Whitney: Worship should be God-centered and biblical

Communications Staff — November 6, 2003

God has not left Christians to worship Him in any manner they please, but has instructed them in Scripture how He is to be worshiped, author and teacher Don Whitney said Oct. 16 during a lecture series at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

While most Christians know when they are worshiping in spirit, many are at a loss to explain how they are to complete the imperative of Christ in John 4:24 to worship Him in truth, Whitney said.

Whitney is associate professor of spiritual formation at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also author of a number of books including “Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian life.”

Whitney argued that the Bible provides the “truth” aspect of the double command. Scripture sets forth the elements that are to be included in worship and nothing should be added to them, he said.

This biblical mandate is known as the “regulative principle of worship” and if it were faithfully followed by churches, Whitney said many of the skirmishes in the so-called “worship wars” would be avoided.

Whitney said the regulative principle may be summarized in a two-fold question every congregation should ask when considering the addition of an element to corporate worship: Is it God-centered and biblical?

“The regulative principle of worship in essence says that God knows how He wants to be worshiped better than we do,” Whitney said.

“He has not left us in the dark about that and has revealed in Scripture how he wants us to worship Him, what the elements of worship are to be. If He has done so, then those are the things we must do and we should not bring any of our own ideas in addition to that.”

Biblical elements of corporate worship include preaching and teaching the Word of God, prayer, the public reading of Scripture, the singing of Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, and celebrating the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

The regulative principle rules out extra-biblical elements such as drama, clowns, and the like, Whitney said.

Whitney pointed out that many Baptists today practice what is known as the “normative principle” of worship. The normative principle says that corporate worship must include all biblical elements, but believers are also free to include things not forbidden by Scripture.

This approach is dangerous because we know God’s will only through His special revelation, he said.

“We don’t know what honors God except that which He has revealed,” Whitney said. “In areas like worship where He has revealed His truth, we may not go beyond the bounds of that.

“There are other areas of [church] life [in which] He has not revealed the activities or elements. So we don’t say the Bible tells us the elements of a good church nursery, for example. For those things, we have general principles to apply.”

Whitney said Baptists historically held to the regulative principle as evidenced by its inclusion in many of their early confessions of faith.

For example, article 22.1 of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith reads in part, “…the only acceptable way of worshiping the true God is appointed by Himself…Visible symbols of God, and all other forms of worship not prescribed in the Holy Scripture, are expressly forbidden.”

There are variously nuanced views among Christians who subscribe to the regulative principle, he said. For example, some say the principle can be taken only from commands on worship in the New Testament and not from the Old.

Whitney argued that all of Scripture is to be brought to bear on worship because all Scripture is inspired by God. However, there is an acknowledged priority of authority in Scripture among evangelicals of the New Testament. A New Testament command on worship, such as that found in John 4:24, is the highest authority on worship, he said.

While a single verse does not teach the regulative principle, numerous passages from across the canon, when considered together, make a strong case for it, he said. These include:

* The first four commandments found in Exodus 20:3-4, 7-8. All deal largely with worship.

* The details given by God in the construction of the furniture and garments of worship in Ex. 25-30. In Ex. 30:33,38, God promises the death penalty for the misuse of anointing oil and incense.

* The death of Nadab and Abihu in Lev. 10:1-3. God struck them dead for offering “strange fire” to the Lord.

* The disobedience of Saul in offering the sacrifices Samuel was to have offered in 1 Sam. 10:8 and 13:8-13.

* The death of Uzzah for touching the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Sam. 6:3-8. Whitney pointed out that Uzzah’s motive can be assumed to be pure in keeping the Ark from falling off a cart, but God struck him down for his irreverence. This overturns the argument of some contemporary worship leaders who say only a worshiper’s attitude, and not how he worships, matters to God, he said. God must be worshiped equally in spirit and truth.

* The leprosy of King Uzziah for offering incense in 2 Chron. 26:18-21. Only priests were allowed to offer incense by divine fiat.

* The sin of King Ahaz for replacing the altar of worship in 2 Kings 16:10-16.

* Jesus’ rejection of the Pharisees’worship in Mark 7:6-7. Christ said they worshiped in vain because their doctrines of worship were the precepts of men.

* The warning of the Israelites in Deut. 12:30-32 not to get their ideas of worship from the world around them, but only from God’s revelation.

The regulative principle is not a stifling “cookie-cutter” approach to worship, Whitney said. It merely regulates the elements used in worship and demands that God be worshiped in a manner consistent with Heb. 12:28: “in reverence and awe.” There is freedom in how we apply the elements, he said.

“We are to worship in ways that edify our local church,” Whitney said. “That is a New Testament command on worship. Worship in a black church does not have to be the same as in a white church. Worship in an inner-city church does not have to look like worship in a suburban church.

“They should have the same elements, but that doesn’t mean the musical style is going to be the same in them all. Just ask yourself: is it God-centered? Is it biblical? If you will evaluate everything in your worship service by that, you will do well.”

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