Recently someone mentioned the “regulative principle of worship” to me. I had never heard of it. What is it and should I be concerned about it?
Let me begin by saying that there are those who claim to be rigidly loyal to this principle, yet the majority of Christians have never even heard of it. So let’s define the term and analyze the pros and cons of adherence.
In large measure, the regulative principle of worship came about centuries ago as a reaction to the perceived idolatry of Roman Catholicism. In essence, this principle states that only those elements that are commanded or depicted in the Bible are acceptable in worship. Some refer to this as an exclusive view or practice of worship because it excludes anything that is not directly instructed or at least shown in the pages of Scripture.
The regulative principle of worship is often contrasted with the normative principle of worship, which teaches that whatever is not prohibited in Scripture is permitted in worship. Many people refer to this as an inclusive view of worship because it has the potential of including those things that are not directly banned by the Bible. The normative principle is by far the more widespread position in the Protestant Church.
My experience has been that those who appear to dogmatically adhere to the regulative principle really don’t. They regularly add that which is not mentioned in Scripture to their worship, and leave out other elements that are mentioned. Let me offer just a few obvious examples.
Conservative reformed churches, one of the strongest groups to pledge their allegiance to the regulative principle, nearly always use pipe organs in their services. There are no pipe organs mentioned in the Bible. By their own standards, they’ve added something to God’s Word. Unacceptable.
At the same time these same churches rarely (most never) clap their hands in their services (Psalm 47:1), shout for joy to God (Psalm 66:1), lift their hands (Psalm 134:2), praise God in the dance (Psalm 149:3) or use trumpets, tambourines or cymbals (Psalm 150:3-5). If they insist that the Word is the standard for what is acceptable, why neglect such obvious instructions?
These examples may seem like nit-picking, but they are not. If you say that only the elements mentioned in Scripture are acceptable, then any deviation, no matter how minor, is wrong. Interestingly, there is no mention of pews in the Bible. No elevated pulpits. No hymnals. No pianos. No air conditioning. No microphones. Should I continue?
The normative principle of worship has far more merit from an honest scriptural perspective. Even those who insist on the regulative principle of worship apply the normative principle to the rest of life.
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).