That being said, one crucial point that's helped in my understanding is that rather than being a principle solely to "restrict" what a church can and can't do legitimately in its worship, the RPW in allowing only those"elements" with Scriptural warrant into the Church's worship is a protection for the individual believer's conscience against the Church imposing or requiring anything that extends beyond what God himself requires of his people. Some of the confusion that comes into these discussions is a result of the "elements of worship" often being misdefined. And as well, the three other aspects of the RPW (circumstance, form and rubric) are often ignored or conflated into that of "elements."
To help shed some light in order to foster a more profitable debate on this topic, I'm posting (with permission) this short book review by T. David Gordon:
Principles of Conduct
"Covenantal Worship: Reconsidering the Puritan Regulative Principle", by Ralph J. Gore, Jr.
In light of the comparative dearth of historically and theologically informed studies of Reformed worship, one is inclined to welcome any contribution to the field that is characterized by both. R. J. Gore, Jr.'s most recent book is just that, although the book turns out to be more concerned with the subtitle than the title. He expends only 26 pages on covenantal worship per se; the majority of the work is devoted to the unproven thesis that the Puritans embraced a different principle of worship than Calvin did.
The strongest aspect of the book is the clarity with which Gore describes the differences between the worship practices of the English Puritans and those of Calvin, and the historical occasions of these differences due to Puritan fears of the (perceived or real) tyranny of the Anglican Church. The most refreshing aspect of the book is the candor with which Gore repudiates the teaching of the Westminster Assembly on worship: "All that has preceded has been helpful in determining that the regulative principle of worship, as formulated by the Puritans and as adopted by the divines at the Westminster Assembly, is unworkable. More importantly, it is simply not the teaching of Scripture" (137). While I disagree entirely with both aspects of this sentiment, its boldness contrasts refreshingly with the prevarication usually found among less-candid Presbyterians who have no more regard for the regulative principle of worship than Gore does but who profess to agree with it. Bravo to Gore!
Traditionally, students of Reformed worship have recognized that four categories require careful attention in understanding the regulative principle: element, circumstance, form, and rubric. An element (sometimes called a "part" and sometimes "mode") of worship is a distinct and ordinary act of worship. Prayer, singing praise, the ministry of the Word, the ministry of the Sacraments, are all "elements" of worship. A "circumstance" is some consideration regarding a matter that is not religious in itself, what the Westminster Confession (1:6) calls, "common to human actions and societies." Such considerations include the time and place of the meeting, amplification of the human voice, how best to provide seating and lighting, and so forth. A "form" is the lexical (or, possibly, musical) content of a given element. Thus, if one determines that prayer is an element of worship, the decision to employ the "Lord's Prayer" is a decision regarding "form;" not an element or circumstance. Finally, a "rubric" is a specific manner of conducting an element, such as the rubric of kneeling, standing, or sitting for prayer, or the rubric of breaking the bread (fraction) when administering the Lord's Supper. Each of these four realities is governed differently.
Reformed Christianity (Calvin and the Puritans) has distinguished itself from the Lutheran and Anglican traditions by permitting only those elements that are warranted by Scripture; whereas the Lutheran view permits any element not prohibited by Scripture. Thus, if an element is proposed as a particular act of religious worship, and if Scripture says nothing about it, the Lutheran tradition considers it permissible, and the Reformed forbids it. Consequently, Scripture "regulates" the elements of worship by positive warrant; where a biblical justification is absent, such an element is impermissible. Circumstances, by comparison, are not regulated by the Word alone; to the contrary, the Westminster Confession states that circumstances are "governed by the light of nature and Christian prudence." Thus, when determining whether to amplify the minister's voice, or whether to set the chairs or pews in a certain arrangement, one has no recourse to Scripture, but only to those considerations common to other "human actions and societies."
"Forms" of worship, according to the Reformed tradition, are regulated by the teaching of Scripture (in the sense that whatever is said must accord with biblical truth), but are not restricted to the actual words of Scripture. Thus, while Reformed churches may employ the "Lord's Prayer," ministers may also pray specifically for Mr. Smith's cancer surgery, which is not mentioned expressly in Scripture. Similarly, a sermon must accord with the teaching of the Word of God, but ministers are permitted to do more than merely read Scripture's own words; they compose sermons using their own wisdom and judgment.
"Rubrics" are governed by a combination of the considerations regarding forms and circumstances, because there are specific ways of performing certain acts that could either enhance or impinge upon the biblical realities contained therein. So, all the discussions regarding kneeling or standing in prayer appeal to more than that which is "common to human actions and societies" because such considerations need to grapple with how to perform an element in the most appropriate, most edifying, and most respectful manner.
Although Gore eventually uses all four terms in the book, he employs only two in his discussion of the Puritan understanding of worship: element and circumstance. This removal of "form" and "rubric," combined with his later redefinition of "circumstance" (to refer to "adiaphora") is the fundamental flaw in this book. If there are only two considerations in making decisions about worship (element and circumstance), then everything that is not a circumstance must, by definition, be an element. Thus, for Gore, differences between Calvin and the Puritans on forms and rubrics turn into a full-blown disagreement on the elements of worship.
Gore's failure to do justice to all four aspects of corporate worship leads to his conclusion that the regulative principle of worship is "unworkable." Although he never clarifies this point, what he apparently means is that the doctrine is either "difficult, or "not free from some difficulties," because, as he demonstrates, Reformed Christians have never worshiped uniformly. But the trouble is that this judgment is analogous to saying that the doctrine of the authority of Scripture is "unworkable," because some who profess the doctrine (e.g., Lutherans and Calvinists) arrive at different conclusions. Are the doctrines of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ, "unworkable" because they are difficult or mysterious? Agreeing that worship is regulated by the teaching of Scripture does not guarantee entire unanimity on the relevant scriptural passages or their meaning.
What Gore's verdict shows, however, is a complete misunderstanding of the regulative principle. That is, what is "unworkable" for him is not the regulative principle itself, as articulated by Calvin or the Westminster Assembly. Instead, what is unworkable is a notion about Reformed worship that is divorced from the doctrine of church power; that confuses "worship as all of life" with "worship" as the first-day gatherings of God's visible covenant people; that redefines "circumstance"; and that fails to appreciate the place of "forms" and "rubrics" alongside the elements of worship.
Ironically, I agree with Gore in preferring Calvin's worship to that of the Puritans. On almost every point where Calvin and the Puritans diverged on some formal issue, or some matter of rubric, I agree with Calvin. For nine years, I pastored a church where we used an order of service that differed only in small details from Calvin's Strasbourg liturgy. I believe in weekly communion and in corporate prayers of confession, especially but not exclusively those found in the old Book of Common Prayer, followed by scriptural declarations of pardon. I believe it is wise to confess the faith weekly using either the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed; and I think the nonsacramental worship typical of the Puritans has tended to remove mystery from worship, and to make the Reformed tradition more ascetic than aesthetic. Yet none of these differences requires me to repudiate the fundamental principle of both Calvin and the Puritans: that when the Christian assembly gathers in the presence of God, it should approach him only by means of his own appointment.
T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and associate professor of religion at Grove City College (Grove City, Pennsylvania).
This article originally appeared in the 2003 Sept./Oct., Vol. 12; 5 edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit Modern Reformation or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.