The Informed Principle of Worship
What is commanded in Scripture regarding the public worship of God is required; whatever is prohibited is forbidden; and whatever is not forbidden is permissible. This is a relatively new term to describe what is an older practice of worship (in principle).[ii] Steve M. Schlissel of Messiah’s Covenant Community Church in Brooklyn, New York has especially actively promoted it. The Informed Principle of Worship is something of a compromise that tries to strike a balance between the Normative Principle on one hand, and the Regulative Principle on the other. Schlissel claims that both the Normative and Regulative “propositions fail to meet the test of tota scriptura,” adding further “What is not forbidden might be permitted. It depends.”
The Normative Principle of Worship
Whatever is not forbidden in the Scriptures may be lawfully used in the public worship of God. If a practice is not explicitly contrary to God’s Law and has not been forbidden in the Word, then it may be employed in worship. For example, since the Bible does not specifically forbid putting on a play/drama, interpretive dance, or pledging the flag, then these are acceptable to do as a form of worship under the Normative Principle. Anglican pastor Greg Goebel boils down the Normative Principle to “seeking to obey Scripture, honor our past, and worship him in Spirit and in Truth.”[iii]
On the one hand, the Normative Principle may encourage creativity of practice and expression, as well as appear more relaxed and spontaneous. On the other hand, it opens the door to the inventions and imaginations of men that cannot be supported by Scripture and yet cannot excluded because they are not specifically addressed (forbidden) by Scripture.
The Regulative Principle of Worship
Whatever is commanded in the Scriptures for the public worship of God is required, and whatever is not commanded is prohibited. This principle accepts that only God and not man ordains how he will be worshipped. The law of exclusion is a complementary idea, noting that the specification of one thing in worship is the prohibition or exclusion of every other thing that is different from it.[iv]
The Regulative Principle of Worship is not man putting blinders on God, but God putting a bit in man's heart. God knows and looks upon our hearts, but we do not know our hearts. God should be not worshipped by the imaginations and inventions of men, but according to the word of God contained in the Scriptures. Or, as the Second London Baptist Confession puts it, “…the acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will…”[v] Affirmed elements set forth in Scripture – such as preaching, praying, baptizing, giving, communing – are therefore the natural and biblical elements of worship. That which God introduces and not man is all that should bind and compel the conscience of any worshipper.
[i] If you are aware of others, I am interested to know of them.
[ii] While the term is acceptable, it is pejorative in the sense it implies the other two views are uninformed.
[iii] The Anglican tradition says the Normative Principle teaches that worship “should retain traditions that have a long history, wide use, and are not forbidden or contradicted by Holy Scripture.”
[iv] For example, when God specifies gopher wood, he excludes oak wood.
[v] The Regulative Principle relates specifically to spiritual elements of worship that God requires by command, precept, or example. It is not about wearing togas because they did so in first-century Rome, or whether we arrive at the meetings on foot, horseback, train, or automobile. There are also things that have to do with the elements of the gathered meeting, either directly or that facilitate it. The printed Bible, from which we read, preach, and teach. The communion table. The hymnbooks. The box where the offerings are placed. Some not as important or necessary as others. The pews on which we sit. The pulpit on which the Bible rests. Lights help us to see the Bible and the hymnbooks, and a little HVAC can contribute to the comfort of being there in extreme temperatures. However, those are not part and parcel of spiritual worship. We can sing from memory, sit on the floor, and solace ourselves with a funeral parlour fan.