This article originally appeared at 9Marks.
After a short drive through the African countryside, our truck pulled up to a chapel for a church service in Choma, Zambia. I was excited to worship with brothers and sisters from across the world, and I was anxious to see what it would be like. How different would the service be from what I’m used to? Would I be able to worship along with them?
As the service began, men on stage started to play bongos, and the whole room danced where they stood. Joyful shouts of praise broke out around me as the rhythm progressed. Then I heard the most beautiful congregational singing I’ve ever experienced to this day. The voices rang out in near-perfect unison, and the sweet words directed my eyes to the cross. After singing, someone led us in prayer, and we heard the Word of God preached. It was a worshipful experience.
In many ways, it was different from what I was used to, but it was also strikingly similar. And I suspect it’s similar to your own church services as well. The fact that churches on different sides of the globe are so similar yet so different is what we should expect when the gospel is proclaimed in diverse places. There is a glorious, diverse sameness. And we should be satisfied with nothing less.
Our Gatherings Should Be Very Similar
The regulative principle is the conviction that everything we do in corporate worship must have warrant in Scripture, either by direct command or implication. As the examples above show us, when we anchor ourselves in God’s revealed truth, there will be a certain sameness to our church gatherings—even when the church is on the other side of the world.
Every Christian church, regardless of location or affiliation, has been given the same New Testament. There are some areas of corporate worship for which Scripture hasn’t given us any instruction, but there are many other important areas where Scripture has spoken clearly, and we should take note.
First, the substance or content of our church gatherings should be the same. The good news that Christ died, was buried, and was raised is the message we must proclaim. It should be our confidence when we pray, it should be celebrated when we sing, and it should be clear when we preach and administer sacraments. While there should be great diversity in our worship styles, there should not be diversity in the core elements of our message.
Second, the elements, or the different components of our church gatherings, should be the same. Those elements are preaching, singing, praying, Scripture reading, tithes and offerings, and the sacraments. Our God is not just concerned that we worship him; he’s also concerned with how we worship him.
Of course, we should offer our entire lives as worship unto the Lord. But when we gather together as we’ve been commanded, we should anchor ourselves in the elements God has given us in his Word. This isn’t a burden that restricts us, but a relief that frees us. We are freed to worship according to God’s means instead of human whim. This sameness unites us with churches all across the globe.
But how similar should we all be?
Our Gatherings Should Be Very Different
One criticism of the regulative principle is that it doesn’t allow for much diversity among our churches. Some argue the regulative principle only produces one kind of church, and if we all subscribe to it our churches will look exactly the same.
I strongly disagree.
When I worshiped with that church in Zambia, I was struck by the all the similarities and differences I observed. But I could also talk about the time I was in Grand Cayman, where I sang along with a diverse congregation as they belted out familiar songs with a Carribean swagger. Then their pastor delivered a heart-penetrating exposition that exalted Christ as Lord of all.
Or how about my former church in North Philadelphia, where every aspect of the service was gospel-saturated, and the atmosphere was celebratory and expressive. Hands waved, a six-piece band of talented musicians played, and the members verbally responded to the Word as it was preached.
Both of those atmospheres are very different from my current church, where the music is much simpler and quieter, the prayers are longer, and there’s limited verbal interaction during service. Instead, the congregation sits in a hushed silence as the Word of almighty God is read aloud and proclaimed.
The worship gatherings of the churches I’ve mentioned are very similar, yet very different. They faithfully obey God’s clear commands in Scripture to sing the Word, pray the Word, and preach the Word. But as you can tell from my descriptions, they are far from identical—and I don’t think they should be. This diverse sameness is glorious! We should be praising God for it and praying for more of it.
While our churches should not be innovative in the content or the components of our services, the way we carry those things out is, to some degree, up to us. Scripture gives us the “substance” and the “elements,” but within broad biblical guidelines, the forms are flexible.
So we can sing old, wordy hymns or repetitive contemporary songs. You can pray for an hour or for five minutes. You can preach calmly and lecture-like, or you can preach loudly, with a melodic climax at the end. We can take communion every week, or every other month. Church members can shout “Hallelujah!” during the sermon or just give a quiet “mmm.” And of course, there are inconsequential circumstances like seating and bulletins. You can sit in chairs or pews, and you can read song lyrics from a brochure or on a big screen.
You get the point. We shouldn’t think the regulative principle calls our churches to be uniform in every way. We can all be faithful to God’s Word without looking exactly the same.
My heart would be broken if I visited a church in China and the worship gathering looked exactly like my church’s in Washington, D.C. One of the glories of the gospel is that it penetrates all nations, tribes, tongues, and cultures.
Sometimes we can be tempted to force our chosen forms on others. No church exists outside of a context, so we shouldn’t assume our way is the way. This snobbery assumes that our cultural norms please God more than others. We should do what works for our people in our context. Yes, idolizing contextualization leads to compromise, but being oblivious to people’s needs is a compromise of its own. Our God has created diverse peoples, and any attempt to erase that diversity opposes his wise design.
This diverse sameness that we get to experience now is more precious than we sometimes acknowledge. It reminds us that God’s saving grace is indiscriminate. It’s a shadow of that eternal worship gathering that we long for. And it’s proof that God is making good on his promise to gather a people to himself from every tribe, nation, and tongue. Amen.