Regulative principle of worship

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The regulative principle of worship is a teaching shared by some Calvinists and Anabaptists on how the Bible orders public worship. The substance of the doctrine regarding worship is that only those elements that are instituted or appointed by command or example or which can be deduced by good and necessary consequence from Scripture are permissible in worship, and that whatever is not commanded or cannot be deduced by good and necessary consequence from Scripture is prohibited. The term "regulative principle" is less frequently broadened to apply to other areas such as church government,[1][2] but in this sense it becomes synonymous with the principle of sola scriptura.

The regulative principle is often contrasted with the normative principle of worship which teaches that whatever is not prohibited in Scripture is permitted in worship, as long as it is agreeable to the peace and unity of the Church. In short, there must be agreement with the general practice of the Church and no prohibition in Scripture for whatever is done in worship.

The normative principle of worship is the generally accepted approach to worship practiced by Anglicans, Lutherans, Evangelicals, and Methodists. The regulative principle of worship is generally practiced by the conservative Reformed churches, Restoration Movement, and in other conservative Protestant denominations, and it finds expression in confessional documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith (see Chapter 21), the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the London Baptist Confession of Faith.


As the regulative principle is reflected in Calvin's own thought, it is driven by his evident antipathy toward the Roman Catholic Church and her worship, and it associates musical instruments with icons, which he considered violations of the Ten Commandments' prohibition of graven images.[3] On this basis, many early Calvinists also eschewed musical instruments and advocated exclusive psalmody in worship.[4]

In 17th-century English church debates, the Puritans argued that there was a divine pattern to be followed at all times, which they called the ius divinum. This came to be known as the regulative principle.[5]

Those who oppose instruments in worship, such as John Murray and G. I. Williamson, argue first that there is no example of the use of musical instruments for worship in the New Testament and second that the Old Testament uses of instruments in worship were specifically tied to the ceremonial laws of the Temple in Jerusalem, which they take to be abrogated for the church. Since the 1800s, however, most of the Reformed churches have modified their understanding of the regulative principle and make use of musical instruments, believing that Calvin and his early followers went beyond the biblical requirements of the Decalogue[3] and that such things are circumstances of worship requiring biblically rooted wisdom, rather than an explicit command. Despite the protestations of those few who hold to a strict view of the regulative principle, the vast majority of modern Calvinist churches make use of hymns and musical instruments, and many also employ contemporary worship music styles and worship bands.[6]

The regulative principle was historically taken to prohibit the use of dance in worship.[4] In 1996 reformed theologian John Frame broke the consensus and argued that the regulative principle does permit dancing, a view that was criticised by more conservative scholars.[6][7]

While music is the central issue in worship debates, other matters have been contentious as well, including doxologies, benedictions, corporate confession of sin, prayer and the readings of creeds or portions of scripture. The presence of any one of these, their order and priority have ranged over various denominations.

John Calvin's Liturgy

The original Lord's Day service designed by John Calvin was a highly liturgical service with the Creed, Alms, Confession and Absolution, the Lord's supper, Doxologies, prayers, Psalms being sung, the Lords prayer being sung, Benedictions. The following are Orders of Service for the Lord's Day as designed by John Calvin (Collect is a short prayer; Lection is a Scripture reading; Fraction and Delivery are the breaking of the bread and distribution thereof, respectively):[8]

Calvin: Strasbourg, 1540 Calvin: Geneva, 1542
Scripture Sentence (Psalm


Confession of sins Confession of sins
Scriptural words of pardon Prayer for pardon
Metrical Decalogue sung with

Kyrie eleison after each


Collect for Illumination Collect for Illumination
Lection Lection
Sermon Sermon
Liturgy of the Upper Room
Collection of alms Collection of alms
Intercessions Intercessions
Lord’s Prayer in long paraphrase Lord’s Prayer in long paraphrase
Preparation of elements while Apostles' Creed sung Preparation of elements while Apostles' Creed sung
Consecration Prayer
Words of Institution Words of Institution
Exhortation Exhortation
Consecration Prayer
Fraction Fraction
Delivery Delivery
Communion, while psalm sung Communion, while psalm or

Scriptures read

Post-communion collect Post-communion collect
Nunc dimittis in metre
Aaronic Blessing Aaronic Blessing


  1. Thornwell 1841.
  2. Thornwell 1842.
  3. 1 2 Barber.
  4. 1 2 Schwertley (1998).
  5. Iain Murray (1991). Richard Baxter - The Reluctant Puritan? in Advancing in Adversity, annual conference papers. London: The Westminster Conference. p. 5.
  6. 1 2 Frame (1996).
  7. Pipa, Joseph. "A book review of Worship in Spirit and Truth".
  8. Maxwell, William D. (1936). An Outline of Christian Worship: Its Development and Forms. London: Oxford University Press.


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