“Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.” 1 Corinthians 4:6
1. What is the regulative principle good for?
The “normative principle” is usually defined something like this: in matters of worship, we can do whatever we like, as long as it is not prohibited in Scripture.
The basic idea behind the “regulative principle” is this: in matters of worship, we can only do things for which we have a positive commandment, principle, or example.
Sometimes these principles are limited to corporate worship, sometimes they find a broader application.
Unfortunately, the “regulative principle” is often used as a shorthand for thinking like this: “We let God regulate our worship…according to our church’s confession.” This means that the regulative principle is mouthed while it is in fact being used as a cover-up for how a congregation is clinging to their own traditions. For example, in some Presbyterian churches, the regulative principle is used as a reason to sing psalms only. That is a clear example of regulating worship more than God does (see Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
Tim Conway speaks to this over-extension of the regulative principle:
“I am altogether sold out on the Word of God – this Bible – indicating to us and giving us instruction in how we live everyday life, and how we worship privately, and how we worship corporately…Here’s what I want to say about the regulative principle: those that hold to it…don’t always do with it what they’re implying that they do with it…Let me explain what I mean: a lot of people that use this term regulative principle, what they end up doing is regulating their worship the way they want to, the way their group of churches think appropriate, rather than letting the Bible dictate what’s appropriate.”
It is wrong, then, to use the regulative principle as a way of smuggling in our own legalism. The regulative principle is meant to prevent adding to and subtracting from Scripture. It is ironic and sad that it has instead been used as an excuse for our ungodly additions and subtractions.
What is the good part of the regulative principle, then?
Paul Washer points out that what is actually at stake in the regulative principle is the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. He says,
“How many of you have heard the argument of the regulative/normative principle? Probably no one. And yet that has been one of the greatest arguments down through the history of the church, and the question is this: The regulative principle says we can only do in church what God specifically commands. The normative principle says we can do in church anything that God does not specifically prohibit. Do you realize that today no one even argues about it? Why? Because every sort of thing is done without even asking the Bible what a church should look like…If you believe that the Scriptures are infallible, or that they are inspired, you have only fought half the battle…The second question is this: are the sufficient? Do I have to go outside of Scripture to find what God wants – for His people, for my life, for faith, for morality? Well, the teaching of Scripture is, absolutely not. But you see, you probably are recognizing, even right now, almost everything we do as a people is done without authority. Almost everything done in the church is done without authority. You just live your life basically the way that you think you ought to live it.”
So the good part of the regulative principle is that, if it is approached Scripturally, it involves a mighty defense of the sufficiency of Scripture. If we say something like, “in matters of worship, one can only do things for which we have a positive commandment, principle, or example,” we are saying that we want to give God the authority over our acts of worship. We want a word from Him to direct us, rather than the thoughts of our own hearts. We want a commandment from on high, rather than a tradition of men.
The question for someone who cares for the sufficiency of Scripture is this: Am I doing what I am doing with God’s stamp of approval? Am I doing this “with authority,” as Washer says above.
In thinking in such a way, we are also affirming that God has spoken on a multitude of issues. If we want to know how to sing to God, it is only right that we bow the knee before Him and recognize that He has spoken on that! He has told us what to do! The same goes for how we are to proclaim and live out the cross, the resurrection, and every matter of life and godliness – God has spoken! When we proclaim that God has spoken and that we ought to listen first and foremost to what He has said, we are defending the sufficiency of Scripture to govern the affairs of God’s saints. That is at the heart of the battle for the regulative principle.
2. How do we best articulate this principle?
It is important to note that the regulative principle is not derived from any one verse in the Bible. It is derived from many teachings throughout the Bible. Because of that, it is often defined in different ways, and there is disagreement among godly brethren about how this principle should be applied in the life of the church.
Here are some ways of articulating this principle:
Spurgeon put it this way: “It is idolatry to worship the true God by a wrong method.”
Jeremiah Burroughs put it this way: “…in God’s worship, there must be nothing tendered up to God but what He has commanded. Whatsoever we meddle with in the worship of God must be what we have a warrant for out of the Word of God” (Gospel Worship 13).
Calvin put it in the following ways: “The doctrine of the true worship of God is not to be sought from men, because the Lord has faithfully and fully taught us in what way He is to be worshipped” (Institutes, IV.X.B). “He has been pleased to prescribe in His law what is lawful and right and thus restrict men to a certain rule, lest any should allow themselves to devise a worship of their own” (Institutes, I.XII.3).
Another simple way to think about it is this: you need a positive command, principle, or example in Scripture before doing something positively for God.
Or you could say it this way: our worship should be regulated by the Word of God.
Or: our worship should follow patterns of New Covenant worship as closely as possible.
Here is my approach to this principle: in matters directly connected to the worship of God (or connected by way of reasonable inference), publicly, privately, and in the heart, one should only do things if God has given a positive commandment, principle, or example for those things in Scripture.
3. What does Scripture say? How do you read it?
The following Scriptures form a pretty exhaustive list of the proof texts that Christians have historically used to articulate and defend the regulative principle. I have included all texts that the great reformed confessions (Westminster, Belgic, Heidelberg) employ in this matter.
I have collected these Scriptures under 6 different heads:
i. The Christian is called to obedience to all that God commands
ii. The Christian should not add to or take away from God’s word
iii. The Christian should keep God’s word in all purity and with a clean conscience
iv. The Christian should not follow his own heart or emotions
v. The Christian should not follow other gods, or the traditions of ungodly people
vi. The Christian should not follow man-made laws or human traditions
i. The Christian is called to obedience to all that God commands:
Ex 20:4–6 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
Deut. 32:46–47 “and he said to them: “Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your children to be careful to observe—all the words of this law. For it is not a futile thing for you, because it is your life, and by this word you shall prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess.”
Matt. 28:20 “…teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you; and, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world. Amen.”
Acts 2:42 “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
1 Sam 15:21-23 “But the people took of the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.” So Samuel said: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from being king.”
ii. The Christian should not add to or take away from God’s word:
Lev 10:1 “Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.”
Deut 4:2 “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.”
Deut 12:30-32 “…take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”
Deut 17:3 “…who has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, either the sun or moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded”
Jer 7:22 “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices.”
Rev 22:18-19 “For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”
Isa 65:12 “Therefore I will number you for the sword, And you shall all bow down to the slaughter; Because, when I called, you did not answer; When I spoke, you did not hear, But did evil before My eyes, And chose that in which I do not delight.”
Isa 56:4 For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, And choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant…”
Ps 25:12 “Who is the man that fears the LORD? Him shall He teach in the way He chooses.”
Isaiah 8:20 “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”
iii. The Christian should keep God’s word in all purity and with a clean conscience:
1 Tim 1:5 “Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith…”
1 Tim. 6:13–14 “I give you charge in the sight of God, who quickens all things, and before Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession, that you keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
iv. The Christian should not follow his own heart or emotions:
Num 15:39 “And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined…”
1 Kings 12:33 “So he made offerings on the altar which he had made at Bethel on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, in the month which he had devised in his own heart. And he ordained a feast for the children of Israel, and offered sacrifices on the altar and burned incense.”
1 Sam 13:11-12 And Samuel said, “What have you done?” Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered together at Michmash, then I said, ‘The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the LORD.’ Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering.”
v. The Christian should not follow other gods, or the traditions of ungodly people:
Deut 13:6-8 “If your brother, the son of your mother, your son or your daughter, the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, neither you nor your fathers, of the gods of the people which are all around you, near to you or far off from you, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth, you shall not consent to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him…”
Mic. 6:16 For the statutes of Omri are kept; All the works of Ahab’s house are done; And you walk in their counsels, That I may make you a desolation, And your inhabitants a hissing. Therefore you shall bear the reproach of My people.”
1 Kings 11:33 “…because they have forsaken Me, and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of the Moabites, and Milcom the god of the people of Ammon, and have not walked in My ways to do what is right in My eyes and keep My statutes and My judgments, as did his father David.”
vi. The Christian should not follow man-made laws or human traditions:
Hos 5:11 “Ephraim is oppressed and broken in judgment, Because he willingly walked by human precept.”
Psalm 106:39 “Thus they were defiled by their own works, And played the harlot by their own deeds.”
Matt 15:9 and Isa. 29:13 “And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
Jer 44:17 “But we will certainly do whatever has gone out of our own mouth, to burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we have done, we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, were well-off, and saw no trouble.”
1 Pet 1:18 “…knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers…”
Gal 1:13-14 “For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.”
Col 2:20-23 “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use) – in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.”
 Lutheran, Anglican, and Catholic churches have followed this principle, historically. Many evangelical churches today now follow this principle.
 See his sermon from June 14, 1863. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons09.xxviii.html
 On a personal note, this principle and the passages that support it constrain me from doing things that I see as additions to God’s word – like Christmas, Easter, wedding rings, etc. But it may be wrong to expect all Christians to come to the same conclusion on a matter that is derived synthetically from many passages in the Bible. When it comes to the application of the regulative principle, that must be a matter of the Spirit’s leading and one’s own conscience. For those who desire to know where my personal convictions are coming from, I am articulating the good side of the regulative principle to the best of my ability, and giving all the relevant Scripture proofs. I pray that these Scriptures might sculpt and form greater Christ-likeness in all Christians who consider them with an eye to the praise of their Creator and the Creator of worship itself.