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Smells and Bells

This post is part of our No Longer Sola Series.

Smells and Bells

Sola fide. Faith alone. What does this mean?

“Also they [our churches] teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.” - Augsburg Confession, article 4

In our most recent post Iakabos discussed Sola Scriptura and its effect on worship and doctrine in Western churches. But the Scripture Alone principle is not the only sola of the reformation which affects worship practices in Protestantism. Today we are talking about sola fide – faith alone.

Very often converts to the pre-reformation churches, Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, are accused of being wooed by the “smells and bells” of the ancient liturgy. Several times we have been accused of giving up the Gospel for smells and bells, that we have lost the Gospel in the midst of being entranced by the otherworldliness of Orthodox worship - that its beauty seduced us before we had a chance to notice the "heresies" (Hint: There aren't any.) contained within it.

So what is this Gospel that we have supposedly lost? Well, in a church body adhering to Faith Alone it is none other than salvation.

We are saved by faith. (And only that.) Faith comes by hearing. (And only hearing.) Those who hear the Gospel and who believe it are saved.*

Because faith (believing in) and Scripture (the Gospel) are alone, nothing else is needed. All that is needed is to hear and to believe. Because the reformers defined salvation in this way, church and worship became centered around the hearing of the Word. Indeed, in many Protestant churches, the preaching of God’s Word and the teaching became the exclusive focus. Everything else is considered a distraction.

As one Lutheran pastor explains:

"In Luther’s mind, the reason why the congregation gathered was to hear the preaching of God’s Word. He wrote, “[A] Christian congregation should never gather together without the preaching of God’s Word and prayer, no matter how briefly. . . . [W]hen God’s Word is not preached, one had better neither sing nor read, or even come together.” (AE 53:11) Luther’s primary concern was with the proclamation of the gospel, and all other liturgical rites and practices were secondary. He often advocated cutting back on the psalms and prayers to give more time and attention to preaching." (Source)

The Biblical worship practices we had received became something to mock as extravagant and unnecessary, even undesirable. Smells and bells…

“You shall serve the LORD your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and will take sickness away from among you…” Exodus 23:25

“Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!” Psalm 95:6

“Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” Psalm 141:2

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of [the] bread and the prayers.” Acts 2:42

“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting…” Acts 13:2

“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Revelation 5:8

Certainly the Bible has no qualms with smells and bells.

In fact, it seems rather, that these additional pieces of worship are considered by Scripture and the apostles and the early to Church to be essential and beneficial to worship. They nurture the whole person, not just the ears and the mind.

The smells are nothing to sneeze at, if you will excuse my terrible pun.

When I was studying theology and outreach for my undergraduate degree, (and please forgive me for talking about myself here) it became increasingly obvious to me that our worship practices were sorely lacking. We had such a wide array of unchurched people groups. There were always attempts to modify our worship services to attract this demographic or the other.

Young people, minorities, Hispanic speaking populations, the Deaf community, families, immigrants, and the list went on and on. The question was too often asked, how can we change our liturgy and worship to minister to these “seekers” these people who are not yet churched?

It was this question that ultimately led to my withdrawal from the certification program to become a director of outreach in our church body. I was being asked to do things that went against the very Lutheran Confessions I was being taught in the classroom. I could not participate in changing worship for the sake of outreach.

Worship is in-reach I said; it is for the faithful! I wanted to have nothing to do with changing it in an effort to convince people that they are interested in Jesus. Outreach happens outside, not during worship. And who am I to change worship in the first place?

But something else happened too. I realized that we really do have nothing for many of those people. Just one example of this is what I learned from friends in the Deaf community. Most of the Deaf community is unchurched. Why? They generally consider church to be an activity for hearing people. This is a revealing statement.

I began to recognize that our congregations were neglecting most of our bodily senses in favor of just one. I even had a confessional Lutheran pastor that I much respected for his wisdom and insights tell me that a person could not receive the Gospel through sign language because we are saved by hearing and not by sight. How can a Deaf person be saved then? There was no good answer for this question.

No. Hearing must not be the only salvific human experience. There must be more. Surely God is accessible through all of our senses, so that no matter what your disability, even if you became deaf and blind, you would still be able to experience the love of God. Right?

After experiencing Orthodox worship I have come to realize that the West’s obsession with changing worship to accommodate the felt needs of every single focus group might actually be because the worship has been stripped of its nourishment in the first place. Perhaps no one is getting what they “need” from worship because we have removed the incense and the candles and the icons and the vestments and the blessed bread and water and the movement of the body in crossing and bowing and walking…

These aren’t distractions or unnecessary adornments to our worship life. They are essential tools that communicate the Gospel and allow us to experience the presence of Christ. Perhaps the reason why we have trouble reaching people is because most of us don’t hear the Gospel as readily as we experience the Gospel.

And deep down we know that Church isn’t really about knowing what the Bible says, it’s about knowing God and being with Him. Relationships don’t happen through verbal communication alone. Relationships happen when we touch and taste and smell and hear and see one another, and that includes our relationship with God.

One of the things I love about Orthodoxy is that her worship incorporates all the senses and the whole person. It isn’t a dry formula. Hear the Word, believe it, be saved, the end. No, the Church is meant to be a hospital, with medicines available for everyone. Faith is meant to be a relationship, not a get out of hell free card. Faith isn’t alone; faith is never alone! Faith always comes as the first step in a relationship.

Just as the wedding day is not the final step in your relationship to your husband, the day you believe is not the final step in salvation. It is the first step, and unless it comes with many, many steps afterward it is as meaningless as a marriage in which the husband and wife have nothing more to do with one another. My relationship with my husband is not stagnant, it has continued to be enriched and deepened throughout our years of marriage. My relationship to Christ should be the same.

Yes, the Orthodox liturgy is rich and ancient and lovely, but more importantly it is salvific. It brings us into contact with Christ and His Church and it offers us a relationship. It is not simply didactic or a mere reminder or symbol or something indifferent to be changed on a whim. It is an embrace from Christ Himself, a feast with our Heavenly Bridegroom, an immersion into the Heavenly Kingdom.

Yes, hearing the Word of God is a gift, but it isn’t the only gift and it isn’t all that Christ wants for us.

Just as a bridegroom after reciting his wedding vows... He has so much more to give.


*I know some Lutherans will take exception to this overly simplistic explanation, forgive me. It’s not possible in the space I have to do justice to the depth of theology this requires in a single post. I also realize that many Lutherans will outright deny this is proper theology, which is great! But the point remains that, unfortunately, this is what many teach and Lutheran theology and worship lend themselves to this sort of understanding.

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