Regulative Principle of Worship

In debates about the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), arguments are often made from the form of worship given in the Old Testament. To summarize the nature of such arguments, one might say that in the Old Testament it was very clear that God was pleased by worship offered in accordance with the rather detailed prescriptions he provided, and very displeased by worship offered in any other way.

Such a view arises from many passages of scripture, but can be summarized by highlighting a couple of key passages. As one example, in Deuteronomy 12:29-32, when commanding the Israelites to not take the form of worship used by the nations being displaced in the Land, the Lord states, “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” It is important to note that this statement is made explicitly with regard to worship.

Leviticus 10 offers the story of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, who varied from the regulations of tabernacle worship by bringing fire they themselves had lit in from of the Lord, and were consumed by the Lord’s fire. Such a story reinforces the seriousness of the admonition in Deuteronomy 12.

In all this, I believe we are to order our worship now and always in accordance with the word of God. However, As I have been reading through the Bible these past few weeks I have been startled to find many challenges to a strictly held viewpoint that God was only pleased by worship offered in exact accordance with his prescriptions. So many challenges, in fact, that I am beginning to conclude it is not sustainable apart from significantly more nuance as well as a few caveats thrown in for good measure.

To be clear, I do not believe there is any challenge to the precept that we are to order worship according to the Bible. However, some arguments for a certain interpretation of the RPW entail the belief that God is displeased by worship that is not in accordance with an explicitly stated/mandated worship activity. Thus, for instance, some conclude that God is displeased by musical instruments in worship, because they are not commanded in the New Testament. Such arguments often place great weight on God’s attitudes toward worshippers found in the Old Testament. It is at this specific place I have found numerous challenges in the Bible.

I’ll leave it to a scholar to make this a sustainable argument (if such a thing is possible), but here are a few of the examples I have come across of late along with my thoughts regarding them.

1) Immediately following the story of Nadab and Abihu, in the very same chapter of the Bible (Leviticus 10), Aaron their father diverges from the prescribed worship of God as given by Moses. Though Moses is initially angry, he is ultimately pleased once he learns the reason Aaron innovated in the offering of the sin offering.

2) When Hezekiah restored temple worship (2 Chronicles 29), there were not enough consecrated priests to manage the sacrifices, so consecrated Levites filled in alongside the priests. Though contrary to earlier prescriptions, the text gives no indication that this was displeasing to the Lord. This pattern is seen in a couple other situations in Israel’s history, with the Levites standing in for priests.

3) In Hezekiah’s restored Passover (2 Chronicles 30), unclean Israelites ate the meal and God ultimately accepted them once Hezekiah explained their intentions to God in prayer and asked Him to accept their worship. Notice verse 18 explicitly states that these actions were contrary to what was prescribed.

4) See 2 Chronicles 7:6 & 8:14 (along with a few others) for indications that David had created a musical liturgy to accompany the offering of sacrifices. Though we perhaps have some of the songs preserved in the Psalms, the entire process of creating the liturgy and its resultant form is barely mentioned in the scriptures and is never given in terms of the spoken word of God describing the pattern of the heavenlies (as the original tabernacle and its associated worship had been given to Moses). See the first part of 1 Chronicles 25 for the record of David’s apparent innovation in worship. See also 1 Kings 10:12 for Solomon’s contribution to this addition to levitical worship.

5) A couple of the above issues are repeated in Josiah’s celebration of the Passover (2 Chronicles 35).

6) When the ark is brought into the temple, Solomon consecrates additional space in the courtyard to offer sacrifices, since there were too many offerings for the one altar.

7) Unlike the tabernacle, the building of the temple is not described as following a pattern given by God to Solomon. Solomon is recorded as simply deciding what it should look like, though it clearly expands on the various themes for tabernacle. Not sure what to make of this.

8) I recall seeing a couple of other interesting events, but cannot locate them at this time.

The point of all this is that we have, particularly in these early stories of Israel, explicit statements of God’s displeasure when Israel innovates in worship (such as the numerous high places used to offer sacrifices to God). Yet in the examples above, it appears the worship offered was acceptable, though it differed from that which was prescribed. In each case, however, I believe one does find the following principles:

1) The worshippers tended to understand they were diverging/adding to the prescribed worship of God.

2) In the cases of outright change, their intentions were to honor God according to the prescription, but factoring in circumstances that rendered the prescribed means inappropriate.

3) The Davidic innovation with music… not sure what to make of all this.

If 1 & 2 are at all accurate, they represent a significant divergence from the typical assumptions made with regard to Old Testament worship. Contrary to the assumptions of many, it would seem that human judgment had a role to play in worship that was pleasing to God. Prescriptions were given, yet the OT saints appropriately interacted with those prescriptions and made judgments as to how to proceed.

5 Replies to “Regulative Principle of Worship”

  1. Great stuff! On David’s musical innovation, see Peter Leithart, From Silence to Song.

    One thing: Didn’t David receive the pattern for the Temple?

  2. Really fascinating observations. Many of these require some real wrestling with. As you lay it out, I get the impression that there was some flexibility allotted to the organizers of worship.

  3. I think what we’re talking about ito pattern would be that David had some real prophetic access to God. through his gift of music he had one, which of itself wouldn’t be authoritative. However, when God affirmed David’s desire to build a house for Him, that explicit affirmation had to come from somewhere. To me this says even when it’s not recorded how, that God declared his affirmation explicitly to David: probably prophetically.

    One of the issues of cessationism involves this, I think. God doesn’t prophetically acclaim a variation in worship now. I don’t know how that factors in, either.

  4. Mike, I tend to agree with your view of David as it applies to the development of the musical liturgy. However, the application of the liturgy by future generations would have been based on oral tradition, not the canonicle scriptures, so I’m still not sure what to do with it.

    The other innovations seem to be just that, innovations, though they are clearly attempts to most nearly follow God’s law at the big picture level based on troublesome circumstances.

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