There are a lot of opinions circulating for what constitutes a “healthy church”. Over the last few years, as I’ve been thinking through how the Scriptures define a church, both its form and function, it seems clear that there are two non-negotiable guiding principles that rarely get the attention they deserve.
Typically, when we read of the marks of a healthy church, we see lists that skip right to the “to do” rather than pointing out the corrective lenses that would allow one to see clearly what this list should include. These two lenses are Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principal of Worship. Let’s briefly define them and see how they impact the progression and development of everything else that would build a healthy church.
First – Sola Scriptura. God’s Word is foundational because it reveals who God is and who we are in light of the knowledge of Him. Sola Scriptura is a principle revived after the Reformation (though named and defined a couple centuries later) which is Latin for “Scripture Alone”. This little phrase means
the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture. It is not a claim that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture. (ref)
Additionally, the sufficiency of Scripture or Sola Scriptura, assumes the inerrancy of Scripture. The final statement in the definition cited above, that sola Scriptura “is not a claim that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture” is an exhortation against Solo Scriptura, a danger that all professing Christians must guard against. A good, biblical starting point for defining the sufficiency of Scripture may be found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
As it pertains to a local church, “a practical denial of Sola Scriptura“, even among those who profess adherence to it, is the chief malady in today’s churches. It’s bad enough when a church is ignorant of this principle, but it’s perhaps worse when a church is knowledgeable of it, yet abandons the practical application of it.
Too often it seems that churches grant themselves Christian liberty to form and function a church how, either as an individual or small group of individuals, best see fit and then the congregation decides if they will go along with this or not. This is often referred to as “vision casting”. The problem is that the vision has already been cast by God in His Word and it is often being improperly adhered to.
For an application of Sola Scriptura in a church, we may first look at the qualifications of an elder to find out who should/shouldn’t be leading, 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Any step around or outside these requirements is a practical denial of Sola Scriptura. In another application, we may ask who holds the keys of the church, the congregation or the “clergy”, as it pertains to matters of admittance and discipline, Matt. 18:15-20. Denying or failing to recognize who God has given this authority to is again a practical denial of Sola Scriptura. A final example is in matters concerning the mission of the church, which is clearly defined in the words of our Lord from Matthew 28:18-20. Ignoring this and focusing on matters of politics, redemption of society, or establishing social justice as primary importance, is again a practical denial of Sola Scriptura.
The most common objection to Sola Scriptura is another Latin phrase, Sola Ecclesia, which states that the Church is the final authority in all spiritual matters. Historically, this has been the chief error of the Roman Catholic Church. Likewise, abandoning Sola Scriptura and embracing tradition has become one of the primary reasons why so many people are leaving Protestantism for Roman Catholicism. Practically speaking, most churches do not rely on either of these two, but are instead the product of tradition, sometimes without even realizing it. This, not the Scriptures, becomes the guiding principle for how and why a church is formed and functions the way that it does.
Proper application of Sola Scriptura in the development of a healthy church means that the Scriptures should be the guide and final authority for how a church is formed and for how it functions. Tradition, opinions, including “God told me”, and the church down the street must all yield to the authority of Scripture, either its prescription (command) or description (example) with respect to a “healthy church”.
Second – The Regulative Principal of Worship. This principal, while distinct, flows right out of the application of the previous principal. The Regulative Principal of Worship summarily states that God has determined how He will be worshiped. RPW concludes that anything not expressly commanded by God in His Word is strictly prohibited, as it relates to His worship. This principal has often been called “the foundation of all Puritanism”. Writing against a popular objection to this principle, Puritan John Owen provides a common definition
That nothing ought to be established in the worship of God but what is authorized by some precept or example in the word of God, which is the complete and adequate rule of worship.
Conversely, the Normative Principle of Worship, largely held to by Martin Luther, and later the Anglican Church, states that whatever is not strictly prohibited in Scripture is allowed, as it relates to the worship of God. As you can see, the former principal is much more limiting while the latter may open up the floodgates to what is allowable worship. What’s to prohibit dancing or a play in worship, or elephants and motorcycles for that matter? More practically, what determines whether you sing hymns or Contemporary Christian Music?
The most familiar examples of the RPW occur in the Old Testament as God clearly establishes the how, when, where, and who for His worship, c.f. Exodus 25:40. Those who ignore this, such as Cain (Gen. 4:3-5) and Nadab and Abiuh (Lev. 10:1-3), paid the ultimate price for violating God’s prescribed worship. In the New Testament, the principle can appear to be less clear, which has given license to many to worship God however they see fit, but this is not the case. In fact, Christ rebukes the Pharisees for the vanity of their worship in following traditions and the commandments of men, Mark 7:1-13. Additionally, we are given a clear command that constrains what is allowable teaching, Matt. 28:20.
In practice, most churches function under the much more liberal Normative Principle, essentially working from either a traditional, preferential, or pragmatic base, one in which everyone does what is right in his/her own eyes, i.e. popular opinion. If the RPW is valid, and it seems that it clearly is, then the great duty of all churches, indeed all individuals within them, is to search the Scriptures to find how it is that God has ordered His worship. Commenting on this, John Owen writes
This, then, is the church’s duty, to search out the commands of Christ recorded in the gospel, and to yield obedience unto them. We are not, in this matter, to take up merely with what we find in practice amongst others, no, though they be men good or holy. The duty of the church, and consequently, of every member of it in his place and station, is to search the Scriptures, to inquire into the mind of Christ, and to find out whatever is appointed by him, or required of his disciples, and that with hearts and minds prepared unto a due observation of whatever shall be discovered by his will.
It’s beyond the scope of this post, but we must seriously examine the Scriptures to ask has God either prescribed or described the form and function of His church? Has God regulated His worship? If so, how? Turning once again to Owen we read
Take care that nothing be admitted or practised in the worship of God, or as belonging thereunto, which is not instituted and appointed by the Lord Christ.
The Word of God is sufficient for us in all matters of faith and practice, including the basis for the form and function of a healthy church, but do we practically operate this way? Additionally, God has prescribed how He will be worshiped, but have we given this due attention and then obediently put it into practice?
One final exhortation from God’s Word, which should regulate our worship:
Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. Deuteronomy 12:32
I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. 1 Corinthians 4:6
18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. Revelations 22:18-19