W. Jackson Watts
Since the Protestant Reformation, Christians of different kinds have espoused the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). In short, the RPW asserts that God should only be worshipped in the ways prescribed in His Word. Various writers on worship have provided numerous definitions, but each parallels this definition quite closely.
Here are a few other definitions that I appreciate:
“The regulative principle is simply the assertion that we must worship God in the way that he has revealed himself and the way he has commanded us to worship Him in His Word.” (Ligon Duncan, PCA Presbyterian)
“The only acceptable worship is that which is explicitly taught in the Bible.” (Tim Challies, Canadian Baptist)
“Everything we do in a corporate worship gathering must be clearly warranted by Scripture.” (Mark Dever & Paul Alexander, Southern Baptist)
“The practice of worship that consists only in things that the Bible commands or clearly implies.” (Zach Vickery, Free Will Baptist)
“Churches are not free to do whatever they want to do; they must do what Scripture instructs and requires them to do.” (Terry Johnson, Presbyterian)
Now consider, do these brief definitions sound restrictive and limiting? Many Christians who’ve never heard of the RPW would immediately say “yes,” and many others would say “no.” Let me address both groups.
For Those Who Say “No”
Those who say “no” probably take these definitions at face value. They follow the relatively simple logic that broadly undergirds arguments for the RPW: (1) God is the proper object of Christian worship; (2) God best knows how He desires to be worshipped; (3) God provides guidance in His Word about how we ought to worship Him; (4) Worshipping Him in ways not prescribed in His Word runs the grave risk of idolatrous worship that dishonors Him.
Those who generally support these propositions would eventually raise questions, and understandably say. How can we worship Him in the way He prescribes when the Bible doesn’t answer so many questions about a worship service? Surely God doesn’t expect worship in all times and places to look precisely the same.
This is where the deeper architecture of the RPW further equips someone inclined to accept its legitimacy. The RPW distinguishes between elements (biblically prescribed acts, like preaching and singing), forms (the structure of the sermon or types of songs), and circumstances (the length of the sermon or the use of amplification in the singing).
Most RPW advocates concede that there is a spectrum of possible choices in the areas of forms and circumstances, but the elements are non-negotiable: preaching, singing, praying, reading Scripture, ordinances.  What about dance, drama, or processionals, to give a few examples? From a historic approach to the RPW, these would be impermissible.
Debates tend to emerge when RPW advocates discuss to what degree forms and circumstances are informed by Scripture, tradition, culture, or practical concerns.
For example, nearly everyone would identify choosing chairs over pews for congregational seating as a circumstance. It’s a practical concern, associated with cost, architecture, seating capacity, etc. Yet whether the forms Christian singing could take are limited or endless is a robust debate in the category of forms. Some take Paul’s admonition to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” as delineating a range of proper congregational music, though that range could be argued to be more or less narrow.
So it’s important to realize that the RPW doesn’t answer all questions about congregational worship. However, it does aid us significantly in two areas: (1) it answers the most important questions concerning the proper components of worship; and (2) it establishes the Bible as the first and final authority in our deliberations over worship, insomuch that we discern the application of various principles to elements, forms, and circumstances.
For Those Who Say “Yes”
When some who find the RPW restrictive or limiting read my basic, but careful explanation above, I suspect some of them would begin to soften their opposition. They see that RPW advocates don’t seek to resolve all questions concerning forms or circumstances for all churches, even if such advocates might welcome debate and dialogue around how biblical wisdom might inform those issues also.
An example I often use is the question of volume. On the surface, it seems like a subjective, contextual matter. Perhaps for some, it’s stylistic. I would point to Paul’s admonition for us to “address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19). Christian singing has an inescapable horizontal aspect. Worship, then, is compromised in some fundamental way if we’re unable to hear the voices of God’s people around us. Ergo, if your music is so loud you cannot hear your neighbor sing (or perhaps even yourself!), the music is too loud.
I see this as direct implication of a biblical principle concerning a biblical element. Now, I’m not prepared to assert how many decibels the music should be. But wise church leaders involved in worship service planning will take note to study how people experience the sound.
Ultimately, most of the worship debates is determined by the degree people rely on four main sources or factors: Scripture, church history/denominational tradition, cultural context, and practical concerns.
So Which is it?
I return to my central question: is the Regulative Principle of Worship a straitjacket, curtailing our freedom?
The answer is “yes” in one sense and “no” in another.
First, freedom is an exceedingly abused and misunderstood word. We have much of modern thought and culture to credit for that, but we also have the persistence of human depravity to blame. Humans aren’t much for limits. Remember Adam and Eve? Lamech? David? This view of freedom is “doing what one most desires.” Of course, Jeremiah reminds us of the deceitfulness of desire (17:9). Those responsible for developing the RPW in response to Medieval Catholicism knew the church was susceptible to “the imaginations and devices of men,” so the RPW was a timely, biblical response.
Therefore, in this sense of the freedom, the RPW does erect limits to so-called freedom.
Second, the RPW is in no way a straitjacket on Christian worship precisely because it seeks to protect and promote spiritual freedom. It does so in at least three ways.
The Freeing Work of the RPW
First, the RPW protects the conscience of worshippers by not having unbiblical practices imposed upon it. This benefit relates directly to the genesis of the argument that birthed the RPW. Imagine being involved in a church that has wandered into error, including worship-related errors. Being asked and expected to do something in the name of “worship” that is inconsistent with the Word strikes at the very heart of Christian faithfulness. As the early apostles said, we must obey God rather than men. A ministry that observes the RPW protects the consciences of the worshippers from unbiblical, man-centered practices. That’s freedom!
Second, the RPW situates freedom alongside other historic, biblical principles of worship, such as simplicity and order. Church historians of various stripes have called attention to the rather simple nature of early church worship, especially compared to the other live options in the first century Roman world. This wasn’t solely due to the lack of resources. It was due to a conviction about the nature of God and the guidance of Scripture as mediated through Jesus and the apostles.
Worship which isn’t overly complex, sensory-driven, or production-oriented allows humans to focus on God and His Word. That’s freedom!
Third, as an extension of this second benefit, true freedom thrives in the context of order. By analogy, consider the culture of protest in America in recent years. It’s not difficult to see how First Amendment rights could be respected when protestors acquire proper permits, obey laws, and remain peaceful. But observe how quickly protests can devolve into violent riots when civil order is trampled.
Do you feel free in your marriage? Free enough to commit adultery? Of course, such a “free choice” would be a gross violation of the marital vow. A true understanding of freedom is always situated alongside order. In this case, loving commitment orders the marriage. Christian freedom means we’re servants of God, which enables us to serve others in love. Paul and Peter both warn us not to use our freedom as an opportunity for evil (Gal. 5:13-14; 1 Pt. 2:16). The abuse of freedom isn’t just a twenty-first century problem; it’s an enduring temptation.
Worship that is regulated by God’s Word creates an arena where we can worship freely, where we’re less likely to wander into self-indulgence. Moreover, Paul’s admonition to “do all things decently and in order” would further inform our choices about forms and circumstances. While different churches will reach different judgments, those seeking to honor God will let such principles have their say over our worship plans.
Truly enjoying God in worship may occasionally feel self-indulgent; what could be more glorious than being able to approach God freely? Yet Word-driven worship helps guard us from the temptation to reduce a worship service to selfish attachment to a very narrow set of forms and circumstances, rebuking the most egregious extremes of the so-called “contemporary-traditional” spectrum.
The church’s diverse membership unites around the elements. At the same time, we’ll always try to let God’s Spirit and Word guide us as we seek to be continually reformed by Scripture.
 Since most RPW adherents tend to be Reformed in some way, they say “sacraments” not “ordinances,” and many would include the giving of tithes and offerings as an element. I tend to favor the latter’s inclusion also.