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.

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24 Comments on “Historical Introduction to the Regulative Principle of Worship”

  1. Pat McGee Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the regulative principle of worship. We dare not approach God in ways not approved by Him. There is a freedom of worship, yet there are limits that keep us from dishonoring our Lord and Saviour.

  2. Trey Says:

    My question is from the Regulative Principle point of view, where do you draw the line as in worshipping (musically speaking) in a corporate setting. I believe wholeheartedly that worship must be God-centered but how do we determine what is God-centered. Of course the lyrics of the song must be God-centered, but does the regulative principle forbid a particular style. Is it ok to have a full band with drums, or a more traditional with just a piano and organ. I personally love both, and I don’t think that the instrument being used really matters as long as it is not being used to draw attention away from worship. I’m just wondering where do yall think we should draw the line using this principle and not just musical preference. I think this is such an interesting topic considering there are so many worship styles in churches.

  3. “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?”

    Baptism can be worshipful but I would classify it more as an act of obedience than worship (although worship itself is also an act of obedience).

    We are told to worship the Lord and while Scripture provides numerous instances where we read about people doing worship, such instances are descriptive, not proscriptive. Discussions about Baptism, however, are proscriptive, not descriptive. The Bible tells us how to do Baptism; it does not tell us how to do worship.

    I am curious just how far the regulative principle goes? One is limited only to those acts of worship described in the Bible, but does one have to do the acts of worship described in the Bible? I am not aware of an overabundance of Reformed churches filled with people who obey the passages which say to shout to the Lord.

  4. Matt Svoboda Says:

    I am not so sure that I fully agree with the RPW. I am not saying I disagree yet… I am still thinking about it. Dr. Mohler always says, “All of the Bible is true, but not all truth is in the Bible.”

    Could this apply to worship? God has given us standards to go by… Yet, that doesn’t mean everything else is wrong…

  5. Barry Says:

    Undeniably, tradition and not cannon or scripture leads the way in many practices the varying movements hold to in the course of their worship.

    I’m beginning to learn that there is a great deal of uniformity in most Christian movements with respect to the little habits they have in their worship process. From what I’ve read on this blog that doesn’t seem to be the case with baptist churches.

    Is it fair to say that each Baptist church is left to its own device concerning its practices during the worship process and do you think that Baptist churches should be more closely allied with one another in these practices?

  6. Barry,

    I’ve been to many Baptists churches and I now pastor one. I can tell you that while there are no controls over the churches – that is, no governing body ensuring each church is right in its teaching and practice – most churches (SBC at least, I’ve been to other flavors of Baptist churches but not quite so many) are very much the same in the way they do things. Any given Baptist church you walk into is likely to be doing more or less the same things as any other.

  7. Barry Says:


    Thanks. I wasn’t sure if a pastor and his community were on their own or needed to answer to a body. I can see, then, why there is so much dialogue with respect to teachings from one to another.

    Many years ago I was traveling through the southern states and I happened on a revival in a tent at night. It was something I’ve never forgotten.

    It was a family with all the children playing one instrument or another. The two front rows were taken up by elderly black women dressed very well and the evangelist really had a hold on the audience.

    I don’t remember a word he said, or if he was “right preaching”, but for a kid from Michigan it was a mesmerizing evening.

  8. Tent revivals are mostly a thing of the past these days. I’ve only participated in one myself, and that was in Seattle, Washington! Here in the South I’m sure they still take place but I don’t remember when I last even heard of one.

  9. Barry Says:

    This is somewhat off topic but it’s something that I’ve been wondering about for a while. It’s of small importance, I guess, but it can be a point of contention for some of us, and certainly for the pastor, that is how one dresses at church. I’ve seen men, in particular, dressed like they are going to a car wash. Not most, mind you, but some.

    How is it in your place of worship?

  10. I personally tend to dress anywhere from suit and tie to “business-casual” at our church, but I’m rather ambivalent concerning how others are dressed, unless they are being immodest.

  11. Barry Says:

    Your a better man than I am Andrew.

    I don’t mind blue jeans but I don’t think they have a place in church.

  12. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    I dress the same way everyday. And, as a hangover from being a one pair of shoes a year youth and my hippie days, I change only what and when is necessary. My clothes are clean, so am I, beyond that I am who I am every day. Though I might dress up on special occasion such as when performing in a Christmas special, what I wear is no concern to me. I do compliment people for their dress, but it does not come to my mind to criticize anyone’s appearance, except in the case Andrew mentioned. And flamboyance, too perhaps. Demonstrative dress of the youth, maybe, too, when it becomes a communicative device with questionable meaning . It is apparent when, in churches that are overtly emphasizing the outward, that when you are not like them you will feel it. But, is dress in reality a RPW issue? Or, is the proper understanding of the application of the RPW a gentle leader, or a muzzle?

    If we go beyond Scripture, legislating dress, haven’t we done what the anti-bibers have done? Have we not done what James would forbid?

    A good book for study.

  13. Pat McGee Says:

    Dress the nicest you can afford. I am a teacher and wear a dress shirt and tie daily. Should I do less on the Lord’s Day? I don’t think so. Sunday should not be dress down. We should wear our best to honor the Lord in corporate worship.

  14. Matt Svoboda Says:

    I got into quite a debate with my former pastor about this topic of what a person is to wear to church.

    My pastor too kthe view of all of you and I strongly disagreed. Not that I think it is sinful or wrong to dress and want to dress nice to church. I do think it is sinful to think and feel like all people should dress their best or dress the best they can afford. Where in scripture do we get the idea that people should “dress up?” Does Paul make it seem like he put on his best apparrel to preach? I do not think so… Did Jesus spend money on a nice new Tunic for his sermonon the mount? Or what about his triumphal entry? I know, you get… It does seem ridiculous, doesn’t it?

    I am not just talking about gonig to church either… I am talking about Pastor’s thinking it is wrong to preach in anything less than a suit…

    My pastor said it was wrong because pastors should be reverent because they have the great honor of preaching… and that church members should dress up to show respect and honor to God because he allows us to come together and worship.

    I once heard someone say John Piper never preaches in anything less than a jacket and tie… So I asked what about when he preaches at youth events. The person said, Well, thats different. Now why is that different? If we are going to wear suits out of reverence for God why does it matter who we are preaching too?

    I will get to the point. I do believe it is sinful to think pastors and church members are expected to or should dress their best to go to church. I used to agree with all of you, but definitely not anymore. I believe it is pharisee-ism at its core. It is another sign of eternalism… Which is the same type of sin that Jesus exposes in his Sermon on the Mount.

    Does God care what we wear on the outside? The biblical answer is NO! Absolutely not… God only cares about our heart. He only cares if we come to worship with hearts that are reverent..

    You have to be kidding if you think God does a scan of the church to make sure people are dressed their best?!

    There is a lot more I could say, but hopefully you all see the pharisee-ism in thinking that God cares about our clothes at all. It is sad that pastors and future pastors think that God does care if we have a tie on…

    We honor God in corporate worship by Loving Him and loving those around us…

    People should spend more time getting their hearts ready for worship.. Not for putting clothes on their back.

  15. Matt Svoboda Says:

    Let it be known that I wear a suit to business-casual to church every Sunday…

    But does that make it wrong for the person who has to wear a suit everyday for work dress more casually for church so that they are comfortable? Of course not… As future pastors we must not fall into proffessionalism!

  16. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    Svoboda- nice name. I had a teacher with that name, long long ago in a galaxie far away.

    I do not think you disagree with me Matt. Clothing makes little difference, and it is not what one wears, in my book. If I care at all it is why they wear it.

    On another point, how does one make themselves ready for worship? Like Isaiah did, perhaps? Remember, whether is it the putting on of cloth or the vesting of self-righteousness, both are merely the white washing of tombs. Jesus’ challenge to make the inside clean was a commandment of impossibility, like the commandment to be holy, or perfect. We are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices and here is the kicker, holy. There was never a clean sacrifice offered under the Law. The most pure lamb was still tainted by the effect of sin in the fallen creation, wholly unacceptable, and they were offered with the hands of sinners. And, we remember that the priests clothed themselves all point to what Hebrews says are sacrifices that are unable to make one clean. Now, to him who has ceased from his labor there is rest, so also, one who has ceased attempting to make his heart right with God, reverent as you put it, there is peace. You can spend the rest of your life trying to get ready for worship and you will still not be ready. The only way to dress the inward man, is to be dressed by the one who declares you holy as he is holy.

    Still, we have wandered away from the “ordinance” of etiquette in the church, the RPW. And I am not so sure that we can ever implement it purely without breaching the wall of formalism. In reality, because of our weaknesses, we inadvertently implement the NPW when interpreting the RPW. Then again, if Paul had not been concerned with certain protocol, most of Corinthians, and large portions of Romans would not have been written, not to mention James forbidding of overt discrimination.

  17. Matt Svoboda Says:

    Well thank you…

    Ok… I do see where you are coming from and I would see that we do basically agree. But I have to say that I think our hearts can be ready for worship. This doesn’t mean perfect… It does mean humble and expectant for God to speak to us during worship. Being ready means being prepared and focused… Not being perfect. Matthew 5: 20 says that if our righteousness does not exceed that of the pharisees and scribes we will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.

    All I am saying is what Jesus was saying. We must care more about the state of our heart than we care about our clothes or others’ clothes.

    If you remember in Acts 2 they were meeting together daily… Do you think there was an expected “etiquette” of the church then? Of course not… I do not think there should be today either. James Merritt, Francis Chan, and Mark Driscoll are all amazing Reformed pastors that don’t expect members to “dress up” Of course there is an etiquette, but it should be nothing more than decently nice, casual comfortable clothes. Nothing is wrong with Blue Jeans that don’t have holes and a nice shirt. I only draw the line there because any adult wearing anything less than that looks like he is trying to be a teenager.

  18. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    Okay, yeah, we must apply ourselves to the matters of the heart, for Jesus said, “Watch your heart, for out of it flows the issues of life.” Absolutely and if we follow this: In all things pray and give thanks, studying showing one’s self to be approved, a working man, who needs not be ashamed. Then I would say, come as you are.

    I have worn holy levis to church when that was all that I had. It is not that I could not have afforded new ones, but clothing is such a low priority that I do not get around to buy new till I am thread bare.

    Love the Lord and do as you will.


  19. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    I am going to be quite simplistic here. My understanding is that Luther’s view might be looked at as:

    must be/must not be/may be

    The Reformed position might be looked at as:

    must be/must not be

    The principles of Christian liberty apply in both. Christian liberty though never extends beyond the rule of praxis which is Scripture. Neither can man add to or take away. But that reality applies equally to the church.

    Then there is this: Pursue peace with all men in as much as it is within you to do so. This expression draws the line between accommodation and compromise.

    I know that this is overly simplified, so don’t jump on me to heavily. I am trying to grasp at what appears to be a smokey doctrine. I mentioned Reisinger and Allen, but to tell you the truth, when I put it down, I was not so sure that I was any further along in understanding the application than I was to beging with.

  20. Matt Svoboda Says:


    I have officially decided that I like you and I think we agree for the most part. That was very simplistic, but you are right… It is a smokey doctrine. I am very concerned about this matter because I once caught myself falling heavily into proffessionalism… That is why I have deep convictions on this issue. I was going down a road I did not like…


  21. […] With the Christmas season officially just days away, we’ll undoubtedly begin to see quite a few churches putting on Christmas plays over the next month or so. Because the Regulative Principle of Worship has been a topic here of late, I’d thought it would be appropriate to briefly discuss the issue of drama and how it relates to the principle and the season. (If you are not familiar with the Regulative Principle of Worship, please briefly research the issue here and here in order to properly follow the line of thinking in this post.) […]

  22. […] Ninth Inning Rally? There have been several kind folks who have asked me about my “Ask Anything” question that, for about a month, stood at #1 on Mark Driscoll’s “Ask Anything” website. Some of you will remember that exactly a month ago, I bailed out on the project as I thought things had gotten way out of hand, and the comments on the question seemed to miss the point. During this period of time, I seldom visited the “Ask Anything” site and did not vote.  However, Andrew (here) and Nathan (here, here, and here) have been blogging it up, for which I am really grateful. The current vote total for my question stands (as of 12.08.07 at 7:00 a.m.) at 15,236, landing it at #10 on the top 20 list. For the question to make the cut, a spread of around 1,200 votes will have to be overcome. At this point, there are only six days left before the voting process closes. That means we are in the bottom of the ninth inning. Can the regulative principle rally and make it in the top 9? […]

  23. Sean McDonald Says:

    I must point out a couple historical inaccuracies in your last paragraph. Keach’s book was not written to refute exclusive psalmody (although he certainly opposed such a view in that book); it was written simply in order to promote the singing of God’s praise among the Baptists. Many Baptist churches had come to the conclusion that, since they could find no clear-cut NEW TESTAMENT command to sing in public worship, they therefore shouldn’t do so. (Flavel made side reference to this position a few times in his defense of infant baptism, Vindiciae Legis et Foederis.) John Gill took a very different interpretation of the texts under consideration (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) in his Discourse on Psalmody, his Body of Practical Divinity, and his Exposition on those texts. And as far as I know, Keach didn’t argue in defense of musical instruments; that innovation didn’t come in among the Baptists until about the mid-1800s. — I’ll not address the relation of the regulative principle to paedobaptism; obviously, we Covenanters believe that it falls within the bounds of that principle. Excellent post, otherwise.

  24. Andrew Says:


    I greatly appreciate your comment. When the Christian blog-o-sphere works as it should, we should constantly be engaged in “iron sharpening iron” activities. While I would never knowingly post factual inaccuracies, I am thankful for more knowledgeable readers that can check my ignorance in specific areas.

    In Christ,

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