Imagine, if you will, a king who must take temporary leave of his kingdom for reasons which are unimportant to this story. His children are all too young to take the throne while he is gone, so he appoints a steward. Now, he has a reasonable amount of trust in this steward, but not total trust. For this reason, he grants the steward authority to enforce the laws of the land, but no authority to create new laws or to repeal (or ignore) existing laws.
Practically, this means the steward has to interpret and apply the laws of the land. He will need to determine if a given act was theft, and assign a punishment for the crime, based on what the king has already said. He may have to rule, for example, that it is still theft to take a man’s cart without asking and use it to transport your goods in the middle of the night, even though you return the cart before it is missed. But the steward is not allowed to make a new rule. He can’t create Steward’s Day and require citizens to pay him homage in the form of stew—or if your income falls below a certain threshold, just a stew recipe will suffice. He’s a nice guy, after all.
Now, stewards Steward’s Day is plainly self-serving. But it is important to note that modifying the law, even if he believes it to be in the best interest of the people, is still outside of his authority. If the city had a lot of poverty, he could not create a law that everyone above a certain income must donate stew to a local poor-house to feed the homeless. The king may have authority to require such a thing, but the steward simply does not have that authority. Likewise, if he were a libertarian steward, he could not repeal the king’s unreasonably-high tax laws or cut ridiculous royal spending on needless programs. He simply doesn’t have that authority.
But let’s suppose that this steward thought he knew better than the king. And again, let’s suppose he has the people’s best interest in mind. The steward cuts taxes, cuts needless spending, and removes laws against speeding because he believes there shouldn’t be victimless crimes. When the king returns, what will his opinion of the steward be?
A humble king who recognizes his own fallibility might like and keep some or all of the changes, but nevertheless the steward is guilty of usurping the king’s role. He has acted with an authority that he does not have and the king would be just to punish him. To make rules on behalf of the king when he has not given you that authority is rebellion and hubris. You are assuming that your laws are better than the king’s and that you have the authority to modify them as you see fit. But even if you’re right about some of the changes, it isn’t your kingdom.
Subtle, Like a Train Wreck
If you know me well enough (or if you know confessional reformed theology well enough), you may know where I am going with this story. But for those in the back of the classroom who may have been texting instead of paying attention, let me explain.
Jesus is a great King who is currently not physically present on the earth. He has gone away and he has left us with His law and left pastors and elders (and in some sense, congregants) responsible to uphold this law within the church.
There are many new-ish sins which we have devised since the King left. A duty of pastors and elders is to apply the Word of God to situations which the law addresses in principle, but not in specific detail. An easy example of this is keying someone’s car. Scripture teaches generally that we are to seek the welfare of our neighbor and not do harm to his person or his property. But it couldn’t have directly addressed keying someone’s car, because there were no such things as cars when the law was written. Nevertheless, pastors must teach the car-keying hooligans among their flock not to key cars and not to be hooligans. They’ll also need to address more complicated moral questions (like those concerning gender-change operations) and simpler questions (like that of hitting your neighbor in the head and stealing his stereo), and they must do this while standing upon God’s Word and authority—not their own.
We know from Scripture that it is wrong to add to or take away from God’s commands (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Joshua 1:7–8; Proverbs 30:5–6; Revelation 22:18–19), but often we act as though this simply refers to writing a new book of the Bible—as though God simply wanted to make sure we didn’t end up reading the book of Pastor Joe, slotted in right between Galatians and Ephesians. But something further-reaching is being said in the aforementioned passages. It’s like the principle of the steward above. Whatever authority God gives any man, the authority to make up new rules is not included.
This means that when Christians forbid drinking alcohol, they are not only in error; they are guilty of usurping Christ’s kingly office. To say that something is immoral which Christ has not commanded is not merely amoral; it is highly immoral. It’s not just silly; it’s hubris.
Sticks, Stones, and Upturned Noses
When Christ gave the church His law, He gave them a means of disciplining church-members who break His law: church discipline. At sundry times and in divers manners, the church has unlawfully taken for herself other methods of discipline. At her most corrupt, she has fancied herself a queen and took up the sword which God intended for the magistrate. She has killed thousands that she did not have the authority to kill. This is another way of changing God’s law and it is also an arrogant usurpation of an authority that was not given to her.
Another example of the church disciplining contrary to God’s Word that is more common today is the art of social-shunning. Suppose it becomes public knowledge within the congregation that a woman is having an affair. Biblically, anyone who knows about the affair with a reasonable degree of certainty is compelled by Scripture to confront her and call her to repentance. If she does not repent, they are to come with another witness—and lastly they are to take it to the elders, where she will be excommunicated from the church if she does not repent.
What often happens in cases like this, though, is a sort of informal shun. No one will bring up the issue, but she will be made the social leper. People will avoid talking to her at the potluck, despite the fact that she made the best green bean casserole there. She’ll stop being invited to Bible studies and brunches, and playdates for her children will become more and more rare. This is detestable. One reason Christ instituted church discipline is so that his sheep could be called lovingly to repentance and restored, not marginalized so that Mrs. Jones could have less competition as she climbs some sort of social ladder.
An example of what I’m sure the apostle Paul would have called a “double whammy” is when a body of believers marginalizes a man and his family because they heard he was drinking a beer with some friends one night. This is a form of discipline which Christ did not command exercised against something which Christ did not declare sinful.
I imagine that many readers will be with me up to this point, nodding their heads like any good sola-scriptura-affriming Protestant would. If not, I might suggest examining the passages I mentioned above: Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Joshua 1:7–8; Proverbs 30:5–6; and Revelation 22:18–19.
Tipping the Golden Calf
In my experience, American Christians become most outraged when you call into question two chief things: first, their worship style and songs; and second, the performance of their favorite football team. Take heart weary reader; I’ll only be tipping the first golden calf today.
Worship Wars have often very nearly earned the title WW3. When the pastor decided to do away with the organ in favor of an electric guitar and drum kit, let’s just say that’s what some new believers in the church assumed the book “Exodus” is about. I dare say that in some churches, a pastor could see more empty seats in his chapel because he chose to throw some hymns into the liturgy than he would see if he were to preach modalism. Western evangelicals really care a lot about their worship services, especially the music.
There are several things we are commanded to do as acts of worship to God. These include hearing the Word read and preached, the two sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), praying, singing Psalms with grace in the heart, as well as religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings (see the Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.5). Pastors are to expect their congregation to do these things, and to discipline them when they refuse to worship God as He has commanded.
If I say that a pastor may not, for example, decide that his church will just do extra singing and not bother with boring preaching, most conservative evangelicals would give a hearty “amen.” Pastors may not decide that acts of worship which God has commanded are no longer necessary. They do not have that authority. But further, they do not have the authority to create new forms of worship or modify the ones God has established.
For a pastor to add to or take away from God’s worship is to decide that the ways in which we are commanded to worship Him are insufficient or unnecessary. It is to deny the sufficiency and authority of Scripture. It is to usurp Christ’s headship over his church. It is the spirit of antichrist and Roman Catholicism.
A pastor may not invent a new sacrament. He can’t give his congregation pinecones to burn in a bonfire and tell them that burning the pinecone symbolizes the death of the old man. He may not have a candle-lighting ceremony, and he may not hold a now-abolished Jewish feast. He doesn’t get to invent new forms of worship or enforce extra-biblical old traditional ones.
This doesn’t just apply to pastors, though. If I decide not to take part in a candle-lighting ceremony at an evangelical church’s Christ’s Mass ceremony, the pastors obviously have no authority to bring me under church discipline. But neither does the congregation have the authority or right to ostracize me for not following the traditions of men. Yet if I hold onto my pinecone and don’t set throw it in the fire, I’m very likely to be seen as holding onto my sin and it’s unlikely I’ll be invited over for lunch by anyone who saw me (or anyone who heard it from someone who heard from someone who saw me).
Extra-biblical traditions in worship are necessarily contra-biblical traditions. Worship is definitionally something God deserves and requires of us. To call anything worship or obedience which God has not commanded is necessarily to add to His requirements, His commandments. It’s that simple.
But if you don’t believe me, let’s speak again of kings and stewards.
When Jesus Got Picky
Someone will say to me, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a candle. Why not just light it?” And I confess that if, outside the context of the worship of God, someone asked me to light a candle (because they liked the way it smelled or the atmosphere it provided at dinner), I’d certainly be more accommodating. Seriously, I don’t hate candles; I’m not an animal. This is not a matter of candles and pinecones; it is a matter of adding the the commands of God.
You’ll remember that I asked what the king would do if he found his steward has usurped him. Well, Christ our King established stewards of his law in both the old and new covenants. When he came to earth, he was faced with exactly this situation. In Mark 7, he and his disciples were approached by the pharisees and asked why they do not follow the tradition of the elders by washing their hands before eating. This was a ceremonial cleansing, not so much an FDA regulation or WebMD health tip.
Now, there are a couple of observations begging to be made here. First of all, as our moms can all attest, there is nothing morally wrong with washing your hands before eating. Actually, it’s scientifically proven to reduce the risk of illness—especially in premodern middle-eastern societies. And it’s not as though Jesus—as omnipotent-God—was unaware of this. To be perfectly honest, I have to confess that I’m not sure I would have the boldness Christ had. I’d probably just wash my hands. In one fell swoop, I could avoid germs, make mom proud, and not cause a scene.
But Jesus not only declined to wash his hands; he taught his disciples to do the same. I’m one-hundred percent sure that if I did the same thing, I’d get called out as being too picky and pharisaical. Ironic, no? This is such a small thing, yet Jesus refused and taught His disciples to refuse. Isn’t unity more important than not eating sandwiches with pruney fingers?
The issue here is not hygiene, mom’s advice, or unity. We may not say that the Son of God acted unwisely, or unwarrantedly rebellious or divisive. The issue is whether or not the pharisees and elders had the authority to add a tradition. They did not, and Jesus was unwilling that he or his disciples offer up to God an obedience that God had not commanded. So he stood his ground and risked the germs.
When confronted by the pharisees, Jesus does not simply and politely say, “I’m exercising my Christian liberty by choosing to not observe your tradition.” Instead, he cites the prophet Isaiah and calls them hypocrites. Both Jesus and Isaiah agree that the worship of the pharisees was in vain because they were teaching as doctrine the commands of men (Mark 7:6). John Calvin, commenting on this passage, writes:
But Christ has faithfully and accurately given the meaning, that in vain is God worshiped, when the will of men is substituted in the room of doctrine. By these words, all kinds of will-worship, as Paul calls it, (Col. 2:23) are plainly condemned.
Now the pharisees had plenty of traditions, many of which were a far heavier burden to the people than hand-washing , and many of which stood in direct opposition to God’s commands (Mark 7:8ff). I’m sure Jesus had many other encounters with the pharisees because of these issues, but this confrontation is recorded for us twice in the gospels (Mark 7 and Matthew 15). In both accounts, Jesus is recorded as refusing to do even the smallest, least offensive thing—which in itself is actually a good idea, practically—because He considers worshiping God according to the traditions of men to be vanity and hypocrisy.
Objections and Resources
This doctrine is called the regulative principle, but it is really nothing more fancy than applying sola scriptura to worship. Either God said that we have authority to add to his commands, or he didn’t. If we don’t have that authority, then for anyone to call anything worship or obedience with God did not command is a usurping of God’s authority. Christ had no room for it when He was on earth, and that didn’t change after the resurrection.
Most of the objections I hear after I explain this come in the form of, “But if this is true, that means we can’t do x thing in worship, and that really helps me.” I just want to be upfront with you and tell you tha that is a complaint, not an argument. Saying that a doctrine can’t be true because you wouldn’t like the consequences of it is a non-sequitur. Further, the apostle Paul says that the commandments and doctrines of men “indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.“ (Colossians 2:23) They may seem helpful, but they’re not.
Old covenant worship was filled with symbols and ceremonial pictures of the gospel. But now that the perfect has come, we acknowledge that those are just a weak and beggarly shadow of the substance of the gospel (Galatians 4:9; Colossians 2:17). New covenant worship is to be done simply and without fanfare and symbols (with the exception of communion and baptism, which God himself saw fit to give us) because the gospel of grace is beautiful enough in itself and needs no adornment. Using manmade traditions and ceremonies to aid the gospel is like putting ketchup on prime rib. They can only detract, and also, ew.
As a note: I’m not a pastor, elder, or deacon. I do not have the authority to teach, except in the sense that all believers are called to teach and admonish one another (Colossians 3:16). Further, while I like to read, I’m not seminary educated. Because of that, I want to encourage you to examine this matter on your own. I recommend two short books, which are available for free online:
- John Calvin on the Necessity of Reforming the Church
- Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principle of Worship (PDF) by Brian Schwertley
You may also find it helpful to look up the passages I referenced and consult freely available commentaries online by John Calvin, Matthew Henry, and other reformed commentators. I also highly recommend humbly discussing the matter with your pastor and looking into any resources he might recommend.