I remember the beginning of my first pastorate, the congregation included faithful, loving Christians who worshiped together for decades. As any tight-knit group will do, a few odd church family rituals embedded themselves in their unwritten, but expected traditions. One of which was singing “Happy Birthday” to prominent members in the church during the Sunday morning service. The ratio was about one stanza of “Happy Birthday” every other Sunday.
To make it worse, “Happy Birthday” included a second spiritualized verse: “Happy birthday day to you. Only one will not do. Born again means salvation. How many have you?” I always wondered whether “How many have you?” referred to a natural and spiritual birth or multiple salvations. If it confused the pastor surely it confused the members.
As the pastor, I was mortified at what a guest would think. I wondered how the low profile members felt when their birthdays were overlooked. More importantly, I was convinced that we could glorify God in our public gatherings better by focusing less on ourselves and more on Jesus.
How should churches decide what to include in public worship services? What is a healthy gathering in the Bible?
The Regulative Principle vs The Normative Principle
Churches practicing the Regulative Principle include only things clearly warranted in Scripture as part of the worship gatherings. It includes practices found in the Bible such as preaching, praying, singing, giving, and the ordinances of baptism and Lord’s Supper. Churches practicing the Normative Principle include anything not prohibited in Scripture.
Which principle should the church practice? Choosing between them is a wisdom decision. A church must prefer what best glorifies God and edifies the people. Consider the Apostle Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian church in making the choice, “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Col 14:26). Notice that “Let all things be done for building up” does not include any cool and catchy idea. “All things” included a hymn, lesson, revelation, tongue, or interpretation. Which principle do you see in this? Paul regulated the service gatherings by narrowing things included in the order of service, even when revelatory gifts were active in the church.
A healthy gathering occurs when a congregation of baptized, covenanting church members meets in one place at one time for worshiping God and hearing his Word resulting in God’s glory and the people’s edification.
Pastor Michael Wilburn