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Does the Regulative Principle of Worship Apply to Private and Family Worship?

By Rev. Mike Ericson

The question is often asked: does the Regulative Principle of Worship (hereafter referred to as the RPW) apply to private and family worship? It is not a question as to whether the type of reverence applies, or whether the object of worship is the same. Nor is it a question of whether all the said forms of worship, public/corporate, private or family, are to be experimental, heart worship. The question strictly is whether or not private and family worship are regulated in the same way and by the exact same principle as public corporate worship.

Before getting into the details of the question and answer, it would be helpful and important to put this in the context of the worship of the congregation of the denomination in which I am an ordained minister. As to the stated doctrine, observed practice, and worship authoritatively overseen by the Presbyterian Reformed Church, we hold to the RPW as historically developed and practiced by our spiritual forefathers. (If you are reading this article on our website you may already be aware of this; if not, consult for more details.) This article is not written in the context of someone who worships publicly and corporately contrary to the RPW. This was the core conviction that caused me to leave my previous denomination and seek out the PRC almost twenty years ago. Rather than remaining silent on the Lord’s Day when uninspired hymns are sung, I am so grateful to be able to lift up my voice in God’s praise using the songbook the Lord gave us – the hymns of David, the Psalter. Nor is the chorus of praise drowned out by unauthorized playing of instruments, which ceased with the shadow of worship in the temple.

Next, let me briefly summarize the RPW. This has been done for us in the Westminster standards. In WCF XXI, Of Religious Worship, sec 1, it states “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”  (cm. also WLC 108&109). This is reinforced with the statement in WCF XX on Christian liberty, sec. 2: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship; ”  and sec 5 “are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God.” Each one of these statements are in the context of the corporate worship of God.

We may contrast with a contrary principle: what is not forbidden is permissible. This is sometimes referred to as the “Normative Principle”, as developed by the Lutheran, Augsburg Confession, 1530, and the Anglican Church 39 Articles (1563).

As to the historical development of the RPW, the reader is referred to William Ames’, Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies (1633), or Jeremiah Burroughs’, Gospel Worship (1647). A short summary of the regulative principle can be found in Dr. William Young’s “The Puritan Principle of Worship” (Selected Writings, chapter 7). The classic work on the RPW is George Gillespie’s A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies Obtruded on the Church of Scotland (1637). When considering an answer to the question before us, if you have not read these works at the very least, I would encourage you to do so and to consult the Scriptures referenced to see the development of the arguments for the RPW.

It is not whether the RPW applies only to the occasions in which the congregation is gathered together for public worship.  The RPW applies in limiting what ecclesiastical government can require or even suggest as to worship anytime or anywhere. Such is the case with holy days and ceremonies imposed upon individuals and families, etc.  It is agreed that private and family worship are not free to make use of human ceremonies, holy days, etc., as permissible parts, acts, or forms of worship. It is also not in question as to whether the public, corporate aspect of the RPW doesn’t have useful applications to all aspects of worship, especially when speaking of the manner of observance or efficacy of the means of grace.

The particular question before us is whether or not private and family worship are regulated in the same way and by the exact same principle as public, corporate worship. This is what we mean when we ask if the RPW applies to private and family worship. And this is what I see often argued for.

I think a helpful way to frame an answer would be to compare Gillespie’s argument as developed in Against English Popish Ceremonies with that brought forth in the Scottish Directory for Family Worship (hereafter DFW). We may see whether the RPW in Gillespie’s work is applied to the DFW.

In English Popish Ceremonies, Gillespie powerfully and successfully demonstrates that it is a violation of the RPW to justify a practice if appeal is made to either 1. Necessity; 2. Expediency; 3. Lawfulness; or 4. Indifference. To argue for observing holy days, such as Christmas, due to a perceived necessity to avoid schism or driving people away is to violate the RPW, because the observance of such days is not by divine institution. To sing uninspired songs in worship because they may be expedient, or useful in edifying, is to violate the RPW. Just because something is lawful in general is not sufficient warrant to include in public worship. There are some aspects incidentally associated with worship that are common and general to the meeting of any society, such as a stated time or the need of light. Precisely what type of lighting is an indifferent matter. However, to say that candles (being sources of light) are indifferent, and then to emply them as a part of worship, such as set on a table in front of the pulpit (or a table) not merely for needed light, is a violation of the RPW, as they have been intruded as a part or aspect worship. We may only worship God as He has commanded (either by direct statement, necessary consequence or approved example). Any appeal to either 1. Necessity; 2. Expediency; 3. Lawfulness; or 4. Indifference as a warrant for something properly a part of worship is a violation of the RPW, as Gillespie argues it.

We now turn our attention to the Directory for Family Worship, Church of Scotland, approved by the General Assembly at Edinburgh, Scotland, on August 24, 1647. Before getting into the particular question at hand, it’s profitable to consider the context and drift of the DFW. Prior to its approval there had been great concern and problems with groups and families gathering which were not furthering the peace and purity of the church, and that some aspects of these meetings were having a pernicious effect on the public worship and ordinances. Thus, we find phrases in the DFW as to some of the benefits of private and family worship that they “may be the better enabled to profit under the publick ordinances”. The entire content of section VIII, shows the aim “to fit them for the publick worship.” There are also directions which safeguard the public worship such as “As the charge and office of interpreting the holy scriptures is a part of the ministerial calling,” or “to the prejudice of the publick ministry,” or “each family keep by themselves” (except if lodging or brought together by a meal). Unlike some in our day, who placea higher view on private and family worship than they do the public worship that they forsake the public gathering, the DFW instructs that “the master of the family ought to take care that all within his charge repair to the publick worship, that he and they may join with the rest of the congregation.” Their eye to the public worship is evidenced in the concluding paragraph: “The drift and scope of all these Directions is no other, but that, … under the name and pretext of religious exercises, no such meetings or practices be allowed, as are apt to breed error, scandal, schism, contempt, or misregard of the publick ordinances and ministers.” One need not read far into the works and sermons of these and their English brethren to know that they held public worship in a distinct category from either private or family worship. As high a view as they had of private and family worship, they were of the mind that God loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.

The question at hand, namely whether the RPW applies to private and family worship, is answered in the opening sentence of the DFW: “Besides the public worship in congregations, mercifully established in this land in great purity, it is expedient and necessary that secret worship of each person alone, and private worship of families, be pressed and set up;…” Notice the two words used giving reason why and upon what grounds they will now enjoin private and family worship upon Christ’s flock: Expedience and necessity!

One could attempt to argue that the use of these two terms were carelessly chosen or have no import or relation to the RPW as developed in Gillespie’s work. It is unlikely to a ridiculous extreme to suggest they could be so sloppy and mindless. Gillespie was at the Assembly of 1647, having returned from London with Robert Ballie for the occasion.  Baillie’s Letters and Journals (Vol III, appendix II, 449-454) contains Gillespie’s address to the assembly on August 6th, 1647. Gillespie was very influential at this assembly, as one notes, “He was the 1647 Assembly” (Dr. Rev. William M. Campbell, “George Gillespie,”  Scottish Church History Society [1950], 120).  Baillie observes: “Never Assemblie more harmonious than this yet hes been. Our declaration to England, a very good piece, is past without a contrare voice. An act against vagers from their own ministers, and a large direction for private worship, drawn by Mr. Robert Blair, for the correcting of all the faults in worship, which offended many here, is past the Committee without a contrare voice; and, I think, shall passe the Assemblie also, no less unanimously” (Letters and Journals:III, 15). While Blair was the author, and even though I haven’t discovered whether Gillespie was on the committee, it certainly has Gillespie’s imprint on the opening line. Additionally, his work Against English Popish Ceremonies was very well known and highly influential. To choose the first two grounds using the same terms that violate the RPW, namely necessity and expediency, showing warrant for private and family worship, simply cannot be viewed as a mere oversight. As the terms are reversed in order from Gillespie’s work appears to me to give both an intentional link to it, while at the same time avoiding appearing as mere sycophantism. As they stand, necessity and expediency are certainly framed in such a way that they are a far cry from appealing to that which is “prescribed in the holy Scripture” as to the warrant and practice of private and family worship. When addressing the issue of family and private worship, as being of a different sort and governed by a different principle than public worship, the words of Lightfoot in his journal notes of the proceedings in the Westminster Assembly are applicable. While working on the Directory for Public Worship they did not get into family preparation, as he notes some excepted to discussing it “because it was not to our work to speak of private worship” (Works:XIII, 304). It is clear, therefore, that they were of the view that different principles apply to public and private worship.

There are difficulties that arise in trying to make the RPW apply to private and family worship. Who can pray? I have heard examples of those who, believing that the RPW applies to family worship,   have a young son lead in prayer if the father is away, because a woman is not allowed to speak but must remain silent in the church. Where is the divine warrant for such a thing in the home? The DFW speaks of those who can admonish and rebuke: “from those who have authority in the family.” The mother, according to the 5th commandment, etc., certainly has authority over all in the household outside of the husband. She is to ‘keep the house’ (1 Tim 5:14), and as related to the cognate noun, she, under her husband, is the ruler of the house. This is evidenced throughout Scripture.

Who may instruct in family worship? It’s clear from Proverbs that Bathsheba instructed Solomon. Technically, interpreting Scripture according to the DFW, belongs only to the ministerial office. They, however, state:  “It is commendable, that thereafter they confer, and by way of conference make some good use of what hath been read and heard.” And “any member of the family may propone a question or doubt for resolution.”  Group question and answer time hardly is warranted by the RPW.

What about the reading of Scripture? The DFW simply has “where there is any that can read.” While ordinarily that would fall to the head of the family, some may find it expedient at times to have the whole family read a portion each in order, to engage them more fully and for their edification. Furthermore, if the father can’t read well enough (rare these days) does it violate the RPW to have the wife read? The answer is no.

Can aides be used? For example, after the reading of Scripture in family worship, would reading a commentary concerning that portion be permissible? I have found it very expedient to make use of Matthew Henry or John Calvin. One couldn’t get away with reading a commentary on the text rather than preaching in the public worship service. In private worship I like using my Reformation Heritage Study Bible.

Another implication of the RPW is that all parts of ordinary worship are to be observed. The RPW states not just what may be done, but what must be done. To have public, stated worship and not sing Psalms would be a sin of omission. The same would be true with not reading Scripture. Thus, to not read Scripture in private worship would be sin if the RPW applied. Is prayer an act of private worship? Yes, it is. Thus if the RPW applies to private worship, then every time one prays, one must also sing the Psalms and read the word. There are numerous examples of Christ in prayer, and only in prayer, i.e. not reading Scripture or singing a Psalm, demonstrating that the RPW does not apply. Otherwise, Christ would be duty bound to also read Scripture and sing. One could infer ‘well, He must have,’ but there are simply too many clear instances to suggest such a thing. I am not suggesting that you do not read or sing in private and family worship, I am suggesting that the RPW does not apply. You may pray in private or as a family on a particular occasion, without reading or singing, and not be in sin. Furthermore, as to all the parts of worship and for those who think the RPW applies, hopefully there are no fathers out there (thinking they are as the priest to their family) closing the worship with a benediction!

Another related question not directly before us is whether one is free to do additional things outside of public worship. I’ve seen some suggest that the only thing one can ever sing, even outside of public, private or family worship are the Psalms. Would the same apply as to what we may read? What about what we may eat? The only physical food in public worship are those occasions of the Lord’s Supper. Must one only have a diet of bread and wine outside of worship as well? In addition to a proper understanding of the RPW, one would also bring in the Westminster Standards’ teaching on the law of God: what is lawful and edifying, as opposed to what is prescribed in positive terms, may be partaken of.

Before bringing things to a close, I want to address a misguided application of the view that the RPW does not apply to private and family worship. Some have done so and take the view that anything goes. I read of one person who said that because the RPW does not apply, he may read a systematic theology rather than Scripture.  Two things are to be mentioned.

First, only the means of grace are involved in actual acts of worship. While reading a commentary as an aide or a catechism may be expedient in illuminating the Scripture, they of themselves are not acts of worship. Only the means of grace are, which for private and family worship are prayer, the reading of Scripture, and the singing of Psalms. If what is meant by saying that the RPW applies to private and family worship is simply that we are not free to invent ceremonies and means of grace, this is true. This is a part of the RPW, but just a part. It is no more the RPW than saying a supporting beam of a house is the entire house. The RPW says much more. Only means of grace are means of worship, whether public, private or family. WSC 85, “What Doth God Require of Us, that We May Escape His Wrath and Curse, Due to Us for Sin?  A: To Escape the Wrath and Curse of God, Due to Us for Sin, God Requireth of Us Faith in Jesus Christ, Repentance Unto Life, with Diligent Use of All the Outward Means Whereby Christ Communicateth to Us the Benefits of Redemption.”

Second, rules of expediency and necessity apply, coupled with the general rules of Scripture. This is what we find being employed in the reasoning of the DFW. As they put it in the opening paragraph regarding the adoption of the directory, they give “the following Rules and Directions for cherishing piety ….” In the preface to the Directory for Public Worship we read: “to hold forth such things as are of divine institution in every ordinance; and other things we have endeavoured to set forth according to the rules of Christian prudence, agreeable to the general rules of the word of God.” The first portion is the RPW; the latter is not. Because the language of divine institution, or a jus divinum, is lacking in the DFW, it doesn’t mean anything goes, because there are general rules that apply. There are general rules directing our use of the means of grace (prayer, reading of Scripture, and the singing of Psalms), rules governing the individual or family, rules for decency and order, rules about our hearts, and rules governing expedience and necessity. One can find a careful laying out of various rules, such as family worship is a law of nature and Scripture and thus of divine appointment, in Richard Baxter’s Directory (, I urge caution regarding argument IX, the family as a church; linked from which has a wealth of excellent material).

A parallel may be seen in the Regulative Principle and church government as compared to general rules governing family or civil governments. The Regulative Principle does not apply to family or civil government. Much of the debate and time in the Westminster Assembly was on the Regulative Principle of church government. The Scots and those like-minded in the Assembly were not content that their form of government was one that was permissible among others, but that by divine law and appointment it was the only one, and that ecclesiastical powers were limited to those delegated by Christ. There was no discretionary power. Not so with civil government. There were various forms that were admissible; a monarchy or constitutional republic, etc. Furthermore, civil and familial governments have discretionary power; they can contrive laws on the basis of expediency or necessity (cm Lex Rex and Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici). That being said, entire books are filled with clear detailing of natural and Scriptural laws, rules and directions for civil and familial government. Laws, rules and directions are not the same thing as the Regulative Principle.

So, does the RPW apply to private and family worship? No. But there are numerous laws, rules and directions from Scripture that do apply, along with wisdom, and doing that which is expedient and necessary.

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