Congregation on Call
The Sufficiency of Scripture and Christian Worship
By Jesse Owens
Ask any conservative Protestant evangelical minister if he believes in the sufficiency of Scripture, and he will almost certainly answer yes. Affirming the sufficiency of Scripture for conservative Protestant evangelicals is almost akin to affirming the inerrancy of the Bible. But I have noticed with friends and colleagues in recent years we are seemingly talking past one another when we discuss the sufficiency of Scripture in relation to things like ecclesiology and gathered worship. We all affirm the doctrine, but our gathered worship looks different. The reason for the difference is not typically related to our cultural setting.
In other words, our worship does not look different because of contextualization. Our worship looks different because we hold differing views on the sufficiency of Scripture, all while claiming to affirm the doctrine with equal vigor. Do some forms of gathered worship and some ecclesiologies more faithfully place Scripture at the center than others? I believe how we answer this question is the real source of most disagreement on the matter.
What do we mean by “the sufficiency of Scripture”?
We should begin by addressing what we mean by the sufficiency of Scripture. By sufficiency, we do not mean “just enough,” “barely enough,” or “satisfactory.” We mean something more like “all we need.” By saying we affirm the sufficiency of Scripture in matters of ecclesiology and gathered worship, we mean we find in the teachings of Scripture and the accompanying power of God all we need to gather, nurture, and grow the local church. Again, it is hard to imagine any conservative Protestant would deny this claim. Yet, do our practices affirm the sufficiency of Scripture? Or do we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture in principle but not in practice?
Three Ways We Demonstrate our Belief in the Sufficiency of Scripture
Church Government. First, by affirming the sufficiency of Scripture, we mean the structure of our churches—our ecclesiology—is governed by the Bible’s teachings on church leadership, membership, discipline, and other ecclesiological matters. Many Bible-believing friends and pastors might disagree with our views on congregational church government, believing instead the Bible teaches something more like a Presbyterian or Episcopal form of government, but we are all attempting to model our ecclesiology after Scripture.
Whatever our differences, we do not believe the Bible says nothing about church structure or government and opt for more efficient models from the business world (as some unfortunately do). We believe the Bible says something about ecclesiology, and we attempt to model the structure of our churches after Scripture. We believe what God has given us in Scripture is sufficient for our ecclesiology.
Forms of Worship. Second, in relation to worship, we believe Scripture lays out clear, essential elements of worship that ought to be present in gathered worship services. For example, we physically gather for worship (Hebrews 10:24–25), we carefully preach the Word (Acts 2:42; 2 Timothy 4:2), we confess our sins (James 5:16; 1 John 1:9), we publicly read Scripture (1 Timothy. 4:13), we give of our finances (Galatians 6:6; 2 Timothy 2:6), we partake of the ordinances (Matthew 28:18–20; Luke 22:19; John 13:1–18), we pray (Acts 1:14; 1 Timothy 2:8), and we sing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs (Colossians 3:16). We do all these things because we believe Scripture teaches they should present as part of our worship. We might say, in sum, we attempt to worship God on God’s terms as He has prescribed in the Bible, which is our best attempt at demonstrating the sufficiency of Scripture in the structure of our worship (Heb. 12:28–29).
Content of Worship. Third, we attempt to convey the sufficiency of Scripture in the content of our worship. I love the way Ligon Duncan expresses this: “Read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray that Bible, sing the Bible, and [through the ordinances] see the Bible.” Not only is the structure of our worship informed by the Bible, but the content of our worship as well. This practice demonstrates a firm belief in the sufficiency of Scripture for our worship.
Undermining the Sufficiency of Scripture
Church Leadership, Membership, and Discipline. However, we also can undermine our affirmation of the sufficiency of Scripture in our ecclesiology and worship. Consider first ecclesiology and church structure. This tendency could occur in many ways. One way would be allowing someone to serve as the pastor of a church who has charisma or is a gifted teacher but does not meet the biblical qualifications for an elder laid out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 or Titus 1:5-9. Permitting someone to serve as a pastor who does not meet biblical qualifications for the office based on their other gifts undermines any affirmation of the sufficiency of Scripture, because it implies the ability to entertain or increase weekly attendance is what is truly important.
Other examples include when we neglect the biblical injunction to practice church membership and discipline (Matthew 18:15–18; 1 Corinthians 5). We might be tempted to neglect these practices because they seem too exclusive or outdated, not conducive to numerical growth, or, frankly, difficult and awkward. The Bible clearly teaches these practices, yet our lack of faith in the sufficiency of Scripture leads us to think they would harm the local church rather than sustain it.
When we choose this route, we undermine our affirmation of the sufficiency of Scripture.
Worship. We can also undermine our affirmation of the sufficiency of Scripture through the structure and elements of our worship. We communicate our belief in the sufficiency of Scripture in the structure of our worship by ensuring Scripture regularly appears in our services. We should not reserve Scripture solely for preaching. Scripture should be present in public reading of God’s Word, it should be woven into our prayers, it should be present in our songs, and it should be the foundation for our sermons.
Should sermons be “practical” in the sense our hearers know what to do with what they have heard? Absolutely. Should our sermons and sermon series be loosely connected to a given text of Scripture and primarily focused on a felt need? Probably not.
Something quite similar could be said about the music we sing when the Body of Christ meets each week. The songs we select for gathered worship should not merely convey general truth about God but should be deeply informed by the teachings of Scripture. This principle could extend into how a given song is sung. It might be a song is filled with rich, biblical teaching but a poorly played pipe organ or a loud band drowns out its theology. Our preaching and our singing, as well as the rest of our gathered worship, should convey the rich theology of Scripture.
When the elements of our worship are rooted and founded upon not only the teachings of Scripture but also the very words of Scripture, we affirm Scripture is sufficient for gathering, nurturing, and growing the local church. We are saying we do not depend upon our ability to create the perfect environment for worship borrowed from entertainment culture or feel the need to adopt modern business management practices in lieu of Scripture’s teachings on church leadership to sustain Christ’s Church. Instead, we affirm the Bible informs the structure of our church, the elements in our worship, and the content of our preaching, praying, and singing.
When we talk about the sufficiency of Scripture related to ecclesiology and gathered worship, we need to be more holistic in how we understand and apply the doctrine. I have attempted to share a few examples of how we can practice this important doctrine. There are ways to organize churches that are more faithful to Scripture and demonstrate reliance upon the Bible for church governance rather than the business world. There are ways to structure our gathered worship that highlight Scripture and our belief in its sufficiency, with the Spirit’s accompanying power, to save unbelievers and bring about spiritual maturity. There are songs that more adequately convey the truths of Scripture—even specific texts—which, in turn, allows the Word of Christ to dwell richly within us (Colossians 3:16).
Everything we do should demonstrate we really believe God’s Word is more than enough for the church. Like Peter, we confess in our worship we can turn nowhere but to the One who has the words of eternal life (John 6:68).
About the Author: Jesse Owens is program coordinator for
the M.A. in theology and ministry program at Welch College.
He also pastors Immanuel Church in Gallatin, Tennessee.
Read more: Welch.edu.