The regulative principle of worship states that every act of worship must have explicit biblical evidence in order for it to be practiced by Christians. We must have a warrant from God’s Word for every form of worship we employ because only God is wise enough to know how he should be worshiped. He determines how we are to worship him. In other words, the regulative principle is the application of the sufficiency of Scripture to the question of how we are to worship God. This is in contrast to the normative principle of worship which states that God may be worshiped in any way unless such an act is forbidden in Scripture. One view says only that which is commanded in Scripture is permissible while the other argues that everything is permissible unless forbidden in Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith defines the regulative principle this way:
“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” (21.1).
Debates over the regulative principle go back to Puritan England when the Puritans attempted to reform the Church of England and rid it of what they viewed as “Romish tradition” added to the worship of God and church government. The word “Puritan” comes from the verb “to purify” or to rid all corrupting influences and imperfections from the church. The Puritans viewed the Church of England as having one foot in the Bible and one foot in Rome. They were marked by their commitment to conform every aspect of their life to the Word of God, personal piety, and Calvinistic theology. J. I. Packer’s book A Quest for Godliness and the writings of Joel Beeke are good introductions to Puritan theology. The best way to understand Puritanism is to read the primary sources themselves and for that I commend to you the writings of Thomas Brooks, Thomas Watson, and Jeremiah Burroughs.
Many reform movements can be seen in church history that fought against the antichristian traditions of Rome. One precursor to Martin Luther was Girolamo Savonarola who attempted to reform the Roman Church but was murdered when he spoke against Pope Alexander VI and the worldliness of the people of Florence. John Hus was another forerunner of the Reformation who was burned at the stake for translating the Bible into the native language of the Czech people. John Wycliffe, known as the morning star of the Reformation, fought against the false teachings of Rome and sought to have the Bible translated into the common language of the English people. All of these individuals called for personal holiness and viewed the Bible as the authority for how the church is to live and worship. The regulative principle of Puritanism is the next step in the process of reformation to rid Christianity of the traditions of man. If the Bible is the Word of God, then it is the ultimate authority when it comes to worship. To go beyond it in matters of worship is presumption and results in man-made religion as if we were wise enough to know how God should be worshiped.
But is the regulative principle based on Scripture? I think the clearest expression of it is John 4:24: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Those who hold to the normative principle would never say that we should worship God in falsehood, but how do they know they are worshiping God truly when they do that in worship which is not commanded in Scripture? Because God must be worshiped in truth, he must be worshiped in accordance with the Bible which alone is the Word of God written. None of us are wiser than God and therefore we are obligated to follow God’s words on how the church should order itself and conduct worship.
If we adopt the principle that everything is permissible in worship except what God has forbidden, then why can’t someone call God “mother” because nowhere in Scripture are we forbidden to do so? There are an infinite number of unbiblical practices that are not forbidden in the Bible. That Scripture does not give us a warrant to do so is all the reason we need to argue that such a practice is forbidden to us. But a person who believes in the normative principle of worship can’t use this argument against unbiblical practices by appealing to the silence of Scripture.
Another passage that is relevant is Deuteronomy 12:32: “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” The regulative principle is derived from the sufficiency of Scripture and acknowledges our dependence on God for wisdom for everything in the Christian life. The normative principle adds to God’s Word human tradition which obscures the true worship of God. Colossians 2:23 warns against “self-made religion” or “self-imposed worship” that is not derived from God’s Word. 1 Timothy 3:15 calls the local church “the household of God” and since God is head over it, he sets the “house rules” for what is and what is not appropriate within it. Christ is the head of the church and whatever he says we must obey as his followers. Because he is the head of the house, he sets the rules for how we are to worship him as a community. Other texts that give evidence in favor of a regulative principle are Genesis 4:3-5; Leviticus 10:1-3; Deuteronomy 4:2; 1 Chronicles 15:13-15; 2 Chronicles 26:16-19; Jeremiah 19:5; Mark 7:7-8; and 1 Corinthians 4:6.
A common objection to the regulative principle is that if it is true that we must have scriptural warrant for everything in worship, then we should not use hymn books or microphones since these things are not mentioned in the Bible. But these objections flow from a misunderstanding of the principle. We are commanded to worship God “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19). That presupposes a means by which to accomplish this command. The means used to accomplish the commands of Scripture are the fulfillment of the command and not an unscriptural addition to it. This is known as the principle of accommodation. We must obey all of Scripture and hymn books and microphones are means by which we fulfill the biblical commands. On the other hand, a drama ministry is not supported by Scripture and is a replacement for the God-ordained means of saving sinners which is the preaching of the Word of God. Good intentions are not a substitute for following after the pattern laid down in Scripture for doing church.