I remember well the student’s written response during a summer course on the church and sacraments. One of the course goals was to help students understand biblical and theological guidelines for worship. The response was both encouraging and dismaying. After acknowledging that the exercise was beneficial, he wrote, “I never thought much about biblical requirements for worship, but you Presbyterians think about them a lot!” I smiled, thinking: “If you only knew!”
Presbyterians think about worship a great deal because the Protestant Reformation was not only a recovery of sound doctrine, but also a key moment in the renewal of worship. By the late Middle Ages, the simple worship of the early church — synagogue gathering followed by Lord’s Supper — had become encrusted with much that obscured the gospel. Lutheran and Anglican reformers sought a conservative reformation of worship, embracing the idea that “what is not forbidden is allowed.” This view provided much space for adiaphora, or “things indifferent,” and resulted in modest reforms in worship. To this day, worship in these traditions is generally the most elaborate among Protestant denominations.
The reform associated with John Calvin was much more thorough. As my colleague Hughes Oliphant Old puts it, Calvin was concerned that worship be reformed “according to the Scriptures.” Over time, this principle would evolve, eventually becoming known as the “regulative principle of worship” (RPW). The RPW was the hallmark of puritan and Presbyterian worship, although some trace its roots back to Zurich and the Anabaptists. In its most rigid form, the RPW stipulates “that what is commanded is required; what is not commanded is forbidden.” This view allows little space for “things indifferent.”
The RPW first speaks of “elements” of worship. Elements are parts of worship that God Himself has instituted, for example, reading Scripture, prayer, preaching, and the sacraments. Such divinely commanded elements constitute the basis of worship. Proponents argue that the RPW is thoroughly biblical and prevents the people of God from “inventing” new elements of worship, or as some would say, engaging in “will worship.” This desire for biblically grounded worship is praiseworthy and missing in too much of our contemporary worship. But the concept of “elements” does not cover everything involved in a service of worship. In addition to elements, “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 rule of the Word, which are always to be observed” (WCF 1.6). One of the Scots commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, George Gillespie, was a key promoter of the RPW. He explained that circumstances are connected to a sacred act, but no significant part of it.
For Gillespie and others who shared his view, circumstances are adiaphora, but are limited to matters on the periphery of worship. Such circumstances might include the time of gathering for worship on the Lord’s Day, the seating arrangements (pews? folding chairs?), or the psalms to be sung. These are easy enough, and the distinction between divinely appointed elements of worship and circumstances (determined by common sense, general revelation, or general principle) is useful. But the RPW, clear enough in theory, has caused many conflicts in its application. At what point does one cross the line from “connected to worship” to “significant part of worship”? For example, shall we accompany our singing with instruments? Should non-inspired hymns be sung or only psalms? Are choirs acceptable? What about choir robes? Is a Christmas Eve candlelight service authorized, or is it “Exhibit A” for “will worship”? Are these adiaphora? Or do they constitute a significant part of worship, thus exceeding the bounds of circumstances? Another problem with the RPW is the fact that some biblical data do not fit neatly into its categories. First, the synagogue itself — and its worship — clearly do not fit within the narrow definition of circumstances. Yet neither are they elements, since there is no clear command, or necessary deduction from a command, that institutes either the synagogue or its worship. In fact, both arose during the exile after the Babylonians destroyed Israel’s temple and the Jews’ divinely appointed system of worship. Second, the Jews celebrated their deliverance under Mordecai and Esther by establishing the festival of Purim. In fact, Esther 9:27 specifically says that “the Jews took it upon themselves to establish the custom that they and their descendants . . . should without fail observe these two days every year, in the way prescribed and at the time appointed” (NIV). Clearly, this festival is of human origin. Third, John’s gospel repeatedly presents Jesus as the fulfillment of various Jewish feasts. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the temple during the time of the Maccabees. When Jesus appears in the temple during the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) to teach the Jews, John writes that Jesus describes Himself as one “whom the Father consecrated” (John 10:36). In John 8:12, Jesus gives witness to Himself as “the light of the world.” According to John, Jesus is the true fulfillment of the feast of “dedication” and “lights.” Yet this feast is without divine appointment.
So, the synagogue, Purim, and Hanukkah were not divinely instituted. The synagogue and its worship were responses by God’s covenant people to the destruction of their divinely appointed system of worship. If they were to worship at all, they had to worship in an exceptional but faithful way. Moreover, Purim and Hanukkah celebrate exceptional moments in redemptive history when God intervened to preserve His covenant people. The response of the covenant people was to celebrate God’s mighty redemptive acts. Clearly, these covenantally faithful responses are not divinely instituted “elements” of worship. But, are they not also more than just “mere” circumstances?
It is here that we return to the notion of adiaphora. As Paul writes in Romans 14:6, the believer “gives thanks to God” through what he does — or doesn’t do. If some things are neither commanded nor forbidden, at least at some level there is liberty, and thus some sense of “indifference.” For example, in Acts 16:1–3 Paul sees to it that Timothy is circumcised for the sake of his witness to the Jews. In Galatians 5:1–6, however, Paul opposes circumcision because the Judaizers make this a requirement along with faith in Jesus. As John Murray once wrote: “Though things are indifferent in themselves the person is never in a situation that is indifferent.” With baptism replacing circumcision as the sign of the covenant, circumcision no longer holds its former significance. Circumcision is neither required nor forbidden, but its propriety is determined by one’s context. This is a clear example of Christian liberty.
The question is, “Is there a place for Christian liberty in worship?” We have seen that the Lutherans and Anglicans embrace adiaphora; less wellknown is the fact that some Reformed confessions also articulate a similar doctrine, especially concerning rites and ceremonies in the church. For example, the Second Helvetic Confession, chapter 27, offers a classic definition: “‘That is indifferent,’ (says Jerome to Augustine), ‘which is neither good nor evil; so that whether you do it or do it not, you are never the more just or unjust thereby.’” Chapter 27 also allows for different rites in varied locations. Chapter 24 denies observance of saints’ days but affirms the celebration of Christmas, Easter, and so on as a matter of “Christian liberty.” The Belgic Confession, article 32, stipulates that “it is useful and beneficial that those who are rulers of the church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the church” even as the confession further warns against “all human inventions” that establish laws of worship “to bind the conscience in any manner whatever.” The Scottish Confession of Faith, article 20, also states that it is not possible for “one order in ceremonies to be appointed for all ages, times, and places” but ceremonies “may and ought . . . to be changed.” These points are similar to those made by Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (4.10.30, 32).
To summarize, the RPW is not quite the same thing as “reformed according to the Scriptures.” The RPW is narrower than the biblical data requires — or allows. Moreover, the RPW has left the church with a confusing view of circumstances so that even those who affirm the principle find it difficult to agree on its applications or to practice it consistently. To reform worship according to the Scriptures, we need to allow Christian liberty for those indifferent things — or adiaphora — that are not elements of worship but too substantial to squeeze into a narrow definition of circumstances. A covenantal principle of worship allows room for God’s people to express themselves contextually — not by inventing new elements of worship, but by adapting worship (such as rites, ceremonies, special days) to their times and places. In conclusion, John Frame has contended that, in some sense, there are no indifferent things, for everything we do — or don’t do — should be for the glory of God. On that point, there is no room for indifference.