Table Talk on the RPW

Some months ago I came across a TableTalk issue dealing with worship. While I am not generally fond of partisan publication that simply has article after article chanting, “Go Team” (and this applies to Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox), this volume of TableTalk was more interesting than most.

I’ve long known that the Sproul family did not hold to the standard Reformed views on worship. I was pleased to see the editorial staff feature an in-house pro/con view of the Regulative Principle of Worship. This post will examine the pro view (Derek Thomas), point out argumentative fallacies, and then examine the con view (R. J. Gore Jr) which concludes with general weaknesses of the RPW.

Thomas argues (“The Regulative Principle of Worship”) that Scripture covers every possible circumstance (10) which means there must be a specific prescription on how to worship God corporately. He argues that the Bible teaches this in Exodus 25:40, the judgment pronounced on Cain’s offering, and other particular incidents.

As to specific New Testament commands, he points out that Paul urges the Corinthians that corporate worship is to be regulated and orderly. Of course, that doesn’t prove the RPW and few sane men would argue contrary to that. So, what dose the New Testament specifically command on this topic?

Thomas argues that the NT “highlights” (this is specifically the word he uses) several elements: bible reading, singing, etc (12). One must immediately point out, though, in logic that a command is not the same thing as a description of a fact (e.g., a highlight). We cannot logically go from “highlight” to “command.” This category mistake will be huge in the next paragraph.

Thomas responds to some invisible interlocutor who wants to know why we can’t dance in church like David danced before the ark. Thomas even uses the word “example” of David dancing before the ark (13). Let’s see Thomas’ own criteria in the above paragraph: how come David’s dancing before the ark isn’t a “highlight,” if highlight = description = command? Thomas responds that such thinking abandons all the sane rules of biblical interpretation (13). What are these rules? Who gets to decide? This is question-begging.

Some other things that are to be discussed. Thomas ends his article on that note, but we must clear the ground on terminology before we move on. According to the RPW, worship is divided into “elements” and “circumstances.” Preaching and singing, for example, areelements. They are essential to the very nature of worship itself, so the argument goes. Pulpits and pews, on the other hand, are circumstances. They function relative to time and place and are not essential to worship.

Sed Contra

R. J. Gore Jr (“Adiaphora in Worship) and John Frame in general point out a number of logical and hermeneutical problems in this view:

  • Can you find the distinction between element and circumstance within the 2nd Commandment itself?
  • The line between element and circumstance is not always clear (which is important–if you fail hear you might be guilty of offering profane fire unto yea Jehovah) and much of the biblical data does not fit into these categories.
  • The synagogue is not an element of worship (for God did not prescribe it) nor is it a circumstance, since it is not relative to general revelation.
  • The Feast of Purim in Esther is a religious holiday, yet it is not sanctioned by God, but nonetheless it ends up with divine approval (this, I think, is the most destructive case against the RPW). Esther 9:27. Per the RPW gloss, God destroyed Cain, Nadab, and Abihu, yet nothing happens to later Hebrews.

Gore concludes, “The RPW is narrower than the biblical data requires–or allows” (17).

For an excellent essay which also serves as a rebuttal to one of Thomas’s points, see Sproul Jr, “The Regulative Principle of Worship.” He writes,


Because we rightly affirm that Jesus was the once for all sacrifice, and to go back to the shadows would be to deny His coming (see the book of Hebrews), we are left in something of a pickle. We can’t follow the Old Testament requirements, and the New Testament doesn’t contain a clear order of worship. Some solve the dilemma by building what might be called a Frankenstein model of worship. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, a part of the service is taken from here (where the saints are said to take up a collection) another part from this other text (where they saints are said to celebrate the Lord’s Supper), and still another from this third place, where we see preaching going on.