Rev. Steve Schlissel's Flawed Conception of the Regulative Principle of Worship Corrupts His Arguments

A Letter To A Ruling Elder (PCA) From An Elder Ordained in the PCA,
now semi-retired pastor of Reformation Church in Boerne, Texas, near San Antonio

by W. J. Mencarow


"Is it possible to find a single instance in Scripture of accepted worship that was not prescribed by God?"

(Dr. James Begg, Anarchy In Worship, Lyon & Gemmell, Edinburgh, 1875,  available at

Dear -------, 

Thank you for sending me Rev. Steve Schlissel’s articles on the Regulative Principle of Worship. It was some time until I had the opportunity to study them in any depth. I am grateful to you for bringing them to my attention.

The following comments are upon the three articles you sent me. I am aware that he has subsequently published others, which I have not had an opportunity to read.

His articles brought to mind Dr. James Begg’s observation:

"When Christian men have got somewhat accustomed to defend one true position, the assault is directed to another, and perhaps from a new may safely be affirmed that nothing can be more important than questions connected with the acceptable worship of God. The question of the king of Moab must ever be regarded with deep interest by true Christians, "Wherewithal (with what or how) shall I come before God, and bow myself before the Most High."...For two centuries (this question) has been held to be practically settled in the Presbyterian church. But it is now manifestly raised again from an unexpected quarter, and must be settled anew." (Anarchy in Worship, p. 4, available at

Dr. Begg was not responding to Rev. Schlissel's attack on the Regulative Principle, as he wrote that well over century ago.  Yet his observations are certainly as contemporary as can be.  The Church and its overseers must ever take heed, and watch (Acts 20:28-31).

I do not propose to engage in a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of Rev. Schlissel’s articles. However, there is no need to do that if my first observation is accurate, for it bores to the heart of the matter, the underpinning of all of what follows in his articles.

It is my belief that his foundational premise, his definition of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), is seriously deficient. As such, it corrupts his subsequent reasoning and conclusions. Maintaining that the RPW is simply "what is not commanded is forbidden" is hardly a scholarly definition and certainly not an accurate one. It is tantamount to, for example, defining theonomy as "theocracy." Both definitions contain some truth, depending upon how the term(s) used in the definition are themselves defined, but neither approaches an accurate definition of its subject. (For a discussion of the word "theocracy" in relation to theonomy, see "Theocratic Considerations" in Chapter 20 of Dr. Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics).

Compare Rev. Schlissel's definition — "what is not commanded is forbidden" — to the Westminster Confession (I:VI):

"The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed." (Emphases added.)

What depth, what richness, compared to the sterile and wooden "what is not commanded is forbidden."

And compare Rev. Schlissel’s definition to the Preface of the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Public Worship of God:

"Wherein our care hath been 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; our meaning therein being only, that the general heads, the sense and scope of the prayers, and other parts of publick worship, being known to all, there may be a consent of all the churches in those things that contain the substance of the service and worship of God..." (Emphasis added.)

and compare his definition to James Glasgow’s:

"That principle (RPW - WJM) was substantially this, that for all the constituents of worship, you require the positive sanction of divine authority, either in the shape of direct command, or good and necessary consequence, or approved example; and that you are not at liberty to introduce anything else in connection with the worship of God, unless it comes legitimately under the apostolic heading of 'decency and order.' (Emphasis added.) (Heart and Voice [Belfast: Aitchison & Cleeland, late 19th century], p. 4.   Available at

And compare Rev. Schlissel’s definition to these comments by William Cunningham:

"There is a strange fallacy which seems to mislead men in forming an estimate of the soundness and importance of this principle. Because this principle has been often brought out in connection with the discussion of matters which, viewed in themselves, are very unimportant, such as rites and ceremonies, vestments and organs, crossings, kneelings, bowings, and other such, some men seem to think that it partakes of the intrinsic littleness of these things, and that the men who defend and try to enforce it, find their most congenial occupation in fighting about these small matters, and exhibit great bigotry and narrow-mindedness in bringing the authority of God and the testimony of Scripture to bear upon such a number of paltry points. Many have been led to entertain such views as these of the English Puritans and of the Scottish Presbyterians, and very much upon the ground of their maintenance of this principle.

"Now, it should be quite sufficient to prevent or neutralize this impression to show, as we think can be done, 1st, That the principle is taught with sufficient plainness in Scripture, and that, therefore, it ought to be professed and applied to the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs. 2d, That, viewed in itself, it is large, liberal, and comprehensive, such as seems in no way unbecoming its Divine author, and in no way unsuitable to the dignity of the church as a divine institution, giving to God His rightful place of supremacy, and to the church, as the body of Christ, its rightful position of elevated simplicity and purity. 3d, That, when contemplated in connection with the ends of the church, it is in full accordance with everything suggested by an enlightened and searching survey of the tendencies of human nature, and the testimony of all past experience. And with respect to the connection above referred to, on which the impression we are combatting is chiefly based, it is surely plain that, in so far as it exists de facto, this is owing, not to anything in the tendencies of the principle itself or of its supporters, but to the conduct of the men who, in defiance of this principle, would obtrude human inventions into the government and worship of the church, or who insist upon retaining them permanently after they have once got admittance. The principle suggests no rites or ceremonies, no schemes or arrangements; it is purely negative and prohibitionary. Its supporters never devise innovations and press them upon the church. The principle itself precludes this. It is the deniers of this principle, and they alone, who invent and obtrude innovations; and they are responsible for all the mischiefs that ensue from the discussions and contentions to which these things have given rise.   (William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, [1862] 1989), p. 35, 36.   Available at

"Anything else or different from this (the itemization of the elements of the worship service found in WCF 21:5 - WJM), and especially anything borrowed from heathenism or the abolished temple-services — as pretended priests, altars, altar-cloths, incense, symbolical vestments, or instrumental music — are entirely without divine warrant, and therefore unlawful. The same thing may be said of all man-pleasing, sensationalism, solo-singing, with any of the peculiarities of the theatre transferred without divine warrant into the worship of the Christian Church." (Begg, op. cit.)

By accepting Rev. Schlissel’s definition of the RPW, one finds himself in disagreement with the Westminster Assembly and virtually every Reformer who wrote upon the subject.

If only Rev. Schlissel had started with an accurate understanding of the RPW, I believe he would have produced an essay worthy of his obvious abilities. At best, he grossly misunderstands the meaning of the RPW.  As such, his conclusions are fatally flawed.

I could forgive incompetent scholarship if he was a layman. But he is not. Moreover, he has both a pastoral charge and a public following as a result of his published writings and national speaking engagements. He has a divinely-appointed responsibility to those sheep who look to him for guidance. Those who are not familiar with the RPW and who have come to appreciate, as I have, Rev. Schlissel’s many gifts, may well be deceived by his premises and conclusions, which to this writer are, quite frankly, little more than warmed-over Anglicanism.

"The purity of worship practiced in the Presbyterian Church ever since the Reformation has not been thrust upon her from without. It has been the result of her own views of Scripture, and of her own deliberate choice; nay, it has been maintained by a determined and heroic struggle for ages on the part her noblest sons. The appointment of all her ministers, besides, is only made conditionally; the condition being that, before their settlement, or acquiring any rights, they shall avow and subscribe their adherence to all her distinctive principles and peculiarities. To allege that they may afterwards set these avowals at defiance, and still retain their offices, is to outrage morality and overthrow the liberty of the Church and her congregations. No man is forced to become one of her ministers. All enter into office and take the necessary vows with the most unconstrained freedom; and if they are afterwards dissatisfied, and with to introduce novelties, they are at the most perfect liberty to withdraw and join a more congenial fellowship. Honest men, on finding that they cannot fulfil their vows, will surely adopt this alternative — will withdraw and take the consequences." (Begg, op. cit.)

As Reg Barrow has written, "This principle in worship (RPW-WJM) is the equivalent of God's sovereignty in soteriology. That is, the "Christian" humanists (Arminians) try to ascribe salvation to their own wills and not to God's will as the Bible clearly proclaims (John 1:13, Romans 9). Similarly the Bible condemns human invention in worship as will worship (Col 2:23)..." (emphasis added) (The Regulative Principle of Worship in History, free at

"Is it possible to find a single instance in Scripture of accepted worship that was not prescribed by God?" (Begg, op. cit.)

"I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to his worship, if at variance with his command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, "Obedience is better than sacrifice." "In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men," (1 Sam. 15:22; Matt. 15:9). Every addition to his word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere "will worship" (ethelothreeskeia) is vanity [Col. 2:23]. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate."  (John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, p. 18, free at )

"Many people claim that Christians are free to employ a variety of practices in worship, as long as the means employed are not specifically forbidden in scripture. (If something is not forbidden, it must be o.k.) When their worship activities are challenged, their response is, "Show us what is wrong with this practice."

"We reject this view as inadequate. Certainly, any method of worship which is demonstrably unbiblical should be discarded immediately. But we reject the idea that the burden of proof rests upon us to prove a negative -- to show that every new fad in worship violates some particular scriptural prohibition.

"We believe that the scriptures contain a general prohibition against all elements in worship besides those which God himself has instituted. In other words, the burden of proof falls upon those who wish to introduce a practice into worship, to prove that God has required it in his word. This is the force of the scriptural law of worship; it guards against man-made innovations in worship. (Emphasis added.)

"...All of our worship should possess two preeminent characteristics: (1.) we must come to the Lord with sincere hearts filled with love for him; (2.) we must worship God using only the means established in his word. Any worship which lacks either of these qualities is sinful; we must not approach the Lord with corrupt motives or with improper methods. — Kevin Reed, Biblical Worship, free at

"Now the question is, Is this a true or a false principle? If it be false, the Presbyterian Church for three centuries has been under a strong delusion; and all its office-bearers have been bound, and are still bound, to maintain what is not true...Till it is abandoned, every Presbyterian minister can only be an honest man by maintaining it. It is utterly vain, and worse, to dispose of our solemn obligations by vague and pointless declamations.

"...Every Presbyterian office-bearer is as much bound as we are to maintain and vindicate these principles, and neither directly nor indirectly to connive at their subversion." (Begg, op. cit.)

It is with some degree of sadness that I finished reading Rev. Schlissel’s paper, and with which I write this letter to you. I have enjoyed his column (and particularly his sense of humor) in the Chalcedon Report for a long time.   But that has no bearing on the fact that his views on worship are heretical.   If his denomination fails to enforce sanctions against him, it will soon become as heretical as he is, and eventually it will become effectually atheistic. If you have not yet read Dr. Gary North's masterful work "Crossed Fingers:  How The Liberals Captured The Presbyterian Church," I strongly urge you to do so.  It provides the blueprint of this slippery slope.

"Of the views generally held by the Reformers on the subject of the organization of the church, there are two which have been always very offensive to men of a loose and latitudinarian tendency, - viz., the alleged unlawfulness of introducing into the worship and government of the church any thing which is not positively warranted by Scripture, and the permanent binding obligation of a particular form of church government." (William Cunningham, "Leaders of the Reformation" in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation [Banner of Truth, reprinted 1989], p. 31).

I was moved that you would take the time to send me the articles. I will be praying that, upon prayer, reflection and further study on both our parts,  we find we have no disagreement; and if we do, that it will be as iron sharpeneth iron, in God’s love between two brothers.

Sincerely in Christ,


W. J. Mencarow

P.S. Enclosed is a copy of Dr. Begg’s book Anarchy In Worship which I have liberally quoted in this letter.


"Still the change in question is not a small matter. It crosses the line betwixt appointed and discarded observances, betwixt simple and aesthetic devotion. It gets into the region of sensuous and sensational worship; it breaks open the floodgates, and exposes the Church to an inundation of error and change." (Begg, op. cit.)

"What is the biblical alternative to the RPW? All views of worship principally lead either to Rome or to Westminster. Thus, that which prevents churches from becoming epistemologically consistent with their Romish views of worship is ultimately preference, expediency, and mere pragmatism, not biblical principle." — Rev. Greg Price, from a manuscript of his forthcoming book on the RPW.

"Every consideration points in the direction therefore of ‘standing in the old ways." The word and authority of God — our desire to obtain His blessing which "maketh rich and addeth no sorrow" — the consideration that our land has prospered greatly by the blessing of God in connection with the old and time-honored worship of our fathers — the certainty that if changes under false principles are tolerated, they will gradually diverge into wider extremes — the fact that these innovation degrade the worship from its grand manly simplicity, and must for a formidable obstruction to reunion among the Presbyterians...— that they are essentially revolutionary in their nature, and throw a complete discredit upon the ordination vows of Church office-bearers and upon those who administer and take them — all these and other considerations combine in demanding that those who administer the affairs of our Churches should act with enlightened and impartial firmness. If not — if the office-bearers of the Churches follow a carnal policy, and impose vows which they allow to be disregarded, and the Church, instead of the citadel of truth, becomes a stronghold of corruption and falsehood, not only much the church Establishment become indefensible, but such a state of things must eat as doth a canker, and there is a dark prospect before our land and our children...

"Was it for this that Knox and Melville braved the fury of monarchs, and that our noble Covenanters on the hills of Scotland were shot down by a merciless soldiery, professing their unalterable adherence to the worship, doctrine and government of the Presbyterian Church? Surely it is not come to this, although this may suit the unworthy views of a degenerate few. At all events we know what the ultimate end of the great struggle will be. The truth of God, and the God of truth, must and shall triumph, and "at the evening time there shall be light." (cf. Zech 14:7)

"...The age is becoming luxurious and irreligious, and the luxury and music of the drawing-room are being transferred to the Church. Some good people foolishly imagine that because vital religion is all-important, divine order is quite immaterial...

"Whilst multitudes are standing consistently on the old ground, blind Presbyterians are helping forward the defection, and ancient foes are imagining that Presbyterianism is effete, or is about to abdicate. The adherents of Prelacy are not unnaturally looking up again as if their day of triumph were at hand. But the end is not yet." (Begg, op. cit.)

"Calvin maintains that the human heart is also led into the error of idolatry through its love of ceremony and ritual (A good study of Calvin's view of ceremonies is T.W. Street's John Calvin on Adiaphora [Ph.D. dissertation, Union Theological Seminary, New York, 1954], pp. 208-16). Calvin attacks the excessive and improper use of ceremonies by the Catholic church as a denial of spiritual worship. First, because it is an abrogation of God's commands; secondly, because it often entails the improper use of material paraphernalia; and finally because it is often taken to be some sort of automatic communication between God and man.

"Humanly devised ceremonies are a bold affront to God's power, honor, and freedom. Through them men attempt to worship God as they please and to bind His power to specific situations. Consequently, Calvin deals with ceremonies as dangerous distractions that only serve to confuse man and rob God of His majesty." (Grau, Calvins Stellung, p. 12; Wencelius, L 'Esthetique, pp. 221-2).

"Calvin also carries his analysis of the psychology of idolatry to the social level. "We see," he says, "how by mutual persuasion, men urge one another to defend superstition and the worship of idols." Calvin asserts that the more the truth of God is manifested, the more obstinately man persists in following his own way against God, as if he intends to wage war against Him (Emphasis added.) Calvin is convinced that the perversion of man is such that, since the beginning of the Reformation, there has been an increase in idolatry, not a decrease (Commentary on Isaiah, CR 37.37 [CR refers to: Corpus Reformatorum: Joannis Calvini Opera quae supersunt omnia, edited by W. Baum, E. Cunitz, and E. Reuss, Brunswick, 1863-80]). Calvin attributes this rebellion against God to a form of mass hysteria in which idolaters take comfort from each other's encouragements and from the security that comes from belonging to a large group (Ibid. CR 37.254).

"Calvin also argues that people remain steeped in idolatry out of habit and a false sense of awe resulting from the antiquity of their beliefs. It is very difficult, he indicates, to believe that anything ancient can be wrong. The older the idolatry, therefore, the harder it is to displace from men's hearts (Sermons on Deuteronomy, CR 28.711). Zwingli has also made a similar reference to this phenomenon in De vera etfalsa religione (Latin Works, 3.337).

"Sounding a bit like the Luther of the Table Talk, though somewhat more restrained, Calvin expands upon this theme by comparing idolaters to latrine cleaners: "Just as a 'maistre Fifi' mocks those who hold their noses (in his presence), because he has handled filth for so long that he can no longer smell his own foulness; so likewise do idolaters make light of those who are offended by a stench they cannot themselves recognize. Hardened by habit, they sit in their own excrement, and yet believe they are surrounded by roses" (Excuse, CR 6.595. ['Maistre Fifi' is a 16th Century French slang term for a latrine or sewer cleaner.])" (Carlos Eire, War Against The Idols, pp. 219-200, cited in "A Warning Against the False and Dangerous Views of James Jordan Concerning Worship" by Reg Barrow. Mr. Eire's book is available at Mr. Barrow's article is printed at

"The principle that the church hath power to institute any thing or ceremony belonging to the worship of God, either as to matter or manner, beyond the observance of such circumstances as necessarily attend such ordinances as Christ Himself hath instituted, lies at the bottom of all the horrible superstition and idolatry, of all the confusion, blood, persecution, and wars, that have for so long a season spread themselves over the face of the Christian world." (John Owen, quoted in Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church by John Girardeau, available at


"He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination." (Prov. 28:9)


To learn more about and to order the books cited in this letter, visit the Still Waters Revival Books website.  Click here.

The author is now pastor of Reformation Presbyterian Church, Boerne, Texas (San Antonio area). The website is