Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Liturgical Worship...Also Not Fit for Lutheran Consumption?

I am a high-church weirdo. I like the “smells and bells.” I like incense. I want my pastor to wear vestments…Lots of vestments. I think genuflecting is neat. If I were the king of church, things would look a lot different. Worship in the Lutheran Church – Joseph Synod would look a lot more like the 16th century than the 20th century. And the chanting…there would be sooooooo much chanting. Some of the chanting might be in English, as a good-will gesture to some of my more low-church friends…but not much.

Those who know me are rolling their eyes, chuckling softly to themselves now (I hope), and offering a silent prayer that there are, as of yet, no plans to elevate me to the throne. While they may not wish to return to a chanted Latin mass, my friends do know that my respect for our Lutheran liturgical heritage, as rooted in the western catholic liturgy, is genuine. In fact, though I may be decried as a filthy papist by some, I do not advocate “high-church” forms as necessary, or view them as good works. I do not, in reality, wish to exchange Wittenberg for Rome. Perhaps it is simply the result of my conservative inclinations to resist the novel. It is in keeping with the spirit of the Reformation to retain that which is beneficial, and to dispense with that which is harmful and contrary to God’s Word. Maybe my attraction to ancient liturgical forms is even a bit reactionary, considering the trends in modern Christianity to absorb as much secular culture as possible in an effort to simplify, and make people feel comfortable. Pastor Benjamin Mayes describes it this way:

“Within the last two decades, the Lutheran Church in the United States, and perhaps all Christendom in North America, has seen two tendencies in worship. One tendency is to make worship as accessible as possible to modern man, for the sake of mission. This tendency has led to wholesale or partial abandonment of historic western liturgical forms and has often neglected liturgical song, making worship music the business of a band or song leader. Music and text have striven for simplicity[1].”

This trend of modernizing worship for the sake of mission, and abandoning traditional forms and practices, is readily apparent, even to the most casual observer. The mission doesn’t even have to be legitimate. There are people who have made these changes for well-intended reasons, and there are those who have made them so as to tickle as many ears as possible, for the sake of filthy lucre. All you have to do is tune into TBN to see a parade of prosperity preachers promising you your best life now, if only you send in your seed offering. Mega churches like Willow Creek are trying to make “seekers” more comfortable, so that they will be persuaded to enter the church and, once inside, have their felt needs met. Not that I would necessarily call mega church worship “simple.” It takes a lot of time, money, equipment, planning, and personnel to pull off what goes on there, if it is to have the intended revivalist effect. From the worshipper’s point of view, however, it is somewhat passive. You sit, you listen, you repeat words and phrases as instructed by the leader. Maybe you sing, if you know the words to the latest CoWo rock song. But mostly you just “be emotionally manipulated” into making some kind of decision, or reaffirmation. This is much simpler than worshiping by using an archaic liturgy printed in some moldy old hymnal, or engaging the text of a Paul Gerhardt hymn.

While we (particularly we Confessional Lutherans) may see the danger of modernization and simplification easily enough, we often miss the dangers which approach us from the other direction. Our direction. Well meaning people – people like me – who love and respect our Lutheran liturgical heritage, and wish to preserve it, also are in danger of worshipping the form for the sake of mission, rather than Christ, who ought to always be the object of our worship.

What I’m saying is this: Sometimes we traditional types fall into the same pit as the contemporary worship types; We come to rely on our form and style of worship to draw people into the church and, to save them.

I believe wholeheartedly that “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi” is true. I believe that the traditional liturgy, developed over the course of 2,000 years, is the best vehicle for delivering God’s gifts to his people gathered together as the church. I believe that the traditional liturgy is the type of worship most harmonious with Christian doctrine as presented in Scripture, and taught in the Lutheran Confessions. I do not believe, however, that Christ ceases to care for his people, or is hampered in his work, when we “don’t do church well.”

It is wrong to adopt contemporary worship practices in order to get people into the church, and keep it from closing. It is equally wrong to practice the liturgy in order to do the same.

This phenomenon may be explained like this: Our church is “dying,” and we want people to come and support it, so that we don’t close our doors, and so the Gospel continues to be proclaimed in this place. We know that the mega church model is contrary to Scripture and our confessions; what we will do instead of abandoning the liturgy, is embrace it…so tightly that we strangle it to death. We need the perfect pastor…one who has an excellent singing voice so that he can chant the liturgy perfectly. We need the perfect organist…what is E. Power Biggs up to these days? Dead, you say? See if we can get a hold of that Hector Olivera guy then. We have to have an organist who won’t detract from the worship experience with his bumbling mistakes. Speaking of worship experience, let’s see if we can get an acting coach for the new pastor while we’re at it. His sermons are orthodox, but he’s driving people away because he’s so boring. The liturgy, after all, is a play, and in order for it to be as effective as possible we have to make sure the pastor doesn’t screw it up by his mediocre performance skills. Did you hear how flat and monotone he delivered the Prayers of the Church last week? So distracting…And what’s with that choir?! Maybe we can find some ringers from some other church to help them out with their intonation. After all, we don’t want them to detract from the worship experience and drive people away. One more of those out-of-tune Graduals and the whole place will be empty.

It is frighteningly easy to develop the attitude that, if any one of a number of factors is missing or done “incorrectly” during the course of the worship service, then “church” has not been properly achieved. I know, because I was there.

The problem is that these aren’t really the things that drive people away from the church. The reason people stay away from church is because they hate Jesus.


People are drawn to contemporary worship and the mega church because it focuses on them. It meets their felt needs. It enshrines their contemporary culture, which makes them feel comfortable. On the other side of that coin, people aren’t pushed away from the liturgy because the pastor has a nasal singing voice, or a dry delivery, or because the organist pumps out a few clinkers during the Te Deum (though this can be annoying). They walk away because, enshrined in the liturgy is Law and Gospel. People are told that they are sinful and need to repent. They are confronted with their sin and their need for a savior, week after week, and they don’t like it. Heck, I don’t like it. But, I know I need what Christ provides for me there – repentance, faith, and the forgiveness of my sin. And the people who remain know that as well.

So, how do we keep our churches open? We don’t. Jesus does that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, working through the means he has appointed – Word, Water, Bread and Wine.

The response I have most often received to this concept from many of my concerned brethren is something like, “Yes, yes, I know…Holy Spirit, and all that, but…” Or, “With all due respect to Word and Sacrament ministry, and the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish great things through them, I believe…” What this has in common with the contemporary worship mistake is that it focuses us, on us. Any time you add a “something” as necessary, you negate the sufficiency of Christ, even if that something is one of the liturgical bells/whistles we like. At that point, whatever that something is, it has supplanted Christ.

So, is it still church if we don’t have incense? How about if we don’t process? What if we don’t have kneelers, and my pastor doesn’t genuflect? What if we don’t have a choir? Or an organ? What if we only speak the liturgy, rather than chant it? Can we still worship in line with our liturgical tradition, in a way which teaches Christian doctrine as taught in the Scriptures and affirmed in the Confessions, without these things? I, at one time, would have answered no. History, and Holy Scripture, however, says yes.

“Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:18-20).

Christ, in this passage from Matthew 18, teaches the church how to deal with a sinning brother. He is not here referring to the universal church, but the congregation[2]. Jesus emphasized his point that the gathering of Christians (the congregation), no matter how large or small, has the power to come together to bind and loose by using the phrase, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name.” Luther explains:

“Here we hear that also two or three assembled in Christ’s name have the same power over everything which St. Peter and all the Apostles have. For the Lord Himself is present, as He says, too, John 14:23: ‘If a man love Me, he will keep My words, and My Father will love him, and We will come unto him and make Our abode with him.’…We here have present the Lord himself, the Lord of all angles and creatures; it is He who says that all are to have equal authority, keys, and office, even two common Christians by themselves, when gathered in His name. Of this Lord the Pope and all devils shall not make a fool, liar or drunkard, but we will trample on the Pope and declare that he is a confirmed liar, blasphemer, and idolatrous devil, who under St. Peter’s name has arrogated the keys to himself alone, while Christ has given them equally to all in common.[3]

The thing that makes church, according to Christ, is the gathering of Christians together in his name. Where two or three are thus gathered, there he is with them. The Augsburg Confession explains that, where the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel, there is the church[4], whether there are two Christians present in a dark basement for fear of persecution, or 2,000 in an ornate cathedral. The Church’s existence and growth doesn’t depend on us, but rather on Christ, whose body the Church is. We should, as the Catechism explains, maintain and extend God’s church by telling others about Jesus Christ, by personal service, and by prayer and financial support[5]. We must ultimately, however, recognize the truth of St. Paul’s words:

“I [Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor" (1 Cor. 3:6-8).

God will increase his Church as he sees fit, working by His Holy Spirit, through the means he has provided, when and where he wills. In the words of the Small Catechism:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives me all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true[6].”

It doesn’t matter if your church is large or small. It doesn’t matter if your church performs the liturgy perfectly, by the outward act. You can’t grow the church by catering to people’s inclinations. Christ must grow his church. Leave it to him. Plant. Water. Let him worry about the increase. Your method – whatever it might be – may get more bodies inside the building, but they will, most likely, be worshiping an idol. Stop worrying; Preach Christ crucified. 

End Notes

[1] Mayes, Rev. Benjamin T. G. The Brotherhood Prayer Book. 2nd ed. Kansas City, KS: Emmanuel Press, 2007.

[2] The Smalcald Articles do not, of course, refer to the Church Universal, scattered over the whole world (ecclesia universalis), with the phrase “given to the Church,” but to the congregation (ecclesia particularis), as the passage added indicates: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” For the Church possesses all spiritual treasures and privileges, not inasmuch as it is large or small, but inasmuch as it consists of believers (Pieper, Franz. Christian Dogmatics. Vol. III. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publ. House, 1953. p. 452).

[3] Pieper, Franz. Christian Dogmatics. Vol. III. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publ. House, 1953. p. 452

[4] AC VII 1

[5] Luther, Martin. Luther's Small catechism, with explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1991. p. 159.

[6] Luther, Martin. Luther's Small catechism, with explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1991. p. 15.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Luther's Sermon for the First Sunday After Trinity

In a sermon on 1 John 4, Luther addresses those pastors and people who wrongly imagine that they can preach and listen only to the Gospel apart from the rebuke and admonition of the Law:

YOU have often heard and are now hearing the complaint, which is universal in all the world, that when human beings hear the preaching of faith about the remission of sins, they embrace it, because it is a delightful preaching: God has sent His Son for you. But when it is said that you must adorn your faith to the praise of God, and sins are rebuked, no one wants to hear anything more.

In towns everywhere, people distinguish among preachers. “This one is a fine preacher, who talks about grace and mercy; and what is even finer, he does not scold anyone or frighten people.” That is the way people commonly talk and act. If he does rebuke [sins], they undertake to have him removed. Therefore, many [of these preachers] have returned to us.

When you are scolded as a usurer, adulterer, or whatever kind of swine you are, or [it is said] that a peasant, a townsman, or a nobleman is godless, no one will suffer that. “But if I am a usurer, adulterer, swindler, and [the preacher] does not scold me, ah, what a pious man he is!”

[Are you] really righteous because I [do not] rebuke your vices? Then let the devil be [your] preacher. If I see peasants, townsmen, noblemen and do not chastise them, then I will go to the devil along with you. For [God says in] Ezekiel 3 [:18]: “I will require [their] blood at your [hands],” and they themselves will go to the devil. You shall give an account of yourself. I will not be responsible for that in the hour of death or of judgment. Rather, I shall declare what is contrary to the commandment, and then if you do not obey, you do it at your own peril.

. . . Surely an upright [Christian] gladly hears an admonition to faith, not to be greedy or a usurer, and he amends himself. I would want a brother to admonish me when I go astray. But they refuse to tolerate anyone who rebukes them [even] in general. When I say that usurers belong to the devil, why do you cry out? It is because you yourself are guilty. If you want to know which dog has been struck, it is the one who cries out.8 Therefore, you are accusing yourself, if you grumble, and are defaming yourself. As Cicero says, when vices are rebuked in general terms, whoever becomes angry at it shows himself to be guilty.

Whoever cannot bear it when unbelief is rebuked along with the fruits of unbelief, he is most certainly the dog who has been struck. But this is the purpose for which they want to misuse the Gospel: that they may do whatever they want, and the preachers should confirm it and so be cast down to hell along with them, or else we should nullify the Gospel and the ministry [of the Word], etc., [saying,] “Oh, it is all the same; do whatever you want and you will be saved!”

The Word must be unbound [cf. 2 Tim. 2:9]. It must be freely preached. Human nature has been corrupted by unbelief, which brings its fruits along with it. Therefore, sins must be rebuked, as in the Ten Commandments, etc. If you don’t want to listen to God, then don’t!

Luther, Martin. “Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity, 1 John 4:16–21.” Luther’s Works: Sermons V. Ed. & trans. by Christopher Boyd Brown. Vol. 58. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2010, pp. 234–235.