The Regulative and Normative Principles of Worship

Brief History of the Principles 

Humans have been worshiping and thinking about worship since the beginning. We see this, for instance, by looking at the narrative of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Further, all of life is about worship.[1] The question we are considering here, however, is how are we to formally worship God as the gathered church?

The two classic Protestant views of worship are the normative principle of worship and regulative principle of worship. There is a lot of confusion as to what these principals mean and how they are worked out in the life of the church. For example, an article online said that those who hold to the regulative view do not use instruments in their church services.[2]

These two views came about as a result of the reformation. Those within the Catholic Church wanted to reform the church but they ended up getting dismissed from the church so they had to think through what a biblically faithful gathered church service should include.[3] These principles of worship were thus born out of the reformation. They fit with the reformational value of sola Scriptura.

The Meaning of Each Principle 

The regulative principle of worship essentially says whatever is not commanded, is forbidden. Those who believe in this view hold that God has told as how we are to worship Him and that we must worship Him in the way that He has said.[4] However, it is often more nuanced than that and certainly articulated in different ways.[5]

The normative principle of worship essentially says whatever is not forbidden, is permitted.[6] Those who hold to this position derive principles from what the Bible says regarding worship but do not believe that they are limited to do only those things that the Bible tells them to do. Not all those who hold to the normative view look the same and not all those who hold to a regulative view look the same. In actual practice of the principles, the spectrum is quite large and the worship service of those who hold to differing views could look very similar or radically different.[7]

Key Proponents of Each Principle

John Calvin is one of the key proponents of the regulative principle. There are, however, many others. Martin Bucer believed that “only the worship that God asks of us really serves him.”[8] John Oecolampadius believed that “the church should develop services of worship in accordance with whatever specific directions and examples are found in Scripture.”[9] Many reformed churches hold to the regulative principle of worship but not all reformed churches do.[10] Many Baptists hold to the regulative principle. For instance, the famous Baptist pastor and theologian, John Gill, held to the regulative principle. And there are Baptist confessions that communicate a belief in the regulative principle.[11]

Richard Hooker and David Peterson are two Anglican proponents of the normative principle. Martin Luther would also fall into this camp. Martin Luther essentially kept as much as he could from the Catholic Church.[12] Methodists and many non-denominational churches also hold to the normative principle.

Biblical Basis for Each Principle

Those who hold to the normative principle might say that there is no scriptural passage that says that what we do in worship must be limited to what is commanded by Scripture.[13] Some would say that the normative view is biblical because it avoids judgmentalism (See Matt. 7:1). Others might point to 1 Corinthians where Paul says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (v. 22-23).

Those who hold to the regulative principle point to various passages that show that there are severe penalties for defective worship (cf. 1 Sam. 13:8-14; 2 Sam. 6:6-7; 1 Kings 12:32-33; 15:30; 2 Chron. 26:16-23; 28:3; Jer. 7:31). The Bible also repeatedly says that God’s ways are higher than our ways (see Is. 40:12-14; Deut. 29:29; Is. 55:9). We cannot please God except by the means that He Himself has revealed. Others, such as John Calvin,[14] point to the problem of our propensity towards idolatry (cf. Rom. 1). Other might consider this alongside an argument from church history showing the corruption that happened in the Catholic Church. Also, they would say that the Second Commandment means that we cannot worship God according to our own imagination.

They might also point out that Deuteronomy 12:32 clearly says: “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it.” So, they would argue that there are clearly certain ways in which “one ought to behave in the household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15).

Difficulties of Each Principle 

The regulative view does not clearly take into account many aspects of worship services. How, for instance, should we think about announcements, childcare, technology, and service length? John M. Frame also makes what I think is a persuasive argument that Scripture tells us how to worship in the same way that it tells us how to carry out all aspects of our lives.[15] I am convinced with him “that worship must be scriptural (i.e. consistent with Scripture) and, indeed, limited by Scripture.”[16] All of life, however, is to be lived in such a way that it is consistent with Scripture. So, I’m not sure that the regulative principle actually says very much or is functionally very different from the normative principle.

There are quite a few questions for those who hold to the regulative principle. For example, many will quote the passage from 1 Corinthians 14 that says “everything should be done decently and in order” (v. 40) but seem to completely discount and disregard the command that says “do not forbid speaking in tongues” (v. 39). So, it seems many are inconsistent when it comes to the charismatic gifts. Churches who practice paedobaptism[17] and recite creeds do not have an explicit command to do so. Actually, there is no explicit command that baptism should even take place at the gathered church and we have examples in Scripture where they happened apart from the gathered church and happened immediately after the person trusted Christ for salvation. And it could even be argued that reciting creeds is “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9).[18] After all, God “may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men.”[19] Another potential problem with the regulative principle is that Jesus Himself may not have held to it.[20]

The Presbyterian-Reformed tradition insists “a biblical command is needed for anything we include in worship.”[21] Or as Ligon Duncan has said, “there must be warrant for all we do.”[22] This principle, however, itself is not commanded but argued from broader theological concerns. Further, the regulative principle is sometimes stated in such a way that it does not say very much because it says so much. I think of this, when Duncan says, “warrant may can come in the form of explicit directives, implicit requirements, the general principles of Scripture, positive commands, examples, and things derived from good and necessary consequence.”[23]

The normative view has its own set of difficulties too. So, for instance, Thomas says, If we do not worship God in the way that He has told us to then “we are heading for tyranny and bondage, for then we are at the mercy of someone’s personal taste or newly discovered insight.”[24] Also, “Instead of seeking God, services seek seekers, attempting to make everything as appealing as possible.”[25] Some conclude that “apart from [the regulative principle], we are at the mercy of tyranny and folly.”[26]

What do you think? What is the correct view? 


[1] Hughes Oliphant Old has said, “We worship God because God created us to worship him. Worship is at the center of our existence, at the heart of our reason for being” (Worship: Reformed According to Scripture, 1).

[2] Whereas this may be true for some churches it is certainly not true of them all.

[3] “Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the need to reform the worship of the church was generally felt and widely expressed, but with the beginning of the Protestant Reformation the cry for specific liturgical reforms became increasingly urgent” (Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture 126).

[4] Derek W. H. Thomas says it this way: “Nothing best be required as essential to public worship except that which is commanded by the word of God” (“The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism,” in Give Praise to God, 75)

[5] See the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.6 and also 21.1 and 20.2.

[6] Ernest C. Reisinger and D. Matthew Allen state it this way: “We may worship in whatever way we wish as long as it is not forbidden in Scripture” (Worship: The Regulative Principle and the Biblical Practice of Accommodation [Care Coral, FL: Founders, 2001], 10).

[7] Cf. D.A. Carson, in Worship by the Book says, “both [principles] have been understood and administered in both a stronger and a more attenuated way” (Worship by the Book, 54). Carson also says, “For all their differences, theologically rich and serious services from both camps often have more common content than either side usually acknowledges” (Ibid., 55).

[8]Old, Worship, 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Of course, it should be noted that definitions of “reformed” differ widely. Here I mean those who hold to the doctrines of grace or Calvinism.

[11] For example, The Second London Confession of Faith 22.1 is basically the exact same as the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1.

[12] So, Luther is seen as part the conservative reformation whereas others were part of what is known as the radical reformation. Baptists find their roots from Anabaptists that were part of the radical reformation.

[13] They would disagree on the relevance or application of passages such Lev. 10:1-3, Deut. 12:30-32, 1 Sam. 10:8; 13:8-13, and 2 Chron. 26:18-21, for example.

[14] “Such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all were are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions” (John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church in Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin, Vol. 1, [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publications, 2002], 128).

[15] See John M. Frame, “Some Questions about the Regulative Principle,” Westminster Theological Journal 54 (1992) and The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 464-81.

[16] Frame, “Some Questions about the Regulative Principle.”

[17] Another issue is that people bring up is that “consistency will make us all either exclusive psalm singers or Reformed Baptists!” (Thomas, “The Regulative Principle : Responding to Recent Criticism,” 91). I think there is scriptural warrant for singing other songs other than just the Psalms but

[18] I do not myself have a problem with reciting creeds but believe it is problematic for those who hold to a strict understanding of the regulative principle.

[19] Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.1. Italics mine.

[20] It’s been said that neither synagogue worship nor the Feast of the Dedication of Jerusalem, as seen in John 10:22, were commanded in the OT.

[21] Frame, “Some Questions about the Regulative Principle” and The Doctrine of the Christian Life.

[22] Duncan, “Does God Care How We Worship?,” in Give Praise to God, 23.

[23] Ibid., 23. He goes on to says that “lesser things about corporate worship may be decided in the absence of a specific biblical command but in accordance with faithful biblical Christian thinking under the influence of scriptural principles and sanctified reason and general revelation” (Ibid.). This, however, is arbitrary. Who decides what is a lesser thing? It seems, to me, that what is really being said is that the regulative principles believes that we should follow biblically faithful principles in deciding what should be included in worship and what should not be included.

[24] Thomas, “The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism, 85.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 93.

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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