Does it matter how we worship God? Does anything govern the actions and rituals we perform in gathered worship? Quite often it seems that churches worship with little or no thought about the theological right or wrong of a given practice. Most of us would realize that we cannot erect a golden calf in the sanctuary and offer incense to it, but what about a cross? Are there areas of indifference, where we can do whatever we want, or must we have a command from God for everything we do?
One wing of the Reformation reacted against Roman excesses by enacting the “regulative principle” where anything not expressly stated by God should not be done. Others move in a completely opposite direction and do just about anything, so long as they have a “tradition” to fall back on that justifies the practice. Many others, perhaps the majority, just do whatever they grew up with and add a dollop or two of whatever the cool church in town does.
Peter Leithart offers a convincing, Biblical way forward in his book From Silence to Song. He says:
…a word must be said at this point about the hermeneutical assumptions underlying the Reformed “regulative principle of worship.” In the hands of at least some writers, the regulative principle is, in practice, hermeneutically wooden and theologically Marcionite. It is wooden because an explicit “command” is required for every act of worship, and it is Marcionite because it ignores the abundant Old Testament liturgical instruction in favor of exegeting a few passages of the New.
He says later:
I adhere to the regulative principle in the sense that we are to worship God as He has taught us to worship Him, but He has taught us in myriads of ways, and not merely in explicit commands.
Using syllogisms, Leithart shows how strict regulativists contrast with how David approached worship:
Major premise: Whatever is not commanded is forbidden.
Minor premise: Singing is not commanded in the Levitical Law.
Conclusion: Therefore, singing in worship is forbidden.
David appears to have reasoned by analogy:
Major premise: The Law governs worship.
Minor premise #1: The Law prescribes that trumpets be played over the public ascensions, in public worship.
Minor premise #2: The trumpet is a musical instrument.
Conclusion: Analogously, song and other music are a legitimate part of worship.
In place of a “regulation-by-explicit command” principle, David operated according to a “regulation-by-analogy” principle.