Christian Worldview

Exploring Worship: Part Four, The Regulative vs. Normative Principles


Glenn Sunshine

As we continue our exploration into worship, we turn now to an important issue discussed primarily in Reformed circles: how are we to understand and apply the biblical instructions for worship?

In the Reformed tradition, the rule is that only those things that Scripture tells us to do or necessary inferences from them are permitted in worship. Anything without scriptural warrant is prohibited. This is known as the Regulative Principle. The alternative, known as the Normative Principle, says that anything not forbidden in Scripture is permitted. What Scripture commands, we do, but we have freedom to go beyond those and introduce elements not commanded in the Bible if they are not prohibited either expressly or implicitly. The Normative Principle holds sway in most evangelical churches and has been the historical position in the Lutheran tradition, among others.

To put the contrast differently, the Regulative Principle sees Scripture as a set of unalterable rules laying out how we are to worship, while the Normative Principle sees Scripture as principles for us to follow in worship.

A Closer Look at the Regulative Principle

In practice, the Regulative Principle is more nuanced than it may appear at first glance. First, while the elements of worship are mandated by Scripture, the circumstances of worship are often not discussed at all, and so decisions can be left to prudence in accord with biblical principles. Thus, for example, worship on the Lord’s Day may be mandated, but the time and length of the service is not.

Of course, this raises questions of where to draw the line between elements and circumstances. For example, singing is commanded in Scripture, but what are we to sing? Some denominations that adhere to the Regulative Principle argue that we should only sing Psalms as words mandated by God, perhaps supplemented with biblical texts such as the Song of Simeon. Others argue that the command to address one another in Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs allows for a broader range of songs than just the Psalter. The rejoinder is that those terms represent different types of psalms, and in any event, we do not have other hymns in Scripture that we can use. Thus, in these churches, singing as an element of worship includes the words sung, which therefore must be expressly authorized by Scripture.

Many of the Psalms-only churches also insist that singing is to be done a capella since the New Testament does not mention the use of musical instruments in worship. The Old Testament does, but those precedents are considered no more relevant to New Covenant worship as the sacrificial system. That said, it still seems a bit odd to insist that we sing Psalm 150 while rejecting its call to praise God with all sorts of musical instruments.

Another qualification to the regulative principle is what John Frame calls “mode:”

The modal qualification is simply this: that although Scripture prescribes the elements of worship, it does not always describe in detail how those elements are to be carried out. Preaching is an element of worship, let us say; but Scripture does not specify how many sermons there must be in a service, whether there should be only one preacher or several, how loud or softly one should preach, what text a preacher should use on a particular occasion, etc.

Frame argues that this qualification, which is not expressly stated in the Reformed statements on worship but is a practical necessity deriving from the earliest Reformed practice, potentially opens the door to, for example, the use of drama as a form of preaching.

Adherence to the Regulative Principle led some early Reformed Churches to reject any Christian holidays, including Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, on the grounds that the only day we are commanded to worship is the Lord’s Day and so we should not have public worship on other days. Further, having days that only come once per year will inevitably make those days seem more special than the specific day the Lord commanded us to worship him, thus disrespecting the day God designated in favor of those we chose apart from Scripture. (It is worth noting that in Calvin’s Geneva, important holidays in the church year were celebrated; the rejection of them was a product of later Calvinism, especially English Puritanism.)

A Closer Look at the Normative Principle

Historically, the Normative Principle has been the dominant view taken throughout church history. It underlies the church year and the liturgical practices of the Catholic and Orthodox world, as well as Lutheranism and today’s evangelicalism. It also is the de facto approach on the mission field, where cultural activities like dancing are incorporated into worship.

Although the Normative Principle might seem to be less concerned with biblical fidelity than the Regulative Principle, it too looks on the Bible as the final authority on how we should worship God. However, it does not interpret the biblical text as a set of rules for worship but rather as guidelines showing us how to worship in Spirit and truth without mandating every last thing that can be done in worship. It allows for more creativity, including the use of a range of arts.

It is no accident that Reformed Churches have historically have had whitewashed walls with a minimum of decoration: as we have seen, they wanted to avoid anything that distracts from the preaching of the Word, but also there is no mandate for artistic work in the church. The Temple and Tabernacle may have been decorated, but that does not apply to New Testament worship spaces. Adherents of the Normative Principle tend to be more open to art in the church, though in practice modern evangelical churches focus more on the utilitarian than the aesthetic.

The Biblical Arguments

The standard text adherents of the Regulative Principle turn to in arguing for their view is Lev. 10:1-2:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (ESV)

The argument is that their offering was not one that God had commanded, and so they died. This shows that we must only do things in worship that God tells us to do.

An argument in favor of the Normative Principle is the fact that Jesus celebrated the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), which does not appear in the Hebrew Bible and was never commanded by God. The story is told in the Apocrypha, which Protestants do not consider part of the canon. Jesus participated in worship that was not mandated by Scripture. If Jesus could do this, the argument goes, then we can too.

However this issue is resolved, one thing is clear: our worship must be based on Scripture. We need to be sure we do what is mandated in the text, and if we accept the Normative Principle, we nonetheless need to think carefully about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and whether it actually does align with principles we can derive from Scripture.

But all of this begs the question of what worship actually looked like in biblical times. We will begin exploring that in the next article.


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