Highway to Hell and the Regulative Principle

Back in October 2oo7, Mark Driscoll started an online game called “Ask Anything” where anyone could ask him a question and people voted on their favorite questions.  The top nine questions would turn into a sermon series which later became his book entitled Religion Saves.

On October 12, I blogged about the question I asked Driscoll.  The question was:

Do you believe that Scripture regulates not only your theology but also your methodology? In other words, do you believe in the regulative principle? If so, to what degree? If not, why not?

The purpose of me asking this question was related to what I saw happening in evangelical life, namely the popularity of pragmatism over theologically driven and biblically sound methodology.  Driscoll used the illustration of the two hands: one being contending for the faith (doctrine) and the other being contextualizing the faith (practice).  My question was specifically geared around the ways in which doctrine (theology) shaped or influenced practice (methodology).  In other words, do these two hands work independently of one another, or does one hand have a tighter grip on the other?  I wanted to know to which degree Scripture determines what you do versus what culture, trends, or “what works” determine what you do. I thought the question was pretty straightforward, simple, and relevant.

Well, a firestorm erupted on the “Ask Anything” website when my question took the top spot after the first week of voting.  After a month of dealing with antagonism and anger from folks, I asked people to stop voting on my question, which resulted in it dropping down to #13.  After a month of silence, the voting came down to the final days, and friends were eager to have me make a final push to get out the vote because they felt the question could possibly get into the #9 slot and get into the sermon series and book.  Little did we know,in a matter of three days the question moved from #13 to #1, taking in 10,000 votes in that short period of time (a total of 25,181 in all).  I must admit, it was a rather fun moment in the history of this little blog.

The reason I bring that saga nearly four years ago is because of the recent discussion between James McDonald, Mark Driscoll, and Perry Noble regarding Noble’s church singing the song “Highway to Hell” in their church service.  Here’s the video:

Now, take a moment and check out the discussion about this video in light of my old question:

[vimeo 21929130]

McDonald begins by saying (about “Highway to Hell”), “I don’t get it at all.”  Noble attempts to make a few theological arguments which McDonald refutes.  Essentially, Noble is saying that the reason his church played “Highway to Hell” was their expression of contextualization.  In Noble’s words, it was their attempt to “get people where they are to bring people where God is.”  Regarding his examples, Noble asks, “How can you say these methods are not effective?”

Which gets to my point.  Perry Noble’s approach to contextualization is apparently focused on what methods are most effective–that is, the method which “work.”  If “Highway to Hell” works, then it is acceptable.  He says, “That’s why we do what we do.”

At this point, Driscoll interjects, saying “this comes down to an important issue.”  What issue? Driscoll asks, “Can we only do what the Bible commands, or can we do whatever we want, except what the Bible forbids?” In other words, the question they are asking is in what way does the Bible determine or regulate what you do as a church.  Driscoll stated, “That’s a big theological question” which of course makes me feel a little vindicated in that it won his “ask anything” contest. 🙂

But on a more serious note, McDonald interjects by saying that what people get wrong in this debate is arguing that guys like Noble don’t have the Bible as his authority.  Instead, Noble simply disagrees on what the Bible forbids.  I guess the question I have is, “How can one say the Bible is authoritative when a church choosing to sing ‘Highway to Hell’ in their worship service?”

Noble argues that the song is not the end point but a connecting point, taking people to the gospel.  I appreciate Noble’s heart to reach the lost, but if songs like “Highway to Hell” are within bounds of the authority of Scripture, what would be considered out of bounds?  And on what basis to we determine that? Does it not become rather arbitrary and relativistic?

I think these are the questions that many pastors and church planters in my generation are wrestling with. The fundamentalist camp dismisses contextualization altogether.  The seeker churches employ contextualization largely from culture and pragmatism.  More theologically-minded and gospel-centered churches believe in contextualization in ways that are consistent with the character of God and His gospel.

So this takes us back to my question.  What should we do with “Highway to Hell”?  When does contextualization become unhelpful?  What theological filters or grid should we have in our mind when wrestling through these issues, or should we do what we do because the methods are effective?

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12 Comments on “Highway to Hell and the Regulative Principle”

  1. sam Says:

    I think it is also worth noting that Perry Noble claims that they redeemed the song. It was the typical pragmatic, ends justify the means response because since people were saved in that service, then the song was redeemed.

    It was interesting to hear responses from the other pastors in which only Furtick said he would use the song at his church. Chandler’s response was particularly worth noting when he said (and i am paraphrasing) that people also come to the Lord after their mother dies in a car accident but that doesnt mean that Chandler wants to start that kind of ministry.

    Perry also said that this Easter, his church’s band will be singing Van Halen’s Running with the Devil.

    Personally, I think it comes down to what glorifies God. I cant see where the worship band (think about that term in context of singing Highway to Hell, what are they worshipping, but i digress) gleefully singing Highway to Hell brings glory to God in that moment. You cant say that the results later in the service somehow “redeems” that song.

    Lastly, in addition to the regulative issue, i think it also depends on what a pastor’s view of the weekly gathering of the church is. Is it primarily intended to be a gathering of saints for the purpose of worship, edification, and equipping the believers to go out and evangelize, or is the service intended to be a primary means of evangelism and designed primarily based on what you perceive to be the unregenerate’s felt needs are.

  2. Mark Says:

    Noble says that his goal is to “get people where they are to bring people where God is”? The problem is that if people are already coming to a place where Christians gather (the church) they are a place where they assume God is. IOW, the people did not come to hear AC/DC, but to worship or investigate the worship.

    Also, this assumes that all lost people coming to Noble’s church are fans of AC/DC or whatever other secular music is being “redeemed” there.

    The possibly bigger theological question is what Noble understands the goal of corporate worship to be.

  3. Brendon Says:

    Great question. I’m rubbed the wrong way by a watered down gospel that’s aimed at the lazy by folks who aren’t sold out on the transformative living breathing Word of God. That’s my issue however. My old man loves AC/DC and highway to hell is a great tune that in the new mans perspective aptly describes the old mans path. If a song like this is used, the jubilant expression should be removed by reworking the meter and time into a more somber march. Like the somber march of the hell bound highway parishioners. The message is a warning. Not a party anthem to those that are called to His good purpose. The distinction needs to be made for folks who may be impressionable. I may be off the mark here but it’s something to think about. How do we deliver the message?


  4. The idea of “contextualization” seems skewed here. The “Highway to Hell” brand of contextualization is an attempted bait and switch for the purposes of evangelism. First, it doesn’t work at all for the worship of the saints. Second, it doesn’t serve the gospel message where we are supposed to convey that the patterns of this world are at best passing away if not outright sinful. Rather, the attractiveness of God and His forgiveness should be the draw, not the things of this world.

    But Biblical contextualization is something else altogether. Everyone has a cultural background and the message of the gospel must be communicated using the common frame of cultural reference so that hearers can understand it. For example, when I taught marriage principles to a church in India, I made reference to the practice of arranged marriages, which I had interviewed a couple of Indian ministers ahead of time so I better understood the practice and so I could teach using appropriate example. That’s different than singing “Highway to Hell” to get people to tune in.

  5. Barbaranne Says:

    There are six other days of the week in which to look outward and make every effort to bring the lost and dying world, by focusing on their plight, to the truth that they need a Saviour.

    Sunday morning in church is when we are to be looking upward and focusing on bringing glory and worship to God. If the lost join us on Sunday morning, they may actually be moved by the fact that our worship is so very different from the world in which they live, and seeing our devotion to God, (instead of our devotion to them) may show them something entirely new.

    And yet our purpose shouldn’t slide on Sundays. The worship of the church on Sunday morning, by being centered on our Lord, refocuses our priorities and sends us back out onto the mission field with renewed purpose to obey the Lord and urge the dying world to come and gaze upon His beauty and delight in his saving grace.


  6. […] Tim Brister on the regulative principle and Highway to Hell. […]


  7. […] Tim Brister on the regulative principle and Highway to Hell. […]

  8. Patrick Kyle Says:

    I think that there is a ‘question behind the question’ that no one has addressed. It can be phrased a number of ways, all getting at the same core.

    Is the primary function of worship in the church evangelism of the unbelievers or is it the worship of God by His saints?

    (Many will be tempted to say ‘both’ but when pressed, often confuse public proclamation in Acts with what went on in the worship in the church.)

    Those who are pragmatists often make our worship subservient to the needs and tastes of unbelievers, at the expense of the quality and content in respect to the believers.

    The early church was very careful in this regard, and during the second half of the service, which consisted of the Lord’s Supper, visitors, and catechumens (perspective members) were asked to leave and the doors were shut and locked behind them.

    I just don’t see a biblical justification for making visitors and non-christians the focus of our services, and quickly grow tired of church services catering to those groups. I want to be immersed in God’s word, prayer, and the singing of His praises.

    The early church did the bulk of it’s evangelism out in the marketplace and the work place. They also made great use of mercy ministries to the poor, handicapped, and orphaned.

    There is also an implicit belief that new Christians automatically know how to worship God and therefore worship should be easy and involve no learning curve whatsoever. We are translated out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light and we expect worship to be simple and intuitive? So we do away with liturgy or reinvent the wheel by cooking up our own, which often has no connection to the worship of God’s saints that have gone before us. Thus we get ‘Highway to Hell’ and other such BS in the church.

  9. Eric Says:

    What I think we’re missing here is the perspective of your average AC/DC fan who might have been attending that day. They’re sitting there thinking “man, this guy is butchering a rock anthem”. It isn’t contextualization, it’s blaspheming their god. When we try to act like the world, it doesn’t win their respect, it earns their scorn. We’ll never be able to act as worldly as the world, therefore our stabs at being like them in order to reach them will only seem like gross parodies in their eyes.
    So some people purportedly got saved at that service. Great, God was pleased to save some; is that because you belted out Highway to Hell, or in spite of it?

  10. Caleb Says:

    Mark, great thoughts. I used to attend a large Pentecostal church with seeker-sensitive services; we played songs by Travis, Shania Twain…thankfully not ACDC.
    After a personal reformation, I hold to the “foolishness of preaching” method.

    I wonder if ACDC is sad now that their song is Christian and they can’t play it anymore. Perhaps they’re playing it still and wondering why people sre repenting

  11. Caleb Says:

    Oops… “why people are repenting at their concerts.”

  12. Nina Says:

    First a little disclosure: a friend posted the “elephant room” video on FB–which lead me to this blog.
    I am a former Roman Catholic, convert to being evangelical (initially Methodist, then Assemblies of God, & finally non-denom/Calvary Chapel for 22 years- practicing church member, bible study teacher and worship team member) who finally left the evangelical church BECAUSE I asked the same questions…and realized the answers weren’t to be found in either mainline Protestant, evangelical or emergent churches. One must go further back than the Reformation and further East in order to find the answers to these questions….

    It seems to me that the central point of their discussions is: HOW & WHY do we do what we do? And how do we KNOW how to do this?

    This is a really important topic–especially in the emergent church movement today. And how pastors like Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald etc. answer these questions will help to determine the face of the modern Evangelical Church in America.

    The questions about HOW we put our religion—and our Sunday services— into practice, are crucial…Because we are not our own, but the Lord’s, and ultimately in our practices, we represent Him and the Kingdom… the “culture” of the Kingdom of Heaven to a hurting world.

    In many ways, the bottom line is authority: who do you listen to? (Besides the Holy Spirit.) And who is the authority in your life? (Besides the Lord.or Scripture…which, as they point out, has varying interpretations…) Whose interpretation of Scripture do you hold to? What shapes your doctrine—and is it sound/good doctrine? (1 Timothy 4:6) How do you know its sound doctrine? Why do you go to the church you do and sit under the pastor you do? And–does it matter which church you go to?

    I REALLY appreciate the discussion and the willingness for these pastors to ask the BIG questions and stay in the conversation with each other…without antagonism or accusation–it’s SO important. It seems to me that they both respect , honor and love each other in Christ—and aren’t afraid to dig in together. I think that their desire to lead people to Christ and their heart for the Lord is unquestionable—and that they are trying to practice “true religion” (James 1:27) as is Miles McPherson of The Rock here in San Diego. As leaders in the Evangelical world, their examples of ministry to the poor and lost, and their zeal are something we should all pay attention to and emulate.

    However–these pastors also make me think of Apollos in the book of Acts—who was “an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures,….This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord.” But I find it interesting that even though it says he taught “accurately”—Priscilla and Aquilla, took him aside and “explained to him the way of God more accurately.” There was obviously something Apollos was missing—his message was somehow incomplete or inaccurate…

    Aquila and Priscilla, who had been discipled by Paul, instructed Apollos in “apostolic” doctrine-what was handed down from the apostles both orally and in written form–which Scripture tells us to “hold fast” to – 2 Timothy 1:13 Titus 1:9 ,2 Thessalonians 2:15 & 2 Thessalonians 3:6 (doctrine-in a basic definition- being the explanation of how and why we do what we do.) –Apostolic doctrine is the “gold standard,” the litmus test of knowing if what we are doing is scriptural or not. If what we are teaching is true.

    So I think Noble’s, Driscoll’s, and MacDonald’s questions could all be answered if they asked two final questions: are we doing and teaching what the apostles did and taught? And (perhaps even more importantly): how can we know we are?

    I put this out to you for consideration (and I’m not trying to give a simplistic solution—these are big questions that deserve deep thinking, so at the risk of sounding trite….) I think these last two questions could be answered if they would thoroughly search the early church fathers and do a little history reading as well…the answers ARE out there.

    1 Thessalonians 5:21
    Test all things; hold fast what is good.


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