Sometimes it seems that you are torn between two hermeneutics, which is my observation and not an attack. The normative principle of worship (NPW) teaches that worship must consist of that which is commanded by God and may also include that which is not specifically prohibited by Scripture.
On one hand you want to apply the normative principle of worship (NPW) cautiously and conservatively, in the name of “expedient missional theology,” but on the other hand, you seem at war with the conservative side of the RPW, even though there is a liberal side of the RPW you never mention.
The RPW is not always as cut and dry as you would like to present. Not everyone who holds to the RPW believes the same thing or applies it the same way. Have you considered that maybe your solution lies in the struggle with how the RPW applies? After all, this is a debate that good folks in many denominations outside the COC continue to participate in, while taking a less strict form of the RPW.
History of the Regulative Principle
The “Regulative Principle” (silences are prohibitions) was originally the “Regulative Principle of Worship” and was applied only as to worship practices, on the theory that God has a particular concern about how he is worshiped. This continues to be the teaching in most denominations that teach the Regulative Principle.
The Regulative Principle of Worship traces back to Zwingli (pictured above) and was adopted by Calvinists as the two movements merged.
Thus, the Regulative Principle of Worship is found among the Puritans (who have a highly elaborated understanding of it), the Baptists, and others with Zwinglian or Puritan roots, including many brands of Presbyterianism, such as the Scottish Free Church. Many conservative Calvinists and Reformed denominations teach the Regulative Principle of Worship. And as you can imagine, they have their own debates, divisions, and interpretations. For example, the Scottish Free Church historically has insisted not only on being a cappella but singing only psalms, and there are no other “authorized” hymn texts in the Bible — leading to corollary debates over paraphrasing the psalms to make them more metrical (and easier to sing).
It’s surprising, therefore, that the 20th Century Churches of Christ adopted the Regulative Principle of Worship, because they’d rejected Calvinism in very strenuous terms. But Church of Christ roots run deep in Calvinism, with Stone and the Campbells being Presbyterians originally and most of their converts coming out of various Baptist denominations. Moreover, the 20th Century Churches of Christ were hugely influenced by Landmarkism (a movement within the Baptist Church centered in Nashville), which was heavily into the Regulative Principle of Worship.
In fact, the 20th Century Churches of Christ expanded the Regulative Principle of Worship to become the Regulative Principle of Everything. I’ve literally heard prominent preachers in the Churches argue that the Regulative Principle is the centerpiece of hermeneutics.
The history of the Churches demonstrates that many agree. We’ve applied the Regulative Principle of Worship to church organization, the use of the church treasury, the founding of extra-church organizations, the construction of fellowship halls and gymnasiums, kitchens in the building, hymnals, instrumental music, multiple cups, the Herald of Truth, colleges, buses, bake sales, located ministers … you name it. It’s become an all-purpose device for opposing all sorts of things. And, therefore, very nearly every division in the 20th Century Churches of Christ can be traced back to the Regulative Principle. And this is why I so oppose it. It divides the body of Christ. I’ve seen the fruit. It’s poisonous.
Yes, there are versions of the Regulative Principle that are less all-encompassing, but I’ve not run across one that’s more biblical. It’s just wrong, even if applied more generously and sensibly than we’ve historically done. Indeed, the poison of the Principle is seen in how many other denominations have divided and fought over its application, struggling with finding its limits, just as we have.
But I also dispute the Normative Principle (silences are permissions) — at least as that principle is presented in Church of Christ polemics.The Episcopalians and Lutherans, for example, would make a more nuanced argument. But both the Regulative and Normative Principles are logically flawed.
You see, both proceed from the assumption that we should discuss worship etc. in terms of what is or isn’t authorized. And that’s just not true. It’s simply the wrong question to ask. You see, the scriptures provide not only the answers but the questions. If we approach the text asking: “What is authorized?” we’re asking a question foreign to the text.
Now, it helps to realize that the Regulative Principle was born in the heat of the Reformation where the leaders were trying to find ways to eliminate certain Catholic practices while preserving the ancient core practices of Christianity. They were looking for a rhetorical tool to eliminate practices they considered abusive. And this is one reason that so many of our arguments in favor of the Regulative Principle seek to prove the foolishness of the Normative Principle by citing Catholic worship practices — incense, the veneration of Mary — as horrors that can only be excluded by use of the Regulative Principle. Yes, the arguments we use are 500 years old. But they aren’t 2,000 years old.
As I’ve noted countless times, the scriptures don’t point us to authority as the tipping point on worship (or other) issues. Rather, 1 Corinthians 14 points us toward encouragement, edification, comfort, strengthening, and teaching of the members and bringing visitors to see the presence of God within the congregation. Hebrews 10:24-25 points us toward encouragement toward love and good works. If we must insist on speaking in terms of authority, I guess we should say that edifying things are authorized and non-edifying things are not. But adding authority to the mix only makes the sentences longer. It’s really about edification, understood in Christian terms, which necessarily includes (but isn’t limited to) missional terms.
Of course, Jesus says that Christian worship will be “in Spirit and in truth.” I’ve explained many times that “Spirit” is a reference to the Holy Spirit, which is plainly in context. “Truth” is a reference to the truth about Jesus, the gospel of truth.
In other words, John 4:23 is not a passage that gives a magic formula for correct worship. Rather, it gives the formula for correct worshippers!
And it tells us the content of our worship. You can teach a 13-part lesson on 5 acts of worship and not once mention Jesus! Or grace! Or the Spirit! But Jesus is telling us that it’s all about Jesus – the truth – and the Spirit, who testifies about Jesus.
True worship is Jesus-centered and Spirit-prompted.
Now, there’s something peculiar about the Church of Christ mindset that sends our imaginations to extremes. When I point out what the scriptures actually say on the subject, the response is always something like: “You mean that anything goes?!!” coupled with horror and maybe a story about snakes on the communion table or snake handling or something. But, of course, the scriptures are entirely sufficient and they place serious constraints on what can be done. After all, when Paul spoke of “edification” in 1 Corinthians 14, he meant edification in Christian terms. The practice being considered has to really be calculated to help people be better Christians — more Christ-like. Thus, we don’t need to worry about ridiculous possibilities.
Does this give us considerable freedom?
(Gal 5:1a NIV) It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Well, why would we expect a different result?