There have historically been two dominant approaches to the determination of worship forms and substance within Protestantism, known as the “normative principle of worship,” and the “regulative principle of worship.” Summarized briefly, the normative principle states that whatever the Scriptures do not forbid in worship may be permitted, and the regulative principle states that only that which is directly prescribed by the Scriptures may be allowed into a Christian worship service. The “regulative” camp has typically been comprised of the Reformed, Presbyterians, and the Puritans. They retain strong “anti-Catholic” sentiments which usually causes the rejection of anything smelling of Rome on the basis that since Scripture didn’t require it, it must therefore be tainted by or the product of Roman err. Lutherans have always been considered followers of the normative principle. We include many things in our worship services that aren’t directly required by Scripture, and we have maintained continuity with catholic tradition, so far as it rightly confesses Christ, for many reasons: It shows our solidarity with the historic church, leads to unity of expression, and these methods of tenacious Christo-centricity, Scripture saturation, and Gospel centeredness have proven their mettle over time by successfully transitioning the faith down through numerous generations.
However, for a salutary practice of the normative principle, it must be recognized that two things do not necessarily follow: First, no dancing bears. All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. It is not a sin to have a dancing bear in your worship service. It is just stupid. Inexcusably stupid. Second, it does not follow that just because we allow what Scripture does not explicitly forbid, that therefore what Scripture actually does prescribe has become irrelevant. A true “normative-ist” is free to add to the Biblical stipulations on worship, but he is not free to ignore what the Scriptures say when they do address the issue.
Therefore, in normative worship, we must use all that the “regulative-ists” apply (that what Scripture requires), and in addition we are free to go beyond that and incorporate other things, so long as they are beneficial. As adherents to the normative principle, Lutherans have been reluctant to prescribe specific laws dictating what every Sunday service must look like. But this does not give us the freedom to ignore what the Bible does in fact require.
This is why, as a vocational church musician, I have a hard time taking what most people describe as “contemporary worship” very seriously, either as a faithful expression of Lutheran worship, or as something that is good for the church. The Bible doesn’t often speak directly to the specific details of what we should be doing on Sunday mornings, but when it does, “contemporary worship” usually ignores, or at least minimizes these instructions.
Before you write this off as a one-sided rant, consider that I currently lead what many would describe as “contemporary worship” on most weekends. President Harrison was, in my opinion, dead right when he said that instrumentation is NOT the problem. I have a background in Evangelicalism with a Charismatic approach to worship, and have participated in leadership for contemporary worship at Lutheran and Evangelical congregations large and small, from blended to traditional to “contemporvant”. I know from whence I speak when I say that a wholesale endorsement of these things is most certainly not good, right, or salutary for the church today. These are some of the reasons I have left most of that circus behind. I’m not talking about a black/white distinction where all traditional stuff is automatically good, and all new stuff is automatically bad. I recognize exceptions to every rule, and will give examples of them as I am able.
The purpose of this series is to examine the overarching tendencies of contemporary worship through the lens of scripture in order to determine from the Word of God whether the common practice of it is indeed something good for the church. In the following articles, we will examine that which God has instructed us to do in worship, to consider what obedience to this looks like, and examine whether particular approaches to worship are faithful in this regard in a way that benefits the church, that we may be steadfast in worship.