What Does the Regulative Principle Require of Church Members?

Years ago I attended a Sunday night service at one of the largest and most prestigious evangelical churches in Southern California. Attendance in the evenings had begun to wane in recent years, so a more informal approach was being tested. The college pastor was leading the service. After the opening exercises he had us all stand, turn 90 degrees, and give the person next to us a standing back massage.

It was a bit disorienting to be giving back massages in such a grand sanctuary, right there in the pews. But there was more. He then directed us to turn to the persons on either side of us, look into their eyes, and say, “I love you.” If anything, this was even more awkward than the backrub.

Regulated Worship
The regulative principle addresses what the church may do when it assembles. Churches are not free to do whatever they want to do; they must do what Scripture instructs and requires them to do. When the church gathers to worship, its worship is to be “according to Scripture.”

Reformed Protestants traditionally have argued that Scripture requires a limited number of elements: reading Scripture, preaching, prayer, sung praise, the administration of the sacraments, and oaths (e.g. WCF, XXI, XXII). However, they allowed considerable freedom respecting the form a given element might take (e.g. written vs. extemporaneous prayers) and the circumstances within which the service takes place (time of service, seating arrangement, means of voice projections, lighting, etc., WCF I.6).

Historically a well-regulated service meant that Reformed Protestants knew pretty well what would happen in church each week. There would be few surprises. No one would be asked to do anything strange. Those leading the services wouldn’t do anything embarrassing. The Word would be read, preached, sung, prayed, and the sacraments would be administered. No dog and pony shows. No pyrotechnics. No one rambling about. The service consisted of the serious application of the Word of God.

This was good, because members are required to be at services. Attendance is a duty of membership. Since members have to attend, they should only be required to do what God requires them to do.

Church Power and Membership
In order to understand why the regulative principle limits what Christians can do when they gather, we need to consider the nature of Christian freedom. Specifically, Christians should be free from the arbitrary exercise of church power.

What can a church require of its members? Only what Scripture requires.

By the way, “members” is the correct word. Let me digress. The church, like Israel before it, was understood by the Reformed as a covenant community, that is, a community in covenant with God and with each other, and having concrete, real existence. The church was understood to be an institution having a form of government, officers, membership, a method of discipline, doctrine, and sacraments. It was this church that was required by its Lord to assemble on the Lord’s Day.

Since Christ established the church, participation and attendance are obligatory. Unlike a lecture, a small-group meeting, or a mid-week Bible study, all of which might be regarded as optional, Sunday services are not. One might opt-out of a conventicle or discipleship group because they may feature practices which cause a person discomfort. But this is not the case with the Lord’s Day assembly, under the direction of the officers of the church, for the purpose of worship.
This, it seems to me, has been the historic Reformed understanding of the church, its membership, and its power, and it’s as true today as ever. The church may only demand of its members what Scripture demands.