Want Uniformity in Worship? Go back to Prussia

By Joel A. Hess

In the early 19th century, Wilhelm III nobly pursued the union of Lutheran and Reformed church bodies. In order to accomplish this task, he commissioned a new common liturgical agenda to be used by all churches no matter their theological persuasion. Uniformity achieved! Of course, a couple heads had to roll, but hey, it was for a greater cause!

Today, many conservative Lutherans cringe when they reflect on Wilhelm’s forced uniformity. The Prussian Union is even partly to blame for sending some our favorite feisty Saxons across the pond. Ironically, the same hardcore Lutherans often claim the need for liturgical uniformity. While they express their fear of looking too evangelical, they don’t seem to care at all if they look too Roman. Quite frankly, some don’t mind at all if they look too Roman.

I am not speaking against the liturgy. It’s a fine vehicle for carrying God’s Word to His people. I get the love of the historical styles and patterns. I get the attraction to chasubles and candles (though in the Smalcald Articles, Luther has a couple of strong words for those things and most visible traditions to which we seem to cling). But hanging our hats on our uniformity of worship is like playing a slight of hand magic trick with the devil. “Look over here,” he beckons while his other hand steals our treasure. Once we make anything but the theology preached from the pulpit as necessary for church unity, we resurrect that old Wilhelm and eventually oppress the Gospel—every single time!

How easily that old devil distracts us to keep our eyes on anything else but Jesus and His Word calling us to repent and believe the Good News. The only thing that should be demanded by our church leaders is that the pure Word of God is preached and taught clearly and pointedly. For it is only the speaking of God’s Word that gives life. It is only Jesus’ word of forgiveness that removes the cancer of sin in a man’s life and replaces it with the eternal spring of resurrection. It is only the promise of resurrection that dries tears. It is only the Word of God that can bring true unity among sinners. It is only the Word that creates and sustains the living body of Christ called the Church.

Indeed, there are many seemingly ridiculous liturgies out there that give more an impression of entertainment than holy nourishment. There are also the humorous new vestments of torn jeans and untucked shirts that are just artificial tools ironically meant to convey authenticity. We can talk until we’re blue in the face about what clothing is best to wear, what instruments are best to play, and what pipe tobacco is best to smoke. And that’s right where the devil wants us! Does it mean we shouldn’t care? No. There are better and worse ways to preach, teach, and enjoy the Means of Grace. But let’s keep our eyes on the prize! What we preach informs how we worship, not the other way around. Lex credenda, lex orandi.