If God owns the church (1 Peter 2:9), shouldn’t His Word take priority in how it is structured?
Yet this article from The Christian Post promoting the shift to virtual church lacks any interaction with Scripture (aside from one twisted application of Mark 2:22). The article references youth engagement, potential missional opportunities, and survey results to argue for the importance of virtual reality “church” but never stops to consider God’s own Word on the subject.
In that sense, proponents of the virtual church aren’t merely attempting to redesign worship services and congregations according to their own tastes and preferences—they’re attacking the authority of God’s Word in His church.
Sola Scriptura and Christian Worship
The doctrine of sola Scriptura is often taken for granted by Protestants today, but it was a point of incomprehensible tension in the early days of the Reformation. As B. B. Warfield wrote, “The battle of the Reformation was fought out under a banner on which the sole authority of Scripture was inscribed.”B. B. Warfield, “The Theology of the Reformation” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 9:465.
The issue of authority was the sticking point of the Reformation, and the Reformers understood that.
It was Scripture as final authority—sola Scriptura—that became the “formative” principle of the Reformation. Once Scripture was recognized as more authoritative than church and tradition, Protestants began to reform all of life accordingly. Naturally, then, Christian practice and worship were part of that.
One clear example of this is Luther’s 1520 treatise On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Just three years after posting his famous ninety-five theses, Martin Luther gutted the medieval sacramental system with this short tract by cutting the list of sacraments from seven to two (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Through that pamphlet and his other works, he undermined the unbiblical authority structures that had preceded him.
While Luther’s treatise focused specifically on the sacraments, other Protestants after him continued to reform all other worship practices according to Scripture.
John MacArthur writes, “How does the sufficiency of Scripture apply to worship? The Reformers answered that question by applying sola Scriptura to worship in a tenet they called the regulative principle.”John MacArthur, Worship: The Ultimate Priority (Chicago: Moody, 2012), 31. He then quotes John Calvin to define the regulative principle:
We may not adopt any device [in our worship] which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunctions of him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have Him approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed. . . . God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word. John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church (Dallas: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995 reprint), 17–18, qtd. MacArthur, Worship: The Ultimate Priority, 31.
Following the Reformers, the Puritans carried the regulative principle into subsequent generations of Protestants. John Owen writes, “The worship of God is not of man's finding out...It is not taught by human wisdom, nor is it attainable by human industry, but by the wisdom and revelation of the Spirit of God...For what doth please God, God himself is the sole judge.”John Owen, “The Nature and Beauty of Gospel Worship” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (1853; London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965 reprint), 9:72 qtd. Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 851.
Commenting on the Puritan understanding, Joel Beeke and Mark Jones explain, “Those who adhere to the regulative principle believe that God is offended by unauthorized, man-made additions to His worship. The royalty of Christ is violated, and His laws are impeached. The Puritans believed that these additions are sinful and irreverent, suggesting that Scripture is not sufficient.”Beeke and Jones, 851.
In contrast to the Puritans, many evangelicals today believe worship is pleasing to God simply because it intends to be worship. Scripture, however, regularly speaks of worship that God rejects (Amos 5:21–24; Isaiah 1:11–16; Psalm 51:16–17; Matthew 15:9). James Montgomery Boice argues that Scripture says more about unacceptable worship than it is does about God-honoring worship.James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 604. And if you have any doubt that God is particular about how He is worshiped, just ask Saul (1 Samuel 15:22), Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:1–7), or Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1–3).
But has God given sufficient instruction for church conduct and worship, or do we need supplemental instruction?
Scripture Is Sufficient for Church Conduct
In 2 Timothy 3:16–17—a watershed text for the sufficiency of Scripture—Paul writes, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
While those words carry an application for every believer, it is important to remember that they were originally written to a young pastor. Paul speaks specifically about “the man of God.”
John MacArthur explains, “The apostle is addressing the man of God, a technical phrase used only of Timothy in the New Testament. In the Old Testament it is frequently used as a title for one who proclaimed the Word of God. In this context, man of God refers most directly to Timothy and, by extension, to all preachers.”John MacArthur, MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 2 Timothy (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995), 162.
So in context, this verse teaches that as a pastor, Timothy need look no further than Scripture for instruction on conduct within the church. Scripture is sufficient to equip him “for every good work” in the context of church leadership. In fact, Paul’s first letter to Timothy was written explicitly as instructions for church conduct (1 Timothy 3:15).
As we will see in future posts, many passages in the New Testament give instruction for church leadership, gatherings, and practices. Yet, it is clear that proponents of the meta-church have not stopped to ask if their new strategies are biblical.
Carl Trueman notes, “One can tell a lot about how a particular church understands scriptural sufficiency by looking at her form of government, the content and emphases of corporate worship, and the way in which the elders pastor the congregation.”Carl Trueman, “The Sufficiency of Scripture” in 9Marks Journal (August 2013) https://www.9marks.org/article/journalsufficiency-scripture/
If a church forms these features based for purely pragmatic purposes—such as survey results, “reaching the next generation,” or cultural trends—they have submitted the Word of God to the wisdom of men. They have chosen to build their house on sand rather than the immovable foundation of Scripture.
What the Church Needs
Redesigning our churches according to our own fancies, without regard for God’s Word, is to functionally abandon the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Equally heinous, it flouts God’s own instructions for how He must be worshiped.
John MacArthur warns, “The reformation the church desperately needs isn’t the product of some new strategy or emphasis. Believers don’t need someone to blaze a new methodological trail or cast an exciting new vision for the church to match the perspectives of the twenty-first century.”John MacArthur, Christ’s Call to Reform the Church (Chicago: Moody, 2018), 177–78.
Instead, “A new understanding of sola Scriptura—the sufficiency of Scripture—ought to spur us to keep reforming our churches, to regulate our worship according to biblical guidelines, and to desire passionately to be those who worship God in spirit and truth.”MacArthur, Worship, 32–33.
We must either conclude that God has given sufficient instruction for church conduct and worship, or that God’s Word has failed in its stated purpose (1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Timothy 3:17). And because God’s Word cannot fail, it should be our desire to bring every aspect of our church conduct under the authority of Scripture.
To that end, we will spend the next few weeks examining several aspects of church conduct mentioned in Scripture and contrasting them with the ideas presented by proponents of the meta-church.