The fifth and final reason we don’t disciple has been bubbling underneath everything I’ve written so far: our churches are too often ashamed of the gospel and therefore assume the gospel.
Not long ago, I was invited to speak at a church near London. Numbers had been dropping, so the church was going to significant lengths to attract young people. They’d added another service at a more convenient time, they were getting in guest speakers from all over the country, they were spending money on marketing, and they had paid a worship band to come from 100 miles away.
I got chatting to a delightful congregation member about the reasons for their flagging, elderly attendance. “This may be a sensitive question,” I said, “but how’s the preaching of the gospel going?” His response came with a knowing and faintly embarrassed smile. “Well,” he said, “we have to give people what they want.”
It brought to mind the words of Martin Lloyd-Jones: “If we cannot preach the church full [with the gospel], let them stay empty.” Why? Because a church that is made full by methodology, marketing, or music is not a church that is full of disciples.
It’s true that these things may bring short-term, numerical increase. But, as Mark Dever writes:
…the growth that we find talked of and urged and prayed for in the New Testament isn’t simply numerical growth. If your church is more crowded with people now than it was a few years ago, does that mean that yours is a healthy church? Not necessarily. (Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 201-202)
“Growth” without the regular, faithful teaching of the gospel is growth without depth. Ocean-wide and puddle-deep. If we want depth as well as breadth, there’s no substitute for gospel-saturated preaching and conversation.
One final point. There is a danger that even self-proclaimed “gospel-hearted” or “gospel-centered” churches keep the gospel so close to the heart, so close to the center, that it is actually hidden.
We may name-check Jesus, mention “the gospel,” and quote God’s Word. But we may never get as far as actually reminding each other who Jesus is, what he has done, and what that means for us. Fatally, we may assume the gospel instead of actually proclaiming it.
I hope it’s just me, but I’ve seen this again and again in churches which identify themselves as Bible-believing and evangelical. On a recent vacation in Wales, I had the privilege of joining a small group of believers huddled in a large and ornate congregational church. The welcome was warm and almost apologetic: “We don’t seem to get many young people these days, I’m afraid.” The pastor spoke from 1 Timothy 3 about the deceitfulness of wealth. What was said was faithful. But, oh, what was left unsaid.
D. A. Carson, writing in Basics for Believers, makes this sage observation:
In a fair bit of Western evangelicalism, there is a worrying tendency to focus on the periphery. [My] colleague…Dr. Paul Hiebert…springs from Mennonite stock and analyzes his heritage in a fashion that he himself would acknowledge is something of a simplistic caricature, but a useful one nonetheless. One generation of Mennonites believed the gospel and held as well that there were certain social, economic, and political entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel, but identified with the entailments. The following generation denied the gospel: the “entailments” became everything. Assuming this sort of scheme for evangelicalism, one suspects that large swaths of the movement are lodged in the second step, with some drifting toward the third.
This is not a subtle plea for … a gospel without social ramifications. We wisely reread the accounts of the Evangelical Awakening in England and the Great Awakening in America and the extraordinary ministries of Howell Harris, George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers, and others. We rightly remind ourselves how under God their converts led the fights to abolish slavery, reform the penal code, begin trade unions, transform prisons, and free children from serving in the mines. All of society was transformed because soundly converted men and women saw that life must be lived under God and in a manner pleasing to him.
But virtually without exception these men and women put the gospel first. They reveled in it, preached it, cherished Bible reading and exposition that was Christ-centered and gospel centered, and from that base moved out into the broader social agendas. In short, they put the gospel first, not least in their own aspirations. Not to see this priority means we are not more than a generation away from denying the gospel. (26-28, my emphasis)
If Carson’s observation is true, we not only have a responsibility to our current congregation, but also to future congregations.
In the 19th century, preacher Charles Spurgeon identified a similar issue:
I believe that those sermons which are fullest of Christ are the most likely to be blessed to the conversion of the hearers. Let your sermons be full of Christ, from beginning to end crammed full of the gospel. As for myself, brethren, I cannot preach anything else but Christ and His cross, for I know nothing else, and long ago, like the apostle Paul, I determined not to know anything else save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
People have often asked me, “What is the secret of your success?” I always answer that I have no other secret but this, that I have preached the gospel,—not about the gospel, but the gospel... (The Soul Winner, 35, my emphasis)
Brothers and sisters, in our discipling of others—whether from the pulpit, or in everyday conversation—are we merely assuming the gospel? Do we speak about the gospel without actually explaining what it is? Are we, functionally at least, ashamed of it?
The deep, wide discipleship we long for in our churches will only come when we stop assuming the gospel, and actually proclaim it.
Barry Cooper is the author or co-author of Christianity Explored, Discipleship Explored, One Life, The Real Jesus, and If You Could Ask God One Question. He blogs at Future Perfect, Present Tense and is helping to plant Trinity West Church in Shepherd's Bush, London.
Does the regulative principle demand exclusive psalmody?
I’d argue that the Psalms should be the backbone of the sung element of the church’s worship.
The Psalms are the word of God to man and the word of man in response. Fulfilled in Christ, Christ himself bases his message of grace upon them (Lk. 24:44-9). The Psalms are wide-ranging in content and immensely powerful. I almost always choose at least one Psalm for every service I plan.
But what about the argument that the sung element of church worship should consist exclusively of psalms?
This argument is based on a certain application of the regulative principle of Scripture, in which the principle is taken to mean that only what is explicitly commanded in Scripture is permitted. Since there is no explicit command to sing uninspired songs, the thinking goes, church worship must not include them. How does this position address the distinction between psalms and two other forms of music in Paul’s command to “address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18)? These three words are understood either as a reference to three parts of the Psalter, or as a hendiadys, where two or more expressions are used to mean one thing.
However, where in Scripture do we find an explicit requirement that churches must only do what is explicitly commanded? If Scripture requires explicit support for worship practices, we must assume it propounds the principle explicitly. Where in Scripture is the church explicitly commanded to sing from the book of Psalms and only the Psalms? What about hymnic passages in both the Old Testament and the New? Why are doxologies and other expressions of praise to be found in Scripture apart from the book of Psalms?
I’d argue that this Psalms-only principle simply isn’t found in Scripture, and that the argument in its favour also rests on a misguided interpretation of the regulative principle. Let’s examine that second point first.
CLARIFYING THE REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE
In order to clarify what the regulative principle does and doesn’t mean, let’s consider the Westminster Assembly’s classical statement of it, as well as the historical context of that statement.
The Westminster Assembly’s View of the Regulative Principle.
The regulative principle of worship is found in WCF 21:1. The relevant portion reads:
But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.
This must be assessed in terms of the Assembly’s doctrine of Scripture. In 1:6, the Confession states that the whole counsel of God is either set down explicitly in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence can be deduced from Scripture. The regulative principle, as expressed by the Assembly, does not reduce the Bible to a command manual whereby worship is to be shaped exclusively by explicit commands.
Historical Context of the Regulative Principle
The historical background in England significantly impacted the Assembly and its grasp of the regulative principle. Draconian regulations governed worship in the Church of England. Parliamentary legislation specified that all ministers were bound to use the services as written in The Book of Common Prayer. If a minister was convicted of willful disobedience by a court of law, he would forfeit all spiritual benefices and be imprisoned for six months. On a second offence, one year’s imprisonment was the penalty. For a third offence, he would suffer life imprisonment. If any person wrote or spoke against the Book, on a third offence he was to forfeit all goods and suffer life imprisonment.
Viewed in this context, WCF 21:1 is more liberating than restricting. Bound in its worship to the direction of the Word of God alone, the church is freed from the dictates of man, whether these are contrary to the Word or simply additional to it. The yoke of imposition is lifted!
Practice of the Reformed Churches to 1643
While the Confession refers to the singing of Psalms in 21:5, is this prescriptive of what is required or descriptive of what was currently practised? If the former, how are we to understand what the Assembly meant by “Psalms”?
Nick Needham has shown that the Assembly’s understanding of “psalms” was wider than the Psalms of David. Other songs were commonly accepted in Reformed church worship, although the Psalms were the main diet. He finds support from Richard Baxter, Zwingli and Bullinger, Calvin, and the French, German, and Dutch Reformed churches. The English Protestants in Geneva were not opposed to singing other Scriptural passages in worship, while the standard English Psalter by Sternhold and Hopkins contained a considerably greater number of non-Davidic songs and was definitive until 1696. While in Scotland, exclusive psalm singing was the rule, before the Assembly the Scots used the Gloria patri.
The upshot of all this is that the classical statement of the regulative principle in the Westminster Confession does not restrict corporate singing to the Psalms. Nor was exclusive psalmody the practice of Reformed churches across Europe at that time.
BIBLICAL ARGUMENTS AGAINST EXCLUSIVE PSALMNODY
So that’s some historical perspective. Here now are two more direct biblical and theological arguments against exclusive psalmody.
The Scope of Revelation
First, the Psalms do not explicitly reflect the full range of trinitarian revelation: neither the incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session of Christ, nor the gift of the Spirit to the church. It is strange that a principle requiring explicit biblical support for worship practices should require those practices to refer to the central truths of biblical revelation only implicitly. For this reason, if no other, the Psalms cannot be the sole diet of the church. If they were, that would truncate its worship and producing an imbalance in its theology.
What Exclusive Psalmody Forbids and Requires
Further, if you’ll allow me a reductio ad absurdum, consider what exclusive psalmody forbids and requires. Exclusive psalmody forbids the church to sing “Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts,” “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” and “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” However, it is explicitly commanded to sing “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” and Psalm 109:6-20 with its outpouring of curses and vituperation.
STILL, BETTER ALL PSALMS THAN ALL CHORUSES
So, in sum, I would argue that churches are not required to sing Psalms exclusively. However, if it’s a choice between exclusive psalmody and contemporary worship choruses, exclusive psalmody is a far better option.
Recent worship trends have given evangelical churches unbalanced content, appalling music, and often erroneous sentiments. The linear nature of Judaeo-Christian psalmody and hymnody has been replaced by cyclical repetition. In comparison, despite its untenable claims, I would far rather have exclusive psalmody.
Robert Letham (PhD University of Aberdeen), a Presbyterian minister of 25 years pastoral experience, is Director of Research and Senior Lecturer in Systematic and Historical Theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology.
Rob Rienow addresses two serious, common problems in his helpfully brief book, Reclaiming the Sufficiency of Scripture. The first is that too few people and churches believe the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. The second is that too many people and churches say they believe it but fail to practice it.
Rienow’s survey of church history and contemporary practice adequately defines and illustrates both problems. His reminders of the deceptiveness of the human heart demonstrate the folly underlying our assumption that we can improve on biblical truth and methods. His reflections on relevant biblical passages construct a positive alternative that I would love to be able to recommend to pastors and lay leaders.
Unfortunately, I cannot. Though the foundation of Rienow’s work is commendable, its weaknesses are significant enough that the book will either be unpersuasive or create new problems. Rienow’s proposal will create those new problems because it simply doesn’t take into account enough of the biblical data.
Click here to continue reading.
You know how the apostle Paul sometimes boasted about his churches (see 2 Cor. 9:2; 2 Thes. 1:4; cf. Phil. 2:16). Will you let me boast for just a moment?
This morning I caught the bus and then the subway which take me to the office. Sarah, a member of the church, shared the same commute. Along the way, she told me about the work she and her husband did over the weekend caring for a homeless woman. They housed her for a night. They took her to collect her things from a troublesome man's house. They talked gospel throughout.
Stepping out of the subway, I stepped into a coffee shop for a scheduled meeting with Jason. Jason proceeded to tell me about he's been sharing the gospel with two co-workers. One of them has been coming to our church recently, and is grateful for how patient Jason is with him. The other co-worker hasn't taken that step yet, but he's interested, too. Jason and I then talked about how we could better love our wives.
Arriving at work, I found an email from Drew to me and several other brothers. In the email Drew shared about his quiet time this morning in Hebrews 11 and several George Herbert poems and how they had encouraged his "poor dejected soul" (a Herbert phrase).
Just another morning in the life of my church--and, I trust, in many other churches around the globe. This is the new normal for the saints. We pour out our lives for the downtrodden. We share the gospel. We make ourselves vulnerable in our relationships. What non-Christian, in the first two hours of his morning, gets to experience three life-giving conversations like these? Three testimonies of God's transforming grace?
Okay, it's really the Lord I'm boasting in (2 Cor. 10:7; Phil. 3:3). Can you not see how he is transforming our churches into the new humanity?! How he is turning our congregations into embassies of light?! Persevere, brother pastors. And give him praise for the supernatural work he has already begun to do in your congregation. We'll all get there together, and celebrate one day soon!
Follow Jonathan on Twitter.
One Sunday after our church service, the senior pastor extended his hand to greet my dad, one of his fellow elders. Yanking his hand away, my dad jetted past him. I sometimes question why God let that instance from six years ago sear my memory. Frankly, I don’t know.
But I do know that like this memory, God used my dad’s excommunication for good. I hope this testimony shows that. I hope it encourages churches to not shirk what God requires for their good and, most importantly, for his name’s sake (see Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5).
I suspect many pastors fear obeying Jesus’ command in this area because they dread the strife that could result. Judging by what happened with my dad and the reactions from my church, my family and myself, I understand that fear. But I hope this testimony will help you overturn that fear and embrace faithful obedience to Jesus’ commands.
I love my dad. Though I’ll reference hard memories, I won’t dwell on his sin here.
Given problems in my family at the time, some church members questioned if my dad should still serve as an elder (see 1 Tim. 3:4). He eventually left the church because he didn’t think these charges were properly handled. Refusing to reconcile with my church and my family, my dad, one of our church’s longest-serving and most-beloved elders, was eventually excommunicated.
The church was split over my dad's discipline. Some members argued that it was right, some argued it was wrong, and others ranged between these two ends. Disunity struck my family, too. Some of us were confused, others angry. As life went on, God brought my siblings to different schools and places. With some of them went resentment for the church and the situation.
I—the baby among five children—was confused. I had no idea what excommunication was. I blamed it for splitting my family and my church. To me, church discipline wasn’t just cold, harsh and unexpected: it was disastrous. It was an iceberg; my family and my church were the Titanic.
A DISASTER REDEEMED
Years have now passed, and today I can tell you that the church made the right decision. I can also tell you some ways God used the decision for good.
Through my dad’s discipline, my local church protected Christ’s name for its members and the watching world.
Through my dad’s discipline, God drew most of my family members closer to himself.
Through my dad’s discipline, my desire to pastor a local church continues to grow.
MY LOCAL CHURCH: ALL HANDS ON DECK
Church discipline is painful. Though I’m tempted to stew on the negatives, I’m humbled when I reflect on how the church came together to support my family during this time. Because we were church members, we were a part of the church’s family; we were one body. Though not always perfectly timed or expressed, church members did their best to love my family. They mourned with my mother and prayed for our family—including my dad. Though my family and my church were sinking, all hands were on deck.
This unity through suffering matched the picture Paul paints of the church in 1 Corinthians 12:26. Even though this painting looked messy when it began, it’s turning out masterfully. Indeed, church discipline drove this church to her master, Christ, for refuge. My dad’s sin spread division through the church like cancer. God’s corrective surgery—which in this case was formal church discipline—removed that spreading division. As with any surgery, wounds ran deep and scars remain. But ultimately that local body, now healed and strengthened, better displays God’s holiness, love, and name.
God didn’t only bless my church family through my dad’s discipline. An example from my biological family shows that.
MY FAMILY: REPENTANT & REJECTING
Through my dad’s discipline, God matured the godly women and men in my family. They now share a stronger love for God and his church. By bringing them through this trial, God allowed most of my family members’ faiths to be proved genuine. He let them experience the ministry of the churches they currently submit to. He taught them to trust his faithfulness.
One of my sisters told me how she felt about my dad’s discipline for a couple of years after the fact. With her eyes locked on mine, she said, “Isaac, I was mad at God, and I hated the church.”
Yet in his goodness, God led her to repentance by bringing her to another healthy local church. At first, she felt as though she could not trust any church, and though she joined, she kept a wrongful distance from the church. But for years that congregation rallied, spurring her on in the faith, just as Hebrews 10:24 calls us to.
Where she once saw judgment in the local church, my sister now sees redemption. She now serves that church as a deaconess. How good is the Father who took his church-hating daughter, used the church to restore her trust in the church, and now has her serving this church so that through it the gospel may more brightly shine.
I wish I could say my dad’s discipline led to all of my family members’ salvation, but that’s not the case. Some of them still feel wounded by the church because they do not see what it did as loving. Instead of praising God for what happened, they mistakenly blame and reject his church. They seem far from God.
But he remains faithful, and my own desire testifies to that truth.
MY DESIRE: A RIGHT REFLECTION
God used this discipline to show me that elders are precious gifts to local churches. In the few years after the discipline, God led me to godly men in other healthy local churches. These men taught me the value of the gospel and the dire importance of rightly representing it corporately and individually. Using my dad’s failures in church leadership, God showed me the immense potential an elder has to either reflect or deface Christ’s love for the church. Having seen it defaced, I hope that I—by God’s grace—will rightly reflect Christ’s love and humility. I hope I will always have elders surrounding me who do the same.
A BETTER SEARING
I opened with a memory that seared my brain. But it’s a different searing that my dad and I enjoy now. Every month, we grub at a seafood joint. We love seared shrimp.
This past month, we talked about reconciling with the church. Now we’re studying through Scripture together to see what this should look like. Though it’s just a step in the right direction, how can I doubt our God’s faithfulness at this point?
Isaac Adams, a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, works as Administrative Assistant for Together for the Gospel and CROSS conference. You can follow him on twitter.
“What Would Jesus Do?” is a slogan young Reformed types love to hate. But what if it’s a question more of us should be asking?
Gospel-centered-everything is quickly becoming a dominant refrain among younger and not-so-younger evangelicals. In part this is a reaction to the perceived moralism of the previous generation, whether a hardline fundamentalist variety or its squishier evangelical cousin. Two prominent threads in this fabric are gospel-centered holiness and gospel-centered preaching, the latter fueling the former.
Of course, with any reaction comes the peril of overreaction. As C.S. Lewis quipped, “For my own part I hate and distrust reactions not only in religion but in everything. Luther surely spoke very good sense when he compared humanity to a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left” (Fern-seed and Elephants, 66).
In Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern, Jason Hood identifies the concept of imitation as a significant casualty in the gospel-centered counteroffensive against moralism. Should preachers exhort us to imitate biblical examples? Only if we want more “Dare to Be a Daniel” garbage. Should we talk about imitating Jesus? Only if we want to reduce the gospel to moralism or trendy activism. Should we play up the role of godly examples in the church? Only if we care more about copying behaviors than transforming hearts.
In this new book Hood, soon to be pastor of an international Anglican church in Tanzania, wisely pegs these stances as overreactions. And he seeks to rehabilitate the concept of imitation—imitating God in Christ, and imitating God’s people—in theology and church life.
It is easy for church leaders to look only to their left or only to their right in seeking to avoid the errors of others. Something I have learned from watching Tim Keller is the importance of looking in both directions. Hence, the man always seems to have a “third way” on offer.
When the topic turns to philosophy of ministry or church practice, it has been the tendency of 9Marks writers like myself to look leftward toward the squishy tendencies of mainstream evangelicalism. This is a response to the evangelicalism of my youth that was constantly anxious to avoid slipping too far rightward toward some type of authoritarian fundamentalism.
Many things in life are binary, and there is no third way. But I do believe there are errors both to the right and to the left of a biblical philosophy of ministry. On the left are the errors of pragmatism, and on the right are the errors of authoritarianism. What’s most striking to me is what they share in common.
At first glance, they look pretty different. Pragmatism is flexible. It says, “Let’s try this, or this, or this, or this, or this!” Authoritarianism is rigid. It says, “Do what I told you, now!” Pragmatism respects autonomy and the role of assent, even if things get a little messy. Authoritarianism respects order and efficiency and completion. Surely, pragmatism and authoritarianism are not identical twins.
But they are fraternal twins. Look beyond the surface and you will find a surprising number of commonalities:
Both pragmatism and authoritarianism are fixated on results.
Both define success by outward or visible change, and therefore they subject their methods to any number of metrics for measuring visible fruit.
Both depend upon human ingenuity to get the job done. They rely upon brains, brawn, or beauty to accomplish their ends. One strong-arms. The other strong-charms.
In the area of Christian ministry, unlike authoritarianism, pragmatism does not assume there is a “right way” to get things done but that God has left these things to us. So it sheepishly concludes, “My way is as good as any, I suppose.” But this, ironically, is not totally unrelated to the authoritarian’s “My way or the highway!” Both can overlook “God’s way.”
Listen to either the pragmatist’s sermon (“Seven Steps to a Healthy Marriage”) or the authoritarian’s sermon (“Repent or Else”). What might you hear?
- Both exploit the flesh (whether through fear or appealing to appetite) in order to motivate action instead of appealing to the spiritual new man in the gospel.
- Both start with the imperatives of Scripture, not the indicatives of what Christ has accomplished.
- Both loom heavily over the will, doing all they can to make the will choose rightly, apart from a consideration of where the will has its roots planted—in the heart's desires. Shame and moralism are the favorite tools of both methodologies.
- Both require outward conformity rather than repentance of heart. In so doing, they create only Pharisees.
- Both overstep the boundaries of where the Bible has given us permission to go, whether by expanding the scope of corporate worship and Christian mission or by laying down commands where none exist. Both routes bind the conscience where the gospel does not.
- Both are impatient, and want to see decisions made "today!" Since they do not recognize that decisions have their ultimate foundation in the heart's desires, they feel successful whenever they produce a right decision, whether or not that decision was forced or manipulated.
- Both rely on their own strength, rather than leaning on the Spirit by faith (see John 3:6; 6:63).
Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with relying upon human wisdom and strength for some ends, particularly when there is a lack of divine revelation. How do you promote your coffee shop? How do you win football games? How do you keep your teeth healthy?
But when it comes to Christian ministry, the chief error of both pragmatism and authoritarianism is their reliance upon natural methods to accomplish supernatural ends. To borrow from Paul David Tripp and Timothy Lane, they staple apples onto trees instead of watering and feeding the trees.
A THIRD WAY: GOD’S GOSPEL WORD AND SPIRIT
How do you feed and water the trees? That takes us to the third way. Christian ministry must rely fully on God’s gospel Word and God’s Spirit.
Gospel ministry has the following attributes:
- It is by faith. It believes that God’s Spirit always has the power to change, and that he will if he so determines.
- It relies on God’s gospel Word. True change happens when the eyes of a person’s heart open to the truth of God’s gospel Word, accepting and embracing it. They see its truth for themselves. It’s not beauty or brawn that entices them, it’s God and his Word.
- It recognizes the role of authority: Jesus has authority; Jesus’ gospel word has authority; Jesus’ church and its leaders have authority. But each of these authorities is different, possessing different mandates, prerogatives, jurisdictions, and sanctions. And gospel ministry is very sensitive to these differences, never confusing one authority for another.
- It helps people to consider what they truly desire before telling them what they must do.
- It appeals to Christians on the basis of their status in the gospel, not on the strength of their flesh. A Christian pastor or counselor should not say things like, "I expect more from you" or "You're better than that." Instead, he will say, "Don't you realize that you've died and been raised with Christ? You're a new creation. Now, what should that mean?" A Christian authority will give commands (e.g., 2 Thess. 3:6, 10, 12), but these commands will be issued by virtue of membership in the gospel. It appeals to the new realities of the Spirit. The imperatives should always follow the indicatives of what Christ has given.
- It is exceedingly patient and tender, knowing that only God can give growth (1 Cor. 3:5–9). An immature Christian may need to walk a hundred steps before he arrives at maturity, but a wise pastor seldom asks for more than one step or two. Our example in this is Jesus. "Take my yoke and learn from me," he says (Matt. 11:29). To take his yoke is to become a disciple. It's to learn. But he is gentle and lowly in heart, and his yoke is easy and light (11:29–30).
- It is always carefully measured or calibrated to where a person is spiritually. The godly elder and church seldom, if ever, make spiritual prescriptions without asking questions and doing the exploratory work of a good doctor.
- It is also willing to draw lines and make demands that it knows cannot be met. A good doctor not only asks careful questions, he identifies cancer when he sees it. Likewise, a church or an elder should not use its authority to obscure God's gospel realities but to illumine them. The power of the keys, for instance, is to be used exactly to this end.
In short, Christian ministry works by the power of the Spirit and the Word, not by the power of the flesh.
Like a pragmatic approach, it makes appeals to people. It asks for their consent. It recognizes that a true act of faith cannot be coerced.
But like an authoritarian approach, it recognizes that Jesus is king and possesses authority. True actions of faith do not proceed from autonomous but manipulated actors. Rather, people must lovingly submit to his royal word.
Christian ministry loves and confronts. It honors and challenges. More than anything, perhaps, it speaks…and waits…
Jonathan Leeman, an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church and the editorial director at 9Marks, is the author of Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People. Portions of this article have been taken from The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love. You can follow Jonathan on Twitter.
Instinctually, I have never been crazy about the regulative principle. Somehow it feels overly prescriptive.
The principle teaches that everything a church includes in Sunday’s order of service must have scriptural warrant. That warrant, says Ligon Duncan, “can come in the form of explicit directives, implicit requirements, the general principles of Scripture, positive commands, examples, and things derived from good and necessary consequence” (Give Praise to God, 23). But the point is, churches shouldn’t do it if the Bible doesn’t say to do it.
A looser approach, and one that appeals to many evangelicals, is found in the normative principle. The normative principle certainly affirms that churches must do what Scripture enjoins—like preaching, praying, and singing. But it also makes space in the order of service for practices not forbidden in Scripture—whether that’s illustrating the sermon with a skit, finger painting your response to a Bible reading, or swinging an incense censer.
Now, I’m not looking to swing a censer or paint a picture, but the non-conformist in me wants to lean normative. I admit. But the Bible-conformist in me believes we should keep to the regulative principle. In fact, the fact that it is more restrictive for the church means it offers more freedom to the Christian. May I try to persuade you, too?
THE KEY IS WARRANT
The key is the word warrant. The regulative principle does not only require churches to heed biblical commands in their gatherings, it requires them to only heed biblical commands. Which is to say, churches must only do what they have been authorized or licensed to do. Any and all corporate activity must have a warrant.
Perhaps an illustration will help. My wife and I recently enjoyed seeing Gregory Porter at Washington, DC’s historic Howard Theater. Maybe that inspires me to open a jazz club in my own Washington suburb. So I apply for the appropriate business license, which is then granted, and eventually we open for business.
Guests come. They love the music. But something’s missing. They keep asking for food menus. I think back to my experience at the Howard Theater, and, sure enough, they served us dinner. What a combo, it was: dinner and jazz! So I install a kitchen into my club, hire a chef and wait staff, and begin serving dinner. Perfect!
At this point, however, a man from the county licensing office shows up and asks if I have a food services establishment permit. Well, no, but, you understand, sir, night after night, people are asking for food. So it makes perfect sense to offer them a menu.
Well, whether or not it “makes sense,” says the county agent, serving food exposes the club to another circle of regulations and responsibilities that serve to protect the citizens of the county. And the business license in hand simply says nothing about serving food. An additional license is necessary, or fines will be levied.
WARRANT IN THE KEYS
What our generation of somewhat individualistic and anti-institutional Christians misses is that the assembled church operates with a different set of authorizations, warrants, or licenses than the individual Christian does. The gathered local church is authorized in Matthew 16, 18, and 28 by Christ’s keys of the kingdom to make an international declaration about a what and a who: what is the gospel, and who is a gospel citizen? Just because I am a U.S. citizen does not mean I have the authority to show up at the international airport terminal without a U. S. passport; and just because I am a Christian does not mean I have the authority to baptize my friend in a backyard pool or take the Lord’s Supper with wife and children at home. The assembled local church possesses this authority. (For a defense of this paragraph, see chapter 4 here, chapter 3 here, here, and here).
What that means is, the individual Christian needs the local church. He or she needs the church for the sake of growing in grace, yes, people know that. But also, critically, the individual believer needs the church to be initially recognized as a Christian in baptism and to continue in this recognition through the Lord’s Supper.
That is to say, we need churches because they provide the formal accountability structure that ensures that the people who profess the gospel also live by the gospel—that the what and the who of the gospel and a gospel life match!
A church provides recognition and accountability for the Christian life.
Now here’s where the regulative principle becomes a big deal: if the believer needs a church to be formally recognized as a Christian, then the church had better darn well make sure it does not force anything onto a Christian that the Bible and the gospel do not require.
Christians are surely free to worship God in any number of ways, including with incense and finger paint. But as soon as a church places something in its order of service, it is effectively requiring all of its members to worship God in that way. It’s like the difference between choosing to abstain from alcohol yourself and requiring every member of your church to abstain from alcohol.
Christians must bind themselves to a church. That is why churches must not bind the Christian or the Christian’s conscience where Scripture does not bind it. And everything we write into a church’s order of service effectively mandates how a Christian worships God in the assembly.
The normative principle sounds like it leaves churches freer, and the non-conformist in me likes that. But, ironically, the regulative principle leaves the Christian freer, which the Bible-conformist in me definitely likes.
Admittedly, it’s a bit harder to see the problem when we have so many churches to choose from. If I don’t like what one church does, I just go to another. But put yourself in the shoes of someone living in a town with only one church, as is the situation among our Christian brothers and sisters in various Muslim nations, or as it was among the many of the churches of the New Testament. You would be required to approach God in public worship through some method you find unbiblical and noxious.
Whether you live in a town with one church or hundreds, the regulative principle claims that churches do not have the warrant or authority to place unbiblical elements into the church’s order of service. It seeks to free Christians from such constraints.
WHAT DOES THE LICENSING DOCUMENT SAY?
What a church should do instead is pretty easy. It should look down at its license of establishment and ask, what exactly has King Jesus authorized us to do? We can wade into the waters of what “makes sense,” or we can carefully read the licensing document itself, a.k.a. the New Testament.
What does the document license them to do? Basically, it authorizes churches to do the things that they have been doing for two thousand years when assembled: binding and loosing through the Lord’s Supper and baptism; teaching and preaching; Bible reading and singing. While many activities characterize the church scattered, these things seem to characterize the church gathered (e.g. Acts 2:46; 1 Cor. 5:4; 11:18-22, 33-34; 14:1-39).
Now, maybe it “makes sense” to illustrate the sermon with a skit, to finger paint your response to a Bible reading, or to swing an incense censer. But does the licensing agreement say anything about these activities? Anywhere? Maybe they’re in the fine print. No?
Insofar as the Bible says nothing, the regulative principle would then forbid them based on these two assumptions.
Assumption one: the Holy Spirit had reasons to authorize in Scripture what he authorized, and to stay silent where he stayed silent. Presumably, he had reasons that he wanted the gospel spoken in words rather than painted in pictures in gatherings of the church. What are those reasons? I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with the power of images, or the second commandment, or the nature of faith. I genuinely don’t know. What I do know is that the New Testament—our licensing agreement—clearly authorizes churches to preach, but says nothing about painting pictures.
Assumption two is that, in general, human beings are authorized to do only what God authorizes them to do. We don’t have the authority to pluck an apple off a tree and eat it until the Lord licenses us. Gratefully, apple eating is authorized in Genesis 1:29. So with anything a church does when it’s assembled—God must authorize its activities. When we go beyond Scripture, we risk wrongly binding the conscience of church members.
LITTLE STRUCTURE, LOT OF IMPROV
Adherents of both the regulative and normative principle can agree that human beings can worship God in all kinds of activities (see 1 Cor. 10:31). We can worship him through drama, finger painting, and maybe even incense, though I’m sure I’m not the man to defend this last one.
The difference between the two principles comes down to whether or not the local church possesses its own institutional charter, and whether or not the members are bound to act within the explicit constraints, commissions, and provisos of that charter when they are gathered together. The weakness of the normative principle, at base, is its lack of institutional specification. The strength of the regulative principle is its institutional specificity.
This specificity is not only biblical, it provides the little bit of structure that allows for a great deal improvisation, as in jazz. Even the most aleatoric moments of an improvised jazz riff have to move within a tightly scripted structure, at least if an ensemble wants to stay together.
So we’re commissioned to preach, pray, and sing the gospel, eh? Ah, what diverse things we can preach, pray, and sing about this gospel of harmonious glory! How many variations can you spin out on that melody?
 I believe John Frame is correct, in one sense, to argue that the regulative principle is the same for the Christian life and for corporate worship (e. g. The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 464-81). It’s the same in that God must authorize our activities in both domains. But then I would want to challenge what I believe is Frame’s lack of institutional specification about the existence, nature, and authority of the local church by virtue of the keys of the kingdom.
Jonathan Leeman, an elder at the Capitol Hill Baptist Church and the editorial director of 9Marks, is the author of several books on the local church. You can follow him on Twitter.
After a short drive through the African countryside, our truck pulled up to a chapel for a church service in Choma, Zambia. I was excited to worship with brothers and sisters from across the world, and I was anxious to see what it would be like. How different would the service be from what I’m used to? Would I be able to worship along with them?
As the service began, men on stage started to play bongos and the whole room danced where they stood. Joyful shouts of praise broke out around me as the rhythm progressed. Then I heard the most beautiful congregational singing I’ve ever experienced to this day. The voices rang out in near perfect unison, and the sweet words directed my eyes to the cross. After singing, someone led us in prayer, and we heard the Word of God preached. It was a worshipful experience.
In many ways, it was different than what I was used to, but it was also strikingly similar. And I suspect it’s similar to your own church services as well. The fact that churches on different sides of the globe are so similar yet so different is what we should expect when the gospel is proclaimed in diverse places. There is a glorious, diverse sameness. And we should be satisfied with nothing less.
OUR GATHERINGS SHOULD BE VERY SIMILAR
The regulative principle is the conviction that everything we do in corporate worship must have warrant in Scripture, either by direct command or implication. As the examples above show us, when we anchor ourselves in God’s revealed truth, there will be a certain sameness to our church gatherings—even when the church is on the other side of the world.
Every Christian church, regardless of location or affiliation, has been given the same New Testament. There are some areas of corporate worship for which Scripture hasn’t given us any instruction, but there are many other important areas where Scripture has spoken clearly, and we should take note.
First, the substance or content of our church gatherings should be the same. The good news that Christ died, was buried, and was raised is the message we must proclaim. It should be our confidence when we pray, it should be celebrated when we sing, and it should be clear when we preach and administer sacraments. While there should be great diversity in our worship styles, there should not be diversity in our message.
Second, the elements, or the different components of our church gatherings, should be the same. Those elements are preaching, singing, praying, Scripture reading, tithes and offerings, and the sacraments. Our God is not just concerned that we worship him; he’s also concerned with how we worship him.
Of course we should offer our entire lives as worship unto the Lord. But when we gather together as we’ve been commanded to, we should anchor ourselves in the elements God has given us in his Word. This isn’t a burden that restricts us, but a relief that frees us. We are freed to worship according to God’s means instead of human whim. This sameness unites us with churches all across the globe. But how similar should we all be?
OUR GATHERINGS SHOULD BE VERY DIFFERENT
One criticism of the regulative principle is that it doesn’t allow for much diversity among our churches. Some argue that the regulative principle only produces one kind of church, and if we all subscribe to it our churches will look exactly the same. I strongly disagree.
When I worshiped with that church in Zambia, I was struck by the all the similarities and differences I observed. But I could also talk about the time I was in Grand Cayman, where I sang along with a diverse congregation as they belted out familiar songs with a Carribean swagger. Then their pastor delivered a heart penetrating exposition that exalted Christ as Lord of all.
Or how about my former church in North Philadelphia, where every aspect of the service was gospel-saturated, and the atmosphere was celebratory and expressive. Hands waved, a six-piece band of talented musicians played, and the members verbally responded to the Word as it was preached.
Both of those atmospheres are very different from my current church, where the music is much simpler and quieter, the prayers are longer, and there’s limited verbal interaction during service. Instead, the congregation sits in a hushed silence as the Word of almighty God is read aloud and proclaimed.
The worship gatherings of the churches I’ve mentioned are very similar, yet very different. They faithfully obey God’s clear commands in Scripture to sing the word, pray the word, and preach the word. But as you can tell from my descriptions, they are far from identical—and I don’t think they should be. This diverse sameness is glorious! We should be praising God for it and praying for more of it.
While our churches should not be innovative in the content or the components of our services, the way we carry those things out is, to some degree, up to us. Scripture gives us the “substance” and the “elements,” but within broad biblical guidelines, the forms are flexible.
So we can sing old, wordy hymns or repetitive contemporary songs. You can pray for an hour or for five minutes. You can preach calmly and lecture-like, or you can preach loudly, with a melodic climax at the end. We can take communion every week, or every other month. Church members can shout “Hallelujah!” during the sermon or just give a quiet “mmm.” And of course, there are inconsequential circumstances like seating and bulletins. You can sit in chairs or pews, and you can read song lyrics from a brochure or on a big screen.
You get the point. We shouldn’t think the regulative principle calls our churches to be uniform in every way. We can all be faithful to God’s Word without looking exactly the same.
My heart would be broken if I visited a church in China and the worship gathering looked exactly like my church’s in Washington, D.C. One of the glories of the gospel is that it penetrates all nations, tribes, tongues, and cultures.
Sometimes we can be tempted to force our chosen forms on others. No church exists outside of a context, so we shouldn’t assume our way is the way. This cultural snobbery assumes that our cultural norms please God more than others. We should do what works for our people in our context. Yes, idolizing contextualization leads to compromise, but being oblivious to people’s needs is a compromise of its own. Our God has created diverse peoples, and any attempt to erase that diversity opposes his wise design.
This diverse sameness that we get to experience now is more precious than we sometimes acknowledge. It reminds us that God’s saving grace is indiscriminate. It’s a shadow of that eternal worship gathering that we long for. And it’s proof that God is making good on his promise to gather a people to himself from every tribe, nation, and tongue. Amen.
Trip Lee, in addition to his work as a hip hop artist, serves as a pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and is the author of The Good Life (Moody, 2012).