Presbyterian churches have always been communities of worship because of their conviction that God is worthy of honor and praise. Because of the tradition’s high view of Scripture, corporate worship in the Presbyterian tradition is based on the teachings of the Bible.
Presbyterian churches traditionally practice the Regulative Principle of Worship, though some denominations, synods, and churches have incorporated modern musical songs and styles in recent years. Prayer, Bible reading, preaching and sacraments are also aspects of Presbyterian worship.
What is the “Regulative Principle of Worship” in Presbyterianism? What did John Calvin teach about corporate worship in the church? Do Presbyterian churches sing modern worship songs? Keep reading to learn more.
What is the Regulative Principle of Worship?
The “Regulative Principle of Worship” is a traditional Presbyterian way to conduct church services, which is rooted in what Scripture clearly states about corporate worship while forbidding elements that Scripture prohibits or doesn’t explicitly mention. It’s often contrasted with the so-called “Normative Principle of Worship,” which states that whatever isn’t strictly prohibited in Scripture is permissible as long as it doesn’t clearly violate biblical principles.
|Regulative Principle of Worship||Normative Principle of Worship|
|Allows||Whatever Scripture clearly states||Whatever Scripture doesn’t forbid|
|Forbids||Whatever Scripture clearly forbids or doesn’t clearly state||Whatever violates the principles of corporate worship according to Scripture|
|Adherents||Calvinist, Reformed, Anabaptist, Restoration Movement churches||Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Assemblies of God, and most evangelical churches|
In summary, in the Calvinist tradition, corporate worship is comprised of elements that Scripture commands; in other Protestant traditions, corporate worship can be comprised of anything that Scripture doesn’t clearly forbid. Several historic Calvinist confessions affirm The Regulative Principle of Worship, however the Westminster Confession of Faith is the most important of them all. It states,
“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.” Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXI
Key points with an example:
- Acceptable forms of worship are limited by God’s revealed will in Scripture: For example, since the Bible instructs churches to pray, and illustrates the practice in New Testament stories, it’s an acceptable practice for corporate worship. (It’s not merely “acceptable” but also edifying and sanctifying). On the other hand, since “man-made” dramas or theatrical performances, which are often used to illustrate a biblical principle, aren’t taught in the Bible, they are forbidden as an element of corporate worship.
- Worshipping God in ways that aren’t clearly stated in Scripture are categorized as “the imaginations and devices” of people or Satan: It’s often argued that man-made elements of corporate worship divert from the Bible and are therefore unpleasing to God and hinder the edification and sanctification of people. These “imaginations” are the creation of sinful people and appeal to the world, the flesh, and the devil. Others argue that since dramas or theatrical performances aren’t explicitly forbidden in Scripture, they are permissible as long as they reflect biblical principles.
Presbyterian pastor, Derek Thomas, argues for the Regulative Principle of Worship when he writes,
“Put simply, the regulative principle of worship states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded upon specific directions of Scripture. On the surface, it is difficult to see why anyone who values the authority of Scripture would find such a principle objectionable. Is not the whole of life itself to be lived according to the rule of Scripture?” 
Do Presbyterians Sing Modern Worship Songs?
Some Presbyterian churches sing modern worship songs. Others only sing hymns. A few only single Psalms. Many churches blend styles in attempt to please various generations in their congregation. Every denomination, and sometimes every individual synod or local church, approaches corporate worship through music differently.
Some Presbyterians oppose modern worship music: Some argue that modern worship songs are man-made and focus too much on the individual, not on God. It’s further argued that modern worship songs aren’t as substantive as the Psalms or 18th and 19th century hymns.
Other Presbyterians favor modern worship music: The contrary view states that the substance of many modern worship songs is biblical. It’s also pointed out that any change in worship through music has been met with opposition in Presbyterian history, such as when hymns were first introduced in congregations and when instruments were first incorporated. 
What did Calvin teach about congregational worship through songs?
Calvin encouraged congregations to sing the Psalms. “When we have looked thoroughly everywhere and searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor more appropriate to the purpose than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and spoke through him.” However, Calvin includes some non-Psalms songs in his psalter like the Apostles Creed. 
What is a Presbyterian worship service like?
Presbyterian worship services, no matter the denomination, synod, or church, often include the elements below. The content of each of these elements may be different depending on if a church has held firm to biblical teaching and Calvinist theology or if it has drifted away from its roots and adopted modern worldviews.
- Prayer: At certain points in the service, an individual may be encouraged to pray silently where they sit. At other points, an elder may lead the congregation in a prayer. Some spoken corporate prayers may be written and read aloud. Others may be impromptu, such as when the church prays for a member who is ill. In Matthew 21:13, Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”
- Song: Worship through singing is an important of Presbyterian worship services. See above for the variety of expressions this practice takes. The Apostle Paul encourages the church at Colossae to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
- Scripture: In many Presbyterian churches, Scripture is read aloud as an element of the service. A speaker and the congregation may take turns reading verses aloud. Paul tells Timothy: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” (1 Tim. 4:13)
- Preaching: Preaching has always been a central part of Presbyterian services. Presbyterians believe that the Bible is authoritative for all matters of faith and conduct. It not only prescribes how churches worship, but it provides instructions, encouragement, and wisdom for the rest of life as well. Paul tells Timothy “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:2)
- Sacraments: The Presbyterian tradition observes baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are critical aspects of church life. Jesus commands people to be baptized (Matt. 28:19) and receive the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:26-29).
Some Presbyterian churches incorporate other elements like oaths, vows, and thanksgiving.
“The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence; singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in a holy and religious manner.”Chapter XXI, Westminster Confession of Faith
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