The regulative principle (again) and worship on Sundays

The regulative principle (again) and worship on Sundays

In a previous article, I outlined a brief case for why the regulative principle of worship (“RP”) wasn’t a label worth owning. I still believe that. Here is a modified version of the argument I presented there:

  1. The basic premise of the RP is sound. The elements, or building blocks, of worship must be regulated by scripture.1
  2. This ship runs aground in discussion of the circumstances of worship―what it looks like, how it is done.
  3. Thus, application of the RP varies widely because its interpretation is subjective. Some would argue historical creeds, confessions and scripture support the RP. But, these often say less than advocates want them to say. Evidence from creeds and confessions is generally weak. Citation support is almost always out of context and inapplicable to the document’s argument―and to the RP beyond the impetus to define the elements. The scriptural appeals are either out of context or do not provide direct help in solving disputes about the circumstances of worship.
  4. Because of this subjectivity, the RP has no meaningful role as an interpretive grid to structure worship beyond defining the elements.

I don’t like the RP label because it communicates little. It’s about as informative as saying, “I believe the bible!” I don’t like the RP label for the same reason I don’t like the term “fundamentalist.” Central Seminary, Maranatha Seminary and Fairhaven Baptist Bible College are fundamentalist institutions―but that label is pretty elastic. So it is with the RP.

One preacher declares that to conceive of worship (the entire service, not simply the music) as an “experience” is to surrender to mysticism out of a mercenary desire to escape the “banality” of Reformed worship.2 Another states that advent wreaths are sinful,3 claims the bible’s silence on an issue is as much a prohibition as a direct condemnation,4 yet the author is on session in a congregation which boasts a livestream service.5 Still another theologian reasons, “only the most self-absorbed congregation would say that it does not need to be concerned about making its worship relevant to the present generation.”6

Each one of these men agree with the RP. Each disagrees with the other.

So, I am unsatisfied with the label, even as I own its basic ethos. I don’t like the paradigm. I’ll own it when I have to use insider language, but (like “Calvinism”) it isn’t a t-shirt I’ll wear to Wal-Mart.

Rather than claim a label that communicates little, I prefer to say “scripture regulates how we do things on Sunday.” To identify the circumstances (the style and form of these elements), I prefer to use a rubric Dr. Larry Oats taught us (in a context I forget!):

  • Is there an explicit warrant for it? Go for it.
  • Is there an implicit warrant for it? It’s likely ok, if the interpretation is legitimate.
  • Is there a principle that guides us, here? Likely ok, but get confirmation from some trusted Christians.

To get down to brass tacks, I’ll present the “liturgy” from our service on 25 July 2021. I believe this will generate some helpful discussion. Though my headings here do not explicitly echo the standard Protestant liturgies,7 they contain the same ingredients:

Call to Worship

This opens the service. It’s meant to set our hearts and minds and ask God to bless our worship. If you have a good hymnal, it will have an index of suggested calls to worship in scripture or song that will be invaluable for your service planning. I have several resources at my desk for this purpose.8

Read Psalm 100

I recently began making a “Gospel connection” to each call to worship, so I know I’ve given the Gospel each and every service. This lasts no more than two minutes and is always keyed to the call to worship reference I just read:

Whoever you are, God’s loyal love endures forever. His faithfulness, His promises, are eternal―not like ours.

Serve Him with gladness. Come in from the cold and join His family. Jesus is the Revealer who tells about this world and ourselves, the Reconciler who came to heal our alienation from God, and the Ruler of the coming kingdom.

Jesus is the hinge of the Christian story. He explains this world and ourselves, and He calls us to repent and worship Him. In exchange, He offers us a place in His coming kingdom community―which is what He made us for!

I then offer a short prayer:

Dear Lord:

Comfort us. Strengthen us. Rebuke us. Encourage us. Accept our worship this morning. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen!

Scripture Reading

This reading is always keyed to the sermon. We alternate between solo readings, and response readings with the congregation participating. Every six weeks we recite a creed. This week was a solo reading, which any church member (man, woman, boy, girl) can do. This reading was done by a mentally handicapped woman. She struggles mightily to read aloud coherently, and I often help her. I feel her participation in worship outweighs the aesthetic “loss” of not having a “smooth” reader. I select all the readings in advance.

Read 1 Corinthians 13.

Worship in Song

We typically do a blended selection of songs. We have a song leader, with either a piano or guitar accompaniment. We rotate two song leaders (one boy, one woman), and two pianists (one boy, one woman). One of the pianists (the boy) also sometimes plays guitar in lieu of piano.

The songs, like the scripture reading, echo the sermon theme―in this case, brotherly love and community.

Sing “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart”

Sing “Brethren We Have Met to Worship”

Sing “Come Thou Fount (I Will Sing).” This is a Chris Tomlin remix.

I do not select the songs. We have a living document with the sermon passage, the assigned reading, and the sermon “theme.” The song leaders choose songs based on the theme.

Pastoral Prayer

We don’t do a “prayer for the offering.” The pastoral prayer has subsumed that. Like the reading and the songs, this prayer is keyed to the sermon theme. I script every prayer, and almost never do extemporaneous prayer. This one is patterned after the scripture reading.

Lord:

All our gifts are nothing without love for one another. We may have knowledge, but without brotherly love we are nothing. We may give up our property and even our lives, but if we don’t have love, we gain nothing.

Lead us to bear all things, to believe the best about our brothers and sisters, and to hope that we can have the community you want us to have.

The offering then follows.

Worship in Song

Sing “Oh, the Deep, Deep Love” (Bob Kauflin)

Sing “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” (Peter Scholtes)

Here is one of the songs:

Worship by the Word

My sermon was on Acts 2:42-47:

Prayer of Confession and Petition

We don’t yet have a dedicated time for confession in the worship service. But, I have been using the “closing prayer” of the sermon as the prayer of confession, keyed to the sermon theme. Again, this is always pre-scripted. Today, I was supposed to lead into the prayer with the following preamble. But, for reasons even I don’t understand, I skipped it. But I’ll re-produce it here anyway:

God tells us that the sacrifice He most desires is a broken and contrite heart. Honest sorrow for sin and resolve to love Him more, rather than dead ritual

As we think of our community, of our church, of what it could be, and what it is, of what God wants it to be, and the distance we still have to go … let’s bring Him that sacrifice in our prayers now, and in our actions this coming week.

Now, the prayer of confession begins. The prayers are often paraphrases of scripture, with my own bridges as transitions. You saw that in the pastoral prayer, and the method continues here:

Lord, your word tells us that if you love us, then we also ought to love one another. That if we love one another, then we can know you abide in us. And your love is completed and perfected when we reflect it to one another in your family.

Forgive us for our bitterness, for our anger, for our “busyness,” for our self-centeredness, for our misplaced priorities.

Forgive us for the things our hearts are set and eyes are fixed on that so often have little to do with your Gospel and your community.

Lead us to find new ways, better ways, good ways, wholesome ways to reflect you in our community here.

Charge and Blessing

This is often a stanza from a relevant hymn, or the standard doxology, or perhaps a scripture reading (again, see the index in your hymnal for help, here). Today, the song leader was balancing another member’s toddler on her lap and motioned that the “last stanza” thing wasn’t going to happen.

So, I improvised with this:

Jesus loves us, and gave His life so that we might be free. Go and love Him and spirit and in truth, and let’s love one another, too. God bless.

That was the worship service. It took 77 minutes. The proper elements were there. It accords with the RP. We can quibble about what it looked like―the circumstances. But, I believe most congregations with a self-consciously conservative philosophy of worship would accept it. I hope our own small example is a blessing to you as you consider worship in your own context.  


1 Scripture shows us five elements: (1) we see the scripture in the ordinances, (2) we read the word, (3) we preach the word, (4) we sing the word, and (5) we pray the word.  

2 Jonathan Cruse, What Happens When We Worship? (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2020), p. 6.

3 D.G. Hart and John Meuther, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002), p. 84.  

4 Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 78-79. “The only proper ground for doing anything in worship is a command from God in his Word.”

5 See https://www.calvaryglenside.org/. Hart’s blog (https://oldlife.org/about-2/) identifies him as a member of the Session at the Calvary Glenside OPC.

6 Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), p. 137.  

7 Adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition and intercession, instruction, communion/fellowship, charge and blessing.  

8 These include, (1) The Hymnal for Worship & Celebration, ed. Tom Fettke (Waco: Word, 1986), (2) Baptist Union of Great Britain, Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples, ed. Christopher Ellis and Myra Blyth (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2005), (3) Book of Common Prayer from the Episcopal Church (Feb. 2007), (4) Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Lifeway, 2008), (5) Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections, 2017).

The Regulative Principle Isn’t Worth It

The Regulative Principle Isn’t Worth It

This article was updated on 06 July 2021.

How should we worship on Sundays? The Church has often framed this as an argument between the “regulative” and “normative” principles. This is a simplistic grid―these approaches are more complementary than we realize. This article discusses the regulative principle.

Precis of the Regulative Principle Position

The Regulative Principle (“RP”) states “… everything we do in a corporate worship gathering must be clearly warranted by Scripture.”[1] Christians often distinguish worship by (1) elements (what we do), and (2) circumstances (how we do it).[2] RP advocates may apply it in two ways:

  • Track One: The RP applies to the elements only. The circumstances “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”[3]
  • Track Two: The RP applies to both the elements and circumstances. God’s will for worship “is either expressly set down or necessarily contained” in Scripture.[4]

RP proponents advance several overarching justifications:

  1. The 2nd Commandment says we must not worship the true God in a false way.[5] So, we must only worship the way He permits.
  2. Faith is response to God, and we only know how to respond to God from His word, so worship must be based on the word.[6]
  3. True piety means we do what God says, so we obey scripture.[7]
  4. If we worship God the wrong way, He may kill us (Lev 10:3).
  5. We wound the conscience of believers by forcing them to worship contrary to the bible.[8]
  6. The Church administers God’s rule for worship, and God’s rules are in His word, so worship must be based on the word.[9]
  7. We are all prone to idolatry, so we must worship according to scripture.[10]

The Regulative Principle Doesn’t Pass Muster

Application of the RP varies widely because its interpretation is subjective. Some would argue historical creeds, confessions and scripture support the RP. However,

  1. Evidence from creeds and confessions is generally weak. Citation support is almost always out of context and inapplicable to the document’s argument―and certainly to the RP.
  2. The scriptural appeals are either out of context or do not go beyond abstract principles that are not in dispute.

Because of this subjectivity, the RP has no meaningful role as an interpretive grid to structure worship beyond defining the elements.

Analysis of Extra-biblical Warrant

Belgic Confession, Art. 32 proclaims “do not depart from those things which Christ, our only master, hath instituted.”[11] The confession’s citations are out of context and inapplicable.[12] It simply advises us to do what Christ says.

Heidelberg Catechism, Q 96 says we must not “… worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word.”[13] It cites 1 Samuel 15:23, where Saul disobeyed a direct command from God. Likewise, Deuteronomy 12:30 simply forbids disobeying direct orders.  

Westminster Larger Catechism, Q 108 explains the duties inherent in the 2nd Commandment, which are “the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his Word.”[14] The catechism mistakenly applies Exodus 20:4-6 to God―it is actually about idolatry. On its own, the catechism says nothing more than “do not worship God in a false way.”

Westminster Larger Catechism, Q 110 describes why we must keep the 2nd Commandment and refers to God’s “revengeful indignation against all false worship, as being a spiritual whoredom.” This is a polemic against idolatry, which has nothing to do with the RP.

Westminster Confession, Art. 1.6 explains “[t]he whole counsel of God … is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”[15] It also mentions circumstances in worship need to be regulated “according to the general rules of the Word …”[16] This is the strongest support for the RP. However, because these are general statements about scripture, they are more hermeneutics for life than precepts for worship.

The 1689 London Baptist Confession, Art. 1.6 explains God’s will is “necessarily contained” in scripture.[17] Scott Aniol believes this is stricter than the Westminster equivalent.[18] However, a modern language version reads “or by necessary inference,”[19] and both versions explain “some circumstances” of worship are ordered by “Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word.”[20] Evidence indicates the 1689 Confession is not stricter than the Westminster equivalent.

Westminster Confession, Art. 20.2 says our consciences must be free from “any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship.”[21] The scripture citations are irrelevant to the RP.[22] Application of the RP does not solve the matter of allegedly binding the conscience, because there is no “golden tablet” of RP implications―different congregations implement it in widely divergent ways. 

Westminster Confession, Art. 21.1 (cf. 1689 Confession, Art. 22.1) says God instituted the “acceptable way” of worship, and we cannot worship “in any way not prescribed by scripture.”[23] It cites Deuteronomy 12:32, which declares we cannot add or take away from God’s commands. This is a general principle, not a manual for worship. Other citations are out of context and irrelevant.[24] One wonders what Jesus thought as He worshiped in a synagogue, which is not prescribed by scripture.[25]

Analysis of Biblical Warrant

Appeals to Exodus 20:4-6 misunderstand the issue. For example, Mark Dever mis-cites this text and claims it is about how we worship. But, it is actually about who.[26]The passage is about idolatry, not worship.

At Exodus 34:13-15, D.G. Hart and John Meuther claim this proves God is jealous and those who contradict or thwart His will are “wicked, irrelevant and profane.”[27] However, this reference is out of context. God is telling the Israelites to drive pagans out because their presence will lead to idolatry (Ex 34:11-16). This has nothing to do with worship.

Leviticus 10:3 suggests worship must not be done improperly, but the text does not say what the men did wrong. This cannot go beyond basic principle.

Appeals to Mark 7:6-7 are specious. Here, Jesus criticizes Pharisees for zealously adding to God’s law and perverting what it means to have a relationship with God. RP appeals therefore cast rhetorical foes as damnable legalists. The text says nothing about worship―it is about the nature of a relationship with God.

At Colossians 2:22-23, Paul condemns asceticism as religion. This text is immaterial because RP opponents are not ascetics who teach a false religion. The issue in Colossians is false religion, not “improper” worship style.

In Matthew 28:20, Jesus declares we must observe what He commanded us. Fair enough, but every serious Christian would believe she does what God commands! This citation therefore proves nothing.

At Romans 1:21, Hart and Meuther declare “… those who are in Christ are incompetent to devise by their imaginations, even devout ones, any sort of worship that is appropriate or pleasing to God.”[28] This is an abstract point that is functionally meaningless. Without a “golden tablet” of infallible RP implications, it does nothing for us. 

Mark Dever declares John 4:19-24 tells us worship is regulated by revelation.[29] This principle is not in dispute. What is disputed is how to apply this revelation. This citation resolves nothing.

He repeats the same refrain at 1 Corinthians 14.[30] However, this is a passage regulating the use of apostolic sign gifts in corporate worship. The most applicable principle here is that worship must be done in an orderly fashion, but this is hardly in dispute.

Conclusion

Track Two of the RP is based on a faulty interpretation of the 1689 Confession. Track One, in its most distilled essence,[31] makes good sense but lacks scriptural and extra-biblical support when framed as a dogma.

RP is applied inconsistently and subjectively.[32] Ligon Duncan argues for a softer RP that is so generic it need not claim the label.[33] However, Hart and Meuther declare pastors are equivalent to Old Covenant priests,[34] we cannot do leisure activities on the Sabbath,[35] worship is not for our pleasure (mis-citing Calvin),[36] lighting an advent wreath is sinful,[37] horizontal worship is specious[38] (so much for brotherly love?), only pastors can read scripture aloud,[39] we must worship as if at a funeral,[40] believers who emphasize God’s love are evangelical Marcionites,[41] and only RP believers may claim God’s love.[42] They also claim the bible’s silence on an issue is as much a prohibition as a direct condemnation.[43] One wonders, then, why Hart serves on the Session for a congregation which boasts a livestream service.[44] However, no doubt his congregation reclines at table as it observes the Lord’s Supper and greets one another with holy kisses …[45]  

D. A. Carson correctly observes the New Testament does not furnish a positive example of a worship service,[46] RP advocates and their foes share much common content, and “[t]here is no single passage … that establishes a paradigm for corporate worship.”[47]

The RP is ripe for abuse as a cloak for ecclesiastical preferences[48]―a vehicle for traditionalism,[49] for mistaking dogma as Truth.[50] It can concretize liturgy in time,[51] or “justify” worship fences over top of revelation.[52] The concept is sound,[53] but one need not claim the mantle to apply what is otherwise known as good hermeneutical sense. It is not a position worth owning.


[1] Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), p. 77.

[2] D.G. Hart and John Meuther, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002), pp. 85-86.

[3] “Westminster Confession of Faith,” Article 1.6, in Orthodox Presbyterian Church, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts (2007).

[4] “Second London Confession,” Article 1.6, in Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised, ed. William Lumpkin (Valley Forge: Judson, 1969), p. 251). A modernized version of this confession has the words “or by necessary inference” (Founders.org. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith in Modern English. Retrieved from https://founders.org/library/1689-confession/). This is a rather different interpretation that will not bear the freight Baptist RP advocates wish to see the 1689 London Baptist Confession carry.

[5] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 78.

[6] J. Ligon Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice, ed. Philip Ryken (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003; Kindle ed.), KL 1183.

[7] “True piety manifests itself in humble obedience to God’s word in our expression of worship and thus urges us to worship that is wholly in accord with Scripture,” (Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1237-1238).

[8] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 84-85. “The regulative principle is designed to secure the believer’s freedom from the dominion of human opinion in worship,” (Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1222-1223). 

[9] Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1206.

[10] Duncan, “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1229-1252. “… the liturgy, media, instruments, and vehicles of worship are never neutral, and so exceeding care must be given to the ‘law of unintended consequences,’” (Ibid, KL 1334-1337).

[11] “Belgic Confession of Faith,” Art. 32, in The Three Forms of Unity (Port St. Lucie: SGCB, 2018).

[12] Colossians 2:6-7 is Paul’s exhortation to live life in communion with Christ, which is irrelevant to the RP issue. References to 1 Cor 7:23; Isa 29:13 (cf. Mk 7) and Gal 5:1 are likewise out of context and thus irrelevant to the argument.

[13] “Heidelberg Catechism,” Q 96, in Three Forms of Unity.  

[14] Westminster Confession and Catechisms.  

[15] Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Emphasis mine.

[16] Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

[17] “Second London Confession,” Art. 1.6, in Baptist Confessions, p. 250. 

[18] Scott Aniol, “Form and Substance: Baptist Ecclesiology and the Regulative Principle,” in Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, JBTM 15.1(Spring 2018), pp. 30-31.

[19] Founders.org. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith in Modern English. Retrieved from https://founders.org/library/1689-confession/. Emphasis mine.  

[20] “Second London Confession,” Art. 1.6, in Baptist Confessions, pp. 250-251.

[21] Westminster Confession and Catechisms. 

[22] Acts 4:19, 5:29; 1 Cor 7:23; Mt 23:8-10; Mt 15:9. In 1 Cor 1:24, Paul is saying he is not Lord over the faith of the Corinthian church members. The RP has nothing to do with this. Indeed it can easily be flipped against more hardline RP advocates, like Hart and Meuther, who claim their way is the only way.

[23] Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

[24] Ex 20:4-6; Deut 4:15-20; Mt 4:9-10, 15:9; Jn 4:23-24; Acts 17:23-25; Col 2:18-23. 

[25] Derek Thomas criticizes this objection, but curiously fails to answer it. He seems to view the elements of the RP being present at the synagogue, while implicitly dismissing the synagogue context as a circumstance (“The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1757f). However, more hardline RP advocates like Hart and Meuther (who forbid even banners inside a church building; With Reverence and Awe, p. 78) would surely disagree. RP advocates are not made alike.

[26] Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 78. Dever makes the same mistake at Exodus 32:1-10 (pp. 78-79). 

[27] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 83. 

[28] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 83.

[29] Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 79.

[30] Dever and Alexander, Deliberate Church, p. 79.

[31] I interpret this essence as (1) the elements of reading, preaching, praying, singing, seeing the Word, and (2) the circumstances deduced by good and necessary inference. 

[32] D.A. Carson (ed.), Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 54-55.

[33] J. Ligon Duncan, “Does God Care How We Worship?” in Give Praise to God, KL 583-587. “What is being argued here is that there must be scriptural warrant for all we do. That warrant may come in the form of explicit directives, implicit requirements, the general principles of Scripture, positive commands, examples, and things derived from good and necessary consequences. These formulations of the Reformed approach to worship also acknowledge that lesser things about corporate worship may be decided in the absence of a specific biblical command but in accordance with faithful biblical Christian thinking under the influence of scriptural principles and sanctified reason and general revelation (e.g., whether to use bulletins, what time the services are to begin, how long they are to last, where to meet, what the ministers and congregation will wear, whether to use hymnals, how the singing is to be led, and the like).” Emphasis mine.

[34] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 44. 

[35] Ibid, p. 72. 

[36] Ibid, p. 79.

[37] Ibid, p. 84. 

[38] Ibid, p. 97. 

[39] Ibid, p. 105.

[40] Ibid, p. 127. 

[41] Ibid, p. 125. 

[42] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, p. 86.

[43] Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 78-79. “The only proper ground for doing anything in worship is a command from God in his Word.”

[44] See https://www.calvaryglenside.org/. Hart’s blog (https://oldlife.org/about-2/) identifies him as a member of the Session at the Calvary Glenside OPC.

[45] In Justin Martyr’s day (ca. A.D. 155), Christians still greeted one another in this fashion (Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1961), p. 5). Consistent application of the RP in a manner Hart and Meuther suggest would also mean we must forego HVAC, microphones, electricity, indoor plumbing, piano, and any electronic devices for preaching.

[46] Carson, Worship by the Book, p. 52.

[47] Ibid, p. 55. 

[48] Derek Thomas declares those who believe application of the RP can be subjective because of the interpretive issues are “antinomian,” and remarks, “… it is sometimes apparent that this response is not an objection based on principle, but on prejudice. Citing the hermeneutical caveat is useful in order to extradite oneself from anything that appears to some to be shackling and legalistic. One suspects that reformation in attitude to sola scriptura is needed before progress can be made in advancing the cause of biblical worship practice,” (“The Regulative Principle: Responding to Recent Criticism,” in Give Praise to God, KL 1698-1701).

[49] “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), 1:9. Michael Bird rightly cautions against a fear of tradition, which is very different than traditionalism. He writes, “I am advocating instead for an approach to biblical interpretation that places Scripture and tradition in a continuous spiral of mutual interpretation,” (Evangelical Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), p. 64).

[50] Thus, Emil Brunner rightly warns, “Doctrine, rightly understood, is the finger which points to Him, along which the eye of faith is directed towards Him. So long as faith clings to the ‘finger,’ to the interpretive doctrine, it has not really arrived at its goal; thus it is not yet actually faith. Faith is the encounter with Him, Himself, but it is not submission to a doctrine about Him, whether it be the doctrine of the Church, or that of the Apostles and Prophets. The transference of faith from the dimension of personal encounter into the dimension of factual instruction is the great tragedy in the history of Christianity,” (The Christian Doctrine of God, in Dogmatics, vol. 1, trans. Olive Wyon (London: Lutterworth, 1949), p. 54). 

[51] The historical horizon for RP advocates does not seem to pre-date the Reformation.

[52] Terry Johnson and Ligon Duncan crudely suggest having women read scripture in public is a sop to an egalitarian culture. “Sometimes it is done (one suspects) to prove to a suspicious culture that conservative evangelical churches are not knee-jerk reactionaries in their stance against women preachers, and so sometimes women are invited to lead the church in this area, if not in proclamation,” (“Reading and Praying the Bible in Corporate Worship,” in Give Praise to God, KL 2664-2666).

[53] Again, these are (1) the elements of seeing, hearing, preaching, praying and singing the Word, coupled with (2) circumstances deduced by clear implication.

Revenge of the strawmen

Revenge of the strawmen

This is a review of the first seven chapters of Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice.

J. Ligon Duncan opens the book with two chapters on the regulative principle (“RP”). This is the concept that corporate worship must only be based on positive commands from scripture. Duncan presents a familiar lament about contemporary worship services. You hear this so often that one wonders if these warnings are no more than recycled, plagiarized strawmen. Duncan presents the RP as the answer. “True Christian worship is by the book,”[1] he declares, and “there must be scriptural warrant for all we do.”[2]

So, Duncan presents a representative case for the RP, using sometimes questionable hermeneutics. He cites Exodus 20:5-6 to claim God is like a wronged husband who seeks revenge against “adulterous” believers who worship Him wrongly.[3] It is unclear what the that text has to do with the RP.

Duncan believes nearly every theme in scripture supports the RP.[4] The way we worship communicates how we think about God; “form impacts content.”[5] He asks, “what makes us think we can possibly fathom what would please God, apart from his telling us what to do in his word?”[6] We can only respond to what God has revealed,[7] and the Church has “derivative authority” to “administer his rule for worship, as set forth in the word.”[8]

Contra charges of legalism, “[t]he regulative principle is designed to secure the believer’s freedom from the dominion of human opinion in worship.”[9] Indeed, the Reformers “did not have the same interest in cultural accommodation as many modern evangelical worship theorists do.”[10]

Derek Thomas then weighs in with an angry article answering objections to the RP. He wastes time by arguing the Puritans did not misunderstand Calvin’s theology of worship,[11] presuming the reader will care about this burning question.

The RP is not legalistic at all—why shouldn’t God have rules? We only hate rules because of sin.[12] People who have different interpretations about the RP, Thomas warns, are likely motivated by prejudice.[13] In fact, Thomas suspects disagreement is merely a cloak for pragmatism.[14]

Thomas dismisses John Frame’s objections by, ironically for a RP advocate, not quoting one passage of scripture![15] He acknowledges the charge that Jesus, by worshipping in a synagogue, did not practice the regulative principle.[16] Thomas never meaningfully responds to this, and again cites no scripture.[17]

Thomas likes strawmen, so much so that even at 19 years distance since its publication a fire marshal may well shut his essay down as a fire hazard. To abandon the RP, he declares, is the slippery slope to ruin.[18]

Edmund Clowney chimes in with an essay arguing corporate worship is a means of grace (ch. 5)—an issue I was not aware was in dispute. His contribution is unnecessary. Albert Mohler queues up to offer a workmanlike article on expository preaching. Like Duncan, he employs the same laments about the state of the contemporary church[19] and declares “the heart of Christian worship is the authentic preaching of the word of God.”[20]

Mark Dever offers an uninspired article about how to preach evangelistic sermons. It includes the immortal remark that an evangelistic sermon is one where the gospel is preached.[21]

Terry Johnson and Duncan team up to offer advice on reading and praying in corporate worship. They rightly call the Church back to corporate readings, but their advice can be too idealistic.[22] Johnson does not approve of non-pastors reading scripture in public but, irony of ironies for an RP man, he cannot provide scriptural support.[23] Crudely, he suggest having women read scripture in public is a sop to an egalitarian culture.[24]

All told, this is a collection of passionate essays from men who, to greater or lessor extent, minister in a very Reformed context. At times you get the feeling you’ve stumbled into the middle of a nasty family dispute, and start looking for the exit. Some essays exhibit inappropriate contempt and suspicion for those who disagree.


[1] Philip Ryken (ed.), Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003; Kindle ed.), KL 540-541.

[2] Ibid, KL 581-582.  

[3] “In other words, God is saying in this warning: ‘My people, if you commit spiritual adultery in your worship, I will righteously respond like the most fearsome wronged husband you have ever known.’” (Ibid, KL 802-804). Because “there is a double essence to the idolatry prohibited in the second command” (Ibid, KL 1179), we need the regulative principle.

[4] “[T]he doctrine of God, the Creator-creature distinction, the idea of revelation, the unchanging character of the moral law, the nature of faith, the doctrine of carefulness, the derivative nature of the church’s authority, the doctrine of Christian freedom, the true nature of biblical piety, and the reality of the fallen human nature’s tendency to idolatry,” (Ibid, KL 1103-1105).

[5] Ibid, KL 1122.  

[6] Ibid, KL 1148-1149.

[7] Ibid, KL 1192-1193. “Where God has not revealed Himself, there can be no faithful response, so “God cannot be pleased by worship that is not an obedient response to his revelation, because it is by definition ‘un-faith-full’ worship.”

[8] Ibid, KL 1215-1216.  

[9] Ibid, KL 1222-1223.

[10] Ibid, KL 1347.  

[11] “Is it the case that the seventeenth century took the regulative principle in a direction that Calvin, for example, did not intend?” (Ibid, KL 1626).

[12] Ibid, KL 1689.  

[13] “[I]t is sometimes apparent that this response is not an objection based on principle, but on prejudice,” (Ibid, KL 1698-1699).  

[14] “One suspects that reformation in attitude to sola scriptura is needed before progress can be made in advancing the cause of biblical worship practice,” (Ibid, KL 1700-1701).

[15] Ibid, KL 1725f.  

[16] Ibid, KL 1778.  

[17] “Of interest to us here is to know whether synagogue worship contained anything in it that would be deemed contrary to the regulative principle. Did it contain an element of worship that was not warranted by the Old Testament? The answer is definitely in the negative. What did a typical synagogue worship service look like? Nothing that will give devotees of greater freedom any joy! The fact is that synagogue worship was remarkably predictable, containing a call to worship, a cycle of prayers, the singing of psalms, the recitation of portions of Scripture (the Shema in particular), reading of Scripture, and something that we would now call preaching or exposition, followed by a blessing. It all sounds very similar to a traditional worship service!” (Ibid, KL 1811-1817).

[18] “… being at the mercy of a worship leader with the Outback Steakhouse approach to Sunday morning worship— no rules! What prevents our adding a ‘Pet consecration moment’ between the singing of ‘Jesus Is All the World to Me’ and the offering? Or a section called ‘Getting in Touch with Feelings’ led by Counselor Smith in place of the sermon? Or ‘Mrs. Beattie’s Bread Board: Cooking with Jesus’ as the closing facet of worship? The answer is ‘Nothing!’ Only cultural mores and prejudice can keep worship sane if there is no distinction between the worship service and the rest of life,” (Ibid, 1834-1839).

[19] The Church has been seduced by topical preaching (Ibid, KL 2065). Therapeutic concerns set the tone in many congregations (Ibid, 2065). “The appetite for serious preaching has virtually disappeared among many Christians,” (Ibid, 2084).

[20] Ibid, KL 2044.  

[21] “One thing and one thing alone determines whether a sermon can properly be said to be evangelistic, and that is its content. Is the evangel— the good news—present?” (Ibid, KL 2365-2367).

[22] They proclaim the public scripture reading “ought to be arresting to the congregation. It ought to grab their attention. It ought sometimes to make them tremble and other times rejoice,” (Ibid, KL 2631-2632). This sounds lovely. It likely will not do that. The authors appear to have been carried off into rapturous delight in their prose.

[23] Ibid, KL 2667f.  

[24] “Sometimes it is done (one suspects) to prove to a suspicious culture that conservative evangelical churches are not knee-jerk reactionaries in their stance against women preachers, and so sometimes women are invited to lead the church in this area, if not in proclamation,” (Ibid, KL 2664-2666).

Brotherly love and the church

Brotherly love and the church

I updated this article on 21 February 2021.

Emil Brunner suggests the church catholic is not properly an external institution or organization at all, but “a brotherhood resulting from faith in Christ.”[1] He sees the visible church is only the shell or instrument of this brotherhood.[2] So, the thinking goes, when we think of “the church,” we shouldn’t think,

Well, in a church you have the pastors, the deacons, and Christians who join the church. And, the whole Church is the collection of these individual churches.

That’s a corporate view; you look at God’s community as one big organizational chart with branches and sub-boxes for different denominations. This isn’t necessarily incorrect if you squint a certain way, but perhaps it’s not good enough. The Church, Brunner notes, is a brotherhood of all who have faith in Christ. It’s a far-flung family knit together by a love for one another that reflects God’s love.

Brunner is somewhat difficult to follow as he discusses his conception of the Church “as a spiritual brotherhood which is not an institution.”[3] At some point, one has to come out of the abstract clouds and function in the minutiae of real life. But, his emphasis on “brotherhood” as the distinguishing mark of the Church is intriguing. And, I daresay many Christians do employ an “organizational” lens as they consider the nature of God’s New Covenant arrangement for His people.

What’s the mark of a true church? Christians have written about this for a long time, including me. But, again, these answers often seek to answer an organizational question. They implicitly address the query, “what pieces must be in place for a ‘church’ to exist?” So, you have answers like, “a true church has apostolic doctrine, is holy, is one, and is catholic (that is, universal).” It’s rarer for a definition to address what the Church actually is. In that respect, Brunner is on to something.

So, carrying on the image of the Church as a brotherhood or family knit together by shared faith in Jesus Christ, why don’t we think of brotherly love as a defining mark of the redeemed community (1 Jn 4:19-21)?

John on brotherly love

John would not truck with antinomianism of any sort. He believed there must be fruit as a mark of salvation. One key fruit is brotherly love. If you do not love your brother, you are a child of the devil (1 Jn 3:10). This has been God’s message from the beginning; from the very beginning.[4]“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers,” (1 Jn 3:14). If you do not love the brothers, you abide in death and are a murderer, like Cain (1 Jn 3:14-15).

Of course, Jesus is the model. He sacrificed Himself for His people, so Christians must have the same sort of love (1 Jn 3:16). This means brotherly love cannot be earned or deserved; it must simply be given … because this is what God does in salvation. This is a hard saying.

Add to it, this love must be demonstrated (1 Jn 3:18). Talk is cheap. Assurance of salvation hinges on that; on whether you demonstrate brotherly love (1 Jn 3:19). John reminds us God’s commandment is that “we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another,” (1 Jn 3:23). He echoes Jesus (cp. Mk 12:28-34) by collapsing two commandments into one. There is a perichoresis; a necessary correlation of ethics between these two commands. The one who obeys His commandments (that is, the summary from 3:23) remains in union with Christ, and Christ with Him (1 Jn 3:24).[5]

John, eager to emphasize this point, explains that brotherly love only happens because of covenant membership; because someone “has been born of God, and knows God,” (1 Jn 4:7). “Anyone who does not love does not know God,” (1 Jn 4:8). If you do not love your covenant brother, you are lying about being a Christian (1 Jn 4:20).

Why? Because of the imago dei. “Because God is love,” (1 Jn 4:8) in a metaphysical sense, so regeneration and covenant membership mean a restoration of that image. God is love because of the community of the Trinity; so, Christians must model that community in the family of God. Like Paul before him, John points to Christ as the example (1 Jn 4:9-10). His love is unearned and undeserved (1 Jn 4:10), thus “if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another,” (1 Jn 4:11). We must love our brothers and sisters even when they do not “deserve” that consideration.

Christians have never seen God but, through the vehicle of brotherly love, John hints we can experience His indwelling presence more fully (1 Jn 4:12). Thereby “[H]is love is perfected in us,” (1 Jn 4:12); meaning the more we love one another, the more we model His kind of love in our lives[6] and so image the imago dei on earth.

When this brotherly love is missing, God is most angry and disappointed (Jer 9:4-9; 1 Jn 5:1). Our brotherly love should reflect the intra-trinitarian, perichoretic love of Father, Son and Spirit (1 Jn 4:8). It is that love that binds them as One.

Back to Brunner

So, in a true “church family,” this love pushes outward, impelling the congregation to reach out to the world in love to offer them reconciliation, love and peace. It’s this love that moves us to evangelize, and it’s this same love that shows us as genuine to the lost. As Brunner has written, “[a] man is laid hold of by the life of the fellowship, moved by the love he experiences there; he ‘grows into’ the brotherhood, and only gradually learns to know Jesus Christ as the Church’s one foundation.[7]

To a cynical reader, Brunner may sound like a proto-Bill Hybels. This is incorrect. Rather, his point is that a community formed by faith in Christ, marked by love, influenced and energized by the Spirit, will be blessed by God. “[T]hrough receiving human love he comes to believe in Him from whom this love originates.”[8] Salvation primarily comes by confrontation with the gospel, but it can come by this second way. The Church, Brunner observes, has historically not reckoned with this second way which leads the sinner to Christ through fellowship.

Each of us reflects the theological milieu of our times. I suspect Brunner, in his distaste of rote doctrine and institutionalized churches, is reacting against the cold, frigid State churches of continental Europe in the mid-20th century. Perhaps I’m wrong. But, his emphasis on “church as brotherhood” is profound. The Church does not simply “know” God is love. It is immersed and energized by that love. “The Spirit who is active in the Ekklesia expresses Himself in active love of the brethren and in the creation of brotherhood, of true fellowship.”[9]

Brunner continues:

The one thing, the message of Christ, must have the other thing, love, as its commentary. Only then can it be understood and move people’s hearts. True, the decisive thing is the Word of witness to what God has done. But this Word of witness does not aim merely to teach, but also to move the heart.[10]

A family that hates is not a functioning family. Likewise, a congregation that does not love one another is a dead church. There are other good marks of a true church. But, brotherly love must certainly be one of them.


[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Dogmatics vol. 3, trans. David Cairns (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), p. 128.

[2] Ibid, p. 129.

[3] Ibid, p. 128.  

[4] The immediate context of 1 John 3:11 suggests the beginning of the Gospel, but the principle goes back to the very beginning of creation. John’s reference to Cain supports this interpretation (1 Jn 3:12). After all, Jesus did not create the ethos of brotherly love for the New Covenant. 

[5] This is my own translation. 

[6] “… when we love others, God’s love for us has reached its full effect in creating the same kind of love as his in us,” (I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, in NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978; Kindle ed.], KL 3672 – 3689.

[7] Brunner, Church, Faith and Consummation, p. 136.  

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, p. 134.  

[10] Ibid, p. 136.  

Good advice from a guy who oughta know

William Still was pastor of the same church in Scotland for 52 years. He died in 1997. He wrote a little book titled The Work of the Pastor. In it, he wrote the following:

Make sure you are called to the ministry, because the world gets worse and worse, and if ever there was a day when an evangelical minister could become a conventional member of society and fulfil a merely social role or occupy an official status, it is not today.

In which land is the church not in a real missionary situation as pilgrims and strangers in an alien, enslaved world? Even places with a rich evangelical heritage can take nothing for granted. When the superficially evangelistic community exhausts the solid biblical capital it has inherited from its forefathers, what is there to fall back upon?

There is more likelihood that it will become increasingly worldly in ostensible attempts to maintain communication with the lost world than that it will be willing to be led back to a solid biblical diet by ministers called of God to give it what it needs and not what it wants.

You need to be called of God to stick out from a complacent, alien community like a sore thumb. Nor will you need to try to stick out. Just be faithful, and God will arrange it, and you will be the talk of the community, however self-effacing you try to be.

Work of the Pastor; Kindle Location 1164.

He also says this, which many American ministers who grotesquely marry a peculiar civil religion to the Word of God need to heed:

Because of the nationalisation of the church under Constantine, and the institutionalisation of it subsequently, she has failed to see that as a remnant church, gathering and building up a hidden Kingdom in an ever alien world, she is always in a missionary situation. The hope of the Christianisation of the state, or even the Christianisation of a complete community, is vain.

Work of the Pastor; Kindle Location 801.

A Sad Story

This week, USA Today reported about a small church in Pennsylvania that has imploded because its leaders decided to hire a pastor they knew was a convicted sex offender … and they kept this bit of information from the congregation. It’s difficult to express how foolish, destructive and unwise this decision was.

Here’s a bit from the article:

On a Sunday morning in late 2017, Oakwood Baptist Church pastor Donald Foose stood before a congregation that had been blindsided by the sudden departure of their previous head pastor.

Foose offered no answers to their lingering questions. Instead, his voice booming through the sparse sanctuary, he preached about the destructive power of gossip.

“The tongue is a fire,” Foose declared, reading from the Letter of James. He held up a piece of paper with his own name and the name of the church on it. With his other hand, he struck a match – and lit the paper ablaze.

“Look what that little fire did,” he said once the sheet had burned. “It destroyed me. It destroyed the church. It destroyed the unity of the church. And I’m amazed that I didn’t catch the place on fire.”

Within six months that sermon would seem like an attempt to smother questions leading straight to Foose’s disturbing past. The details emerged regardless.

In 2000, Foose was convicted and jailed for molesting an underage relative. He resigned from his role as principal of a Christian school, and Pennsylvania’s Department of Education stripped him of his teaching license, deeming him “a danger to the health, safety and welfare of students.” Under state law, Foose can’t even drive a school bus, and were he convicted after 2012 he would have been required by law to register as a sex offender.

But Foose still became a pastor at Oakwood, then superintendent of the Oakwood Baptist Day School. Church leaders who were aware of his past concealed it from the congregation.

The truth – exposed in 2018 after a husband and wife at the church discovered Foose’s record – fractured the tightknit, devout community of roughly 100 members. Pastors resigned, attendance fell, friendships dissolved and faith was tested. In interviews with more than a dozen current and former congregants, a portrait emerged of church leaders compounding Foose’s betrayal by twisting scripture and exploiting the concept of forgiveness to stifle questions about how the situation had been handled.

Foose resigned from Oakwood in May 2018. Soon after, the beloved pastor who had left Oakwood months before, Bob Conrad, acknowledged in a five-page letter to his former church that he and other leaders had known Foose could not pass a background check. Foose claimed to have been falsely accused, Conrad wrote, and church leaders took him at his word, failing to prevent him from having access to children even as school employees complained about his overly familiar behavior with the students.

“I pray,” Conrad wrote, “that you will find it in your hearts to forgive me for my lack in leadership and judgment.”

Read the rest of the article.

Medieval Christianity

booksThe Middle ages are often neglected by Christians, even by many who actually read church history. The early post-apostolic era usually receives a great deal of attention, along with the reformation era. But, the medieval church is usually the odd man out. Over the past year or so, I’ve been slowly trying to fill this gap in my own mind.

I’ve listened to Dr. Carl Trueman’s introductory course on The Medieval Church. Trueman is a church historian. I’ve been listen to Dr. James White’s Sunday school series on church history, which runs to 60 lessons now. I’ve read some works by Anselm of Canterbury and a bit of Thomas Aquinas. I’ve R.W. Southern’s Western Society and the Church in the Middle AgesI’ve started to read Philip Schaff’s volumes on medieval Christianity (vols. 4-6) from his work History of the Christian Church.

So far, one thing I’ve taken away from this self-study is that there were many people in the medieval church who were, undoubtedly, Christians. God’s truth was not lost, and He has always had His people. I could say more, but I’ll save that for another time. I’ll simply observe that one cannot read Anselm’s Why God Became Man (you can find the book in this volume) and not believe the man was a Christian!

Here are some comments from Schaff, the renowned 19th century church historian, about medieval Christianity:[1]

Mediæval Christianity is, on the one hand, a legitimate continuation and further development of ancient Catholicism; on the other hand, a preparation for Protestantism. Its leading forces are the papacy, monasticism, and scholasticism, which were developed to their height, and then assailed by growing opposition from within.

Christianity, at its first introduction, had to do with highly civilized nations; but now it had to lay the foundation of a new civilization among barbarians. The apostles planted churches in the cities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, and the word “pagan,” i.e. villager, backwoodsman, gradually came to denote an idolater. They spoke and wrote in a language which had already a large and immortal literature; their progress was paved by the high roads of the Roman legions; they found everywhere an established order of society, and government; and their mission was to infuse into the ancient civilization a new spiritual life and to make it subservient to higher moral ends. But the missionaries of the dark ages had to visit wild woods and untilled fields, to teach rude nations the alphabet, and to lay the foundation for society, literature and art.

Hence Christianity assumed the character of a strong disciplinary institution, a training school for nations in their infancy, which had to be treated as children. Hence the legalistic, hierarchical, ritualistic and romantic character of mediæval Catholicism. Yet in proportion as the nations were trained in the school of the church, they began to assert their independence of the hierarchy and to develop a national literature in their own language. Compared with our times, in which thought and reflection have become the highest arbiter of human life, the middle age was an age of passion. The written law, such as it was developed in Roman society, the barbarian could not understand and would not obey. But he was easily impressed by the spoken law, the living word, and found a kind of charm in bending his will absolutely before another will. Thus the teaching church became the law in the land, and formed the very foundation of all social and political organization.

The middle ages are often called “the dark ages:” truly, if we compare them with ancient Christianity, which preceded, and with modern Christianity, which followed; falsely and unjustly, if the church is made responsible for the darkness. Christianity was the light that shone in the darkness of surrounding barbarism and heathenism, and gradually dispelled it. Industrious priests and monks saved from the wreck of the Roman Empire the treasures of classical literature, together with the Holy Scriptures and patristic writings, and transmitted them to better times.

The mediæval light was indeed the borrowed star and moon-light of ecclesiastical tradition, rather than the clear sun-light from the inspired pages of the New Testament; but it was such light as the eyes of nations in their ignorance could bear, and it never ceased to shine till it disappeared in the day-light of the great Reformation. Christ had his witnesses in all ages and countries, and those shine all the brighter who were surrounded by midnight darkness.

Notes

[1] Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 4:11–12.

Marks of a Good Pastor (Part 1)

marksWhat should a congregation look for when considering a Pastor? What are the requirements? What are the marks of a good and faithful Pastor?

Nice hair? A hip personality? Someone who’s “cool” and “relevant?” A guy who’s 50, but dresses like a confused teenager? Someone who ditches a pulpit for a bistro table, and looks like he’s wearing his wife’s jeans? The truth is much more serious than that.

Many Christians instinctively turn to 1 Timothy 3, and Titus 1 to answer this question. That’s nice, but I’m not gonna go there. Instead, I’m going to work my way through 2 Timothy 1-2, and look for some answers. Here’s what I have so far:

  1. A Pastor must to be a leader, not a coward
  2. A Pastor must be committed to the Bible
  3. A Pastor must be educated, capable and competent

The sermon notes are here, and the sermon audio is below. There’ll be more in next week’s sermon …

Glory Days

autopsyThere are a lot of dying churches out there. Some of them deserve to die, because their pastors are charlatans, or inept, or incompetent, or unregenerate, or hateful – maybe all of the above. But, some of these churches are dying because they’re living in the past.

These churches are filled with older members (the younger ones fled long ago). These good folks remember the glory days, usually back when Nixon, Ford or Reagan (or perhaps Bush #1) was in office. The pews were filled, children ran in the aisles, Vacation Bible School was a big event, and things were happening!

Now . . . well, things are different.

Everybody in the congregation has white or gray hair. Many of those children are gone. Some have remained, now in their fifties and above – forlorn and melancholy about what once was. The pews are empty. The sermons grow more and more pitiful and desperate with each passing Sunday. Everybody knows the church is dying. An air of sadness pervades the congregation, an aura of inevitable doom. Rooms are closed off; nobody has used them in years. The last time you had a visitor was that one Thanksgiving . . . was it last year, or the year before?

These churches often live in the past. They revel in it. If only they could recapture those glory days. Springsteen could have been singing about them. Maybe he was.

Churches like this will probably die. It’s common in churchy circles to double down on failure, to spiritualize it and claim you’re “suffering for the Lord.” But of course you are. Nobody can whitewash failure quite like a Christian.

Thom Rainer, in his outstanding book Autopsy of a Deceased Church, wrote about this kind of dying church:

The most pervasive and common thread of our autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as hero. They held on more tightly with each progressive year. They often clung to things of the past with desperation and fear. And when any internal or external force tried to change the past, they responded with anger and resolution: “We will die before we change.” And they did.

Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2014; Kindle ed. ), KL 161-164.

Killing You Softly? Unrepentant Sin as a Congregational Virus

Many Christians think their sins are a personal matter, a private affair – something that doesn’t have anything to do with their local church. This is how many of us think. We consider our private sins to be, well . . . private. Nobody’s business but ours. It certainly isn’t our congregation’s business. Our personal lives have nothing to do with our local church, right?

I don’t believe so. I’d like to re-think this, and I’m going to use what many people would consider to be an unusual source – the Book of Deuteronomy. This book has a lot to say on this matter of unrepentant and deliberate sin as community and covenant pollution. Here is my conclusion, after reading through the book again recently:

  1. If you’re a Christian
  2. and you’re in unrepentant sin
  3. and you don’t care, and have no desire to change your ways
  4. you’re polluting your entire congregation
  5. and you’re defiling your entire church

Let’s take a careful look at what the Book of Deuteronomy has to say, then build a bridge or two to our own context.

Sin contaminates the community

Moses believed that sin contaminated the congregation. It pollutes God’s people. It must be dealt with and eradicated. It must be purged from their midst. In modern terms, it’s a virus. Here is some of the data:

Deuteronomy 13:5

Moses explained what to do about false prophets. The Bible is quite clear. If a man claims to be a prophet, and he performs signs and wonders and makes predictions which come to pass, then entices you to abandon the faith and follow him to serve and worship another god – that man is a false prophet. Moses explained God would allow these people to spring forth, like pestilential weeds, in order to test His people.

Here is what Moses commanded God’s people to do with these men:

But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 13:5).

The man has to be executed, because his actions have infected the congregation. They’re ordered to “purge the evil” from their midst. That’s strong language. What would happen to Christians if they didn’t just consider the impact of their sin on their own life and circumstances, but also considered how it impacts their church?

Deuteronomy 17:2-7

In this passage, Moses gives the Israelites instructions on how they should treat apostates; professing believers who have purposely “transgressed the covenant,” and have “gone and served other gods and worshiped them,” (Deut 17:3). Here is what he said:

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses he that is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 17:6-7).

Pay particular attention to the last phrase – by executing this apostate, the Israelites will “purge the evil” from their midst. Sin is a pollutant, a contamination; a pestilence that impacts everybody in the covenant community. We often don’t think of sin this way. We see it as an individual event, a personal defiling, a private affair. Moses (and God!) see it as something that puts a blot on the entire covenant community.

There is more.

Deuteronomy 17:12-13

Moses went on and explained how legal disputes should be settled among the Old Covenant Israelites. Criminal and civil offenses were adjudicated by the Levitical priests and “the judge who is in office in those days.” Together, they heard the matter and rendered a verdict. What happens if a man decides he doesn’t like the verdict? Is there an appeal process? Can he ignore the verdict?

No, he cannot. Read on:

The man who acts presumptuously, by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die; so you shall purge the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear, and fear, and not act presumptuously again (Deut 17:12-13).

A man who defies the judges and ignores the verdict has spit in God’s face. He’s ignored the God-ordained people and means God put in place to take care of these matters. This term “acts presumptuously” signifies a special kind of contempt and scorn for authority. It’s a defiant, spiteful kind of rebellion (cf. Numbers 15:30ff). This kind of person hates God’s law (Numbers 15:31). Do you remember the account of the man who deliberately ignored the law and decided to gather sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36)? It’s the same attitude.

In this case, Moses decreed the man who defies and ignores the verdict must die. They “shall purge the evil from Israel.” Again, this unrepentant, deliberate sin is a cancer that must be cut out, lest it destroy the entire congregation. Moses says this man’s actions impacted the entire nation.

Think about our churches; how do our individual unrepentant sins impact our congregation as a corporate body? Think about your local church, where you join together with other New Covenant brothers and sisters to worship God. Your unrepentant sin pollutes the congregation, soils the entire assembly, and defiles the entire church. Will you commit to fixing this, for their sake and yours?

Deuteronomy 19:11-13

Murder is bad news. Moses knew how wicked people were, and after explaining the purpose of the “cities of refuge,” he hastened to qualify what he meant. These cities were for people who accidently committed acts of negligence that resulted in a person dying; “if any one kills his neighbor unintentionally without having been at enmity with him in time past . . .” (Deut 19:4).

Moses provided an example about one man killing another with an ax that slipped from his grasp. This is clearly not premeditated. A man could flee to this city to have the matter adjudicated, and the victim’s kin could not pursue him there and kill him. “The man did not deserve to die, since he was not at enmity with his neighbor in time past,” (Deut 19:6).

Of course, some people would try and abuse this caveat. Not so fast, Moses warned:

But if any man hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and attacks him, and wounds him mortally so that he dies, and the man flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you (Deut 19:11-13)

The murderer must be executed, because he has brought “the guilt of innocent blood” upon the entire nation. Again, you can’t read this without being struck by how one person’s transgression pollutes the entire community. If this man is not killed, then the entire nation remains guilty, and is defiled by this injustice.

Deuteronomy 19:15-19

False witnesses are bad. God doesn’t like liars. He especially doesn’t like liars who swear falsely, and provide false, formal testimony with an aim to wrongly condemn an innocent man:

A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained. If a malicious witness rises against any man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days; the judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.

This man has polluted the congregation and the community. He must be punished because it’s the just thing to do. If his false testimony had been accepted, an innocent man would have been punished unjustly. So, to right this wrong, the false accuser will suffer the fate the innocent man would have suffered.

There are other passages, and they make similar points (see chart, below)

What sins are we talking about?

What sins are “bad enough” that they have this impact on the Old Covenant community? This chart summarizes the offenses from the Book of Deuteronomy that required “purging” of evil or guilt:[1]

table 1

You could summarize and place these sins under a few headings:

  1. Apostasy
  2. Civil disobedience (legal and family contexts)
  3. Severe moral failure

For clarity, I’ve re-framed these headings both negatively and positively:

table 2

This data could change when you factor in Exodus 20 and onward, Leviticus and Numbers, but it’s interesting enough already. These three headings are large, umbrella categories that encapsulate a great deal of “the Christian life.” They explain man’s duty to worship God, obey God-ordained authority structures that are the bedrock of a stable, sane and orderly society, and include perhaps the two most notorious moral failings among human beings.

If a covenant member refuses to love, worship and honor God by loving obedience to His law, then that man has “cut himself off” from God’s people and from God’s family. Likewise, if there is no order to society; if formal verdicts rendered by priests and ordained judges cannot stand, and courtroom proceedings become a kangaroo court of lies and trumped up charges, then all hope of an orderly, stable and civilized society has been lost.

But, what about the moral failures? Why, of all the offenses God could have chosen, did He choose sexual intercourse and murder?[2] I suppose it is because they are the most heinous offenses a man can commit.

Murder is the great and terrible sin; the snuffing out of a God-given life on purpose. This kind of action betrays a disdain for sanctity of human life. The Bible teaches us that we are not animals, nor are we descended from them. We are unique, made in God’s image, which means we dimly reflect some of his characteristics and attributes. Human life is sacred.

Sexual deviance is the great failing of men and women. Our bodies are not our own, and God has always cared about how we act and what we do with them. In the New Covenant, Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and (by extension) the Son and the Father, too. Our bodies are therefore temples of God; He resides within us. In the Old Covenant, this is an implicit teaching, as well.[3] Even in the famous passage from the law, believers are command to love God with all their heart, soul and might – in short, with their entire being. Our bodies are a part of who we are; it isn’t an amalgamation of bone and flesh. We aren’t gnostics who believe the physical realm has no moral meaning. What we do with our bodies is an extension of our thoughts and desires (i.e. mind and heart).

Sexual purity is a major focus of God’s law. Those apostates today who advocate for unrepentant “Christian” homosexuality and perverted transgender constructs of self-identity are stunningly ignorant of the Old Testament Scriptures. Perhaps, as Brent Strawn has noted, it’s because they can’t speak the “language” of a full canon in the first place.[4]

In general terms, God’s word calls all true believers to:

  1. love God,
  2. respect and obey civil authorities, and
  3. live holy lives

These are core, general principles that transcend the Old Covenant vs. New Covenant (or, more commonly and erroneously “law vs. grace”) dichotomy. They’re basic and fundamental. These categories encompass the very sins which Moses says defile the congregation, pollute the entire nation, and must be purged from among the Israelites.

What about today?

What does all this have to do with you, today? It’s 2017. You own a smartphone, have wireless internet, and probably binge-watch television shows on your tablet when the weekend comes. What hath Sinai to do with Seattle?

More than you think.

True, there are some major differences in context:

  • The two-tiered Old Covenant has been replaced by the single-tiered New Covenant. Only true believers are part of God’s covenant people now.
  • The Israelite theocracy has been abolished, and Jesus has been crowned as King in heaven, and is waiting to return and establish His rule. Christians now are slaves and subjects waiting for their King.
  • The legal system and its judges are secular and cannot be counted on to care about God’s laws, or reverence them. Therefore, God’s civil laws have been abolished, but the basic principles can often apply today – whether the secular judge applying them realizes it or not!
  • The ceremonial laws have been abolished, because all New Covenant believers have been made permanently clean before the Lord by what Christ has done.
  • The sacrificial laws have been abolished, because Christ’s one, perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice has made fulfilled those parables.

But, the basics are still the same. We are God’s covenant people. God has not changed. Jesus has now come and gone, and will return again. We have new revelation to augment the old.

And, those three basic principles about the “Christian life” still hold true:

  1. love God,
  2. respect and obey civil authorities (see, for example, 1 Pet 2:13-15), and
  3. live holy lives

Moreover, those three headings about the “contaminating sins” from the Book of Deuteronomy are still perfectly applicable today:

table 2

What does this mean for you? It means that today, under the New Covenant, the unrepentant sins committed by the regenerate individuals who are members of local churches defile, pollute and contaminate the entire congregation. Your unrepentant sin pollutes your entire church.

How do I know this? How do I know this basic principle of unrepentant sin as community pollution carries weight in the New Covenant, in local churches? Because the Apostle Paul said so.

Paul to the Corinthians

He wrote the Corinthian congregation and rebuked them for tolerating unrepentant incest in their midst. He warned them, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor 5:6).

His point is clear enough – this one man and his blatant, proud and unrepentant sin has defiled the congregation. Just as a little yeast will have an outsized impact on a loaf of bread as it bakes, so this wicked man and his sin will pollute and destroy the congregation. This is why Paul went on and commanded the church to, “cleanse out the old leaven,” (1 Cor 5:7). He continued:

But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

Paul finished by quoting from Deuteronomy 17:7.[5] He believed this principle, and lived by it. He commanded this man to be purged, driven out, expelled and kicked to the curb. This man was disgracing the Lord’s name in the community. This sin was so unrepentant, deliberate and blatant that Paul has heard tell of it (“it is actually reported that . . .”). Think of how primitive communications were in his day, and realize that, despite the absence of Twitter, Facebook or text messages, the apostle Paul had heard rumors of this wickedness from afar. If he had heard of it, what do you think the local community had heard!?

Because this professing Christian was unrepentant, he had to be purged and driven out from the body. It was for the good of the congregation. Ultimately, of course, it was for the Lord’s sake that he be expelled.

So what? A plea for holiness

God commands His people to love Him with everything they have (Deut 6:4). Jesus said this was the greatest and most important commandment. If we love God, then we’ll want to do what He says.

His word says we need to be continually confessing and forsaking our sins. We need to be purging ourselves of evil habits, and replacing them with Godly habits. Our unrepentant sins aren’t a private matter – they’re a public matter. It impacts our churches. It’s a community affair.

For your congregation’s sake, for your sake, and for God’s sake – remember that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 Jn 1:9). This is not a one-time event, but a lifelong habit. We try our best to honor and glorify God by the way we live our lives, because He’s redeemed us, and we love Him. As we fall short, we thank God that Jesus has already redeemed us from all unrighteousness, we honestly confess our sins, determine to forsake them again, and keep on going.

We purify ourselves, day by day, seeking to be more and more like Christ, our Savior (1 Jn 3:5). Don’t pollute yourself. Don’t pollute your congregation. Don’t let the virus of unrepentant and unconfessed sin destroy you spiritually.

You have the antidote. Use it.

Notes

[1] On Deut 22:23-24, I believe the assumption in the text is that it is consensual intercourse. The Bible tells us, “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you,” (Deut 22:23-24).

The man did not “seize her” (which is the term used to describe rape in the very next verse; Deut 22:25ff), he “meets her.” This implies some kind of consensual rendezvous. Moreover, she could have called out for help, but she did not. This also indicates their action was consensual.

Some commentators disagree, and believe this incident in Deut 22:23-24 is sexual assault; see, for example, Eugene Merrill, Deuteronomy, in NAC, vol. 4. (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1994), 304. I don’t find his arguments convincing.

[2] It’s important to note that these offenses did not include vague references to sexual immorality in general; the laws are concerned with the act itself.

[3] I don’t have the time or energy to elaborate on this theme here. For a good overview and argument for Old Covenant indwelling of the Spirit, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit, MI: DBTS, 2009), 2:272-280.

[4] See Brent Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017).

[5] The quotation from the LXX (Rahlfs) at Deut 17:7 (ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτων καὶ ἐξαρεῖς τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν) is identical to 1 Cor 5:13 (ἐξάρατε τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν). The verbs has a different tense-form (the former is an imperatival future, the latter is an aorist), but they are translated exactly the same.