Throughout church history, there has been a tendency for serious, theologically-minded believers (and we should all want to be serious, theologically-minded believers) to fall into the trap of being overly critical of the way in which other believers approach the adiaphora circumstances of worship. More often than not, individuals who are serious about the regulative principle of worship put everything into the categories of “good vs. bad” instead of into what we may consider to be “good, better, and best” practices. Many times, what one considers an essential aspect of the regulative principle of worship is nothing other than a preferential circumstance of worship. Ironically, the same often holds true for those in more seeker-sensitive oriented churches. Many in seeker-sensitive mega-churches insist that their way is good and more traditional models are bad.
It will help us to note the three-fold distinction of the regulative principle of worship (RPW) prior to answering any specific questions about our practical preferences. The RPW is built upon the biblical supposition that God wants His people to worship Him in His own prescribed way. We are not free to do whatever we want or whatever we think will be effective in drawing people when we worship. Rather, we are only to worship God according to the binding prescriptive and descriptive aspects of worship in Scripture.
The RPW divides into three categories, when considering the biblical teaching, forms, elements, and circumstances. The elements of worship are those things that should be included in worship whenever appropriate. The elements include such things as a call to worship, the singing of Psalms and hymns, confessions of sin and faith, assurances of pardon, the reading and preaching of God’s word, the administration of the sacraments (i.e., baptism and the Lod’s Supper), giving, vows, thanksgivings, and a benediction. Every biblical element of worship does not all need to be included in each and every service; however, they are the essential elements of true worship
The forms of worship are the ways in which the elements are carried out. For instance, do we stand with our heads bowed or kneel when we pray? Both forms of prayer are descriptively set out in Scripture. We have the freedom of choosing between a variety of biblically exemplified postures for public prayer.
The circumstances of worship, however, are the adiaphorisms that aid the congregation and ministers in the execution of the elements and forms of worship. The circumstances of worship include such things are what time a church should meet for worship on the Lord’s Day, whether to use a psalter/hymnal in worship or simply project the words of our songs of praise on a screen, what sort of musical instruments to include in the accompaniment of congregational singing, whether to sit at a table for the Lord’s Supper or to simply distribute the elements to the people where they sit, or whether to meet in a home or in a designated building. The circumstances of worship include whether or not to have kneelers for prayer. The frequency and placement of the Lord’s Supper in the service is also a circumstance of worship. As the Directory for the Publick Worship of God notes,
“The communion, or supper of the Lord, is frequently to be celebrated; but how often, may be considered and determined by the ministers, and other church-governors of each congregation, as they shall find most convenient for the comfort and edification of the people committed to their charge. And, when it shall be administered, we judge it convenient to be done after the morning sermon”
These example of circumstances of worship are best to be ordered, as the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “by the light of nature and Christian prudence” (WCF 1.6). None of the circumstances of worship are binding on every other church. This means that the RPW does not demand absolute uniformity in all the ways in which the elements of worship may be carried out in our worship services. Derek Thomas, in his Ligonier article on “The Regulative Principle of Worship,” explains how these things work in conjunction with one another and how the RPW does not bind us to absolute uniformity in worship. He writes,
“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. Yet it 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.
However, 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.”
While God calls us to be zealous for the purity of His worship, we must be equally zealous to resist the temptation to think that the circumstantial ways in which we administer the elements of worship ought to be binding on every other local congregation. We should be exceedingly slow to call something evil that God has not called evil. We should, instead, seek to discern whether or not the particular way in which we carry out the adiaphora circumstances of worship merely falls into the realm of our subjective opinion about what may be good, better, or best. When we recognize this, we will not seek to put down other fellowships that may not carry out the circumstances of worship in the same way as we think that our congregation should do so.