The Regulative Principle of "Liturgical Sameness?"
In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)--the denomination in which I serve as a minister of the Gospel--quite a number of ministers lament the fact that you can attend five of our churches (all within the same city) only to have five very different worship experiences. Additionally, these same ministers lament what seems to be an utter lack of any kind of corporate worship identity within the denomination as a whole. It is indisputable that there is a lack of uniformity in worship practices within the denomination. In light of that truth, the questions that we should be asking are: "Why is there such diversity regarding worship practices in the PCA?" and "Should we view this diversity as a negative thing?"
Some have suggested that the basis for such divergence in worship practices is due, at least in large part, to a lack of understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW)--a principle that is found in Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Others have suggested that it is due to the fact that the "Directory for the Worship of God" (a section of the PCA's Book of Church Order) is mostly, non-binding upon the church. Still others have intimated that it is due to what they perceive to be a descent into the dark valley of the Judges, where everyone merely does what is right in their own eyes.
Whatever one may say, of this much we may agree: There is a lack of understanding of the RPW on the part of many who enter into this debate. The PCA's "Directory for Worship" functions merely as an advisory document; and, apart from chapters 56-58, the Directory has no "force of law" in the PCA. Regardless of that fact, I want to make the following observations about the the greater issues that lie behind the widespread divergence in worship practices in the PCA:
First, I have observed an almost universal lack of understanding as to what the Regulative Principle of Worship actually is. Therefore, there is a lack of understanding of what the RPW is not. In the first paragraph of chapter 21 of the WCF, the Divines explain that however much worship is owed to God by mankind, He must only be worshiped according to the way he has instituted in his Word. God may not be worshipped according to "the imaginations and devices of men or the suggestions of Satan." Worship, then, must be conformed to the instructions given in Scripture. As we proceed through the various paragraphs in chapter 21, we discover the various activities (i.e. the "elements" of worship) that are given in the Word: Prayer, the reading of Scripture, the preaching (and conscionable hearing) of the Word, the singing of psalms, and the sacraments as ordinary parts of worship, along with oaths, vows, fasting and thanksgiving upon special occasions.
Interestingly the WCF says nothing about an order, or "liturgy," for our worship services. It also says nothing about which instruments, if any, should be used to accompany the congregation in their singing. Therefore, it ought to strike us as awfully strange and "unconfessional" to argue that those churches that have a particular liturgy and uses traditional hymns accompanied by a piano are worshipping according to the RPW, whereas those churches that have an different liturgy and sing contemporary hymns accompanied by a guitar - even (dare I say it) an electric guitar - are not worshipping according to the RPW. To be sure, there is nothing in Scripture that gives us the positive warrant to use of a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall half stack turned up to eleven to assist the congregation in singing praise to God. But, to be fair, neither would the Apostle Paul know what a piano was if it ran him over as it rolled down the street. Yet either (at least theoretically) can be used to accompany congregational singing--provided they are circumstances of worship--since they do not run contrary to the RPW. The RPW tells us what elements are to be present during worship, but the RPW does not tell us how those elements may be circumstantially accompanied and performed. Neither, frankly, does Scripture. There is great freedom to plan and arrange worship, then, within the framework of the RPW. To argue otherwise is to go beyond what the RPW was designed to teach. Therefore to go beyond the basic principles of the RPW is to go beyond Scripture.
Second, I wonder if any of those who refer to the "Directory for the Public Worship of God" in this debate have actually read it. This applies both to those who point to its "unconstitutional" status as well as to those who raise irate opposition when someone suggests that it should become constitutional in our denomination. It is actually quite benign. I read nothing in it by way "regulative principles" that I do not find in the WCF. What it does contain is a wealth of helpful advice-much of which is couched as pious advice-for worship. It prescribes no specific liturgy. It demands no particular forms. No doubt those who state differences with the Westminster Standards on issues related to the Sabbath would have similar concerns with Chapter 48 - yet even those who find the Standards too restrictive on issues of recreation would find much helpful advice in that particular chapter for every other aspect of Sabbath keeping.
I mention the "Directory of the Public Worship of God", however, to remind those engaged in the worship wars that the Directory does not demand monolithic uniformity in our worship service. Neither the directory nor the confession give the kind of rule and guide that would create any kind of liturgical uniformity such that you would finally be able to attend five different PCA churches and not experience five different worship liturgies or five different expressions of congregational singing. As Derek Thomas has aptly explained in his 2010 Tabletalk article, "The Regulative Principle of Worship:"
[The RPW] "does not commit the church to a 'cookie-cutter,' liturgical sameness. Within an adherence to the principle there is enormous room for variation--in matters that Scripture has not specifically addressed (adiaphora). Thus, the regulative principle as such may not be invoked to determine whether contemporary or traditional songs are employed, whether three verses or three chapters of Scripture are read, whether one long prayer or several short prayers are made, or whether a single cup or individual cups with real wine or grape juice are utilized at the Lord's Supper. To all of these issues, the principle "all things should be done decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40) must be applied."
Third, given that the PRW and the Directory do not, in themselves, provide a set liturgy for the organization of worship (and, therefore, for organizational uniformity within the denomination), upon what basis are local churches to decide how to organize their worship? Clearly, they are to be guided by the elements as they are laid out in Scripture. Clearly, the RPW provides a grid though which to understand both what elements are to be included and what potential elements are to be precluded. And, clearly, the constitutional sections of the "Directory for Public Worship" gives specific guidance to their respective elements. But what else is there to which we are to adhere?
If Scripture tells us what to do but does not always tell us how to do it; and, if the Westminster Standards advise us in these matters--but also refrain from telling us precisely how to do it; and, if the "Directory for Public Worship" expounds upon what we ought to do in worship--but even it refrains from telling us how to do it, then the only thing to which we may apply ourselves is God-given wisdom. To put it in different terms, the only thing left is for sessions to do what is wise in their own eyes. In fact, the elders of a particular church must do what is wise in their own eyes in this regard, because there is no other body that is genuinely responsible for making those particular decision! They can be--and often are--guided by a whole host of considerations: what the church has historically done in worship, what resources are available (hymnals, etc.), what gifts are present within the body, what are the preferences of the congregation, what insights and instruction may be gained by considering the practice of other churches-both current and historical, both Presbyterian and not. These are questions which local sessions must seek to answer. So long as the elements prescribed in Scripture are present and nothing is added by way of elements, a church does not sin merely because it chooses to organize its worship differently than some other PCA church. Again, Thomas notes:
"It is important to realize that the regulative principle as applied to public worship frees the church from acts of impropriety and idiocy -- we are not free, for example, to advertise that performing clowns will mime the Bible lesson at next week's Sunday service...If someone suggests dancing or drama is a valid aspect of public worship, the question must be asked -- where is the biblical justification for it? (To suggest that a preacher moving about in the pulpit or employing "dramatic" voices is "drama" in the sense above is to trivialize the debate.) The fact that both may be (to employ the colloquialism) "neat" is debatable and beside the point; there's no shred of biblical evidence, let alone mandate, for either. So it is superfluous to argue from the poetry of the Psalms or the example of David dancing before the ark (naked, to be sure) unless we are willing to abandon all the received rules of biblical interpretation. It is a salutary fact that no office of "choreographer" or "producer/director" existed in the temple. The fact that both dance and drama are valid Christian pursuits is also beside the point."
The fact that one church might choose to organize its worship differently than another is not, in itself, evidence that the RPW has been broken or neglected. The RPW does not promote the idea that unless a principle institutes uniformity then it has failed as a principle. There are those who argue that unless there is in fact some degree of liturgical sameness (along a completely undefined axis) within the PCA, the Regulative Principle of Worship is fit merely for the trash heap of failed ecclesiastical experiments. However, nowhere in the Westminster Standards or in the Directory of the Public Worship of God are we told that uniformity in worship practice and liturgy is something that is to be desired. Nowhere are we told that such a notion is, in fact, biblical.
I have certainly not visited each and every congregation in the PCA (nor do I have any plan to do so), but I have yet to visit a church in our denomination that does not conform--at least, broadly speaking--to the Regulative Principle of Worship. A church that includes only those elements in its Lord's Day worship services that are prescribed by Scripture follows the RPW whether it realizes it or not, whether it agrees with the principle or not. This is not to say I agree with every decision made by every church in the PCA with which I am familiar. But a biblically derived principle that makes room for decisions based upon wisdom cannot be deemed a failure simply because some of the churches in a given denomination are guided by the principle make unwise decisions--and certainly not because different churches make different decisions. To deem the RPW a failure because of a lack of "liturgical sameness" is to say much more about one's own preferences for worship than it is to say anything about what the Scriptures say about worship.