Back in 2007 I went to Uganda for the first time. It was a life-changing, vocation shaping trip. On that trip I formed friendships (with my team and with Africans) that have persisted even to this day. It was on that trip that I think I realized for the first time the truly universal nature of the church. The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Now, I get that more than ever, but on that trip, the weight of that truth struck me for the first time. Worship was quite an experience! It was intense, hands up, people jumping, people dancing, people shouting for joy. I had never seen anything like that (and I grew up in Hispanic churches!) The word was preached differently too – not in the sense that it was unrecognizable, but I had never hear so much feedback and response during a sermon, I had never seen the preacher so fired up. (And I grew up in Hispanic churches!) It all felt so different, yet somehow I felt like I was at my own church. It felt new, but the same. It felt exotic, but somehow familiar.
Trip Lee has recently written something similar on his experiences of worshipping in churches around the world .
He says that,
In many ways, it was different from what I was used to, but it was also strikingly similar. And I suspect it’s similar to your own church services as well. The fact that churches on different sides of the globe are so similar yet so different is what we should expect when the gospel is proclaimed in diverse places. There is a glorious, diverse sameness. And we should be satisfied with nothing less.
He then points us to the “regulative principle.” He reminds us that “The regulative principle is the conviction that everything we do in corporate worship must have warrant in Scripture, either by direct command or implication. As the examples above show us, when we anchor ourselves in God’s revealed truth, there will be a certain sameness to our church gatherings—even when the church is on the other side of the world.”
But doesn’t this principle limit the indigenous nature of the church and the contextual nature of worship? Shouldn’t every church service look the same if this principle is true? By no means!
I recently came across an interesting footnote in Michael Allen & Scott Swain’s Reformed Catholicity regarding the regulative principle. In it they give us the Reformational basis for the regulative principle and the ongoing diversity in the church’s expression of worship despite this principle….
Invariably this principle has always involved the necessity of distinguishing between elements and forms (and sometimes even between forms and circumstances). For instance, while the Bible mandates the element of Scripture readings in worship, it does not mandate the form of that reading (whether one verse or four chapters, from Deuteronomy or from the Gospel according to Matthew, etc.). The “regulative principle” refers to elements, which necessarily take form in various circumstances according to pastoral prudence and Christian wisdom. Hence “biblical worship” in the Reformed tradition is not a homogeneous ideal but a common commitment to worship via Word, Sacrament, and Prayer that can take carious contextual forms as appropriately discerned by ecclesial authorities. (69)
What this means, quite simply, is that “Church” must contain certain elements – like the Word proclaimed (readings, sermons, devotionals, homilies, etc.) & Prayer (corporate prayer, private prayer, prayer through musical worship) – but how those elements are expressed is up to the discernment of the church’s leaders. The leaders must determine what is biblically appropriate for that specific context.
So to all you regulators out there, who are gonna hate on my steez – don’t hate us cuz you aint us! Just kidding. To all you regulators out there, mount up and make sure you are regulating the right things…