any time.

AC 17:23 Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

They weren’t singing Psalms to the Unknown God! Yet Paul says they were worshipping God.

AC 24:11 You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship.

What was Paul doing, as a NT believer, when he went to the temple to worship? He was there to offer an OT sacrifice.

So if sermons are part of worship (which it seems indeed they are), then the regulative principle amounts to a restriction in the manner of expression, not a restriction of the content.

So what we really need is proof that the manner of what is said in worship is restricted, we need to prove from Scripture that what you can say in worship, you can’t sing, or what you can write on a blackboard, you can’t read out loud, etc. But such a principle does not seem to be taught in Scripture.

This is not to minimize the Psalms, though! We should certainly read them a lot, and sing them, too…

“Joyful light of the Holy Glory of the Immortal Father, the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed Jesus Christ, we have come to the setting of the sun and beholding the evening light, praise God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is meet at all times that thou shouldst be hymned with auspicious voices. Son of God, Giver of Life; wherefore the world glorifieth thee.” (Clement of Alexandria, “Joyful Light”)

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