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.