As Travis pointed out last week, at some point in this discussion we need to turn our attention to the topic of “expedients.” Not sure that this is directly tied to CENI, as much as it is to the underlying Regulative Principle of Worship (which basically argues that anything not specifically “authorized” as something that may be done in worship should be considered as forbidden; silence means prohibition).
As we look at what has been authorized for Christian worship, we typically use CENI (commands, examples, necessary inference) as the basis for that authorization. The question then arises: what do we do with things not contemplated in Scripture?
The first response would be to consider all of those things to be foreign to Christian worship, but that’s hardly practical. Does that mean we can’t have a church building? Can’t use microphones? Can’t use hymnals and bound Bibles? No communion trays, communion tables, collection baskets, pulpits…
The Reformed movement, which relies heavily on the regulative principle, divides worship into the elements (parts or substances are terms that are also used) and the circumstances. The circumstances are “the specific ways in which we carry out the elements, such as the specific words of hymns, prayers, and sermons in a particular service.” 1 There’s some variance in the terminology, but that’s the basic idea.
In the Restoration Movement, we’ve tended to call those “circumstances” expedients. Expedients are those things considered necessary to the carrying out of prescribed acts (“in an orderly way” is often added to that description). Therefore, since we’ve been told to sing, a song leader is considered to be an expedient as is the use of songbooks. We’ve been told to take the Lord’s Supper, so communion trays are considered to be an expedient.
The problem should be obvious. One man’s expedient is another man’s innovation. Many argue that song leaders are an expedient, while praise teams are an innovation. Others say that one cup for communion is an expedient; trays with multiple cups are an innovation. If things were not subjective enough with this whole process, the concept of “expedients” throws us fully into the arena of human opinion. As John Frame states:
Even granting the legitimacy of the distinction between elements and circumstances, applying it is not easy. Is song in worship an element, as John Murray taught, or is it a “form” or “circumstance,” a way of praying and teaching? Is instrumental music an element (as the covenanter tradition holds) or a circumstance (helping the congregation to sing in a decent and orderly way)? Is a marriage essentially a taking of vows and therefore a proper element of worship, or is it part of a broad group of activities that should be excluded from worship because it is not prescribed?
Can you help us out, dear reader? We’ve had great comments over the last few weeks, so I have high hopes that trend will continue. How do we differentiate between what are acceptable expedients for carrying out that which is authorized from human innovations that represent a rebellion against God’s prescribed order? I don’t have a good answer. Do you?
1John Frame, A Fresh Look At The Regulative Principle