Imagine for a moment that you were given free rein over all the things that happen at your church: the music, the prayers, the Sunday services, the Lord’s Supper—everything we might think of under the umbrella of worship.
What would you do? What changes, if any, would you make?
Think about the music. Too many hymns? More contemporary? More psalms? Only psalms? How about the practice of the Lord’s Supper? Too frequent? Not frequent enough? Should the bread be leavened or unleavened?
Consider what changes you would make, and ask yourself: Why? What are the limits on what should happen in church? When do we have freedom? Where has the Word of God already made the decision for us? Who gets to decide what we may do, must do, and must not do in church?
Regulative and Normative
These questions introduce a debate sometimes framed as the “regulative” versus the “normative” principle of worship. Simply put, when it comes to the question of what we may do in corporate worship, the regulative principle says to only do that which God’s Word expressly commands. The normative principle says we should avoid what God’s Word expressly forbids.
Those who practice the regulative principle recognize a distinction between “elements” and “circumstances” in worship. Elements are those parts of the service that the Bible expressly commands: prayer, the reading of God’s Word, singing, and sacraments.
But there are also circumstances—features of a service such as the time of day or the meeting place. These are shaped by local conditions and are matters for practical judgment. The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that some matters related to worship, while not expressly commanded, are “ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”
The regulative principle says to only do that which God’s Word expressly commands. The normative principle says we should avoid what God’s Word expressly forbids.
There can be surprises here. The Anglican Church, with its tradition of common prayer and orderly worship, is an expression of the normative principle. Anglicanism is reformed Catholicism. Its practices come from a process of sifting through the forms of the pre-Reformation church, removing what was contrary to God’s Word, and keeping the elements they deemed helpful (even if there wasn’t a specific verse for them).
Parts of traditional Pentecostalism, on the other hand, could reflect a version of the regulative principle. They take the references to tongues and prophecy from Bible passages such as 1 Corinthians 12–14 as an indication of what ought to happen in church—not merely a description of what once happened in a church.
Strange Fire Before the Lord
A passage that inevitably comes up in this debate is the story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1–3:
Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: ‘Among those who approach me I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’” Aaron remained silent.
The incident looks like a slam dunk for the regulative principle. Leviticus is the worship manual of the Old Testament. And what do Nadab and Abihu do wrong? They bring “unauthorized fire” before the Lord, “contrary to his command.” They introduce an element into corporate worship not expressly commanded by God. And they are judged for it.
Does Leviticus 10:1–3 settle the matter for us?
My answer, for what it’s worth, is yes, no, and sort of. At some level, the regulative principle has to be correct. How could it not be? God chooses how God is worshiped. Worship is not self-actualization. Worship is not self-expression. The moment we say, “The way I like to worship is . . .” we’ve already given the game away. Wrong question and wrong answer. Only God gets to regulate his own worship.
Jesus and New Covenant Worship
This must apply to the New Testament too. Can we believe that post-Jesus, God has become disinterested in how people worship him? Surely not! But I’d argue that the regulative principle of the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus, not by the church. A church is not the tabernacle, a pastor is not a priest, the Lord’s Supper is not a sacrifice. These are all things that Jesus alone fulfilled.
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus tabernacled with us when John says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Jesus referred to his own body as the temple when he said, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19).
Jesus also told the Samaritan woman at the well that “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:21–23).
He has told us exactly how to worship him. That is, through Jesus, in the Spirit, and in truth.
In the new covenant, God hasn’t become more permissive in his worship. He has told us exactly how to worship him. That is, through Jesus, in the Spirit, and in truth. The regulative principle of the Old Testament stands. Yet I’d argue it’s not applied to what we do in church, but to what we do through Jesus.
Your Worship Is Your Life
A second way the New Testament applies Old Testament worship language to new covenant believers is by teaching that our whole lives are lived for God. The apostle Paul said, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercies to offer your bodies a living sacrifice. . . . This is your true and proper worship” (Rom. 12:1).
What is proper worship? For us to give our whole selves to him! We’re called to be the whole burnt offering to which the offerings of the Old Testament pointed.
God gave up his Son for us; we give ourselves to him. That’s the worship God requires.
Discerning the Holy and the Common
The basic principle of Old Testament worship was to discern between the holy and the common, but Leviticus isn’t the only place where people die in judgment during corporate worship. It also happens in Corinth, at the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:30).
What holy thing have they profaned? It’s not the bread and the wine. It’s the people!
Why? What holy thing have they profaned? It’s not the bread and the wine. It’s the people! “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Cor. 11:29).
I believe they’re in trouble in this passage because they have failed to discern the body of Christ in the people with whom they were sharing the supper. Some were getting drunk and gorging themselves; others were going hungry. And by doing this they were failing to treat their brothers and sisters in Christ as holy. Paul instructed them: Wait for your brother and sister. Treat them as holy. Discern in them the body of Christ.
Many years ago, I was a student minister in a church in the inner west of Sydney. It was a wonderful church with a rich variety of members, including several who came from the local men’s shelter. One of them, Russell, was nonverbal, profoundly disturbed, and smelled as if he went a long time between showers. But he was always there. Often, I would kneel next to him at the communion rail to receive the bread and the wine.
The smell was powerful. The slurping from the common cup was confronting. The mumbling was distracting. What was my job in that moment? It was not to block Russell out of my mind and focus on the holiness of the bread and the wine. Rather, it was to see Russell, to rejoice in the fact that I got to share bread and wine with him. It was to treat Russell according to what he really was—a fellow member of the body of Christ, and therefore holy.
God’s Fire Continues
God’s fire has not gone out in Jesus. The book of Hebrews tells us that “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). He is white-hot with holiness. And he fiercely protects his holy things: holy things like Russell, holy things like all those who have been made clean by the blood of Jesus.
That’s why we should approach God with reverence and awe, and also move toward him in worship—not because the fire of his holiness has gone out, but because we have been made holy in Jesus.