Regulative Discipleship: Why a Full Calendar Doesn’t Necessarily Produce Mature Church Members

Article
05.15.2024

Your church may hold to the “regulative principle”: if the Bible says to do X for our Sunday worship service, then we’re doing X; but if it doesn’t say anything about Y, then we’re not doing Y. Preaching? Check (2 Tim. 4:2). Singing? Check (Eph. 5:19). Interpretive dance? Maybe in your dance closet at home, but not in the order of service at church. Why? It’s not prescribed in the New Testament, and we rely upon Scripture to regulate what we include and don’t include in our corporate gatherings. 

Now here’s my question for us: if we affirm the regulative principle for the Sunday morning gathering, shouldn’t we also apply the same conviction to the rest of our discipleship ministries? 

How Does the Regulative Principle Apply to Discipleship?

The terms “elements” and “forms” help us to understand the regulative principle. Elements are the specific tasks the New Testament prescribes, while forms are how churches practice those tasks. For instance, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we may differ on the form—some choose tasty loaves of bread and others opt for tasteless crackers—but we’re both observing the same element. 

In general, the regulative principle calls for inflexibility on the elements and flexibility on the forms. Don’t mess with the elements. God has spoken. But you can exercise prudence with the forms. God has freed you to choose.  

So how does this apply to the discipleship we do in one another’s lives? For starters, a command like “exhorting one another daily” is an element (Heb.3:13). Meanwhile, the specific ways we might obey this command—whether on phone calls, in a Bible study at Starbucks, or in a church community group— are forms. There are different ways we can live out and obey Hebrews 3:13. 

In other words, God has given your church members flexibility in how they can obey Hebrews 3:13. Therefore, if we as pastors limit the freedom of members by insisting that they conform to our discipleship model, we are reaching for more authority than God has given us. 

I don’t think that’s often the intention of pastors. Pastors just want their members to grow in their love for Jesus and each other. Yet when extrabiblical programs become essential ingredients in our discipleship ministry—as in, “you must do it this way”—it’s like asking members to engage in a corporate worship activity not found in Scripture. We’re trading ribbon dancing on Sunday morning for an obligatory program on Monday night. Whether gathered or scattered, we should always let Scripture regulate what we ask the whole church to do. 

If Scripture doesn’t command certain events, then we can encourage members to participate, but we should not require participation, or make people feel guilty for not participating. And if we don’t require participation, then we shouldn’t expect those events to support the weight of our discipleship model. 

Neither should we make attendance at extrabiblical events essential evidence of spiritual maturity. If we tell folks these forms are not mandatory for membership but informally treat them as necessary markers of faithfulness, we are still binding consciences. And we shouldn’t bind consciences unless we have Scripture to back it up. 

What Does Regulative Discipleship Look Like?

What does regulative discipleship look like on a weekly basis? Well, what can we find a biblical text for? We can require:

  • the Sunday morning gathering, where we preach, sing, give, pray, and practice the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper​;​
  • church membership and discipline​;​
  • raising up elders and deacons;
  • obeying all the “one-anothers.”

God’s Word prescribes these things. Therefore, we should uphold them as the markers of maturity for the church.

We trust that God’s Word preached on Sunday will bring encouragement, conviction, and instruction on how we should read our Bibles throughout the week. We have confidence that the responsibilities of church membership will inspire daily exhortations (Heb. 3:13). We believe elders provide biblical insight and prayer for members who are “bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2). We know that deacons help facilitate those elder-led initiatives (Acts 6:1–7). And down the list of biblical commands we go. We build our discipleship model on what we can plainly see in Scripture. 

Extrabiblical structures only exist to facilitate these things. Small groups can be helpful on-ramps to biblical community. Sunday school classes and Wednesday night Bible studies are great ways to provide other leaders more teaching opportunities. But even in these cases, pastors should promote them merely as optional forms for accomplishing mandatory elements. 

What Are the Benefits of Regulative Discipleship?

Besides freeing up members’ consciences, regulative discipleship liberates us to press into the things expressly commanded in Scripture. When community groups don’t serve as the main care structure for the church, elders get to shepherd members at closer proximity (1 Pet. 5:2). Not enough elders? Then more men need to be discipled and trained up (2 Tim. 2:2; Tit. 1:5). Instead of filling up members’ weeks with programs, they have time for hospitality (Rom. 12:13). If the church isn’t expecting community groups to be the main source for relationships, then members are more prone to speak the truth in love after the service instead of rushing out after the benediction (Eph. 4:15). 

Over time, I think you’ll find that members will look more to Scripture for their discipleship questions instead of the church’s programs. Is a new member looking for deeper relationships? Instead of immediately connecting them to a community group (which may or may not be a good thing for her), members will be more likely to point to 1 Peter 4:9 (“show hospitality to one another without grumbling”). They’ll encourage this new member to open her apartment for lunches after the Sunday service, and they’ll be more inclined to invite her into their homes. They’ll press more into biblical commands instead of extrabiblical programs. 

With an eye toward making disciples of all nations, regulative discipleship also makes multiplication easier. Church planting is more feasible. You don’t need a large staff to create and run programs, just a few members who know and obey their Bibles. You don’t need classes for theological education, just normal members who are used to reading the Bible and good books with others. You can multiply because you can replicate. 

Conclusion

God obviously uses extrabiblical programs for his glory, and I’m thankful for them. But they can’t bear the weight of our discipleship models.

What can bear that weight? Let’s allow Scripture to regulate our answer to that question. 

By:
Caleb Batchelor

Caleb Batchelor is an Assistant Pastor at First Baptist Church of Boynton Beach.

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