What We Can Learn From the Free Church About Conservatism and Sola Scriptura

The Free Church of Scotland, by a narrow margin, has voted to allow the introduction of musical instruments and non-inspired songs into its public worship services. As unfortunate as that decision is, if news accounts are to be believed, the grounds for this decision may be even more unsatisfactory.

One of the reasons for the change seems to be the hope that folk from the Church of Scotland, who’ve become disenchanted with the reigning liberalism in the CoS, might feel more at home in Free Church congregations if they look and sound more like their home congregations. The idea of receiving an influx of new members is a powerful inducement to making significant changes but at what cost?

In a couple of news accounts a leading proponent of the change has been quoted as saying that since Scripture does not prohibit the use of instruments and non-canonical songs, it is permissible to use them. After all, the argument goes, the Free Church will still have the psalms to sing. Will they?

Let me address these arguments seriatim.

1) Yes, the possibility of an influx of new members is a powerful inducement to change but if the regulative principle, as articulated in WCF 21.1 is a principle then it is not up for negotiation. That’s one difference between a principle and a practice or between that which is essential and that which is not. Opening the church doors at 10AM is a practice. Worshiping God only in the way that he has revealed in his Word, only in the way that he has commanded, that is a principle. A principle, by definition, is non-negotiable.

The point of being a confessional church is to be faithful to what we confess and one outcome of being faithful to what we confess is that we present a genuine alternative to the status quo. Hymns, choruses, and instruments in worship are the status quo. When the sideline becomes just like the mainline, in principle, then the difference between them is really only a matter of degrees.

This is the fundamental problem with being “merely conservative.” What are we conserving? If we’re just a little bit behind the fellows out front, then we’ve already lost our identity. It’s just a matter of time before we catch up to where they were.

2) Our principle is that worship is governed by Scripture in a way that other aspects of life are not. Plumbers are not to steal and they are fulfill their vocation, and they are do good work, and they are honor God in all their dealings but Scripture doesn’t teach a man how to plumb. Scripture does, however, give detailed teaching  regarding worship that is and is not acceptable to God. Ask Uzzah, Nadab, and Abihu.

Because of this distinction, because of the normative authority of Scripture in worship, and because of the clarity with which Scripture speaks to the way in which God will be worshiped the Reformed Churches in Europe and in the British Isles confessed a principle of worship distinct from other branches of Protestantism. We confess that we may only do what God requires. It was the Lutherans (and Anglicans) who said that we may do whatever is not forbidden. If the news accounts are to be believed, it appears that some in the Free Church have changed principles from “whatever is not commanded is forbidden” to “whatever is not forbidden is permitted.”

This change will affect not just the practice of worship in the near term but will eat away, like termites, at the Reformed liturgical house. Consider the history of the conservative Dutch Reformed churches in North America. One of the three reasons for forming the Christian Reformed Church in the 1850s was that the existing Reformed Church in America did not sing only hymns, they sang non-canonical songs. By the 1930s non-canonical sngs had been added to the Psalter. Recently a bright, thoughtful, enthusiastically Reformed young person, raised in the CRC, confessed that he had never really sung the Psalms at all. He isn’t alone. Consider the “song service” (a time of singing before the evening service begins formally). Sometimes the congregation is allowed to choose the songs. Which songs do they choose? Often as not, in my experience, it is not the Psalms. Which songs do people pick for funeral services? Are they psalms? History is not encouraging about the path the Free Churches have chosen.

3) This shift signals the fundamental weakness of relying on traditional practice rather than teaching principles to our congregation. “The way we’ve always done it” will not stand up to serious challenge. “The way we’ve always done it” will always collapse in the face of serious, sustained criticism. We must teach what God’s Word says about worship that he has approved. We must also begin teaching our congregations the history of Reformed worship even if that is embarrassing to our “conservative” practice. When the doctor looks under the dressing gown it’s embarrassing but it’s necessary. Ask yourself, “If Calvin or Beza or Turretin or Witsius or Rutherford walked into our Sunday Service, mutatis mutandis, what would he say?” You might say, “I don’t care what they would say.” Okay, but how would you explain to them what happened to the Reformed service they knew? Could you persuade them, from Scripture and confession, that they were wrong, that they misunderstood Scripture? Could you?

If we don’t teach WCF 21.1 and Heidelberg 96 to our congregations, if we don’t explain carefully and thoroughly why we do what we do and if we don’t act consistently with our own confessed principles, which we say we’ve taken from God’s Word, then we are only modeling dead formalism. I fear that the real reason we don’t act consistently with our principles is because we fear what will happen if we do. Will God really take care of us or will he leave us to flounder?

Finally, there is a the matter of conscience. One of the great benefits of sola Scriptura as applied to worship (i.e., WCF 21.1 and HC 96) is that it protects the conscience of the Christian worshiper. The elders and ministers may only ask us to do in worship that which is commanded in God’s Word and nothing else. They may not attempt to to require us to do anything that God has not required. They may not attempt to require us to do anything that we do not confess. They can try but they cannot succeed. God’s Word is what it is and, for now anyway, we continue to confess what we did in 1563 and 1647.  The conscience of the Christian worshiper is bound to God’s Word as we confess it. This is not radical individualism (I and my Bible or worse, “the Spirit told me….”).

It’s not too late to turn back. The decision of the Free Church is another illustration of the weakness of mere conservatism. Again, what are the conservatives conserving? The left overs of the progressives and latitudinarians? This episode reminds us that we must be principled and, in that way, radical. We must be polite. We must be gentle but we must also be immoveable in our adherence to our conviction that

the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.

Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re.

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