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The Regulatory Principle
November 03, 2003
I have been thinking a lot lately about The Regulatory Principle, especially as it relates to the worship service. If you are not familiar with the term, it essentially means: The only acceptable worship is that which is explicitly taught in the Bible. By extension then, anything that is not explicitly taught in the Bible is implicitly forbidden. The Regulatory Principle is most often applied to music in the worship service, but can also apply to the use of drama, the administration of the Lord’s Supper (how is it celebrated and how often?) and any other number of situations.
Churches that adhere to the Regulatory Principle will insist that God, in His wisdom, provided certain ways in which we are to worship Him. The ways in which we are to worship are outlined in Scripture. Means of worship that we may invent will not be acceptable to a perfect and holy God.
Churches that do not hold to this principle will take the opposite approach and say that God desires to be worshipped in spirit and in truth. As long as all of our worship is edifying and does not directly contradict a practice that is forbidden, it is acceptable in God’s sight.
The definitive statement regarding the Regulatory Principle can be found in the Westminster Confession, Chapter 21, paragraph 1 which reads:
The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped 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 London Baptist Convention of 1689 stated the same principle in nearly identical words.
There are several Scripture passages which are used as proof texts for this Principle.
Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?… ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’” (Matthew 15:3,8,9)
Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD , contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD . Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke of when he said:
” ‘Among those who approach me Aaron remained silent.
I will show myself holy;
in the sight of all the people
I will be honored.’ ”
” ‘Among those who approach me
Aaron remained silent.(Leviticus 10:1-3)
And of course, the most common proof is Deuteronomy 12:32 which reads, “See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.”
I believe adherents to the Regulatory Principle to be noble in their desire to hold fast to the commandments of God and to avoid falling into sinful practices. On the other hand, the New Testament seems to offer up a freedom to believers in the way we relate to God. So honestly, I do not yet know where I stand on this issue. My initial reaction is that there is great value in carefully examining everything in the light of Scripture, yet we must be careful not to (to borrow a cliché) throw the baby out with the bath-water.