But there is another extreme to avoid on the other side of the principle as well. It is possible to go too far and, in the name of the regulative principle, to refuse to recognize the church's authority to regulate practices when necessary in order to preserve the principles of the Word of God in areas where various times and customs call for different applications of those principles. This extreme has, I think, been taken by many who have criticized the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, accusing it of being legalistic. For instance, it is common in the FPCS for ministers and elders to oppose the practice of women wearing trousers. This strikes many as legalistic. "Where in the Bible does it say that women can't wear trousers?" they ask. "I don't see it in there. This is unbiblical legalism, the addition of man-made traditions to the commandments of God's Word!"
The FP custom here is rooted in Deuteronomy 22:5: "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God." So there is a biblical principle here. It doesn't say anything about trousers, but if trousers are men's clothing, then women would be prohibited by this passage from wearing them. It is the current dominant opinion within the FPCS that trousers are indeed men's clothing. In my corner of existence, or the corner I have come from, this is a bit more ambiguous. Is it unbiblical legalism for ministers and elders to require women to refrain from wearing trousers? No, it is not, for it is the church's duty to enforce the commands of God. Sometimes the commands of God deal with specific practices, such as the use of wine (and not just some general liquid) in the Lord's Supper. Other times, such as here, the rule is general, and it is the custom of the times which determines the proper application. It is the church's duty to discern the proper application of biblical principles in light of the particular times, and to apply those principles accordingly. We may disagree with particular applications due to disagreements over how to read the current culture, and perhaps sometimes the elders of the church might be wrong in this regard. But this is a far cry from a situation where the church simply makes up man-made rules without any serious biblical justification and imposes them on the people of God. To confuse these two issues is to risk slandering the church when it is in fact acting justly (even when we think it is off-base in terms of its evaluation of the culture). (Here is an explanation from an FP minister on the FP website of the FP position on clothing, including the trousers issue.)
To give just one more example, what Reformed church today would tolerate a pastor coming into the pulpit wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a purple mohawk? (OK, some PCA churches might--just teasing. :-) ). And yet on what grounds would his action be censured? Where in the Bible does it say anything about Hawaiian shirts and purple mohawks? Nowhere, of course. The justification for censuring this pastor will come from an attempt to apply biblical requirements regarding reverence and proper decorum in light of ideas current in the culture about the social meaning of Hawaiian shirts and mohawks. And that is my point. We understand this idea, but sometimes we allow unexamined prejudice to cause us to forget about it and jump to unjust conclusions when it comes to evaluating churches that do things differently from the way we are used to, or who are full of people who have a bit of a different cultural background from our own, or when we disagree with the church in terms of how to understand modern culture (if our cultures are even the same). Perhaps we, in our part of the world, with the people we tend to hang out with, don't think much about trousers as men's clothing. But should we write off an entire church simply because the majority of its leaders, for some reason or other, think of trousers differently, and a different cultural understanding of trousers currently prevails in that church? It is certain that, whatever trousers mean to modern urban Americans in their 20s and 30s, within the culture that currently exists in the FP church trousers are men's clothing. For a woman, then, to walk into an FP church wearing trousers is for that woman to make a cultural statement--"I have chosen to wear men's clothing"--just as a man walking into the pulpit of most Reformed churches wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a mohawk has made a cultural statement--"I choose to be irreverent." Certainly, there is a need for understanding on both sides, so that the innocently ignorant should not be condemned along with those who should know better. But even the innocently ignorant ought to be better instructed and should submit to the prevailing culture within the church once they understand what that is. This is not legalism--It is charity mixed with a proper recognition of how biblical principles and cultural attitudes and practices go hand-in-hand with each other in human societies.
Below is a selection from John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, chapter 10, translated by Henry Beveridge in 1599, found at the website of the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. In it, Calvin articulates the idea I have discussed above. In most of the chapter, Calvin has been insisting on the regulative principle and railing against those who would introduce human inventions into the worship of God, or who would enforce upon the church that which God has not commanded. But after doing this, Calvin shows a proper respect for balance. He turns around and criticizes the other extreme that we have been discussing above. To illustrate the church's right and duty to enforce biblical principles in light of prevailing cultural attitudes and practices, he cites the decrees of the Jerusalem Council. The Council decreed that Gentiles should refrain from meat offered to idols, from things strangled, and from blood. But why did they command these things?
The first thing in order, and the chief thing in importance, is, that the Gentiles were to retain their liberty, which was not to be disturbed, and that they were not to be annoyed with the observances of the Law. . . The reservation which immediately follows is not a new law enacted by the apostles, but a divine and eternal command of God against the violation of charity, which does not detract one iota from that liberty. It only reminds the Gentiles how they are to accommodate themselves to their brother, and not to abuse their liberty for an occasion of offence. Let the second head, therefore, be, that the Gentiles are to use an innoxious liberty, giving no offence to the brethren. Still, however, they prescribe some certain thing, viz., they show and point out, as was expedient at the time, what those things are by which they may give offence to their brethren, that they may avoid them; but they add no novelty of their own to the eternal law of God, which forbids the offence of brethren.
According to Calvin, the Jerusalem Council prescribed these limitations on the liberty of the Gentiles as an application of the principle of charity. Though there were were no universal or unchanging rules requiring their abstaining from some of those things that were proscribed, yet at that time their engaging in such things would have unavoidably involved the wounding of the consciences of their Jewish brethren. Therefore, the council commanded an appropriate application of the principle of charity for that time and situation.
Calvin mentions some similar things that might be done by some Reformed pastors in his own day, out of concern for protecting the weak consciences of those lately come out of Romanism:
As in the case where faithful pastors, presiding over churches not yet well constituted, should intimate to their flocks not to eat flesh on Friday until the weak among whom they live become strong or to work on a holiday, or any other similar things, although, when superstition is laid aside, these matters are in themselves indifferent still, where offence is given to the brethren, they cannot be done without sin; so there are times when believers cannot set this example before weak brethren without most grievously wounding their consciences. Who but a slanderer would say that a new law is enacted by those who, it is evident, only guard against scandals which their Master has distinctly forbidden?
Calvin goes on, then, to discuss this general idea further. I have pasted the rest of his words on this subject from this chapter below. Let us learn from Calvin's comments here to seek the proper mean between the extremes of adding man-made traditions to the worship of God on the one hand and hindering the church from using its proper authority to apply the principles of God's Word to different cultural situations on the other.
But as very many ignorant persons, on hearing that it is impious to bind the conscience, and vain to worship God with human traditions, apply one blot to all the laws by which the order of the Church is established, it will be proper to obviate their error. Here, indeed, the danger of mistake is great: for it is not easy to see at first sight how widely the two things differ. But I will, in a few words, make the matter so clear, that no one will be imposed upon by the resemblance.
First, then, let us understand, that if in every human society some kind of government is necessary to ensure the common peace and maintain concord, if in transacting business some form must always be observed, which public decency, and hence humanity itself, require us not to disregard, this ought especially to be observed in churches which are best sustained by a constitution in all respects well ordered, and without which concord can have no existence. Wherefore, if we would provide for the safety of the Church, we must always carefully attend to Paul's injunction, that all things be done decently and in order, (1 Cor. 14: 40.)
But seeing there is such diversity in the manners of men, such variety in their minds, such repugnance in their judgements and dispositions, no policy is sufficiently firm unless fortified by certain laws, nor can any rite be observed without a fixed form. So far, therefore, are we from condemning the laws which conduce to this, that we hold that the removal of them would unnerve the Church, deface and dissipate it entirely. For Paul's injunction, that all things be done decently and in order, cannot be observed unless order and decency be secured by the addition of ordinances, as a kind of bonds.
In these ordinances, however, we must always attend to the exception, that they must not be thought necessary to salvation, nor lay the conscience under a religion obligation; they must not be compared to the worship of God, nor substituted for piety.
We have, therefore, a most excellent and sure mark to distinguish between those impious constitutions (by which as we have said, true religion is overthrown, and conscience subverted) and the legitimate observances of the Church, if we remember that one of two things, or both together, are always intended, viz., that in the sacred assembly of the faithful, all things may be done decently, and with becoming dignity, and that human society may be maintained in order by certain bonds, as it were, of moderation and humanity. For when a law is understood to have been made for the sake of public decency, there is no room for the superstition into which those fall who measure the worship of God by human inventions. On the other hand, when a law is known to be intended for common use, that false idea of its obligation and necessity, which gives great alarm to the conscience, when traditions are deemed necessary to salvation, is overthrown; since nothing here is sought but the maintenance of charity by a common office.
But it may be proper to explain more clearly what is meant by the decency which Paul commends, and also what is comprehended under order (I Cor. 14:40).
And the object of decency is, partly that by the use of rites which produce reverence in sacred matters, we may be excited to piety, and partly that the modesty and gravity which ought to be seen in all honourable actions may here especially be conspicuous. In order, the first thing is, that those who preside know the law and rule of right government, while those who are governed be accustomed to obedience and right discipline. The second thing is, that by duly arranging the state of the Church, provision be made for peace and tranquillity.
We shall not, therefore, give the name of decency to that which only ministers an empty pleasure; such, for example, as is seen in that theatrical display which the Papists exhibit in their public service, where nothing appears but a mask of useless splendour, and luxury without any fruit. But we give the name of decency to that which, suited to the reverence of sacred mysteries, forms a fit exercise for piety, or at least gives an ornament adapted to the action, and is not without fruit, but reminds believers of the great modesty, seriousness, and reverence, with which sacred things ought to be treated. Moreover ceremonies, in order to be exercises of piety, must lead us directly to Christ.
In like manner, we shall not make order consist in that nugatory pomp, which gives nothing but evanescent splendour, but in that arrangement which removes all confusion, barbarism, contumacy, all turbulence and dissension.
Of the former class we have examples, (1 Cor. 11: 5, 21,) where Paul says that profane entertainments must not be intermingled with the sacred Supper of the Lord; that women must not appear in public uncovered. And there are many other things which we have in daily practice, such as praying on our knees and with our head uncovered, administering the sacraments of the Lord, not sordidly, but with some degree of dignity; employing some degree of solemnity in the burial of our dead, and so forth. In the other class are the hours set apart for public prayer, sermons and solemn services; during sermon, quiet and silence, fixed places, singing of hymns, days set apart for the celebration of the Lord's Supper, the prohibition of Paul against women teaching in the Church, and such like. To the same list especially may be referred those things which preserve discipline, as catechising, ecclesiastical censures, excommunication, fastings, &c.
Thus all ecclesiastical constitutions, which we admit to be sacred and salutary, may be reduced to two heads, the one relating to rites and ceremonies, the other to discipline and peace.
But as there is here a danger, on the one hand, lest false bishops should thence derive a pretext for their impious and tyrannical laws, and, on the other, lest some, too apt to take alarm, should, from fear of the above evils, leave no place for laws, however holy, it may here be proper to declare, that I approve of those human constitutions only which are founded on the authority of God, and derived from Scripture, and are therefore altogether divine.
Let us take, for example, the bending of the knee which is made in public prayer. It is asked, whether this is a human tradition, which any one is at liberty to repudiate or neglect? I say, that it is human, and that at the same time it is divine. It is of God, inasmuch as it is a part of that decency, the care and observance of which is recommended by the apostle; and it is of men, inasmuch as it specially determines what was indicated in general, rather than expounded.
From this one example, we may judge what is to be thought of the whole class, viz., that the whole sum of righteousness, and all the parts of divine worship, and everything necessary to salvation, the Lord has faithfully comprehended, and clearly unfolded, in his sacred oracles, so that in them he alone is the only Master to be heard. But as in external discipline and ceremonies, he has not been pleased to prescribe every particular that we ought to observe, (he foresaw that this depended on the nature of the times, and that one form would not suit all ages,) in them we must have recourse to the general rules which he has given, employing them to test whatever the necessity of the Church may require to be enjoined for order and decency. Lastly, as he has not delivered any express command, because things of this nature are not necessary to salvation, and, for the edification of the Church, should be accommodated to the varying circumstances of each age and nation, it will be proper, as the interest of the Church may require, to change and abrogate the old, as well as to introduce new forms. I confess, indeed, that we are not to innovate rashly or incessantly, or for trivial causes. Charity is the best judge of what tends to hurt or to edify: if we allow her to be guide, all things will be safe.
Things which have been appointed according to this rule, it is the duty of the Christian people to observe with a free conscience indeed, and without superstition, but also with a pious and ready inclination to obey. They are not to hold them in contempt, nor pass them by with careless indifference, far less openly to violate them in pride and contumacy.
You will ask, What liberty of conscience will there be in such cautious observances? Nay, this liberty will admirably appear when we shall hold that these are not fixed and perpetual obligations to which we are astricted, but external rudiments for human infirmity which, though we do not all need, we, however all use, because we are bound to cherish mutual charity towards each other. This we may recognise in the examples given above. What? Is religion placed in a woman's bonnet, so that it is unlawful for her to go out with her head uncovered? Is her silence fixed by a decree which cannot be violated without the greatest wickedness? Is there any mystery in bending the knee, or in burying a dead body, which cannot be omitted without a crime? By no means. For should a woman require to make such haste in assisting a neighbour that she has not time to cover her head, she sins not in running out with her head uncovered. And there are some occasions on which it is not less seasonable for her to speak than on others to be silent. Nothing, moreover, forbids him who, from disease, cannot bend his knees to pray standing. In fine, it is better to bury a dead man quickly, than from want of grave-clothes, or the absence of those who should attend the funeral, to wait till it rot away unburied. Nevertheless, in those matters the custom and institutions of the country, in short, humanity and the rules of modesty itself, declare what is to be done or avoided. Here, if any error is committed through imprudence or forgetfulness, no crime is perpetrated; but if this is done from contempt, such contumacy must be disapproved. In like manner, it is of no consequence what the days and hours are, what the nature of the edifices, and what psalms are sung on each day. But it is proper that there should be certain days and stated hours, and a place fit for receiving all, if any regard is had to the preservation of peace. For what a seed-bed of quarrels will confusion in such matters be, if every one is allowed at pleasure to alter what pertains to common order? All will not be satisfied with the same course if matters, placed as it were on debatable ground, are left to the determination of individuals. But if any one here becomes clamorous, and would be wiser than he ought, let him consider how he will approve his moroseness to the Lord. Paul's answer ought to satisfy us, "If any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God."(I Cor. 11:16).
Moreover, we must use the utmost diligence to prevent any error from creeping in which may either taint or sully this pure use. In this we shall succeed, if whatever observances we use are manifestly useful, and very few in number; especially if to this is added the teaching of a faithful pastor, which may prevent access to erroneous opinions. The effect of this procedure is, that in all these matters each retains his freedom, and yet at the same time voluntarily subjects it to a kind of necessity, in so far as the decency of which we have spoken or charity demands. Next, that in the observance of these things we may not fall into any superstition, nor rigidly require too much from others, let us not imagine that the worship of God is improved by a multitude of ceremonies: let not church despise church because of a difference in external discipline. Lastly, instead of here laying down any perpetual law for ourselves, let us refer the whole end and use of observances to the edification of the Church, at whose request let us without offence allow not only something to be changed, but even observances which were formerly in use to be inverted. For the present age is a proof that the nature of times allows that certain rites, not otherwise impious or unbecoming, may be abrogated according to circumstances. Such was the ignorance and blindness of former times, with such erroneous ideas and pertinacious zeal did churches formerly cling to ceremonies, that they can scarcely be purified from monstrous superstitions without the removal of many ceremonies which were formerly established, not without cause, and which in themselves are not chargeable with any impiety.