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The Regulative Principle of Worship

Barry is the founder and Professor of the M.Div. program for Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.

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Regulative and Normative

The concept of "regulative principle" was formed in the early stages of the Reformation. The root of regulative principles is grounded in the idea of Sola Scripture. According to Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone is the rule and guide for the Christian and the Church. This was in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, which placed tradition and the Pope as the ultimate sources of authority. While the Catholic Church did acknowledge that the Bible was authoritative, Scripture could only be accurately interpreted by the Church. This established the Church as the ultimate authority over the Scriptures.

The Roman Catholic Church has gone far beyond Scripture in its practices. The use of icons, praying to saints, prayers to Mary, various sacraments meant to impart merit, and priestly garb are just some examples. The Reformers reasoned that it was Scripture alone which was inspired by God. Scripture, therefore, could not contradict itself and was free from error. Because the Bible contains God's very words, it is the only source of instruction for Church function and worship.

Normative Principle

In opposition to the Regulative Principle, most contemporary churches have adopted the normative principle. The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalian, and the majority of the Evangelical churches embrace the normative principle and reject the regulative principle. Perhaps they have done so unconsciously. The idea is that all is permissible as long as it is not directly forbidden by Scripture. There are varying degrees of this approach. Some churches say that only those things which are explicitly sited in Scripture as forbidden cannot be done. Other churches would also include those things which are implied. Practically, the normative principle approach allows for a broader expression in the worship service of the church.

Elements and Circumstances

Most in the Reformed camp agree that the elements of worship are given in Scripture. But the circumstances are not given to us. We can take an example from the early New Testament Church to see how regulative principle is applied. We have several verses in the Bible that say that the church met on the "first day of the week" (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; etc.). This is Sunday. This is not the same day that the Jews considered the Sabbath, which was the seventh day of the week.

We have the element of meeting on Sunday. But we have no description of the circumstances under which they met. We do not know what time each church met on Sunday. Some met in houses. We do not know where the others met. We can find Scripture that indicates that the Sunday meeting contained preaching, prayer, teaching, singing, the breaking of bread, and fellowship. But we do not see a prescribed order of service or commanded liturgy.

The element of the Lord’s Day is prescribed, but the circumstances are not. Early Christians met on Sunday, but the details of the service are not given to us. This indicates that we must do what is prescribed, which is to meet on Sunday. But there is a degree of freedom in the details of when, where, etc. God, in His infinite wisdom, knew that different churches would be in different circumstances, and therefore some flexibility was granted in the non-essentials.

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Support for Regulative Principles

"Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on the fire and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord." Leviticus 10:1-2

The offering of incense that Nadab and Abihu presented to God was "strange." This is to say that it was an offering that was not prescribed by God. It was something "which He had not commanded them." The two brothers were either lax or they were seeking to be innovators in worship. Either way, God not only rejected their offering but punished them with death. In verse 10, God said that the priests must not replace the profane (their own ways) with the holy (what God prescribed).

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We have a similar example in the writings of Paul. In the book of 1 Corinthians, Paul writes to a church that has divisions. It had also departed from the normal prescribed practices. In chapter 11, Paul addresses the fact that women are no longer in submission to the natural order ordained by God. The people were abusing the Lord’s Supper (verses 20-22). In verses 22 through 33, Paul gives them the correct observation of the Lord’s Supper. In chapter 12, Paul shows that there should be no partiality concerning the spiritual gifts but that the body should be united with each part fulfilling its role for the good of the whole. In chapter 13, Paul lays out the proper way tongues should be exercised in the church and how love is greater than any gift. In chapter 14, Paul rebukes them. Each person seems to want to have a part in the service, and this is creating chaos in the worship time. Paul tells them that all things should be done orderly and properly (v.14).

In this way, Paul shows that God has prescribed not only what is to be done in the Church but how things are to be done.

The Elements of Worship

- Preaching and Teaching of the Word

- Prayer

- Singing of Praise

- Ordinances (Lord’s Supper and Baptism)

- Fellowship

The Manner of Worship

- Grounded only in Scripture

- Simple

- God-focused

Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let’s show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 12:28-29

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