“Worship” and the Regulative Principle

There is a lot that can be said about the debate between the “regulative principle of worship” versus the “normative principle of worship.” In this brief post, I want to draw your attention to the use of the term “worship” in this discussion. I think both sides are starting off on the wrong foot by rigorously equating a New Testament church gathering with “worship.”

The Usages of the Term “Worship” in the New Testament

I went through all of the New Testament usages of the word “worship” in order to understand how the word is used in the text. I found three general categories for how “worship” is used:

  1. Bowing down and/or paying homage (most often individually done, but can occur with a group, such as the magi in Matthew 2:11 or the disciples in Matthew 14:33; not used in the context of an official religious gathering, such as a church meeting)
  2. Possible Concept of Planned Worship (though still fitting the first category, this has a hint of a more organized gathering, though it isn’t required in the text)
  3. Attending a specific place in order to give offerings/sacrifice (in every case it refers to worship in the Temple, which has been abolished)

The results I found were very interesting (you can view them here). Of the fifty-one occurrences (sometimes combined in a passage) of “worship” (proskyneō) in the New Testament, 82% refer to bowing down and/or paying homage. Consider the numbers:

  • Category #1 – Bowing down and/or paying homage: 42/51 or 82%
  • Category #2 – Possible Concept of Planned Worship: 5/51 or 10% (all but one of these are from John 4)
  • Category #3 – Attending a specific place in order to give offerings/sacrifice: 4/51 or 8%

The overwhelming use of “worship” (proskyneō) in the New Testament relates to bowing down, paying homage, acknowledging God (or a false god) as being worthy. There is another word, sebō, sometimes translated worship. This word only occurs ten times in the New Testament (Matthew 15:9; Mark 7:7; Acts 13:43; Acts 13:50; Acts 16:14; Acts 17:17; Acts 18:13; Acts 19:27). The overwhelming “Category #1” use of the term “worship” ought to cause us to review how we use this term. Stating that the Bible regulates “worship,” and then equating “worship” to the gathering of the New Testament church for 90 minutes one day a week is inconsistent with the New Testament text. In fact, the New Testament never uses the term “worship” to describe the gathering of New Testament saints in what we would call a church service or “worship” service.

Furthermore, other than once or twice in Revelation, singing is not even directly associated with any of the references to “worship” in the New Testament. This does not mean that we cannot worship when we sing; but it does mean that singing is certainly not the sine quo non of worship. (For my post about Christian singing, click here.) Regarding singing, Gill put it like this:

Singing is only one way of praising God; there are others; as when we celebrate the adorable perfections of God, or speak well of them in preaching, or in common discourse; when we return thanks to him for temporal and spiritual mercies in prayer; when we show forth his praise, and glorify him by our lives and conversations; in neither of which senses can we be said to sing; if praising is singing, what then is singing of praise!

Compared to references to worship, there are significantly fewer references to singing in the New Testament. I found approximately twelve general occurrences:

  1. Singing dirges or funeral laments (Matthew 11:17; Luke 7:32)
  2. Jesus sings a hymn with his disciples (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26)
  3. Paul and Silas singing hymns in prison (Acts 16:25)
  4. Quotation of Old Testament passages about singing God’s praise among the Gentiles (Romans 15:9)
  5. Congregants in Corinth were all coming with their own hymns; here you have the one clear case of singing in the New Testament assembly; however, it is not clear if it is congregational singing or an individual performance (1 Corinthians 14:15)
  6. Being filled with the Spirit leads to singing to one another (Ephesians 5:19)
  7. Being filled with God’s Word leads to singing to one another (Colossians 3:16)
  8. Quotation of an Old Testament passage about singing God’s praise in the midst of the assembly (Hebrews 2:12)
  9. James instructs those who are cheerful to sing praise (James 5:13)
  10. The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fall down and sing a song to the Lamb (Revelation 5:9)
  11. 144,000 are singing before the throne (Revelation 14:3)
  12. Those who conquered the beast and its image sing the song of Moses (Revelation 15:3)

None of these references, with the exception of Hebrews 2:12 (which is actually quoting the Old Testament) and 1 Corinthians 14:15, refer specifically to the corporate gathering of the church on earth. I certainly do not reject the Old Testament, however I am seeking to find the pattern of the New Testament gathering. Both the ceremonial law and the Temple system have ended; a new pattern was instituted with the New Testament church (modeled largely, as I will point out, on the synagogue service). Furthermore, I am seeking to point out that the idea of the New Testament gathering of the saints (or the “worship” service as some people imprecisely term it) being strictly regulated is not based on the text, but on tradition.

The Church Gathers Primarily for Edification

I want to make a teleological statement. Teleology relates to the purpose for which something exists (as opposed to the cause by which it arises). My teleological statement is this: Christians gather together for the purpose of edifying, or building up, the body.

I agree with David Peterson, who believes that “in the New Testament, worship is all of life, while the focal purpose of the time when the church gathers and sings, prays and hears the Word is edification” (Hammett). The passage in the Bible which does provide clear, explicit instruction for how the New Testament congregation is to operate when it gathers is 1 Corinthians 11-14. In this text, the Apostle Paul lists two main regulations. First and foremost, all things should be done for edification. Secondly, all things should be done decently and in order. Paul then gives application of these regulations in telling us how many people should speak at once, instructing us that words are to be spoken in a known language, etc.

In its most basic sense, the church is the gathering of believers. The Bible does not provide a clearly laid out ritual to follow when the church gathers, just as there was not divine revelation for the structure of the synagogue services that Jesus attended every week (Luke 4:16). Jews couldn’t travel every week to the Temple. And even though the synagogue service was not specifically laid out in the Law like the Temple rituals were, Jesus still attended the service weekly. A service in the synagogue generally went like this: psalms were sung, Scripture was read, a sermon was preached, and then a time of discussion followed.

After Jesus’ ascension, and as the new Christians began to meet, the Temple worship was coming to a close. Once the Christians were kicked out of the synagogues, they had to meet in their own homes and other various locales. The only explicit regulations for the gathering of the assembly focused on two things: order and edification. What is most orderly and edifying? This is the question to answer. This is what Paul sought to highlight in his instruction to the Corinthians.

One of the biggest problems with the “regulative principle” position is that it simply assumes a priori that there is such a thing as a “worship service” in the New Testament. When I read the New Testament, I do not see this concept. There is instruction for when the church gathers as a body, but nowhere is the term “worship” used or strongly implied. The focus is on doing that which is most edifying whenever the saints (i.e. the church) can gather together. That worship can and does occur when the church gathers is not a negation of my point. It is simply affirming that worship can occur at any time and at any place (cf. John 4:21). Worship does not occur more or less when the church gathers.

Those who will say that the Bible specifically regulates the “worship service,” will often point to passages like Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, citing these passages as part of “the regulative principle of worship.” But I believe these passages are commands for Christians in general; there is no reference or allusion to a “worship service” in the text of Ephesians 5 or Colossians 3. If the regulative principle advocate says that we can still strictly apply these passages to the idea of a “worship service,” then they have just abandoned their position that something must be specifically commanded for the “worship service” if it is to be authorized in the “worship service.” Passages like Ephesians 5:19 are simply not explicitly speaking about such meetings.

In discussions about singing in the church and/or the regulative principle, the word “worship” is used a lot. However, in the New Testament that word is most often used in an individual sense. Someone may say, “God has regulated how we are to worship him.” I agree with this in one sense. We are to acknowledge no other gods. We are to humbly submit to him as our God. We are to make obeisance to him as our King.  But the problem is that people then go through the Bible and pick out commands that they then apply to the once-a-week meeting of the church. This is limiting God’s Law-Word. All of life is to be lived in submission to our King. Gathering together as a body to encourage one another is no more or no less worship than anything else.

Now, to those who say, “Well, are you one of those people who say you can worship God on your own in nature, without the church?” Actually, yes, I would say that. But, again, I think this is missing the point. God commands us not to neglect meeting together. Why? Because we are to edify one another, encourage one another, and stir one another up. God doesn’t need us to meet together—we need it for our own edification. Any genuine Christian wants to meet with believers; God’s commands (including Hebrews 10:25) are not burdensome to him. I can worship God “on my own” in the woods. In fact, I should be worshiping God all the time; I should be living every moment coram deo. But I cannot be edified by my brothers and sisters without gathering with them. The point is that the gathering together of the church is never mentioned as “worship” in the New Testament, but rather as a time of edification. Worship can and should happen at all times, edification requires you to meet with others.

I don’t usually make a big deal about the gathering of the church being called “worship,” though I generally do not use that term for it. If you simply think of worship as being equivalent with singing, or even gathering together as a church, then you’ve missed the point. Worship is giving worth to God. It is an attitude of the heart that can be reflected in outward actions. I reiterate, the most common use of the word “worship” in the New Testament is not related to a corporate gathering, but to someone falling down on their face and acknowledging God for who he is. Overwhelmingly, this was done by an individual outside of a formal religious service setting.

In summary, I humbly ask proponents of what is commonly called the “regulative principle of worship” to thoughtfully consider these questions (the same questions could generally be applied to those who use the phrase the “normative principle of worship” as well):

  1. Is it prudent to say the regulative principle of worship is about the regulations for the assembly of the New Testament church when the New Testament never uses the word “worship” for such a meeting? (I think words have meaning and using words loosely only confuses things, especially when seriously considering topics such as this. I admit that I’ve used the term loosely or broadly in past, but I need to specify what I mean when I use it in such a general sense, like family “worship.”)
  2. What were the regulations that applied to the synagogue services that Jesus attended once a week?
  3. After being kicked out of the synagogues, Jewish Christians began meeting in homes. If they didn’t follow the general pattern of the synagogue service, what pattern did they follow?
  4. If you understand “worship” as referring to a gathered assembly, what do you do with the vast majority of New Testament usages of “worship” which refer to individual obeisance, not a corporate gathering?
  5. If you are willing to acknowledge that using the term worship in the “regulative principle of worship” is inadequate, will you consider being more precise in your language? Will you say that you advocate the “regulative principle of how the church ought to conduct itself when it gathers together for edification”?
  6. If so, then what New Testament passages, other than 1 Corinthians 11-14, strictly and specifically regulate the time when Christians gather together?
  7. If there are none, then does not the principle teach that we ought to seek to use wisdom and prudence to do those things which are most edifying when we gather together as a church?
  8. If you agree with this, and yet are inclined to say that is what the regulative principle of worship is all about, will you consider that have misunderstood my whole post, the traditional way people use the phrase “the regulative principle of worship,” or both?

I am a big “fan” of the Puritans. I tend to agree with nearly all of their theological conclusions. However, I do not accept their views wholesale. This is one area where I do believe they got it wrong. (I also disagree with those Puritans who endorsed infant baptism.) In reacting to Rome’s practices for the gathered church, I believe the Puritans went too far—not necessarily in their practice (I actually prefer simplicity), but in their theory. I think they saw the shallowness and pointless rituals and ceremonies as being a distraction from what mattered most. They then viewed all the practices of the gathered church through the lens of “worship.” Their reaction is understandable to me, but I do not accept the logic. Worship, as I have argued in this post, is not about a gathered assembly, but about a person giving God obeisance. The key to knowing how the church is to operate when it gathers is to look at what God’s Law-Word actually says about how the church is to operate when it gathers. God’s Law gives us guidelines in 1 Corinthians 11-14 that we are to apply to the times the church is gathered. “Worship” is a different concept than the gathering of the church. If we do not recognize this, we will fundamentally misunderstand the issue. I plan to examine in greater detail the “regulative principle of worship” position, but in doing so, I will often return to the improper use of “worship” in the argument. The New Testament simply does not use “worship” the way the “regulative principle of worship” assumes the word is to be understood.


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