These are questions that might come to mind when one hears a phrase like the Regulative Principle, especially since the overwhelming majority of professing Chrstians may not be familiar with it. I want to briefly consider this issue. I personally believe it is vital for Churches and Christians to understand this.
Historically, there have been two basic approaches or views concerning the worship of God. One view is referred to as the Normative Principle, and the other view is referred to as the Regulative Principle. While it must be clear that Christians take up positions on both sides of this issue, both positions, in the end cannot be right. These two positions are mutually exclusive, and while we may never definitively settle the debate on the matter, it should be clear that both positions simply cannot be correct.
The most dominant approach to worship in our day would be the Normative approach. The Normative Principle essentially contends that whatever is NOT PROHIBITED in the Bible is lawful and acceptable in worship. In other words, if the Bible doesn't specifically say "No" to an element, it can be utilized in worship.
The Regulative Principle, on the other hand, essentially contends that whatever is NOT COMMANDED in the Bible is unlawful and unacceptable for worship. Put differently, if Bible doesn't say "Do it," it cannot be a part of worship.
Perhaps the consideration of a regular practice or custom will help better illustrate the difference between these two views. Consider the lighting of candles in worship. This custom was, and still is as far as I know, a part of worship within Roman Catholicism. After the institution on the Reformation, some similar practices were retained within Protestant denominations such as the Lutheran Church. Martin Luther believed that if the Bible did not condemn the practice of lighting candles in worship, it is permitted. This is the Normative Principle.
On the other side of the fence, strict adherents to the Regulative Principle would not practice the regular lighting of candles during worship because the Scriptures do not command or instruct believers to engage in such a practice. Unless it is commanded by Scripture, such a practice is not a valid element of proper worship.
When considering which approach to worship is more biblical, our first question must be, “What does the Bible say on this topic?” Since Scripture has a divine origin and is inherently authoritative, it must have the first and final word. It is not enough to affirm the origin and authority of Scripture and yet refuse or fail to construct and measure our theology and practice by Scripture. No matter what the doctrine or practice, it must be measured against Scripture. If it measures up to Scripture, we say, “Hallelujah!” If it fails the test, we jettison the belief or practice for the truth.
A well-known text concerning worship is John 4. It is the story of Jesus' dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well. During the conversation, Jesus stated that worship pleasing to God and required by God was done in spirit and truth. It cannot be dead, formal, lifeless worship. It is in spirit. It comes from the depth of the heart for who God is and what He has done. However, it also must be according to the truth. God's word is truth (John 17:17). It must be according to revealed truth. I cannot worship God in spirit if I don't know Him through His Self-revelation.
Sincerity, void of truth, is not pleasing worship. One need only consider Elijah's showdown with the false prophets as recorded in 1 Kings 18. Those prophets of Baal were sincere and committed. However, their worship was false because it was devoid of truth. One could also turn to Romans 10 and see Paul's description of the Jews of his day. They had a zeal for what they believed God desired, but it was not based on truth (Rom. 10:1-3.). It was done in ignorance, and therefore not honoring to God.
The clearest illustration of the difference is found in Leviticus 10:1-2. Nadab and Abihu were sons of Aaron, the High Priest and brother of Moses. God had revealed exactly and precisely how worship of Him must be conducted. Beginning in Exodus 35, Moses began to tell Israel of the commands of God pertaining to worship. The phrase is repeatedly given "as the Lord commanded Moses," as you work from Chapter 35 onward.
In Exodus 40, after the completion and dedication of the Tabernacle, God's presence filled the structure. This was a validation that God's commands had been followed to the letter.
The different offerings are enumerated beginning in Leviticus 1. In chapter 7, we again see the phrase "as the Lord commanded Moses" appear repeatedly. At the end of Leviticus 9, God consumed the offerings made to Him. Fire came forth and consumed the offerings. The people shouted and fell on their faces at the sight. God's acceptance validates that all had been completed according to His commands up to this point.
In the next chapter, Chapter 10, apparently Nadab and Abihu were caught up in the moment. They offered worship to the Lord that He had NOT commanded. It was unauthorized. God immediately consumed these two priests for doing what had not been commanded. They were probably sincere, but they were engaging in worship God had not specifically ordered or commanded. They failed to regulate their offerings and elements by the revealed will of God.
Before you say, "Well, that was the Old Testament." Let us consider the New Testament briefly. God had specific reasons why He was so serious about His instructions being followed. The types, shadows, and earthly copies had a heavenly pattern.
Hebrews 8:4-5 states, “Now if He [Jesus] were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, ‘SEE,’ He says, ‘THAT YOU MAKE all things ACCORDING TO THE PATTERN WHICH WAS SHOWN YOU ON THE MOUNTAIN’” (emphasis added). Hebrews 9:24 again states that the earthly tabernacle was a copy of the true one. God desired and even commanded the Old Covenant place of meeting be made exactly according to the explicit specifications because it was a copy or type of the true meeting place. If the Old Covenant was glorious and yet inferior to the New Covenant (see 2 Cor. 3), can we really believe that the exactness of the Old Covenant has been replaced by relaxed standards in the New Covenant? If you think that they can, please read Hebrews. 10:28-29; 12:25. If the consequences for disobedience were severe during the Old Covenant, what should we think of the New Covenant? Are they relaxed?
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul rebuked and chastised the Corinthian believers for their sinful acts during observance of the Lord Supper. The people were eating and drinking in an unworthy manner. What were the consequences? Paul stated, “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep” (1 Cor. 11:29-30). The consequences for coming to the Lord’s Table in an unworthy manner were severe. Many of these church members were sick, and some had even died for eating in an unworthy manner. Therefore, can we legitimately conclude that God has relaxed His standards? Can we just chalk up the punishment of Nadab and Abihu up to a more angry, Old Covenant revelation of God? I dare say, “No…may it never be”
We at Southside believe that God cares immensely about how He is worshiped. Worship is pleasing to God when it is from the heart of the worshiper and regulated by the truth of God as revealed in His word. This is why we ascribe to the Regulative Principle. Scripture is authoritative and sufficient because it is God-inspired, inerrant, and infallible.
soli Deo gloria.