Uniformity In Worship Practices Is A Blessing (7of7)

By: A.L. Barry

As we look ahead toward the year 2000 and beyond, there is one more important question we need to ask ourselves. It is this: “What is the value of uniformity in worship practices across our Synod?” In a way, this is perhaps one of the most burning issues our church faces. There are two extremes to be avoided in answering that question. The one extreme would be the view that every congregation should simply do whatever it wishes, however it wishes, without any regard for the other congregations of our fellowship. The opposite extreme would be the view that everyone in the Synod must do precisely  the same thing every Sunday, with the same words,  the same songs, the same liturgy, on the same page, from the same order of service, without any deviation, variety or change. I believe that neither of these extremes is acceptable.

There are  those in our Synod who propose that every congregation  in the Synod should simply do its own thing. They  base this argument on the principle of “adiaphora."  In our Lutheran Church, the notion of “adiaphora” came up during a time when the Catholic rulers of  portions of Germany attempted to force Lutherans to do certain things in their worship services, claiming that these things were part of the very Gospel itself.  For instance, the Lutherans were told, “You must wear a certain kind of liturgical vestment or else you do not have a true worship service.” The Lutherans responded, “If you tell us we must do this, then we cannot do it, for the Gospel does not depend on it.” Adiaphora refers to things neither commanded nor forbidden  by God.

I would like to suggest to you that we have gone a bit wrong with the principle of adiaphora recently in our Synod. The principle of adiaphora has become more than a  rejection of what is being legalistically imposed on us in place of the pure Gospel. Instead, it has been turned into a license to do whatever pleases  anyone, anywhere and anytime, without due regard for the benefit of the church and the edification of the people of our Synod. It is quite clear that none of our Lutheran fathers anticipated a day when liturgical  anarchy and near chaos would be viewed as helpful  for the church. The concern has always been, and must  always be, on what best serves the need for good order in our church, so that the Gospel can have “free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people.”

Martin Chemnitz, one of the most important early theologians of our Lutheran Church, had this to say about why uniformity in worship practices is important:
...it  brings all sorts of benefits that in ceremonies, as much as possible, a uniformity be maintained, and that such ceremonies serve to maintain unity in doctrine, and the common, simple, weak consciences be all the less troubled, rather strengthened, it is therefore viewed as good, that as much as possible a uniformity  in ceremonies with neighboring reformation churches be effected and maintained. (Preus, The Second Martin  [1994], p. 21-22).

Our Synod has always been concerned that uniformity in liturgical practices be maintained, for the good of the church. For without uniformity in practice, as I have mentioned earlier, how long will it be before we find ourselves no longer united in doctrine?

Keep in mind that our first synodical founders knew all too well how dangerous a thing it was to impose ceremonies legalistically on the church. They fled Germany to come to the United States in part because the government tried to force a non-Lutheran liturgy on them. There is no way anyone can accuse our founding fathers of being liturgical legalists. They knew all too well what happens in that sort of situation. With that in mind, listen to our Synod’s first president, Dr. C.F.W. Walther, as he describes the strength of our Lutheran worship practices, and the benefit of being united in these practices:

We refuse to be guided by those who are offended by our church customs. We adhere to them all the more firmly when someone wants to cause us to have a guilty conscience on account of them. . . . It is truly distressing that many of our fellow Christians find the difference between Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism in outward things. It is a pity and dreadful cowardice when a person sacrifices the good ancient church customs to please the deluded American denominations just so they won’t accuse us of being Roman Catholic! Indeed! Am I to be afraid of a Methodist, who perverts the saving Word, or be ashamed in the matter of my good cause, and not rather rejoice that they can tell by our ceremonies that I do not belong to them? We are not insisting that there be uniformity in perception or feeling or taste among all believing Christians-neither dare anyone demand that all be minded as he. Nevertheless, it remains true that the Lutheran liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches to such an extent that the houses of worship of the latter look like lecture halls in which the hearers are merely addressed or instructed, while our churches are in truth houses of prayer in which Christians serve the great God publicly before the world. . . . Someone may ask, “What would be the use of uniformity of ceremonies? We answer, “What is the use of a flag on the battlefield? Even though a soldier cannot defeat the enemy with it, he nevertheless sees by the flag where he belongs. We ought not to refuse to walk in the footsteps of our fathers.” (Walther, Essays for the Church [1992], I:194).

Dr. Walther would want us to realize that in this country, precisely because we are surrounded by so many other churches, it is more important than ever that our Lutheran congregations strive for the greatest uniformity in practice as possible.

This is  an important truth for us to keep in mind as our congregations  consider changes in their worship services. Further, we would not be wise to suggest that one can never use another format for singing a portion of the liturgy  or that one must never deviate one bit from, for instance, p. 15 of The Lutheran Hymnal. But the point remains, that uniformity in worship practices is a great blessing for the Lutheran church and certainly for our Synod. We need to consider how great a blessing uniformity in practice is as we evaluate the wisdom of every parish simply “doing its own thing” in its worship services. 

A Presentation to the Real Life Worship Conference
Sponsored by the LCMS Commission on Worship
Denver, Colorado
February 1998

Lutheran Worship: 2000 and Beyond
Seven Theses on Worship 

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