Does The RPW = Homogeneity?

In July, 2013 Trip Lee published a provocative essay, to which I was just pointed via Twitter. The original piece has been removed but a remnant remains at the Aquila Report. My intent here is not to engage the piece at length because I think I share some of Lee’s concerns. It will probably be more helpful for me to try to show that, in fact, though the regulative principle of worship does lead us to a certain unity, it does not result in uniformity. There is diversity within unity and unity within diversity.

Let’s define our terms. Lee mentions the “regulative principle of worship” (hereafter RPW). This is shorthand for what all Presbyterian and Reformed churches confess in the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Standards about how we understand the sole, unique authority of Scripture relative to public worship. When we speak of the RPW, we’re speaking about the principle by which our public worship services are governed.

Belgic Confession (1561), art. 7 says, in part:

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures….


Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way (art. 32).

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563)

96. What does God require in the second Commandment?

That we in no wise make any image of God,1 nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1648), ch. 21 says, in part:

But 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 the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

The churches that confess the RPW distinguish between the elements and circumstances of worship. Elements are those without which there is no proper worship. Those lists of elements vary, fundamentally, there are two: Word and prayer. The Word is read, preached, and made visible in the sacraments. Prayer is our response to God’s Word. Circumstances are those few things, as we say in WCF 21, that are determined by the light of nature. Now, the tendency in the modern period, has been to elaborate the list of circumstances but when the divines spoke about the “light of nature” they were thinking of those things that are unavoidable. E.g., A service must be held at some time of day. When is determined by the light of nature. It must be held in some language (i.e., the predominant language of the congregation). That is determined by the light of nature. Certainly not everything we might like to do may be described as a circumstance and thereby justified. For more on this listen to the most recent Heidelcast on the second commandment. You can read about the history of Christian worship and the its reformation in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

The RPW thus wants us to ask one question when organizing a worship service: what has God commanded or what must we do? Other Christian traditions, which follow a different principle (sometimes called the normative principle of worship) ask a different question: what may we do? In those traditions the confession is that we do in public worship whatever is not forbidden.

As the Reformed churches reformed their worship according to the RPW in the 16th and 17th centuries there was some variety or diversity within their unity. Calvin counseled patience to those in Frankfurt who were unhappy with the pace of Reformation as he counseled Anglicans to stop doing silly things like making communion bread in figures. He never wavered in his articulation of the RPW, however.1 So, some churches observed some of the “evangelical” days of the old church calendar (e.g., Christmas, Easter, Pentecost) while others rejected all days but the Christian Sabbath.2 The Reformed and Presbyterian services were fundamentally united not only by the RPW but by a dialogical understanding of worship, that God speaks to us in his Word and we respond with his Word. In Geneva, however, the congregation sang the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the Word and responded to the Word with canonical songs beyond the Psalter. Other parts of the tradition responded only with the Psalms. It is frequently assumed and it has been argued that the churches sang more than canonical songs. Certainly it is true that the Dutch Reformed Churches struggled to persuade the people to sing only God’s Word (and to attend the second service). It may be that Presbyterian churches in the British Isles, prior to the Westminster Assembly (1640s) sang non-canonical hymns but it seems clear that the intent of the divines was to sing canonical psalms in public worship.3

There is also unity in diversity. There was widespread agreement by the churches that use of musical instruments in public worship belonged to the typological (Old Testament) period of redemptive history that has been fulfilled by Christ. Thus, in Geneva, Zürich, London, Heidelberg, the Netherlands, France, and elsewhere the Reformed and Presbyterian churches did not use musical instruments in public worship. In so doing they believed that not only were they following God’s Word but also recapturing the earliest Christian practice.

It is true, as in this post, that most of the time when the RPW is discussed, it is done in the context of European history. Does that mean that all RPW churches must use European tunes and customs? Not at all. Remember, the first Christians to practice the RPW were neither sixteenth-century Europeans or nor sixteenth-century British Christians. They were Jewish and Gentile Christians in Palestine and the ancient Greco-Roman world. They were Greeks, Africans, and Romans. They were from what we today know as central Turkey (Asia Minor). In other words people came to faith from a variety of cultural-linguistic backgrounds. Remember that the one of the greatest questions of the Apostolic period was what to do with Gentile converts. The church (Acts 15) ruled that Gentiles need not keep the Mosaic ceremonial laws. They were only to refrain from a couple of things. Gentiles need not become Jews in order to become Christians.

The early post-apostolic church became predominantly Gentile but it was still culturally diverse. Still, they agreed about not using instruments in public worship, not for cultural reasons but because of a shared reading of redemptive history. They sang God’s Word together because it unites God’s people across all cultures. Whatever our cultural background, the story of redemption belongs to all of us.

Today there are RPW observing churches across the globe, in many different cultural-linguistic settings. There’s nothing about the RPW that requires us to use Genevan tunes to sing God’s Word. Those tunes were adapted from their setting. Any tune that is appropriate for public worship may be used. Tunes are circumstances, i.e., determined by the light of nature. The same is true of rhythm and meter. So, while we should all be administering God’s Word and responding to that Word with his Word,  that response will likely sound different from place to place. We should expect songs in Kobe, Japan and the Democratic Republic of Congo are bound to sound different from the worship of Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the USA and the UK. That’s as it should be.

The RPW is not a vehicle for covert cultural imperialism or snobbery. There is genuine diversity, according to the light of nature, but when it comes to the elements, to the ministry of the Word and the congregation’s response, we should be unified by our common commitment to that Scriptures as that which regulates all that we do, which protects our Christian liberty, and which binds us all together in Christ across time, place, and language. Christ is gathering a people for himself from “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9) to praise of his glorious grace.


1. See “Calvin’s Principle of Worship,” in ed. David Hall, Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of his Quincentenary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010), 247–69.

2. The Church Order of the Synod of Dort (1619), says:

63. The Lord’s Supper shall be administered once every two months, as much as possible. It is also edifying, wherever the circumstances of the churches allow, that the same be done on Easter, Pentecost and Christmas. But in places where as yet there is no organized congregation, elders and deacons shall first be provisionally installed.

3. For more on this see these posts


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  1. The article can now be found at:

    And instead of homogeneity, how about uniformity or universality?
    The circumstances might be different, but the elements should be the same.
    With the real problem being we still have P&R churches that mistake the former for the latter, much more worship at the altar of diversity.
    Yet diversity will take care of itself, that we obey God is the real issue which much of the contemporary P&R church has not dealt with, even as they look down their noses at the big box mega churches and criticize them.
    True, the gospel trumps gospel worship, but that still doesn’t let the P&R off the hook compared to Saddleback.

  2. I would comment. There is a difference between the traditional Scottish Presbyterian concept of the regulative principle, as opposed to the congregationalist view. What Dr Clark presents above reflects more a congregationalist view of the regulative principle. It recognizes an autonomy of the local church over the particulars of how the regulative principle is implemented. This in turn reflects the more congregationalist polity of his denomination, the United Reformed Church.

    In contrast, in the Scottish Presbyterian churches, uniformity traditionally was stressed. Only recently has diversity in worship been tolerated, and that, largely because of American influence. Traditionally, what the order of worship was, what version of the Psalter, and what version of the Scriptures, were all matters decreed at the Synodical level in Presbyterian churches. Only in American churches did this change. It changed, because early in the onset of American Presbyterianism, all mission endeavours to the frontier were done in collaboration with the Congregationalists: and thus, Presbyterians were heavily influenced by Congregationalist ideas about church government, discipline, and worship.

    Meanwhile, in Scotland, all congregations used the same order of worship, the 1650 Scottish Metrical Psalms, no instruments, and the Authorised Version only.

    Only in the last twenty years has the situation changed in Scotland, and that, under American influence. That said, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland ( still holds fast to the old ways, and uniformity in worship in that Church is still strictly enforced.

    • Albert,

      I’m not aware of any substantive difference between the RPW argued by Ames and that argued by Calvin and Gillespie. Ames was a congregationalist, who, nevertheless was an advisor at Dort and widely influential in the Dutch Reformed (presbyterial) churches. Calvin and Gillespie were presbyterial in their polity. The Westminster Assembly, which developed the Directory of Publick Worship, was framed by adherents to three different polities (Episcopal, Presbyterian, and congregational), so that’s prima facie evidence against making the sorts of distinctions and claims you make above. Nothing I said indicates that local congregations may determine autonomously how to apply the RPW. I am presbyterial in my polity and live and minister under a presbyterial, Reformed system of church government.

      It is a historical fact that there has been some variety in the application of the RPW. Are you calling Calvin a congregationalist? That makes no sense.

      By pointing out the obvious, that African tunes, rhythms etc will differ from those used in Japan, I’m not advocating congregational autonomy in the application of the RPW.

      It’s fair to say that there was some development in understanding of the implications of the RPW. Calvin and Bullinger were working out its implications in the 1540s. The divines had a century behind them when they were working out its implications. Even in the Scottish GA, however, there were orthodox men who wanted to sing more than Psalms. As I described in the book, a committee was formed but the proposal died. Were those men congregational?

      • Dear Dr Clark,

        Maybe it would help to be a little more specific. In some churches that are more congregationalist in their polity – the congregation is allowed to choose which version of the Bible to use, and what version of the Psalter. I believe such would be the case with the United Reformed Church and the Free Reformed Church. In contrast, in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, all congregations are required to use the Authorised Version and the 1650 Psalter. That plainly is a higher bar of uniformity.

        In the Church of Scotland historically, until the 20th century, all congregations were required to use the Authorised Version and the 1650 Metrical Psalms. So also was the case with the Free Church, until just recently.

        In contrast, in many American Presbyterian churches, and in some Dutch Reformed churches, congregations are allowed to pick and choose.

        I’m not speaking of whether exclusive psalmody be an option. I’m speaking of whether all congregations in a Church be required to use the same version.

        Even in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland: all English-speaking congregations use the same version of the Scriptures and the Psalms, and also in our Zimbabwe Mission, all the Shona people use the same edition of the Shona Bible and the same edition of the Shona Psalms.

        It’s not at all like the American situation where all congregations speak English, and yet, in the same Church, one congregation uses the Authorised Version and the 1650 Scottish Metrical Psalms, where another congregation uses the ESV and the modern Psalms for Singing. Plainly, the same bar for uniformity is not set there.

        As for Geneva: you must remember that all congregations of a given language group did indeed use the same translation of the Scriptures, and the same Psalter. There wasn’t the same helter-skelter approach we see today in modern American denominations.

  3. Scott,
    This is helpful.
    In my experience, people who argue that the RPW imposes a uniformity of worship are often conflating a preliminary theological commitment with the fruits of exegesis. For example, there are many people who follow the RPW who believe in exclusive psalmody. Yet the RPW does not in itself entail exclusive psalmody. Exclusive psalmists start with a commitment to the RPW (that God is only to be worshipped in the ways he has ordained) and then (as a second step) exegete the various Biblical texts and reach the conclusion that the Bible teaches exclusive psalmody. In principle, you could agree with the first step and disagree with the exegesis of specific passages and thus reach different conclusions about worship. An obvious example would be baptism. We agree with many of our Baptist friends that we should only baptize those whom the Bible instructs us to baptize. Yet we disagree about the interpretation of particular texts (as well as larger theological construction).

    Another parallel example would be the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. That is a preliminary step (that like the RPW), we believe to be Biblical in its own right. But inerrancy in itself does not tell us what the Scriptures inerrantly teach us. Some who believe in inerrancy are committed to premillennial dispensationalism. The problem is not that they don’t really believe in inerrancy; it is that their hermeneutics and exegesis lead them to different (I would argue, wrong) conclusions about what the Scriptures teach.

    As a result, there are two separate discussions that we need in the Reformed community. First, what is the RPW? Do we affirm it, and if so what do we mean by it? And then secondarily, what exactly does the Bible teach about worship? The former question is logically first and foundational, but the second question still needs full analysis. The conclusions will necessarily be shaped by our hermeneutical approach and our exegesis of actual texts. We can’t short circuit the process by simply saying that anyone who disagrees with us doesn’t really believe in the RPW.


    • Iain,

      I’ve yet to see a case that explains satisfactorily how what most of our P & R congregations do in worship meets the RPW. What I see and hear is affirmation of the RPW right up to the point it infringes on practices that were adopted (or restored after the Reformation) at which point the the RPW seems to morph into the normative principle.

      The original RPW, as confessed and taught in the 16th and 17th-century P & R churches was grounded in exegesis. I’ve seen no evidence that the exegesis changed in the 18th and 19th centuries, when our practice changed. What I’ve seen is that we more or less ignored our principle.

      I’m not picking on exegetes here. Recently I saw (or rather it was pointed out to me in class by a student) in J H Heidegger where he simply asserted that because the psalms speak of instruments we can use them too, so the slippage began even earlier than I had thought. He gave no indication in that text (a small handbook) that he was aware that his predecessors (including Calvin) had addressed that argument at length.

      I’m not convinced that our post-17th-century practices can be accounted for by slotting them under application of the RPW.

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