According to its proponents, the Regulatory Principle is biblical. It is ordained by God for reasons that include the fact that sinful men cannot invent acceptable ways to worship a Holy God. Anything we do invent is likely to be an abomination.
Many churches take essentially the opposite approach: If the Bible does not forbid a practice, then it is acceptable-- providing, of course, that it is edifying.
The Regulatory Principle holds that this type of Christian liberty applies to life, but not to the worship service. Those who support the Regulatory Principle acknowledge that it may seem oppressive, but that’s the way it is. To ignore the Regulatory Principle, say its adherents, is to start down the slippery slope of looking for new and flashier ways to entertain the flock, lest they drift away.
It’s an amazing debate, actually. Do whatever it takes to win souls for Christ versus stick only to what the Bible tells us to do, nothing more nothing less.
The Regulatory Principle is codified in several confessions, including the Westminster Confession and the London Baptist Confession of 1689. In the latter we read:
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 imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.The Westminster Confession contains essentially an identical statement.
One of the stronger scriptural supports for the Regulatory Principle comes from the book of Deuteronomy:
"Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it. (Deuteronomy 12:23)
And two passages that demonstrate the dangers of inventing methods of worship:
1 Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. 2So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. (Leviticus 10:1-2)
8"These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. 9And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men." (Matthew 15:8-9)
Easy to State, Hard to PracticeAlthough not everyone accepts, even in theory, the Regulatory Principle, I do think that all fair-minded persons would say that it is a reasonable position. You can understand how someone would hold such a view, even if you do not.
The trouble comes in putting it to practice. The Bible does not give us a Sunday bulletin with an order of service. Though we may want to do what we are commanded (and only what we are commanded), reaching any sort of consensus is problematic. At least we know we are to pray and to read God’s Word (everybody agrees with that). We know we are to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (but how often?) We know we are to baptize (but when and how?) Are testimonies biblically-based parts of worship? How about messages and announcements? What about clapping after an especially beautifully rendered song? The questions are endless.
Probably the most contentious issue is in the area of music. Must all hymns be Psalm based? Some churches do not use modern Praise and Worship style songs—claiming that only the “classic” hymns are appropriate. Yet these “old” hymns, relatively speaking, are more modern than classic, with virtually all of them coming from the last quarter of Christian history.
My own view is that the Regulatory Principle is sound, but we should use critical discernment in declaring something as “out-of-bounds”. Scripture gives us many guidelines, but not all are terribly specific. Let not the specificity come from man instead of the Bible. Men (elders) who base restrictions and regulations on their own tastes violate the very principle they seek to uphold.