I’m hardly the model parent. I have no special training or expertise. I have no success stories (my oldest is just 13). And when I’m coping with my three kids’ day-to-day, hit-and-miss behavior, the fruit of the Spirit often gets juiced. However, over the years I’ve crafted a few “standing orders” that have helped maintain some modicum of control in my family. One of these is pretty simple but all-important in the Svigel household: “Use things the way they’re meant to be used.”
When followed, this rule can lessen the likelihood of accidents and injuries. Here’s how it works: Imagine your six-year-old grabs a five gallon bucket, turns it over, and tries to use it as a stepping stool to reach a bicycle helmet hanging in the garage. Suddenly the rule kicks in: use things the way they were meant to be used. Tragedy avoided. Or your ten-year-old can’t find his pocket knife to whittle bark from a branch. Instead, he grabs a pair of scissors, opens it up as wide as it will go, and starts shaving the twig with one blade: use things the way they are meant to be used.
Let me suggest that this rule of thumb can be applied when making ministry decisions, too. In fact, taking into consideration the intended purposes expressed in the Bible adds another dimension to the age-old debate between the “regulative principle” and the “normative principle.”
Regulatives vs. Normatives
For a long time Protestants have debated proper worship from two perspectives: those who adhere to the regulative principle (“Regs”) argue that whatever is not expressly commanded in Scripture is to be prohibited in worship and order. Those who hold to the normative principle (“Norms”) argue that whatever is not prohibited by Scripture is permissible in worship and order.
For example, some proponents of the regulative principle reject the use of musical instruments in worship because the New Testament neither prescribes nor mentions their use. On the other hand, followers of the normative principle would use a growing variety of musical instruments for worship because nothing in the New Testament expressly forbids their use. As another example, Regs tend to practice believer’s baptism exclusively, as this is the practice explicitly seen in the New Testament. Norms may practice infant baptism because nothing in the New Testament clearly prohibits it.
Needless to say, many evangelical churches follow a very broad normative principle, feeling the freedom to employ almost anything in their worship and order as long as it doesn’t violate a clear teaching of Scripture. Usually, then, a strong pragmatic principle tends to steer decisions. So, as an extreme example, if the Bible doesn’t clearly forbid driving motorcycles up and down the aisles and around the stage in order to illustrate the power of the Holy Spirit, then a church is free to ride motorcycles throughout the worship center if it will communicate the point in a memorable (read: entertaining) way. Or, to use a less extreme example, because the New Testament doesn’t clearly prohibit the use of artwork in the sanctuary, we are free to use art, images, multi-media presentations, plays, skits, movies, smoke, lightshows, dance, and other artistic expressions to communicate our message in memorable (!) ways.
Now, both the regulative and normative principles address matters that are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture (though they might be reasonably deduced from Scripture). Regs forbid anything not clearly affirmed; Norms allows things not clearly rejected. Yet what about the use of practices explicitly mentioned in Scripture in ways that are neither clearly condoned nor explicitly condemned? That is, the intended uses of some things are clearly articulated in Scripture, leaving us with clear direction on how they are to be employed, things like prayer, worship, leadership, money, Scripture, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. The question then becomes: if Scripture teaches us clearly that Practice X is to be used for Purpose Y, is it also okay for us to use X for purpose Z? Let me give two examples.
Using the Bible the Way It’s Meant to Be Used
Scripture itself clearly sets forth the Bible’s intended uses. Scriptures point us to Jesus Christ (Luke 24:27; John 5:39; Acts 8:35; 18:28; Rom. 1:2; 1 Cor. 15:3–4). It’s to be read publically in church for instruction (1 Tim. 4:13). It also contains the wisdom of God needed to walk in righteousness (Ps. 119:105). In fact, its two main purposes can be summed up by 2 Timothy 3:15–17—“The sacred writings . . . are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 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.” So really the purpose of Scripture is twofold: 1) to point us to a saving knowledge of the person and work of Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:15); and 2) to teach us how to live as children of God (3:16–17). In other words, the explicit purpose of Scripture is to regulate our faith and practice.
But what about other uses of the Bible beyond these two?
Is it right to use the Bible as a guide for dieting—WWJE (What Would Jesus Eat)? Is it okay to also use the Bible as a science textbook? A management manual? A guide for “biblical economics”? A pocketbook for political science? A source of frameable quotes to hang in our bathrooms? Is it right for us to publish special interest study Bibles that focus on only one particular topic in Scripture (whether end times, animals, or apologetics) . . . or to package the presentation for one particular audience (whether moms, dads, leaders, or specific ethnic groups)? If the Bible was meant to point us to Jesus, how badly do we err when we use it to point to other things . . . or to point to us? If the Bible was written to equip believers for every good work, do we err when we use it to justify political opinions, glean dietary advice, or formulate scientific theories?
In short, do we risk doctrinal and practical accident and injury if we deviate from using the Bible the way it’s meant to be used?
Using the Lord’s Supper the Way It’s Meant to Be Used
Most evangelical churches know they’re supposed to observe the Lord’s Supper (also called “communion,” “the Lord’s Table,” or “the Eucharist”). And most know that the New Testament spells out clear purposes, confirmed by the early church’s practice. The Lord’s Supper is meant to reflect the “one body” of the gathered church (1 Cor. 10:17; 11:20) rather than a family’s normal meal at home (1 Cor. 11:22, 34). Around the Table, Christ’s disciples gather to dine with the Lord, commemorating His saving death and resurrection and anticipating His personal return (1 Cor. 11:23–26). Practiced properly, this community covenant meal provides spiritual blessing and strengthens faith (1 Cor. 10:16). Both the New Testament and early church confirm that the churches observed the Lord’s Supper every Sunday as part of the weekly gathered worship (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:18–20; see my essay, “Should We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper Every Sunday in Church?”).
Even though we have a sufficient picture of the intended purpose of the Lord’s Supper, what about other uses of the observance of the meal besides these?
Is it right for us to observe the Lord’s Supper at home in our families? On camping trips with friends? Should it be used as an evangelistic tool, presenting the gospel through the meal and asking unbelievers to partake as their first act of faith? Should its intended weekly observance be suspended in favor of an annual feast? What about partaking of the Lord’s Supper as part of our individual, private prayer time and devotion? Or during an “online” service with whatever elements we have at hand—bread and juice, pizza and Coke . . . donuts and coffee? How far from its intended purpose dare we take the Lord’s Supper before we end up out of bounds? If Communion is intended to be an act of covenant renewal among the gathered church as a commemoration of the suffering and death of Christ during corporate worship, do we err when we observe it in ways not intended by the Lord and practiced by His apostles?
In short, do we risk doctrinal and practical accident and injury if we deviate from using the Lord’s Supper the way it’s meant to be used?
Use Things the Way They’re Meant to Be Used
The constant tension and occasional conflict between proponents of the regulative principle and adherents of the normative principle will probably endure until the end of the age. Regs forbid things not clearly affirmed in or reasonably deduced from Scripture. Norms allows things not clearly rejected in Scripture. But in the midst of this legitimate debate, we sometimes fold in things for which the Scriptures are very clear regarding their purpose and function. This raises an important question that neither the Regs nor Norms directly address. If the Bible explicitly tells us the way things are meant to be used, on what basis and by what authority do we use them in ways that were unintended?
Of course, this question, too, deserves a fair-minded debate. What are the limits of liturgical freedom beyond the prescribed functions in the New Testament before we’re guilty of offering strange fire before the Lord (Lev. 10:1)? Are we not, then, better off sticking close to the clearly-articulated purposes and intensions of the Bible rather than cleverly, creatively, and perhaps dangerously and rebelliously making our own uses for them?
Maybe we ought to apply my household rule to better manage the household of faith: use things the way they’re meant to be used. I know in my own family this principle makes sense. It prevents things from being broken. It gets things done more efficiently. And it also keeps people safe. Perhaps some of our churches and believers have suffered unintended damage because we have failed to follow a reasonable rule of thumb: use things the way they’re meant to be used.