The RPW (regulative principle of worship) is deeply flawed and problematic. It holds that everything which is not explicitly commanded or practiced in Scripture is forbidden. I believe it is overly restrictive, and the way many employ it is legalistic. I favor the NPW (normative principle of worship) over the RPW. Anything which is neither sinful nor explicitly forbidden by God’s Word is permissible.
A great illustration of the problem with RPW is how we choose to make music pleasing to the Lord. Most RPW churches only allow exclusive psalmody (the psalms are sung acapella – no musical instruments are used for accompaniment). However, God has in the past (Old Testament) commanded us to use musical instruments to worship Him. And He never rescinded that command in the NT. Further, as we’ll see below God is worshipped with musical instruments in both the Old and New Testaments.
David danced in worship before the Lord in the temple. And he wasn’t wearing much! Instruments were used in worship in the temple. So we have explicit examples of methods of worshiping God from the OT which are never called into doubt or forbidden in the NT. Yet, just because God doesn’t command them in the NT the RPW rejects them! This is madness and not the way to do theology.
RPW adherents will use crazy examples to try and discredit the NPW, but these are easily refuted. The RPW seems to downplay the newfound liberty we have in Christ. That doesn’t mean anything goes, but it does mean that if we choose to worship God with instruments we aren’t dishonoring God, nor is it Strange Fire!
RPW adherents are inconsistent, and at times hypocritical, because they use things in church for worship that is not explicitly commanded by God such as carrying Bibles, sound systems, and acapella psalm-singing as the only allowed form of corporate worship, this was all never commanded in Scripture. There are many fine hymns that honor and glorify God. RPW will assert since the Psalms are Scripture that they are the only acceptable mode of worship. However, by that logic, we couldn’t have sermons. Pastors would just read Scripture with no additional commentary! It just shows how silly and overly restrictive the RPW can be.
Old Testament worship
As we see in the Psalms quoted below, musical instruments were used in worship in the Old Testament. They were even commanded by God.
The first pillar in the Biblical foundations of instrumental music in worship is the Psalms. When considering the Psalms and instrumental music, most instrumentalists think of Psalm 150, but there are actually a total of twenty-four psalms that mention the use of instruments in worship, either in the psalm heading or in the text itself. We won’t take the time to examine all those psalms, but let’s take a closer look at two of the more familiar psalms that mention musical instruments, Psalm 150 and Psalm 33.
Psalm 150 concludes the book of Psalms with a chorus of praise, including every family of instruments: woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings:
“Praise Him with trumpet sound; Praise Him with harp and lyre; Praise Him with timbrel and dancing; Praise Him with stringed instruments and pip. Praise Him with loud cymbals. Praise Him on the high-sounding cymbals.” Psalm 150:3-5
Pipe, trumpet, timbrel (or tambourine), cymbals, harp, lyre (similar to the harp), and stringed instruments, representing all four families of instruments and all used in praise of almighty God! Even though this psalm mentions instruments in each of the four families, note the conspicuous absence of singing. Commentators on this psalm have seen this as undeniable Biblical support for instrumental praise alone.
Psalm 33 is the first psalm to mention instruments, and connects the worship attitudes of joy, thanksgiving, and praise with the use of instruments:
Sing for joy in the Lord, O you righteous ones;
Praise is becoming to the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
Sing praises to Him with a harp of ten strings.
Sing to Him a new song;
Play skillfully with a shout of joy.
Take special note of the latter half of verse three in this particular psalm: “Play skillfully with a shout of joy.” We are to play skillfully as we worship the Lord. The famous British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, comments on this verse, “It is wretched to hear God praised in a slovenly manner. He deserves the best that we have.” Let us remember this Biblical mandate to faithfully minister with excellence.https://preachitteachit.org/articles/detail/psalms-worship-with-instruments/
New Testament worship
Further, contrary to what some RPW adherents assert, we do have precedence of worshiping God with musical instruments in the New Testament. Specifically in the book of Revelation.
“Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8).
“And I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of loud thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps” (Revelation 14:2).
“And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who have the victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, having harps of God” (Revelation 15:2).
According to the RPW the only acceptable form of worship is exclusive psalmody. Is this a biblical position? There answer is a resounding no! Here’s the evidence why:
Ephesians 5:18–19 says, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (ESV).
Colossians 3:16 continues that idea: “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.”
So we see that the psalms were used for worship, yet other forms of music such as hymns and spiritual songs were also used! Jesus Himself sang a hymn with the disciples after the Last Supper.
Matthew 26:30 “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
We’ve seen that biblically speaking the RPW is unworkable and highly problematic. It nullifies Christian liberty (not abuse), it is overly restrictive in what is allowed in church, and it contradicts Scripture both in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus Himself sang hymns in worship.
We see clearly that, in the context of worship, God allowed:
- musical instruments
- hymns and spiritual songs
Thus, I see no good reason to adopt the RPW, and many reasons to adopt the NPW.
Personally, I find singing the psalms to be edifying. I also find singing certain hymns highly edifying. If churches want to have exclusive psalmody they can, but they shouldn’t condemn other churches which don’t follow that model. Nor should they assert that the RPW makes their worship more biblical and pleasing to God.
I also find pipe organ music very edifying and powerful and a great way to worship God. Here is a performance of a chorale prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach on the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (originally written in the German language with the title “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”). It is one of the best-known hymns by the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, a prolific hymn writer. Luther wrote the words and composed the hymn tune between 1527 and 1529. Played by David Christensen on a 1966 Moller organ.
The field of sacred music is vast. God has given brilliant composers the mental capability to write complex and beautiful pieces of music for worship. He also allowed musicians and singers to train and develop their God-given talents.
Here is what I, and many learned musicologists, consider to be the most epic and amazing piece of sacred music ever written. It’s the St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was written by Bach for use in the Lutheran church’s liturgy.
I believe God wants us to give Him our best, and that applies to worship.