I had an interesting discussion with somebody on social media the other day. The question was posed this way:
What’s the rationale behind dissenters doing Remembrance Sunday? How do they square it with: (a) the regulative principle and (b) being non-conformist?
I think it’s a valid question that bears thinking about.
Now, cards on the table, my church does do something for Remembrance Sunday. In fact, all the dissenting churches to which I have ever belonged – so far as I can remember – have done so. I, personally, am not wedded to it but nor am I against it. As it goes at our gaff, we have a two-minute silence at the beginning of the service (which starts formally at 11am) and then we have our standard service of worship. If we want to be slippery about what is going on, we could probably make a case that the remembrance bit isn’t part of the formal worship service, which takes place after we’ve had a two-minute silence. But, to be honest, I think that is a bit slippery and isn’t how a lot of people would view it (even though I’m fairly sure they wouldn’t view it as an act of worship either).
So how do we answer the question? I think it has three essential parts that all bear answering: (1) How does this square with being non-conformist? (2) How is it justifiable on the regulative principle? (3) What is the rationale from dissenting churches that choose to do it?
The first question is probably the easiest of the three to answer. There is nothing inherently tied up with non-conformity that demands we don’t do Remember Sunday. It is entirely possible to be a non-conformist, wedded to non-conformist principles and practices (of which, it bears saying, there is a range) whilst remembering the war dead. The question is phrased in the way it is because there is an assumption that the regulative principle must be adhered to for us to be properly non-conformist. I disagree with that assessment. There are loads of non-conformists – including the Anglicans who wished to remain Anglicans who were forced into non-conformity at the Great Ejection – who would not have adhered to that principle. Whilst I recognise some of the dissenting statements of faith e.g. Westminister Confession of Faith and the Second London Confession would appear to endorse the principle, it is simply not the case that it sits at the heart of non-conformity.
Given my answer to (1), the second question becomes much easier. In short, it doesn’t really matter. Remembrance Sunday can be squared with non-conformity by rejecting the regulative principle. But, for argument’s sake, let’s ask whether it can be squared with the regulative principle. I think it probably can.
Although in respect to the question of dancing, Jonathan Leeman here offers some hermeneutical principles as to what is and isn’t legitimate in formal Christian worship. I would particularly draw attention to his fourth hermeneutical principle, Where is the line between an “element” and a “form”? Or: when does the form of doing something actually become a new “thing” or element? Leeman states, ‘if we start by asking the Bible WHO is authorized to do WHAT, we must then employ wisdom for determining HOW to fulfill an authorization. If the Bible specifies the WHO and the WHAT, it doesn’t typically specify the HOW, at least not in concrete situations.’ You can read some of the examples of what he means in the linked article.
But this principle handles both how Remembrance Sunday might be squared with the regulative principle AND how dissenting churches can offer a rationale for their decision. The WHO and the WHAT are Jesus’ mandate to preach the gospel to the whole of creation. We are, then, left with a wisdom question on the HOW.
Leeman argues that there are essential elements to any service i.e. those things mandated by the Bible for Christian worship. But he argues that the HOW (or the form) requires wisdom. He states, ‘Elements should be in all churches everywhere (because they are in the Bible); forms depend on context and wisdom (because the Bible just doesn’t say).’ Given that we all apply criteria to what is or is not acceptable in the church, Leeman says, ‘What’s the rule for what constitutes an acceptable form versus an unacceptable form? Well, the form of something must maintain the basic integrity of that which makes an element an element.’ In fact, he pushes further and comments:
I’m going to look for forms that BEST implement the element, which is why I keep calling for wisdom. What forms of preaching BEST implement Paul’s command to “preach the Word”? Well, I think I can do that through topical preaching (a form). And so I might do that sometimes. But on the whole, I can best do that (I believe) through expositional preaching (another form). Therefore I will make that the regular diet of the church. What about announcements? I would place those in the “form” or “how” category because they are an implicit and necessary component of gathering people together in an orderly fashion. And the gathering, of course, is an element.
Now we come to the crux of it. Does a two-minute silence on Remembrance Sunday – and a nod to a cultural point in our calendar – amount to a new element or could it be considered a legitimate form of a mandated element? I think there is a good case for the latter.
We are, indeed, commanded to share the gospel. If the main church service is a legitimate place for this to happen, the 11th November is culturally a time when many will consider coming into the local church for collective acts of remembrance. It could be considered, therefore, a valid form i.e. a legitimate evangelistic vehicle to use as a gospel opportunity, given there is nothing inherently sinful, or wrong, in doing so. Moreover, in many places, it would be culturally and missionally detrimental NOT to at least offer nod to Remembrance Sunday. There is, then, a valid case to be made for this form – whether a theme that runs through your service or a small portion of your service – being a valid means of fulfilling the element of mission and/or using it as a jumping off point for teaching. But this decision is a wisdom issue that is affected by a series of things, including the local culture of our area.
But that is, of course, only if we are wedded to the regulative principle. The regulative principle itself is not essential to non-comformity. Many would adopt the normative principle and argue there is no essential reason not to engage Remembrance Sunday. I, personally, run with a simple formula:
- If scripture says, or implies by good and necessary consequence, that we must do something, then we must do it
- If scripture says, or implies by good and necessary consequence, that we must not do something, then we must not do it
- If scripture neither says, nor implies by good and necessary consequence, that we must or must not do something, then we are at liberty to do or not do it and must exercise wisdom as to how it helps of hinders #1 and #2 above
For me, Remembrance Sunday falls under #3. We are neither commanded to do it nor are we forbidden from recognising it either. So the question becomes a wisdom issue. As per the reasons above, for us it would be missionally damaging not to acknowledge it. It is culturally expected of us and there is nothing in scripture that insists we shouldn’t do Remembrance Sunday. To take part in a two-minute silence at the beginning of the service in no way undercuts any of the other elements we believe are essential to a service of worship. As such, we are at liberty to do or not do it and wisdom dictates it better, in our context, to acknowledge Remembrance Sunday than to ignore it.