Monday, September 3, 2012

My Statement on Certain Issues Regarding the Regulative Principle of Worship as well as Church Unity and Authority

This is a statement I wrote up in May expressing some of the convictions I have come to over the past year regarding the application of the regulative principle of worship and the unity and authority of the church.  It is now a public statement, and so I am posting it here.

Over the past few months, I have been coming to some convictions on certain matters that are relevant to my continuing role both as a member and as an officer in the OPC. I therefore want to lay out these convictions so that my position will be absolutely clear to anyone who is concerned in these matters.

The Regulative Principle

First, I have come to hold some important positions regarding the application of the regulative principle of worship. It seems to me that people in the Reformed tradition have held to basically two ideas of how to apply the regulative principle (I am oversimplifying a bit here, but, considering things roughly, I think these delineations are fairly accurate): 1. The continental view seems to be basically this: Something need not be commanded in order to be done in worship; it only has to be considered useful. Now, the continental Reformed would not put it this way, because putting it this way highlights the fact that this idea is not really consistent with the regulative principle, which affirms that only things commanded can be done in worship. I think the continental Reformed have a vague third category in their minds, and the vagueness of it has caused them not to see the flaws in it. For them, there are things commanded, things completely indifferent, and things useful. The problem is that the “useful” category will collapse into either the commanded or the indifferent category upon more careful scrutiny. If something is so “useful” that in order to fulfill their God-ordained tasks church officers really ought to enact it, and they would be neglectful in their duty if they did not, then this is really something commanded. If that thing is not useful enough to say that church officers would be neglectful in their duty not to enact it, then it is not necessary to enact, and so is a thing indifferent. The regulative principle is all about keeping three categories distinct: the commanded, the forbidden, and the indifferent. The worship of God is a subset of the category of “good works.” Good works must be things that are commanded. The public worship service is a situation where the people have been commanded by church officers to come to a certain place and do certain things, and those things must be things commanded and not merely indifferent. This is the heart of the regulative principle of worship, and it seems to me the continental tradition has weaknesses in its traditional applications of it in certain areas. (I speak of the continental tradition as it is today, not as it was in earlier days, such as in Calvin's time.) For example, the celebration of Christmas is prescribed by the Order of Dordt. They would acknowledge that there is no command in the Bible to celebrate Christmas, but they would justify enforcing this celebration on congregations on the grounds that it is “useful” to the good order and growth of the church. But this smacks of precisely what Paul was warning against in Colossians 2:16-23—coming up with human rules and practices to supplement what God has given, thinking they will be “useful” in the Christian life. But they are not, for God has given us all that is necessary for Christian life in his Word, either expressly set down or by good and necessary consequence deduced. I can think of no reason why the celebrating of Christmas is necessary to fulfill any biblical requirement, and so it cannot be considered commanded, and so it cannot be commanded as an element of worship in the church.

2. The second position is what I will call the Westminster position. This is what I consider to be the more faithful interpretation of the regulative principle. In this view, if we want to do something in a worship service, we must prove that it is commanded by God to be done as part of public worship in the Scriptures, either explicitly or by good and necessary consequence. Being “useful” won’t cut it. We cannot command as necessary what God has not made so. Thus, the Westminster Directory for Public Worship opposes the celebration of extra-biblical holy days like Christmas. However one might make an argument for the “usefulness” of celebrating Christmas, it cannot be proven that it is necessary so that it would be a sin to neglect it, and so it cannot be imposed on congregations as a part of the worship of the church.

These two positions constitute one of the major differences between the modern continental Reformed and the British Presbyterian points of view, so far as I have seen. Both have a strong affirmation of the regulative principle, but the Presbyterians have been more consistent in applying it.

It seems to me that the stricter, Westminster interpretation of how to apply the regulative principle leads to certain conclusions advocated by many historic Presbyterians and by the Westminster Standards, such as exclusive psalmody, the exclusion of musical instruments from public worship, and the exclusion of the recitation of creeds in public worship. I can find no command in the Bible, either explicit or implicit, for singing hymns in public worship. I can find no command indicating that musical instruments are to be used outside of temple worship. I can find no biblical command for the recitation of statements of faith by the congregation in public worship.

The OPC Directory for Public Worship seems to me to be a bit continental in its approach to some of these things. For example, in the section on congregational singing, the Directory says this: “Congregations do well to sing the metrical versions or other musical settings of the Psalms frequently in public worship. Congregations also do well to sing hymns of praise that respond to the full scope of divine revelation” (DPW IIB2c). According to the terminology explicitly defined at the beginning of the Directory, the language of “is well” or “do well” indicates that something is deemed suitable for worship, but not commanded. So the Directory indicates that the OPC does not consider the singing of psalms a commanded element, but it considers both the singing of psalms and the singing of hymns “suitable” elements but not commanded. How does this square with the Directory’s strong affirmation of the regulative principle? “God may not be worshiped according to human imaginations or inventions or in any way not prescribed by his Word, nor may the church require her members to participate in elements of worship that God's Word does not require. Only when the elements of worship are those appointed in God's Word, and the circumstances and forms of worship are consonant with God's Word, is there true freedom to know God as he is and to worship him as he desires to be worshiped” (DPW IB6b). But if a particular church incorporates hymn-singing in its worship service, it is commanding its congregation to engage in a worship practice that the Directory itself acknowledges not to be commanded.

With regard to the reciting of creeds in worship, the Directory says this: “It is also fitting that the congregation as one body confess its common faith, using creeds that are true to the Word of God, such as the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed” (DPW IIB3b). “Is fitting” means the same thing as “is well” in the Directory’s terminology. Again, why is this practice allowed if it is acknowledged not to be commanded, in light of the regulative principle?

It seems to me that in these cases, and perhaps some others, the OPC Directory for Public Worship is inconsistent with the regulative principle and with itself, and thus I cannot approve of these elements in it.

Church Authority and Unity

A broader issue has arisen for me as well that is very relevant to my relationship to the OPC. That is the issue of church authority and unity.

Churches obviously claim authority. Church officers claim authority to fulfill the various functions of their offices; sessions, presbyteries, and broader assemblies claim authority to function as legitimate synods; etc. Whenever there are multiple denominations, each denomination, by virtue of its existence separate from other denominations, is making a two-pronged statement: “We possess legitimate authority, and other denominations don’t.” We can think of the church de facto and de jure. Considered de facto, the church of Christ is of course broader than any particular denomination. That is to say, the Body of Christ and its essential activities and functions can be found in many different places and denominations. Considered de jure, however, each denomination holds itself alone to be the visible church of Christ. By existing as a separate denomination, the OPC, for example, recognizes the authority of the OPC General Assembly, of the individual presbyteries of the OPC, and the sessions that make up those presbyteries; but it does not recognize the authority of the assemblies, presbyteries, and sessions of other denominations. The OPC does not invite to its General Assembly meetings, as fully recognized voting members, ministers from other denominations. They are treated as being without authority. If the Free Church of Scotland comes to a decision in its General Assembly and mandates that it be enforced in presbyteries and sessions, the OPC treats this decision as being without authority. There may be a de facto recognition that the Body of Christ, the visible church, is present in these other denominations, but there is no de jure recognition of the authority of these other bodies. The full recognition of the authority of the authoritative bodies of other denominations would amount to full union with them so that there would no longer be two distinct denominations.

Now, this fact, I have come to see, is important in terms of selecting the denomination one is going to be a part of. As there are a multitude of conflicting Christian denominations, they cannot all be right in their claims to authority, for they all exclude each other. This means that there is an objective question to answer: Which denomination, if any, is the legitimate heir to the de jure Church of Christ? There have been many denominational splits in the history of Christianity. It is theoretically possible to have a split in which both sides are equally wrong. It is not possible to have a situation in which both sides are fully justified in the split, for otherwise there would be agreement and no split. A denominational split always involves sin and/or error. There is always heresy and/or (non-doctrinal) schism. Most of the time, there will likely be one side that is right and one side that is wrong, or at least one side that is more right than the other. When a split occurs, it is necessary as far as possible to ascertain which side is right and to follow that side, for that side will possess the continuing authority of the de jure church while the other side will not. (Again, I am not saying that both sides can’t be de facto true churches. I am saying that they cannot both be de jure true churches, because in their mutual separation they exclude each other. The side that is right, then, being legitimate in its exercise of authority involved in the split, will retain that authority, while the side that is wrong will lose it, as it has had its authority rightfully revoked by the other side.) The question of which denomination is the rightful heir of the true de jure church is thus an objective question that we all must answer, and there will be an objective answer to that question that will not differ depending on one’s location, culture, language, nationality, etc. (except insofar as one’s conditions prevent one by some means or another from knowing about or being unified with what otherwise ought to be considered the rightful heir). We must first look at the churches currently existing and determine which is the most orthodox, and then we must factor in historical information regarding how they came to be separated from each other, and from these we can determine which denomination ought to be regarded as having rightful de jure authority. We would then have a prima facie moral obligation to join that denomination and not to support other denominations (by doing anything that would attribute de jure authority to them, by joining them, being an officer in them, etc.).

In my efforts to engage in this search thus far, I have come to certain conclusions. As we go through church history, I am persuaded that the catholic church of the early years of the church is the rightful heir of de jure authority (as opposed to heretical sects like the Gnostics). I am convinced that the churches of the Reformation are right over against the claims of Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy. I am convinced that the Reformed churches are right over against the claims of the Lutherans, the Anabaptists, etc. And I am convinced that the British Westminster Presbyterian tradition is right over against the modern continental Reformed (for reasons articulated earlier). The Church that has held most consistently to this tradition historically has been the Church of Scotland. I’ve already mentioned the continental churches. The Church of England has not held to a consistent application of the regulative principle. Independents/Congregationalists have not held to biblical teachings on presbyterian church government. Therefore, I have come to the conclusion thus far that the Church of Scotland of John Knox and Andrew Melville and which embraced the Westminster Standards in the 1640s is the rightful heir to the Reformation. Therefore, my quest has become more specific—to find the rightful heir to the historic Church of Scotland. There are only a few plausible contestants for this position today. We can rule out churches that have unnecessarily altered the historic confessions and practices of the earlier Church of Scotland, such as the American Presbyterian churches. By altering these confessions and practices, they have not only drifted from biblical teaching and practice, but have engaged in schism by creating barriers to full union with the historic Church of Scotland. There are only a very few claimants to the role of heir of the Church of Scotland whose claims are somewhat plausible. I have not come to a full conclusion on this point as of yet, but currently I am leaning towards the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (FPCS) as the most likely candidate.

Now, all of this has obvious practical implications regarding my membership and office in the OPC. Ideally, my family and I have an obligation to join with whomever we find to be the heir to the historic Church of Scotland, and to terminate our formal relationship with the OPC. The OPC cannot claim to be the rightful heir to the historic Church of Scotland. It is rather the heir of an American Presbyterian tradition that has never been fully in line with the Westminster Standards. This is not to say the OPC is not an important part of the de facto Body of Christ, or that it is not a very faithful church that has been and continues to be diligent in glorifying God and serving his people in this world. It has been and is both of these things. But it is not the rightful heir to the historic Church of Scotland, speaking de jure. That means that it cannot be regarded as possessing any de jure authority as a church, which means that it should not be treated as possessing such authority by being joined with in formal membership, etc. We have an obligation to look at things from the perspective of the denomination that possesses de jure authority. If that denomination does not recognize the de jure authority of the OPC, then we should not recognize it either. To do so is to promote and abet schism in the Body of Christ.

This may seem to lead to a clear immediate duty for myself and my family. But there are other things, other duties, to consider. Although all denominations ought to reform themselves and come into full unity with the heir to the historic Church of Scotland, yet the fact of the matter is that there are many denominations out there that have not done so to varying degrees. And this means that there are many true members of the Body of Christ (de facto) that are under and dependent upon the ministries of denominations that exist in schism. This may entail with regard to some church officers a duty to remain at their current post, not abandoning the people of God who look to them for shepherding, when bad circumstances would likely follow for them. In my case, I am a member and a ruling elder with a church that is very small, by far the most faithful Reformed church in Utah. We have only three people on the session—myself, our pastor, and another ruling elder who augments the session from Denver, CO. In these circumstances, it seems that I may have a duty to remain where I am if I can, helping to shepherd the congregation, or at least to remain as a member in order not to abandon and discourage my fellow members and cause problems for the congregation. I also have an obligation to myself and to my family, to keep us all in a situation where we can receive proper shepherding, and this may require membership in a local body. Perhaps in this situation, it is my duty to follow a non-ideal path that is the right path given these difficult circumstances, and retain membership (and perhaps office) in the OPC. That is my current thinking on the topic, and therefore my current intention.

The question naturally arises: How can I continue to worship in a church that has worship practices that I believe to be contrary to the regulative principle of worship, such as hymn-singing and the recitation of creeds? My answer is that just as it is in the case of church authority and unity, so there are nuances in the issue of biblical worship. By a rather fallacious and weak form of reasoning, the singing of hymns, recitation of creeds, etc., can be justified as being particular forms of elements of worship that are commanded, such as, for example, teaching. There is no command to sing hymns, but the singing of hymns can serve a teaching function in the church. The recitation of the creed can be similarly justified. This is, of course, precisely the sort of justification used in the modern continental tradition to justify extra-biblical holy days, and it is also the sort of justification used in many modern evangelical churches to justify skits, movies, Christmas cantatas, etc., in the worship of the church. Just about anything could be justified by this sort of justification (“Sure there is a biblical command to go on a weekly nature hike as part of the worship service. After all, we are supposed to teach, and you can learn a lot from seeing God's glory displayed in nature.”). That is why I oppose this kind of justification. But it must be admitted that this is far better than simply bringing in extra-biblical elements of worship as if in themselves they are considered holy and essential to the worship of the church. The continental Reformed churches, thus, are far better than churches like Rome which intrude holy days as per se commanded elements of worship as opposed to ways of fulfilling other commands. Under these circumstances, I feel justified in participating temporarily in practices like hymn-singing, considering them as a highly stretched form of teaching that is in need of reform, whereas I could not join in any practice that was put forward as being per se necessary or which involved sinful practices (such as worshiping a golden calf).

At any rate, these are the positions I have been coming to recently with regard to the OPC, the regulative principle, and church authority and unity. I welcome any input, feedback, questions, comments, arguments, etc., from anyone. I am open to correction on anything that I have said or that I am thinking. I want to hear all the different sides and opinions regarding these issues as well as what I ought to do in these circumstances.

UPDATE (9/12/12):  I am still a member, but no longer an active ruling elder, in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

UPDATE (10/5/12):  See here and here for related blog articles.

UPDATE (11/19/12):  My family and I no longer sing hymns along with the rest of the congregation in public worship, nor do we participate in the reciting of the Nicene Creed.  We decided that it does not make sense to justify engaging in a practice by giving that practice a meaning other than what is intended by the session and the rest of the congregation.

UPDATE (1/8/13):  I thought I'd add here another brief statement of my views on church unity and authority that I wrote up for a different context, in order to further illuminate the issue:

The church of Christ is called to be one in formal unity throughout the world.  (I have found this particular article - - very helpful in laying out the biblical principles involved in what church unity ought to look like.)  Denominational separation is a sad and sinful situation.  Of course, formal unity would not always take the same form.  Churches in the same region ought normally to merge together so as not to have rival sessions, presbyteries, etc.  Churches in, say, different nations should be united under some kind of binding ecumenical council that would help preserve basic unity in doctrine and practice (though such a council would only deal with the most serious and fundamental matters and would likely meet only when special need was to call for it).  This is the ideal.  Because of differences in doctrine and practice among the various denominations, this unity is not achievable at this time.  These differences require more pure denominations to remain separate from less pure denominations in order to preserve as much as possible the whole counsel of God in the more pure denominations, as church officers have no authority from God to water down the truth for the sake of denominational unity.

When denominations are separate from each other, each denomination has full formal recognition of the authority of officers and church courts within its own denomination, but it fails to formally recognize the full authority of officers and courts of other denominations.  So, for example, when the Presbytery of the Dakotas of the OPC holds its stated meetings, it does not invite as full voting members officers from other denominations in the same region such as the PCA or the RCUS.  It may invite officers from these denominations to give a greeting or other such things, but those officers are not formally recognized as having authority as church officers in the official proceedings of the presbytery.  This is not to say that there is a failure to recognize officers and members of these other denominations as true parts of the visible church of Christ--where the Word of God is preached in fundamentals, the sacraments administered, salvation can be attained, etc.--but there is no formal recognition of their authority as officers to be included as full members of the presbytery, even though they are in the same region.  Likewise, OPC church courts don't formally recognize as binding the decisions of church courts in other denominations.  So when the RCUS, say, holds a classis meeting and makes decisions, the church courts of the OPC, even in the same region, do not formally recognize those decisions as having any binding authority, etc.

On the worldwide scene, denominations in different nations have their own general assemblies which are regarded and treated as the highest, formally recognized and binding judicatories of the church.  There is no formal recognition of a higher ecumenical council that binds the different national assemblies together, and thus there is no formal recognition of binding authority between these denominations.

Now, since the church ought to be formally united around the world as one, these failures of unity and formal recognition of authority are very serious and can only spring from doctrinal or practical error or other forms of schism.  In a congregational form of church government, denominational separation is seen as normal and ideal, for there is no recognition of any binding higher councils outside the individual congregations.  But in a presbyterian form of church government, such denominational separation and failure to recognize authority implies sinful schism.  For example, If the OPC fails to merge or in some way formally unite (as described above) with the PCA, in doing so the OPC is either manifesting a schismatic attitude itself for failing to adequately preserve the unity of the church, or, if there are good reasons not to formally unite with the PCA (such as doctrinal or practical error or other such concerns), the OPC is doing right and its remaining separate from the PCA necessarily implies a charge of schism against the PCA, for the PCA, in that case, is maintaining errors or other problems in itself that have become barriers to the unity of the church that Christ has called the church to.  So, in short, when denominations fail to be formally united and to fully and formally recognize each others' binding authority in the context of a presbyterian system of church government, each denomination that remains separate from others is either itself being schismatic in doing so or it is issuing (either explicitly or by necessary implication) a just charge of schism against the denominations from which it remains separate.

This has beet put very well and succinctly by a document on the front page of the official website of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland:

"Denominational walls are erected on a judicial level and the distinct jurisdiction of church courts is the final and fullest expression of separation. The setting up of rival Church courts from Kirk Session through to General Assembly is an express rejection of the jurisdiction of the Church courts of other denominations and is either schismatic itself or necessarily charges other bodies with the sin of schism. Persisting in such separation is either schismatic or else there is an implicit charge of schism against all those from whom separation is maintained." (

It is my opinion that churches which hold to more historic Presbyterian attitudes and practices towards worship are, other things being equal, more pure than churches which hold these to a lesser degree.  So, for example, a church which holds to exclusive psalmody would, on that account, all other things being equal, be a purer church than one which allows the singing of hymns in public worship.  I believe that the above principles I have laid out--which I take to be nothing more than the clear and logical implications of presbyterian church government--lead to a moral responsibility we all have to examine the doctrines and practices of different existing denominations and to determine which are more or less pure, all things considered.  We ought also to take into account in our examinations the history of the denominations and why they are separated from each other, insofar as such information is available to us.  Respect for the church courts of more pure denominations in their decisions not to enter into formal unity with less pure denominations creates a moral obligation, I believe, on all of us as individuals, families, etc., to unite when possible with more pure denominations and to refrain from formal union with less pure denominations.  We ought to unite ourselves to the most pure denomination we can discern.  When a denomination like the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, for example, fails to enter into formal unity with a denomination like the OPC, as I articulated above, both denominations, by failing to enter into formal unity and formally to recognize each others' authority, are issuing an implicit charge of schism against each other.  If the reasons for the continuing failure to formally unite are that the OPC has introduced impurities into its doctrine and practice while the FPCS has not, then the OPC is not justified in maintaining formal separation while the FPCS is.  Respect for the just and legal decision in this matter by the FPCS church courts, then, creates a moral obligation for us when possible to unite in formal union with the FPCS and to avoid formal union with the OPC.  Of course, other factors may come to play here and create non-ideal situations, such as not having a congregation of a more pure church nearby, in which case it may often be necessary to remain in formal communion with less pure churches, at least for a time.  But, overall, there is a moral obligation to seek formal communion with the more pure church and to avoid formal communion with the less pure church when it is possible to do so without shirking other duties.

UPDATE 1/9/13:  I thought I'd add here as well a note I wrote up in another context to describe why I believe that schismatic churches can sometimes, in certain circumstances, be regarded as possessing authority to function as a church due to providential circumstances where the proper de jure denomination cannot adequately exercise oversight: 

"I do not see anything that I have said to imply that the OPC does not have a certain authority that ought to be submitted to by members. My current position is that there is a moral obligation to join a church with a right to separate existence whenever such a church exists locally and can be joined. However, when there is no local manifestation of such a church, I think that the need for a local congregation with local oversight by church officers, including the ability to receive the sacraments, proper church discipline, etc., leads to it being acceptable to grant the authority to function with church authority to a local church, even if that church is schismatic. So, in my case, for example, my family and I wish to remain in formal communion with the OPC and subject to the government and discipline of Christ Presbyterian Church while we continue to live in the Salt Lake area and so long as no local congregation of the FPCS is present (or at least so long as there is no possibility of joining the FPCS). We take our membership vows to submit to the government and discipline of Christ Presbyterian Church and the OPC very seriously, attributing real church authority to the OPC with regard to ourselves, and we do not see the schismatic nature of the OPC as a bar to being in membership in the OPC in these circumstances."

UPDATE 9/17/14:  We are now adherent members of the FPCS and have left the OPC.  See here for more on this.

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