Tag Archives: Sola Scriptura

2 Non-Negotiables for a Healthy Church


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

Scripture vs. Tradition

A couple of months ago I posted a blog entitled The Danger of Abandoning Sola Scriptura.  The premise behind that post was the supposedly divine revelation that Pastor Terry Jones received which he claimed directed him to schedule his Koran burning event.  That post was directly aimed toward the extra-biblical revelation that so many people claim to receive from God that tells them to do or not do certain things.  In it we looked at the historicity of Sola Scriptura as it existed during the Protestant Reformation as a counter to the Roman Catholic teaching of that day and we also looked at some modern day examples of the dangers (Experiencing God) involved in seeking divine revelation outside of the Bible.  Since then, I’ve received multiple comments which I’ve responded to, each attacking with the central argument that Sola Scriptura is not biblical and that tradition reigns supreme over the Bible.  Just a few weeks ago, I received an additional comment which included some 10 verses attempting to prove that tradition existed in biblical times and should therefore be carried forward today.  The problem with that logic is that it fails to realize that God was still continuing to reveal Himself in a divine way to the apostles and prophets that He had appointed, i.e. His revelation to men was not yet finalized. 

What amazes me is that so much effort is placed into finding verses that present supposed “unanswered questions” or the few that contain quotes that are not found verbatim in Scripture as though some Da Vinci Code conspiracy theory exists and we are all held in the dark until those questions are resolved.  While refuting each incorrect assumption regarding those passages is outside the scope of this post, the fact of the matter is these passages have such little bearing on understanding who God is, His divine attributes, who His Son is, salvation, justification, sanctification, etc.  Sola Scriptura says that the Bible is not only inerrant, but that it is sufficient for all that the believer needs and that it is the sole source for guidance within the Church (this is not to the neglect of the Holy Spirit as He teaches and guides us through the Word of God).  The Bible alone is sufficient.  This means that traditions and historical writings, while profitable, do not hold superior weight to the Bible.  Additionally, God’s divine special revelation  is closed and He has provided everything we need in life to live according to His will through His Word and the giving of His Holy Spirit to all who are believers in Christ. 

As mentioned, the argument is always that the Bible itself provides evidence for the use of tradition and that somehow those examples are placed above the authority of God’s Word.  In this argument, I’ve yet to hear mention of the passage from Mark 7:1-13 which is a direct and explicit mention of the traditions of men.  Here is the passage:

1 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.  And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.  5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

   “‘This people honors me with their lips,
   but their heart is far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
   teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

 9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”‘ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

 Jesus is confronting the Pharisees about the weight that they place on their own tradition over the commandments of God, i.e. His Word.  He is rebuking them for their many traditions that they have passed down and expressly states that in following the traditions of men they have made “void the word of God.”  Now I ask, could there be a more clear warning of the danger of that comes with placing tradition above God’s Word?  Here is the question that must be asked by those who hold tradition over Scripture, how can fallible, fallen men, who have clearly proceeded incorrectly in their traditions, as rebuked by Christ and defined in Mark 7, be assured that any future traditions are likewise correct?  Are we to assume that this was just a momentary hiccup and that man has somehow regained his footing on upholding all future traditions over Scripture?  Who is left then to define what traditions are to be passed down and followed closely and which ones are to be disregarded as Christ said of those mentioned earlier. 

The Pharisees and those who hold to traditions over Scripture make a decision to choose sola ecclesia over sola scriptura.  The position of sola ecclesia asserts that the church holds the final, infallible authority, not God’s Word.  To claim that the church (i.e. Roman Catholic Church) can somehow hold the position of determining the extent and meaning of tradition while simultaneously defining the extent and meaning of Scripture places them in the awkward position of choosing which to be submissive to.  It certainly cannot be both, so the hand is forced to choose.  Is it tradition or God’s Word?  The Pharisees chose to hold fast to their traditions passed down through the generations over the commandments of the Lord in His Word, just like those today that choose to uphold the traditions of the church over God’s Word.  What this boils down to is man’s interpretations and traditions vs. God’s divinely inspired, inerrant Word.  Let me repeat that, man’s traditions vs. God’s Word.  Let that sink in for a minute, because at its heart this is the fundamentally fatal flaw of many churches and church-goers today.  To place man above God, either in salvation or orthodoxy is the foundation of every heresy from the Apostle Paul’s day until now.

The position of Sola Scriptura is not battling against the existence of tradition in Scripture, but rather it stands against the incorrect weight applied to traditions that are set over and above the Word of God.  It refers to the time when Scripture is complete and God’s Word was no longer being revealed and it simply states that the Bible is sufficient and authoritative.  It alone is all the believer and the Church needs.  Who are you going to trust, men and their traditions or God and His Word? 

See also: http://vintage.aomin.org/SS.html

The Danger of Abandoning Sola Scriptura

This past week an interesting global controversy broke out involving Florida pastor Terry Jones and his decision to burn at least 200 Korans to mark the anniversary of 9/11.  Recent reports indicate he has suspended the plans, for now, pending discussions on a separate controversial issue, the moving of the mosque in New York.  I haven’t really followed the Koran burning issue too much, because quite frequently radical church pastors make some outlandish claims in the name of God.  But this one got me thinking.  I wasn’t able to find any quotes other than one from Politics Daily that stated Jones’ plan was following out what God had told him to do, but a lot of times in instances like these that’s typically the case.  Here’s the quote, ““’If God told us to do it’ — burn the Korans – ‘then I guess he could tell us to do something different.’”  If that’s accurate, then it seems an assertion could be made that he indeed was following what he felt he was told.  Yesterday, the announcement to suspend the burnings was due to an alleged agreement to move the mosque in New York, which Jones took as a “sign from God.”  The pastor’s entire logic and therefore his theology is wrong and dangerous.  This is precisely what happens when you abandoned the doctrine of Sola Scriptura

During the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers established what was known as the “5 Pillars of the Reformation” that included Sola Scriptura (Only Scripture: Our Only Foundation), Solus Christus (Only Christ: Our Only Mediator), Sola Gratia (Only Grace: Our Only Method), Sola Fide (Only Faith: Our Only Means), Sola Dei Gloria (To God Alone Be Glory: Our Only Ambition).  These 5 Latin phrases were central to the protestant debate, as the Roman Catholic Church had begun to exert their own “infallibility” and diverge away from each of these Biblical areas.  Such is the case within mainstream evangelical churches today.  Many have no idea what these phrases are, let alone what they mean in the Biblical sense.   An excellent introduction to them is Dr. Michael Horton’s article found here: http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/essentials.html

Sola Scriptura was so integral to the heart of the Reformation because on the one hand, the Roman Catholics believed their teachings were infallible and asserted that their traditions were likewise the form of an infallible revelation.  They simply needed “one infallible Bible and one infallible interpreter” of it.  Obviously no man can be infallible and only the Lord Jesus Christ ever has been perfect, but in Catholicism, even to this day, the pope is consider as such.  On the other side of the Reformation debate were the Anabaptists who believed that their leaders were in direct communication with the Holy Spirit.  Instead of one infallible messenger, like the Catholics, the Anabaptists had multiple flawless messengers who staked a claim to hear the voice of God.  In the middle of these two sides stood the Reformers and their assertion that the Bible was the only infallible form of communication of God with man and was therefore the final authority in all matters, such as doctrine and life.

Which brings us back to Pastor Jones and likewise all preachers/teachers who make claims that “God told them” to do or say various things, that they’ve had a divine revelation, or that they’ve heard God speak to them.  These claims are “extra-biblical”, meaning it is not something that God has spoken through His Holy Word.  As Michael Horton states in the article referenced above, “There can be no communication with God apart from the written and living Word. Everything in the Christian faith depends on the spoken and written Word delivered by God to us through the prophets and apostles.”   Jones isn’t alone in this regard, the recently deceased Oral Roberts made numerous claims that God had told him various things to do or “prophesy”.  Likewise, Pat Robertson has made multiple claims over the last 30 years that were “revelations from God”.  The list of these men goes on and on and when the general public hears of these “revelations” the usual response is to scoff and mock God.  It might be easy for even us Christians to look at televangelists and mock them for their claims, but what about when this idea of hearing or listening for God outside of his Word invades the local church?    

Pastor John MacArthur offers the following helpful commentary on a study that teaches that very thing:

“a book….It’s called Experiencing God. There’s much in it that’s good. There really is. There’s much in it that’s very good. It gives honor to Christ. It gives honor Scripture. It gives honor to the Holy Spirit, but there’s an insidious flaw in the middle of it. The material is designed to teach a person how to listen for the voice of God and to somehow be able to hear the voice of God.

Now, this is very dangerous. If you want to hear the voice of God, read the Bible. I’ll never forget reading some years ago a book written by somebody who was into hearing the voice of God and into prophecies and all of the manifestation of that in the Church. It was a pastor of a church in the Midwest, and he said, “When somebody stands up in our church service and says, ‘Thus sayeth the Lord,’ and then rattles off something from God, we know that it’s either from God or it’s not.” And frankly, that is not helpful. That is not helpful.

God doesn’t speak in such unclear fashion. If God wants to say something, there won’t be any question about whether He said it or didn’t say it. The problem with that is you’ve got people being engulfed in this mystical thing, listening for the voice of God, and then whatever pops into their head, becomes divine as to its source. “Well, the Lord told me to do this, and the Lord told me to do that.” I have to tell you honestly folks, the Lord has never said a word to me in my entire life that didn’t come out of the Bible. They say, “Well, don’t you think he impresses things on your heart?” Yeah, but I don’t know if it’s Him. I have a strong impression. I don’t have a red light on my head that turns on and goes around and around when it’s Him. I don’t know that. There’s no way I can know that.

Sure I feel things, and so forth. You say, “Well, don’t you believe God leads you?” Of course, I look back in retrospect, and I see it. But at the time, I don’t have any sense, feeling that is clearly defined as the voice of God. And so what you’re setting people up for is serious problems, because they’re gonna follow their impressions. They’re gonna follow, who know where those impressions may be coming from, as if that’s the voice of God. And with good intentions, it takes people off the word and onto their own intuition, which is pretty dangerous. And I have a problem with that entire movement because of that.

And again, I go back and say you can read some of those books, which I have read through the years and critiqued and all, and you’re gonna find many, many things in there that are very good. They honor the word. They honor God. They honor Christ. They honor the Holy Spirit, but having done all of that, then you tell people, “Learn to listen for the voice of God, and God will tell you what to do.” You set them up for disaster, because there’s no indication in Scripture that they can ever know the voice of God, especially if it’s not audible. If it’s some kind of impression, you don’t know where that impression came from.”

 This is why the Reformers were so adamant for Sola Scriptura because when the Bible is not the final authority in matters it leads to confusion, false assertions, and most importantly false presumptions placed in the mouth of God.  When a person follows this internal prompting, who’s to say it’s from God or the flesh?  The Apostle Paul states in Romans 7:18, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”  How then can we look inward and expect to hear God’s voice, let alone discern whether it is His or an outworking of our own sinful flesh?

The danger in listening and following these internal voices and promptings instead of the Word of God is that it can lead one down a maddening trail of twists and turns.  It’s a trap that we can so easily fall into or a path that we can be so easily persuaded to follow, such as in the book Experiencing God, that MacArthur referenced above.  Maybe some of these promptings we get right and things work out for good.  But what about the ones we get wrong, like ordering the burning of the Koran?  Are we so presumptuous as to place those words in the mouth of our Lord?  The question becomes if we abandon Sola Scriptura in favor of “hearing from God” how do we know who is actually hearing God’s voice and who is like Terry Jones or other preachers?     

2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

Proverbs 28:26 “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.”