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.

9 thoughts on “Want Uniformity in Worship? Go back to Prussia

  1. Lutherans tend to lurch toward either evangelicals or Roman practices or make their identity based on being anti-evangelical or anti-Roman. I have seen both of these obnoxious errors. However, I see no place for “evangelical” services. They are antithetical to Lutheran teaching and lend itself to pietism or emotionalism.
    I would only add to the article that the Lord’s Supper ought to be (not must) part of the Divine Service since it delivers the benefits procured by Christ.


  2. The same old arguments: The bare minimum required for unity is the most we can and should hope for. We love the liturgy; we just don’t bother to practice it. The Devil likes it whenever we are concerned about worship forms. It’s all about personal preference. We can have evangelical style with Lutheran substance.
    How is this any different, in any way, from what we have been hearing from David Luecke & co. for 30 years?


    1. Here we go with the same old “Confessional” harangue that having a corpus over a cross or a common cup over and individual cup or an organ over a piano and on makes one more Christian. The devil indeed likes it when we strain the gnat and swallow the camel.


  3. “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 best way to keep our eyes on Jesus and avoid this situation is to practice the Liturgy as published in LSB. The only people calling for distraction are the ones who are attempting to re-invent the wheel, sometimes every week. The topic is exhausting but demands a response if only to avoid the impression of consent through silence.


  4. And conversely, how one worships informs how one preaches. Since you do not mention what prompted this post, I assume from the comments that this is more than a discussion of which Divine Service setting should be used. Do you desire to set the liturgy aside for something less formal and more “spirit-led”? If so, you misunderstand the strength and fortitude of the liturgy. Where you may see empty ritual, I see consistency and faith-building instruction. The excitement sought and experienced by the American (or Western) Evangelicalism is “a mile wide and an inch deep” (to borrow a phrase). Nothing exists beyond the moment: it feels good then flees as surely as the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” I spent my first 15 years in the Methodist church. Thank God for its liturgy that taught me the truth in spite of poor sermons. Afterwards, I spent 45 years in the Evangelical “slough of despond,” so I ask you to reconsider your thoughts on the matter. I fear that what you seek is “grasping for the wind.”


  5. The Divine Liturgy bears and carries forth the mysteries of Gospel preached AND Eucharist administered.

    The Gospel preached puts Christ and forgiveness before us.

    The Eucharist puts Christ as the Living Word – Λόγος – the Gospel – within us.

    Evangelicals, ultimately being calvinist in their sacramentology, do not deliver Christ at the Altar. He is not there, so they must employ worship as such to draw themselves up to Heaven to be in His presence, Never quite understood how calvin meant that to occur. Modern cowo doesn’t come anywhere near lifting up anyone, never mind a journey to Heaven!

    Employing evangelical worship and music is not intrinsically sacramental, and thus, is not Incarnational.

    And Liturgy, without the Eucharist, is truncated Incarnationalism by nature and makes a promise upon which it cannot, by design, deliver.

    😉 to SB



  6. Being point blank here –

    Athanasius – since the Sundays without the Eucharist are mostly due to the situation in the mid-to-late 1800’s, when there were not enough Pastors to go around and hence, the Sacrament could not be offered every Sunday and Feast Day, which WAS the Confessional standard, and folks were limited until the circuit riders showed up . . .

    Now that that issue was long ago resolved, there is no reason any LCMS Church is acting in a contrary and un-Lutheran fashion and not offering the Sacrament to all, every week, as Luther stated should be done!

    The Sacrament is an integral part of the Divine Liturgy, so it should not be omitted. If some feel as though they have had their fill of Jesus and don’t need all of the protections Luther, in the Large Catechism, says the Sacrament offers, then after placing their envelope in the collection plate they should slide on out, so as not to be offended by those who do desire Jesus within them each week.

    Don’t okay the wrong behavior. Sanction the proper communal behavior, and let others who will, decide against that.

    In my experience, no one does, in the end. 🙂 Pax – jb


  7. It looks as if they believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain — many give up churchgoing altogether — merely endure.

    Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it “works” best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

    But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping. The important question about the Grail was “for what does it serve?” “‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.”

    A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the questions “What on earth is he up to now?” will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not try experiments on my rats, or even, teach my performing dogs new tricks.”

    C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer


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