The Regulative Principle of Congregational Singing

“To obey when it is a matter of God’s express prescription is true liberty; anything else is bondage and legalism.”[1]

There are many opinions – biblical and unbiblical – about how we try to organize and execute our congregational worship on a Sunday morning gathering of believers. How far does the Bible reach in the way it prescribes the way we should organize congregational worship? This question has really been a question since the Jesus movement back in the 1960s and 1970s. The church, sometime in the aforementioned decades, thought it would be beneficial to take the methods of the culture and formalize them into our congregational worship in order to bring in more unbelievers. This brought about many different aspects and questions to congregational worship as a whole.

A Divided House

Methodologically speaking, there are two sides to this principle: normative and regulative. The normative principle states that as long as your are not going against anything the Bible does not condemn, it is permissible. The opposite view is the regulative principle being defined as only doing that which the Bible prescribes in worship.

But we have to define what worship truly is. We cannot argue for a side if we do not know what the definition of worship truly is. Worship is the adoration or praise of something or someone. It literally stems from two words: worth + ship. It defines just how much worth someone or something possesses. If this is true, then we must have an elevated method for the worship of the triune God.

Yet, even still, the church is largely divided on this issue. Many churches joined the “seeker-sensitive” movement in order to draw many unbelievers to the church through its services and music. I am not advocating for a church to lessen their evangelism efforts in this post. However, I am addressing the question whether or not this is the correct way to hold such a service.

Why The Regulative Principle?

The regulative principle is historically bred from the Westminster Confession of Faith:

“But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”[2]

The regulative principle is, in my opinion, the best possible way to stay as true to the Scripture as possible when executing congregational singing. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. It is true to Scripture. Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. Paul was simply conveying the idea that the totality of Scripture either explicitly or implicitly contains the answer. God has given us a conscience for a reason and expects us to use this conscience to aid us in decision-making endeavors where the Bible is more gray than black and white. However, the Bible DOES contain the answer.
  2. It focuses on God rather than man. The regulative principle seeks to worship God as he desires to be worshipped. Imagine, if you can or will, you are the sovereign ruler of all the universe and you desire to be worshipped a certain way and those who worship you do not do so. Would you be pleased? I would say not. Why? Because it is not the way you had designed it or desired to be worshipped. When you are the sovereign ruler, you can make those decisions. But if you aren’t, you must submit to the Ruler himself and how he desires and has designed to be worshipped.
  3. It is Christ-Centered. The Bible is all about Christ and his mission to redeem God’s people back to himself. The regulative principle of worship allows us to intertwine that covenant theme into every aspect of our worship, including our singing.

Music?

Of course, this post is regarding music in worship. There are many, many views on which songs one should sing or which instruments one should play (Luther and Zwingli fought over this issue, also). So what can we find in Scripture that is regulated for us?

  1. Exodus 29. This passage is the consecration of the priests in the Israelite nation. Yahweh describes the methods of consecration to every jot and tittle in verses 1-28. However, in the following verses, he described what Aaron and the priests who come after him should wear when they are coming into the tent of meeting, as the author calls it. What is the significance here? The Lord is concerned with not only what we are doing, but how we are doing it.
  2. Isaiah 6. Isaiah has a vision of the Lord seated on his throne and, though this may be a short response for the passage, his words are not “Wow!” but “woe is me!”. This answer comes following the three famous words all angels are singing in heaven currently and have been for all time: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory (6:3).”
  3. Acts 5. Ananias and Sapphira brought a gift (in an attitude of worship, or so they thought) to the church to be distributed among the needy. However, when they brought their gift, they lied about the amount they received and gave much less than said amount. What happened? The Lord struck them dead. Why? Because there are certain stipulations for how this worship is to be acted out.
  4. Eph. 5/Col. 3. Paul exhorts both the Ephesians and the Colossians to exhort one another in “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”  One aspect of our worship is singing to one another and we must not neglect it.

What is regulated in singing?

  1.  Song choice. Essentially, we cannot simply get up every Sunday morning and sing what we want to sing. That statement sounds harsh, yet it is exactly what we see in Scripture. Take a look again at Paul’s letters to Colossae and Ephesus. He exhorts them to sing to one another through “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” But how do we choose the “correct” songs? By one series of questions: Does it mirror the Bibles theme? Is it theologically sound? Can it be found in Scripture? 
  2. It’s not about you. The Israelites were trying their best to have their cake and eat it too. This is exactly why the second commandment is so important. We are commanded to not make any representation or likeness of a god: period. When we do not include the Bible in our song selection, we tend to disobey the second commandment just as the Israelites did also.
  3. The Bible is sufficient. The Bible has the answer for the question of how we are to sing in our worship services. Read the Psalms and find 150 hymns to which you could put music and sing Scripture back to God!

Conclusion

The purpose of congregational singing is two-fold. First, it is to honor God for who he is and what he has done. Second, it is to exhort one another to godliness and holiness.

All of us do not come to every worship service with a holy attitude or having a “wonderful day.” This is why we are to exhort one another and teach and admonish one another in all wisdom – for the purpose of building one another up in the body of Christ and singing God’s praises back to him in honor and glory to his name.


[1] Derek Thomas, “The Regulative Principle of Worship,” Ligonier Ministries, accessed January 25, 2019, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/regulative-principle-worship/.

[2] Westminster Confession of Faith, 21:1.