As we explore church history, we find the pattern of worship for the Roman Catholic Church repulsive and offensive on many levels. One such level is the use of graphic statues, figures, and the prayers to the saints. Beyond the obvious doctrinal truths regarding the need to worship God alone—why should we be offended by their worship practices?
As we fast-forward through history to our modern evangelical culture, we find pastors jumping (and sometimes falling down on the platform) on trampolines and attempting all sorts of gimmicks from zip line entries to motorcycle tricks all in the context of what is considered worship. Should we be offended by these practices too?
In short, as we consider the subject of worship, are there red lights and green lights—or does anything go? How should we approach the issue of the regulative principle? Does God regulate how we worship? If so, how does he do it? Is anything allowed in worship so long as God doesn’t forbid it? Are all things forbidden except those practices or elements that God specifies in his Word as essential? How do we discern what is forbidden and what’s required?
Regulative Principle: Is the Bible Sufficient?
The regulative principle is often misunderstood and rejected by people who claim to embrace the sufficiency of Scripture. In short, we have a few different positions to choose from in regard to governing principles to Christian worship. First, there’s the freedom principle or the inventive principle which claims that anything goes—so long as one’s heart is right in the process. This would allow for all sorts of tricks and the most elaborate automobile illustrations, zip line entries, video sermons, and various other methods of appealing to people and appearing to be relevant.
Another well known position is the normative principle which claims that anything goes in Christian worship so long as God does not forbid it in Scripture. Basically, this approach allows for nearly anything that’s not considered sinful. Once again, this would open the door for various modern inventions to gain the attention of people such as indoor fireworks, zip line pastors, and more—so long as the Bible doesn’t condemn it.
The regulative principle claims that we should only approach God in worship in the way that he has clearly described such worship in the Word. If God does not specify it in his Word, we should not employ it as a means of worship. In other words, if God has not approved it, we should not approach him with such methods and manners of worship. Once again, we must ask ourselves an honest question—do we truly believe in the sufficiency of Scripture or is that merely a historic creed that we like to embrace in word, but not in practice?
In the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, we find these words:
- LBC 1:6 — “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed
( 2 Timothy 3:15-17; Galatians 1:8,9; John 6:45; 1 Corinthians 2:9-12; 1 Corinthians 11:13, 14; 1 Corinthians 14:26,40).”
At the heart of the controversy of the Reformation was the idea of the authority of Scripture. Emerging from the Reformation era was the famous slogan, sola Scriptura. When it comes to a July 4th worship service in America, does the Bible say anything that would forbid indoor fireworks to celebrate America’s freedom? In a similar situation, a local church in Atlanta would like to celebrate the Super Bowl by having their pastors compete in preaching as they setup their entire worship service to mirror a football game—is the Bible silent on these two different worship services?
When it comes to the regulative principle—it’s not about the establishment of a list of forbidden practices in worship in order to rob people of their joy and freedom to worship God. It’s actually the opposite. The purpose of the regulative principle is to determine the boundaries for joy-filled worship and the Bible is absolutely sufficient to determine such boundaries. That was true during the days of the ancient controversies of the Roman Catholic Church and it remains so in our modern urbane church culture today.
Regulative Principle: Is the Worship of God Unique?
When Moses was in training to lead Israel, he was serving as a goat farmer in the wilderness. One day God appeared to him in a burning bush, and we can imagine that this was an extremely unusual and spectacular scene. We find the scene in Exodus 3:
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.  And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”  When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”  Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:1-6).
It must be clearly observed that God required Moses to remove his shoes—for the ground was holy. That same dusty sod was not exactly holy the day before, but at that moment, something was quite unique and different as God had appeared to Moses in that bush. Therefore, God required that Moses remove his sandals. There is something unique about the worship of God and we see this from both the Old Testament to the New Testament. In 1 Timothy 3:14-15, we find Paul’s words to Timothy similar:
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that,  if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:14-15).
There are certain behaviors that are acceptable within the gathered church and there are certain behaviors that are unacceptable. It’s not man’s preference nor his own opinion that dictates such boundaries. It’s God’s Word that provides the boundaries that are clearly established by God. If we operate by the freedom principle or the inventive principle which is fueled by pragmatic gimmicks, strategies, and tricks to appeal to the carnal masses—we will turn worship into entertainment and the church into a community social club rather than what God intended from the beginning.
The regulative principle is not about restrictions or the establishment of red lights for God’s people. It’s not a religious regulation principle that seeks to be negative as much as it’s committed to honoring the unique worship of a sovereign and holy God in the manner in which he has specified. When we redefine marriage and call it marriage—that does not honor God. When we redefine worship and call it worship—it likewise does not honor God. The regulative principle is not about preventing indoor fireworks or vivid motorcycle illustrations, but it is the principle that seeks to direct our worship to our triune God in such a way that what was once mysterious is now clearly revealed in Scripture—as Paul states in 1 Timothy 3:16:
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
When rightly understood, reverenced, and preached among God’s people—we come to the reality that God is not boring and he certainly doesn’t need zip lines, motorcycles, and dress up costume preachers to make him exciting. He is exciting! Worship God!