Churches really like to pull out all the stops at Christmas, don’t they? Maybe you’ve been to an over-the-top evangelical church Christmas service, like I have? I read something just this week that gave advice for churches who want to go all out on a Christmas service: “Usually the goal is to create a ‘Wow!’ experience for the people who rarely come to church as well as those who have never been. And hopefully, this ‘Wow!’ experience will get them to come back and start attending more regularly,” it said. But should the goal of a corporate worship service really be to create a “Wow!” experience… for the attendees?
Before reforming, I knew intuitively this goal was somehow wrong, but I could not have explained my reasoning outside of simply expressing a preference. Perhaps I could say “The things that are creating a ‘wow’ experience don’t belong in a corporate worship service! Skits, dances, and candle ceremonies are not appropriate for worshiping God!” but without the Regulative Principle of worship to help explain why, I’d merely be stating my opinion with little more weight than a person answering back “Well, I like skits for worship.”
Regulative and Normative
So what is the Regulative Principle of Worship? Simply stated, it is the governing principle that we may only worship God in ways that He has commanded, and anything not commanded is therefore forbidden. The Belgic Confession gives us a compact, yet rich statement alluding to the regulative principle:
We believe that this Holy Scripture fully contains the will of God and that all that man must believe in order to be saved is sufficiently taught therein. The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length. –Belgic Confession, Article 7
The Regulative Principle of Worship stands in contrast to the Normative Principle, which is held to by the overwhelming majority of evangelical churches in the United States. The Normative Principle is simply the belief that any practice not forbidden by scripture is permissible for worship. In this paradigm, preferences very easily become a driver in worship service choices and elements. Do we enjoy choreographed flag waving? Irish dancing? Under the Normative Principle, these things would be permitted to become part of the corporate worship service. I have personally attended churches where flag waving and Irish dancing were regularly featured!
The Heart of the Difference
The truly important difference between the Regulative Principle and the Normative Principle, however, is not that the Regulative Principle eliminates preferences. Instead, what the Regulative Principle does is replace our preferences with God’s. Doesn’t it make sense that the worship we offer ought to be the worship that the Lord Himself has prescribed? Remembering God’s rejection of Cain’s grain offering helps me see that it’s not acceptable to worship in any way that I choose, even if my heart seems to be in the right place.
When we begin to think about worship this way, it becomes more and more clear that the corporate worship of the people of God is not to be turned into a “wow experience” designed to please visitors. After all, isn’t it true that what we win them with is what we win them to? Instead, we should be focused on pleasing the Lord. In Reformed worship under the Regulative Principle, every element in the liturgy is derived directly or by good and necessary consequence from the commands found in the scripture. This leaves our worship simple, decent, orderly, and hopefully a beautiful offering to God.
The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.
-Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 21