The Fourth Commandment
Chapter 21 – Liberty in Worship
I have examined the first four Commandments and their significance for our worship. I have argued for the Regulative Principle of Worship, that doctrine which teaches that we may only worship God in the ways that he has prescribed, and that if He hasn’t told us to do something in worship, we must not do it.
Before I close, I want to address one of the most common points of disagreement on this issue: the relationship of Christian Liberty to the Regulative Principle.
Part of the Christian’s liberty in Christ is the Liberty of Conscience. The New Testament teaches that where God’s Word is silent, the Christian is free of moral constraint. (I Corinthians 10; Romans 14:1-10) In other words, if the Bible does not call something sin, then it is not sin, no matter what the prejudices of society or the church might be. We are required to respect one another’s liberty whenever our own personal mores are not supported in the Bible. You may not like eating meat, but the apostle says you must not frown upon your brother for doing so.
Many hear the Regulative Principle and think that it is in conflict with Liberty of Conscience. On the face of the matter, the two principles seem to teach opposite approaches to morality. Liberty of Conscience says, “If God has not forbidden it, it is not forbidden.” The Regulative Principle teaches, “If God has not commanded it, it is not permitted.” How can these opposite principles coexist within one doctrinal system?
Part of the answer is to understand that worship is not the same as all of life. (Remember that I said that would be an important concept to grasp.) We should not be surprised that God regulates His worship, in which He reveals Himself, differently than He does the rest of our lives. I believe there is more to be said than that, though. In fact, I am convinced that the Regulative Principle is essential to Christian Liberty.
What seem like competing moral philosophies actually agree and fit together quite logically. This is so for two reasons.
The Law of Liberty
James twice referred to the law of God as the “law of liberty.” This should not simply be misunderstood as an argument that liberty has replaced the Old Testament law. James is the writer who emphasizes the good works which must follow genuine salvation. What, then, was he saying? James understood something about the Law of God – that it is the foundation of our liberty in Christ.
Imagine how easily our liberty would be taken had the Commandments not been etched in stone! Any teacher could have piled regulations on us, claiming that his ideas were the morality of God. In fact, you don’t need to imagine; this is exactly what has happened whenever the Law has been discounted. I once heard a theological professor arguing through a series of lectures that the Law has no bearing on us. He believed we are now bound instead by the counsels of the Holy Spirit. Pressed to identify those counsels, he said offhandedly, “Oh, there are thousands of them.”
Thousands! Be thankful that God does not hold you to a standard including thousands of regulations, but has expressed His Law in ten simple Commandments which any child can memorize.
There can be no liberty in Christ without the Law of God. Christian Liberty is not a principle which says “You may do whatever you please.” Rather, it reasons thus: “God has said what is right and what is wrong; beyond what He has said no one may bind your conscience.” It is a liberty firmly set upon the foundation of God’s morality. Without some law, there is chaos. When we profess the Law of God, we are free on the one hand from the madness of licentiousness and on the other from the desires of others to tell us what to do.
The Regulative Principle is an attempt to apply the Law of God to worship. You can debate whether or not it is a right application – I have made my case in the preceding posts. The Regulative Principle is not, however, an attempt to add regulations to God’s Word, but to follow the regulations God has established. God has put boundaries around all behavior. No words are acceptable except those which are true: that is the application of the Ninth Commandment. We believe that the application of the Second is similar: no worship is acceptable unless it was required of us by God.
If we had created this principle out of thin air we would be guilty of violating Christian Liberty. If it is the application of the Law that God intended, it is the foundation of our liberty.
Liberty in Worship
Another line of argument must be considered. Were it not for the Regulative Principle, our liberty would regularly be violated in corporate worship. This may sound backwards, but it is not. You say, “But the Regulative Principle stops me from doing what I want.” Perhaps, but lets look at Christian Liberty a bit more closely, considering the classic case I mentioned above.
Paul says that eating meat is a matter of liberty; you may eat or not eat. In other words, Christian Liberty teaches not only that I may eat meat, but that you have the right to abstain from eating. My liberty should never coerce you. If I know that you are a conscientious vegetarian, I must not invite you to dinner at my house and serve ribs. Liberty protects both of us.
Worship, though, is by its very nature a corporate activity. We are required to assemble together for worship. What happens to the worshiper who disagrees with some portion of the service? Say the service that day includes a dramatic skit, and some of the worshipers find this offensive. They do not wish to watch, but they are compelled by others to participate in an act of worship which they find offensive. They have been compelled, against every principle of Christian Liberty, to violate their own conscience.
But, you say, that could happen with any element of worship. What if someone objects to preaching? There is a significant distinction in that case. If a worshiper objects to sermons, he objects to God, not man. It was God who commanded His servants to “preach the word.” One man is not to grasp at authority over his brother’s conscience, but God is the Lord of the conscience. If He commands us to do something, our liberty does not excuse us.
Worship which is not regulated by God’s Word, though, regularly violates the conscience of believers in a myriad of ways. It robs them of their liberty, constraining them (if they would obey God’s command to assemble for worship) to do that which God does not Himself require. There is no liberty in such worship – only bondage to the latest fads of men.
We need not pit the Regulative Principle against Christian Liberty. While God regulates corporate worship differently than He does our private lives, in both He grants us true liberty within His Law. That Law, the very one which regulates worship, is essential to our liberty. Without it, we are at the mercy of men, and must follow them into every imagination and device which they would add to worship, regardless of the dictates of our consciences before God.