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Scriptural Authority: "The Law of Exclusion" PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Lawrence   
Wednesday, December 10 2008 10:26

The idea of the law of exclusion is that anything that we might consider pertaining to the church cannot be done without Biblical authority, expressed by either a command or an example, perhaps a necessary inference. Without such authority, the "law of exclusion" enters in, and we must consider this practice forbidden by the law.  To violate the law of exclusion carries the threat of eternal death and most certainly the forfeiture of fellowship with Christians who respect it.  The origins of the law of exclusion actually are to be found in the Renaissance.  Among northern Renaissance scholars, much more oriented toward the Christian faith than those of the Italian Renaissance, a high view of the Bible as the original source for the church developed.  These scholars of the Northern Renaissance were known as "Christian humanists", humanists  because they emphasized the centrality of man, but Christian in that they saw Christ and the Christian faith as the best way for man to live.

When the Reformation occurred, most of the great magisterial Reformers were ex-humanists, Martin Luther excluded.  Both Martin Bucer and John Calvin, his protege, accepted the Northern Renaissance view of ad fontes, "back to the [original] source" [The Bible] while rejecting the doctrine of the centrality of man for that of God. Thus to Bucer, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Capito, Calvin, Melancthon, Bullinger, Beze, Cranmer and others the Scriptures must provide the authority for the church. Whereas Luther was comfortable with anything the Bible did not prohibit, the ex-humanist Reformers cited above insisted on only those matters that Scripture taught.

Thus the basis for the law of exclusion was born among scholars who were completely and thoroughly committed to the idea of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. To them, appeal to Biblical authority was the way in which we might assure that God is glorified in all, as we act from gratitude for our salvation.  This respect for Scripture led the Reformers to remove altar lights, elaborate vestments, organs, images, holy water, bells, incense, and other traits of the Roman Church.  Although the via media of Queen Elizabeth in England, building on the English desire to maintain the formalism of the Roman Church such as the episcopate caused the Church of England to continue to resemble Rome in many regards, the continental Protestants developed a "regulative principle" on which to structure worship and church polity.

Reformed churches of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries tended to apply the regulative principle with a passion.  By the nineteenth century many of the churches began to modify the principle somewhat, recognizing some excessive rigidity and perhaps over-reaction to Roman abuses.  Especially was this true in the use of instruments of music, in particular, the organ.  Church leaders recognized the many Old Testament passages pointing to the fact that God authorized instruments, was pleased with their proper use in worship, and that they could be a means to glorify God and inspire people to higher levels of worship experience. Some imagery was used for didactic purposes, but Reformed churches as a rule have continued to honor the regulative principle.  (Some Reformed churches, such as the Free Church of Scotland, continue to worship without instruments.)

This principle was meant to be seen as that: a canon, a measuring rod by which church leaders could determine what most pleased God.  It is always subject to further study from the text of Scripture, and always practiced among people who understood that they were not performing works that would determine their eternal salvation.  They understood they were saved by the finished work of Christ, the application of God's grace to their souls, and justification by faith alone.  Their worship was a response to God, an expression of thanksgiving designed to honor Him and not the means by which they could be saved.

With the advent of the American democracy came a new approach to the Christian faith.  Along with the desire to separate from anything European came the plan to make Christianity itself democratic by allowing man the freedom to shape his own salvation.  Although many influences contributed to an abandonment of Augustinian, Reformed theology for an Arminian and sometimes Pelagian template, there is no doubt that the environment of American independence and self-reliance played a significant role.

Of course, the problem now ensued that if salvation was the result of man's efforts, then what he did in church would play a role in that salvation.  That idea moved worship and church activity from the sphere of a response of gratitude and desire to learn and do the will of God to the sphere of prescribed works that would lead to salvation only if carefully followed.  Rigidity and intolerance returned to the scene with a vengeance.

Most affected by this change were the sects and denominations that were formed by leaders who had grown up within the Reformed tradition, such as the Disciples founded by Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander, and Barton W. Stone. Known as the Stone-Campbell movement, within a few years they moved from being associated with the Baptists, to a proposed American church that would unite all together in a common faith, to one denomination among many. In the south a division occurred after the Civil War that resulted in the Churches of Christ, a group resolved to maintain the more rigid tendencies inherited from Reformed theology, whereas the northern Disciples tended to follow more open and liberal policies.  Determination to have scriptural authority for all practices was preferred to achieving the united American church.

Understandably, even this southern movement was divided.  In Tennessee a segment developed under the leadership of Warren Harding and David Lipscomb that emphasized more of the doctrinal concepts of the Reformation and the appeal to unity, but a more legalistic branch developed in Texas that was more committed to the necessity for scriptural authority.  By the 1930's the Texas group under Foy E. Wallace had taken control of the eastern branch, centered in Nashville.  They had developed a much more self-reliant, American-independent works theology.  To them worship and church now was a critical factor in determining salvation, and they were committed to the protection and propagation of every "jot and tittle" of the law!  These people took the regulative principle to a new level and developed "the law of exclusion."  They became adamant on excluding musical instruments, because no New Testament direct command, approved apostolic example or necessary inference exists to authorize them.  To avoid the implications of the many commands and examples for musical instruments in the Old Testament, they developed an extreme dispensational approach to the testaments.  This movement would suffer multiple divisions through the years as questions for authority for missionary societies, located ministers, wearing of hats, multiple communion containers, Sunday schools, sponsoring churches, orphan homes, and church-sponsored activities of various sorts spawned "issues" that produced divisions and sub-divisions.

Those who demand such specific authority fail to consider that the Bible does not support such an approach.  For instance, there is no command, example or inference for a synagogue, and yet Jesus himself worshipped in the synagogue.  There is no authority for four cups of wine in the Passover, or for even one cup, and yet the Lord's Supper was instituted during a Passover celebration with multiple cups of wine, and wine (or grape juice) continues in Christian communion practices. We also read of "the ruler of the synagogue", for which there was not scriptural authority.  Neither was there authority for singing a hymn at the Passover, and yet Jesus and His disciples did so. During the reforms of king Hezekiah, the Hebrews celebrated Passover on the second rather than the first month as the law specified and even allowed some who had not purified themselves as the law required to attend.  All this was done with God's favor.  They offered seven rather than the specified one animal and continued the Passover into an unauthorized second week, contrary to what was written (2 Chron. 30:18).

Jesus approved of the disciples' eating grain on the Sabbath by referring to Ahimelech the high priest giving the sacred showbread, forbidden to any but priests, to David and his men when they were hungry during the time they were pursued by king Saul.  Jesus pointed out that the priests themselves violated Sabbath tradition by working in preparing the sacrifice.  The lesson we gain is that Christ emphasized helping people, being sensible in our use of the law so as to bless people, and being conscious of what would glorify God.  God does not appear to be interested in technicalities, but in doing good, in loving justice and mercy and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8), Jesus in "the weightier matters" of justice, mercy, and faithfulness  (Matt. 23:23), in manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, in practicing pure and undefiled religion by caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27), and doing good to all (Gal. 6:10).  In this way Scripture truly regulates not only our worship, but our lives!

(For anyone interested in a more detailed study of this subject, I would recommend the excellent study done by my brother-in-law, Robert Davis.  Bob presented a series of ten PowerPoint lessons to his church analyzing the "law of exclusion," from which I have borrowed the material contained in the last two paragraphs of this article.  Bob has graciously consented to make these lessons available.  You may contact Engedi Ministries, and they will be e-mailed to you.)