The regulative principle of worship maintains that Scripture gives specific guidelines for conducting corporate worship services and that churches must not add anything to those guidelines. For example, churches following the regulative principle in worship often do not use musical instruments, since there is no New Testament command or example that would warrant their use in the church. The normative principle is the idea that anything not expressly forbidden by Scripture can be used in corporate worship. One of the foundational differences is that the former considers the Bible’s instructions as a strict code of conduct while the latter sees them as principles to follow. Both hold to the truth of God’s Word, but they differ on whether or not it clearly establishes an unalterable blueprint for corporate worship.
The regulative principle is most often associated with Reformed churches, while the normative principle is widely promoted by modern evangelicalism. While the more liturgical churches, such as Catholic, Episcopalian, and Orthodox, may appear to follow the regulative principle, they also include many elements not found in Scripture. The presence of formality and repetition does not necessarily mean a service is regulative, just as the presence of a more relaxed atmosphere does not indicate a normative approach. Often, tradition gives the appearance of biblical truth, when in reality it just seems right because it is familiar. But formalism is not synonymous with biblical fidelity.
The supporters of the regulative form of worship believe that God, the One to be worshiped, has clearly instructed us on how to worship Him. They also point to Paul’s instructions to the churches at Colossae and Corinth as evidence that there is a right and a wrong way to conduct services. The Corinthian church was becoming disorderly in her abuse of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 11:17–18, 33; 14:23). They were allowing women to disrupt the services (1 Corinthians 14:34) and were profaning the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20–22). The entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 14 addresses specific guidelines for behavior in corporate worship in response to those abuses. The church at Colossae was warned not to incorporate “human tradition” within their services (Colossians 2:8). So, because of Paul’s specific instructions to several early churches, some have concluded that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he was giving general instructions for all corporate worship experiences.
Here are some strengths of the regulative principle: It seeks to honor God and His Word. It keeps the focus on God-centered worship rather than man-pleasing activity. It effectively eliminates worldliness or elements with pagan roots that have been given a Christian flair. It consults the Bible, rather than popular opinion, for the final word on church questions. One weakness of the regulative principle is that it can easily become legalistic in its strict rejection of anything not found in the Bible. It can also place worship in a category saved only for corporate settings, rather than encourage it as a daily practice. It also does not account for many aspects of a worship service not dealt with in the Bible, such as length of services, instrument use, how much technology should be employed, and dozens of other cultural questions not applicable in Bible times.
The normative principle of corporate worship also uses the Bible as the final authority but teaches that anything not expressly forbidden may be incorporated in services. Drama, special music, movie clips, and PowerPoint presentations may all be used in normative worship services since they are not forbidden in Scripture. The supporters of this style of worship point out that every church and every culture expresses worship differently, even those in Bible times. They hold that the Bible’s instruction on worship services was not meant to be a list of rules but to be a guideline for understanding the heart of God. They argue that regulating worship services creates an unnatural attitude toward worship and God, rather than allowing the corporate expression to be a continuation of a worshiping lifestyle (Deuteronomy 6:6–8; 1 Corinthians 10:31).
Here are some strengths of the normative principle: It encourages creative expressions of worship through the arts and technology. It creates a more relaxed and relevant environment for new believers and those not familiar with the “churchy” atmosphere. It allows for differences in taste and style, while still maintaining allegiance to biblical principles. It brings Scripture into current culture, minimizing the tendency of postmoderns to view the Bible as outdated and irrelevant. Some weaknesses to the normative approach are that it opens the door to worldliness in its efforts to incorporate culture. It can also tend toward entertainment-based gatherings rather than pure worship of God. It may also slide toward a man-centered focus as it incorporates whatever is popular with the congregation.
So which viewpoint is correct? Every Bible-believing church body must be regulated by the authority of Scripture. If it does not, it has ceased to be a New Testament church. But within those churches that hold fast to God’s Word, there is a vast array of acceptable expressions of worship. Many congregations embrace a combination of both views. The extreme of either is displeasing to God. Extreme regulators can become pharisaical, creating rules out of principles and judging anyone who veers from those rules (Matthew 7:1). But extreme normatives can be guilty of walking on the edge of worldliness and justifying questionable activities by claiming they are being “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Paul addressed this issue in 1 Corinthians 10:23–24. “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:12). Galatians 5:13 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” It would appear from these passages and others like them that the desire of God’s heart in corporate worship is that all believers set aside their own preferences in favor of what most benefits others. It is also clear that simply because something is popular or appealing does not mean we should use it.
The Bible does give us guidelines for the assembly of the church, and no congregation has the authority to completely disregard them. Several elements are vital for a healthy congregation: reading the Bible (1 Timothy 4:13), preaching the Bible (2 Timothy 4:2), singing hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16), prayer (Matthew 21:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:17), and celebrating the Lord with two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26).
The overarching goal of corporate worship is “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12–13). The church is to function as a body, unified in Spirit, for the purpose of accomplishing God’s will on earth.
However, even though we are unified by one Spirit (Ephesians 4:5), people and cultures have unique needs. Different styles of worship appeal to different people and meet needs that other styles don’t meet. The prevailing law governing every church should be the law of love (Galatians 5:14). If a drug addict is saved because a church showed parts of the Home Run movie one Sunday, then that church has fulfilled God’s law. Either viewpoint—regulative or normative—can accomplish that goal as long as we keep Hebrews 10:24–25 the center of our focus: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”