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What is the Regulative Principle of Worship?

No event, program, or activity in the life of the church is more important than worshiping God. But what exactly constitutes biblical worship?

Initially, we might be tempted to think that God is primarily concerned with our motives (why we worship him) and much less concerned with the manner, or style of how we worship him. Both, however, matter greatly to God (Ex. 20:3-4; Lev. 10:1-3; Jn. 4:24).

On the one hand, we certainly want to avoid reducing corporate worship to a set of mechanical rules or a ritualistic routine that becomes devoid of any genuine, heartfelt affection for God.

May it never be said of us: “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Is. 29:13). Like the Christians in Corinth, we too must take heed lest our thoughts in worship “be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3).

On the other hand, we must also avoid reducing corporate worship to the sum of our subjective emotions and personal experiences with God. On this front, we must take every thought captive and refuse to allow the methods and means by which we worship God to become merely a matter of preference or pragmatism, instead of an issue of principle.

While many churches today have taken liberty in deciding for themselves how to “do church” with some having gone so far as to even reimagine and redefine the worship service altogether into their own unique worship “experience;” the church that remains faithful to God’s word must remain steadfast in offering up to God “acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28).

The question remains: what kind of worship is “acceptable” in the sight of the Lord?

Reformed theologians have for centuries answered this question as they have every other question pertaining to the Christian faith—by turning to the Word of God as “the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him” (WSC Q.2). True to the practice of sola scriptura, they were adamant that “Scripture alone” does not merely inform and influence, but also guide and govern how God’s people are taught to worship him (Ex. 20:3-4).

Unlike its counterpart, the normative principle, which teaches that whatever is not explicitly forbidden by Scripture as an element of worship is therefore permissible (dance, drama, etc.); the regulative principle limits acceptable worship to include only that which is explicitly prescribed by God in Scripture (i.e., Word, Sacrament & Prayer).

The regulative principle of worship has guided how Reformed churches have constructed their worship services for years. The result: everything is done intentionally and directly sanctioned by Scripture, or “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6).