Observe and hear all these words which I command thee, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee for ever, when thou doest that which is good and right in the sight of the Lord thy God. When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land; Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. What thing soever I command you, observe
to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it. (Deuteronomy 12:28-32)
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 worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped 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. (Westminster Confession of Faith 21:1)
These two passages, one from Scripture and the other from the Westminster Confession, well summarize the basic idea of the regulative principle of worship. God is to be worshiped only as he has commanded and not in ways he has not commanded.
Although a lot of people have argued against this principle, it is actually quite common-sensical when its basic meaning is clarified, terms are defined adequately, etc. So let's start by defining "worship." There is a broader and a narrower meaning of the term "worship," and the regulative principle applies to both. The broader meaning of "worship" is simply "service to God" of any kind. Whenever we offer up to God that which is pleasing to him and which he has commanded us to do, we are engaging in "worship" or "service." "Worship" or "service to God," then, in this sense, is nothing other than a synonym for "obedience to the commandments of God." This broader idea of "worship" is specifically addressed in the Westminster Confession under the heading "Of Good Works": "Good works are only such as God hath commanded in His holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intention" (WCF 16:1).
The narrower category of "worship" is the subset of the category of "good works" which has to do with specifically devotional acts. Thus, in this sense, partaking of the Lord's Supper is an act of "worship" in a way that caring for the poor is not, because, while both are commanded, the former is a devotional act directed immediately towards God.
THE THREE CATEGORIES
There are three categories of activities that humans have the ability to engage in: 1. Things that are commanded. 2. Things that are indifferent. 3. Things that are forbidden. The first and the last of these categories are pretty straightforward. Our lives belong to God to do his will, and he has given us commands as to how we are to live. When we obey these commands (which would include not doing things that are forbidden as well as doing things that are positively commanded), we do that which is pleasing to God. On the other hand, when we do that which God has forbidden us to do (which would include both doing things positively forbidden as well as not doing things positively commanded), we do that which is displeasing to God.
The category of "things indifferent" requires a little more explanation. The idea of "things indifferent" does not imply that there are things we can do for no reason at all, as if we are permitted by God to waste our lives by engaging in worthless activities. This is too often what the modern idea of "entertainment" or "amusement" means. In our modern western societies based on Naturalism (the idea that empirical nature is either all there is or at least all that we can know about), there is no concept that we are creatures of God who belong to him and who are obligated to live according to his will. We are thought to be (as far as can be known) nothing other than accidental by-products of mindless processes, and therefore we owe no obligation to any standards higher than our own desires. In this kind of an ideological context, the purpose of life is nothing more than simply to find a way to amuse ourselves until we die. The centrality of "entertainment" to modern western culture is thus not surprising.
But this has nothing to do with what we mean by the category of "things indifferent." Since our lives belong to God, we are to live them entirely for his glory and in the pursuit of doing his will. "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). However, sometimes there are a variety of legitimate ways to live for God in a particular area of life. Almost always there is some flexibility as to how things are to be done, and that flexibility is more or less in some cases than in others. For example, we are commanded by God to worship him in a public gathering of the church on the first day of the week (the Lord's Day). But we are not told precisely at what times we are to meet. Should our morning service be at 9:00 AM, or at 10:00, or at 11:00, etc.? The Bible does not say. So we do what makes the most sense. And sometimes more than one option makes sense, and so we do whatever suits us best.
For another example, we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, help those in need, etc. But this can often be done in many different ways. Does this mean that I ought to be doing service in a soup kitchen downtown? Perhaps. But not necessarily. There are other ways people are in need and other ways to help them. I could give many more examples of this kind of thing. This is what we mean by "things indifferent." Situations often arise when more than one choice is legitimate, and in these cases I may choose to do what seems best. Choosing option A is not a sin, but then neither is choosing option B instead.
The category of "things indifferent" is often relative to the various entities involved in doing the evaluating. For example, I have more immediate control over my own life than do the elders of the church. I am under the authority of church elders, but my own authority over my life (self-government) is much closer to my everyday doings and much more involved in the details of my life. Thus situations often arise when, considering my own responsibility of self-government, I really ought to choose option A over option B and it would be wrong of me to choose option B, and yet my obligation here arises from very specific circumstances of my own life, personality, etc., in such a way that authorities more distant from myself ought not to issue commands in the matter. For example, perhaps I know that I really ought not to have "just one more cookie." I've had enough already, and it would be an inappropriate use of resources, bad for my health, etc., for me to have another one. Relative to my own self-government, it is not an indifferent thing whether or not I eat another cookie. But relative to church government, it should be viewed as a thing indifferent. It would not be appropriate for the elders of the church to try to micromanage the diets of the members of the church to that sort of degree.
The relationship between things commanded (or necessary) and things indifferent is well expressed in the Westminster Confession:
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)
CONFUSING THE CATEGORIES
So we have the three categories of commanded, indifferent, and forbidden. I like to think of the regulative principle of worship, in its broadest sense, as simply the principle of keeping these three categories distinct. We should not treat commanded things as if they are indifferent. We should not treat indifferent things as if they are commanded. We should not treat forbidden things as if they are commanded or indifferent, or vice versa. And so on. We can confuse these categories in two main ways:
1. We confuse the categories when, in our own lives or in our own thinking, we put things in the wrong category. For example, the Scriptures nowhere command us to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (at least not in New Testament times). Neither does it forbid us to go to Jerusalem. Generally speaking, whether or not a person goes to Jerusalem is a thing indifferent. If, then, I were to come to hold the opinion that it is a necessary duty for men to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and thus to feel myself duty-bound to do it, I would be in violation of the regulative principle.
2. We can also confuse the categories and violate the regulative principle by misusing our authority over others. To use the same example, if a church session or council were to command or require members of the church to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a necessary action, the council would be abusing its authority, for what God has not commanded cannot be commanded by those to whom God has delegated authority. God has not given authority to the church to simply make up commands out of its imagination and impose them on people. As the passage earlier quoted from Deuteronomy 12 says, we are not to add to nor take away from God's commands. Similarly, we are not to turn commanded things into things indifferent. If the church were to tell members that they are not required to regularly attend worship or to receive communion (when otherwise qualified to do so), this would be a violation of the regulative principle, as the church has no authority to negate what God has commanded any more that it can require what God has not commanded. I think the OPC's Directory for the Public Worship of God captures well how the proper use of church authority (and the same principle applies to all other human authority as well--civil, family, etc.) is bound up with respect for the regulative principle of worship:
God may not be worshiped according to human imaginations or inventions or in any way not prescribed by his Word, nor may the church require her members to participate in elements of worship that God's Word does not require. Only when the elements of worship are those appointed in God's Word, and the circumstances and forms of worship are consonant with God's Word, is there true freedom to know God as he is and to worship him as he desires to be worshiped. (DPW IB6b)
Throughout the Scriptures, there are warnings against altering the law of God by adding to it or taking away from it--taking that which God has commanded and making it indifferent or forbidden, or taking that which is indifferent or forbidden and making it commanded, etc. One classic example is Jesus's confrontation with the Pharisees in Mark 7:5-13:
Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees both for adding to the commands of God by putting their tradition into the category of things commanded without warrant from Scripture, and for taking that which God had commanded in Scripture and making it a thing indifferent. In short, the Pharisees violated the regulative principle of worship.
Another classic example is Paul's exhortation to the Colossians not to add to the commands of God either by going back to the ceremonial law of Judaism or by making up new traditions out of their own imaginations:
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God. Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body: not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh. (Colossians 2:16-23)
Paul warns the Colossians that adding to the commands of God is not only wicked, but also useless. The Colossians are tempted to think that God's Word doesn't provide sufficient aids to sanctification, and that the defect must be supplied by their own traditions; but Paul warns them that although their "will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body" might seem superficially to be able to advance the sanctification of man, in reality they cannot satisfy the flesh--that is, they cannot provide the needed sanctifying power. God has given us all we need in his Word, and any attempted additions to this are not only useless but harmful. As an analogy, we can imagine a recipe written up by an infallible cook. Any changes made to that recipe by fallible cooks cannot help but can only harm the outcome, no matter how wise those changes may seem to their fallible minds.
CASE STUDY: EXTRA-BIBLICAL HOLY DAYS
In order to make the above discussion more concrete, let's apply it briefly to a particular case: the issue of extra-biblical holy days.
There were many holy days commanded for the people of God in Old Testament times. However, as the Colossians passage quoted above illustrates, these holy days have been abolished in New Testament times, having been shadows pointing forward to Christ. The only holy day commanded in Scripture for New Testament times is the Lord's Day on the first day of the week. (This is not the place to go into an argument for this point, but see this article by Rev. Brian Schwertley for some good argumentation on the subject.) Throughout the history of the church after the time of the apostles, however, various new holy days were introduced into the practice of the church, such as Christmas and Easter. These days (and many others) were mandated in the church during the Middle Ages. At the time of the Reformation, many Reformed churches abolished them, but the continental Reformed churches waffled back and forth on some of them for a while, eventually codifying a few of them into the regular practice of the church at the Synod of Dordt around 1618-19 (see this article by a continental Reformed minister for a historical account of how this happened). The Reformed Church of Scotland, on the other hand, rejected all of them from the beginning and never embraced them.
So the question is this: Is it in accord with the regulative principle of worship to observe extra-biblical holy days like Christmas and Easter?
Well, let's start by being clear as to what it means to "observe" a holy day like Christmas or Easter (we'll focus on Christmas to make discussion easier). Let's describe this idea by dividing it into two parts: 1. For a person to "observe" Christmas means that he sets aside December 25 (at least in the west) in order to focus special attention on the birth of Christ. 2. For a church to "observe" Christmas means that the elders of the church set aside December 25 as a special day to focus on the birth of Christ, usually partly by means of having a special worship service on that day and perhaps commanding members to participate in it.
So is any of this in violation of the regulative principle of worship? First of all, is there anything wrong with a person voluntarily deciding to spend December 25 focusing his thoughts on the birth of Christ? No, there is nothing necessarily wrong with this. What days or times we devote to thinking about some particular topic is, in general, a thing indifferent. As long as we understand that it is a thing indifferent when we do it, there is nothing wrong with this (speaking generally--obviously, in some particular situations there might be something wrong with it relating to particular details of an individual's life).
But what if we begin to think of it as a thing that is necessary? At this point, we are in violation of the regulative principle unless we can prove that God has commanded in Scripture that it is a duty to focus on the birth of Christ on December 25. We cannot add to God's law by making a duty what God has left indifferent. Sometimes we might be tempted to do this subtly: "Well, observing Christmas isn't strictly necessary (such a harsh word), but it is really good for my spiritual life, such that my spiritual life would suffer and be significantly impoverished if I didn't do it." Is it a thing indifferent to cause one's spiritual life to be significantly impoverished or to suffer? Of course not! Therefore this is simply a roundabout and disingenuous way of saying that the observance of Christmas is a necessary duty. But can we really prove that from Scripture (either from what is "expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture")? I don't see how. Do we really have evidence that a person's spiritual life is incomplete if he doesn't celebrate Christmas? Are we willing to say that all those (such as the historic Presbyterians and Puritans) who don't celebrate Christmas have had impoverished spiritual lives and have not been taking care of their spiritual lives as much as they should? Without such evidence, we have to conclude that the idea that Christmas is an important part of one's spiritual life is not a Scriptural idea but one invented by human imagination. And thus to think of the observance of Christmas in this way is to make commanded or necessary that which is indifferent, and thus to violate the regulative principle of worship.
Well then, is it a violation of the regulative principle of worship for the church as a body to observe Christmas? Since the Scriptures nowhere command the observance of Christmas, and since the observance of Christmas cannot be proved to be necessary to fulfill some divine command that is present in Scripture, we must conclude that it is a violation of the regulative principle of worship for a church to command the observance of Christmas on church members. There is no biblical reason why it is necessary to separate December 25 as a special day on which the focus should be placed on the birth of Christ, and so the church cannot require it or make it necessary. Of course, the church also should not forbid church members from focusing on the birth of Christ on December 25, so long as they do not do it as a commanded duty but only as something voluntary.
But what if the church does not command members to participate in the observance of Christmas, but simply has a special worship service in order as a body to observe Christmas while leaving it voluntary for members to participate or not? This may at first glance seem to allow the church to escape the difficulty, for it is not commanding its members to do anything. But I think that if we examine this scenario more carefully, we will see that it involves a bit of double-speak. If the church does something as a body under the authority of the church session, surely that involves a claim from the elders of the church that doing this thing is important for the church to do. It would be ridiculous for the elders of the church to go through the trouble of putting together a special religious service and then, upon being asked why they are doing this, to reply, "Oh, for no good reason." This would be a waste of the time and resources of the church. When a church observes Christmas as a body, even when it does not strictly speaking require participation from members, it still sends a clear message that the observance of Christmas is an important thing for the Body of Christ to do, and this implies that those who do not participate are in some sense neglectful of their spiritual life. They are not, strictly speaking, commanded to participate, but how can their non-participation be regarded when they are refraining from participating in something the church has declared is important enough to pursue as a body? While the words say that participation is not necessary, the actions imply that those who do not participate are missing out on something that the church ought to be doing.
But cannot the church command days and times to be set apart for particular purposes in certain circumstances in order better to carry out the ministry of the church? For example, would it violate the regulative principle for the church to set aside a certain Wednesday in February in order to deliver a lecture on some particular doctrinal topic? No, this would not violate the regulative principle, because it is evident that sometimes circumstances arise in which the teaching ministry of the church requires some time to be set aside other than the regular Sunday worship services. When this can be shown to be necessary, there is nothing wrong with doing it. The problem with something like the observance of Christmas is that it involves in its very essence the idea that there is something special about the particular day and that there is some necessity to have a regular ritual in which that particular day is made the focus of special attention. If a lecture is held on February 17, nobody thinks that this involves some kind of special observance of that particular day as special. Its being set aside for a particular use is purely logistical in nature rather than being viewed as somehow necessary per se as a part of the ongoing worship and service of the church. Of course, it is evident that these issues can be tricky and subtle, and that much care and discernment is required to think rightly about them. We should pray to exercise such discernment, but we should not make the difficulty of some particular cases an excuse to throw discernment out the window and just do whatever we want. The case here is parallel to that of ethics. There are cases of ethics that are difficult and require much careful thought and great discernment, but that cannot be used as an excuse to throw ethical discernment out the window and declare that "anything goes."
Of course, we can also add to the above discussion the fact that the New Testament specifically condemns the idea that it is necessary to observe holy days outside the Lord's Day. I have already referred above to Colossians 2:16-23. We can add to that Galatians 4:8-11:
Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.
So we can say that the Scriptures not only do not command holy days outside the Lord's Day to be observed, but they positively forbid the counting of such days as objectively special or holy. But notice that we arrived above at this conclusion without having to refer to passages that positively condemn the idea of the necessary observance of extra-biblical holy days. Although these passages confirm our conclusion, we already knew it was correct simply on the basis that the Scriptures nowhere command the observance of such holy days.
In light of a clear investigation of the facts regarding the observance of extra-biblical holy days like Christmas, the position taken by the historic Reformed Church of Scotland, as expressed in the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God, seems warranted:
THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord's day, which is the Christian Sabbath.
Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.
Nevertheless, it is lawful and necessary, upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for publick fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God's providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people.
The disagreement between the continental Reformed churches and the heirs of the Reformed Church of Scotland on this matter has for the past few centuries created a barrier to full unity between these two traditions. A more careful application of the regulative principle of worship is in order to help resolve the schism.
In conclusion, the regulative principle of worship is much more straightforward and rooted in Scriptural common sense than many people think. I remember when I used to struggle with this issue, I had trouble understanding why worship could only consist of things commanded in the Scriptures. Can't we love God with all of our lives, even when we do things that are indifferent rather than commanded? Yes, of course we can, and should (actually, we are required to do so, as I showed earlier). The regulative principle of worship does not mean that I can never do anything indifferent to the glory of God. It simply requires that I keep the three categories of commanded, indifferent, and forbidden distinct. I can glorify God by means of something indifferent. What I cannot do is glorify God by turning something indifferent into something commanded (or vice versa, etc.). For example, I am free to sing man-made hymns to the glory of God. This is not a bad thing to do at all. What I can't do is treat the singing of man-made hymns as if it is a duty I am commanded to perform or as if it were something that is per se pleasing to God (in such a way that God would be displeased if I didn't do it). Nor can I make it a duty for others to do it or command or require them to do it. Why? Because the singing of man-made hymns is nowhere commanded in Scripture, nor does it follow by good and necessary consequence from any command of Scripture. (Of course, I have here raised a contentious issue. I will not deal with it at this time, however, but refer readers here as a starting point for further investigation.) The regulative principle of worship is not some immensely complex theological construct. It is nothing more than the realization that God is the ultimate moral authority of the universe and that we exist to please him, and that therefore only he ultimately can declare to us what our duty is (and what sin is), and we have no right to add to it nor take away from it.