I enjoy being challenged to think through why we do what we do in the church worship service. Recently I was asked why our band sometimes plays a brief interlude between songs during which the congregation is silent.
To take it further: isn’t the role of the band to facilitate the whole congregation’s singing? If so, then surely it is never appropriate for a singer to perform a solo, or a musician to play an instrumental piece with no lyrics. And if the band’s role is more pliable than simply providing the tune to which we all sing along, exactly how much leeway is permitted? Why is a vocal or violin solo allowed, but not a ballet dance or a juggling act?
Furnishing a philosophy of ministry that allows some discretion while excluding extremes may prove tricky.
There is no one-size-fits-all rule. If there was, it would be in the Bible! Here are three broad approaches to the church worship service: the too tight regulative principle, the too loose liberty-in-worship approach, and the elder-adjustable elastic tailored-for-each-church view.
When there is no elasticity your garment can prove too tight and restrictive. In this category I’d place the good old regulative principle, which teaches that if an activity is not explicitly mandated or modeled in the Bible, it’s not permitted in a church service. A consistent adherent to the regulative principle prohibits musical instruments besides the congregation’s singing. Presumably the use of hymnals, acoustically sound architecture, and padded pews are exempt from the need to be mentioned in Scripture because they are part of the facility and not the worship act. Sure, why not?
The problem I have with the regulative principle is that it is itself not mentioned in Scripture. (The irony is unavoidable, I’m afraid). The Old Testament worship system was highly regulated—just ask Nadab and Abihu—including the facility, the furnishings, the liturgy, the participants, and every other aspect you can think of. But the freedom from means and method in the New Testament stands in stark contrast.
As Jesus told the woman at the well in John 4, the building and Levitical system was indeed the correct one at the time, but would soon be displaced by the New Covenant way of worshipping, i.e. in spirit and in truth. Period.
Which leads to a second way of deciding what belongs in the service. This looser approach finds even elastic too restrictive, and holds that since there is no restriction in the NT, anything that can be performed as an act of worship by an individual, may also be included in the corporate service for all to witness. This “anything goes” mentality would make a regulated worshipper squirm in his pew if he was permitted to do so.
If you’ve endured a church service (as I have) with interpretive flag dancing to a Bette Midler song, a yo-yo demonstration to Christian rap music, or muscular men ripping up telephone books in the strength of the Lord, then you’ve seen what the regulative principle was designed to prevent.
But surely there’s a middle ground where common sense makes place for a well-timed musical interlude, or even a solo rendition of a beloved hymn, but still effectively keeps flag-wielding ladies in leotards at bay?
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