The regulative principle of worship is a Christian doctrine, held by some Calvinists and Anabaptists, that God commands churches to conduct public services of worship using certain distinct elements affirmatively found in Scripture, and conversely, that God prohibits any and all other practices in public worship. The doctrine further determines these affirmed elements to be those set forth in Scripture by express commands or examples, or if not expressed, those which are implied logically by good and necessary consequence. The regulative principle thus provides a governing concept of worship as obedience to God, identifies the set of specific practical elements constituting obedient worship, and identifies and excludes disobedient practices.
A broader sense of the term "regulative principle" is occasionally cited on matters other than worship, for example, to constrain designs of church government to scriptural elements. When applied broadly the term becomes indistinct from the principle of sola scriptura.
The regulative principle of worship is held, practiced, and vigorously maintained by conservative Reformed churches, the Restoration Movement, and other conservative Protestant denominations. Historic confessional standards stating the doctrine include the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the London Baptist Confession of Faith.
The regulative principle contrasts with the normative principle of worship, which teaches that whatever is not prohibited in Scripture is permitted in worship, as long as it is agreeable to the peace and unity of the Church. In short, there must be agreement with the general practice of the Church and no prohibition in Scripture for whatever is done in worship. The normative principle of worship is the generally accepted approach to worship practiced by Anglicans, Lutherans, Evangelicals, and Methodists.
As the regulative principle is reflected in Calvin's own thought, it is driven by his evident antipathy toward the Roman Catholic Church and her worship, and it associates musical instruments with icons, which he considered violations of the Ten Commandments' prohibition of graven images. On this basis, many early Calvinists also eschewed musical instruments and advocated exclusive psalmody in worship.
In 17th-century English church debates, the Puritans argued that there was a divine pattern to be followed at all times, which they called the ius divinum ("divine law", after a Latin term in the ancient Roman religion). This came to be known by the milder term "regulative principle" in English.
Those who oppose instruments in worship, such as John Murray and G. I. Williamson, argue first that there is no example of the use of musical instruments for worship in the New Testament and second that the Old Testament uses of instruments in worship were specifically tied to the ceremonial laws of the Temple in Jerusalem, which they take to be abrogated for the church. Since the 1800s, however, most of the Reformed churches have modified their understanding of the regulative principle and make use of musical instruments, believing that Calvin and his early followers went beyond the biblical requirements of the Decalogue and that such things are circumstances of worship requiring biblically rooted wisdom, rather than an explicit command. Despite the protestations of those few who hold to a strict view of the regulative principle, the vast majority of modern Calvinist churches make use of hymns and musical instruments, and many also employ contemporary worship music styles and worship bands.
The regulative principle was historically taken to prohibit the use of dance in worship. In 1996 reformed theologian John Frame broke the consensus and argued that the regulative principle does permit dancing, a view that was criticised by more conservative scholars.
While music is the central issue in worship debates, other matters have been contentious as well, including doxologies, benedictions, corporate confession of sin, prayer and the readings of creeds or portions of scripture. The presence of any one of these, their order and priority have ranged over various denominations.
John Calvin's Liturgy
The original Lord's Day service designed by John Calvin was a highly liturgical service with the Creed, Alms, Confession and Absolution, the Lord's supper, Doxologies, prayers, Psalms, the Lords prayer, Benedictions. The following are Orders of Service for the Lord's Day as designed by John Calvin (Collect is a short prayer; Lection is a Scripture reading; Fraction and Delivery are the breaking of the bread and distribution thereof, respectively):
Liturgy of the Upper Room