Baptists and Biblical Authority in Worship

Scott Aniol

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The regulative principle has long been associated with Reformed traditions that trace their heritage to John Calvin and the Swiss Reformation. This principle, which states that for church practice, whatever is not prescribed in Scripture is forbidden, contrasts with the Lutheran and Anglican normative principle, which holds that whatever is not forbidden in Scripture is permitted.

Traditionally, the Reformed regulative principle has differentiated between the substance of worship, which must have clear biblical warrant, and the forms or circumstances of worship, which “must be decided upon in the absence of specific biblical direction,” and thus are much more flexible.

This essay will show that, in contrast to the Reformed understanding of the regulative principle, Baptists have historically and theologically insisted upon New Testament warrant for both the substance and forms of church practice.

The Reformed Regulative Principle

The Reformed regulative principle finds its roots historically in the worship reforms of John Calvin (1509–1564), who interpreted the Second Commandment as God defining “lawful worship, that is, a spiritual worship established by himself. He insisted upon “the rejection of any mode of worship that is not sanctioned by the command of God.” The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) later codified this principle when it asked (Q. 96), “What does God require in the second commandment?” The catechism answered, “That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded.”

The principle spread to England largely through the influence of John Knox (1513–1572) and those with him who spent time with Calvin in Geneva during the reign of Mary I (“Bloody Mary”). Knox reflected Calvin’s thought when he argued, “All worshiping, honoring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without his own express commandment is idolatry.”[5] After Mary died and Elizabeth I came to the English throne in 1558, the regulative principle became characteristic of the Reformed clergy who returned from Geneva and formed the Puritan faction of the Church of England, they who “regarded the Reformation as incomplete and wished to model English church worship and government according to the Word of God.”[6]They later formulated their convictions regarding the principle in the Confession of Faith produced by the Westminster Assembly (1643–1660). Like Calvin and Knox before them, the Westminster divines rooted their regulative principle in their doctrine of Scripture:

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. (1:6)

Their bibliology would not allow for any additions to worship beyond what God had prescribed in his Word:

But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture. (22:1)

The regulative principle of Calvin, Knox, and the Puritans found its rationale not only in logical extension of the doctrine of sola Scriptura, but also in the conviction that church authority was limited by clear scriptural precepts and had no right to constrain the free consciences of individual Christians. As the Westminster Confession explained,

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. (20:2)

The Reformed regulative principle has traditionally distinguished between the elements of worship, which require explicit biblical warrant, and the forms or circumstances of worship, “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” (1:6). Charles Hodge (1797–1878) later employed this distinction when he noted, “The Scriptures, therefore . . . do not prescribe any form of words to be used in the worship of God.” Thus while a church, according to the Reformed regulative principle, must have clear biblical justification for the elements found in its worship, it has more liberty concerning the forms those elements take.

Baptists and the Regulative Principle

Early English Baptists articulated a regulative principle similar to other Separatist and Puritan groups. This fact of history is most clearly evident in the similarity of language concerning biblical authority between the London Baptist Confession (LBC) of 1689 and the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). Early English Baptists clearly insisted, like their Presbyterian counterparts, “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself” (LBC 22:1 parallel to WCF 21:1).

Furthermore, many of the early English Baptist leaders explicitly articulated a clearly defined regulative principle. For example, John Spilsbury (1593–1668) declared, “The holy Scripture is the only place where any ordinance of God in the case aforesaid is to be found, they being the fountain-head, containing all the instituted Rules of both of Church and ordinances.” John Gill (1697–1771) later proclaimed, “Now for an act of religious worship there must be a command of God. God is a jealous God, and will not suffer anything to be admitted into the worship of him, but what is according to his word and will.” These Baptists were not simply articulating the doctrine of Sola Scriptura or emphasizing the authority of Scripture upon church practice, as any good Protestant would. Rather, they were insisting that the practices of the church be limited to what Scripture—specifically, the New Testament—commanded, and as William Kiffin (1616–1701) noted, “that where a rule and express law is prescribed to men, that very prescription, is an express prohibition of the contrary.” This concern among Baptists continued well into the early nineteenth century, as seen by John Fawcett’s (1739–1817) very direct assertion,

No acts of worship can properly be called holy, but such as the Almighty has enjoined. No man, nor any body of men have any authority to invent rites and ceremonies of worship; to change the ordinances which he has established; or to invent new ones . . . The divine Word is the only safe directory in what relates to his own immediate service. The question is not what we may think becoming, decent or proper, but what our gracious Master has authorized as such. In matters of religion, nothing bears the stamp of holiness but what God has ordained.

Notably, these Baptists believed that their application of the regulative principle was more consistent than that of other groups, a matter that will be explored below. Matthew Ward summarizes well the Baptist position, in contrast to both the normative principle of the Anglicans and what Baptists considered the inconsistent regulative principle of the Presbyterians:

The same Anglicans who had rejected the popish practices of crucifixes, beads, praying to the Saints, icons, and pilgrimages had retained bowing at the name of Jesus, signing the cross in baptism, wearing the surplice in preaching, and kneeling at the Lord’s Supper. The same Presbyterians who had rejected those latter practices had retained the church hierarchy, a directory of worship, infant baptism, and compulsory church attendance and tithes. The Baptists saw inconsistency therein and wanted to practice a consistent application of Scripture in their worship because they desired true reverence for God and true humility before him.

Ecclesiastical Issues Affected by the Regulative Principle

Baptist commitment to the regulative principle is seen not only in the express statements of early Baptists but also particularly in their practice. Several key ecclesiological issues in Baptist practice reveal a strong allegiance to this principle.


The central Baptist distinctive of believer’s baptism by immersion perhaps most clearly reveals commitment to the regulative principle. Since their inception, Baptists have been concerned not simply that baptism take place, nor only that baptismal regeneration be rejected, but also that baptism be performed in exactly the way the New Testament prescribes. For example, Cox, Knollys, and Kiffin wrote in 1645 the following in response to Edmond Calamy’s defense of infant baptism: “But your infant baptism is a religious worship, for which there is no command, nor any example, written in the Scripture of truth.” Likewise, Hercules Collins (1646–1702) noted about infant baptism, “We have neither precept nor example for that practice in all the Book of God.” In their 1688 Confession, London Baptists argued against infant baptism on the basis that it was not prescribed in Scripture. Furthermore, these Baptists’ commitment to the mode of immersion sprang from their conviction that this is exactly what the New Testament prescribed. John Norcott (1621–1676), for example, rejected the mode of sprinkling, because “God is a jealous God, and stands upon small things in matters of Worship.”

For the purposes of this essay, what is particularly important to recognize in the baptism debate is that these early Baptists extended the regulative principle not simply to the element of baptism, as even Presbyterian proponents of the principle did; they also applied the principle to the form in which the element was practiced. They believed that regulating even the form of baptism by the New Testament was a more consistent practice of the regulative principle. As Steve Weaver states, “Given their understanding of the meaning of the word baptizo, they sought to apply the regulative principle more thoroughly than had Calvin or Burroughs and the Reformed/Puritan tradition which they represented.” He continues,

For seventeenth-century Baptists, both the mode and the recipients of baptism were vitally important. Their defense of the practice of believer’s baptism by im­mersion was driven by their commit­ment to the regulative principle of wor­ship. Infant baptism simply could not be found in Scripture, and therefore must be rejected at any cost. Believer’s baptism by immersion, however, was “the plain testimony of Scripture” and was therefore to be defended at any cost.

Thus, the 1644 London Confession articulated the “way and manner” of baptism and defined it as “dipping or plunging under water,” and the 1689 Confession insisted that “immersion, or dipping of the person in water, is necessary to the due administration of this ordinance.” A consistent application of the regulative principle, Baptists believed, necessarily informed both the mode and subject of baptism and therefore led to a credobaptist conviction. Fred Malone summarizes:

It is the credobaptist position that maintains a consistent regulative principle concerning the subjects of baptism, disciples alone, as compared to the paedobaptist position that permits infant baptism by a misuse of “good and necessary inference.” The sacraments (ordinances) and their subjects are to be positively instituted by precept according to the regulative principle of worship. . . . Only a credobaptist position is consistent with the Reformed regulative principle of worship. The paedobaptist position, based on inference instead of stated institution, is a violation of the regulative principle.

While it is certainly true that believer’s baptism is the distinctive likely most identified with Baptists—it is part of the movement’s name, after all—it is because they held such a high view of Scripture as their sole authority over both the substance and form of the ordinance that Baptists came to their understanding of baptism in the first place.

The Lord’s Supper

Baptists have also applied the regulative principle to the practice of the Lord’s Supper. Baptists, like other Protestants, considered transubstantiation, the idea of the mass as a sacrifice, and other aspects of Roman Catholic Eucharistic theology to be outside what Scripture taught. At very least, Baptists observed the Supper because they believed, as John Ryland (1753–1825) noted, “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two positive institutions of the New Testament.”

Yet as with baptism, Baptists did not limit their application of the regulative principle to the substance of the Table alone; they applied it also to the form in which the Table was observed. As Kiffin noted, “to leave (they say) the Practice of Christ and his Apostles in the manner of receiving the Sacrament, and to follow the Practice of Men, in a posture Invented by Men is not safe.” Likewise, Collins suggested that a key difference between himself and a conformist consisted largely in whether observance of the Table followed Christ’s example or not:

Christ and his Apostles sat at Supper, you kneel (and impose it); they did it most probably often, yet seldom they did Communicate in the Evening, you at Noon; they break the Bread, you cut it, you License Men to Administer Sacraments, that have no Gift to preach, instead whereof, read only a Homily, we have no Command nor president for such a Practice.

Along with Collins, other Baptists often concerned themselves with how best to follow the NT example in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Sitting rather than kneeling, meeting in the evening rather than noon, and breaking the bread rather than cutting it were only a few of the matters concerning the Table that Baptists considered important. They were not as successful in reaching consensus on many issues related to the Lord’s Table as they had been on the matter of baptism, however.

One particular question about the Lord’s Supper Baptists also debated was whether believer’s baptism by immersion was a prerequisite for participation in the Table, again appealing to clear biblical prescription and example for defense of various answers to the question. This was a significant point of contention, for instance, between Kiffin and John Bunyan (1628–1688), Bunyan insisting that proper baptism was not necessary for church membership and Table observance, and Kiffin defending the claim that true baptism was necessary. It was as part of this debate over an issue of form that Kiffin articulated one of the most direct Baptist statements of the regulative principle:

I have no other design, but the preserving the ordinances of Christ, in their purity and order as they are left unto us in the holy Scriptures of truth; and to warn the Churches to keep close to the rule, least they begin found not to worship the Lord according to his prescribed order he make a breach among them.

This debate continued among various Baptist groups for years to come.


Baptists’ emphasis upon singing psalms and even non-inspired hymnody in corporate worship, led first by the efforts of Benjamin Keach, may appear to be evidence of a more normative approach to biblical authority. On the contrary, it was exactly on the basis of the regulative principle that Keach and others argued in favor of singing hymns in addition to psalms. Keach considered the lack of congregational singing in Baptist worship a “breach” in church practice that needed to be “repaired.” He believed singing in worship to be “so clear an Ordinance in God’s Word” and declared, “The holy Ghost doth injoin [sic] the Gospel-Churches to sing Psalms, as well as Hymns, and spiritual Songs. Will you take upon you to countermand God’s holy Precept?” In particular, he first introduced the singing of hymns to his congregation at the end of their Lord’s Supper observance because of the biblical example of Christ and his disciples at the end of the Last Supper (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26). He inquired,

Did not Christ sing an Hymn after the Supper? Would he have left that as a Pattern to us, and annexed it to such a pure Gospel-Ordinance, had it been a Ceremony, and only belonging to the Jewish Worship?

Baptists who opposed congregational singing also based their arguments upon what they claimed to be the rule of biblical prescription, insisting that lack of clear NT command to sing hymns prohibited the practice. This simply reveals that the regulative principle was the accepted governing presupposition for Baptists through which all controversies were required to pass.


For Baptists, polity derives also from a more strict application of the regulative principle than for other groups, even those who ascribe to some form of the principle. Instructive is the fact that the LBC contains several more articles in its chapter on the church than does the WCF, including this statement on the organization of a church:

A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he entrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons. (LBC 26:8)

The WCF contains no such statement on how a church should be organized. The LBC furthermore eliminated the chapter “Of Synods and Councils” (WCF 31) since Baptists did not find NT warrant for such. Church autonomy, congregational government, and the limiting of church offices to elders and deacons each illustrates these Baptists’ concern that their polity be governed by explicit NT prescription.

Substance and Form

Early English Baptists clearly ascribed to the regulative principle, but as the foregoing discussion has shown, Baptists have applied the principle not only to the elements of worship, as did their Puritan counterparts, but they have also applied it to the forms of those elements. Among Baptists, debates concerning baptism, the Lord’s Supper, singing, and polity each occurred within the understood, and often explicitly stated, assumption that every practice of gospel churches must have clear New Testament prescription. Thus the regulative principle was the hub from which the Baptists’ views of baptism, corporate worship practices, and church polity found their source, and Baptists were far more consistent in their application of biblical authority to worship than those of the Reformed tradition who are often more associated with the regulative principle than Baptists.

One of the clearest examples of the difference between the Reformed regulative principle and that of the Baptists is in the comparison between their two confessions. As was shown earlier, the 1689 London Baptist Confession is almost identical to the Westminster Confession in its articulation of the regulative principle. Yet in one very important change, the LBC reveals a stricter application of the principle than that of the WCF. Baptists changed the statement “or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” in WCF 1.6 to “or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture” in LBC 1.6. Puritans demanded that the elements of worship have clear biblical warrant but were willing to be flexible as to the forms those elements took as long as those forms “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” Baptist, on the other hand, insisted that all aspects of church practice be “expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture.” As Malone notes, “Our Baptist forefathers wanted to make sure that the containment of Scripture (i.e., the analogy of faith) limits what may be called ‘good and necessary consequence.’”

Most will recognize this fact of history with regard to the Baptist understanding of baptism, but few acknowledge that Baptists applied the same logic they used with the form of baptism to forms of other ecclesiological matters as well. This is not to say Baptists were always consistent in their application of the regulative principle. For example, Puritan Henry Jessey (1603–1663) observed such potential inconsistency in Baptists’ insistence upon biblical prescription for the form of baptism while at the same time allowing for “some variation, if not alteration either in the matter or manner of things according to Primitive Practice,” such as “laying on of hands, singing, washing of feet, and anointing with oil.” Neither does this mean that all Baptists came to the same conclusions regarding what the New Testament prescribed; indeed, Baptists have been rarely able to come to agreement on such matters. Matthew Ward even suggests that the commitment of the early Baptists to the regulative principle is what prevented them from unifying in any lasting way:

This is why worship was so disintegrative to the early Baptists. Every practice which they thought had biblical mandate or precedent became a just cause for separation, and those who did not agree with them were accused of harboring ‘poor conceits and Notions, as if the word of God came out from them’ and them only, all the while being open to that same charge potentially on the same practice.

Rather, what this study has shown is that these disagreements and debates over the minutia of church practice themselves reveal a deep commitment to the regulative principle in both substance and form of church practice.

Furthermore, there is little question as to whether Baptists have continued to affirm and apply the regulative principle in this way, especially in America. On the contrary, a comparatively much smaller percentage of Baptists today hold to any form of the regulative principle, let alone apply it as strictly to the forms of church practice as early English Baptists did.

Every Baptist would defend believer’s baptism by immersion on the basis of its explicit New Testament prescription and would argue against other forms of baptism on the basis of lack of biblical warrant. In other words, all Baptists by definition apply the regulative principle very strictly to the matter of baptism. Perhaps Baptists should also apply the principle to other issues of church practice, as did their Baptist forefathers.


Baptists are people of the Book. This is not simply a fact of history—it is at the core of what it means to be Baptist as revealed in the distinctive of believer’s baptism by immersion. English Baptists emerged out of English separatism because of their desire to apply the regulative principle more consistently than their Reformed counterparts, and they insisted that both the substance and form of whatever they do as part of church practice—whether baptism, the Lord’s Supper, singing, and many other matters—must have clear biblical warrant.

The purpose of this essay was not to evaluate the relationship between biblical authority and Baptist practice in more recent times, but contemporary Baptists would do well to consider the example left for them by early Baptists. Baptists today remain committed, of course, to biblical authority over the subject and mode of baptism and over church polity, yet Baptists often fail to consider how the Bible should regulate other aspects of their ecclesiology, most notably their worship practice. If Baptists today rightly hold Scripture as the supreme authority over Christian doctrine and practice, then as with early English Baptists, the regulative principle should continue to govern both substance and form in all matters of Baptist ecclesiology, including corporate worship.

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Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.