Even with online worship, the regulative principle is a solid guide
How should we make decisions about worship, ordinances, and livestreams when our churches are unable to gather in person?
As pastors and churches navigate the new world created by the COVID-19 pandemic, important adaptions are being made to be able to worship in a world where social isolation is being strongly encouraged and mandated. We are now doing things that many of us would never consider doing normally—like encouraging our church members to stay home and watch the livestream.
I have even begun to think through the possibilities of how to do communion as an isolated community if the prohibitions remain in effect long-term. As we contemplate these kinds of questions, which may have seemed merely hypotheticals a few weeks ago, we must always examine why we are doing what we are doing. In other words, what core biblical principles are we applying and trying to maintain.
When I teach Baptist history courses, the content of the course naturally lends itself to the discussion of the practical issues of Baptist ecclesiology. We discuss Baptist distinctives like regenerate church membership, congregationalism, the immersion of believers, the proper administration of the Lord’s Supper, and religious liberty. We also discuss the regulative principle of worship.
It is my conviction that the English-speaking Baptists of the 17th-century from whom we have descended were birthed in a milieu where the application of the Reformation’s regulative principle of worship was a high priority. In fact, all of the above Baptist commitments flow from the desire to regulate what we do as churches by the Word of God.
The regulative principle states that Christian worship should only include those elements of public worship that are instituted, commanded, or appointed by command or example in the Bible. To state it negatively, anything not commanded or exemplified in Scripture is forbidden for our public worship.
This principle can be traced back to the Genevan Reformer John Calvin who stated in his tract on The Necessity of Reforming the Church that “God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word.” And even more forcefully, that: “God rejects, condemns, abominates all fictitious worship, and employs his Word as a bridle to keep us in unqualified obedience.”
The Protestant Reformers are rightly credited with leading a recovery of the authority of Scripture in the life of the church. This recovery caused them to reject the authority of the pope, the seven sacraments, and confession to a human priest. Yet, despite all their reforms, they mysteriously retained the idea of a state church and the practice of infant baptism. Baptists have taken the very same principle based on the authority of Scripture to reject infant baptism and to argue for believer’s baptism by immersion.
Although not often discussed today, the regulative principle should still be prized and utilized by Baptist churches and those who lead them. As we consider adaptions to the current crisis, the authority of Scripture to regulate our worship must be at forefront of our thinking regarding how we “do church.”
Thinking in ways that accommodate today’s exceptional situations while maintaining as much of the “regular” worship is essential. To be sure, the way others apply the regulative principle in the context may not always look the way we would like for it to look.
As I often tell my students, pastors can disagree on how they apply the regulative principle, I just wish they were all asking the right questions and prioritizing the authority of Scripture. While obviously important, what works pragmatically and what’s cool technologically are secondary to what God has commanded in His Word.