How Does the 'Regulative Principle' Inform Worship?


In Question and Answer 96 of the Heidelberg Catechism, we confess that the second commandment means that we should not worship God in any other way than he has commanded us in his Word. In Reformed churches this is known as the regulative principle of worship. How does this principle inform the way that we approach worship?

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Great question, Josh!

The Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) has been helpful for my congregation in refining what happens when we gather together on Sunday morning and evening.  Instead of only determining the components of a worship service (greeting, singing, confession, sermon, etc.), I find the RPW to be most helpful in developing the ethos of our worship. Put another way, elders should be asking of their congregations, "When we read about a corporate worship event in the Bible, can we relate to it because that's how we worship as well?"

As I have visited congregations throughout my life, I sometimes have left an evangelical worship service and felt as though it did not reflect the tone and spirit of the worship described in the Bible. Sometimes this means a congregation values doctrine and proper behavior so much that their worship becomes stale and lifeless. The unashamedly joyful worship of David would scandalize such congregations. Churches on the other end of the worship-style spectrum can also seem unbiblical by focusing exclusively on praise and encouragement, giving little attention to prayer, the sacraments, or the Bible. Here there is no "trembling at God's Word."

My point is that the RPW should first shape our general attitude toward God before we look for proof texts of why an element of a worship service is or isn't biblical.

Mark, I agree with you that "the RPW should first shape our general attitude toward God," but I think that most Christian Reformed congregation today would not agree with the RPW. In my experience, most Christian Reformed Churches operate on the normative principle of worship (if it isn't forbidden, it is permitted). Thus, many of our churches include liturgical elements that are nowhere commanded in Scripture either explicitly or by implication (e.g., lighting of Advent wreaths, Lenten observance, etc.). Perhaps its time that we revisit Q/A 96 as a denomination and ask ourselves whether we really believe what it says we believe.  

I think Cedric is quite correct that the normative principle is much more common in practice, or perhaps one might say that a "modified RPW" is quite common.  Even within adherents to RPW, there is substantial disagreement as to what boundaries might be a necessary conclusion.  In some circles, head coverings, exclusive psalmody, and a capella singing are all the result of being normed by RPW.  RPW can also become an end unto itself sometimes, which is not helpful.  We need to be careful also that RPW does not become shorthand for "what I prefer" or "the way we've always done it."

Having said all that, I think much is lost when the RPW is discarded altogether.  The normative principle, it seems to me, has led to many broad evangelical practices/excesses that do not even resemble worship (unless we consider them worship of man).  Certainly there is danger in the rote exercise of RPW-normed worship that we must be vigilant to fight against.  But it seems to me that the dangers associated with throwing the doors open to anything not expressly prohibited are much greater than those associated with the excesses or ritualism that can come with RPW. 

In the end, I also agree with Cedric that we should, in effect, "say what we mean, and mean what we say."  We don't do well to profess one thing and practice another.  Such double-mindedness is not pleasing to God. 

One excellent guideline to inform our worship according to the regulative principle, is to skip ahead two catechism questions, to number ninety-eight, still in Ursinus' treatment of the Second Commandment under Lord's day 35.

Q. But may not images be permitted in the churches as teaching aids for the unlearned?

A. No, we shouldn't try to be wiser than God.  He wants His people instructed by the living preaching of His Word--not by idols that cannot even talk.

The regulative principle of worship gets only passing notice in our seminary, where in both the homiletics, and worship planning curricula, the inclusion of "video clips" are eagerly encouraged.  Our people come to church for as little as an hour and a half a week, perhaps the only waking moments that they are not influenced by a screen.  So, in addition to obedience, and to confessional adherence, the Lord's ways provide a practical respite from the enculturation by mass media now prevalent among the saints.

When I teach this Lord's Day lesson, I remark about God's prescriptions for the first organized worship described in Exodus chapters 19 and 20, and then, remind that it was only a short time later, that God's people craved a tangible image.

Curing idolatry in the churches is a painful process, sometimes you have to drink pulverized gold from the brook.

As one who thrives on discussions, I find this one rather intriguing, especially as it impacts on what we do every Lord’s Day. Allow me to make a few observations.

Typically, regulative does stand against normative as polar opposites. Can we accept that there is a spectrum, or at least that neither of these is wholly acceptable?

The phrase in the catechism is “has been commanded.” Much of what we read in the scriptures, however, is illustrative, not instructive. Said differently, what we actually have is a record of how the church did worship, not how they were commanded to worship.

Even commandments require considerable interpretation, which, of course, for the Jews eventually led to the Talmud. Oran music is not commanded, neither are guitars. There is no command, much less precedent, for only an ordained minister to administer the Lord’s Supper and baptism and the practice actually goes against any understanding of scriptural worship. How about the announcements that most congregations have during worship? We could go on; but I hope the point is made.

If we were to draw on what we are actually told in scripture (1st Corinthians 14:26) about worship in at least this one apostolic congregation, we are certainly far removed from it, unless we relegate it to a small group or house church gathering. It certainly is not a Sunday morning pattern.