Historical Introduction to the Regulative Principle of Worship
At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the authority of the Roman Catholic popes and councils was called into question because, as Martin Luther pointed out at the Diet of Worms (1521), “they have contradicted each other.” Protestants sought to return to Scripture as the single, final basis for the faith and practice of the Church. As the Reformers rejected the Roman Catholic practice of the Mass, and pronouncements from popes and councils concerning worship in general, so they had to carefully consider how the Bible informs our worship practices. Over time, two main Protestant views on this subject became apparent.
The first is what is today known as the Normative Principle of Worship (NPW). The NPW teaches that Christians ‘may do anything in worship that is not forbidden by Scripture.’ Thoughtful adherents to the NPW qualify this definition, pointing out that everything must be done decently and in order and that all aspects of worship should focus our attention on the preaching of the Word. Branches of Protestantism that consciously follow the NPW include the Lutherans and the Anglicans.
The second, competing view on how Scripture informs our worship practices is known as the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). The RPW teaches that ‘we may do only what is commanded in worship.’ The Reformed branch of Protestantism has historically followed the RPW. We who adhere to the RPW believe that God has given us a sufficient and clear guide in Scripture as to how He is to be worshiped. As John Calvin wrote:
We may not adopt any device [in our worship] which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunctions of him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have him approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed… God disapproves all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned in his Word. [John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, quote from a class handout by Dr. Greg Brewton]
As the elders of my home church, Grace Heritage Church, have expressed this principle:
Worship is the corporate expression of the delight, awe, and thankfulness that come from knowing our infinitely glorious and sovereign God and Savior. Because the distance between God and His creatures is so great, the only acceptable way of approaching God in worship must be revealed to us by God Himself. Therefore, He may not be worshiped in ways invented by us. This principle protects us from idolatrous worship and focuses our energies on those activities through which God has called us to draw near.
The RPW is particularly important for Baptists, because it is a thorough-going commitment to this principle that gave rise to Baptist convictions in the first place. As certain groups within the English separatist movement of the early 1600s began to seek continuing church reformation, they came to realize that the Bible provides no command nor example of infant baptism. From this consideration of Scripture and commitment to the RPW, the modern Baptist movement arose (I say “modern” as we believe that the apostolic churches practiced believers’ baptism). Baptist churches today that question the RPW must be able to give some answer as to why they refuse to sprinkle infants. If the Normative Principle is followed instead- if we may do in worship whatever is not forbidden- then where in Scripture do we find a command not to practice paedo-baptism?
It is certainly true that through the centuries the RPW has been applied in different ways by different groups. Some who (I believe, wrongly) only look to the New Testament to inform worship without drawing principles from the Old Testament have rejected the use of musical instruments in worship. Others have rejected hymns and other songs in favor of singing only the Psalms. This last issue was addressed in the late 1691 by the great Baptist theologian Benjamin Keach in his book, The Breach Repaired in God’s Worship, or Singing of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs Proved to be an Holy Ordinance of Jesus Christ. Keach addressed the issue from the Scripture within the perspective of the Regulative Principle. Since that time the great majority of Baptists (and, indeed, the great majority of all adherents to the RPW) have sung psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (with instruments!) in their worship.
Update: Readers are directed to comment #23 below as there is a correction to my understanding of Keach’s work.