Churches generally choose the elements of their congregational worship according to one of two competing principles. The normative principle holds that churches may use any worship element that Scripture does not forbid. The regulative principle holds that churches may use only those worship elements that Scripture requires (either by command or necessary implication).
The difference between these principles can be seen in a discussion between two teenagers deciding whether to use the family car without their parents’ permission. “Dad never said we could use the car,” the first teen cautions according to the regulative principle. “But he never said we couldn’t use the car either,” the second teen replies according to the normative principle.
The regulative principle is tied closely with the belief in the sufficiency of Scripture. If Scripture is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice, then churches should not try to go beyond the direction of Scripture in their worship. Furthermore, as discussed in Acceptable Worship, God does not find all worship acceptable. God rejects the irreverence of self-styled worship.
It is helpful to remember the difference between elements and forms of worship. Elements are what we do in worship; forms are how we do it. If a church lights candles as part of its worship, candles have become an element of worship. If a church lights candles so people can see their hymnbooks, candles become a form of worship. The regulative principle applies only to the elements of a church’s worship. Forms must be judged via biblical discernment.
Scripture permits churches to worship in at least fourteen ways: prayer (1 Tim 2, Col 4:2), praise (Col 3:16), preaching (2 Tim 4:2; 1 Tim 4:13), Scripture reading (1 Tim 4:13), the Lord’s table (Acts 2:41, 1 Cor 11), baptism (Matt 28:19-20), offering (2 Cor 8-9; 1 Cor 16), greeting (1 Thes 5:26), announcements (1 Cor 16:1), meals (Jude 1:12), missionary sending (Acts 13) and reporting (14:26), ordination (1 Tim 4:14), and discipline (1 Cor 5:4).
This list is not necessarily exhaustive, but anything added to the list would need to be a command or necessary implication of Scripture. The regulative principle prohibits the use of worship elements without biblical warrant. Churches have no biblical basis for using elements like drama and film in worship. This is not to say that these media are inherently wrong. Churches are free to have movie and drama nights outside of their regular worship. These media can also become forms to pursue other elements of worship. Sermons may take on dramatic elements in illustrations and through forms such as first-person narrative preaching. Missionaries may utilize film in presenting their reports. However, churches must restrict their worship to the elements that God requests.