Regulative, Normative, and the Worship of King Jesus


written by David Chow

Martin Luther is famously known for starting the Protestant Reformation by confronting the Roman Catholic Church’s abuse of their indulgence system. In this system, a person could effectively purchase partial or even complete remission of temporal punishment. Luther wrote against this abuse 500 years ago when he nailed his famous 95 Thesis on the doors of the Wittenberg cathedral on October 31, 1517. This letter was then translated into German and quickly spread, causing the gears of the Reformation to churn. As a result, many other Reformed leaders arose to the occasion.

One such leader, a contemporary of Luther, was Ulrich Zwingli, who led the Reformation in Switzerland. Zwingli and Luther agreed on many issues pertaining to salvation and they together opposed many practices of the Roman Catholic Church. As passionate and dedicated to Biblical teaching as both men were, both Luther and Zwingli disagreed, however, on some important matters.

One area of disagreement pertains to their practice of worship services. Luther had a gradual and conservative approach to reform. His focus was to preach the biblical gospel and to target personal faith and individual salvation. In public worship, Luther therefore focused on the Word and kept everything else in tune with the Catholic worship service, except where things clearly violated Scripture. This meant that remnants of the Catholic Church remained in his worship services – items like religious pictures, statues, crucifixes, relics, and other Catholic traditions remained.

In contrast, Zwingli took a much more sweeping approach to his reform. Zwingli aimed not only at personal faith and salvation, but he also sought to bring all life under the authority of the Word of God, including worship services. This resulted in Zwingli removing all the religious artifacts and remnants from the Roman Catholic Church – many of the things Luther continued to have. He even removed singing from services! Essentially, Zwingli did away with anything that was not specifically prescribed in Scripture. If it was not found as authorized in the New Testament, it was not to be done in the worship service.

Luther’s position to prohibit only that which is prohibited in Scripture came to be known as the Normative Principle while Zwingli’s position to allow only that which is prescribed in Scripture came to be known as the Regulative Principle.  The Normative Principle influenced the significant Thirty-nine Articles and the Regulative Principle influenced the well-known Westminster Confession of Faith. And so, today’s worship philosophies are still confronted with these two principles. Should church services be more closely governed by the Normative Principle and allow for anything and everything which is not explicitly prohibited by Scripture? Or should services be more closely governed by the Regulative Principle and only permit that which is explicitly prescribed in Scripture?  In looking at today’s church services, depending on which philosophy one adapts, this could have significant implications. Think of various uses of drama, musical instruments, choirs, and processions. Jumping up and down, raising of hands, twirling socks in the air, live painting of pictures on stage, and traditions. Think how bizarre things could get. Or think of a worship service with no singing, one that is rigid in flow, routine, and emotionless?

The goal of this blog post is not to try to solve or take a specific position on a debate that is hundreds of years old. The goal is not even to bring attention to the historical debate for the sake of evaluating the worship services of our day. Instead, the goal is to drive you (the reader) back to the Word of God to investigate the biblical principles for building your own conviction on every area of your life.

What do I mean by this? While the debate between these two principles has historically been one surrounding church services and congregational worship, it is actually more helpful to think about their application to your own Christian life today. Is something permitted in your life simply because it is not specifically prohibited by Scripture? Or, must you live your life only doing that which is explicitly prescribed in Scripture? Take the Normative and Regulative Principles out of the context of the church and place them into your daily life and you may think differently about how they are applied. Is it OK to see this movie, buy this thing off amazon, or go here for vacation? The bible doesn’t explicit say I cannot, so it must be ok (normative). Or, you may ask if you should go to grad school, or how much is too much of one thing? How far is too far?  The bible doesn’t say I should do it, so it must be wrong (regulative). But I argue now that these are not necessarily the most helpful or even the right questions to be asking in the first place!  The principles needed to answer these questions are found not in either of Luther or Zwingli’s principles. While the Normative and Regulative principles can be helpful, they are not the end all. Rather, our answers ought to be rooted and found in the principles within God’s Word.

1 Corinthians 10:23 states, “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” Verses 30 says, “so whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Whether you apply one principle or the other, neither of them, or a blend of both, it’s not about which one you applied. Instead, it’s about doing all to the glory of God. While it may be permissible by God, it may not be the most profitable for God. What decision in your life brings Him the most glory?  Matthew 5:48 states, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” God the Father is perfect and commands you to be striving to be like Christ. Don’t flirt with trying to get as close as possible to the cliff of falling into the trap of sin. Rather, look at 1 Corinthians 6:18, 10:14, 1 Timothy 6:9-11, and 2 Timothy 2:22.  What do they all have in common?  They all command the action to “flee!”  Flee and run far from the cliff!  You are the most like Christ and most honoring to Him when you do not flirt with sin, but when you flee from sin.

We can be thankful for Luther, Zwingli, and those who followed for their articulation of the Normative and Regulative Principles. Their debate cause us to consider worship both corporately and individually. But after evaluating the Scriptures, regardless if you stand with Luther or Zwingli, or somewhere in between, may you find that the Word of God alone is sufficient to direct your path, and may you be driven to a greater worship of King Jesus in your church and in your personal holiness.


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