The topic listed for today on the conference brochures is described as The Implications of the Reformed Faith for Church Life. This topic is obviously quite broad and general. It has been necessary, therefore, for me to select a much more specific topic to bring to you today. Nevertheless, in selecting that more specific topic it was not necessarily to become simplistic or imbalanced in my treatment of the announced subject. For there is one point at which the Reformed faith has made a unique contribution to ecclesiology. That distinctive perspective of the Reformed faith is known as the ” regulative principle of worship.”
My purpose, then, is to address you on the regulative principle, but I am taking the liberty to broaden the subject of these lectures slightly from what I called the ” regulative principle of worship.” I wish to speak to you on the subject of the Regulative Principle of the Church. I have broadened my subject in this way because I believe that the regulative principle of worship is only one very important dimension of what maybe more properly, comprehensively, and biblically understood as The Regulative Principle of the Church.
The full justification of this title must await its biblical exposition. But I hope that it is obvious to you even now that biblically speaking public worship and the church are inseparably related. I hope to show you that the church is the temple of God; and that it is this fact that brings both its worship and its organization under the special regulation of the Word of God. If we do not see this connection we will miss not a few of the major implications of the regulative principle for the church today.
It is my intention to expound the Regulative Principle of the Church. Under five major headings:
1. Its Historical Meaning
2. Its Theological Framework
3. Its Biblical Support
4. Its Necessary Clarification
5. Its Practical Application
1. Its Historical Meaning
This principle first emerged in the controversies between the Reformed and Lutheran in Europe, but was given sharp focus in the debates between the Puritans and Anglicans in late 16th and 17th Century England.
The regulative principle was, therefore, given its classic and definitive statement in Reformed confessions formulated in the 17th century. It is stated in identical language at chapter 21, paragraph 1 in both the Westminster Confession and chapter 22, paragraph 1 in the 1689 London Baptist Confession. “The light of nature shows that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is just, good, and doth good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart and all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God, is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshiped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.”
This Puritan statement may best be understood by contrasting it with the statement of the Church of England found in the 39 Articles. The Twentieth Article of the Church of England’s 39 Articles states: “The Church hath power to decree rights or ceremonies and authorities in the controversies of the Faith. And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God’s Word written.”1
G. I. Williamson helpfully and popularly states the Puritan principle exemplified in the Confession: “What is commanded is right, and what is not commanded is wrong.”2 James Bannerman provides this helpful contrast between the Puritan doctrine on this matter (contained in our Confession) and the Anglican doctrine.
“In the case of the Church of England, its doctrine in regard to Church power in the worship of God is, that it has a right to decree everything, except what is forbidden in the Word of God. In the case of our own Church, its doctrine in reference to Church power in the worship of God is that it has a right to decree nothing, except what expressly or by implication is enjoined by the Word of God.”3
G. I. Williamson helpfully illustrates the difference between the Anglican and Puritan understanding of the regulative principle with the following diagram.4
The difference between Puritans and Anglicans may be helpfully illustrated by means of two builders intent on building the temple of God. Mr. Anglican must use the materials of the Word of God, but has no blueprint and may use other materials. Mr. Puritan must use only materials of the Word of God and has a blueprint. It takes no special genius to discern that the two completed buildings will differ drastically or to discern which will be more pleasing to God.
2. Its Theological Framework
It seems to me that one of the major intellectual stumbling blocks which hinders men from embracing the regulative principle is that it involves the idea that the church and its worship is ordered and regulated in a way different from the rest of life. In the rest of life God gives men the great precepts and general principles of His Word and within the bounds of these directions allows them to order their lives as seems best to them. He does not give them minute directions as to how they should build their houses or pursue their secular vocations.
The regulative principle, on the other hand, involves a limitation on human initiative and freedom not characteristic of the rest of life. It clearly assumes that there is a distinction between the way the church and its worship is to be ordered and the way the rest of human society and conduct is to be ordered. Thus the regulative principle is liable to strike men as oppressive, peculiar, and, therefore, suspiciously out of accord with God’s dealings with mankind in the rest of life.
This peculiarity of the regulative principle makes it absolutely necessary to commence our study of its biblical foundations by opening up its theological framework. In other words, we must begin by flatly stating that there is a reality unique to the church and its worship which demands that it be specially ordered in the way that the regulative principle assumes. That reality unique to the church is that the church is the place of God’s special presence and is, therefore, the house or temple of God. Once we understand this peculiar closeness of the church to God, the special holiness of the church as compared to the rest of human society, we will not be surprised by the fact that it is specially regulated by God. Rather, it will seem eminently appropriate that the church as God’s own house should be regulated by the immediate directives of God. It will seem most suitable that the church as God’s holy temple should be subject to a special and detailed regulation by His Word.
My intention under this second major head is to open up this, the theological framework of the regulative principle of the church under two headings:
A. The Special Character of the Church of God as the Place of His Special Presence — Matt. 18:20
B. The Distinctive Regulation of the Church of God as the Place of His Special Presence 1 Tim. 3:15
A. The Special Character of the Church of God as the Place of His Special Presence.
Matt. 18:20 “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst. ”
Matt. 18:15-20 is one of the first two passages in the New Testament where the term church is used; and it contains the first explicit mention of the local church in the New Testament. It culminates in the great promise of v. 20. Very obviously this is a promise of the special presence of Christ. Please notice three things about this promise.
i. Its Specified Limitation
The promise of v. 20 comes attached to a very plain condition or limitation, “For where two or three have gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst. “The stated limitation found in these words is the assembling of the local church, the formal or public gatbering of the people of God. Upon what grounds do I assert that these words specify the assembling of the local church? Let me set three grounds for this assertion before you.
The first is the context assumed in v. 20a. The passage from v. 17 on deals with the local church. Matt. 18:17-19 “And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. ”
The “two or three” mentioned in v. 20, then, is simply a graphic way of emphasizing that even the smallest conceivable local church possesses this great promise of Christ.
The second is the verb used in v. 20a. The words, “have gathered together “, are a translation of the verbal root from which both in English and in Greek the word, synagogue, is derived. The Christian church is, in fact, called a synagogue in James 2:2 where the same verbal root is used: “For if a man comes into your assembly (or synagogue)… ”
The third ground upon which I assert that the words of v. 20a designate the formal gathering of the local church is the qualification given in v. 20a. I am referring to the words, “in the name. ” Matt. 10:41 provides a parallel use of this phrase.
Matt. 10:41 “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. ”
To receive a prophet in the name of a prophet means to receive him in his official character as a prophet, to receive him because he is a prophet. It is, therefore, not any gathering of men, or even any gathering of Christians which forms the specified condition of this promise, but the gathering in Christ’s name. This phrase has reference to the gathering of Christ’s people in their official character as His church and under His authority. It designates the gathering in view as one which is officially and formally and intentionally a gathering of Christ’s people under his authority. One commentator has clearly seen the significance of this phrase when be says that gathering in Christ’s name “is a synonym for the new society. The ecclesia is a body of men gathered together by a common relation to the name of Christ: a Christian synagogue.”5
Let me illustrate the significance of this phrase. A number of years ago I worked in a large warehouse with a number of other Christians. The warehouse was owned and operated by Amway Corporation. At lunch we often ate together, opened lunch with prayer, and spent the whole time discussing biblical issues. There were more than two or three of us. That lunch gathering was, however, not a gathering in Christ’s name in the meaning of this text It was a gathering of Christians, true enough, but it was a gathering of Christians in the name of Amway Corporation and because of hunger, not in the name of Christ. We were gathered as Amway employees and not as Christ’s official people. We could not by any biblical right claim the promise of Matt. 18:20. The specified limitation of this promise is the assembling of the local church officially in Christ’s name, because they are a church, and in their character as a church. That, and that alone, is the condition which must be met for the claiming of this promise.
ii. Its Clear Implication
The plain implication of this promise is that the Lord Jesus Christ in His identity as the eternal Son of God is promising the special presence of God to the church. This is the implication of the promise itself. Who but God Himself could keep such a promise as this? Who but God could say, “Wherever across the broad globe my disciples should gather till the end of the age, there I will be present.”?
This is the implication of the allusion to Old Testament types and promises. We remember passages like Psalm 46:4,5: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy dwelling places of the Most High. God is in the midst of her…”0r remember Isa. 12:6: “Cry aloud and shout for joy, 0 inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. “Or we think of Jer. 14:9: “Yet thou art in our midst, O Lord, and we are called by Thy name; Do not forsake us! ” Or Hos. 11:9: “I will not execute MY fierce anger; I will not destroy Ephraim again. For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst. And I will not come in wrath. ” Or Zeph. 3:5: “The Lord is righteous within her; He will do no injustice. Every morning He brings His justice to light; He does not fail… ” Or Zech. 2:10: “Sing for joy and be glad, 0 daughter of Zion; for behold I am coming and l will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord. “When Christ gives the promise contained in Matt. 18:20, there is a clear allusion to such Old Testament types and prophecies.
But we know also that this is a promise of the special presence of God with His people also from the identity of the one speaking. John 1:1 and 14 plainly state Jesus’ identity.
John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ”
John 1:14 “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. ”
Two things are affirmed in these texts. First, they affirm that Jesus is God. Second, they affirm that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament types and shadows. When we read of the Word tabernacling (literally) among us, we are informed that in Jesus we have the new and greater tabernacle and the new and greater temple by means of which God dwells among His people. Jesus in Matt. 18:20 promises in His own presence the presence of God with His church. Now let me enunciate the clear significance of this. Even though God is everywhere present in the world and in human society, yet this promise must mean that He is present in a special way with His church. The gathered church is a holy place. It is the special possession of God with a peculiar relation to God. Of all the high and solemn and ennobling realities that surround gospel worship, the greatest and, therefore, the controlling reality is that God is uniquely present in His holiness and grace.
This brings us to my third point about the promise of Matt. 18:20…
iii. Its Scriptural Consequences
If Christ is specially present in the midst of every gathered local church, the necessary, scriptural consequence of this is that he must be worshipped in the local church so gathered. Thus, in the promise of His presence, there is the divine institution of New Covenant worship. This promise contains the divine institution of New Covenant public worship for three reasons. By means of these three reasons we will also grasp something of the scriptural depth and richness of this promise.
First, where God manifests Himself in a special way to His people, there He must be worshipped. Gen. 12:7 records, “And the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land. ‘ So he built an altar there to the Lord who appeared to Him. ” Josh. 5:13-15 records the appearance of the captain of the Lord’s host to Joshua. In response we read, “And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and bowed down, and said to him, ‘What has my lord to say to his servant? ‘ And the captain of the Lord’s host said to Joshua, ‘Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy. ‘ And Joshua did so. ” In many passages (Exod. 25:8,9,21,22; 29:42,43; 30:6,36; 40:34-38; Lev. 16:2; Num. 17:4) the Tabernacle is described by God as the place “where I meet with you. ” Obviously, however, the tabernacle was for that very reason the place of formal worship. Part and parcel of the dedication of Solomon’s temple as a place of worship in I Kings 8 is the account of how “the cloud filled the house of the Lord” and “the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (vv. 10,11).
The same principle may be illustrated from the New Testament. You remember when in Luke5:l-ll the Lord Jesus manifested His glory to Peter in the great catch of fish that Peter’s response was to worship. Verse 8 records, “… when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, depart from me, for I am a sinful man, 0 Lord! ” You remember the vision of the ascended Lord given to John the Apostle in Rev. 1:11-17. Here Jesus is seen in His glory walking in high priestly attire in the midst of the seven golden lamp stands (vv. 12,13). These lamp stands are the seven local churches who have sent their messengers (or angels) to John (Rev. 1:20). This imagery assures each local church of the presence of the risen Christ in their midst. The point which must not be missed is, however, that the whole scene of this vision is one derived from the imagery of the Old Testament temple worship. Jesus is garbed as a high priest; his churches are pictured as lamp stands; and so the setting is clearly the setting of worship.
The second reason why this promise contains the divine institution of New Covenant worship is that where God causes His name to be remembered, there is a place of worship (Exod. 20:24-26; Deut. 12:5-8; 16:5,6; 26:2,10; I Kings 8:16-20,29; Mal. 1:6-14 with I Tim. 2:8).
The third reason why we know that this promise constitutes the divine institution of New Covenant worship is that the presence of Christ constitutes the church a Temple of God (I Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:19-22; I Pet. 2:5; 2 Cor. 6:16; I Cor. 14:25.)
It is often said that in the New Covenant God no longer has a literal temple, a geographical place where He has put His name and commanded that He should be worshipped. This is, of course, true in a very important sense, but this must never be thought to mean that all formal or public worship of God has been abolished. There is still a spiritual place and a spiritual temple where God has put His name. Wherever two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, there is a place of worship, there is a temple of God, there is the spiritual place where God is to be worshipped.
We must not miss the practical impact of this reality. Rather, we may have to say with Jacob, “Surely the LORD is in this place and I did not know it……How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. ” Gen. 28:16-19.
The assemblies of the church must never be viewed in a common or profane way. The promised presence of God teaches us the sanctity of the formal gatherings of the church. The assemblies of the church are holy. They are set apart from or different than the assemblies or gatherings of every other society whatsoever. They must, therefore, be viewed differently. Further-more, our conduct in them must be regulated differently. If the ground upon which we stand in the assemblies of the church is holy ground, then we must take off our shoes. This leads me to our second heading under the theological framework of the regulative principle…
B. The Distinctive Regulation of the Church of God as the Place of His Special Presence -1 Tim. 3:15
1 Tim. 3:l5 “…. but in case l am delayed, l write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.”
I Tim. 3:15 is, of course, a key text for the doctrine of the church, but I had never realized its full implications for the regulative principle till I was preparing for this conference. You will notice that in this text the special character or unique identity of the church is emphasized by means of three descriptions. It is “the house of God, the church of the living God, and the pillar and support of the truth. ” Our particular interest is in the first two of these three descriptions.
The church is the house or household of God. The term, house, used here may refer to the church as God’s family or the church as God’s temple. In either case the special and close relation of the church to God is emphasized.
The house of God is identified in this text as “the church of the living God. ” The term, church, identifies the New Covenant people of God as an organized and governed assembly. This word in Greek culture was used of the official assembly of the Greek city-state. This word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament was used to describe the QAHAL of Israel, the official civil and religious assembly of the nation of Israel. Both of these backgrounds serve to emphasize the formal, official, or organized nature of the assembly to which reference is made.
But this church is described as “the church of the living God. ” “The living God” is the one described in Psalm 115:1-8: The significance of the use of this description here is to emphasize the idea that this church is dominated by the Word and Presence and Power of God. It is the church in which He dwells, in which He is active, in which He rules.
Now what is the reason for this tremendous emphasis on the unique identity of the church in this verse? I believe that the stated concern of this verse provides the answer. Paul says that He is writing to Timothy “so that [he] may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. ” What is Paul’s point? It is that there is a special conduct demanded by the special character of that church in which Timothy moves as Paul’s apostolic delegate or representative. The unique identity of the church requires a unique regulation of Timothy’s conduct in it. Timothy was not ignorant of the laws of God. He was not even ignorant of the regulations which had governed the Old Testament worship. From childhood be had known the sacred writings (I Tim. 3:15). Why, then, did Paul have to write to Timothy and carefully instruct Him in the conduct becoming in the House of God? The reason is plainly that with the coming of a new temple, there come new regulations for its ordering and worship. Hebrews 9:1 asserts that “even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary. ” The plain implication of such a text is that the New Covenant with its true tabernacle also has such regulations as are fitting for the divine worship conducted in the church.
When we understand the unique identity of the church as the new tabernacle and temple of God, it will not seem far-fetched to us to see an application to the church in Exodus 26:30 where Moses was strictly charged, “you shall erect the tabernacle according to its plan which you have been shown in the mountain. ” The substance of this command is often repeated in the Bible (Exodus 25:9,40; Heb. 8:5). Exodus 39 records Moses’ careful obedience to the detailed divine commands regarding the construction of the Lord’s house. All was completed “just as the Lord had commanded Moses ” (v. 1). This statement is repeated in vv. 5,7,21,26,29,31,32,42, and 43.
What is the application to us of these emphases of the Old Testament? God specially regulates the construction and worship of His house-temple. Nothing short of the precise and complete obedience to those special regulations which was exemplified in Moses is required. God never told Moses precisely how to construct Moses’ tent. God never told Moses precisely how to regulate His family. Those tasks He left to the discretion of Moses because it was Moses’ tent and Moses’ family. But it is for that very reason that God exercises such pervasive control over the tabernacle and its worship. The tabernacle was God’s tent; its ministers His family. Thus, He rules its worship with a special and detailed set of regulations to which He expects precise obedience.
Now please do not think that I put all of this forward as my main argument for the regulative principle of the church. All of this does, however, provide the biblical framework in which the force of those arguments is best appreciated.
Having looked, then, at the theological framework of the regulative principle, let us come to those arguments which form its main biblical support.
3. Its Biblical Support
Four biblical arguments for the Puritan regulative principle of the church and its worship must now be presented.
A. It is the prerogative of God alone to determine the terms on which sinners may approach Him in worship.
Bannerman eloquently states this first argument.
“The fundamental principle that lies at the basis of the whole argument is this, that in regard to the ordinance of public worship it is the province of God, and not the province of man, to determine both the terms and the manner of such worship … The path of approach to God was shut and barred in consequence of man’s sin: it was impossible for man himself to renew the intercourse which had been so solemnly closed by the judicial sentence which excluded him from the presence and favour of his God. Could that path ever again be opened up, and the communion of God with man and of man with God ever again be renewed? This was a question for God alone to determine. If it could, on what terms was the renewal of intercourse to take place, and in what manner was fellowship of the creature with his Creator again to be maintained? This, too, was a question no less than the former for God alone to resolve.”6
But not only does God possess this prerogative, the Bible shows that He exercises it (Gen. 4:1-5; Exod. 20:4-6). Should God decree that He will be worshiped only by those wearing orange shirts and green ties. He would have the right to do so. What arrogance for man to think that he has the least business in determining how God will be worshipped!
B. The introduction of extra-biblical practices into worship inevitably tends to nullify and undermine God’s appointed worship (Matt. 15:3,8,9; 2 Kings 16:10-18)
2 Kings 16:10-18 is a marvelous illustration of the way in which extra-biblical practices inevitably, but often with great subtlety displace the appointed worship of God. King Ahaz in his apostasy from God (2 Kings 16:l-2)and alliance with Assyria (2 Kings 16:7-9) set his heart on having an altar like that which he saw in Damascus. He ordered the construction of such an altar and that it should be placed in the central place occupied by the old bronze altar. This altar displaced the old altar as the place upon which the regular morning and evening offerings shall be offered. The old, God-appointed altar is, however, not destroyed. Of course not! It is simply placed in a comer (v. 14). In a footnote to his decree on this matter. Kind Ahaz, assures his more ‘traditional’ subjects that no insult was intended to the old, God-appointed altar. That decree concludes, “but the bronze altar shall be for me to inquire by ” (v. 15). Human innovators pay lip-service to the God- appointed elements of worship in the very act of nullifying them. How strikingly this illustrates the subtlety with which extra-biblical practices have the tendency to displace the divinely appointed altars of biblical worship!
This tendency is illustrated in evangelical churches today where mundane or silly announcements, special music, testimony times, mime, liturgical dance and Christian movies either completely replace or severely restrict the ordained parts of worship. These or other traditions of men, for instance, often leave only 20 minutes for preaching.
C. The wisdom of Christ and the sufficiency of the Scriptures are called into question by the addition of unappointed elements into worship.
The reasoning behind the addition of unappointed elements in worship illustrates how this happens. John Owen remarks:
“Three things are usually pleaded in the justification of the observance of such rites and ceremonies in the worship of God: First, That they tend unto the furtherance of the devotion of the worshippers; secondly. That they render the worship itself comely and beautiful; thirdly, that they are the preservers of order in the celebration thereof. And therefore on these accounts they may be instituted or appointed by some, and observed by all”7
Reasoning such as Owen describes impugns the wisdom of Christ. With all our weakness, sin, and folly, will Christ leave us without an adequate guide in the most important matter of worship? Has He left us who are in such a spiritual condition without a sufficiently devotional, beautiful and orderly worship of God? Says another Puritan, “For he that is the wisdom of the Father, the brightness of his glory, the true light, the word of life, yea truth and life itself, can he give unto his Church (for the which be paid the ransom of his blood) that which should not be a sufficient assurance for the same?”8
Not only is such reasoning out of accord with our needy spiritual condition; not only does it, therefore, bespeak not a little spiritual pride; but such reasoning also impugns the sufficiency of Scripture. Dr. Tulloch, an opponent of the regulative principle, attempts to evade this charge that his view denies the sufficiency of Scripture by arguing that the Bible was never intended to be a rule of church polity. He remarks, “The Christian Scriptures are a revelation of divine truth, and not a revelation of church polity. They not only do not lay down the outline of such a polity, but they do not even give the adequate and conclusive hints of one.”9
The key biblical text on the sufficiency of Scripture provides us with explosives necessary to destroy Dr. Tulloch’s view of Scripture. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is that text. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. ”
The man of God referred to in this text is not a reference to every individual Christian. There are compelling reasons rather to identify “the man of God”, as the man who like Timothy was charged to provide order in and leadership to the church of God.
Three lines of evidence converge to justify this conclusion. (1) There is the Old Testament usage. It is clear that in the Old Testament this designation as not used of all godly Israelites but reserved for those who led them (Deut. 33:1; 2 Chron. 8:14; 2 Kings 1:9; I Sam. 2:27). (2) There is the usage of I Tim. 6:11. It seems clear that in this entire context Paul is thinking of Timothy in his official ministerial capacity (I Tim. 1:18; 5:17-25; 6:2, 14, l7f., 20f). (3) There is the context of 2 Tim. 3:17. ln the preceding verse Paul is definitely thinking of ministry. The Scriptures are profitable (as translated by the NIV) for teaching, rebuking, correction, and training: different facets of the ministry of Timothy and every true pastor. In the succeeding verses the emphasis continues to be upon the ministry (2 Tim. 4:1-5). All this does not negate, but rather confirms the sufficiency of the Scriptures for every individual Christian. Nevertheless, the sufficiency of the Scriptures as taught in the key biblical statement of this doctrine is its sufficiency precisely for the man of God charged to order the life and worship of the church of God.
2 Tim. 3:16-17 requires us to raise this question to those who think like Dr. Tulloch. Is ordering the church for the glory of God a good work which the man of God is peculiarly required to perform? Then, the Scriptures are able to thoroughly equip the man of God for this task. They teach the man of God an adequate form of biblical church order and the essential elements of the worship of the church.
D. The Bible explicitly condemns all worship that is not commanded by God (Lev. 10:1-3; Deut 17:3; Deut. 4:2; 12:29-32; Josh. 1:7; 23:64; Matt. 15:13; Col 2:20-23).
Three of these passages deserve special comment Notice first Deut. 12:29-32. “When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations which you are going in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, beware that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise? ‘ You shall not behave thus toward the Lord your God, for every abominable act which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it. ”
Deut. 12:29-32 in its original context is addressed precisely to the question of how God should be worshipped (v.30). The rule given here in answer to this issue is very clear. “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it” (v.32). This clearly implies that it is a great temptation for God’s people to see how the world worships and to allow that to have a formative impact on our attitudes about worship. Such an attitude is explicitly forbidden of God’s people.
Col. 2:23 also rebukes all worship not appointed by God. “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. ”
This passage condemns what may be literally translated as “will worship”. Herbert Carson states the unavoidable implication of this phrase: “The words… imply a form of worship which a man devises for himself.”10
Lev. 10:1-3 is the frightening account of what happened to Nadab and Abihu when they displeased God in the way they worshipped Him. “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective fire pans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on It and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored. ‘ So Aaron, therefore, kept silent. ”
What was it that brought upon them such a shocking judgment? Verse one is explicit. They “offered strange fire before the Lord. ” The meaning of the phrase, “strange fire “, is expounded in the following clause. It is not fire which God had forbidden. The Hebrew clearly and literally reads that it was fire “which He had not commanded them. ” The mere fact that they dared to bring unauthorized fire brought fiery death upon them.
4. Its Necessary Clarification
Chapter I, paragraph 6 of the Confession provides an important clarification of the regulative principle. “… there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”
When the Confession says, therefore, that what is not commanded in public worship is forbidden, we are speaking of the substance and parts of worship, not its circumstances. Note paragraphs two through six of Chapter twenty-two.
“2. Religious worship is to be given to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and to him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creatures; and since the fall, not without a mediator, nor in the mediation of any other but Christ alone.
“3. Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one part of natural worship, is by God required of all men. But that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of the Spirit, according to his will; with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and when with others, in a known tongue.
“5. The reading of the Scriptures, preaching, and hearing the Word of God, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord; as also the administration of baptism, and the Lord’s supper, are all parts of religious worship of God, to be performed in obedience to him, with understanding, faith, reverence, and godly fear; moreover, solemn humiliation, with fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, ought to be used in an holy and religious manner.”
While the parts and substance of public worship are divinely limited, God has left the circumstances of worship to be determined by the light of nature, Christian prudence, and the general rules of Scripture. This distinction naturally suggests this question: How may we distinguish between the parts of worship and its circumstances? To this important question I have three responses.
First, Pastor Bob Fisher in his teaching on this subject” points out that Chapter I, Paragraph 6 of the Confession limits these “circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church” to things “common to human actions and societies”. We have seen that it is the unique identity of the church which requires its special regulation. It makes sense, then, that those things which the church has in common with other societies should be regulated in the same way that those societies are governed. Pastor Fisher mentioned the times of the meetings, the place of the meetings, the posture in which people attend the meetings, whether standing or seated on the floor or chairs, the order of the meetings, if the meeting involves singing whether that singing is accompanied by guitar or a piano or a pitch pipe or a flute as illustrations of such circumstances.
Second, I Cor. 14 contains two examples of such general rules which God demands that we apply to our specific circumstances. They are the rules of edification and order (w. 26 and 40). God demands that two rules be followed, but He has not given us a detailed list of what they mean in every situation.
Third, churches may differ as to where the line is drawn between circumstances and parts of worship without ceasing to be true churches. Just as churches may differ from us on certain doctrinal matters without becoming heretical, so also some differences on this issue of the regulative principle Ought not to be a cause of division between churches. Reasonable differences should not be made the source of division. Let the elders of each church be fully assured in their own mind. Differences in application of the regulative principle may be tolerated as long as each church recognizes its unique identity as the house of God and holds seriously to the regulative principle. We may be charitable in such things, as long as the substance of the regulative principle is sincerely embraced.
5. Its Practical Application
A clear understanding of and a thorough commitment to the regulative principle of the church is, I am convinced, absolutely crucial if biblical church reformation is ever to become a reality in our churches. Let me trace out its significance for five areas of church life.
A. For the Government of the Church
Puritans who held the regulative principle have historically been committed to a. jus divinum. In other words, they have been committed to the concept that there is a divinely ordained form of church government given us in the Bible. Historically, Anglicans (beginning with Hooker’s treatise on the government of the Church of England) and many others since then have argued that God has left the church free within very general principles to construct its own government Richard Hooker in his work. Of the Lows of Ecclesiastical Polity, expressly denies the regulative principle of the Puritans. One writer says, “Its object is to assert the right of a broad liberty on the basis of Scripture and reason.”12
Hooker’s views have simply anticipated the views of many evangelicals today. But such views can only be entertained while one remains in ignorance of the identity of the church as the house of God and the special regulative principle appropriate to the House of God. Once these things are understood the superficial and even profane character of the view espoused by Hooker is obvious.
Now I am very aware that I am addressing men of diverse ecclesiological backgrounds and convictions. Therefore, my first exhortation is simply this. In all your ordering of the order and government of the churches over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers see to it that you remember that your church is the house of God. It is not your house to be ordered in accord with your own traditions, imaginations or whims. It is God’s house to be ordered as He has expressly revealed in the Scriptures. Your elders’ meetings, your church meetings, your ministerial commands, have no right to alter or add to the government of the church revealed in the Bible. You must impress on yourself, your fellow-elders, and your church the great reality that only God has the right to regulate the proceedings of His house.
My second exhortation grows out of the first If you are to remember that the church is the house of God and conscientiously endeavor to order it according to the mind of Christ, you must believe that the Word of God is a sufficient revelation of the way the church is to be ordered. Only a deep-rooted confidence in Scripture will make you search the Scriptures as you must so that your ministry will properly order the church of Christ.
My third exhortation, however, goes. beyond these generalities and becomes more specific. We move now from the regulative principle itself to what I believe are some of its most obvious teachings and implications for the church. Since this conference is sponsored by a church which holds a specific Confession which contains a specific ecclesiology, I feel at liberty to become more specific, lf you honestly disagree with my understanding of the teaching of the Bible at some of the following points, let me assure you that it is not my purpose to condemn you. My only purpose is to make concrete specific implications of the regulative principle of the church. These specific implications might be multiplied to great length so I am being very selective.
The first such implication is that there ought to be no standing office in the church of Christ, but those two standing offices appointed and regulated in the Scriptures. If you are not a biblically qualified elder or a deacon, you have no true office in the church of Christ. In the churches I grew up in we had three offices. They were the office of pastor, deacon, and trustee. What I am asserting is that there is no biblical warrant or precedent for an office of trustee as distinct from the office of deacon or elder in the church. Therefore, the plainest application of the regulative principle is that such an office ought not to exist and by right ought to be abolished. My friend, l do not care what your office is called whether it is Trustee, Sunday School Superintendent, Church Secretary or whatever. If you are not an elder or deacon, you lave no right to rule and by right no authority in the church of Christ.
The second implication is like unto the first. The two offices of elder or deacon must be ordered in the way God has ordained in the Scriptures. Those who hold them must be biblically qualified. The relations between the elders and deacons must be biblically ordered. Deacons must understand their peculiar tasks and that they are subordinate to the elders in the execution of their office. Wherever it is biblically possible there ought to be a plurality of elders in any local church. The relation of the officers and members of the church must be biblically ordered so that the church understands both its duty to submit to its officers and its duty to take congregational action on issues like church-discipline and the election of church-officers.
The eldership ought not to be sub-divided into two or more offices. Now, brethren, I am well aware that I Tim. 5:17 teaches that there is a diversity of gift and function and financial support in the single office of elder. This diversity must never be made, however, the excuse for what amounts to an unbiblical subdivision of this office so that this text becomes a proof-text for a three office view of the church. Terminology like a minister or bishop or even pastor, if it is used to distinguish between the minister and the elders, has no biblical warrant. In the Bible the terms elder or presbyter, bishop or overseer, and pastor or shepherd all designate the same, identical office (Acts 20:17, 28; I Pet.5:2; I Tim. 3:2 with Eph.4:ll). Historically, use of these terms in a way not warranted by Scripture was the first half-step in the early church on the long road that led to Rome. Terminology like senior-pastor, assistant pastor, youth pastor is subversive of biblical church government.
But the regulative principle of the church has as well important implications …
B. For the Tasks of the Church
I remind you again that fundamental to the regulative principle of the church was its peculiar identity as the house or temple of God. The Church is subject to the special regulation of the Word of God precisely because of its unique identity in human society. Neither the family, nor even the state is subject to anything akin to the regulative principle. The unique identity of the church directly leads us to the unique identity of its functions or tasks in the world.
Now it is not my purpose to expound in detail the whole subject of the tasks of the church.13 Neither is it my purpose to deal in any kind of thorough way with the sphere sovereignty of the church, the family, and the state as the three major institutions which by divine ordination compose and regulate human society. I do think it is obvious to anyone with an appreciation of the development of the doctrine of sphere sovereignty in the Reformed tradition that God has given distinct tasks to the family, the state, and the church. This is both the general teaching of the Bible and the plain implication of the regulative principle itself. This suggests to me three plain and closely related duties of the church.
First, it requires that the church carefully fulfill its distinct tasks. The church must clearly define and understand the peculiar functions God has given it The church must put forth its resources and strength in the completion of those tasks.
Second, the church must carefully avoid usurping or having thrust upon it functions that are properly those of the state or the family. The danger is precisely the same as that pointed out in one of the arguments for the regulative principle. The introduction of extra-biblical practices into worship inevitably tends to nullify and undermine God’s appointed worship. In the same way the introduction of extra-biblical functions into the church inevitably tends to nullify and undermine God’s appointed tasks. If the temple of God feels a need to function as a political party or as a general educational institution, there will be an inevitable tendency to forget its unique and exalted identity as the temple of God.
Third, the church must carefully refrain from abdicating its own peculiar tasks and permitting other spheres of society to fulfill its own unique functions. This is the great reason that para-church organizations are proliferating. But, my friends, no other institution ultimately can fulfill and certainly fulfill so well the tasks of the church as the church itself. We are told constantly today that the church cannot do the things that God has ordained that it should do. I do not believe it. In fact, I believe that only the church can adequately perform its divinely ordained tasks. Only the church can maintain the public worship of God. Only the church can fulfill the Great Commission: Only the church can disciple, baptize, and teach the disciples to observe all Christ’s commandments. Only the church can properly train its own leadership. What kind of sense does it make to allow universities or colleges not under the oversight of a local church to train the future leadership of the church? Clearly, if anything falls within the sphere of the church it is the training of its own future preachers and teachers.
My brethren, it is crucial that you appreciate the implications of the regulative principle for the tasks of the church. It is only when you begin to appreciate it that, I am convinced, you will begin to have a vision for what the church of Christ should be. It is only then that you will begin to grasp practically why Paul said, “To Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. ” (Eph. 3:21).
C. For the Worship of the Church
The regulative principle of worship is often seen as repressive and negative. In actuality it is very positive and liberating. It requires that the great elements of gospel worship ordained in the Word of God have the central place in the worship of the church. It is often when churches feel that their worship is dull and lifeless and traditional that they begin to search for some new ceremony, program, or innovation to liven things up. What an awful testimony this is to the carnality and ignorance of such churches!
My brethren, the way to life and power and reality in the worship of God is not the way of innovation and novelty. It is the way back to the great, central requirements of gospel worship. If people and churches languish and die under those ordinances, then they ought to die; and nothing else will be sufficient to resurrect them to spiritual life.
Let me charge you, then, my brethren, to maintain the centrality of the reading and proclamation of the Word in the worship of God. If anything was central in the churches of the New Testament, this was (I Tim. 4:13; Acts 2:42; 20:7-9; I Cor. 14). This means that the predominant place in the worship of God should be given to the proclamation and reading of His Word. This may mean longer services and sermons. So be it.
Let me charge you, as well, to maintain the centrality of the congregational praise of God in your worship. This, too, is a prominent part of New Testament worship (Matt. 26:30; I Cor 14:15,26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
Let me encourage you, as well, to maintain the centrality of prayer in your worship (Acts2:42; I Cor. 14:13-17). It is the custom in my own church to hold a mid-week meeting dedicated to corporate prayer. It will be our custom as long as I have anything to say about it! How can we say that we believe in the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation and the building of the church and not meet statedly as a church to pray for His blessing and help?
Let me finally encourage you to maintain the centrality of the great ordinances of the church in your worship. Make certain that baptism, the joining of men and women to the defined membership of the church, the Lord’s Day, the Lord’s Supper, the election of officers, and church discipline are prominent aspects of your church life. For instance, we announce the names of everyone who comes forward to join the church for three weeks in a row in the services of the church. We preach on the duty of baptism and church membership because we believe they are important gospel ordinances.
But there is a final implication of the regulative principle which we must not forego. It concerns the instruction of this principle…
D. For the Women in the Church
Both in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I live, which is the headquarters of the Christian Reformed Church of North America and in South Africa, Reformed denominations have recently voted to approve and allow women to occupy the office of elder or pastor in the church. This circumstance makes the instruction you have received today on the subject of the regulative principle of pointed significance. For I am convinced that the subject of women in the church is one of the clearest examples of the operation of the regulative principle in the New Testament. Let me explain what I mean.
In the two, major New Testament passages which regulate the conduct of women in the church, it is very clear that the directions given have immediate application only to the formal meetings of the church. In other words, the scope of the orders given in both I Cor. 14:33b-35 and I Tim. 2:8-14 is the local church. [Read both passages. The reference of the words, “in every place”, in I Tim. 2:8 is to every place the church gathers to worship.] Furthermore, the instructions given in these passages must and cannot be applied outside the meetings of the church. This means that without some clear distinction between what is the church and what is not the church these instructions cannot be obeyed. Of course it is the very distinction between the church as the temple of God and other institutions and gatherings of human society which is demanded by the regulative principle.
All this is not to say that there is no instruction to be gleaned from these passages as to how women are to behave outside the church. This brings me, however, to another aspect of these passages which I think must be clearly understood. The instructions to be found in these passages are inspired applications of more general principles to the life of the church. In I Cor. 14:34 Paul’s mention of the law illustrates this. “Let the -women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. ” The law nowhere forbids women to speak in the church. The law, however, teaches the principle of male headship which Paul by apostolic authority applies to the church in the way he carefully delineates in I Cor. 14 and I Tim. 2.
What has all of this to do with the regulative principle? Just this. The whole contention of most of Christian feminism reduces to the claim that the directions of I Cor. 14 and I Tim. 2 no longer are authoritative for the church of Christ today. But, brethren, this is no more and no less than a denial of the regulative principle. For the regulative principle consists in this that Christ once for all has ordered the life of His church. His temple, through His inspired apostolic representatives. To deny the relevance of these directions to the church is to deny the relevance of one aspect of the regulative principle. It is to cut the church loose from its apostolic regulative principle. It is to put the church in a position where it violates the regulative principle twice. It takes away from the law of Christ and adds to it by insisting that women may take places of leadership in the life of the church. The regulative principle therefore simply asserts the crown rights of King Jesus in His church. The sentence of the head of the church against those who tamper with the crown rights of King Jesus is found in I Cor. 14:37,38. “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which l write to you are the commandment of the Lord. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. ”
NOTES 1. James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, vol. I, (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), p. 339.
2. G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, p. 162.
3. James Bannerman, vol. I, pp. 339,340.
4. G. 1. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, p. 160
5. A. B. Bruce, The Synoptic Gospels, in W. Robertson Nicoll, ed Expositors Greek Testament, vol. I, p. 241.
6. James Bannerman, vol. I, pp. 340,341.
7. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, vol. XV, (London, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), p. 467.
8. The Reformation of the Church, selected with introductory notes by lain Murray, (London, The Burner of Truth Trust, 1965), p. 75.
9. The Reformation of the Church, p. 44.
10. Herbert Carson, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1976), p.79.
11. Let me recommend Pastor Bob Fisher’s taped messages on this subject available through Trinity Pulpit.
12. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, (Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1909), Vol. V, p. 360.
13. Let me recommend Pastor Greg Nichols’ unpublished ecclesiology notes on this issue for such a treatment.