In a classic argument for the Regulative Principle, Kyle asks,
Alright, if we can do this with instrumental music, to what else can we apply this “better hermeneutic?” What other things (that the Lord has said nothing about) can I add to worship? Shall we dance in worship? Shall we have wrestling matches? Where do we draw the line? Why is it so hard to imagine that if God was pleased with something in the First Century, He can be pleased with it now? I suppose I just don’t understand.
The argument proceeds from the false dichotomy that silences are either permissions or prohibitions. But, of course, it’s entirely possible that some silences are permissions and some silences are prohibitions — that is, that the standard isn’t about authority or lack thereof but something else entirely. Who decided that the pivot-point must be authority? Who decided that New Testament worship is about what is and isn’t authorized?
As I’m sure Kyle would agree, the standard for how to worship God must be derived from the scriptures, not from polemics invented for debates that were entirely foreign to Paul’s thought. What does the Bible say?
(Mar 7:1-8 ESV) Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
The sin of Pharisees was not in ignoring God’s law, but in adding commands to it. They demanded that the people wash their hands before eating, even though the Law commanded no such thing. It was, in their minds, a necessary inference because the dirt they touched might have come from a dead body or a menstruating woman. And these things would make a man unclean. They were trying to be safe by scrupously applying God’s commands. And Jesus declared their worship “vain” ( = futile). Indeed, their willingness to impose laws not made by God on others shows their hearts to be far from God.
This is a most serious warning, and yet we have traditionally sought to find safety in the finding of rules in the silences of the Bible. It seems a very, very dangerous practice. Imagine the consequences of a mistaken inference!
(Col 2:23-1 NIV) 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
“Self-imposed worship” — or “will worship” in the KJV — in context are regulations added by men that God did not impose. Again, we are seriously warned against imposing rules that God does not. There is no safety, no comfort in adding rules just to be sure.
Let’s instead consider what Paul teaches in the context of the Christian assembly. In 1 Cor 14, Paul addresses whether its appropriate to speak in tongues or to prophesy in the assembly. If the traditional Church of Christ hermeneutic were right, then Paul would check to see whether these are on the list of authorized “acts of worship.” If so, well and good. If not, the acts would be prohibited. Moreover, as worship is for the benefit of God and not man, we would traditionally argue that it hardly matters how well or effectively we do it, so long as we do it from the heart.
But Paul does not approach the questions this way at all. Not even close. Rather, he asks how the proposed acts affect the congregation!
(1Co 14:2-4 ESV) 2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. 3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.
He doesn’t declare that God never authorized tongues or prophecy in the assembly and they are therefore banned. No, he asks how these acts impact the congregation. Would they upbuild (edify), encourage, or console the congregation?
He then considers, not whether they are authorized, but how they might be done in a way that edifies etc. and how they might be done in a way that does not. He reasons very pragmatically —
(1Co 14:26-31 ESV) 26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged,
The test Paul applies is conditional. If the acts can be done in a way that builds up the church, teaches, or encourages, they are permitted. Otherwise, they are not. The test is how these acts of worship impact the assembled believers!
But not just them —
(1Co 14:23-25 ESV) 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
The impact on visiting unbelievers is also important. We shouldn’t act so that unbelievers consider us crazy! They should be led to worship God by what they experience.
Now, the traditional Church of Christ logic is that it’s all for God and the impact on the assembled members and visitors is very nearly irrelevant. Paul, however, tests what is and isn’t proper by its impact on the assembly!
But isn’t the most important thing what pleases God? Yes! But what pleases God is the strengthening, edification, encouragement, consolation, and teaching of his children. He loves us. He loves us so much he’d die for us.
Just so, we read in Hebrews —
(Heb 10:24-25 ESV) 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
We attend the assembly so we can encourage each other “to love and good works.” That is, we assemble so we can help each other’s faith work itself out through love. And this is the point of 1 Cor 14 — we choose our acts of worship to be acts that express faith through love. Love call us to edify, console, encourage, and teach each other. Faith makes us understand that these things are done in the framework of the gospel. We encourage each other toward the mission we’ve been called to as sons of God. We edify each other so that we grow in love and more and more like Jesus. We console each other with the hope found only in faith. We act so that visitors are drawn to worship God.
It’s just not about what is and isn’t authorized. That’s 20th Century debate “logic” borrowed from arguments between the Calvinists and Lutherans and Catholics in the early years of the Reformation. It’s not Bible. We find out how to assemble from the pages of the scriptures — and they are entirely sufficient. We don’t need man-made traditions — such as the Regulative Principle (or the early church fathers) — to complete the Bible.
Now, this perspective stands our traditional view of worship on its head. But that’s because we’ve failed to understand how very gracious, very giving, and very self-sacrificing God is. And that’s because we forget that God is best revealed through Jesus and his sacrifice.
God has the right and power to demand whatever kind of worship he wants! But he pleases to give us an assembly designed to strengthen and encourage us, to help us as we strive with him in his mission.