The Regulative Principle

Over at Craig's Blog there is a discussion (which I am contributing to) about the issue of the Regulative Principle of Worship.

Since becoming Presbyterian in 2000, I have, since then, begun to understand and deeply appreciate the idea of the Regulative Principle.

Basically put, the Regulative Principle is based on Sola Scriptura, and argues that "only those elements that are instituted or appointed by command or example in the Bible are permissible in worship, or in other words, that God institutes in the Scriptures everything he requires for worship in the Church and that everything else is prohibited." (quote from Wikipedia)

The Regulative Principle is contrasted by the "Normative Principle" which argues that "whatever is not prohibited in Scripture is permitted in worship, as long as it is agreeable to the peace and unity of the Church." (Wikipedia again)

Here are some basic practices that the Regulative Principle would find essential in public worship:

* The public reading of Scripture. (1 Timothy 4.13)
* The preaching of a sermon based upon a bible text (Expository preaching).(1 Timothy 4.13)
* A clear, central focus upon the Gospel throughout the service.
* The singing of "Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs". (Colossians 3.16)
* Public prayer (Acts 2.42)
* The collection of money (1 Corinthians 16.1-2)
* The celebration of the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11.17-34)

What of the following events during public worship?
* A children's talk. This should certainly be allowed under the Regulative Principle since it is a form of preaching. That it should be directed towards children rather than adults is an acceptance of the fact that children, while worshipping with us, need their own form of "teaching time". It is a recognition of their special need.
* A deliberate exclusion of children This is problematic. I once attended a church in which the parents left their children to be ministered in Sunday School (which, in Australia, is a practice that children go through during the church service). To completely remove children from the entire service via a children's ministry results in children not sharing in the coporate worship that they have with adults. Having the children leave the service half-way through, though, is okay by me, so long as they go somewhere to receive biblical instruction.
*Puppets Used in conjunction with a children's talk there is no problem. Used as mere entertainment it should not be included.
* An overhead or a powerpoint presentation. This technology has replaced the use of service books and song books. In essence, both an overhead and a powerpoint can be used quite well within the Regulative Principle. They are essential these days in the singing of songs and can also help augment the sermon by having a sermon structure. It is important, though, that the projections are limited mainly to words and not show images (except when appropriate, such as an image being used as a direct illustration during the sermon). The problem with background images is that they may communicate more than what is intended in the mind of the viewer. An example of this might be the projection of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" onto the screen during the Lord's Supper. Faulty technology, however, is a bane when overhead projectors break their globes or when people in control of the Powerpoint presentation are not skllled enough. I have seen, for example, the anarchy caused by a Laptop suddenly deciding to go into "sleep" mode just before the first hymn is sung. Used well,Powerpoint is very useful; used badly, there is nothing in the world as horrible.
*Musical Instruments This is the bane of the Regulative Principle. A significant amount of churches who strongly adhere to the Regulative Principle have banned the use of musical instruments during public worship, arguing that the New Testament does not prescribe them. The use of musical instruments in public worship in the Old Testament is clear, but the argument is that it applies only to Old Testament Israel and not to the church. The Biblical evidence seems to be against this, however, since a) The New Testament does not prohibit musical instruments (which, while sounding like the Normative Principle, is actually important because it addresses the practice of the OT Covenant people in worship with the New Covenant people) and, b) The Greek word psallo ("sing praise") used in Romans 15.9, 1 Corinthians 14.15 and James 5.13, is associated specifically with the playing of stringed instruments (especially in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament). So when James writes in 5:13 "Is anyone cheerful, let him sing praise" literally means "let him sing a string-based song of praise to God".
*Excellence in musicianship It would be better to have no music at all than to have badly played music. On the opposite extreme, however, I would also argue that to have demonstrative musicianship is wrong. I'm talking here about guitar solos or a "rock concert" situation with people waving their hands and having a designated worship leader (usually blond and named Darlene) or even organ-based choirs who sing songs so well that everyone appreciates its musicianship and "feel" and who are not concerned with the substance of what is being sung. One way to check whether the music is getting too "good" is to listen to people after the service. If they comment about how "fantastic" the music was, then it is a problem. The use of musical instruments should never dominate public worship the way they currently do in Charismatic churches and in High Anglican churches. Like seats, their use in public worship should be professional yet unnoticed.
*Drama. I'm torn about this one. On the one hand, drama can be used as part of the teaching - to illustrate something or raise questions that are then solved via the preacher's exposition. On the other hand, drama as part of a religious meeting was something the Ancient Greeks invented (eg Oedipus). In this latter case, the early church would have grown in the presence of the paganism of Greek religion and the use of drama in pagan religious ceremonies was neither condemned nor encouraged in the New Testament. One problem for me is that for Drama to be good you have to have good actors, and good actors will always draw attention to themselves and people are more likely to focus on good drama rather than the message it conveys. I am currently negative towards it but once supported it in the past (in fact, a drama was used to illustrate a sermon I once preached back in 1993)
*Clothes. What to wear to public worship? James 2.1-4 talks about a visitor to the church service wearing "shabby" clothes and how he is less favoured than the man who turns up wearing a gold ring and fine clothing. Those verses, to me, show that clothing is not as issue when God's people gather together and people can wear what they darn well please. When it comes to ecclesiastical garb, like cassocks or gowns or dog collars, the Bible is silent. Special clothing to signify the preacher or "priest" or others involved in "holy" duties is wrong. I speak from experience here since when I was younger I used to be a "server" in a high Anglican church and I would wear vestments as befitting my role within the service, which was to move things around and carry the crucifix.
*An Altar. Going with the High Anglican thinking, I would argue most vehemently that when the Lord's Supper is celebrated on a "table" (1 Corinthians 10.21). A table is not an altar. It does not have to be specially made or designed with special symbols. Another problem with having an altar is Genuflection - people quickly bowing before the altar as they pass by it.
*A Crucifix. Hmmm, another problem. When I was doing my "server" thing back in my high church Anglican days, one role I had was to process through the church carrying a crucifix. Suitably garbed, I would head a procession of people who were also suitably garbed. I remember one time going down the middle of church, holding the crucifix up high and with all the clerics behind me. I looked over at a woman I knew well and smiled at her. She responded by averting her gaze from mine, then looking up at the crucifix and bowing to it as I went by. As someone who had imbibed too much evangelical theology already by that point, that event made me realise how wrong it was. On the other hand, at my church presently we have a large immovable cross on the wall that is mainly ignored. I'll have to think about this one.
*Stained Glass Windows. Another bane of Reformed thinking. The church I go to currently has stained glass windows up the back of it and a small one at the front. Many of us tolerate it more than anything and I, for one, would prefer not to have them at all. The idea behind this is that the church building is not somehow more "holy" than anywhere else. in Reformed and evangelical thinking, the "church" is a group of people, not a building. Dressing up a building and calling it a "church" is thus problematic.Having said all that I am hardly going to send a letter to the session at church demanding they remove the stained glass windows since, while annoying, they don't dominate or confuse people.


BLBeamer said...

Personally, I happen to like well-done stained glass, but in a church I believe it should be limited to scenes representing historical events, preferably Biblical ones.

Vaughan Smith said...

I'm growing to love the RPW, just for the simplicity it brings to worship. I think that the more complexity you bring to a service, not only can things go wrong more easily, but you distract from the main aim: worshipping God in Spirit and Truth.

Have you had an opportunity to listen to the Ordinary Means podcast? They are fantastic at this kind of thing. http://www.ordinarymeans.com


Laura said...

Five years ago if someone had said, "Laura, in five years you will be flirting with embracing the Regulative Principle" I would have first said "I have no idea what you're talking about," and then after I looked it up, would have said, "How dare you say that I'm going to think we should exclude dramas or special music in our worship? People's hearts are what really matter! You're mad!"

Thanks for that discussion on Craig's blog -- it was very helpful to me, but also annoying because just last week I got an email from a lady at my dad's church asking me to do a "dramatic monologue" at our Christmas Eve service, which I want to do about as much as I want to wave the flag of Israel and dance in a long flowing dress at the Christmas Eve service. I'd love to fire back with a good RPW tirade, but don't think that would be very gracious.