Who Determines What Is and Is Not Acceptable Worship?

Who Determines What Is and Is Not Acceptable Worship?

At the end of the twelfth chapter of Hebrews, the writer makes a very important statement about worship. In the chapter, he had already pointed out that the readers had been welcomed to draw near to God—unlike what happened at Mt. Sinai where they trembled in fear. Unlike that scene, according to the writer of Hebrews:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:22-24).

At the end of this section on the Kingdom that will not be shaken—the writer to the Hebrews writes:

Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-29).

This is not only a powerful statement that deserves our attention, but it’s a sobering and enlightening statement that demands our obedience. As it pertains to worship, many people approach the idea as if anything goes. When churches embrace the anything goes attitude toward worship, the sky is the limit as to the different stylistic effects, creativity, and imagination that will be woven into the weekly worship service. Sometimes that includes smoke machines and fancy lighting effects, but for others that remains far too boring. Still others want to press the limits even further to include indoor fireworks, flying drones, and and stage plays which crowd out the sermon.

As it pertains to how we worship God and why we design our services in a specific way—does God really care? Is it really that important that our worship services be designed in a specific manner? Who makes that decision? Does the Bible say anything about such choices? The answer to those questions are certainly addressed by Hebrews 12:28-29.

In Hebrews 12:28, the key word is “acceptable” and we must not overlook it. The term “εὐαρέστως” which is translated acceptable means “in an acceptable manner.” Therefore, it’s clear that there is a such thing as unacceptable worship and for that very reason, we must reject the idea that anything goes when it comes to the way we approach God in worship. So, where do we go from this point to find the boundaries and to understand what is and isn’t acceptable?

We must read the Bible and learn what God accepts and what God rejects as it pertains to worship. Just as we don’t have a book and a chapter in the Bible that provides for us a systematic explanation of the Trinity—we derive the foundational Christian doctrine from the whole of Scripture. As it pertains to how we should worship God—we must derive such knowledge from the Scriptures. As we read in the Old Testament, we find that the Ark of the Covenant was to be transported in a specific manner and there were specific people who were given the charge to oversee the process. However, when Uzza was put in a position that he did not belong—he then touched the Ark when it was falling from the Ox and God struck him down (2 Samuel 6:7).

As we read in the New Testament, we find  a similar story as it pertains to the couple—Ananias and his wife Sapphira. According to Acts 5, they lied to the Holy Spirit (and to the church) about a property they were selling and giving the proceeds to the Lord. God struck them down as well and fear came upon the whole congregation. Another example of such perverted worship is found in 1 Corinthians 11 as Paul addressed the church in Corinth about members of their church who had become sick and even died for how they had perverted the Lord’s Supper.

All through the Scriptures, it’s plain and obvious that God cares about how we worship him. If the angels who have never sinned fly around the throne room of God with a set of wings that are used to shield their faces from the burning holiness of God—it would seem clear from Hebrews 12:29 that we must be cautious as to how we approach God in worship. Offering up strange fire to God was not permissible in days past (Lev. 10), and it’s still not permissible in our present day.

When churches are seeking to market themselves to their community as being the casual church—what exactly are they communicating about God? Are the angels of Isaiah 6 casually approaching the throne of God as they cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy” unto the LORD? While we must reject the legalistic form of religion, there is likewise a need to avoid the other ditch of ultra casual worship that has become so popular in our day. God is holy, we are not holy, and he deserves our worship which must be offered up in spirit and truth for his glory. Our pursuit of God must be an acceptable pursuit, for God is a consuming fire.

 

Worship in Spirit and Truth—Not Spirit or Truth

Worship in Spirit and Truth—Not Spirit or Truth

When Jesus passed through Samaria rather than bypassing the people, he demonstrated a pressing need to keep the divine appointment of the Father and to meet a very specific woman at a well used well. In Jesus interaction and conversation with her which can be seen in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel—we see something very important about the subject of worship. According to Jesus, the worship that God demands is from the spirit and truth rather than spirit or truth.

This is not two different types or styles of worship; rather it’s two sides of the same coin. Biblical worship involves worshipping God in both spirit and truth.

God Demands Worship in the Spirit

The woman at the well was focused on the place of worship, specifically Gerizim. However, she was not focused on the heart of true worship. Genuine worship of God proceeds from the heart. It’s not driven by location, attire, styles, nor is it based on other cultural things. True worship comes from the heart or it’s not true worship at all. Stephen Charnock, the great puritan writer wrote the following:

Without the heart it is no worship; it is a stage play; an acting a part without being that person really which is acted by us; a hypocrite, in the notion of the word, is a stage player…. We may be truly said to worship God, through we [lack] perfection; but we cannot be said to worship him, if we [lack] sincerity. [1]

In some circles, worship has become so stiff and stale that it’s choked all joy from the people. Often such styles have taken the primacy over and above the joy of worshipping God from the heart. A mind that’s renewed in the gospel and a heart that is totally surrendered to God produces a joyful worship of God. Biblical worship involves the engagement of mind and emotions—the totality of who we are inwardly. True worship cannot happen apart from the heart being properly and fully engaged.

In many cases today, what is passed off as worship is merely man-centered activities that are external attempts to go through the motions of worship rather than to actually engage in biblical worship. Such dry routine is to miss the point of worship. James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” Have you ever engaged in a worship service and felt that you were a million miles away from God? Have you finished praying and felt that you were merely repeating words rather than engaging in communication to God? We know the difference between a spiritual worship and man-centered activity. Andrew Bonar penned these words in his journal:

During the whole day and every service I felt myself strengthened and upheld by the Lord’s presence in spirit, more than usual. There were moments of great nearness.

Perhaps the reason we often feel great distance rather than great nearness in our worship is because it’s centered on the flesh and designed to entertain carnal flesh as opposed to glorifying a holy God. Our Triune God has called us to worship him in our spirit—from an inward submission and joyful response to his deep love for us.

God Demands Worship in the Truth

It could be said that to worship God apart from truth is to not worship God at all. In other words, doctrine matters. Sadly, many churches have designed their “worship” around fleshly experiences and entertaining music rather than sound doctrine. We must never forget that doctrine matters and any church that downplays the importance of doctrine is downplaying the importance of truth. Without the revealed truth of God’s Word, the people of God cannot worship God properly. John MacArthur has rightly stated the following:

Worship is not merely an emotional exercise with God-words or musical sounds that induce certain feelings. Worship is certainly not a mystical catharsis of human passion detached from any rational thought or biblical precept. True worship is a response of adoration and praise prompted by truth that God has revealed. [2]

One thing we must remember about Jesus in his conversation with the woman at the well is that he pointed her to the truth of the gospel. He likewise pointed her to the truth about himself. Jesus loves truth and in John 14:6, declared himself to be the Truth. In Jesus’ earthly ministry, he demonstrated a profound love for the Scriptures. The revelation of God and the truth about God as revealed in his Word is vitally important and inseparably linked to true worship.

Just as the heart is engaged in worship, so must the mind be engaged. More than an intellectual comprehension of the truth about God, the mind is engaged in the worship of who God is, how God saved us, and why our lives should be consistently reflecting the glory of God. Knowing God is more than just knowing things about God. Having a knowledge base about God is far more than nuggets for Bible trivia on Sunday evenings. The truth we know and believe about God stands at the very heart of worship and separates the true and living God from worthless idols.

Worship matters! For that reason, this January the G3 Conference will be focused on the theme of worship. It is my desire that we will see individual Christians strengthened and local churches spared from the empty pursuit of pragmatism as we focus upon true biblical worship. I hope you will join us this January. Make your reservations at G3Conference.com. Take just a moment to view the video below for a little more information about the upcoming theme.


  1. Stephen Charnock, Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God (New York: Ketcham, n.d.), 225-226.
  2. John MacArthur, Worship: The ultimate Priority, (Chicago: Moody, 2012), 160.

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When Was the Last Time You Prayed for the Worship Service?

When Was the Last Time You Prayed for the Worship Service?

This week, I was reading Wayne Mack’s book—Life in the Father’s House in preparation for my men’s book study, and one line hit me and made me think. He writes, “Praying specifically for the church services is another way of preparing ourselves for them.” [1]

Sure, you pray for the church. That’s what we are called to do as Christians. You have been taught the difference between the church building and the church body. However, as we devote ourselves to praying for the individuals and the families of our church—along with the leaders—when was the last time you prayed for the worship service?

If you’ve been in the life of the church for any length of time, you’ve probably come to the reality that people have various and sundry opinions about every detail of the worship service. Sometimes these opinions are expressed in form of compliment, but still others are offered in the form of complaints. For some, the preacher preaches too long or he uses confusing vocabulary. For others, the music does not suit their needs. Still others have complaints about the fact that we’re standing too long in the worship service.

At the end of the day, some of the complaints may have merit, but how much of the complaining would be solved by a simple prayer each week that centered upon the worship service? I recall arriving early on Sunday mornings and gathering with men from our church to pray for the worship service each week. I remember that as a college student, I was made aware of the seriousness of the worship service and the need to commit it to prayer every week. How would this change our view of what’s happening in the worship service every week?

Prayer Can Change Your Priority

When we read Psalm 95 and Psalm 96, we see language that demands God’s people to take seriously the gathering for public worship. We are familiar with the words of Hebrews 10:24-25 (stir up; encourage), but really the whole of Scripture points to the need for God’s people to prioritize worship. Just consider the specificity of the Tabernacle and how it was centralized among God’s people for worship.

When we pray for the worship gathering, it’s unlikely that we will deliberately place other things before it and habitually neglect the gathering. When we pray for the corporate worship service, it will change the way we plan our weekly schedule, entertainment, and other activities that often compete for our time and devotion.

God not only expects his people to worship him in private settings, individually and within family circles—but he expects us to worship him publicly with the gathered church. On the Lord’s Day, we are to worship him in spirit and truth through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word (2 Tim. 3:16-4:5; Acts 2:42), praise him in song (Eph. 5:18-19; Col. 3:16), experience him in the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and pray together as a church and for the church. This is a far different experience than when we are alone in our living room on a Tuesday evening.

By praying for these different elements of the worship service—it’s likely that selfish complaints will be set aside as the emphasis and true purpose of each part of our worship service is put under the light of scrutiny, but most importantly as the desires of our heart are examined through our time of prayer.

Prayer Can Change Your Engagement

I remember attending my first Atlanta Braves baseball game in the new SunTrust Park a couple of seasons ago. I was amazed by the different attractions that modern baseball parks add into the experience of a game. From ziplines to restaurants—attending a game today is far different than it was just a few years ago.

Inside modern baseball parks, it’s common for people to be seated at tables just a few feet from the field, watching the game on large television screens, checking social media, drinking beer, and occasionally glancing out upon the field. What they experience is something quite different than the people who are seated in their seats, watching each play, anticipating the next pitch, observing the count of balls and strikes, and checking to see who is standing in the on-deck circle. The people in the restaurant are near the game, but they are not engaged in the game.

When we spend time praying for the weekly worship service, it will have an impact upon your level of engagement. If church is merely something you attend as opposed to something you’re involved in and doing on a regular basis—praying for the weekly service will bring this to light. As you pray for the musicians who play, if you have gifts but are not using them, it will cause you to reconsider your rationale. When you consider all of the work necessary just to pull off a detailed worship service each week, you will begin to ask yourself why you aren’t up earlier and on site to help get things into order?

In short, praying for the weekly worship service changes the level of personal engagement and allows us to see holes that we can fill. If you’re part of a church plant, why should the pastor have to set up all of his chairs in the meeting place each week and study the sermon and preach it too? Why can’t someone else engage in the setup? Praying for every part of the service brings such details to the surface and reveals needs within the body that you can help meet—as opposed to complaining about it.

If the choir is not loud enough, why not join them? If the preacher is using complicated vocabulary, why not study and engage the text to understand better? If nobody greeted you on the side entrance on Sunday, why not arrive early and help open doors and greet people as they arrive? Prayer has a way of changing your level of engagement—so pray for each detail of the weekly worship service and help make your church worship better by how you engage. Modern worship has been described as the engagement of the “modern man [who] worships his work, works at his play, and plays at his worship.” [2] The only way we can seriously change this pattern is through obedience to Scripture and attention to the details through faithful prayer.


  1. Wayne Mack and Dave Swavely, Life in the Father’s House, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2006), 127.
  2. Quoted by Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, (Colorado Springs/; Nav Press, 1991), 89.

 

Please Do Not Reimagine Worship

Please Do Not Reimagine Worship

Recently I observed an advertisement for a bank and it was a commercial that talked about how their new design was “banking reimagined.” It was not the typical banking atmosphere. It was complete with a coffee shop, modern seating, and appeared to be more of a lounge than a bank. It is very common within evangelical circles to hear people talking about how they have reimagined church or reimagined worship. This typically means they have redesigned it for a modern audience with a fresh new look or purpose. It would do us well to remember that God doesn’t need our imagination to repackage worship. He has given us everything we need in the Scriptures in order to detail they way in which God should be approached in worship.

The Archbishop of Canterbury (William Temple) in the 1440s described the purpose and functionality of worship. He said, “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.” In other words, while we are impacted, changed, and beneficiaries as a result of worship—we must view worship as primarily centered upon God.

The primary audience for our worship is God himself. It’s not the congregation, because the congregation is called by God to engage as participants in worship. It’s not the seeker who is coming looking for God, for that person doesn’t truly exist. The true seeker is God himself. Therefore, in our weekly worship as a gathered church—our worship is offered up to God since he alone is the primary audience. Therefore, that means that we must take our worship of God seriously.

Our Aim is to Please God

Many pastors aim to please people, and often unbelieving people, in the way in which they design their weekly worship. This past week, Ed Young who serves as the pastor of Fellowship Church in Texas, redesigned the worship center of their church to look like a basketball court. He called it, “March Madness” and he invited a professional dunker to come and perform dunks on stage. It was widely advertised online and Ed Young spoke before the congregation with a basketball in his hand the entire service.

Many pastors have gone the route of pleasing people rather than pleasing God. They have become entertainers rather than preachers of God’s Word. Seeking to entertain people, they have turned their backs on the central priority of worship which is to please God. Church has become a platform for their personality, their success, and their latest gimmicks are designed to bring in people who would not typically attend church. In their attempt to entertain goats, the sheep are starving to death. With their goal of pleasing people, they fail to please God.

Have you considered the aim of your worship service each week? As a participant in the call to worship, the singing, the praying, and the preaching—what is your aim? What about the Lord’s Table—what is your aim? Rather than pleasing yourself—the central aim of our worship should be to please God. The Psalmist writes these words in Psalm 50:23, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.”

Our Worship is an Offering to God

If our aim is to please God, we must not forget that our worship is an offering to God. In Romans 12:1-2, Paul writes these words to the church in Rome:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

We would do well to remember that it was highly probable that the letter of Romans was read aloud to the gathered church on the Lord’s Day after being sent by the hand of Paul. Imagine if we applied Romans 12:1-2 to our corporate worship services how things would change. We must see our worship on a weekly basis as an offering—not a performance. We are not performers seeking to entertain God, we are worshippers seeking to please God.

When we read Exodus and see the design of the Tabernacle and Leviticus to see the function of the Tabernacle, we find that the entire focus of the Tabernacle was placed upon worship. In fact, seven full chapters in Leviticus are devoted to the functionality of the Tabernacle—to describe how the people of God were to worship God. When the people entered the Tabernacle through the one gate of entry—the very first thing they would see was the blazing alter that stood between them and the Holy of Holies. It stood as a barrier and a reminder that God is holy and God demands a sacrifice of worship.

While God expects a proper offering, that necessitates the engagement of God’s people in worship. We are called to worship God. As worshippers we must draw near to God and bring him a worthy sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving, and biblical worship. Consider the words of Hebrews 10:19-22:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Today’s evangelical worship has been so watered down and repackaged to suit the desires of people that it can hardly be classified as a worship service. Nadab and Abihu (the sons of Aaron) offered up strange fire to God and because God was not pleased with their worship—they were struck dead (Lev. 10). It should cause us to pause with solemnity each time we partake of the Lord’s Supper as we consider that some of the members of the church in Corinth died because of how they profaned the worship of God at the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11). Nevertheless, we must approach God and offer worship to him!

Have you considered that Christian worship is not very Christ centered? God takes worship seriously and because far too few churches seem to take the worship of God seriously in our day, we desperately need a resurgence of biblical worship that honors God.

 

 

 

Public Reading of Scripture as Worship

Public Reading of Scripture as Worship

Years ago, I was forced to attend a Roman Catholic Church mass to fulfill a requirement for a class I was taking in seminary. At first, I was not too pleased with this assignment, but as it turned out, it was quite an eye-opening experience to be sure. For me, having grown up as a protestant, I had never attended a Roman Catholic worship service—and I certainly had been taught much of their errors through the years. While I refused to engage in the mass due to the heretical teaching of transubstantiation, I left convicted. As a pastor of a local church and a seminary student, I was convicted for the lack of public reading of Scripture in our protestant worship services.

Over the years that would follow, I would eventually lead our church to incorporate more rather than less Scripture in worship. Why is the public reading of Scripture important and essential for our worship of God?

1 Timothy 4:13 — Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.

Establishing the Priority of Scripture for Worship

At the center of every Christian worship service must be the Word of God. We as believers must place a great priority upon the centrality of God’s Word among his people. By gathering together for the public reading of Scripture—from the very beginning of the service—it places a priority upon the Word. An honest evaluation for all believers would be to compare the amount of singing to the amount of God’s Word in a typical weekly worship service. Which one takes the priority?

As Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:13), he pointed him to the public reading of Scripture. Since books were scarce (especially parchments of God’s Word) and the educational level of people during the days of the early church often lacked the ability to read—the only time people could hear the Word of God was during public worship. Justin Martyr described a worship service from the second century:

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. [1]

Each week as we gather for worship within the context of the church that I serve, we have an official call to worship from God’s Word. This is a means of the church being called to worship God through his Word from the beginning of the service. Such an official call to worship sets the stage for the fact that all of our worship must be connected to God’s Word, driven by God’s Word, directed by God’s Word, and honoring to the God of the Bible. We likewise desire to communicate to everyone who is present that the Word of God takes priority over everything else in our service.

The chief end of all worship of God will be achieved through his Word. Nothing can compete with God’s Word. Nothing can replace God’s Word. Therefore, with that firm understanding, there should be nothing that takes priority over God’s Word in the regular gathering of God’s people for worship on the Lord’s Day. John Owen, the great Puritan theologian, stated the following:

Our belief of the Scriptures to be the word of God, or a divine revelation, and our understanding of the mind and will of God as revealed in them, are the two springs of all our interest in Christian religion. From them are all those streams of light and truth derived whereby our souls are watered, refreshed, and made fruitful unto God. [2]

Establishing the Necessity of Scripture for Worship

If the only sufficient guide for life and the practice of our faith is the Word of God, why then would we gather together to worship God apart from his Word? Sadly today, many Protestant worship services contain far less public reading of Scripture than Roman Catholic Church services and in some cases—no public reading of Scripture at all.

If we will know God rightly and worship him properly, we must hear God speak through his Word. What Paul taught Timothy was emerging from the Jewish practice of reading the Scriptures in the synagogue. When Jesus visited the synagogue, he read publicly from the scroll of Isaiah. It should likewise be noted that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians closes with the charge to “have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thess. 5:27).

Paul closed his letter to the church in Colosse with these words, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16). This public reading was to the church, which implies public worship rather than casual meetings over lattes at the local Starbucks. We likewise see this clear pattern of the public reading of Scripture in the letters sent to the seven churches of Revelation (see Rev. 1:3). Rather than arriving late and skipping over the public reading of Scripture, make sure you’re on-time, quiet, and engaged in the reading of Scripture since it not only sets the tone of the worship, but is itself part of the worship of God each week.

Honoring God’s Design for Scripture

God’s Word was designed to be read aloud. As mentioned earlier, illiteracy was a common problem among the people of the early church, but as we move through the days preceding the Reformation, the people would gather for worship and they would not be able to hear the Word in their own language, because the Roman Catholic Church sought to control the text. Even when people could not understand Latin, they would read the Bible in Latin—completely concealing the Word from the people. They were elevating ecclesiastical opinion and their own doctrinal positions above sacred Scripture.

The Reformation was about unleashing God’s Word among the people. In the early days of the Reformation and during the time period of the Puritans, they understood the value and necessity of God’s Word in the common man’s language. They had heard stories of friends and family members being imprisoned and even burned for the sake of possessing a copy of the Bible in their own language. Thomas Watson stated emphatically that the Scripture “shows the Credenda, what we are to believe; and the Agenda, what we are to practise.” [3] Reading it aloud in the public worship of God is essential for making God’s will clearly known to the people on a weekly basis.

Finally, we must never forget that God’s design is to save people through the hearing of his Word (Rom. 10:17). Far more important than our story or our opinion or the sharing of our heart is the clear reading of God’s Word. The reading of the Bible must never be reduced to a simple precursor to what the preacher is about to say. The reading of Scripture must never be relegated to the level of an introduction to the preacher’s sermon. It must be clearly established among everyone who gathers within a Protestant worship service that they not only believe the Bible, but they place great priority upon the public reading of God’s Word as well.

Although the early church primarily used the Old Testament for their public reading, we have the privilege to use both the Old Testament and the New Testament for public reading within our worship services. In an age when prominent pastors are encouraging believers to “unhitch themselves from the Old Testament”—it would be wise to use both the Old and New Testaments on a weekly basis as a reminder that the totality of God’s Word is profitable.

2 Timothy 3:16 — All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,


  1. Justin Martyr, First Apology, I. 67, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, 10 vols. (1885; repr. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 1:186.
  2. John Owen, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein…, in The Works of John Owen, D.D. (Edinburgh: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-1855), 4:121.
  3. Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 30.

 

 

Regulative Principle: Red Lights and Green Lights for Worship

Regulative Principle: Red Lights and Green Lights for Worship

As we explore church history, we find the pattern of worship for the Roman Catholic Church repulsive and offensive on many levels. One such level is the use of graphic statues, figures, and the prayers to the saints. Beyond the obvious doctrinal truths regarding the need to worship God alone—why should we be offended by their worship practices?

As we fast-forward through history to our modern evangelical culture, we find pastors jumping (and sometimes falling down on the platform) on trampolines and attempting all sorts of gimmicks from zip line entries to motorcycle tricks all in the context of what is considered worship. Should we be offended by these practices too?

In short, as we consider the subject of worship, are there red lights and green lights—or does anything go? How should we approach the issue of the regulative principle? Does God regulate how we worship? If so, how does he do it? Is anything allowed in worship so long as God doesn’t forbid it? Are all things forbidden except those practices or elements that God specifies in his Word as essential? How do we discern what is forbidden and what’s required?

Regulative Principle: Is the Bible Sufficient?

The regulative principle is often misunderstood and rejected by people who claim to embrace the sufficiency of Scripture. In short, we have a few different positions to choose from in regard to governing principles to Christian worship. First, there’s the freedom principle or the inventive principle which claims that anything goes—so long as one’s heart is right in the process. This would allow for all sorts of tricks and the most elaborate automobile illustrations, zip line entries, video sermons, and various other methods of appealing to people and appearing to be relevant.

Another well known position is the normative principle which claims that anything goes in Christian worship so long as God does not forbid it in Scripture. Basically, this approach allows for nearly anything that’s not considered sinful. Once again, this would open the door for various modern inventions to gain the attention of people such as indoor fireworks, zip line pastors, and more—so long as the Bible doesn’t condemn it.

The regulative principle claims that we should only approach God in worship in the way that he has clearly described such worship in the Word. If God does not specify it in his Word, we should not employ it as a means of worship. In other words, if God has not approved it, we should not approach him with such methods and manners of worship. Once again, we must ask ourselves an honest question—do we truly believe in the sufficiency of Scripture or is that merely a historic creed that we like to embrace in word, but not in practice?

In the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, we find these words:

  • LBC 1:6 — “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation 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
    2 Timothy 3:15-17Galatians 1:8,9John 6:451 Corinthians 2:9-121 Corinthians 11:13141 Corinthians 14:26,40).”

At the heart of the controversy of the Reformation was the idea of the authority of Scripture. Emerging from the Reformation era was the famous slogan, sola Scriptura. When it comes to a July 4th worship service in America, does the Bible say anything that would forbid indoor fireworks to celebrate America’s freedom? In a similar situation, a local church in Atlanta would like to celebrate the Super Bowl by having their pastors compete in preaching as they setup their entire worship service to mirror a football game—is the Bible silent on these two different worship services?

When it comes to the regulative principle—it’s not about the establishment of a list of forbidden practices in worship in order to rob people of their joy and freedom to worship God. It’s actually the opposite. The purpose of the regulative principle is to determine the boundaries for joy-filled worship and the Bible is absolutely sufficient to determine such boundaries. That was true during the days of the ancient controversies of the Roman Catholic Church and it remains so in our modern urbane church culture today.

Regulative Principle: Is the Worship of God Unique?

When Moses was in training to lead Israel, he was serving as a goat farmer in the wilderness. One day God appeared to him in a burning bush, and we can imagine that this was an extremely unusual and spectacular scene. We find the scene in Exodus 3:

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. [2] And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. [3] And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” [4] When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” [5] Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” [6] And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:1-6).

It must be clearly observed that God required Moses to remove his shoes—for the ground was holy. That same dusty sod was not exactly holy the day before, but at that moment, something was quite unique and different as God had appeared to Moses in that bush. Therefore, God required that Moses remove his sandals. There is something unique about the worship of God and we see this from both the Old Testament to the New Testament. In 1 Timothy 3:14-15, we find Paul’s words to Timothy similar:

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, [15] if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:14-15).

There are certain behaviors that are acceptable within the gathered church and there are certain behaviors that are unacceptable. It’s not man’s preference nor his own opinion that dictates such boundaries. It’s God’s Word that provides the boundaries that are clearly established by God. If we operate by the freedom principle or the inventive principle which is fueled by pragmatic gimmicks, strategies, and tricks to appeal to the carnal masses—we will turn worship into entertainment and the church into a community social club rather than what God intended from the beginning.

The regulative principle is not about restrictions or the establishment of red lights for God’s people. It’s not a religious regulation principle that seeks to be negative as much as it’s committed to honoring the unique worship of a sovereign and holy God in the manner in which he has specified. When we redefine marriage and call it marriage—that does not honor God. When we redefine worship and call it worship—it likewise does not honor God. The regulative principle is not about preventing indoor fireworks or vivid motorcycle illustrations, but it is the principle that seeks to direct our worship to our triune God in such a way that what was once mysterious is now clearly revealed in Scripture—as Paul states in 1 Timothy 3:16:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.

When rightly understood, reverenced, and preached among God’s people—we come to the reality that God is not boring and he certainly doesn’t need zip lines, motorcycles, and dress up costume preachers to make him exciting. He is exciting! Worship God!