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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).

David de Bruyn

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 (M.A.T.) 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.

11 Responses to Limiting How We Apply the Regulative Principle

  1. David–Enjoyed your post.

    As one who does not embrace the RPW, I find myself in basic agreement with your methods. And I appreciated your caveat in #3 about the value of OT worship practices. Where you seek “a biblically-prescribed New Testament worship element,” I’d be interested in refining the search even further. Our ideas about “worship” must have specific connections to our theology of the NT church. Many of us embrace a New Testament church that is distinct from Israel, a “believers church” and a “gathered” church. [Ah…”many” of us, but not all of us!] For me, the “Baptist” solution is to identify activities of the gathered church as taught in the NT–then teach and practice these activities as a direct continuity with NT practice.

    I suppose critics can already see where I’m headed–yes, I wrote “activities” instead of elements. And yes, I did not limit these gathered-church activities to worship per se, because I want to leave room for the NT practices of edification, mutual encouragement, fellowship, and testimony (In the NT? Yes. In the usual RPW list of elements? No.)

    I’m just interested in how similar our methods are, even if we end up in a somewhat different place

  2. Kevin,

    I think the New Testament definitely makes room for (and even commands) activities such as mutual edification (1 Cor 14:26, Col 3:16, Rom 15:14). The ‘one another’ commands would be another instance. In fact, during seminary, I wrote a paper arguing for a conservative use of public testimony, which I think is important (and necessary, in my view, if you hold to congregationalist polity).

    For me, part of the answer here is that not every time the church meets as the church, does it meet for worship. Many of the meetings are informal, some are gatherings of only some of the believers. You get this sense in Acts 2. At the same time, you also get the sense from Scriptures such as 1 Cor 11:18, that there were times marked by a clear call for all to gather. I’m sure these times were never less than times of mutual edification, but my sense is that they were more, and at those time we must be gripped by a kind of caution as to what we offer up. The writings of Justin Martyr describing some of their early services on the Lord’s day seems to suggest that simple conservatism. (Tertullian also suggests there was more mutual edification included than some RPW will allow!) So some of the activities of the church are not what it is going to do when gathering in the name of Jesus to offer up sacrifices of praise. That’s my take.

    Does that sound like we land up in similar places? I’m glad for the interaction.

  3. I’d love to see that paper on public testimony–post that one next!

    [In Christ-Centered Worship, Bryan Chappell suggests that public testimony should be an element. I’m sure his Presbyterian buddies raised their eyebrows!]

    I agree with you that the church does not always gather for worship. I’d go further. I’m not seeing NT warrant for our current Baptist liturgical boundaries, where worship happens on Sunday morning, fellowship happens at lunch, and testimony happens during the (disappearing) evening service.

    Yes, that was a prejudicial reduction our current practice.

    My own view is that objective activities of “corporate worship” can be rightly combined with other subjective activities in the same Sunday morning service. It would be exceedingly difficult to prove that Sunday morning is limited and reserved for “worship” (difficult, that is, if you are limiting yourself to NT teaching and a Baptist understanding of ecclesiology)

    In my way of thinking, the contemporary evangelical church has adopted many practices that are not taught in the NT. Having adopted a fairly long list of gathered church activities, and having argued that all of them could be practiced on Sunday morning…an honest person must observe that many churches have not conformed to NT teaching!

  4. I’m in sympathy with some of the David Peterson-esque views on the church meeting to edify. And a plain reading of the New Testament does not render water-tight distinctions between worship, fellowship, and discipleship. When we do one, in many ways, we do the others.
    Having said that, is there not something to be said for what happens when the church as a living community deliberately adopts the posture of united, planned,vertically-focused worship? The synagogue was certainly a hub of edifying activity throughout the week, but there were also times of very deliberate worship, following a fairly set order.
    It’s here that I think we can find an Old Testament practice, which illustrates a principle that remains valid: that blowing of the shofar to call God’s people to worship. A set-apart time, rendered different by its purpose: for God’s people to glorify him with one mouth and one voice.

    This need not exclude mutual edification; but the focus is revelation and response: who God is, and how WE (not merely I) ought to respond to him.

  5. Very helpful conversation. Thanks, guys!

    For what it’s worth, I argue that worship IS edification. Through the shape of the liturgy, the hymns, the preaching, etc., worshipers are shaped into followers of Jesus Christ. Worship makes disciples.

    So I personally wouldn’t place as clear a distinction between worship and edification as even someone like Peterson does, certainly not to set them as opposed one to another.

    And, likewise, I would extend the regulative principle to the ministries of edification in the church beyond simply the designated corporate worship services. If what we are doing is as “the church,” then it must be according to what God has prescribed.

  6. Scott, would you allow public testimony, mutual encouragement, and fellowship during the morning service? Or perhaps I should ask–by what means would you exclude it? (Yes, and we all know my follow-up question: would you allow SONGS of public testimony, mutual encouragement, and fellowship?)

  7. David—Sure. In the simplest forms of fellowship, we should consider the exchange of formal greetings and benedictions (the “grace and peace” of 1 Cor. 1:3, the “grace, love and fellowship” of 2 Cor. 13:14). Interestingly, there are many theological traditions that reserve these words for the clergy (such as the Roman Catholic mass). In the Baptist tradition, any member may offer greetings or pronounce the benediction.

    In Europe, Baptist churches frequently exchange formal greetings when a church member from one church visits a sister congregation while travelling. Romanian Baptists, for example, often have a theme verse that a guest would share during the time of formal greetings, always accompanied by a formal “grace and peace” statement.

    Speaking of European Baptists, they also practice the holy kiss as a greeting, another expression of fellowship when the church gathers (Romans 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, others). Again I should point out how other traditions would never allow the kiss to be exchanged between clergy and laity, a distinction that Baptists do not see practiced or taught in the NT. The idea of a holy kiss is still taken seriously by our Anabaptist cousins, or I suppose I should say, kissing cousins.

    “Fellowship” in the early church was closely associated with the apostle’s teaching, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42-47). In its most direct form, the fellowship of the early church was practiced all week long, but we should not fall into the trap of thinking it was excluded from Sunday morning. If a person wishes to exclude the right practice of “fellowship” from the morning service of the gathered church…well, they would do so without NT warrant!

    [Awwwww. You wanted me to sing “There’s a Welcome Here”? My point is this: In our zeal to avoid a raucous time of glad-handing during the worship service, have we tossed out a legitimate activity of the New Testament church?]

    [Whoops. I think I just typed a response longer than the initial post. So sorry.]

  8. Hey, Kevin.

    If we define “fellowship” as you do, then I certainly welcome it as part of corporate worship. I have written elsewhere on the appropriateness and even necessity of this kind of fellowship in corporate worship.

    My objections to most of what constitutes “fellowship” or “testimony” songs in worship has nothing to do with the RPW, and everything to do with their triteness and inappropriateness for even serious Christian fellowship! :)

  9. Didn’t really mean to throw David de B’s article off track. But the matter of edification, mutual encouragement, fellowship, and testimony still interests me. Historically, the RPW has not accounted for these gathered-churches activities, though I would submit they were practiced and taught in the NT.

    Yes, the NT service was something more than objective “worship.”

    But the Westminster Divines failed to adequately address this difficulty. In my estimation they did a fine job of reacting to the issues of their own era. But they did not leave us with an idea that is rigorous enough to address the struggles of our own time. So some still insist on an absolute distinction between “elements” and “circumstances,” but cannot proved a consensus on how many. Five elements? 7? 12?

    If I understand David deB’s idea, he’s suggesting we LIMIT the authority of the RPW by adding more “elements” to the Westminster list. Intriguing.

    And if I understand Scott, he’s suggesting that we EXPAND the RPW past its original limitation (worship services) to include all church activities. Again, intriguing, and its fun to mull over these ideas.

    The RPW has become quite elastic, hasn’t it?

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