the regulative principle states that “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself and so limited by his own revealed will” (WCF [Westminster Confession of Faith] 21.1). In other words, corporate worship should be comprised of those elements we can show to be appropriate from the Bible. The regulative principles says, “Let’s worship God as he wants to be worshiped.”
-The Gospel Coalition ("a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition")
I'd first like to note (as an aside, but I think relevant) is the reliance on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Reformed theologians reference it almost as though it were scripture; as though you can't question it. I'm sure they would bristle at that statement, but ask any of them if they feel free to depart from its wording.
The opposite of the "regulative principle" of worship is the "normative principle" [NP] of worship. That is, whatever is not expressly prohibited in scripture is permitted. This principle is practiced by just about every believer on a variety of subjects. Many Reformed believers, in my experience, have never heard the phrase. It's very seminary. Note what Kevin DeYoung at TGC says about it:
Even though I grew up in a Reformed church, until seminary I was one of the multitude of Christians who had never heard of the regulative principle.
A broader sense of the term "regulative principle" is occasionally cited on matters other than worship, for example, to constrain designs of church government to scriptural elements. [Wikipedia]
It’s not been at the core of my identity. But over the years I’ve come to appreciate the regulative principle more and more. [Kevin DeYoung]
We want to be clear that RP is not exactly Sola Scriptura (which we wholeheartedly support). Sola Scripture (the Scriptures alone) is the doctrine that the scriptures are the only infallible source of truth. RP teaches that things such as worship must reflect perfectly what is in scripture. It may not be a clear distinction, but there is a chasm between the two.
Let's turn back to Kevin DeYoung and TGC.
“What do we know they did in their Christian worship services in the Bible? We know they sang the Bible. We know that preached the Bible. We know they prayed the Bible. We know they read the Bible. We know they saw the Bible in the sacraments. We don’t see dramas or pet blessings or liturgical dance numbers. So why wouldn’t we want to focus on everything we know they did in their services? Why try to improve on the elements we know were pleasing to God and practiced in the early church?”
- Hymns Good
- Contemporary Bad
God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.
The great error of the "regulative principle" (like its Romanist predecessor "ius divinum"), the "acceptable way of worshiping the true God," is the failure to "rightly divide the Word of Truth." As with all systems which do this, it tends to pick and choose what it believes is "biblical," "commanded," or "prohibited" and it chooses individuals in "authority" as arbiters of what is truly biblical.
Reformed Christians said in effect, “We don’t want to ask our church members to do anything that would violate their consciences.” Maybe bowing here or a kiss there could be justified by some in their hearts, but what about those who found it idolatrous? Should they be asked to do something as an act of worship that Scripture never commands and their consciences won’t allow? This doesn’t mean Christians will like every song or appreciate every musical choice. But at least with the regulative principle we can come to worship knowing that nothing will be asked of us except that which can be shown to be true according to the Word of God.
As an ex-Catholic, I am in agreement, in part. That is, anything that is not expressly biblical should be optional. But being optional is not the same as being forbidden.
I attended a service at Tenth Presbyterian Church while I was working in Philadelphia. James Montgomery Boice in the pulpit. Can't get much more Reformed than that! But the service was replete with Catholic leftovers. The processional, the robes, the reciting of "The Lord's Prayer" (not for today), and even statues. And they practice such things as infant baptism. They infer this scripture
We must also take a quick look at what is called "The Lord's Supper." In the Catholic faith, it is salvific. The host is the actual, physical body of Christ. They teach that non-Catholics who partake are eating damnation unto themselves (attend a RC wedding or funeral mass and they'll ask non-Catholics to abstain). Of course such a doctrine is to be rejected. But I reject ALL uses of the The Lord's Supper today as it is part of the covenant with Israel. We've covered that elsewhere, but suffice it to say, just because something is "scriptural" does not necessarily mean it is "applicable" in this age.
The same Reformed teacher who limits himself to the Psalms (for instance) will not bind himself by all of the Book of Leviticus. They pick and choose what is in the gospel accounts and what is in the Book of Acts. So, this pretense to the idea of "bound to scripture" is really just being bound to (ironically) "The Westminster Confession of Faith." Sola Scriptura becomes the oxymoron Sola WCF and Catechisms which they give us to tell us what is Biblical. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura itself recognizes different ages and dispensations. It is our duty to study to discern these differences not to simply bow will and intellect to a system, a catechism, a board, etc.
Let us recall what The Gospel Coalition argues, “Let’s worship God as he wants to be worshiped.” That sounds good, but it fails to recognize God's dispensations. To worship God is to do his will. For Noah, that was building an ark. For Abraham, that was taking Isaac to Mount Moriah. For Moses, that was crossing the Red Sea. For the Hebrew priesthood, that was wearing certain items of clothing and sacrificing certain animals on certain days.
We don't look to these for our practice in this age. The Reformed teacher picks and chooses what practices from the Bible he likes. He takes the hymns for Israel and gladly applies them to himself. I would suggest that applying scripture incorrectly is worse than practicing things not expressly forbidden in scripture.
If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. And they shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear.
Do we do this with a rebellious child in this current age? If not, why not? Easy question for me to answer, we're not Israel, we're not coming into an inheritance, we don't have city elders. etc. There may be a principle here about discipline, but who is applying the specifics in his Reformed church today?
The Reformed tradition has many unbiblical practices based on a failure to rightly divide the Word of Truth. They fail to compare things that differ. And that is the irony here. A smarmy take on contemporary music as they hide behind some perceived notion that hymns are somehow what God has ordained all the while adopting a form of leftover Catholicism and an allegiance to catechism, confessions, church history, church fathers, and creeds.
I realize that this particular post is subjective and anecdotal, but it is a response to very a generic rejection of rejection (and condemnation) of all modern worship in way that I would argue is not only self-serving, but blinding.