What Does the Regulative Principle Require of Church Members?
Years ago I attended a Sunday night service at one of the largest and most prestigious evangelical churches in Southern California. Attendance in the evenings had begun to wane in recent years, so a more informal approach was being tested. The college pastor was leading the service. After the opening exercises he had us all stand, turn 90 degrees, and give the person next to us a standing back massage.
It was a bit disorienting to be giving back massages in such a grand sanctuary, right there in the pews. But there was more. He then directed us to turn to the persons on either side of us, look into their eyes, and say, “I love you.” If anything, this was even more awkward than the backrub.
The regulative principle addresses what the church may do when it assembles. Churches are not free to do whatever they want to do; they must do what Scripture instructs and requires them to do. When the church gathers to worship, its worship is to be “according to Scripture.”
Reformed Protestants traditionally have argued that Scripture requires a limited number of elements: reading Scripture, preaching, prayer, sung praise, the administration of the sacraments, and oaths (e.g. WCF, XXI, XXII). However, they allowed considerable freedom respecting the form a given element might take (e.g. written vs. extemporaneous prayers) and the circumstances within which the service takes place (time of service, seating arrangement, means of voice projections, lighting, etc., WCF I.6).
Historically a well-regulated service meant that Reformed Protestants knew pretty well what would happen in church each week. There would be few surprises. No one would be asked to do anything strange. Those leading the services wouldn’t do anything embarrassing. The Word would be read, preached, sung, prayed, and the sacraments would be administered. No dog and pony shows. No pyrotechnics. No one rambling about. The service consisted of the serious application of the Word of God.
This was good, because members are required to be at services. Attendance is a duty of membership. Since members have to attend, they should only be required to do what God requires them to do.
CHURCH POWER & MEMBERSHIP
In order to understand why the regulative principle limits what Christians can do when they gather, we need to consider the nature of Christian freedom. Specifically, Christians should be free from the arbitrary exercise of church power.
What can a church require of its members? Only what Scripture requires.
By the way, “members” is the correct word. Let me digress. The church, like Israel before it, was understood by the Reformed as a covenant community, that is, a community in covenant with God and with each other, and having concrete, real existence. The church was understood to be an institution having a form of government, officers, membership, a method of discipline, doctrine, and sacraments. It was this church that was required by its Lord to assemble on the Lord’s Day.
Since Christ established the church, participation and attendance are obligatory. Unlike a lecture, a small-group meeting, or a mid-week Bible study, all of which might be regarded as optional, Sunday services are not. One might opt-out of a conventicle or discipleship group because they may feature practices which cause a person discomfort. But this is not the case with the Lord’s Day assembly, under the direction of the officers of the church, for the purpose of worship.
This, it seems to me, has been the historic Reformed understanding of the church, its membership, and its power, and it’s as true today as ever. The church may only demand of its members what Scripture demands.
CHURCH POWER & WORSHIP PRACTICES
Since members in a sense have to be present, the church may not require the assembled members to do anything not authorized by Scripture. Nothing novel may be imposed upon them. The church’s power is limited. It may not command what Scripture does not command.
For instance, it may not require that worshipers bow to the east, genuflect, cross themselves, or wear ashes on their foreheads. It may not require ministers to wear vestments, surplices, cassocks, stoles, and other garments that imply a priestly clergy. It may not subject congregations to incense, extra-biblical readings, exorcisms, anointings, ceremonies, rituals, or anything not authorized by Scripture. Not back massages. Not “I love you” rituals.
Since church members are a “captive audience,” church officials may require them to do only that which Scripture requires that they do.
Thus not only are the consciences of believers free from the imposition of humanly devised ordinances, but the sensibilities of believers are free from the bad taste of well-intending and foolish church officials. The regulative principle, properly applied, means that church members are free from the threats of idolatry and weirdness, heresy and tomfoolery.
CHURCH POWER BEYOND WORSHIP
Since this understanding of church power is integral to the regulative principle, there are broader applications that take us beyond attendance and the elements of a service.
Financially supporting a church is biblically obligatory (e.g. 1 Cor. 9:14; 16:1-2). That means a church, in turn, should take care to limit its expenditures to that which is authorized by Scripture. In other words, it should not, through its power to collect money, compel its members to participate in causes that are not warranted by Scripture. One may think of mainline Protestants’ penchant to throw money at left-ring political causes, or evangelical Protestants’ past enthusiasm for the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. How individual Christians decide to spend their own money to support their political convictions is one thing. How a church decides to spend its members’ money through the budget is quite another.
The church calendar might be another area where the regulative principle is relevant. As I understand it, the fourth commandment obligates church members to attend morning and evening services. However, may it obligate members to participate in midweek activities? Should we discipline a member opts out of the youth group, or the mid-week prayer meeting, or the Ascension Day service? I don’t believe so. These sorts of activities may be good and well-intended; officers may advise the membership of the church that these extra-curriculars are edifying and beneficial; but they cannot be considered obligatory in the way that the Sunday services are.
Finally, the regulative principle serves the unity of the church. Why did the “worship wars” hit so many churches over the last few decades? In no small part, these battles were the result of unbiblical innovations. Long-time church members walked into the church building one Sunday morning and there it was: the praise band, the light show, the “worship leader,” the video clip, the big screen, the drama team, the dance routine, the fog machine. The older members resisted, then left. The church divided. Why? There was no regulative principle to protect the congregation from the purveyors of novelty.
Just as the regulative principle simplifies the worship of the church, its companion doctrine of church power simplifies the life of the church. Recognizing that Jesus has authorized the church to do some things and not others helps to shift our focus away from endless “can’t miss” retreats and conferences and seminars; away from countless mid-week Bible studies, prayer groups, accountability groups, discipleship groups, and support groups; and back to the ordinary means of grace exercised in the ordinary services of the church on the Lord’s Day. It frees believers to stay home, love their spouses, rear their children, and serve their neighbors.
The regulative principle is the great emancipator of the Christian life: from humanly devised ceremonies, however ancient; from bizarre novelties, however modern; and from hyper-active church calendars, however well-meaning.
Pity that so many have seen it as limiting. In fact, it liberates.