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Limiting How We Apply the Regulative Principle

To admit a worship practice as a biblically-prescribed New Testament worship element, the Regulative Principle would seek to ensure that such a practice is unequivocally and positively grounded in Scripture. However, advocates of the Regulative Principle do not always agree on which elements are unequivocally and positively grounded in Scripture. Varying theological methods arrive at different lists of elements, with some admitting practices based on narratives that seem to have made a practice normative, and others insisting on epistolary commands and precepts only. In my research, I found RPW advocates who listed five elements, some seven, one twelve, and one even listed seventeen.

The temptation of the human heart is always to introduce its innovations and preferences into worship. Once it seizes upon something it would enjoy in worship, it begins asking, “How could we construe this thing to be one of God’s commanded elements?” This kind of thinking is simply the Normative Principle in RPW’s clothing. We can find connections and justifications wherever we look for them.

Instead, I suggest five questions to evaluate a practice. These questions are designed to sift out practices that do not flow out of apostolic faith and practice.

1) Is the practice self-evidently a practice of the element? Reading Scripture, preaching, praying, the Lord’s Table and singing are self-evident instances of what is prescribed, only the circumstances of their implementation needs to be considered further.

2) Does Scripture limit the use of the element that would make this practice forbidden or unwise? Limitations are placed on who may teach in public and pray (1 Tim 2:8-15), the intelligibility of publicly declared revelation and songs (1 Cor 14:28), the orderliness and edifying nature of each worship practice (1 Cor 14:26, 40). Prudence is required to apply some of these limits, for some of the limits are subjective, e.g. “let all things be done decently”. This does not mean they are meaningless or without moral value, it simply means that careful judgment is required.

3) Does Scripture give examples of its use in worship? Does the New Testament in specific, and the Old Testament in general, give examples of this practice being incorporated into worship? The Old Testament worship of Israel has limited applications to defining New Testament worship, but it is not without value. Without reading our practices back into Scripture, is there plausible and probable evidence that this was a regular feature of the worship of God’s church?

4) Do the Scriptural examples limit its use? Again, we are often instructed by what was forbidden, rebuked or even judged by God.

5) Does the form of Scripture limit or guide its use? The Scriptures do not come to us shapeless. God inspired not only the content, but the form: be it poetry, narrative, wisdom, prophetic, apocalyptic, epistolary, and so on. These forms communicate not only information on what God is like, but on how He is to be imagined, and responded to. As such, they may not contain any more prescribed elements, but they will supply more wisdom as to how to implement those elements. More familiarity with the form of Scripture may well help us to detect when something is no longer an instance of reading the Scriptures, preaching the Scriptures, praying the Scriptures, singing the Scriptures, and demonstrating the Scriptures (the ordinances).

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.