January 20, 2021

“Freedom in Worship” for The Liturgically Challenged (Part 1….Maybe)

2ff7022a2b.jpgWalking through the faculty dining hall where I work, I heard someone use the phrase “freedom in worship.”

It occurred to me that I’ve heard that phrase in just about every evangelical setting I’ve ever been part of, and I’ve used it a lot myself.

As a teenage Christian, I joined with thousands of others insisting that “freedom in worship” was the right of the “Jesus Revolution” generation.

As a youth minister, I was convinced that “freedom in worship” was necessary to keep young people interested in the church.

As a charismatic, I believed that “freedom in worship” was the best evidence of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.

As a revivalist, I was sure that revival came when “freedom in worship” became the norm.

As a pastor, I was told that growing churches allowed “freedom in worship”

People who were happy in their new churches almost always said they were enjoying “freedom in worship”

Those criticizing their church’s worship services usually say there isn’t enough “freedom in worship”

Here in the Appalachian culture in which I live and minister, Pentecostal and Holiness churches set themselves apart from Baptist and mainline churches by “freedom in worship,” which can mean everything from passing out, handling snakes or running around the worship facility.

“Freedom in worship”means that there are few rules for when to do what, and much less importance placed on everyone doing the same things. A church with “freedom in worship” might have many people doing different things as they feel “led.”

Those who are most responsive to the “Spirit’s leading” generally set the tone for the worship experience. It is the job of the “less free” to adjust to the “more free” who are assumed to be “more spiritual.”

One sign of the triumph of the popular idea of “freedom in worship” is the demise of the order of Service as a part of worship. Vast numbers of churches now have a “worship set” and a “talk,” neither of which really requires much in the way of congregational guidance. Additions such as an offering, pastoral led prayer, litanies, confessions or public scripture lessons are seen less and less.

For many, unpredictability makes a worship service more enjoyable and entertaining, thus equaling the presence of God. Those who have a more positive view of more ordered worship, seldom know what to say in response. One response is to assert some version of the regulative principle.

The reformed “regulative principle” is the belief that nothing should be done in worship that is not expressly commanded in scripture. Various versions and understandings of the regulative principle have muddled the clarity and simplicity of Calvin’s Genevan order of service. Most Christians are, in fact, not convinced that pragmatic, contextual, missiological and traditional elements shouldn’t make a contribution to worship. (Note the argument between conservative “psalm-singing only” advocates and less rigid practitioners of the regulative principle. In such a discussion, “freedom in worship” is still a factor.)

I believe in the regulative principle, but only when it is tempered with tradition, context, mission and reasonable accommodation. Advocates of “worship freedom” may be asserting a natural and understandable reaction to overly rigid views of “we’ve always done it this way.”

The possible Biblical elements of congregational worship, in my opinion, contain far more than what the minimalist approach of Calvin and the Puritans advocated. I believe there is Biblical warrant for creeds, confessions, catechisms, artistic presentation, scripture lessons, dramatic presentations, various kinds of music and litanies and liturgies of various kinds. The key for my understanding is the inclusion of essential elements and the use of other elements that enhance participation and understanding of those essential elements.

So, for example, I agree that prayer is an essential element, but why is a pastor praying from a pulpit the only “Biblical” way to have prayer in worship? There are many creative and appropriate ways to pray: liturgy and response, small groups, conversational prayer, various prayers by laypersons, and so on.

Some traditionalists might be surprised to discover that serious loyalty to the core idea of the regulative principle does not make ordered worship the enemy of creativity or even surprise. It does not necessarily impose a predictable sameness onto worship in the name of the “regulative principle.”

Take another example. I am a strong advocate of the public reading/hearing of scripture. But scripture can be presented many ways. It can be read. it can be sung by a choir. It can be performed or presented in any number of artistic forms. It could be presented in dramatic form or reader’s theater. it could be presented in various translations and languages. It could be specially aimed at children or young people. There are many different creative ways to emphasize scripture in worship.

I would now ask the typical advocate of freedom in worship two questions.

First, why do you believe you have the freedom to construct a worship experience without reference to the regulations given to us in commands and examples of scripture? (I would contend that while new covenant worship is not under the same regulations, the Gospel itself defines the outlines of a regulative principle for the new covenant.)

Second, why do you assume that defining the elements of Christian worship in an ordered way eliminates “freedom” in worship?

The current “do whatever you feel” and “judge worship by the values of entertainment and recreation” emphasis provides a strong challenge to a fuller, more Biblical vision of worship. Once the table is cleared of almost all the Biblical elements of worship, then the cultural tide will come back in bearing all the flotsam and jetsam of entertainment and idolatrous cultural decay.

In the name of “freedom in worship,” we can witness firsthand the decline and destruction of Christian worship. Those who are proud that an ever-growing crowd is approving of this”freedom” should, instead, feel shame and grief that by the time a future generation goes looking for substance in evangelical protestantism, there will be very little left.


  1. As an evangelical (postevangelical) with a strong interest in liturgy, I am surprised that I have never seen a Scriptural argument for the “regulatory principal.” What Scriptures are generally used to build such an argument?

  2. I have attended an impressive coupling of liturgy and “free” worship at Messianic synagogue Tikvat Israel in Richmond, Virginia. Included are readings from Old and New Testaments, liturgy in Hebrew and English, songs, group dancing, and parading the Torah around the synagogue. Services are followed by Oneg, a communal meal.

  3. If I ever convert to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy it will be because there is too much “freedom in worship.”

  4. Quoting iMonk:
    I believe in the regulative principle, but only when it is tempered with tradition, context, mission and reasonable accommodation.

    That sounds more like the normative principle to me. But let’s face it, pews aren’t found in scripture. 😉

  5. You should become an Episcopalian Michael! It always fascinates me the differences between the US and the UK evangelical scence. For what it’s worth, you have just described is (at least in my Church of England church) our bread and butter worship, an order of service with confession, creeds, public scripture reading (sometimes 3, a OT, NT and a Gospel reading) with various forms of creative/dramatic presentation and response, at least 20 minute preaching on the text, as well as layperson led intercessions, with contemporary worship songs, opportunities for open prayer, hand raising and what not. I think you’d love it!

    All the debates about “freedom of worship” seemed to have died out about 20 years ago here!

    By the way, this is my first comment on this blog, although am a long time reader.


  6. Adam:

    Becoming a member of the ECUSA or AMiA would require leaving the ministry and moving several hours away. Tell the brethren to “come over and help us” here in SE Ky. 🙂



  7. I really enjoy this series of posts…and I hope I can find the time to really read all of them.

    I work in a traditional Baptist church, and it is pretty much the opposite of freedom in worship. There has never been anything officially stated, but usually only the pastor and the music minister are the ones that participate in the service. I know this is not out of selfish ambition, but instead baptist tradition.

    Most of my seminary studies are focused on worship, and I really think that you raised many serious questions here. What scares me the most about “the worship wars” is that it is the worship of the church that influences it’s doctrine. While now we think it is the opposite, by reading church history, we see that this really is an important case.

    How long did the early church worship before they had doctrine in place and how did their worship affect the doctrine they came to develop? Larry Hurtado has written alot asking that question.

    When we take a fuller expression of the church and worship out of the service time, we are slowly weakening the entire enterprise known as the Christian Church.

    I too agree that these services of singing a few songs, reading a verse, and then hearing a seminary qualified self help speaker really isn’t worship.

    The question I have started to think about is this, What is the difference between a bunch of people worshiping in a room together at the same time and a body of people participating in the same worship at the same time?

  8. It’s interesting. My denomination – the Methodist Church of Great Britain – which has a schizophrenic history of worship styles, currently seems to think that we are in decline because we *aren’t* pandering to market forces; although I doubt many of us would want everyone doing what they felt like!

    I also do not understand the idea that the Holy Spirit can’t work with worship leaders defining the elements of worship. It’s amazing how those who claim to believe in the power of the Holy Spirit seem to think that the Holy Spirit only ever works on the spur of the moment.

    I’ve never heard of the regulative principle, but my first reaction is ‘Fun with Exodus’! Can I wear an Ephod, please? No, not the ones the Pentecostals wear; a real one! 😉

  9. G F wrote:

    But let’s face it, pews aren’t found in scripture. 😉

    Yet another way in which God showed His love for us. 🙂

  10. I felt like a person watching my self from a distance as I read this issue. I grew up in Tennessee in the Church of Christ, then the Belmont Church in Nashville with contemporary christian musice mixed with traditional. Michael Smith often led. An elder in a not branded church with moved into the charismatic. Then for seven years in a AOG where it was loud and fast. Finally the Lord led me back to the same CoC that suggested I wouuld be happier elsewhere. This morning we sang sans instruments the Easter songs.
    I really missed the more demonstrative worship.

    I am always reminded of what Jim Rayburn the founder of Young Life said, ” there must be ten thousand ways to do church, we’ve tried three.” I think by now, I am 68 that i can be there a while and discern the nature of the worship. If that sweet spirit is there then lets sing chants, Luther, wesley, southern gospel and the newer forms which often seem be simply be chants.

    Thanks for making me think
    john acuff
    country lawyer

  11. The first responder well asks for any scriptural teaching that Christian assemblies should be guided by a regulative principle. Our preferences matter. But He who has all authority has not set up laws of worship to regulate how His assemblies are conducted. Since absolutely nothing is required in order to please the Lord, why do so many of us try to MAKE worship laws to regulate the worship experience?

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