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The Regulative Principle vs. The Normative Principle

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The Regulative Principle vs. The Normative Principle

I believe that a huge number of disagreements between Christians come from a fundamental difference in the way we do Hermeneutics (the discipline of how we study, understand and interpret Scripture within its various literary genres and historical contexts).

Reformed theologians have created a couple of concepts to help them discuss worship within the church: The Regulative Principle and The Normative Principle. Typically they ONLY apply these principles to the discipline of Ecclesiology (how we do worship in the church), but I believe that the concepts behind them are useful for Christians as handles to help us get ahold of why we disagree on so many issues.

The Regulative Principle

This principle teaches, in essence, that we may only do that which God has actually prescribed in the Scripture. So in worship, we should not, for example, engage in skits for church, or “special music,” because these things are not prescribed by God as the function of believers as they meet in an formal setting for worship. (I’m not arguing for or against those things, just giving an example of a Regulative-type argument.)

The Normative Principle

This principle says that we may do anything that God does not strictly prohibit. If God doesn’t say NOT to sing from a hymn book, or use PowerPoint, or show a Batman movie, or have a weight-lifting team break bricks with their heads, etc., then it should be allowed in corporate worship.

As I said, I believe these distinctions reflect fundamental, epistemological differences regarding the way we read and apply God’s word to matters of life and practice as believers. Paul dealt with this tension in Romans 14 when he discussed Christian liberty. Some Christians feel they have liberty to do anything that God doesn’t outright forbid, and other feel they need to stay close to what is encouraged and directed in Scripture.

The Forbiden

“You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’–but not everything is good for you. You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’–but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 10:23, NLT) When Paul says here that “everything is permissible,” he CLEARLY DOES NOT mean  EVERYTHING, for in 1 Corinthians 6 and Galatians 5 he gives a list of behaviors which, if practiced as a lifestyle, with no turning and repentance, will keep you from eternal life. But within the spectrum of what God does not forbid (The Normative Principle) Paul is clear that you MAY do it.

It’s a Matter of Wisdom

Many professing Christians seem to enjoy walking on the edge of the cliff of The Normative Principle. They want to be as much like the world as they possibly can, and so they justify watching R-rated movies, playing M-rated video games, dressing seductively, going to parties, bars and rock concerts just like their non-Christian friends, etc. If someone ever tries to speak to them about the wisdom of their choices, or question the condition of their heart, they will instantly throw out terms like, “Don’t judge me!” or “That’s just your interpretation of Scripture!” or “You are being legalistic!”

We must remember, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.” (1 John 2:15,  NIV)

On the other hand, there are Christians who are legalistic and make lots of rules where God has not made them. They act as the lifestyle police for others, and try to hold others to their own personal standards. They believe that if God has not told us to watch TV, or go to movies, or listen to the radio, or whatever, that we shouldn’t be doing it. These people are the Pharisees of our day.

Rule of Thumb

One of the major rules of Hermeneutics is that we understand the more vague passages by viewing them through the lens of the very clear ones. So, while God does not say, “Do not smoke cigarettes.He DOES say don’t be drunk with wine. His Word also says, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say–but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’–but I will not be mastered by anything.”  (1 Corinthians 6:12, NIV) Addiction is immoral. ANYTHING that has mastered us is an idol that we worship and we are a slave to it. It stands between us and our relationship with God.

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. (Romans 6:12-14, NIV)

So as Christians, we begin with the Regulative Principle. We seek to align our lives as closely to the revealed will of God as we possibly can. However, we also need to give grace to those who want to dance on the edge of the Normative cliff. THEY ARE NOT SINNING. Perhaps they are being very unwise, but NOT SINNING.

The next area of discernment is in discerning what God has forbidden and what he has not. I’ve had people tell me that looking at pornography isn’t a sin, because God doesn’t specifically forbid it. This just shows an ignorance, or a rejection, of the Scriptures on their part. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:22, ESV) These folks are engaging in a liberal form of “legalism”; trying to live by the letter of the law but ignoring the spirit. These people should be reproved. “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” (Ephesians 5:11, NIV)

I hope these categories will be useful for you as you discuss differences of lifestyle with other Christians. The goal is to discover what the Bible actually teaches on these matters, and conform ourselves to God’s standards. If it is God’s command, we must all conform to it. If it is merely man’s interpretation, then we must show grace to others who are accepted by God.

Israel Wayne is Author and Conference Speaker and the Director of Family Renewal, LLC. He is also the Site Editor for www.ChristianWorldview.net.


“Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net”. By digitalart, published on 28 September 2011. Stock Image – image ID: 10059010

5 Responses to “The Regulative Principle vs. The Normative Principle”

  1. Thanks so much friends for such a noble task of equipping
    us in readiness of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ . God bless you big.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts. I try to remember always to come back to, “What does the Scripture say?” Did I say that, or did God say that? Big difference!

  3. Thanks for this article Israel!

    I think a huge point in favor of the Regulative Principle is the account of Nadab and Abihu. They offered strange fire on the altar and were killed immediately for it. Other versions read that this was “unauthorized worship.” So they were killed because they didn’t follow the prescribed manner that God gave to them for worship.

  4. Matt says:

    Normative principle seems to be missing the point and catagorized some christians follow the bible. Real christians simply live to serve God and has him as their influencein wverything they do. Thus Normative is missing the mark and therefor simply made to just be free will without reason,not faith backed at all. If christianity must be involved there cannot be a normative.the point of that religion is to do his work in everything you do.

    • Matthew says:

      The normative principle still involves worshiping God as He rightly deserves despite the fact that the principle does not follow directly what is used in worship. In terms of the writer’s argument, Wayne cites a Powerpoint presentation and a Batman movie may be used in corporate worship. A Powerpoint has many benefits than disadvantages in terms of a corporate worship service. The Powerpoint will allow the audience to know what the lyrics of the songs are, what are the pastor’s notes, and maybe the pastor is also using the presentation to stay on track himself. Since these are decent advantages, use a Powerpoint presentation.

      There is a problem with the Batman movie because it creates too many complications. A full length movie is just too long for a hour and half service. Most churches today only do an hour and half for the corporate sabbath observance, so a two and half hour movie would just be too long for that service. More than likely a five minute clip would be cut from the full length movie in order to show it to the congregation. If the showing of the clip is relevant and justified with the correct motive (i.e. the pastor will use to show a truth within the church), and the congregation does not object, then why should you not be able to show the movie? The clip will successfully show the audience something relevant to society at that moment.

      Another advantage through the use of Powerpoints and movies is that you have something for two different types of learners: you have an auditory and visual piece. The audience will be more likely to understand something now.

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