Regulative Like Jazz
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.