What About the Regulative Principle?

Richard wrote in to ask, “How do you understand the regulative principle of Worship, and do you agree with and practice it at your church?”

Some of you right now are thinking, “What in the world IS the regulative principle?”

The regulative principle is one of a number of ways used to describe how God’s Word governs our corporate worship. It is sometimes simplified to “Only what God has commanded in Scripture is acceptable in public worship.” It distinguishes between “elements” of public worship, which don’t change, and “circumstances,” which do. In contrast, the normative principle states that, “Whatever Scripture doesn’t forbid is allowed.” This is typically practiced by Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists.

The regulative principle finds its basis in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Section 21.1 which reads:

“But 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.”

The men who penned those words wanted to make it clear that no pastor or ecclesiastical body had the right to impose a certain practice on church members that wasn’t in the Bible.

Without entering into the ongoing debates about the validity, interpretation, and application of the regulative principle, we’re largely sympathetic with its spirit. The church’s worship of God must be consistent with, governed by, and saturated with God’s Word.

However, it is one thing to affirm the authority of Scripture for our corporate worship and another thing to work out the details. The Sunday meetings of Covenant Life and other Sovereign Grace churches differ noticeably from churches that have traditionally identified with the regulative principle. Of course, there are differences among those churches as well.

We try to maintain a purposeful, biblically informed approach to public gatherings, utilizing a variety of expressions of worship within the guidelines provided by Scripture. We may include corporate confession of sin, reciting creeds, responsive readings, testimonies, varied instrumentation and musical styles, different physical set ups, and assorted types of participation (men, women, children, solos, choir).

Overall, we attempt to give weight to the elements of worship that Scripture gives weight to. For example, banners, processionals, drama, dance, etc. receive relatively little emphasis in Scripture and don’t dominate our corporate gatherings. On the other hand, singing, prayer, biblical teaching, the Lord’s Supper, Scripture reading, etc., are repeatedly mentioned in God’s Word.

We want to avoid “canonizing” our practices so that they subtly become authoritative (i.e., idolatrous). No particular style or element of corporate worship is absolutely indispensable unless Scripture commands it. We seek to maintain a humble, grateful attitude towards traditions unlike our own, always wanting to learn from those who are seeking to worship God in ways that please Him.

We also believe that “doing only what God commands” applies to all aspects of our lives, and not only our public meetings. So, in that sense, we apply the regulative principle to all of life. John Frame has written extensively on this topic. You can read one of his articles here.

Finally, it is our settled conviction and constant hope that only the Gospel is central to all worship of God, and that only the substitutionary sacrifice of the Savior makes our worship acceptable to the Holy One. (1 Peter 2:4-5) It is His perfect offering of worship which is ever our focus, our trust, and our joy.

Thanks for asking.


9 Responses to What About the Regulative Principle?

  1. David Wayne February 25, 2006 at 1:22 PM #

    Bob – as one who comes from a tradition which embraces the regulative principle one of the things I have found helpful is a discussion of how God’s Word governs worship. I believe it is Scotty Smith, but maybe some others, who have said that God’s Word may command the way we worship in one of three ways – 1) by explicit command, 2) by principle (i.e. good and necessary inference) and 3) by example.

    This way of looking at it still maintains the element/circumstance distinction and I think it opens the regulative principle up a bit, making it less restrictive.

  2. jonhyz March 17, 2009 at 1:47 PM #

    I know this is 3 years late, but from what I understand, you are saying that the regulative principle actually then allows for instrumental music in worship?

    Most of the cases against instrumental music I’ve come across have cited the regulative principle in their favour.

    While John Frame seems to focus more on the fallibility of the strict application of the RP, I am leaning towards a more complete understanding of the manner by which Jesus has fulfilled the law, and whether all of the OT authorisation has been abolished, and whether we should strictly follow the NT authority for worship only.

    What are your thoughts?

    • Bob Kauflin March 17, 2009 at 1:57 PM #


      That’s one of the problems with the regulative principle as it’s often expressed. No one can fully agree on what God says exactly. Regarding your question, I think it is simplistic to say that because Jesus fulfilled the law, we should no longer use instruments to accompany singing. It’s a matter of how they are used, not whether they are used.

  3. jonhyz March 19, 2009 at 10:50 PM #

    Hi Bob, thanks for the reply.

    What I am not sure at the moment is whether the Reformers’ almost unanimous stand against instrumental music was borne out of a reaction against the emphasis on rites and rituals in the Catholic Church or their true belief with regards to the teachings of the bible with regards to music in worship.

    John Frame’s essay was very helpful.

    • Bob Kauflin March 20, 2009 at 8:48 AM #

      Jonhyz, I think the time and circumstances in which the Regulative Principle was developed had a significant effect on its application. Regardless of their views, I can’t find clear, biblical support for forbidding instruments in the corporate worship of God.

  4. Dr. Barry Joslin March 30, 2011 at 11:48 AM #

    This is 5 years too late, and don’t even know if the comments section for this post are still active or not. I hope so! This is an issue that, sadly, divides believers.

    Essentially, the Scriptures call for the use of every kind of instrument (Ps 150) as well as every kind of song (Col 3). Correct? The Psalms in particular help us us today to know what corporate worship can look like in the New Covenant era, yet do not dictate the only way worship can be done. I would also suggest that it commands us to use all manner of instrumentation (see Ps 150!), within reason, of course. I love the drums and electric guitar (as well as the pipe organ!), but we don’t need a drum solo like we’re leading them in In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. To be sure, acappella is allowed too, and we are commanded to clap our hands, to express with our bodies the worship of God, and prescribes great freedom and liberties in the corporate setting. “Governed by Scripture” is immensely freeing – all manner of songs (as long as the lyrics pass the biblical test and the music aids in, and does not detract from, worship) and instruments are prescribed in Col 3 and Ps 150 (two quick and clear examples).

    I think it was Piper who noted that the NT was “remarkably . . . astonishingly silent” on a form for “proper” NT-ear worship. He then noted that such silence means that we are very free – restricted only in the sense of all worship needing to focus on who the Lord is and what He has done for us in Christ.

    The RP can be defined in so many ways that it can either be very restrictive or very freeing, and many people assume a certain definition when they hear that term. My fear is that there are many Christ-loving believers who have embraced a certain well intended, but nevertheless man made and unnecessary “form” for corporate worship. One of the downsides, and I know this first-hand, is freedom and liberty and life and excitement and overflowing expressions of joy are curtailed. To be sure, such is not always the case in RP churches, but is definitely the case in a number of them. I think the unfettered joy of our worship around the throne of God in our resurrected bodies will prove the point that many were too restrictive in the present age. The gospel and biblical content are our boundaries, but there is much freedom, I would argue, within those boundaries and in what that looks like in our meetings. I whole-heartedly agree with Bob! There are things we shouldn’t do, and songs we should not sing – Oh! But there is so much that we get to do and songs we get to sing to our great triune God who saves us!

    Sorry Bob – I didn’t intend to preach! But what a glorious God we get to worship! Praise him! Praise him with every kind of instrument and every kind of song! Praise him for his glory and for our joy as we sing and preach and make much of him!

    Barry Joslin
    Louisville, KY

    PS – I praise the Lord for you ministry, brother. The Lord has used you significantly in my life. Though we don’t know each other, I want you to know that it was your example that showed me what a worship pastor can be, and because of that (and a providentially-timed trip to Worship God 2008) I am a worship pastor today at my local church here in Louisville. Bless you, brother. You are such an encouragement to many folks you’ll never meet. And praise the Lord for SG music! Our church enjoys the Gospel more and better because of songs you guys have written and recorded. These albums are gifts to the local church.

    • Bob Kauflin March 30, 2011 at 12:16 PM #

      Barry, yes the comments are still open, and thank you for your very kind and encouraging words. May Jesus Christ be praised!

  5. Jeff S September 9, 2011 at 12:18 PM #

    Hey Bob,

    Do you know of anyone out there (author?) who is against “contemporary worship” and uses the regulative principle as justification for this stand?

    I’m about to write a paper on this topic. I’ll be explaining what “contemporary worship” is and using a few advocates of it with their interaction with the regulative principle for support. Do you mention the regulative principle in your book? I can’t remember…


    • Bob Kauflin September 9, 2011 at 7:03 PM #

      Jeff, I mention the regulative principle in the introduction to the Healthy Tensions section of Worship Matters. Michael Horton is not a big fan of contemporary worship music and has written A Better Way. You should also check out Give Praise to God, ed. by Ligon Duncan.

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