The regulative principle is the guiding principle of Reformed worship. It governs how we come before our holy God. Without this principle, God could be approached as we please, doing essentially what the Israelites did at the end of Judges,
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.Judges 21:25 ESV
So far had Israel fallen from the terror struck in them from Leviticus 10, they were doing whatever they wanted. A Levite was callous to the rape and murder of his concubine, even cutting her up and sending her body parts throughout the land (Judges 19:27-30). Once they left the prescribed worship of God, men were no longer concerned about sin and how they approached God. As we consider the morality of Christmas, we should ensure this principle is obeyed. So, the question is: does the regulative principle forbid Christians from celebrating Christmas?
Christmas In and Out of the Church
The answer to this question not only has to do with the scope of the regulative principle but where Christmas is actually celebrated. Celebrating in the home as opposed to worship and vice versa could have an impact on its moral standing. In order to do this, we need to establish the scope of the regulative principle. Let us look no further than the 2nd London Baptist 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 imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith, chapter 22, paragraph 1
This is in the context of worship in general and not just corporate worship. Every form of devotion (i.e. worship) to God should be regulated by His prescription:
Religious worship does not strictly refer only to public gatherings of the church for worship, but to all acts of devotion to God (cf. this chapter’s title, 22.3, 22.6, 23.1, and Baptist Catechism 55). In every situation where pious actions are made—privately, in families, in civil circumstances where oaths are sworn, and in public assemblies—the triune God must be the sole recipient of reverence.Renihan, James M. “Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day.” To the Judicious and Impartial Reader: Baptist Symbolics Volume 2, Founders Press, 2022, p. 422.
What this means is that anything we do in worship of God (private devotions, family worship, singing to God) must be regulated by the Scriptures and not go beyond them. Now, I would argue that the principle’s focus is corporate worship, but it is in no way limited to it. I think we can see this long before the high Reformation period, back to John Hooper.
Nothing should be used in the Church which has not either the express Word of God to support it, or otherwise is a thing indifferent in itself, which brings no profit when done or used, but no harm when done or omitted.Murray, Iain Hamish, and John Hooper. “The Regulative Principle and Things Indifferent.” The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan Documents on Church Issues, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 2021, p. 48.
Notice his use of the word “Church” which likely constitutes the congregated worship of God. He will later use an example of infant baptism and the Lord’s Supper in discussing his point, indicating what is primarily (at least) on Hooper’s mind is corporate worship. Regardless, we have established all forms of “religious worship” fall under the principle. John Spilsbury provided some insight against Gillespie’s discussion on worship in the Westminster Assembly:
And the Rule by which all must be tryed, though an Angel from heaven, and the Apostles themselves, as Gal. 1. 8, 9. So that the holy Scripture is the onely place where any ordinance of God in the case aforesaid is to be found, they being the fountain-head, containing all the instituted Rules of both of Church and ordinances, so that, when, or wheresoever any of these are wanting in their constitution, and cannot be found in their outward orderly forme, wee are to go directly unto its institution, and recover the same againe from thence, as Cant. 1. 7. Isa. 8. 19, 20. Rom. 10. 6, 7, 8.John Spilsbury, Treatise Concerning Baptisme, page 38
Christmas and Worship
What about singing Christmas hymns in corporate worship? Or a pastor giving a Christmas sermon? It is true that the Scriptures command not such celebration on a regular basis. There is no express text or set of texts that would have us do those things. Yet, I believe we can still say it is consistent with the regulative principle to celebrate Christmas in corporate worship.
First, in relation to singing in celebration of Christmas, we are called to sing which is a form of teaching one another in the corporate gathering (Colossians 3:16). Paul preambles the command to sing with letting the word of Christ or God dwell in us richly. This is none other than the holy Scriptures. This includes what is “expressly set down” and “necessarily contained” in those Scriptures, to borrow from paragraph 6 of chapter 1 in the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith. This means that which is not laid out in so many words but contained by necessary consequence is Scripture. If a hymn contains biblical truth, then we are teaching one another through the Word that dwells in us richly. And if we sing words in a hymn about the Lord’s birth that have meaning consistent with Scripture, we are fulfilling Paul’s command to let the Word dwell in us and thereby teach it. If about the angels, wiseman, and shepherds praising the birth of the Messiah then so be it. It’s part of “the word of Christ”. Since this is commanded by Paul in relation to corporate, we are being consistent with the regulative principle and not contrary to it.
But those things which are prohibited, those must always and of necessity be avoided and shunned. But not only what is ordained or prohibited by the express Word of God, but also every judgment of the Divine will, which follows by necessary inference and can be gathered from a collation and comparison of the Scriptures among themselves, has the force and the nature of divine precept, either for commanding or for prohibiting, so long as it conforms to the nature, and proportion of faith and Scripture.Murray, Iain Hamish, and John Hooper. “The Regulative Principle and Things Indifferent.” The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan Documents on Church Issues, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 2021, p. 49.
Hooper will go on to apply this idea to infant baptism since he thinks that the Scriptures give warrant in other places therefore this means the practice is commanded, but that is a discussion for another time. The principle given can have some merit in as much as every practice of worship does not need to be specifically said in Scripture but can be consistent with the express commands. God gives general commands for religious worship, but what it looks like in conformity to that command may not be expressly laid down in Scripture. Precepts and positive examples are needed to establish a practice in order to provide the grounds for necessary inference and give us acceptable practices for worship (which in the case of infant baptism, we have none ergo the practice must be rejected). Baptists did reject good and necessary consequence as it relates to worship since this was seen as a way that other practices could be snuck into worship, and they were right to do so. Yet, what actually constitutes the fulfillment of a particular command/example/precept relating to religious worship may not itself be laid out in Scripture. This principle will be applied in our dealing with the Scriptures below.
1 Thessalonians 5:18 tells us to give thanks always or in “all circumstances” which would include our corporate worship. If the preacher is teaching the Word that discusses the birth of Christ and its relevance, should we not give thanks? Is this not consistent with the regulative principle since Paul’s command to give thanks applies to all circumstances including religious worship? I would think so. The day of year in thanking God for Christ’s birth matters not, but thanking Him for the wonderful blessing we have in Christ does, which applies any day of the year.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV
This next point can’t be divorced from the theme of giving thanks established above. All the Word can be preached and is profitable for the man of God to be equipped for every good work he needs to accomplish. This would include the stories on the birth of Christ found in the Gospels. If all the Word is profitable, and the Word is be taught with its meaning being brought forth to God’s people, and we are to give thanks always, there is perfect biblical warrant based on the regulative principle that we can celebrate Christmas in worship (and our private lives). Now how Christmas is celebrated in worship may differ (for instance, is there a wreath in the sanctuary?). This is to be guided by the general principles of the Word as it relates to worship. The following is from paragraph 6 of the 2LBCF:
…Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that 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 rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith, chapter 1, paragraph 6
Notice that there is some liberty given here. Sometimes there are “circumstances” that aren’t laid out directly in Scripture for worship (such as using wreaths or Christmas trees in worship) yet those are to be governed by the general principles of the Word which always apply regardless of the circumstances. This principle may be in line with Hooper’s point given earlier.
While Scripture is sufficient, our fathers recognized that there are circumstances of worship and government which are not directly addressed and must be ordered according to principles of wisdom and general revelation. Circumstances is a key word. It is a technical term used to describe the details of the manner of worship and certain aspects of ecclesiastical government.Renihan, James M. “Of the Holy Scriptures.” To the Judicious and Impartial Reader: Baptist Symbolics Volume 2, Founders Press, 2022, p. 76.
Color ties, pew types, hymnal versions, whether a church meets in a school or dedicated building, Christmas trees, etc. are all under the principle found in 1.6 of 2nd LBCF. They must conform to God’s Word. There are basic tenants of worship, yet how those are carried out may look different in different contexts, hence the term “circumstances”. Even here we see that the Scriptures do not leave these items up to chance. The Scriptures still regulate how that worship is to be carried out just not expressly in every situation. There is no room for traditions of men to sneak in even with this liberty given since the “general rules of the Word” are still to be observed. This is very different than the “normative” understanding of worship namely that only what was forbidden must be rejected. This left a wide range of practices to be introduced into worship. The regulative principle works in the framework only of what is prescribed in Scripture for worship (at least according to the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith) even for those circumstances that would not be expressly laid out.
Whereas the regulative principle held that only those things commanded in Scripture were lawful in worship, the normative principle held that any action not forbidden by Scripture was lawful. John Owen vilified it quipping, “Teach men to observe whatever I command them; and command you them to observe whatever you think meet, so it be not contrary to my commands.”Ward, Matthew, and Malcolm B. Yarnell. “The Regulative Principle versus the Normative Principle.” Pure Worship: The Early English Baptist Distinctive, Pickwick Publications, 2014.
The regulative principle must govern all of worship. God’s people cannot assume that any particular worship practice is acceptable simply because it isn’t in the Word. We must examine all of our practices in worship in light of Scripture. Without this, we will become like Israel who did everything that was right in their own eyes.
~ Daniel Vincent
Note: Thank you to The Particular Baptist team for reviewing, providing feedback, and making edits.