The Regulative principle of worship in Christian theology teaches that the public worship of God should include those and only those elements that are instituted, commanded, or appointed by command or example in the Bible. In other words, it is the belief that God institutes in Scripture whatever he requires for worship in the Church, and everything else should be avoided.
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, so long as it is agreeable to the peace and unity of the Church. In other words, there must be agreement with the general practice of the Church and no prohibition in Scripture for whatever is done in worship.
The regulative principle of worship is generally practiced by the conservative Reformed churches and in other conservative Protestant denominations, and it finds expression in confessional documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith and the London Baptist Confession of Faith. The normative principle of worship is the generally accepted approach to worship outside of Reformed circles as practiced by Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, and independent Bible Churches.
Some of the "regulative principle" groups reject the use of musical instruments in worship on this ground . Such groups may argue that there is no example of musical instruments for worship in the New Testament, and/or that the Old Testament uses of instruments in worship were specifically tied to the ceremonial laws of the Temple in Jerusalem (like the Old Testament sacrificial system), and are not applicable in the church. Many early Calvinists eschewed musical instruments in worship, and this practice typified Presbyterians, and other Reformed and Calvinist churches. In recent times, since the 1800s, most of these churches no longer exclude instruments.
The Regulative principle in Calvin
"Moreover, the rule which distinguishes between pure and vitiated worship is of universal application, in order that we may not adopt any device which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunctions of him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have him to approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed. For there is a twofold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish his authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions. Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command. Justly, too, does he, in express terms, define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke his anger against us." (John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church)
- "A Fresh Look at the Regulative Principle", an essay in PDF by John Frame
- "The Regulative Principle", an essay in PDF by Richard L. Pratt, Jr. on the modern formulation and application of this historic principle
- The Regulative Principle in Worship: A brief article by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
- The Regulative Principle: Scripture, Tradition, and Culture: An Email Debate Between Darryl Hart and John Frame