What is the difference between the regulative and normative principles of worship?
Thank you for your question. In our day when worship seems to be so much talked about and takes multiple forms, your question is an important one. As you see below, we worship God. The fact that the first four of the Ten Commandments deal with God, approaching him—when and how—signifies that worship is a priority with God. If we read Psalm 115 we see that the God of Scripture is very different from the gods of the nations. And if we stop thinking about idols as stone or wood or metal, and think of them as thing(s) in which we trust, hope, look to or give ourselves to, we see that idols assume all sorts of shapes from money to sex to power to one’s family—on and on it goes. But as the psalmist warns us, “Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them“ (v. 8). We become like what we worship. If we worship something empty and powerless (vv. 4–7), our lives will be marked by emptiness and ultimate despair, for everything which is not the God of Bible will fail.
God is jealous for worshipers (John 4:23–24), seeks them, and, by the new birth Jesus describes in John 3, brings worshipers to life through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (think John 14:6). So God guards his worship. It is seen repeatedly in the Old Testament that God is the architect of the tabernacle and the temple, he is the One who set the feasts which Israel was to observe, and he specified the sacrifices which allowed worshipers to come into his presence. This gives us the pattern for the regulative principle of worship (see Westminster Confession of Faith 21:1), that we are to worship God as he has directed and not follow “the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan.” The regulative principle means that God sets the bounds and gives the basic patterns for worship. We are to do what God commands, since he is the one who alone can determine how he is to be worshiped. Generally speaking, the normative principle would say that if the Scriptures do not forbid a thing (images, for example), then it is permissible. As others have pointed out, the regulative principle, taken to an extreme, can become legalistic and judgmental (“Our church worships in the way that pleases God because we don’t do x, y and z …”), while the normative principle opens the door for all kinds of things (“The Bible doesn’t say anything about forbidding watching a video clip, using a smoke machine, etc., etc.”) and we always will sinfully do whatever pleases us and forget about God entirely. Then worship becomes self-focused (“I like my church because it makes me feel good, happy, etc.”) rather than God-focused.
Within the Reformed world there is considerable variation in the application of worship principles (though generally, not as wide a variation as in evangelicalism). We need to be careful in charging others with being either too legalistic or too loose. The more worship is focused on God, the more it will be pleasing to him, and that means that Christ is to be center as the one who makes us acceptable worshipers. Christ tells us what worship is pleasing to God, for if we do not come to God in dependence and trust in Christ and his work, his death and resurrection, we are not going to be pleasing to God. So if we add anything to worship that we think will make us more acceptable to God than what Christ has done, we are not offering acceptable worship. Or if we delight in how we feel or what we experience, rather than in delighting in Christ and his work, we are doing disservice to the Savior. Since God wants to have his own glory and grace praised (think Rev. 4 and 5), the regulative principle is not limiting but takes us into the throne room of heaven by looking to Christ (think Hebrews 12:18ff).
You can view the whole archive of web questions of the OPC for more food for thought, but be aware that what binds OP pastors and congregations is commitment to the Bible as the primary standard, and to the Westminster Standards as our secondary standards, rather than agreement on every single thing about worship.Neither in the Bible itself nor in the Westminster Standards is every question answered, rather we go back to the principles which are summarized below in the Confession of Faith, Chapter 21 (compare the OPC’s “Directory for Public Worship,” http://www.opc.org/BCO/DPW.html#Chapter_I)
I hope this is hopeful.
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