First, let's make sure we understand the terms. Regulative worship relies upon Scripture to dictate specifically what is allowed in worship. If it isn't in the Bible, it cannot be in a worship setting. Normative worship looks at the other side of the coin. If it isn't prohibited in the Bible, then it is allowed in worship.
Which is correct, the regulative principle or the normative principle of worship?
Churches which choose regulative worship do not use musical instruments, for example, because there is no New Testament command to do so. Normative churches may use drama, music, and other expressions in worship because they are not forbidden in Scripture. Reformed churches are most often associated with regulative worship. Evangelical mega churches are most often associated with normative worship. At first glance, many liturgical churches, such as Episcopalian and Orthodox, seem regulative, but they include many facets not found in the Bible. Repetitiveness, formality, and familiarity does not equate with regulative worship.
Both regulative and normative churches claim they are following God's Word. We explore both more in-depth below, but for now let's address the question of which is correct.
All churches which follow the New Testament express worship a bit different than others. Most fall somewhere between the extremes of regulative or normative. When a church holds fast to regulative worship, it can become so attached to the "rules" that it misses the subject of worship—God Himself. This is pharisaical and results in judging people or groups of believers based on those rules (Matthew 7:1). When a church goes to the extreme on the normative side, it can express worldly values and fail to differentiate itself from the culture around it. Colossians 2:8 warns against being taken "… captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ." In an effort to be culturally relevant, extreme normative churches may also miss the subject of worship. Neither extreme is biblical.
Though the Bible does not give a clear statement as to whether regulative or normative worship is "right" there is some scriptural guidance. Some passages point to a selfless attitude when determining a God-honoring corporate course of action. Here are a couple:
"'All things are lawful,' but not all things are helpful. 'All things are lawful,' but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor" (1 Corinthians 10:23–24).
"For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Galatians 5:13–14).
When believers come together in church, the Bible says reading and teaching the Holy Scriptures (1 Timothy 4:13), preaching from the Bible (2 Timothy 4:2), singing in worship (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16), praying (Matthew 21:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:17), and celebrating the Lord's Supper and baptism (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26) are included in every healthy, God-honoring church.
Christians who gather together in church are to work together to exhibit God's will in their neighborhood, area, and around the world. The times they are together are "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:12–13). When we, as participants in our individual churches, are unified in Spirit (Ephesians 4:3–5), exhibit love for each other and others (Galatians 5:14), and follow Hebrews 10:24–25 ("And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."), then we are doing church according to the Bible, regardless of how regulative or normative we are.
Regulative churches believe God has instructed us how to worship Him. In 1 Corinthians 11:17–18, 33, and 14:23, Paul chastises the church in Corinth for becoming disorderly. Elsewhere, he rebukes groups of believers for their misdeeds in worship (1 Corinthians 11:20–22; 14:26–40). Clearly, there are wrong ways to corporately worship.
Regulative worship avoids activity that could be construed as worldly. Its focus on God and His Word tend to water down popular culture and even church fads. It cannot rely on the Bible, though, for specific guidance on a number of important factors in worship such as length of service, technology, stage height, and other miscellaneous factors that need to be decided.
Normative worship allows for cultural context in the presentation of the one true, unchanging gospel. This means a church service can be altered to appeal to the people who may not normally attend, and therefore be able to share about Jesus to those who may not hear it otherwise. This creative expression may attract others who believe the Bible is outdated and irrelevant. "… I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings" (1 Corinthians 9:22–23). However, such churches may lose a God-honoring focus in exchange for cultural attractiveness.
Rather than regulative worship or normative worship being the most correct, a biblical balance is necessary. The Bible should be our guide, and we should also seek the Holy Spirit's guidance in how to carry out the Word of God in the context in which we live.
What is Christian worship?
What does it mean to worship the Lord in spirit and truth?
Is there a biblical theology of worship?
What is the importance of corporate worship?
What makes for a truly biblical worship service?
Truth about Church