If you are from an older church denomination or tradition you may have heard reference to the normative principle of worship or the regulative principle of worship. The terms define two approaches to what can and should happen at a public service of worship. The regulative principle states that only what is commanded, exemplified or deduced from Scripture is appropriate in worship. If you can’t find it in the Bible it cannot be done. Opposed to that understanding is the normative principle of worship which states that anything not prohibited by the scriptures (or contrary to the peace and unity of the church) is allowable in the Bible. If you can’t find it condemned in the Bible it may be done. Although these two principles are usually limited to public worship, the underlying ideas reflect two common approaches to how we apply the bible. The one side says I can only do what the Bible condones. The other says I can do anything the Bible doesn’t condemn. Not only are both of them flawed as ultimate principles of interpretation, but no one consistently keeps either one.
Those who take a regulative approach are often too swift to condemn something as “unbiblical” just because the word or object doesn’t appear in the Bible. The mistake here is to be looking for specifics instead of deeper categories. I find the ladder of abstraction to be a helpful concept here. The ladder of abstraction recognizes that any word or concept is part of a larger group of words or concepts that belong together. You may remember from middle school science learning about the scientific classification system (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species). The principle is the same here. A term or concept in the Bible sometimes needs to be bumped up a rung on the ladder of abstraction so we can talk honestly about “what’s in the Bible”. No, Paul did not use the internet to promote the gospel, but he did use technology. No, the church in Acts did not meet in a “church building” but it did gather corporately in public spaces (Acts 2:46, 19:9). The second problem with a regulative principle approach is that it assumes the Bible takes a “boundary set” approach to life instead of a “center set” approach. The regulative approach sees the Bible as shaping the confines of acceptable Christian life whereas the Bible (although it does present walls) tends to focus instead on the center or goal of Christian life. Take for example Paul’s emphasis that love fulfills the law (Romans 13:8, 10; Galatians 5:14).
Those who take a normative approach are often too swift to claim the Bible’s silence on an issue. The Bible doesn’t have to deal with each and every behavior specifically to condemn or condone it. This misconception usually stems from confusion about the “laws” in the Bible. Many of the the laws of Israel for example are casuistic. They are easy to spot because they give an “if” “then” formula. These commands tell israelites what to do in particular circumstances. Unlike modern law codes that seek to use language that speaks to all possible circumstances in which the law can be applied (closing all loopholes), casuistic law provides examples of the application of a law to demonstrate how it should be applied in similar circumstances. Just because Moses says, “do not muzzle an OX while he’s treading the grain” doesn’t mean that it is OK to muzzle a horse while he does the same work. In fact, Paul discerns in this same command an underlying principle and applies it even to preachers working in the church (1 Corinthians 4:10-11). This approach can also be seen in the New testament in the vice lists of the apostle Paul. They are clearly not exhaustive because he adds language such as, “and things like these” (Gal. 5:21) Another mistake in the normative approach is to not recognize how often a positive command telling us what to do implies a bunch of aberrant behavior we are not to do. If I give you directions to my house and say, “Turn right at the big tree” you cannot arrive at the tree and say, “well he didn’t tell me I couldn’t go left!” What the Bible says is right by nature defines what is wrong.
These two approaches may seem worlds apart but they suffer from the exact same problem. The Bible is not an exhaustive rule book for what Christians can and cannot do. It does present principles that we must apply. It does give us examples and explanations to help give shape to those principles. It does operate authoritatively in our life and we must respond with obedience and submission. However to reduce this reality down to a lazy and overly simple rule of application will simply not do. When you question what you should and should not do, watch out for the traps presented here. Don’t excuse your sin because you’ve found a loophole in the law. Don’t be self righteous in your superficial sense of “being biblical”. Instead do the hard work of really thinking through what the Bible is saying and how you must respond.