This essay is the second part of a two-part essay which first posted last Monday on the Forum. Part one can be viewed here.
Principled and Pragmatic?
There are certainly limitations in envisioning these two errors as extremes on a spectrum. It can give the impression that there is a solution for all ministry questions that balances perfectly on the spectrum between biblical principles and practical concerns. I don’t think this is the case. There are some aspects of ministry, for example, to which Scripture gives a great deal of attention such that our reflection on how to put the principle into practice may require less thought. However, this conclusion assumes that church leaders have committed to make the Bible their starting point and not an after-thought in their deliberations about how to shape and structure a church ministry.
On the other hand, a subtle sense of pride or of self-purity can creep into our minds and hearts when we think along these lines. The person who has grown to cherish the principle of the sufficiency of Scripture and who resents the excesses and ills of pragmatism may assume that all the details of our ministries can be resolved by appealing to a single verse or principle. Yet even the Reformers and heirs of the Reformation didn’t believe this, and they of all people believed in the purity of the church. They were persecuted for that belief.
Heirs of the Reformation, especially the Magisterial Reformers, largely espoused the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), a principle partially formulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Heidelberg Catechism. In short, God should be worshipped only in the ways He has prescribed in His Word. Things that aren’t explicitly set forth in Scripture are prohibited.
At first glance, this may seem like a rather strict approach best suited to those who consider themselves the principled type. However, even the authors of WCF infused some nuance into the way they spoke of matters like worship and church government. They write, “[T]here are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed (I.iv.).”
Even centuries ago, some of the best-known Protestant church leaders who were committed to the principled reform and purity of the visible church understood that there were certain questions about church life that required more than Bible study to find the answer. They understood that certain questions about the church would have to be settled by considering larger spiritual principles, human customs and traditions, and prudential wisdom, though always subject to the “general rules of the Word.”
Is it possible that some pragmatic questions—Does this approach seem to be helping? Does this address people where they are and as the people they are? Have we done this before?—could be consistent with the spirit of the RPW? I think in some instances they could be.
In broader discussions of the regulative principle, it has been applied mainly to the elements of worship. No one disagrees about whether we ought to preach, sing, or pray. The questions arise when it comes to how we preach, sing, or pray. For our purposes, we could expand this to how we evangelize, how we disciple, and how our leadership is structured.
Though the RPW was originally framed more with respect to the worship of the church, it offers us a basic framework for thinking about other issues in the church. Thinkers in the Reformed tradition have spoken of elements, forms, and circumstances. Though these latter two terms are not mentioned in the above article from WCF, they seem to be implied (and certainly they are present in other Reformed literature). An element would be something like preaching. A form could be how we preach. For example, do we preach through a book of the Bible, or do we pick a topic and then find verses? A circumstance might include when a sermon is preached in a service or how long it is.
We could apply these categories to other ministry decisions. Should the church evangelize? Of course. Should it have an organized evangelistic outreach program? If the members are going to be intentional and accountable to one another in their evangelism, quite likely, yes. Should this outreach involve buses, tracts, or billboards? It depends. We see how, as one moves from the specific command to the more specific application we could reasonably consider social context, effectiveness, ministry resources, and so on. And remember, these are even just a few of many questions one could and should ask about biblical teaching on evangelism!
Other issues will often arise in ministries that raise a different set of questions. Consider a church name change. We know of no New Testament church that bore a name aside from its association with a particular region or city. Could we be the Baptist Church of such-and-such town? Some minister in cities with dozens of churches (and often multiple churches of the same denomination), so this won’t do. How might we approach the idea of a church name under such circumstances?
Such ambiguity requires that we avoid the errors described above as we work toward a principled and pragmatic outlook (or “practical” for those uncomfortable with “pragmatic”). We will want to have charity about these issues with others while having constructive discussions. Indeed, I fear that if we aren’t busy criticizing the church down the street, we remain silent, stuck in a pragmatic mindset (the bad kind of pragmatism!) that says, “Hey, whatever works for you. I’m just going do my own thing.”
Charity in these discussions initially means that we avoid hastily concluding the worst about churches whose ministries look differently than ours. But additionally, charity causes us to cultivate strong conversation partners in other church leaders and members of sister churches. If we are committed to the same gospel and to the same Scriptures, then we presumably will have a great deal to discuss. These discussions will include agreements and disagreements. But if we all believe that principles, methods, motivations, and goals in ministry matter, then there is a broad range of things we can and should think through together.
Might it be possible to be principled and pragmatic? I think so. I pray that the possibility of such an approach will stimulate us into many more conversations about what exactly that might look like. Moreover, if there is a better way for us to think together about church ministry, may we pursue such conversations with spiritual vigor and biblical fidelity.
 Westminster Confession of Faith, http://www.pcaac.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/WCFScriptureProofs.pdf; accessed 12 July 2017; Internet.