Normative and Regulative Practice

Christianity is as wide as it is deep when considering the variations of worship expression. Discussions focused on the observable differences often centre on the extremes such as those seen between Roman Catholic liturgy and Pentecostal worship sessions. The opposing position of the pendulum makes it easy to discuss the differences while maintaining a sense of political correctness. James White, in his book Introduction to Christian Worship (2000) states,

Christian worship, like Christian ethics, is both a descriptive and a normative subject. Specific decisions have to be made locally in terms of people, places, and times, but they should be based on the experience of the whole Christian community throughout space and time. (p. 15)

This idea of descriptive (regulative) and normative principal has developed out of the era of reformation. Bob Kauflin explains

John Calvin and others developed what has come to be known as the regulative principle of worship. This is the conviction that anything we do in a public meeting of the church must be clearly commanded or implied in Scripture…Another approach is called the normative principle…Broadly stated, the normative principle holds that whatever Scripture doesn’t forbid is allowed. (2008, p. 154)

Difficulties develop when we start to explore the impact of such thought on persuasions that are not so easily discerned. For example, the Presbyterian church of Australia comes from the regulative position. This can be seen in such practices as the conservative pedagogical approach to the reading of scripture in corporate gatherings. However, on other topics of Christian practice such as the Eucharist (communion) the Presbyterian Church is forced into a normative approach. The scriptural instruction to “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” [emphasis mine] (1 Cor 11:25b, ESV), provides a platform for interpretation. In fact, John Calvin who birthed the regulative position advocated a weekly offering of communion in corporate gatherings, but today’s Presbyterian Church practices communion every six weeks or even quarterly.

Simply, Christian worship practice for the corporate gathering is rarely defined in scripture. It is this very nuance that has lead to today’s worship wars (Dawn, 1995; Morgenthaler, 2004; Parrett, 2005).

How does the regulative/normative discussion affect the practice of the Contemporary Worship Singer? We observe the effect in simple things such as dress standards and worship posture. We also see the influence of this discussion on such things as performance and celebrity culture. Take for example Dan Lucarini’s comment on the use of microphones. Lucarini says,

Put the microphones back on the stands [emphasis in original]. Take the mikes out of the hands of the singer’s. Handheld mikes encourage a performance style that emphasizes the performer, which often leads musicians to mimic secular entertainers in style and fashion and to desire music that is performance-orientated. (2002, p. 136)

Does it? Does holding a microphone in the hand ‘emphasize the performer’? I dare say that Lucarini approaches his worship practice from the regulative stand point. I venture to add that if one is to take Dan Lucarini’s comments to their natural end, church singers should not be using microphones at all. Indeed they should not even be on stage lest they draw attention to themselves. But can we be so dismissive of Lucarini’s comments? Warren Wiersbe writes, “If the worship service is platform–centered, then we will be only spectators at a religious performance” (2000, p. 88). And herein lies the challenge facing today’s Contemporary Worship Singer; to navigate a practice which has very few scriptural markers. The bible gives no indication to the use of microphones, nor does it provide clear guidelines for performance.

Does this then set the Contemporary Worship Singer adrift on a squally sea of indifference and personal preference? I think not, but it does require the Contemporary Worship Singer to give greater consideration to their task and resulting practice. A good starting point is to enquire as to a particular churches stance; regulative or normative. A general rule of thumb…if the pastoral staff are not aware of such terminology the church is almost certainly normative. Understanding a churches stance in this regard can help position the Contemporary Worship Singer to align both thought and deed.

Dawn, M. J. (1995). Reaching out without dumbing down: A theology for worship for this urgent time. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Kauflin, B. (2008). Worship matters: Leading others to encounter the greatness of God. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.
Lucarini, D. (2002). Why I left the contemporary christian music movement: Confessions of a former worship leader. Webster, NY: Evangelical Press.
Morgenthaler, S. (2004). Emerging worship. In P. A. Basden (Ed.), Exploring the worship spectrum: 6 views (pp. 215–230). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Parrett, G. A. (2005). 9.5 Theses on worship. Christianity Today, 49, 38–42.
White, J. F. (2000). Introduction to christian worship (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Wiersbe, W. W. (2000). Real worship: Playground, battle ground, or holy ground? (2 ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.


About Dr Daniel K. Robinson

Daniel is a freelance artist and educator. In 2011 Daniel completed his Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. He has served as the Australian Voice Association (AVA) National President (2018–20), National Vice President (2009–11) and National Secretary for the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing (2006–11) and was awarded the ANATS National Certificate of Recognition for service to the profession in 2012. Daniel is the principal Singing Voice Specialist for Djarts ( and presents workshops and seminars to church singers across Australia and abroad. He and his wife Jodie have three children and live in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

Posted on March 12, 2010, in Normative, Regulative, Worship Culture, Worship Wars and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the invite to comment Dan.

    A couple of thoughts:

    First, I respect your efforts to survey the thought and practice of the Pressy churches of Australia (PCA). You are obviously keen to think through a church culture which I understand is very different to your own heritage (according to the blog posts I have read on this site). However, I’m not sure some of the thinking in this post quite grasps the nuances of our heritage nor some of the divergences in our practice in more recent years.

    At the outset, I still maintain that I can’t agree with your use of the term ‘worship’. I understand that for your own reasons you may wish or need to restrict your use of the word ‘worship’ to corporate gatherings of believers in Sunday services. This may be the terms of reference for you doctorate, for example – I don’t know. But the point is not so much that I disagree with it but that a growing number of younger Presbyterian ministers would disagree with such a restrictive use of the term. For an increasing number of believers and leaders in the PCA, ‘worship’ involves a much more holistic understanding of what it means to honour God by serving the Lord Jesus. Let me, for the sake of clarity, summarise it with some verses from the start of Romans 12:
    “I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual {Or reasonable} act of worship.Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
    (Rom 12:1-2)
    (Incidentally, we hold that the source of that renewal of our minds, and the transformation of our whole lives, is the Word of God heard as the Spirit of God works in our hearts.)

    To employ a well-worn (and often abused) summary, we would consider ‘worship’ to be “all-of-life” and not just what we do on Sunday mornings (or evenings).

    I’m wondering if you’ve had the chance to read ‘Engaging with God’ yet?

    Second, and perhaps as a result of my first point, I’m not sure I agree with the quote and idea from James White at the beginning of your post.
    Again, the problem of how we define ‘worship’ means we are speaking different languages. If Christian worship is ‘all of life’, then Christian ethics is subsumed in that, rather than being some other separate category. So I think the discussion that follows from his quote just continues to blur categories. Let me give an example. If I wrestle with working out what it means to honour God at rugby training down at Easts, in a context where there are no other Christians, where crazy-bad ethical decisions are made, and seek to live a life that promotes the gospel amongst my fellow men… I am worshipping God. If you seek to serve God in the minute details of your teaching, by honouring and appropriately loving the people who you are voice training – even those who drive you nuts… then you are worshipping God. If you or I turn the TV off tonight and spend some time praying with and for our wives, perhaps for the first time in years… we are worshipping God. If we stop yelling impatiently at our children and start listening to them instead… we are worshipping God.

    Third, I’d love some clarification from you on your discussion on communion in the PCA.
    “In fact, John Calvin who birthed the regulative position advocated a weekly offering of communion in corporate gatherings, but today’s Presbyterian Church practices communion every six weeks or even quarterly.”

    I think you’ll find that Calvin did not develop the Regulative Principle but that his followers did (‘the others’ that Bob Kaughlin refers to) although Calvin’s theology obviously laid the foundation for it’s creation. Personally, I’m not sure Calvin would have signed up to the regulative principle. (It is amazing how joyful and free and alive the real John Calvin is in his writings, as opposed to today’s caricature of him which is more deserving of some of his followers). Can I recommend you have a read of Calvin’s Institutes one day (or year!) They are well worth the work. Perhaps I’m just being pedantic at this point…

    Anyway, regardless of what John Calvin would say, I’m wondering what the point of your statement is. What are you saying? That the PCA practice of communion every quarter is inconsistent with the regulative principle? If so, I agree. But I think that point is moot and increasingly irrelevant. (Again, I would stress that fewer and fewer PCA ministers subscribe to that principle.) Are you saying that the PCA is being inconsistent with 1 Cor 11? If so, ok – but please say so clearly, and why.

    If you are simply trying to say that the PCA is increasingly ‘normative’ in practice, ok. Understood. But the communion discussion doesn’t add to that argument: Scholars have, for centuries, argued on what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 11 regarding that ‘how often’ question. What’s ‘regulative’ to person X is irregular to person Y, and so forth.

    Finally, I wonder if the pursuit of a theology of worship-in-the-context-of-corporate-gathering is ultimately futile unless grounded in a healthy and much larger theology of church. This is not to detract from your thesis work. Rather, this is because so many aspects of the former discussion (Eg. whether to have a stage, microphones, songleaders at all, etc) flow out of larger theological questions about the church. What I am suggesting is that orthopraxy is determined by orthodoxy: Good practice (should!) flow from good doctrine.
    (Unfortunately, we Presbyterians have focussed on the latter and ignored the former, but the point remains.)
    If you can think through this concept, I think you will start to unlock a lot more of the cultural differences between the pentecostal churches of recent years and the reformed heritage to which the PCA still belongs – even if we are loosening up a little and slowly dragging ourselves into the 20th century….

    Your brother

    • Daniel K. Robinson

      Dave thanks for your considered and detailed response to this blog post. It excites me to know that my humble ramblings engender such thought and detailed comment.

      Firstly, your clarification as to the history of the development of the regulative stance is received with all due respect. Many books that I have read have awarded Calvin with the title of regulative founder, but I take your point that its development (regulative) has been bought about by the input of many people immediately around Calvin and thereafter.

      Secondly, as previously discussed…I understand your thoughts on the use of the term ‘worship’. I whole-heartedly agree; it is a ‘whole-of-life’ activity which should not be restricted to one hour on a Sunday morning. However, I also hold that the term ‘worship’ is readily used in the modern vernacular to discuss the corporate gathering. On this topic I have found chapter one of Carson’s ‘Worship by the Book’ excellent. I see no real challenge with allowing the word (worship) to discuss both individual and corporate worship, though I do understand the problems that it sometimes causes.

      You seem to centre a lot of your comment in relation to the Presbyterian Church (PCA). I must state outright, that my writings only seek to form an example…and as I presently attend a Presbyterian Church, I thought it would be useful to reflect on my own current denominational affiliation. I guess I could just as easily have used an Assemblies of God church or a Baptist Church to form a similar example. Next time I will balance the discussion so as not to present the suggestion of bias – lesson learnt. Really my comments, albeit providing specific denominational example, are broader than the idiosyncrasies of individual denominations. I must stress that this blog post is focussed on the Contemporary Worship Singer, of whom many don’t know the difference between regulative or normative. The individual singer often is not aware that this type of idea fuels ‘why they do what they do’. For my mind it is helpful to encourage singers to start thinking about these things – the ‘healthy and much larger theology’ to which you have referred.

      I would like to also stress that I am not making a comment as to the ‘rights’ or the ‘wrongs’ of either approach; regulative or normative. All Christians are on a journey. All denominations are on a journey. None have arrived.

      I like your comment about “Good practice flowing from good doctrine”. I am aware however that is it often the other way around, insomuch as doctrine (for some) tends to flow from practice – there’s another blog post in this alone!

      Finally, I am happy to report that I am halfway through Peterson’s ‘Engaging with God’. I am enjoying the read and I can understand why it has become a key text in the study of worship, especially for churches with a conservative bent. I have had the good fortune over the past 3-4 years as my studies have progressed to read many books and articles on the subject of worship and it is interesting to note how different the approaches to the topic are – often dependent on the writer’s background and inherent bias. I guess inevitably I will display through my own writing a bias…though I have yet to consciously settle exactly what that bias is.

      Again, thanks for the robust discussion…

  2. Dan
    Upon reflection, I forgot to say what a good thing it is to think about the regulative and normative approaches. This is helpful. Thank you for the thinking and for asking for our thoughts too.

  3. Only time for a quick comment unfortunately but I did want to thank you Dan for this discussion. I certainly agree with David’s thoughts (and your reply) about the need for us to understand the biblical emphasis concerning our consideration of worship not being restricted to what happens in the corporate gathering alone. In that regard, I find the regulative v normative debate of fairly limited value as both views are usually operating within this narrowly constructed ‘worship’ paradigm and so their shared assumptions outweigh their points of divergence. With regard to our corporate gathering, however, rather than a retreat to the regulative principle, I am keen for Evangelicals to explore how we can do justice to the teaching role envisaged for singing in Colossians 3:16. The integration of song selection with the Word read and preached should be receiving more attention than it does. Personally, I am unworried by singers holding mics (!)but more concerned about what is actually being sung, so that the Word of Christ might “dwell in us richly”. I think that is more honouring to Scriptures (the supposed aim of the regulative principle afterall) than a lot of the nitpicking debates often launched by those in the regulative camp.

    thanks again for the discussion


    • Daniel K. Robinson

      Thanks for leaving a comment Steve. I know how pressed for time you are currently – so thanks for giving the blog a read! Your comments have added to the discussion and give us further thoughts on which to dwell. In fact you have touched on the subject of my next post; i.e. the construction of song lyric and the importance it plays in the formation of theology. Stay posted!

      Incidently, I too am not concerned about the ‘holding of mics’, however I do think that there is something to be considered when contemplating our attitude towards ‘performance’ on the church platform. Perhaps hereinlies another blog post – “Is Performance Bad?”…all for another time.

      Dan 🙂

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