Sunday, February 14, 2010

Drafted 2: Why?

If you're tuning in late, it'll help you to know that I titled this thread "Drafted" because I have been recently drafted into the battle lines of the worship wars. The church where I serve as organist and choir director has put together a "strategic planning" advisory committee focusing on worship issues. At our last meeting two weeks ago, the committee started to discuss the question of whether we should start offering a "blended" or "contemporary worship" service. A couple of the elders argued in favor. I, pretty much alone, argued against. The matter was deferred until later this week. So the purpose of this thread is to rehearse my line of argument so that I can make my case more effectively, and without losing my head.

The next question that I think we must thoroughly answer before we dare change our congregation's form of worship is: "Why must we make this change? What is wrong with the form of worship this congregation has practiced till now?" In fact, this was our pastor's first question at our committee's last meeting, though one of those in favor brushed it aside as an unworthy question. It is actually a most worthy question, if not the question. Before we dare even begin discussing the who's and what's and how's of bringing in contemporary worship, this is the question we must answer, honestly and fully: Why? What's WRONG with the orders of worship in the hymnal we use?

Why is this question the question Lutherans must ask before hopping on the Happy Clappy bandwagon? This goes to the roots of Lutheran identity. The Lutheran Reformation was never about tearing down organs, smashing stained-glass windows, defacing religious art, and overhauling the whole liturgy. Only what was contrary to the Gospel had to be corrected. Only the impurities that had been introduced by a corrupt church hierarchy were to be removed. In accord with Christ's saying, "For he who is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40), the Lutheran Reformation was guided by a conservative principle: We retain any ceremony that can be retained without sin. To do otherwise risks offending weak consciences, risks depriving the church of useful tools for transmitting the faith.

This isn't just my interpretation of Reformation history. This conservative principle is enshrined in the very fabric of Lutheran identity. It is codified in Article X of the Formula of Concord, one of the confessional symbols that defines Lutheran Christianity. It can be summed up in one word: ADIAPHORA. Cool word, eh? It means "things that are neither commanded nor forbidden." Another way of saying it is "indifferent matters," but that expression may be misleading. As Article X makes clear, there is nothing "indifferent" about an adiaphoron that has become a mark of confession.

This makes a huge difference. When some people stress that the liturgy is adiaphora, they mean that since no particular form of worship is commanded by God, then we are free to exchange one worship form for another. They mean, in fact, that we can get as creative as we want, as long as our liturgical inventions pass doctrinal review. But the Formula does not devote its Tenth Article to adiaphora merely to say, "Let everyone do what is right in his own eyes." The whole point of Article X, in fact, is to teach that, even in "indifferent matters," when the powers that be force this ceremony on us, or when they forbid us to observe that one, or when those who adhere to another confession pressure us to conform to their way of worship, we must resist. It is our duty to the Gospel, to Christian freedom, and to those weaker in faith, to bear witness to the truth at such times by clinging to the "adiaphoron" in question. The Formula says, in its Epitome:
We believe, teach, and confess that in time of persecution, when a plain and steadfast confession is required of us, we should not yield to the enemies in regard to such adiaphora, as the apostle has written Gal. 5:1, "Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again in the yoke of bondage." Also 2 Cor. 6:14, "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers, etc. For what concord hath light with darkness?" Also Gal. 2:5 "To whom we gave place, no, not for an hour, that the truth of the Gospel might remain with you." For in such a case it is no longer a question concerning adiaphora, but concerning the truth of the Gospel, concerning preserving Christian liberty, and concerning sanctioning open idolatry, as also concerning the prevention of offense to the weak in the faith; in which we have nothing to concede, but should plainly confess and suffer on that account what God sends, and what He allows the enemies of His Word to inflict upon us.
To clarify this positive statement of our Adiaphora prinicple, the Epitome goes on to list a series of contrasting, negative statements:
Accordingly, we reject and condemn as wrong and contrary to God’s Word when it is taught: (1) That human ordinances and institutions in the church should be regarded as in themselves a divine worship or part of it. (2) When such ceremonies, ordinances, and institutions are violently forced upon the congregation of God as necessary, contrary to its Christian liberty which it has in external things. (3) Also, that in time of persecution and public confession [when a clear confession is required] we may yield to the enemies of the Gospel in such adiaphora and ceremonies, or may come to an agreement with them (which causes injury to the truth). (4) Also, when these external ceremonies and adiaphora are abrogated in such a manner as though it were not free to the congregation of God to employ one or more in Christian liberty, according to its circumstances, as may be most useful at any time to the Church for edification.
What kinds of ceremonies are we talking about? How was this principle applied historically? The controversy over adiaphora arose during the "Leipzig Interim," a period following Luther's death when Lutheran territories had been conquered by Roman Catholic forces. The Interim was an agreement supported by Philip Melanchthon and others, requiring Lutherans, under pain of persecution, to resume Roman Catholic practices - including some ceremonies, like fast days and feast days, that really were "adiaphora" but that Lutherans had been allowed to set aside in Christian freedom. Article X of the Formula answered the question whether there were such things as "adiaphora" (Yes) and whether the church should submit to these "cases of freedom" being forced upon them (No). In essence, these "cases of freedom" became "cases of confession" as soon as those of another confession put pressure on us to observe them. What in and of itself could be called a "matter of indifference" became, under threat of persecution, a form of legalism and idolatry.

The Lutherans faced similar kinds of pressure from the Calvinist/Reformed. As Bodo Nischan points out in the essay I previously cited, the rite of exorcism in connection with baptism became a point of confession between Lutherans and the Reformed in the 16th century. The Lutherans held to it tenaciously, not because they were obliged to by any divine command - it was, after all, an adiaphoron - but because it had become a mark of Lutheran confession. Lutherans contended that baptismal exorcism was a useful ceremony, both because it symbolized the full extent of original sin (even newborn infants are in need of God's forgiveness) and because it upheld the power of baptism to give regeneration, forgiveness, and justifying faith. Calvinists (who, by the way, did not deny infant baptism) considered baptism a mere symbol of the child's induction into the covenant of the church as a result of its parents' faith. To them, any suggestion that baptism was effective in and of itself reeked of the papacy (in which there was merit in the "working of the work"), and blasphemed against the sovereign, eternal decree of God (which, according to Calvinism, is the sole cause of anybody's salvation).

So, wherever Calvinist divines climbed high enough in a German principality's church-state hierarchy, wherever Calvinist princes inherited the rule of previously Lutheran territories, one of the first changes they always made was to abolish the exorcism. And when Lutherans had the upper hand again, it was the first thing they brought back. The battle went back and forth for the better part of the 16th century, not because Lutherans thought exorcism was essential to baptism, but because it was a vital mark of their confession against the encroaching Reformed doctrine of the sacraments and the Anabaptists' denial of original sin. They fought for it because it was an Adiaphora, and because it made a difference to their mission to present a clear confession of Gospel truth. It was worth going to prison for. It was worth being slandered, maligned, and in some cases banished from their parishes. There was even a case where a butcher brought a carving knife to his daughter's Baptism as an insurance policy, to make sure the local minister didn't omit the exorcism!

How does this Adiaphora principle apply to today's worship debate? For one thing, it implies, as a corollary, the aforementioned "conservative principle of the Reformation": Only those ceremonies which must be changed, either to correct error or to avoid sin, should be changed. Where is the burden of proof? It goes back to my pastor's question: "What's wrong with the liturgy we are currently using?" This question must be answered before we take the next step!

But also, more directly to the point of Formula Article X, adiaphora that some insist must be changed, or pressure us to change, because of their misguided beliefs and misplaced priorities, must be retained as a mark of confession. Otherwise we risk dealing recklessly with the hearts and souls of church members who are attached to the established worship forms. We risk stumbling into legalism as we place our perceived need to change our worship form ahead of God's Word, Christian liberty, and love for our neighbor. We risk falling into idolatry as we grope our way into unknown territory, by blindly trusting that this new worship form will solve our problems and revive our church - and by putting the prospect of gaining unknown members from other religious backgrounds ahead of the process of making disciples and teaching them all things in Christ.

And finally, - though the specifics must wait for another chapter - the question of whether we should adopt contemporary worship is not a matter of style. Those in favor of it repeatedly come back to that concept (that it's only a matter of style) like a dog goes back to its bone. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is a matter of doctrine. Contemporary worship is part of a bigger package called the Church Growth Movement, a package with its own doctrinal commitments that are at odds with our Lutheran confession. Those doctrines, typically a blend of contemporary American neo-Evangelicalism and the heterodox 1960s "Jesus Movement," are inextricably woven into contemporary worship, like an essential ingredient in a recipe. Once we drink from that bubbling cauldron, the Church Growth Movement's doctrinal recipe will become a part of us. Because that does raise a concern for the health and survival of our Lutheran confession, the Adiaphora question does apply. Not only must we ask, "What's so wrong with our liturgy that we must change it?" But we must also ask, "Dare we set aside the adiaphora of our Lutheran worship heritage? Dare we exchange it for this distinctly different heritage, which breathes a different spirit and makes a different confession? If Lutheranism teaches God's Word in its truth and purity, can we abandon that confession without sin?"

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