The Regulative Principle of the Church 16: Its Contemporary Objections (Part 1)

by | Aug 8, 2012 | Ecclesiology, Regulative Principle

After considerable thought I have isolated ten such objections and questions.  The first of these is perhaps the most important and is the subject of this blog post.

(1) It implies a counterintuitive regulation of worship (or the church) different from the rest of human life.

As noted previously, one of the major directions in which John Frame re-interprets the regulative principle is by arguing that it applies to all of life.  So understanding it, he is able to adopt it verbally, though not, I would argue, substantially in its historical form.  In a key statement of this re-orientation of the principle, he says:

I therefore reject the limitation of the regulative principle to official worship services.  In my view, the regulative principle in Scripture is not about church power and officially sanctioned worship services.  It is a doctrine about worship, about all forms of worship.  It governs all worship, whether formal or informal, individual or corporate, public or private, family or church, broad or narrow.  Limiting the doctrine to officially sanctioned worship robs it of its biblical force.1

Others adopt Frame’s rejection of the historical limitation of the principle, but see this as a reason to reject the regulative principle itself.  Mark Driscoll, for instance, in a preaching format says the following:

I appreciate that freedom in the normative principle. And thirdly, it treats gathered and scattered worship the same. What I don’t understand is why we would treat 1 hour a week by a certain set of rules, and the other 167 hours of the week by a different set of rules. When you were scattered for Mars Hill Church, you lived by the green?light normative principle. You don’t wake up in the morning acting like a regulativist. You don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Okay. I need to brush my teeth. Where is that in the Bible? It’s not in there. Golly, I was hoping I could brush my teeth, but I can’t. Well, I guess I’ll have breakfast. Well, the Bible doesn’t say breakfast. It says to eat, but it doesn’t say when. Is it okay to eat in the morning? I’d better pray about this. Okay. I gotta put pants. Uh?oh, pants aren’t in the Bible. Oh no. This is gonna be a bad day.

“Well, I gotta go to work now. I’m gonna drive my car. Uh?oh, cars aren’t in the Bible. I guess I’ll walk, show up five hours late with no pants. Boss is like, ‘What are you doing?’ I’m being biblical. He hands you a computer you say, ‘That’s not in the Bible. I can’t do that.’ He’ll say, ‘You’re fired, biblically. You’re fired.’ We don’t live that way. We don’t sit at home paralyzed saying, ‘I can’t do it unless the Bible says to.’ No. We can live freely and do what Scripture encourages us and what our conscience dictates and what our life requires until we bump up against something that’s a sin, and we say, ‘No. That’s red light. I can’t do that.’ But we live by green light until we see red light.

Why is it that we live by normative green?light principle until we get to church, and then we have to live by regulative red?light principle just for an hour a week as if there’s not a blur in between the lines? We also have other church gatherings, meetings, Wednesday night classes, community groups. Do they count red light, green light? The whole things gets very confusing. I think we live our whole life by the same principles, whether we’re scattered or gathered for worship, it’s green light. We’re free until we see something that is sinful and forbidden, then it’s red light and we stop.

…. The three weaknesses, one, again, it separates gathered and scattered worship. When you walk in the building, you flip into a totally new paradigm as if Jesus wasn’t Lord over all, as if he ruled in the church in a special way that he does, and as soon as you step outside of the door, very peculiar. 2

It is clear from these citations that the notion that all of life is worship provides writers like Frame and Driscoll (and Gore) one of their primary reasons for either re-interpreting or rejecting the regulative principle.  They, so to speak, intuitively dismiss the distinction between worship and the rest of life historically associated to the regulative principle in favor of the popular contemporary notion that all of life is worship.  By way of a response to this intuitive dismissal of the distinction between worship and the rest of life historically associated with the regulative principle, let me begin by summarizing my view of this matter.

First of all, I have a sympathetic response.  I do not believe that the distinction involved in the regulative principle has been adequately or at least clearly articulated in Reformed tradition.  Of course, I will confess the limitations of my own study of the matter.  But in my view the description of this principle as the regulative principle of worship says both too much and too little.  It says too much because it speaks of worship generally when there is reason both in the tradition and in the Bible to limit the (strict) application of the regulative principle to that worship carried on by the gathered church.  It says too little because it limits (or seems to limit) the regulative principle to worship, when there is reason both in the tradition and in the Bible to apply the regulative principle more broadly to the doctrine, government, and tasks of the church.  This lack of clarity has perhaps contributed to way in which the regulative principle of worship has struck men like Frame, Driscoll, and Gore as odd and contrary to God’s normal way of doing business.

Second of all, I have a critical response.  The motto that all of life is worship has blinded Driscoll and Frame to important distinctions and qualifications which the Bible provides to the notion that all of life is worship.  Once the true framework and rationale for the regulative principle is understood to be the distinctive identity of the church and therefore of its worship, the solid, biblical evidence for it becomes clear.

Now with these initial observations clearly before us, let me summarize the evidence against the intuitive dismissal of the distinction between the church and its worship and the rest of life.  Much, of course, of this evidence has been reviewed above.

First, the “all of life is worship” motto forgets the distinction between the gathered church and the scattered church (to allude to Driscoll’s words).  Remember Driscoll says of the regulative principle of worship:  “…it separates gathered and scattered worship. When you walk in the building, you flip into a totally new paradigm as if Jesus wasn’t Lord over all, as if he ruled in the church in a special way that he does, and as soon as you step outside of the door, very peculiar.”  Driscoll is right that the regulative principle separates (or at least distinguishes) the gathered and scattered church, but as we have seen so does the Bible.  The notion that Christ especially present in the gathered church is supported throughout the Bible, but it is given explicit warrant in two classic passages.

Matthew 18:20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.

1 Corinthians 14:23-25 Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.

In both Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 14 the pregnant context of these assertion of Christ’s presence is the assembly of the church.  It defies reason to argue that such assertions promise nothing more than the same presence of Christ that is with His scattered church.

There is, thus, a special presence of Christ in the corporate worship of the church which requires a special regulation of that worship different than the rest of life.  Since I have made this point above, let me buttress by perceptive words of well-known contemporary Reformed theologians.  Ligon Duncan writes:

The strong and special emphasis on the corporate worship of God being founded positively on the directions of Scripture came to be known as the regulative principle.  It is an extension of the Reformational axiom of sola scriptura.  As the Bible is the final authority in faith and life, so it is also the final authority in how we corporately worship—but in a distinct and special way.  Whereas all of life is to be lived in accordance with Scripture, Scripture does not speak discreetly (discretely?—SW) to every specific component of our lives.  There are many situations in which we must rely upon general biblical principles and then attempt to think Christianly without specific guidance in various circumstances.

The Reformers thought the matter of corporate worship was just a little bit different than this.  They taught that God had given full attention to this matter in his word because it is one of central significance in the Christian life and in his eternal purposes.  Therefore, we are to exercise a special kind of care when it comes to this activity—a care distinct from that which we employ anywhere else in the Christian life….

Paul regulates the number and order of people allowed to exercise extraordinary  gifts vested in them by the Holy Spirit during corporate worship! One cannot conceive of such a restriction on “worship in all of life.”  (Duncan is speaking of 1 Corinthians 14–SW.) ….

It is also apparent … that the New Testament has a distinctive category of corporate worship and that it has a special concern about worship that  is uniquely and distinguishably corporate.  This is important to say because serious voices in the worship debate question whether a distinct category of corporate worship can be found in the new-covenant era.3

Derek Thomas adds:

No amount of theological hair-splitting over what may be termed broad and narrow worship can overcome the definable moment (signaled by a call to worship) when God’s covenant people gathered together and it is no longer permitted to do certain, otherwise legitimate, things.  To cite Terry Johnson:   “Whether or not I ought to dig ditches, fly kites, or bathe my children in the context of public worship is not the same question as whether or not God may be glorified by them.”4

Second, the motto that all of life is worship is associated with views that blunt other related and important biblical distinctions.  Driscoll remarks at one point:  “What I don’t understand is why we would treat 1 hour a week by a certain set of rules, and the other 167 hours of the week by a different set of rules.”  To which I respond, “If you understood the biblical teaching on the Christian Sabbath, perhaps you would understand not only this, Mark, but also why one day a week has a different set of rules.”  My point is, of course, not that Driscoll has to agree with me about the Christian Sabbath.  My point is that the Christian Sabbath is another place where we have to say something like what I have said about the regulative principle of the church’s worship.  Yes, all of life is worship, but that does not mean the gathering of the church is not worship in a special sense.  So again here, I say yes every day is holy, but one day is especially and distinctly holy.   But this brings me to a third response to this objection to the regulative principle.

Third, as I have said, the true and basic distinction which gives rise to the regulative principle is the distinction between the church in its unique identity and the rest of life.  I have presented several, solid reasons to grant the truth of the Nicene Creed when it makes one of the attributes of the church holiness.  The church is holy, as we have seen, in a way that the rest of life is not.  It is holy in a sense that even other divine institutions like the family and the state are not.  This unique identity of the church is, as we have seen, emphatically stated in 1 Timothy 3:15.  We have also seen that in that passage the unique identity of the church is connected to the necessity of special conduct in the church.

For all these reasons, the objections to and reinterpretations of the regulative principle advocated by many in our day are to be seen as completely unnecessary.  To put this another way, they are not counterintuitive to those who understand the biblical teaching that some things in life are especially holy and that one of those things that is especially holy is the church and its worship.

1Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth, 44-45.
2Mark Driscoll, http://marshill.com/media/religionsaves/regulative-principle; Steve Schlissel, http://www.messiahnyc.org/ArticlesDetail.asp?id=89 illustrate this tendency;  Cf. also R. J. Gore’s discussion of this issue and consequent rejection of the regulative principle in Covenantal Worship: Reconsidering the Puritan Regulative Principle (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R Publishing, 2002), 112-116.
3Give Praise to God:  A Vision for Reforming Worship, edited by Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W. H. Thoomas, and J. Ligon Duncan III (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 21, 47, 49.
4Give Praise to God, 87.

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The Reformed confessions of faith all affirm that God made a “covenant of works” with Adam in the Garden of Eden. For example, The Second London Baptist Confession 20.1 explicitly refers to this covenant: “The covenant of works being broken by sin, and made...

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