How Can We Worship in Spirit and Truth?

As you may already know, I have been a Pastoral Intern at Trinity Baptist Church, Abuja, since January of this year. As part of my studies, I read and review sections of Foundations for the Flock: Truths About the Church for All the Saints, a collection of Dr. Conrad Mbewe’s works—ranging from booklets to sermon manuscripts—directly related to the life of the local church. I read Worship in Spirit and Truth in July, which was originally delivered by Conrad Mbewe to Kabwata Baptist Church after some internal squabbles arose over “The Regulative Principle.” I profoundly benefitted from this work and can’t seem to stop talking about it (literally!).

Conrad employs a semi-historical structure to explore the subject of worship in this title: worship as encapsulated in the Old Testament; worship as liberated in the New Testament; and worship as purified by the Reformers and the Puritans.

He identifies the similarities that exist between Old Testament worship and New Testament worship. The system of worship that existed in the synagogue had four elements: the reading of a section of the law and an exposition of the reading; praying; singing of psalms; and circumcision and ceremonial washing. Likewise, the system of worship as taught in the New Testament is to be comprised of four elements: the public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13) and the preaching of the word of God (Acts 2:42); prayer (1 Timothy 2:1-4); singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19); and the administration of the sacraments, i.e., baptism and the breaking of bread (Acts 2:41-42).

Conrad notes how this simplicity of worship was lost in the Roman Catholic church. Priests were introduced. Celibacy became mandatory for the clergy. More sacraments were added: ordination, marriage, confession, penance and extreme unction. This adulteration of biblical worship led the Reformers to see the need to purify much of Christian worship in the sixteenth century. And in their efforts to purify worship, the debate for the Reformers finally hung on one question: “Are we allowed to bring into the worship of God anything that God has not explicitly forbidden, or are we only to bring into the worship of God the elements that he has explicitly commanded?” (pp. 184). The former was called the Normative Principle, while the latter was called the Regulative Principle.

Most Reformers settled for the Regulative Principle (one notable exception being Martin Luther), the position which holds that God commands churches to conduct their services using certain elements clearly found in the scripture. The Reformers therefore had to discover these “elements” of worship—those things which are explicitly commanded by God in the pages of scripture. They arrived at the following elements: reading and exposition of the word, prayer, singing, and administration of the sacraments.

In the seventeenth century, the Puritans brought another important aspect of the regulative principle to the fore, as they sought to bring further reform to the church of England. The question which arose was, “According to the word of God, what parts of worship should be enforced in all churches and what should be left to the local leadership?” (pp. 185). According to Conrad, the answer to this question was that the elements of worship must be enforced, but the forms and circumstances must be left to the discretion of the local leadership because they are matters indifferent (adiaphora).

I found Conrad’s explanation very helpful at this point, because the regulative principle has also caused some squabbles in my local church in the past. Questions have arisen about the kind of songs that should be part of worship in a reformed church. Should we sing choruses or just hymns? Can we use other instruments asides the keyboard? To answer questions like these, Conrad employs a classification system, which distinguishes between elements, forms, and circumstances.

Take the element of the word, for example. Different forms would exist for that element: preaching, teaching, Bible study, consecutive Bible reading, topical Bible reading, etc. And the circumstances would differ as one moves from one local church to another: it could be at the beginning or at the end of the service, with microphones or not, etc. While the element is essential and indisputable, the forms and circumstances could be different, without necessarily compromising biblical standards.

If we are to consider the element of singing, we can identify different forms: psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, and choruses. The circumstances would differ. It could be done before or after the sermon. The songs in a worship service could be 10 or even 50! The congregation could sing with or without instrumental accompaniment. The songs could be sang using a printed hymn book or an overhead projector. Again, while the element is essential, the forms and circumstances could differ.

Conrad goes on to highlight three principles that should kept in mind as a local church attempts to understand and apply the regulative principle.

Firstly, the forms should serve the elements, and the circumstances should serve the forms. In other words, the forms should be set aside if they deduct or distract from elements, and the circumstances should be set aside if they do the same to the forms. This is because the elements are essential, while the forms and circumstances aren’t.

Secondly, while some forms and circumstances are mentioned in the Bible, many aren’t. For example, there is no mention of Bible studies or cell groups in the Bible, but that doesn’t make them unbiblical.

Thirdly, since the forms and circumstances are matters indifferent, the leadership of local churches are to decide the best forms and circumstances that would serve the elements and lead God’s people to serve him in spirit and truth.

I have read different authors on the regulative principle, but I have found Conrad Mbewe’s treatment to be the most helpful. While I might not entirely agree with his clear-cut distinctions between forms and circumstances, I found them beneficial and easy to apply. This is probably because he addresses issues which would almost always come up as local churches seek to reform corporate worship. I recommend that every Christian who desires to better understand the regulative principle pick up Foundations for the Flock and read the chapter on Worship!

3 thoughts on “How Can We Worship in Spirit and Truth?

Add yours

  1. Greetings, Eleazar. I read with interest your comments. While I am not familiar with Dr. Mbewe’s book, I have heard of him before.

    Yet in that the conversation on the Regulative Principle of Worship didn’t start yesterday, a few further remarks:

    One, the RPW is better understood as: What God has not commanded – whether explicitly or implicitly – is not allowed in the public worship of God”. Implicitly, as in the good and necessary consequences/approved examples in Scripture. (As below, while P&R churches hold to the fundamentals, they are not fundamentalists with a strictly literal hermeneutic.)

    Two, in that the Protestant Reformers held to the primacy and supremacy of Scripture or ‘Sola Scriptura’, the elements flowed from the same. The reading, preaching and hearing of the Word, the singing of the Word in the Psalms, the Scriptural hymnbook along with the praise of God in prayer as commanded in Scripture, not to mention the visible Word in the sacraments, baptism and communion.

    Three, John Frame in his Worship In Spirit and Truth (1996) has basically poisoned the well when it comes to bringing “forms” into the discussion. Not only did he insist on a fundamentalist read of the Second Commandment, he used the term to blur, if not redefine the classic historic distinction between the elements of worship and circumstances, the better to dismiss both and bring in an enthusiastic karaoke mish mash.

    All in all, while worship can be a divisive topic these days, as it has in the past, there is nothing new under the sun. Most of the contemporary objections to the classic doctrine of the RPW have already been heard and likewise demolished. Unfortunately though, it seems every generation has to rediscover these things, much more they are forced to when things decline to the point they have today, in at least the evangelical church.

    Cheers/happy reading.


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