Expedients in worship

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
2Ibid.

Photo by Amy Aldworth

6 thoughts on “Expedients in worship

  1. Tim,

    Wow, i’m impressed to see a John Frame quote on a CoC blog. –takes me back to my days of endless reading about presuppositional apologetics (most of which i’ve forgotten sadly). Do you read much else by John Frame?

    i think your brief comments about differences in expediences suggests that there simply is no ‘view from nowhere’ where a reader can enjoy objective interpretations of passages in order to settle questions of expedients and the like. Everyone will be reading through the lenses of some tradition and heritage, and it would only benefit us to be more self-aware and open about the fact that we are doing so rather than pretending we occupy some sort of timeless, standpoint-less, “God’s-eye-view” of what scriptures mean.

    –guy

  2. No, Guy, I don’t even know who Frame is. In his sermon on the Regulative Principle, Mark Driscoll linked to a couple of Frame’s articles. I read them at that time and remembered the discussion of vocabulary.

  3. He’s got a good book “Apologetics to the Glory of God” and i also have his “Doctrine of God” on my shelf. He also has a website full of articles:

    http://www.frame-poythress.org/

    Frame used to be a professor at one of the Reformed seminaries in Florida. Don’t know if that’s still true or not.

    –guy

  4. “Expedients are those things considered necessary to the carrying out of prescribed acts (“in an orderly way” is often added to that description). ”

    Only thing I can think of to add to that, from what I’ve heard, is that whatever is added cannot change or add to the command. Cups for the Lord’s Supper? Still taking the Lord’s Supper. Song leader? Still everyone is just singing. Piano accompaniment? Nope, now you’ve added something, because the playing of the piano is, in and of itself, separate from the singing. The problem, as you said, is one of opinions. Even the strictest CENI adherents I’ve been associated with hate delving too deeply into this. We are authorized to meet to conduct group worship, we have examples of a variety of locations used, so we are free to come up with whatever works for us. So let’s buy a building. Sounds good. But what goes in the building? What is “necessary” or “expedient” to conduct the group worship? Electricity? First century got by without it. Restrooms? I attended a congregation that still had an outhouse as of the 1980s. Seats? What about padded seats? Carpeting? Drywall and paint? This same logic is why so many strict CENI congregations are basically paralyzed and don’t do anything for fear of it not being authorized.

  5. Expedients are personal likes turned into doctrine. Innovations are personal dislikes turned into error. There is no solution!

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