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No Matter What You Say...

This is our second post in the No Longer Sola Series.

As I’ve written about previously, my journey to Orthodoxy was a gradual one. Many of my conclusions came slowly, only after years of study and hands-on experience in the parish. Today’s topic on Scripture Alone and its impact on worship is no exception. It wasn’t until I was serving as a pastor that the consequences of the modern-day Lutheran approach to worship became clearly evident to me.

There may have been liturgical unity in the early Lutheran Church, but not in the LCMS today. It is very common to find congregations that offer both a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service on a Sunday, maybe even a “blended” service or some other order that has been created to fulfill the felt needs of a particular congregation or target audience.

The principle of Scripture Alone means that ceremonies and rites are indifferent. Scripture offers no clear command (or very little) on how worship is to be done. Therefore, ceremonies and rites are understood to be done solely for the sake of good order and propriety in the church and are not in and of themselves divinely inspired or necessary. A congregation may change rites and ceremonies as desired.

Some say that the diversity of worship styles is a good thing for the Synod, that it gives her congregations appeal to a broader group of people. At first I accepted that I was just more personally drawn to the traditional and liturgical style of worship. But as time went on I began to notice that the multitude of worship types were more than simple style preferences.

I realized that this diversity in worship was actually teaching a powerful message - that what we do outwardly doesn’t matter. But is this true? Allow me to give an example. My fieldwork congregation would have the deacon and subdeacon kneel during the consecration of the Sacrament. The subdeacon would ring a bell several times during the Words of Institution.

They didn’t simply do this because they thought it was entertaining or stylish or helpful for a particular person or group. There was a purpose to it - to confess the doctrine of the Lutheran Church that at the consecration the pastor is holding the very Body and Blood of Christ.

You see, there was a time in the Lutheran Church where the opposite was taught. It was called receptionism – the belief that the bread and wine do not turn into Christ’s body and blood until the faithful person actually takes, eats and receives it as such. This ceremony left absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind about when Christ was made present in the Sacrament.

Unfortunately, this ritual is only rarely practiced, making it easier for false beliefs to creep in. Had this ceremony been common practice in all Lutheran churches receptionism would have been a terribly silly idea to anyone presented with it! They would have been able to say “Of course it isn’t simply bread and wine! We bow down before it!” Our customs form our way of thinking; our worship forms our way of believing.

People intuitively know this. They tend to segregate themselves based on their style preferences and begin to assume things about the people who go to the other services. Perhaps it’s that people who like liturgy are “too Catholic” and don’t like people or that people who go to the praise band service don’t care about doctrine and are only chasing an emotional high. Even within a single congregation you end up with a doctrinal split!

There’s the liturgical crowd and the contemporary crowd and each distrusts the other side to a degree. We know that what we do matters. It affects what we think and believe. We know at an intuitive level that when the worship changes it could mean our faith is changing. As a pastor I received this exact sentiment from concerned parishioners over and over again.

One of my favorite Orthodox bloggers, Father Stephen Freeman, had a much more eloquent explanation in a recent reflection:

“The modern options in liturgical life, which are found throughout the contemporary denominations, have a hidden, and, perhaps, unintended message. Their constantly changing structures suggest that what matters is what you think, what you feel, what you believe in that interior sense, but what you do in church is pretty much immaterial, a matter of preference and style.

Indeed, many moderns believe that this is the great advantage of denominations: everybody can “do church” in the manner that they like. What you do is, eventually, what you think—no matter what you say.”

He goes on a little later to say:

“This is a crucial matter. Any time there is some component of worship that “doesn’t matter,” the whole liturgy will begin to not matter. The modern thought that we hear expressed sometimes, “I don’t need to go to church to worship God,” simply says that all sense of a eucharistic life is gone. The notion that some part of life, much less some part of worship, doesn’t matter is already an embracement of secularism.

Secularism holds that the world somehow exists apart from God, and God only cares what we think or feel; intention and sentiment are what is essential. All that sort of thinking can yield is a split of our lives, a bifurcation, a rupture in the fundamental unity of our being. It is a disintegration of the spiritual life. In the end, what you do will win. The modern secularization of Christianity, and then the heart, will be an inevitable result.”

The claim that “Scripture Alone” provides all that is necessary for our salvation means that each congregation gets to do what it wants to do in worship according to “pastoral discretion”. This diversity in worship fosters a church shopping mentality. It suggests that the important thing is what style of instrumentation we use rather than what the liturgy and hymns confessing about God. This mindset damages not only our internal compass and our ability to determine right belief from wrong belief, but it also destroys congregations. People transfer to other churches over worship style preferences. Suddenly families who have worshiped together for decades or even generations are being separated for superficial and unnecessary reasons. Little congregations can’t keep up with the grand productions of the big congregations. Often they end up dying, sometimes leaving entire communities without a local parish.

The concept that worship diversity is to be valued is directly tied to the culture created by Sola Scriptura or “Scripture Alone”. The Roman Catholic Church has even fallen prey to this culture, boldly allowing innovations and diversification of the Mass in an effort to remain relevant in the midst of the contemporary chaos.

Without common practices and rituals, a common culture or “mind” cannot truly develop. Unity cannot be realized. Perhaps we have lost our Christian culture, not because the secular world buried it, but because we simply don’t have such a thing anymore. There is no common practice in Western Christianity anymore and so there is no culture to reside in, let alone to impart to society.

What we do in worship profoundly impacts our doctrine and our unity as Christians. I began to deeply desire togetherness in worship. I could not find this unity, or togetherness, where I was. In fact, I could not see it anywhere in Protestant or Catholic churches. Ultimately, the Orthodox Church was the only place where I found worshipping together, in unity, with one mind and heart, to be of more importance than my own individual preferences.

In my next post I will explain what I mean. Hopefully, with some help from wiser Orthodox theologians, we can explore what unity in worship actually looks like, what this “togetherness” is and how the Orthodox Church has kept it even in the midst of vast cultural, linguistic and pastoral considerations and variables.

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