Head Covering and the Regulative Principle of Worship
Imagine you were given the opportunity to meet the Queen of England. It’s likely you wouldn’t wing it, arriving in your favorite comfy outfit to share some personal stories about your family dog. Instead, you’d probably study to find out what you are supposed to do when you were in her presence. Likewise, we should be thoughtful as to how we enter God’s presence in worship as a church body. During the Protestant Reformation (roughly 1517-1648), one of five key doctrines to emerge was sola scriptura, which is Latin for “Scripture alone.” This means that the Bible is our source of truth and provides our only infallible rule of faith and practice. This doctrine guards against elevating church tradition, personal experience, or reason to an equal level of authority with God’s revealed will in the Bible.
Scripture Guides Us
A primary purpose of God’s Word is the self-disclosure of Himself to His people. This includes how we are to worship Him with our lives, and how we worship Him in corporate worship—our time gathered with other believers on the Lord’s Day. Two primary schools of thought emerged during the Reformation: the earliest Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, applied sola scriptura to worship by saying that anything which may be edifying is permissible in gathered worship if it is not forbidden in Scripture: “I condemn no ceremony except such as are opposed to the gospel; all the rest I leave intact within the church.” 1) Tanner, Craig. “NPW vs. RPW.” Avoiding Evil, 2004, http://www.tbcsullivan.com/avoidingevil/2004/03/05/npw-vs-rpw/. This became known as the “Normative Principle of Worship” and is the prevailing approach to corporate worship in North American churches. Essentially it states that Scripture makes clear things we should not do in worship; that is, we should avoid anything obviously sinful. Many faithful Christians adhere to this worship philosophy, seeking to legitimately honor God’s Word in their worship by not violating God’s commands during their times of gathered worship.
However, another view became much more widely held among the “Reformed” (Protestant non-Lutheran) groups. It was eventually known as the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). This concept also applied sola scriptura, but instead of asking what we may do in gathered worship, it states Scripture is sufficient to tell us what we should do in worship. This principle states that God, through His Word, commands certain distinct elements for corporate worship, such as singing, praying, and preaching. 2) The key elements of corporate worship laid out in God’s Word are reading the Bible (1 Tim. 4:13); preaching the Bible (2 Tim. 4:2); singing the Bible (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) — Psalms and other songs that accurately reflect the teaching of Scripture; prayer (Matt. 21:13), and administration of the two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38–39; 1 Cor. 11:23–26). Some would also include a few other elements like taking offerings (1 Cor 16:2) and installing church officers (Acts 6:1-6). The above biblically-prescribed church service elements are clearly spelled out within many of Christianity’s historical creeds. Any additional elements not found in Scripture must be left out. (Full disclosure: I, the writer of this article, subscribe to this view.) There may be some variation in how the elements are executed (sermon length, number of songs, etc.), but the actual service components are those which are prescribed in Scripture.
The basis for this principle is that God is perfect, holy, and transcendent beyond our imagining; we are redeemed-yet-flawed created beings and cannot rightly come up with how we ought to enter His presence in worship. Instead, we must worship God together on His terms, according to His guidelines made known in His Word — especially through Jesus’ teachings, the apostles’ writings, and New Testament church practice carried out under apostolic oversight. The Regulative Principle emphasizes that we must not add to or take away from God’s Word 3) Deut. 4:2, Deut. 12:32, Rev. 22:18-19. and “that worship is of God, by God, and for God.” 4) Hyde, Daniel. “What Is the Regulative Principle of Worship?” Ligonier, 2017, https://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-regulative-principle-worship/.
God Sets Our Boundaries
The Protestant Reformers consistently tied the First Commandment (“no other gods,” Exod. 20:3) to Who we worship, and the Second Commandment (“no graven images,” Exod. 20:4-6) to how we worship. French theologian John Calvin said: “although Moses only speaks of idolatry [here], yet there is no doubt that by synecdoche [mentioning a part of something to refer to the whole], 5) Such as using the term “wheels” to refer to a car. as in all the rest of the Law, he condemns all fictitious services which men in their ingenuity have invented.” 6) Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses: Arranged in the Form of a Harmony. Vol. 2, Hardpress Ltd, 2013, p. 107.
The Reformation-era confessions and creeds, although not divinely inspired, do helpfully summarize key Bible teachings as understood by the Reformers who sought to correct major theological errors in the medieval church. These doctrinal statements written in various countries agreed that only God, through His written Word, can tell us how He ought to be worshiped. One of them states, “the whole manner of worship which God requires of us” is laid out in His Word and therefore we must reject “human innovations” in worship. 7) http://www.prca.org/about/official-standards/creeds/three-forms-of-unity/belgic-confession, Belgic Confession (Netherlands, 1561), Articles 7, 32, accessed 30 Dec 2018. Another catechism still used by many churches today says we are not to “worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His word.” 8) “New To The Catechism?” Heidelberg Catechism, http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com/en/new/?s=8. Accessed 14 Jan. 2019. The most classic statement of the Regulative Principle is in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men… or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.” 9) “Westminster Confession of Faith.” The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, https://www.opc.org/wcf.html. Accessed 14 Jan. 2019. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith contains the exact same wording. So we can see that, historically, there was broad agreement on this point.
Apart from the Second Commandment, there are other places in Scripture we can see that God is rightfully particular about how His people worship Him. 10) More examples can be found here: http://www.westminsterconfession.org/worship/the-scriptural-regulative-principle-of-worship.php For example, the Israelites’ golden calf in Exodus 32 was an offense to God — and not only because it was an idol. The people saw it and said, “‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt’” 11) (NASB) Some translations say “your gods” but the idea is the same: they are referring to their delivering deity. and then declared a feast for the LORD (Exod. 32:4-5). Aaron and the people didn’t intend for the calf to replace God; they convinced themselves this was an acceptable new way to worship Yahweh who had delivered them. However, this worship-innovation was not God’s design and thousands of people died as a result of His just judgment.
God also prescribed that the tabernacle be built to the precise “pattern” He provided (Exod. 25:40), which points to an actual reality of “what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:5). When Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized incense (“strange fire”) to the Lord, presumably as an act of worship, they were struck dead because God had not commanded them to do this (Lev. 10:1-3). Likewise, God rejected Saul’s non-prescribed worship in 1 Samuel 15. Although it seemed Saul was eagerly bringing an offering of thanksgiving to God and “his heart was in the right place,” he was reprimanded by the prophet Samuel and rejected by God. “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22-23).
Man-made additions to worship were also rejected by God in the New Testament. Jesus condemns the Pharisees’ worship as no longer based on God’s decrees but “the tradition of the elders” (Matt. 15:1-14, Mark 7:9). In the Great Commission, Jesus tells his disciples to “go and make disciples… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18-20). Our assumption as Christians is that the Apostles were, indeed, faithful in not teaching the innovations of man. Instead, they taught the words entrusted to them by the Holy Spirit for the functioning and edification of the local and universal church. 12) “1 Cor. 11:1, 11:23 “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you…”, Gal. 1:11-12, Acts 2:42 “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship…” Theologian Derek Thomas notes:
Of particular significance are Paul’s responses to errant public worship at Colossae and Corinth… Paul characterizes the public worship in Colossae as ethelothreskia (Col. 2:23), variously translated as “will worship” (KJV) or “self-made religion” (ESV). The Colossians had introduced elements that were clearly unacceptable…
Perhaps it is in the Corinthian use (abuse) of tongues and prophecy that we find the clearest indication of the apostle’s willingness to “regulate” corporate worship… At the very least, Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians underlines that corporate worship is to be regulated and in a manner that applies differently from that which is to be true for all of life. 13) Thomas, Derek. “The Regulative Principle of Worship by Derek Thomas.” Ligonier, 2010, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/regulative-principle-worship/.
In our private lives and in our gathered worship, we should “offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). Submitting to God’s will for our worship is one way we treat Him as holy. Applying the Regulative Principle of Worship, we leave out church service elements which are not authorized in Scripture, whether it be skits, dance presentations, altar calls, film clips, use of icons, etc. God has not told us to do these things when we enter His presence in Christian worship. And in His kindness, He has actually made things fairly simple for us by telling us what we should do.
Living Out the Word
This view is now seen as overly restrictive to many people, particularly in the independent and inventive Western world, although it is still held by many churches, especially those which are confessionally Reformed or Presbyterian, as well as the Anabaptists. 14) Conrad Grebel, cofounder of the Swiss Anabaptists, wrote in 1524: “that which is not taught by clear instruction and example we shall regard as forbidden to us”, http://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=4313, accessed 02 January 2019. Keep in mind that the RPW applies to the elements (the “what”) to be included in corporate worship (see footnote #2), not every particular of the circumstances (the “how”) or worship. 15) Challies, Tim. “Worship – Elements and Circumstances.” Challies, 2005, https://www.challies.com/articles/worship-elements-and-circumstances/ Are we supposed to gather regularly for worship? Yes. 16) Heb. 10:24-25, Acts 2:42, 1 Tim. 4:13, etc. However, the “circumstances” of the meeting time (9 AM? 11 AM?) or location (church building, a school gymnasium, someone’s house) are immaterial as they are supporting details (the “means to the ends” or the “flesh on the bones”) of meeting as we should. Are we to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a body? Yes. 17) Matt. 26:26-28, 1 Cor. 11:23-26 The precise frequency is not specified (“how”), yet in this case a fundamental part of the element is the components that are used: surely those who value Scripture’s instructions would agree that we should not use punch and doughnuts for the Lord’s Supper when it was instituted by Christ with wine and bread. Should the gathered church sing songs for each other’s encouragement and God’s praises? Yes. 18) Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:18-21 Although people often have strong preferences about such things, the location of the words (in a book or on a screen) are a “circumstance,” not the element itself. What is important—yes, required— is that we are singing Scripture-saturated songs, “making melody to the Lord” with our hearts (Eph. 5:19).
Apart from seeking to be faithful to God’s requirements of us, what are some practical advantages to framing a worship service with the Regulative Principle in mind? Is it restrictive or actually freeing? Pastor-Theologian Kevin DeYoung notes some of the freedom it creates. 19) Deyoung, Kevin. “The Freedom of the Regulative Principle.” The Gospel Coalition, 2012, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/the-freedom-of-the-regulative-principle/. First, a simple, Bible-grounded worship service gives us freedom from constantly trying to keep up with cultural trends in order to either keep the attention of regular church-goers or entice non-believers (“seeker-sensitive worship”). Church historian John Muether notes, “we should be concerned about visitors in our worship, but our concern for them should not prompt us to maximize their comfort and pleasure over the worship of God.” 20) Meuther, John R. “Paying Attention in Worship.” Tabletalk, 2018, https://tabletalkmagazine.com/article/2018/12/paying-attention-worship/. As the saying goes, what you win them with is what you win them to. DeYoung also notes the RPW provides freedom from many of the possible disagreements over personal preferences; freedom of conscience (it is much less likely someone will feel they are being asked to do something they feel isn’t warranted from Scripture, like bowing or “crossing” themselves, if you stick with biblical elements); freedom to be cross-cultural (the RPW framework provides a skeleton of biblical components which can be used in any place or culture); and freedom to “focus on the center,” that is, going back to the basics that were obviously a part of the Christian worship services in the Bible.
If you are not a pastor or worship leader, what is the practical application for you in the pews? One is that when you are looking for a church, you should ask yourself: is this church looking to cater to people’s (my) taste or is their service pretty simple so they can put their time and energy into focusing on what God specifically tells us in His Word we should be doing together? Secondly, if God regulates how we come into His presence through His revealed Word (which He does), 21) I Cor. 14:40 and if Paul spends several chapters of 1 Corinthians doing just this as a messenger from God 22) 1 Cor. 1:1, Gal. 1:1, 1 Cor. 11:23, 14:37-38 (see 1 Cor 11-14), we should pay close attention to these sections to see how they pertain to our gathered worship. 23) Even though not everyone agrees on whether certain spiritual gifts have continued beyond the completion of the canon of Scripture, there are many important principles regarding corporate worship here. It had gotten so bad with the Corinthian church’s abuse of the Lord’s Supper that some people had even become sick or died (1 Cor. 11:30)!
One of the things Paul with his apostolic authority specifically commands the church to do in this section of his letter—including a lengthy explanation—is to ensure their women were covering their heads and the men were not covering their heads during times of prayer and prophesying (which I understand to be synecdoche referring to times of gathered worship, although there are multiple interpretations as to the “where” of head covering). Paul gives timeless and non-culture-bound reasons and underscores his point by indicating that all the other churches in other places, with different customs, local religions, and fashions were already following this rule (1 Cor. 11:16). Covered women and uncovered men were a consistent element of worship gatherings everywhere—Paul says this practice honors Christ (1 Cor. 11:4) and, therefore, it pleases God.
The Regulative Principle of Worship says Scripture, God’s revealed will, is sufficient to tell us how we should come into God’s presence; we don’t need to augment it with our good ideas to be eye-catching or relevant. God’s Word faithfully received and applied will always be relevant to our lives. If we acknowledge that God’s Word makes radical demands on our lives as followers of Christ, it should come as no surprise that it sets expectations for us as worshipers. And if we are humbly guided by Scripture to frame our gathered worship, the worst that could happen is that we are overly cautious in trying to worship like the churches of the Bible! This is much better than carelessly offending God by finding “freedom” where it is not granted in His Word. To act as though “as long as your heart is right, nothing really matters” does not recognize how Word-centered our worship should be. 24) “#WisdomWednesday with Dr. Ligon Duncan “What is the Regulative Principle of Worship?” YouTube, uploaded by ReformedSeminary, 6 Feb 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eugZjM7RNU. Let us approach our holy God on His terms so that in all we do— in our day-to-day lives and in our gathered worship— we glorify God by placing Him first.
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- Head Covering and the Regulative Principle of Worship - February 26, 2019