The Regulative Principle for Dummies


Part of polemics is understanding what is proper theology and what is not. In fact, that’s most of polemics, and combined with “destroying lofty arguments and every opinion raised against the [true] knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5), is the whole sum of polemics. Therefore, it would behoove the polemicist to understand basic and commonly used theological terms and ideas, so as to better articulate true knowledge of God and better refute the false. While polemics may deal with a whole host of theological categories, ranging from ecclesiology to soteriology, from epistemology to (yes, even) eschatology, in today’s experience-oriented, purpose-driven, emotion-laden evangelicalism, much polemical work remains to be done in the realm of proskyneology; a theology of worship.

Historically, there have been two views regarding what is and is not acceptable worship to God. But first, a few basic Biblical observation that should be rightly considered.

1. God is due worship.

2. God is due worship that he finds pleasing.

3. God does not accept all worship as pleasing to Him.

4. God has defined what worship is and is not pleasing to Him.

5. God has defined what worship is and is not pleasing to Him in the Holy Bible, specifically.

The Basic Suppositions

First, God is due worship. The First Commandment requires that we have no other Gods before Him (Exodus 20:3) and the full testimony of Scripture demands that we worship Him as God, because He is God. We are to sing to God, declare his glory publicly and privately, and do so because He is God (2 Chronicles 16:22-23). Worship is implied in the First, Second and Fourth Commandments as our mandate as creatures, toward our Creator. Even more so do we worship God as Savior, as the Ten Commandments begins in preface (Exodus 20:2) and is fully realized in the saving work of Jesus Christ (Luke 1:46).

Secondly, God is due worship that He finds pleasing. God is searching for worshippers, but He is searching for those who will worship both in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:21-24), as Jesus lovingly rebukes the Samaritan woman who abandoned God’s system of worship in lieu of her regional tradition, not sanctioned by God. The Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4-6) explains that God gets to define what is and is not acceptable worship. Worshiping fervently in spirit is rejected, unless it is combined with God’s Truth that is holy and pleasing to Him (Romans 12:1-2).

Third, God does not accept all worship as pleasing to Him. The first man-made sacrifice recorded in Scripture was rejected by God (Genesis 4:4). God rejected the artistry and creativity of Aaron’s golden calf, even though it was presented as an image of the real God and not meant as an image of a false god (Exodus 32). God consumed Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10) in fire for not following worship instructions. God struck Ananias and Saphira dead, even though they made an offering they were not obligated to make (Acts 5:1-11). God is very clear that he often rejects worship that is wrongly made, whether in practice or in the heart (Micah 1:6-14).

Fourth, God has defined what worship is and is not pleasing to Him. The Second Commandment itself reveals that God sets the boundaries of worship. God sets the practices of worship. God defines worship. Worship is what is pleasing to God (Hebrews 13:1-15), and not what is pleasing to man. Regardless of what man may receive from the act of worship, without pleasing God, it is worthless.

Fifth, God has defined what worship is and is not pleasing to Him in the Holy Bible, specifically. We can rely on no innate sense of what is pleasing to God because His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). We cannot rely upon feelings from our heart regarding what is and is not pleasing to God because our hearts are deceitful and wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). We must rely upon the Divine Revelation of Scripture, as opposed to inner urgings, to understand what worship is pleasing to God because it is the Scripture that is profitable for teaching, correction, and training in godliness (2 Timothy 3:16) and sufficient for every good word and work (2 Timothy 3:17). If what made worship pleasing was how we are affected by it, then it would be subjective; rather, worship that is pleasing to God is objective as revealed by God’s Holy Word.

That said, there have historically been two ways of understanding what is and is not pleasing worship to God.

The Regulative vs the Normative Principle

The Regulative Principle says that worship that’s pleasing to God has been specifically and explicitly sanctioned, encouraged or demanded by Scripture.

The Normative Principle says that worship that’s pleasing to God is anything not specifically and explicitly forbidden by Scripture.

Proponents of both views would argue that their perspective goes back to Scripture, and would deny that either is wholly the creation of theologians. In Scripture, both sides argue, lies the principle they espouse. Yet the articulation of both principles, in our modern English tongue and religious practice, goes back to the Puritans explicitly and in the Protestant tradition, goes back to the Reformers. Chiefly, both the Puritans and Reformers held to the Regulative Principle of Worship, and held it in high regard against the Normative Principle, which they saw as pervasive among Papists and others who engage in practices wholly unscriptural. There is no doubt, however, that in modern evangelicalism, the Normative Principle is the predominate view.

The Puritans articulated the Regulative Principle in the Latin phrase, ius divinum, meaning “the divine law.” Those, who like the Reformers, insisted on the Scripture Alone being the “only infallible rule of faith and practice” (as the London Baptist and Westminster Confessions articulate), by necessity believed that the Scripture was sufficient to understand God and His order. If God demands that we order all of our lives according to Holy Scripture, so the argument goes, then it is also and especially true for our worship of Him.

The Regulative Principle; Common Misconceptions

First, the Regulative Principle is a principle. It is not a “hard law.” Drawn out as an argument ad infintium, both Regulative Principle proponents and opponents may make following the principle seem like a draconian impossibility. The question has always been, “how far” one can remove practices from Scripture before they become unscriptural.

An example: A follower of the Regulative Principle argues that only those things specifically listed in Scripture as being pleasing to God are acceptable in worship; they may then argue that because the piano or organ is not an instrument listed in David’s symphony, that the piano is not acceptable for worship. However, another may hold to the Regulative Principle and argue that the piano is an instrument, and instruments in general were endorsed for worship. Someone in the middle may hold that pianos are acceptable because it (internally) is a stringed instrument and it makes sounds when hammers hit the strings (and so it is percussion), and both stringed and percussion instruments are endorsed in Scripture. In reality, few holding to the Regulative Principle would make strict conclusions as listed above, but each adherent of the Regulative Principle would certainly be thinking and pondering the permissibility of instrumentation from Scripture, and would not assume that it’s allowed simply because it’s not forbidden. Nadab and Abihu, we might recall, weren’t told not to light the fire upon the altar. Some may argue that the Regulative Principle demands only that the Psalms be sung; others point out that the Scripture endorses all kinds of songs, including hymns, psalms and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19) and new songs (Psalm 96:1). Again, most holders to the Regulative Principle would not splice hairs so thinly, but all would think through their practices by comparing their practices to Scripture as the ultimate rule of faith and practice.

Secondly, the Regulative Principle applies to more than worship (if worship is defined narrowly by corporate “song service”). The Regulative Principle applies to prayer, for example. Jesus taught us to pray (Luke 11:1), and it wasn’t by assuming the lotus position and contemplating key phrases from the Bible, and so we would reject Lectio Divina and Meditative or Centering Prayer. The Regulative Principle applies to ecclesiology, and so we only allow as our worship leaders those who are qualified to lead worship (this means that our ‘worship leaders’ are our pastors, and whoever happens to lead the singing or orchestrate the instrumentation is viewed as a song leader or instrumentalist). The Regulative Principle applies to the life of the church, and focuses our attention on Communion, catechesis, corporate worship and prayer (Acts 2:42); things like church mobilization for social justice or lobbying government cannot become a primary focus among those who hold to the Regulative Principle, because the early church did not do these things. The Regulative Principle holds that the Holy Spirit draws men to Christ and convicts them (Acts 17:11), so tactics at emotional manipulation through ambiantic lights or sounds are not permitted.

Whether or not your church uses fog machines, has “children’s pastors,” or practices charismatic astral projection all depends upon whether you hold to the Regulative or Normative Principle of worship. Everyone holds to one or the other, and the only question is how tightly. Whether or not you find Saturday an acceptable day for corporate gathering rather than the Lord’s Day, whether or not you believe in women impastors, and whether or not you hold a separate youth service all depends upon your view of the Regulative or Normative Principle.

The Conviction

Those who hold to the Regulative Principle have a common desire to err on the side of caution when it comes to the worship of a Holy God. We would far rather practice what we are told and value fidelity with Scripture than idealize and prioritize novelty, ingenuity, innovation and creativity. We believe that God is worshipped best by following His Scripture, and the more innovation and creativity is applied to worship, the more likely we are to make the 21st Century equivalents of golden calves.

Furthermore, we believe that even though worship is what is pleasing to God, the Regulative Principle also is most conducive for the good of man. While creativity and innovation highlights the performer, entertainer or vision casting leader, simplistic and Scripture-endorsed worship best allows us to commune with God in corporate worship. It is in the simplicity and humility of worship that worship is rightly done, and God is most evidently magnified.

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