A sound church, part 2: the regulative principle

04 Mar

Last week, I proposed that we would do well to consider what God looks for in a church, and our first characteristic of such a sound church is that it will be one that is committed to the authority of Scripture. The church, from its leadership through its membership, must insist that the church will do whatever the Bible directs it to do.

Let me add a qualifier to this standard: not only should a church do everything that the Bible does command it to do, it should refrain from doing anything that the Bible does not command it to do. In other words, the church is not free to institute practices and policies for which it does not have explicit biblical authorization.

One way to illustrate the importance of this principle is to consider what happens to a church that disregards it. The church as an institution holds a unique position in claiming to speak for God. When a church institutes policies and programs for which it lacks biblical warrant, it is in effect saying “thus says the Lord” when the Lord has not spoken. This is an abuse of the church’s authority, for the church may not bind the conscience of the believer based merely on its own preferences or opinions.

Allow me to suggest a provocative, real life example: I see no New Testament warrant for the church to incorporate dramatic productions into its worship service. If we are serious about being biblical, no appeal to pure pragmatism can trump the fact that Scripture simply doesn’t command the church to do such things.

The protection of conscience is biblical. At the end of the book of Romans, Paul has to caution the church at Rome about divisions in the church caused by differing views of holy days and permissible foods. Some in the church thought that specific holy days should be observed, while others viewed all days as equal. And some thought that certain foods were unclean, while others felt free to eat. In either case, both those taking the stricter and those taking the most permissive positions were looking down on the people in the church with whom they disagreed. And so Paul says, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand…. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

Paul’s instruction here would demand that not only should the people not judge one another, but surely also that the church can’t insist that the people eat (or refrain from eating) the disputed food. And similarly, the church should not, in other cases, insist on positions unless it can offer biblical justification for doing so.


3 responses to “A sound church, part 2: the regulative principle

  1. Larry

    March 4, 2013 at 11:58 am

    Great post as usual, Mike! I wonder, though, if you would extend this logic into doctrinal teachings. To use an equally provocative (to some) example, would you say that a church is permitted to prevent its members from drinking small amounts of alcohol socially or with meals? This preventative action, like dramatic presentations, is not “greenlighted” anywhere in scripture. Therefore, would you agree with the conclusion that it should be subject to the same scrutiny as the dramatic presentation example?

    • Michael Riley

      March 4, 2013 at 1:49 pm


      The regulative principle, in my understanding, is quite limited in the kinds of problems that it solves. Properly used, it applies only to the elements of the church’s practice, particularly its worship. So, for instance, the regulative principle would tell us that we must sing in church; it does not tell us what specific songs to sing.

      I would say the same thing is true of your question: the New Testament indicates that we must devote ourselves to the apostles’ doctrine, and so we preach. But I would hesitate, for instance, to say that the regulative principle demands that a particular interpretation of any one passage must be preached.

      Your question is a valid one, and because it involves an issue of conscience, is closely related to this topic. But I don’t believe that all issues of conscience are necessarily covered by the regulative principle.

  2. Larry

    March 5, 2013 at 11:00 am

    Thanks Mike! It’s funny, coming from a legal background I am reminded of the originalist/textualist argument of constitutional interpretation. Namely, the US government is one of enumerated powers. If the Constitution does not give the power to the government, the government does not possess the power in question. The regulative principle seems similar to me if I am understanding it correctly.

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