What is the Regulative Principle of Worship?
God is not disinterested in how His people worship Him.
From start to finish, the Bible is clear that the manner in which we worship God matters.
So the discussion of how churches should order their worship services is not merely an academic exercise. It is also not simply an ongoing battle over musical styles and whether or not the pastor has to tuck his shirt in.
How worship should be conducted in our churches is an important theological question, and there are many views on this topic.
One such view is called the Regulative Principle of Worship. If you’ve been around the world of Reformed theology long, this is likely a term that you’ve heard used in discussions about Christian worship.
But what is the Regulative Principle? What does it look like, and how does it compare to other methods of regulating how worship looks in our churches?
Below is a brief explanation of the Regulative Principle of worship, as well as a quick look at two alternative principles: The Inventive Principle and the Normative Principle.
The Regulative Principle
The Regulative Principle of worship can be understood by taking a look at the following statement from the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF 21.1):
But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped 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.
Similarly, Article 32 of the Belgic confession states:
We also believe that although it is useful and good for those who govern the churches to establish and set up a certain order among themselves for maintaining the body of the church, they ought always to guard against deviating from what Christ, our only Master, has ordained for us.
Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way.
In plain English, the Regulative Principle of Worship seeks to help the church worship God His way, not ours.
The Regulative Principle of Worship seeks to help
the church worship God His way, not ours.
This is not to say that every aspect of our worship, from the time of the service to the number of songs we sing, is explicitly dictated by Scripture. Instead, it means that there must be Scriptural warrant for all that we do.”
Only the elements of worship which are prescribed in Scripture or that may be logically deduced from general biblical principles are to be included in corporate worship. This would, of course, include the reading of Scripture, preaching, prayer, and observing the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Churches which practice the Regulative Principle typically include those that hold to the Westminster standards, the Belgic Confession, and the London Baptist Confession. That is to say, the proponents of this principle typically include conservative and Reformed branches of Presbyterians and Baptists. Historically, this principle has found support in Calvin, Knox, and the Puritans.
There is a broad range of worship styles that fall within this principle. It may be “high church” services that use only hymnals, are very liturgical, and are very formal. Others may be more “contemporary,” featuring newer worship songs, a worship band, a looser structure, and less formality. The commonality between all of them, however, will be the focus on prayer, singing, Scripture reading, the sermon, and the ordinances.
Is the Regulative Principle Biblical?
Because the Regulative Principle aims at worshipping in a way that conforms to Scripture, it is important to have a biblical basis for this position.
Many verses of Scripture tell us what we should include in our worship, but are there any places which state that our worship must be limited to these activities?
Although there is not a singular passage which states that worship may only be conducted in ways set forth in Scripture, there are a number of passages which support this view.
We have “positive warrants” for things like preaching and teaching the Word (1 Timothy 4:13), singing psalms and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19), praying (Colossians 4:2), and observing baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26).
Conversely, passages such as Deuteronomy 12:32 and Matthew 15:9 indicate that we are not free to worship according to man-made tradition, nor may we add to or take away from what God has commanded.
Challenges with this view
While there is Scriptural warrant for holding to the Regulative Principles, there are also a few difficulties with this view. As mentioned previously, there is no passage which explicitly states that we are to worship only according to what is found in Scripture.
Also, how strict we ought to be with this principle is uncertain. For example, should musical instruments be allowed in corporate worship? The New Testament does not make mention of their use in the church, and John Calvin and others have argued that they should not be used in corporate worship. Even so, instruments are widely accepted in Reformed churches.
What about announcements? Or baby dedications? Or reciting confessions as a part of the service? These are common occurrences in many Reformed churches, but there are no explicit commands to do these things in our corporate worship on Sunday mornings.
So what are we to make of the aspects of worship that the Scripture is silent on?
A response to this difficulty is found in the Westminster Confession, which states “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” (WCF 1.6).
In other words, the leadership of the church is to use its best judgment in matters not explicitly mentioned or clearly governed by Scripture. Churches are free to set the times for their service, to choose the form of music, include announcements, or other issues which do not violate Scripture.
Another challenge with the Regulative Principle is that, if the church is not careful, worship can come across as cold, sterile, and unwelcoming. This does not necessarily follow from the principle, but it is a common enough critique of churches which hold to it that we should be aware of the tendency to drift in this direction.
Also, it is not uncommon for some churches to begin thinking that they are the only ones who worship in a Biblical way. No matter how formal a church may be, no matter how many hymns they sing, and no matter what other elements are present or rejected in worship, it is unlikely that today’s church service would feel completely familiar to a first century Christian.
Is that wrong? No. I say that only to remind churches holding to the Regulative Principle that every church—to one extent or another—has contextualized their worship. As mentioned above, decisions will always have to be made on whether or not to include things that are not explicitly laid out in Scripture.
The Inventive Principle
The opposite of the Regulative Principle is the Inventive Principle, which has Roman Catholicism as its chief proponent. Rather than Scripture providing the directive for how we are to conduct public worship, the church is seen as the final authority in such matters. As such, it is free to “invent” practices and methods it deems to be appropriate.
The biggest challenge with this principle is that it is open to abuse. If the church itself is the final authority, how can it ever be restrained from worshipping in a way that is not honoring to God? When Scripture is not seen as the ultimate authority, manmade religion inevitably seeps in, whether in the use of statues and icons (forbidden in Exodus 20:1-6) or the Roman Catholic view of the Eucharist (which contradicts Hebrews 10:10-14).
In short, if the primacy of Scripture is denied, there are no safeguards to keep in check the “factory of idols” that is the human heart.
The Normative Principle
Another Protestant view of worship can be found in the Normative Principle.
While the Regulative Principle states that whatever is not directed in Scripture is forbidden, the Normative Principle teaches that whatever is not expressly forbidden is permissible.
In other words, rather than doing only that which is commanded, churches adhering to the Normative Principle see freedom to do things in worship that do not contradict Scripture (within reason, of course).
This means that the use of such things as drama, special music, artistic expression, and other methods are allowed to be used in worship as long as they do not go against something in Scripture and are edifying to the body (1 Corinthians 14:26).
Among the proponents of the Normative Principle are Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, many Baptists, and a variety of independent, non-denominational, and evangelical churches.
A succinct summary of this view can be found in Article 20 of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion:
The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.
The Lutheran’s Augsburg Confession, which was formulated in the early 1500’s, is in agreement with the above article. It states “Of Usages in the Church they teach that those ought to be observed which may be observed without sin…” (Article 15).
Is the Normative Principle Biblical?
The basis given for the Normative Principle comes largely from passages such as 1 Corinthians 10:31, which is taken to mean that since all things should be done for the glory of God, all things may be done for the glory of God in worship.
Furthermore, passages such as 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 are seen as evidence that worship is not restricted to only positive commands in Scripture, but instead the worshiper has freedoms that are restrained by Scripture’s prohibitions.
The Normative Principle is not in opposition to the Regulative Principle in the same way that the Inventive Principle is. Both the Normative and Regulative views see Scripture as the authority for how we may worship and agree that we must do all that Scripture commands of us. They both recognize that the Bible does not address many issues specifically.
The difference between these two principles lies in how Scriptural authority works itself out practically in our corporate worship. Those adhering to the Regulative Principle “think that God has regulated worship in very specific ways,” while Normative Principle adherents “see that regulation in more general terms.”
Challenges with this View
Churches holding to the Normative Principle encourage freedom of expression in worship and attempt to curtail potential problems by disallowing anything expressly forbidden in the Bible.
The challenge with the Normative Principle of Worship is that seeing Scripture as regulating worship only in general ways can allow congregations to drift into some pretty strange areas.
Now, not every church false into this trap. But when you hear about the pastor coming out dressed as Han Solo, or making use of extended clips of Hollywood movies, or playing secular heavy metal music during the service – you can bet that congregation doesn’t hold to the Regulative Principle.
How does this drift towards inappropriate worship happen? Well, if we are free to bring in any methods that Scripture does not expressly forbid, the door is wide open to bring in lots of different activities into the worship service. After all, the Bible does not expressly forbid motorcycles in church.
It’s not hard to see that we can easily begin choosing elements of worship based on production value and entertainment. It is possible that we will eventually turn worship into a spectacle, distracting from true worship of God with side acts designed mainly to draw people’s interest.
Having entertainment value dictate what we include in worship inevitably leads us to look to the culture around us and mimic what they are doing. This, in turn, leaves the door open for worldliness to overshadow our worship.
Does this always happen? Is it inevitable that churches holding to the Normative Principle turn into some sort of circus? Absolutely not. I don’t want to paint a picture that every church that holds to this principle does these things.
But it is important to note what can happen if those churches that do adhere to the Normative Principle fail to make sure that what is done in church is both edifying to believers and takes worshipping God seriously.
So what is the right method of worship?
For many churches – especially those that consider themselves Reformed – the Regulative Principle is the best way for us to approach the questions of how to worship God as a congregation.
At the same time, there are many, many good churches which hold to something more like the Normative Principle.
While I am more in line with the Regulative Principle, I’m not advocating for one over the other here. What I want each of us to conclude is this: Worship matters, and the way we worship God is important.
What I want each of us to conclude is this:
Worship matters, and the way we worship God is important.
As a result, we should not just order our church’s worship based on whatever fills the most seats, or is most comfortable, or is most traditional. Instead, we must put time and prayerful thought into what the Bible teaches about worship and conduct ourselves accordingly.
 John Frame, Selected Shorter Writings: Volume 1 (Philipsburg, N.J. 2014), 126.