28 May 2008

Is the Liturgy really "Adiaphora"?

The current identity crisis in the LCMS, and certainly among American Lutherans in general, focuses on the use, or abandonment, of the Church's historic liturgy. Technically speaking, yes, the liturgy is "adiaphora," that is, it is something neither commanded nor forbidden by God in Holy Scripture. It is quite true that Holy Scripture does not outline a particular form of liturgy (St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, Western Rite, TLH, LSB, etc.)

However, we live, confess, and serve in a time in which "adiaphora" is mistakenly taken to mean: "God doesn't expressly command it; therefore, I/we don't have to do it." This mistaken notion of "adiaphora" has led us into the "Judges mindset" of everyone doing what's right in his own eyes.

But if we Lutherans take the Augsburg Confession at all seriously, we may want to repent of our mistaken notion of liturgy as "adiaphora" modernly interpreted. No, God has not dictated a specific form of liturgy, but He has indeed seen fit for 20 centuries to have His Church hand down liturgical forms that faithfully confess Jesus Christ and His eternal love of saving sinners by forgiving them and restoring them to life with Himself.

In fact, we might even say that the liturgy, a.k.a. "church ceremonies," is indeed a matter of doctrine. Augsburg Confession, Article XV, makes this bold statement:
Our churches teach that ceremonies ought to be observed that may be observed without sin. also, ceremonies and other practices that are profitable for tranquility and good order in the Church (in particular, holy days, festivals, and the like) ought to be observed (AC XV:1).
This is confessed in the Augustana's "Doctrinal Articles," not in the section of disputed articles on abuses. To say it another way, to be Lutheran *means* to use the ceremonies, such as "holy days, festivals, and the like"--a.k.a. liturgy--handed down by the Church.

So, the Church's liturgy is not, it would seem, a matter of an individual Lutheran pastor's discretion as to whether or not he will use it! Rather, the "church ceremonies" (liturgy) "ought to be observed," that is, the ones that can be "observed without sin." And what is the real issue in which ceremonies "ought to be observed"? Article XV continues:
Yet, the people are taught that consciences are not to be burdened as though observing such things was necessary for salvation. They are also taught that human traditions instituted to make atonement with God, to merit grace, and to make satisfaction for sins are opposed to the Gospel and the doctrine of faith (AC XV:2-3).
What does this mean? Clearly, observing the Church's liturgy does not make one right with God or earn His love and forgiveness. However, observing the Church's liturgy does, most certainly, proclaim that divine love and mercy to us and trains us in the ways of faith and godliness.

So, the point of the liturgy is not "liturgy for the sake of the liturgy." Rather, the point of the liturgy is faithfully to confess the mighty deeds of our Lord's salvation and to keep us centered in them. And for this reason, observing the Church's historic liturgy (as opposed to the forms of American evangelicalism/Pentecostalism) is a fundamental matter of our Lutheran confession of the faith and quite essential to the Christian faith and life, even to the mission of the Church.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Old Testament worship was definitely not "adiaphora." It was commanded by God in minute detail.

Christian worship descends from Jewish.

Christine said...

Clearly, observing the Church's liturgy does not make one right with God or earn His love and forgiveness.

But it does "make present" the saving actions of Christ in time and space.

In Gospel freedom, however, we don't merely "repeat" all the rituals of the Old Covenant but they are fulfilled in the New.

I love all my brothers and sisters in Christ but it would be dishonest to say that Baptist worship services are the same as liturgical ones.

But sheesh, you already knew that better than me, Pastor!

By the way, how are those furry rascals Porthos and Gimli?

Chris said...

Pr. Asburry,
I suspect part of the "problem" - if I may call it that - is the apparent view of Lutherans that the historic liturgy of the Church is a "human tradition." Is this in fact what AC XV is implying? If so, that is the crux of the problem.

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...

The idea that observance of the Church's liturgy as somehow gaining or earning God's love and forgiveness is quite a bit off the mark and, I believe, a rather unfortunate vestige of the protestant tradition. On various occasions over the years protestants of various stripes have described the sacraments (ie, Baptism, Eucharist) to me as works that WE DO to somehow merit God's grace or salvation (they are, of course, speaking in opposition to the practice of having sacraments; ie, the sacraments are not seen as what they are but as the very enemies of faith). This thinking naturally carries over to how they view the liturgy (since the liturgy is intimately tied with the sacraments and rightly so).

Christian freedom is not the goal of the liturgy but rather communion with God that comes through His gifts and prayer and worship to Him through Christ (grace, faith, forgiveness, salvation, etc.). It could easily be argued, and probably has been many times, that changing the liturgy to fit ideas of "Christian freedom" actually, in effect, works to enslave those gathered in worship by limiting or even taking away the very means through which people are given communion with God in Christ. "Liturgy for the sake of liturgy" is a false premise which ignores, or outrightly rejects, what is taking place in the liturgy. Unfortunately, it is at the least, an excuse, if not a ruse, for abandonment of those things which have faithfully carried on the faith through the generations. Could it be, as one Christian told me, that God is not present with His people on Sunday morning in the liturgy, but He is present everywhere (that is, everywhere outside the Church walls)? (It is hard to dissect protestant from secular thinking these days.)

Ultimately, the argument "liturgy for the sake of liturgy" undermines the very faith that is ours through the historic liturgy and is, most likely, but a symptom of deeper questions concerning faith and the Church.

When worship becomes centered on pleasing man (ie, "relevance" via the adiaphora argument) rather than on God's grace and faith in Christ via Word and Sacrament, or means of grace, in the liturgy it ought not surprise us that we place the Church and ourselves in a permanent existential crisis.

Could it be that "adiaphora" has degenerated from an act of confession to a ruse for giving me what I want?

Anonymous said...

That last question, Fr. May, is indeed the answer.
It's always been my argument that, in the end as at its beginning, the entire reason for abandoning liturgy is having what one wants when one wants it.
Further, it's a demand for the negative as well: not having to endure what one doesn't understand.
My pastor's tag-line, on all his emails is this:
A lady said to her pastor, "Pastor, the liturgy doesn't say what I mean."
The pastor responded, "Dear lady, you must learn to mean what the liturgy says."
Susan R

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...


Your pastor's tag-line is a good summary of what's going on. This makes me think of another angle: "The liturgy was boring until I started listening to what it was saying."

Well-stated: "...having what one wants when one wants it."

Thank you and thanks to Pr. Asburry for a great post.

chris said...

Fr. Timothy makes excellent points and one I was trying to make in my very brief comment. The liturgy is intimately tied to the sacraments. Therefore questions regarding the liturgy ultimately come down to questions about the Church. If the Church is, as I believe, ultimately a Eucharistic community, then one must be very careful about what one thinks of as "adiaphora" or mere "human tradition."

Fr. Timothy D. May, S.S.P. said...


Agreed. Since the liturgy and sacraments are tied together, as is the Church, the reliance on adiaphora to make changes, whether intentional or not, undermines much more than the liturgy itself.

On the other hand, when the liturgy is allowed to speak for itself then there is a growing appreciation of the nature of the Church as the Eucharistic community. (ie, the Eucharist, not "adiaphora" is the basis of the liturgy).

Anonymous said...

"We also believe, teach, and confess that in a time when confession is necessary, as when the enemies of God's Word want to suppress the pure teaching of the holy gospel, the entire community of God, indeed, every Christian, especially servants of the Word as leaders of the community of God, are obligated according to God's Word to confess true teaching and everything that pertains to the whole of religion freely and publicly. They are to do so not only with words but also in actions and deeds. In such a time they shall not yield to the opponents even in indifferent matters, nor shall they permit the imposition of such adiaphora by opponents who use violence or chicanery in such a way that undermines true worship of God or that introduces or confirms idolatry."

SD X10

Hoffster said...

Just as any Christian is obligated in these modern times to be a part of that denomination that best preaches the Gospel in its purity and administers the sacraments properly, as well a denomination is obligated to use that liturgy that best conveys the Gospel and the gifts of God in word and sacrament. The historic liturgy, being far better and much more appropriate than what American evangelicalism has to offer (song, song, song, sermon, song, song), is the obvious, and righteous choice.

Hoffster said...

I almost forgot, good post Pastor Asburry.
C. Hoff

hausnfef said...

Thank you for what you have taught in this post. I have often been led to believe that Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions have nothing to say about the way we worship. You show otherwise. The way I understand it the words of the liturgy are straight out of Scripture, so when something else replaces the traditional liturgy, we have to look to see what the new words are. Sadly, from my experience the new words are hardly scriptural at all.

Randy Asburry said...

Thanks for the comments, one and all!

Christine asked:
"By the way, how are those furry rascals Porthos and Gimli?"

They are doing quite well, or should I say, fulfilling your description quite well! :-)


Chris said:
"I suspect part of the "problem" - if I may call it that - is the apparent view of Lutherans that the historic liturgy of the Church is a "human tradition." Is this in fact what AC XV is implying? If so, that is the crux of the problem."


I think we can be honest and say that the liturgy is, in fact, "human tradition." After all, God gives no command such as "Thou shalt worship according to Lutheran Service Book, or St. John Chrysostom's liturgy."

Now, that's not to denigrate either of those liturgical orders, but merely to admit that, yes, they have come down to us by "tradition."

The real question is what is the purpose of the liturgy. For example, the liturgy of the Medieval Western Church clearly taught some false things, much of it with the "merit-theology" notion of earning one's way into God's good graces. For another example, today's American evangelical "liturgies" (if they can be called that) have the purpose of entertaining the worshipers and, supposedly, luring people in through the church doors.

In general, and from memory, the Lutheran Symbols make these points about the liturgy:

1. We keep the traditions handed down by the Fathers.
2. We do not teach that the mere act of observing the ceremonies merits God's favor and forgiveness in Christ.
3. The liturgy is to be keep for good order and for teaching the true faith--i.e. what people need to know about Jesus Christ.

In essence, the liturgy is meant to be the time of our most intimate contact and communion with our Savior God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and thus receiving the forgiveness, life, and salvation that He comes to give week in and week.

Therefore, we don't want to treat it lightly or think that we can get rid of it or modify it to suit our self-defined "needs" of the moment.

Another "crux" of the problem is, as I tried to say in the post, our odd, twisted view of "adiaphora." Someone named "Anonymous" cited the Formula of Concord, Article X. Many use other statements from that same article as the trite proof texts for the notion: "We can do any *^@# thing we want with the liturgy."

(I don't think that was the point "Anonymous" was trying to make, and I'm not trying to infer that.)

However, if you look closely at that passage cited above, as well as the whole article, it admits that there are things called "adiaphora," things neither commanded nor forbidden by God, that is, things we do by "human tradition." But when we are in a time of "confessional crisis"--as we are now, I would submit--then we need to stand firm on "adiaphora" for the sake of confessing Christ, His glory, and His comfort for us sinners. After all, in our day, we are being told, basically, that we must give up the liturgy in order to carry out the Church's mission. To hold true to FC, SD X, we need to say, "Sorry, but the liturgy confesses the true faith. We're not giving it up!"


hausnfef said:
"Thank you for what you have taught in this post. I have often been led to believe that Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions have nothing to say about the way we worship. You show otherwise. The way I understand it the words of the liturgy are straight out of Scripture, so when something else replaces the traditional liturgy, we have to look to see what the new words are. Sadly, from my experience the new words are hardly scriptural at all."

Thanks, "hausnfef" for seeing that the Confessions do indeed have something to teach us on the way we worship. It's pretty clear from the plain words, isn't it?

We also need to look at what those words as a whole say, that is, what doctrine do they confess regarding Christ and His forgiveness, life, and salvation for us, and do they come from the Church's time-proven way of worship, or are they some "new itch."

It's always best to stay with what the Church, our mother in the faith, has handed down to us.

Another point that the Lutheran Confessions make is this:

"Nothing should be changed in the accustomed rites without good reason, and to foster harmony those ancient customs should be kept which can be kept without sin or without great disadvantage. This is what we [Lutherans] teach" (Apology, XV:51).

So much for the reigning notion that "things must change, if we are to 'reach the lost'"!

And now that I'm on a roll, here are a couple of more quotes that we Lutherans say we believe and practice:

"The purpose of observing ceremonies is that men may learn the Scriptures and that those who have been touched by the Word may receive faith and fear and so may also pray" (Apology, XXIV:3).

And: "Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on other festivals, when the sacrament is offered to those who wish for it after they have been examined and absolved. We keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of the lessons, prayers, vestments, etc." (Apology XXIV:1). [Hey, weekly Communion is straight from our "official" Lutheran Confessions!]

And: "After all, the chief purpose of all ceremonies is to teach the people what they need to know about Christ" (Augsburg Confession, XXIV:3).

After all of that, why on earth would we want to change a thing in the Church's liturgy?! :-)

Randy Asburry said...

Oops, I forgot to respond to Anastasia, as I had planned to do:

You're exactly right!

Anonymous said...

"We should not regard as free and indifferent, but rather as things forbidden by God that are to be avoided, the kind of things presented under the name and appearance of external, indifferent things that are nevertheless fundamentally opposed to God's Word (even if they are painted another color). Moreover, we must not include among the truly free adiaphora or indifferent matters ceremonies that give the appearance or (in order to avoid persecution) are designed to give the impression that our religion does not greatly from the papist religion or that their religion were not completely contrary to ours. Nor are such ceremonies matters of indifference when they are intended to create the illusion (or are demanded or accepted with that intention), as if such action brought the two contradictory religions into agreement and made them one body or as if a return to the papacy and a deviation from the pure teaching of the gospel and from the true religion had taken place or could gradually result from these actions."


Randy Asburry said...


Thanks for your proffered quote from the Solid Declaration. Yes, it's a good quote, but would you care to comment and enlighten us as to how it contributes to the discussion at hand? I know I'm curious.

Christine said...

And: "After all, the chief purpose of all ceremonies is to teach the people what they need to know about Christ" (Augsburg Confession, XXIV:3).

IMHO, I wonder if that is the full essence of the AC here?

What I mean is that yes, the liturgy certainly does teach us about Christ but it is not primarily a catechetical function. The liturgy is the joining of the Church in heaven and on earth in the worship of the one, true Triune God.

In the early church the catechumens were dismissed after the Liturgy of the Word because they were not yet fully initiated into the Divine mysteries. They were instructed in the faith, sometimes as long as three years (gasp!) before they became full members of the Christian community.

In those early days being a Christian was (and still is) a serious matter. Professing faith in Jesus Christ could cost one one's life.

Randy Asburry said...


Well said, and good points. I believe the AC focuses the liturgy teaching us of Christ over against the false notion of meriting one's salvation that was so rampant at the time. I don't think the AC, or the Confessions in general, would quibble - or be made to quibble - at all with the other things you mention.

Christine said...

Aha, thanks for fleshing out the context, Pastor Rasburry!

Anonymous said...

Well, to me, SD X5 suggests that we should not be adopting practices of other religions (Catholic, Baptists, Pentecostals, etc.) that could create the illusion that we are in agreement with them, thus leading to--or gradually leading to--a deviation from the pure teaching of the gospel.

I do realize that, at the time, this was in response to those such as Melanchthon seeking to appear Catholic to avoid persecution, but I feel it is relevant today as the Lutheran church is under attack by the chicanery of the "white" devil and the CG, Emergent, etc. movements.

Really, I'm tired of CG enthusiasts abusing SD X by only quoting SD X9, and neglecting the rest of the article.

I'm sorry, I didn't intend to provide commentary, but wanted to point out these other areas of the Confessions that would support your thesis. Lesson learned. Thank you for your blogging thoughts.

Randy Asburry said...

Thanks, "Anonymous," for giving us these other quotes to support my thesis. I suspected as much, but wanted to let you speak for yourself too.