What Governs Our Worship?
Several years ago, a local newspaper carried an advertisement for an upcoming special service at a local church. Among the many things taking place was “sumo wrestling.” This was likely some sort of youth-related game and not real sumo-wrestling. Nonetheless, this example raises an important question when it comes to corporate worship: what governs the various elements of our worship? In other words, what activities or practices should take place during corporate worship, and how do we decide?
In the last issue, we sought to answer the question: what is worship? Now, we turn our attention to what governs our worship. No one can escape this question. Every local congregation has an answer or set of answers, whether consciously or not. Also, these answers may be shared congregation-wide or held by a smaller group such as the pastor or congregational leaders. To put it another way, what would you allow in a worship service if it were up to you? And, on what grounds would you make those decisions?
Regulative Versus Normative
Theologians and church leaders have debated this issue much over the last few centuries. The two main philosophies or approaches to this question are the regulative and normative principles. In his book The Deliberate Church, Mark Dever offers a helpful summary of both philosophies.
The regulative principle states everything we do in corporate worship must be clearly warranted by Scripture—either an explicit biblical command or a good and necessary implication from a biblical text. This regulative principle historically has competed with the normative principle defined by Anglican minister Richard Hooker, who argued, along with Martin Luther before him, that as long as a practice is not biblically forbidden, a church is free to use it in corporate life and worship. In short, the regulative principle forbids anything not commanded by Scripture,  whereas the normative principle allows anything not forbidden by Scripture. In The Deliberate Church, Dever advocates for the regulative principle, asserting worship must be “regulated by revelation.” 
The Book of Acts records the birth and continued expansion of the early church. Luke chronicles Peter’s first sermon in Acts 2:14-40. After hearing the sermon, 3,000 souls were added to the Lord. Acts 2:42-47 provides a summary of what took place in the infancy of the new church. Believers devoted themselves to: 1) apostolic teaching; 2) breaking of bread; 3) prayer; 4) fellowship; 5) mutual sharing; and 6) praise of God. These basic beliefs and practices were the core elements when they assembled to celebrate the risen Lord Jesus.
A survey of the rest of the New Testament reveals widespread acceptance and practice of these elements in early church worship. For instance, Paul devoted much space in his letters to 1) reading and preaching the Scriptures; 2) prayers; 3) fellowship and responsibilities in the church; 4) giving; and 5) singing and praising God. The corporate gatherings of the early church likewise attest to the acceptance and practice of these basic elements of worship.
Circumstances and Qualities
It is important to insert a word here about the circumstances of worship. The elements of worship are the practices or activities of worship, such as preaching, singing, praying, giving, Scripture reading, etc. The circumstances of worship include such things as the time or length of the service, whether your church uses pews or chairs, how many songs you sing, and much more. People on both sides of the regulative/normative divide recognize the Bible doesn’t specifically address every question about circumstances. Instead, each church and its leaders must make decisions about the circumstances of worship by using biblical wisdom in their own local cultural context.
With these principles in mind, Ligon Duncan  suggests traditional evangelical worship aspires to the following qualities (related to, but not identical to elements) in congregational services of worship:
Scriptural: ordered by God’s Word
Simple: unadorned; without elaborate ritual
God-centered: God as the
object of our worship
Historic: learning from the Church through the ages
Reverent and joyful: combining both; holding both in tension
Mediated: through the person
Corporate: the covenant
community engaging with God
Evangelistic: a by-product of true worship; not the primary aim of worship
Delightful: delighting in God Himself
Active and passive: giving and receiving
Lord’s Day worship to the living and true God—the importance of the Lord’s day for worship.
The regulative principle is a simple means whereby the church ensures its worship is scripturally warranted. This approach enables congregations to move beyond their own cultural moment in pursuit of scripturally-warranted worship. Congregations from different times and cultures have embraced these same basic elements of Christian worship for centuries. Although the circumstances of our corporate worship often change of necessity, the essential elements do not. The reason for such stability is simply they have been commanded in Scripture.
As we emphasized previously in the “what” of worship, the Bible points out certain practices are not permissible in worship. In every instance, the offense resulted from a violation of what God had already commanded in Scripture. In short, if we want to please God in our worship, we must allow the Scriptures to govern it.
One final thought arises from a focus on the biblical elements of worship. It is important to remember each element is of intrinsic value in its own right. We must be careful to protect the integrity of each individual element. We are commanded to pray corporately. We are commanded to read Scripture corporately. These activities are not simply segues to the next part of the service. Prayer and Scripture reading is much more than an opportunity for musicians to tune up for the next song, or for the preacher to make his way to the pulpit.
Neither do they need the aid of background music for them to be effective. Since we are commanded to observe all elements of worship, we must give our undivided attention to each element in our corporate assemblies. When we do so, we will discover the richness and spiritual nourishment God has invested in each element for the building up of the Body of Christ.
About the Columnists: Dr. Matthew McAffee serves as provost and professor at Welch College. He has ministered in Free Will Baptist churches in Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Canada.
Barry Raper serves as program coordinator for Ministry Studies at Welch College.
He pastors Bethel FWB Church in Ashland City, Tennessee.
1 Mark Dever, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 77.
2 Ibid, 78-79. Dever suggests worship can be boiled down to 1) reading the Word; 2) preaching the Word; 3) singing the Word; 4) praying the Word; and 5) seeing the Word (ordinances)
Ligon Duncan, “Traditional Evangelical Worship,” in Perspectives on Christian Worship, ed. J. Matthew Pinson. (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2009), 114-123.