If you’re a regulative principle type – that is, you think God ultimately determines how he is to be worshipped – you will likely have come across the idea of elements and forms. Elements are those things that the Bible says must be present in worship – think preaching, praying, singing – whereas forms are the way any of those things might be expressed. The elements are necessary things, if you like, whereas the forms they take are contextual matters. So, singing might be an element that should be present in any service, but the form the singing takes may be wildly different depending on the particular context you are in.
I was struck recently by how the forms are sometimes a matter of choice – that is, what do we think is best – whereas other times they are a matter of circumstances and what is possible. For example, in our church, we currently sing along to lyric videos. Now, somebody might think it best to have musicians playing live music. That is a perfectly reasonable view to hold. But in our church, we lack musicians able to play. The few that can play anything (like me) were finding that our attention was being diverted away from more important matters – like welcoming new people and being with our members – to fulfil a form that is not required by scripture. In the end, we took the decision to free me up from those weeks I was leading, preaching and playing music (along with the required pre-service practice) and to use lyric videos so that I was freer to be with people.
We might think, in an ideal world, having live musicians is best. But few of us live in an ideal world. We then had to ask, given the world we actually live in, was the best option of live musicians (if that is your view) the best use of our limited people resources. After all, what is best, is contextually bound. Best for what under which given circumstances? We decided it was best not to have live musicians and free our people up to be welcoming and to encourage one another over tea and coffee. We still sing, of course. We just sing to pre-recorded lyric videos rather than live music. A contextually bound form whilst still upholding the necessary element.
Another church, however, might have people in the congregation with specific convictions about particular types of instruments, or even having instruments at all, when singing. The church leaders may believe singing with a range of instruments is best, all things being equal. But the scruples of other members in the church may mean that they decide it is better in the overall scheme of things to sing without instruments for the sake of those members’ consciences. What is best musically, or for the sake of singing alone, might not be the best choice under the circumstances facing the church leaders of troubled consciences in the congregation. The element of singing may well be maintained, but the form it takes is unaccompanied for the sake of the members who are convicted it must be so.
Another church again may well have concert-level musicians and composers in their ranks for whom music is not a burden, but a blessing. They love arranging music, playing music and it is no hardship for them to run the music. There may even be enough of these folks to have a team of people taking it in turns week by week. Under those circumstances, ‘best’ might mean a multi-instrument setup using the clear and evident gifts with which God has blessed the church. There may well be enough people in the church to welcome others, engage with one another over tea and coffee, fulfil all the rota requirements and still have teams available to take it in turns on music. Under those circumstances, what is best may well be to utilise all the gifts among you to the fullest capacity. The element of singing is still present, but the form it takes is different again.
One of the issues that churches frequently face is when forms and elements get mixed up. This can happen when people bring their cultural baggage and assumptions to bear in the church. This form, that I am maybe used to, gets pressed as though it is an element required by scripture. The worship wars of old, for instance, essentially revolve around this. People wedded to old hymnody or modern music styles insist their form is the only legitimate outworking of the element prescribed in scripture. But all of us ought to hold our forms lightly whilst making sure elements are held with a tighter hand.
I am also reminded of John Frame’s helpful reminder that the same regulative principle that governs corporate worship is precisely the same regulative principle that governs the whole Christian life (which is, as Paul says, our spiritual worship). There is only one regulative principle of worship. So, there are elements (or, principles if you like) that ought to be common to every believer. Believers are, for example, to honour one another. This is a simple and clear command to all Christian people. But then, there are forms (or, applications if you want) that will differ across cultures and contexts so that how one honours somebody in one place might be notably different from how they do it in another. I wrote about that at more length here. The element, or principle, is clear and must be common to every Christian, but the form it takes will differ depending on circumstances, culture and context.
As true as these things are of corporate worship, they are true of our everyday Christian lives as well. But what is an acceptable form of the thing prescribed will depend upon a whole host of different factors. It is telling – though entirely unsurprising when you consider the Bible is a book for all people, intended to transcend times and cultures – that most of scripture is a matter of principles. It is rarely out and out, straight command and instruction. Rather, it is more often instructive principles that must then be thought about, considered and appropriately applied in whatever time, place, context and culture we find ourselves. What might be a right and proper outworking of that principle in one context and culture might be an entirely inappropriate outworking of it in another.
The problem most of us have is that we confuse forms and elements. We confuse our application of biblical principles with the very principles themselves. We quickly think our application of scripture – which might be a legitimate one – is the application of scripture. That, of itself, tends to make the leap in our minds from this is what I think the Bible is calling me to do in this particular set of circumstances to this is what the Bible demands of everyone in any given set of circumstances. Considering we Conservative Evangelicals pride ourselves as being people who stand firm on what scripture says, it might seem a bit rich when we call out others for insisting on what the Bible specifically does not say when we aren’t beyond doing exactly that. We are quick to turn our assumed applications, or things we find helpful, into de facto commands of Christ himself when chapter and verse to that effect simply does not exist.
If you want a fairly clear example, I am minded to think of most discussions surrounding complementarianism. I am a complementarian because I believe the Bible teaches something fairly straightforward about headship in the church and family. But I am always surprised by the ways some complementarians build up edifices around that doctrine that stretch well beyond anything the Bible actually says.
Whilst many (rightly in my view) take umbrage with egalitarians who appear to simply ignore the evident reality of what the term kephalē (Greek: κεφαλή, tr. head) means, along with the language of authority and teaching which are specifically singled out in relation to it, certain complementarians end up arguing that women can’t be posties or join the police and insist that men have the final word on all matters with no comebacks. In both cases, these things seem to stretch well beyond anything the Bible actually says. Many egalitarians cannot comprehend how complementarian marriages might look like this (where I outline what my complementarian marriage looks like; the majority of complementarians who move in my circle affirmed this was similar to theirs) and insist such marriages are de facto egalitarian. Only, they don’t look egalitarian at all, they just look like complementarian marriages that are trying very hard not to go beyond what the Bible actually says about headship; which is, when all is said and done, not a lot but, nonetheless, enough that it has some outworking in practice. But for people who claim to be all about the Bible as our final authority, we have quite a lot of folks on both sides of this discussion who insist on a lot of stuff that is nowhere to be found in its pages and, sometimes, even stand on things that go directly in the face of what is found there in black and white.
But my simple point is this: we are very quick to insist the outworking of our understanding is tantamount to what the Bible says. So, when complementarians look askance at me because my wife deals with our finances, I am at a loss as to what to say because – last time I checked – the Bible simply doesn’t mention that. She is better at it than me, probably because she’s from a middle class family that operated with a budget while I’m from a working class family that lived, for as many generations back as I am aware of, hand to mouth. But letting your wife do what she is better at than you for the sake of your families good seems to me to be sensible outworking of managing one’s household well rather than an inversion of it. Indeed, the Bible has a bunch of examples of women happily managing finances and Proverbs 31 seems quite happy to paint an ideal wife as one who is handling money for the family. But nowhere does the Bible specifically say men or women, by virtue of their gender nor based on a view of marital headship, ought to manage the household budget. It’s just not there. But many seem convinced it is. That this is a deeply troubling dereliction of my husbandly headship. Egalitarians frequently cite such thinking when rejecting the doctrine – that is, rejecting what scripture does say based on something it specifically doesn’t say! What might be a legitimate application of how to manage one’s household is not specifically what the Bible says. This is, I want to suggest, an example of holding tight to a form and interpreting it, effectively, as an element.
Which brings me back to my basic principle. We ought to be people who hold our elements and doctrine tightly, but our forms and application of that doctrine much more loosely. If the same regulative principle that governs our corporate worship also governs the entirety of our lives as worship (and I think it does), we need to be all the more clear on what the Bible specifically says. For those who hold to a regulative principle, who insist that the Lord ought to determine how he is to be worshiped, we do a fine line quite frequently in blasting well beyond what he says and then applying that same overreach to everyone as though the Lord demands it. I guess what I am saying is, we should all work hard not to do that.