Question #13: Do the same rules that apply to public worship (RPW, the regulative principle of worship) also apply to private and family worship?

Question #13:  Do the same rules that apply to public worship (RPW, the regulative principle of worship) also apply to private and family worship? Are the songs we sing in private/family worship considered to be praise songs?

In an earlier post Raymond raised the following questions that can be addressed here, “the question to raise is whether meditations or devotions are a part of worship? If not, then the only problem is what to do when musical meditations or devotions take the form of praise? Can they or should they?”

The full post includes a number of related questions: “…the question to raise is whether meditations or devotions are a part of worship? If not, then the only problem is what to do when musical meditations or devotions take the form of praise? Can they or should they? Nextly, the question must be raised whether it is possible to sing a song which was meant (whether rightly or wrongly) to be used in worship without offering it up as worship? What if the portion of Scripture to be memorized happens to be one of the songs of the Bible outside the Psalter? Are there some songs which, in and of themselves, when sung or listened to are seen by God to be offered up in worship to Him? If so, then we need to look at it from another end also. How about musical meditations which people offer up in worship that were never meant to be offered up in worship? Does authorial intent matter? If so, how could we tell authorial intent in some cases? Are there some songs which, in and of themselves, when sung or listened to are seen by God to **not** be offered up in worship to Him because they were merely meditational or devotional in nature and were never intended to be offered up as worship?

So the major question then is: Is it lawful to sing or listen to something that takes the form of praise (even inspired praise in the case of the Psalms and the setting to music of Scripture in order to aid in the memory of Scripture when such music happens to fall into the songs outside the Psalter in Scripture) without offering it up as worship to God? If yes, then the implication seems to be that the Psalms themselves could be used outside of worship–unless of course I’ve messed up in my reasoning somewhere or am forgetting certain portions of Scripture.”


9 thoughts on “Question #13: Do the same rules that apply to public worship (RPW, the regulative principle of worship) also apply to private and family worship?”

  1. Just some general observations since this is a broad topic.

    The Psalms are the only authorized songs that we can offer to God in worship, however, I don’t believe their use is confined to worship. Our singing of the Psalms outside of worship cultivates our singing of them within worship. We are wise to learn them, to repeat them, to meditate on them, etc., all of which only serve to strengthen our use of them in worship.

    In a certain sense we are “praising” God when we sing Psalms outside of worship, though not in the same way as we are within the regulated boundaries of a worship service. This is a difficult thing to define, since worship itself is sometimes hard to measure, especially in our private and family worship times. This is one reason why I have trouble singing songs other than the Psalms outside of worship. I feel a little weird believing what I believe about the RPW and bouncing non-inspired music around in my head all the time.

    Honestly, I am not sure (to answer one of the questions above) if we can sing a Psalm without it being “worship” of some kind, because of the very words themselves. They are ascribing certain ideas to God that do not apply to any creature on earth. If we say they cease to be praise when outside of worship, they still are conveying the same inspired and “worshipful” ideas. If I sing a Psalm to myself in the car, isn’t that a time of private worship? The reason this question is important is because I wonder when it would be appropriate to sing an uninspired song at all. Just some thoughts while I have a few minutes to post.

    1. Hmm, you bring up some good points there. Some more thoughts of mine on the subject shows that part of what I said was in error. Namely, the truth that the Psalms are not just songs but are also God’s word. Thus, if we would not use Scripture for light entertainment, we should not use the Psalms for the same (because the Psalms are Scripture). So whatever reverence we would show for the Scriptures in general, the same should be shown to the Psalms. I think that helps clear away a few difficulties because we tend to know more intuitively what can and cannot be done to Scripture. Perhaps you can show that the use of repeating memorized Scripture to yourself in the car is automatically in some sense worship? I suppose that would be meditation according to the Directory for Family worship and thus private worship in some sense (albeit, informally since you’re also driving a car). (I’m fairly certain that somewhere in the Psalms they speak of memorzing and speaking of God’s law and that it’s in the context of meditation–though I’m not as certain on that point)

      However, that only helps clear the difficulties in one direction (i.e., can we sing the Psalms without them being used as worship in some sense?). It does not quite clear the difficulties in the other direction (i.e., can we sing or listen to uninspired songs with worshipful lyrics without using it in worship but merely using them for enjoyment and entertainment?). I’m still at a loss on that one as well as whether authorial intent matters for uninspired songs. Perhaps it would help if we knew what the Bible ahs to say about Christian entertainment/enjoyment?

    2. Your reply reminds me of this person’s musings on a similar topic:

      It seems from the Directory that meditation is considered a part of worship. I wonder though if what you said about the religious use of uninspired songs would also be applied to uninspired writings (outside of worship in both cases, of course)?

      1. “can we sing or listen to uninspired songs with worshipful lyrics without using it in worship but merely using them for enjoyment and entertainment?”

        I really have a problem with the idea of praise or worship songs being entertainment, even if supposedly they are used “outside of worship”. I know it is common among EPers to say that we are free to sing whatever we want outside of worship because we are not limited by the RPW, but I wonder if this is a wise decision on our part. Any music that is about God or directed to God, whether public or private, should be the Psalms. This is my own opinion here, not necessarily the common view.

        One of the things I wanted to do with this website was to push the envelope a little to encourage new thinking with Psalmody. This would be an area for us to consider. I don’t see how we can sing anything to God that is uninspired, public or private, because these songs will always be “praise”. And, like it or not, these uninspired songs have always managed to work themselves into public worship. History proves this.

        “I wonder though if what you said about the religious use of uninspired songs would also be applied to uninspired writings (outside of worship in both cases, of course)?”

        I think different rules apply to uninspired writings because these things are not considered to be praise directed toward God in some way. When the writings are changed into a song, the distinction is made. I know some people will read that and laugh out loud, but I think there is a distinct difference between singing to or about God and reading a book about God. One is praise directed to God while the other is information directed toward man.

        These are some great discussion questions. I think the more we talk about such things, the more appreciation we will have toward the singing of the Psalms. The more we grow to love the Psalms, the more we will see uninspired songs fade away. We should sing God’s Word whenever we have the chance.

      2. “So whatever reverence we would show for the Scriptures in general, the same should be shown to the Psalms.”
        This is certainly true, but we want to be careful not to put unnecessary boundaries around the Psalms regarding their appropriate use. Though it is right and proper to sing the Psalms in formal worship, we can also sing them around a campfire or in the shower. It is not irreverant to sing the Psalms in places other than a worship setting. Many of our forefathers sang the Psalms while in battle, when marching to war or while they were dying a martyr’s death. This is a beautiful thing about God’s Word. It can be found on the lips of a sinner and still be the pure infallible Words of God.

        I say sing them everywhere. There is no dark place where the light of Scripture cannot shine.

      3. The link you provided gives us the following from J. Parnell McCarter:

        “Yet despite this wise and godly counsel, how few there are in our own day who know as many God-inspired songs by heart as they know songs authored merely by uninspired men, and often foolish men at that. There are not many today know who have memorized God’s songs for praise, edification, and enjoyment. But there are multitudes who know the lyrics of vain, frivolous, or perverse songs.

        The inspired songs of God should inhabit a central place among the songs we know, especially songs for our re-creation. It is a misallocation of time to learn vain song lyrics for recreation and entertainment. We must keep in mind our time limits on this earth. Our time is quite limited. And that brief time we have for recreation in song should be well used. Christians have been bought with a price. Our time is God’s. I just wish I could trade all the “entertaining” secular songs I know (from my pre-reformed days) in for the spiritual songs God wrote. But, alas, the secular songs are deeply embedded in my psyche from youth, and God’s songs I am trying only somewhat successfully to learn in my older age. My advice to the youth: remember the Creator’s songs in the days of thy youth. (And don’t waste time meditating in recreation upon the words of *at best* second-rate songs, and often downright perverse songs, written by foolish men.) We are told to redeem our time – all of our time.”

        Thank you Mr. McCarter for such wise advice.

    3. Hi Mark,

      I realize that this is an old post, but I think the question is a very good one and I was glad to find a discussion of it. I hope you won’t mind me resurrecting it and chipping in my two cents. I also want to say that I very much appreciate this website and the resources you have pulled together here. You have done us all a great service.

      In addressing this question think it is important to remember that the basis for the Regulative Principle of Worship is the Second Commandment. The Ten Commandments are a summary of the moral law, and they are to be interpreted as broadly as possible. Thus, the Sixth Commandment not only prohibits physical murder, but unjust anger and hatred. This applies equally to the First Table of the Law, so when the Second Commandment forbids the worshiping of God by images, it also forbids using tools on the stones of the altar (Exodus 20:25). It is a general prohibition on bringing any man-made innovation into God’s worship.

      I would also note that the other commandments in the First Table of the Law are not limited to public worship:
      – The First Commandment forbids worshiping other gods not only in public worship, but also in our homes and private devotions.
      – The Third Commandment forbids profaning the Lord’s name in private as well as in public.
      – The Fourth Commandment is specifically addressed to heads of households, commanding them to enable all in their house to keep the Sabbath. We are to keep the Lord’s Day both at home and at the house of God.

      Likewise, there is nothing in the Second Commandment that limits it to public worship. It simply says “You shall not make for yourself a carved image… you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” It doesn’t matter whether we are in the public assembly (e.g., the golden calf) or in our own home (e.g., Micah’s image and shrine, Jdg 17).

      I’ve alluded to this already, but it is important to recognize that not all worship takes place in the public assembly of God’s people on the Lord’s Day. There are such things as private and family worship (as the Westminster Divines noted). A few examples should suffice to establish this:

      – As noted above, the Second Commandment is not the only one that deals with worship. The First Commandment deals with it as well. Would it be proper for people to adore, pray to, or pay tribute in some manner to other gods in their homes and private devotions, but to worship only the Lord in public? It is obvious that there is something to our private and family religious activity that falls under the category of worship which is regulated by God, and it is a very specific activity that can be defined.

      – Abraham’s offering of Isaac was an act of worship. “And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship” (Gen 22:5). It did not take place in the public assembly, with the rest of Abraham’s family, and Lot’s family, and their servants, which would have been quite a large group.

      – Part of the Passover consisted of ceremonial activity in the family worship context. God gave very specific instructions for it and the people were not allowed to embellish them to please themselves, “it is the Lord’s Passover,” Ex 12:3-11. Is anyone going to suggest that the feasts of the Lord were not acts of worship? This example displays an act of family worship that is clearly governed by the regulative principle.

      – One of the more plain statements of the regulative principle is found in Mt 15:9 (also Mark 7:7-9), where Jesus says, “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” The acts of worship Jesus is dealing with in this instance are the personal act of declaring corban, and the ceremonial washing of hands before eating bread. Both of these are acts of personal, individual worship.

      In light of these examples, I think it’s clear that “worship” means more than just corporate worship. Taking examples in Scripture together, a simple definition of worship might be the following: Worship is a self-conscious addressing of ourselves to God, whereby we demonstrate submission, and ascribe honor and worthiness to Him. In other words, worship is coming to God, and the Regulative Principle of Worship (or Second Commandment) is doing it only on His terms, no matter the setting.

      One might ask then, is there any difference between private and public worship? I reply that there is of course a difference, but it is not one of substance or regulation, but of God’s emphasis and special blessing. The acts of worship that are performed in public and private worship are pretty much the same (i.e., singing Psalms, praying, reading the Bible, etc.). God does put a difference between the two however in that He places a higher priority on public worship (Psalm 87:2). Also, His presence is promised in a more special way. We see this when He “puts His name” in the Temple (1 Kings 9:3), and when Jesus says that where there is a group of His people (2 or 3), His authority for discipline is there as well (Matt 18:20). We know that in the New Testament period we as the corporate church are the spiritual temple (2 Cor 6:16, Eph 2:19-22).

      Thus, corporate worship is more special to God and He places a higher emphasis and priority on it. The fact that they are different in this way does not nullify God’s regulation of worship however. The things commanded may be different (e.g., the sacraments are instituted in public worship, but not private worship), but the governing principle (the Second Commandment) is the same.

  2. The Westminster Directory of Public Worship says the following about family and private worship:

    “BESIDES the publick 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; that, with national reformation, the profession and power of godliness, both personal and domestick, be advanced.

    I. And first, for secret worship, it is most necessary, that every one apart, and by themselves, be given to prayer and meditation, the unspeakable benefit whereof is best known to them who are most exercised therein; this being the mean whereby, in a special way, communion with God is entertained, and right preparation for all other duties obtained: and therefore it becometh not only pastors, within their several charges, to press persons of all sorts to perform this duty morning and evening, and at other occasions; but also it is incumbent to the head of every family to have a care, that both themselves, and all within their charge, be daily diligent herein.

    II. The ordinary duties comprehended under the exercise of piety which should be in families, when they are convened to that effect, are these: First, Prayer and praises performed with a special reference, as well to the publick condition of the kirk of God and this kingdom, as to the present case of the family, and every member thereof. Next, Reading of the scriptures, with catechising in a plain way, that the understandings of the simpler may be the better enabled to profit under the publick ordinances, and they made more capable to understand the scriptures when they are read; together with godly conferences tending to the edification of all the members in the most holy faith: as also, admonition and rebuke, upon just reasons, from those who have authority in the family.”

    This is just the first portion, the whole document is found here

  3. I suppose this sort of relates to the question I asked in the other post. I think it is possible to sing a song that someone else calls “worshipful” without it actually being intended on the part of the singer as worship. For example, while I don’t think “Amazing Grace” is an appropriate song for the worship of God (Private or Public), I don’t think it’s a wrong song necessarily for one to listen to and enjoy, just as I wouldn’t with many “secular” songs found in the world of music. However, I’m not dogmatic on this and am willing to hear others’ thoughts on the matter.

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