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Decently and in Order – Towards a Lutheran Theology of Worship

Within the discussion of public worship there are usually two sides when speaking about “styles”:
those who wish to keep traditional structures and those who wish to shake off the shackles of the past. The
latter usually use the reasoning that the modern world cannot identify with all the ritual and restraint of the
past. All this, of course, in the service of evangelism.

The question presents itself whether we have full freedom under the gospel to worship our God in
any way we see fit. The issue of adiaphora, which speaks to those things which are not commanded or
rejected in the Word, is raised in the discussion. Those who bandy this word around are under the
impression that since Scripture does not command a specific form of worship that everything is
permissible. But is it? It is the purpose of this paper to study whether the scriptures do give us as much
freedom as we think we have. And a secondary question will be answered: Are there things that are
inappropriate for Christian, and/or Lutheran worship?

We will base our discussion here on Paul’s treatment of public worship in the congregation at
Corinth. Being an urban, sophisticated, congregation, many of its problems can be found today, and Paul’s
solutions, which are of course God’s solutions, can be used to help us navigate through the many choices
being given to us today.

The 14th chapter of 1 Corinthians deals specifically with the public worship at Corinth. Their
primary problem was the lack of order in the service. Specifically, there were too many people taking it
upon themselves to determine the order. All, of course, quite convinced that they were right and had the
answers for what was needed to worship in a God-pleasing way. This worship chaos showed itself in the
disorderly manifestations of tongues, prophesying, interpretation of tongues.

After a discussion on the use of tongues in the service, concluding finally “But in the church I
would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (v.19)
Paul moves to his major point about the whys and wherefores of public worship, “let all things be done for
edification” (v.26) Paul’s, and the Holy Spirit’s, principle is that how the public worship is done is to be a
benefit of the Church, rather than the satisfying and glorifying of the individual. Public worship is not about
meeting the standards of individual taste. And in connection to our opening remarks as to whether we have
complete freedom in our worship forms, this section is full of commands on how this is to be done.

The second point that Paul makes in view of all the confusion at Corinth is in verse 33 where he
says, “God is not the author of confusion but of peace.” Therefore any form of worship that creates
confusion and a chaotic atmosphere must be judged as not conforming to Scripture. Satan is the author of
confusion, because his intentions are to take our attention away from the peace which God gives us through
His means of grace and put it somewhere else.

Finally Paul finishes our section with these words, “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or
spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord.”
(v.37) The conclusion that presents itself is that if all that Paul says in this chapter, especially about how
public worship is to be done, is to be equated with the authority of God then there are things that are not
appropriate to worshipping the One True God. As a result it is our duty to make sure that our choices fall
within this criteria if we wish to please God with our worship. Paul then closes this chapter with the
following command: Let all things be done decently and in order. (v.40) If there is any underlying
principle on how we are to order our public worship this is it.
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A. Decently

This comes from the Greek word euschymonos. It’s classical usage can be summed up from
Plato’s Republic (3, 400) where, in a discussion of beauty and form, specifically concerning the art of
discourse and music, he places this word among the four desired characteristics:

1. fine speaking (eulogia)


2. harmony (euharmostia)
3. good deportment (euschymovos)
4. symmetry (eurhythmia)

Our Greek dictionaries form an impression in their treatment of this word in its various forms:
behave with dignity, or decorum; of good bearing, graceful, elegant, becoming; in a seemly manner; charm,
external beauty, modesty, respectable. Our biblical translators translate this family of words with: honestly
(KJV), decently (NIV), properly (NKJV) (Rom. 13:13); respectfully (NIV), (1 Thess. 4:12); comeliness
(KJV), modesty (NIV, NKJV) (1 Cor. 12:23); honorable [KJV], prominent [NIV, NKJV] (Mk. 15:43; Acts
17:12); high standing [NIV] (Acts 13:50); comely [KJV], live in a right way [NIV], proper [NKJV] (1 Cor.
7:35); presentable [NIV, NKJV] (1 Cor. 12:24); fitting [NIV] (1 Cor. 14:40). Ultimately, the impression is
made that this characteristic would draw people, be attractive to them, because of its excellent quality. This
would not just be a matter of superficial external beauty, but there would be substance to it. It’s beauty
would draw people to it in order that its deeper beauty might be experienced. The Bible is no stranger to the
idea of connecting beauty with God’s Word, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who
brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings good tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Is. 52:7, NKJV)

It should also be obvious, as it was to Plato, that there is a moral aspect at play here too as well.
Plato saw the beauty of form being a result of the moral life. This reminds us of the idiomatic phrase: true
beauty is more than skin deep. A woman may be a 10 on the outside but a 0 as to character, completely
negating the external beauty as a result. The example of a beautiful woman who cusses like a truck driver
rather overturns the beautiful exterior (unless of course you are attracted to women like that). Also our
colloquial use of the word shows this ethical understanding be to true as well. The sentence “he treated me
decently” implies ethical standards. The judgment of the “decent” treatment is based on an understood
standard of behavior. In the context of our discussion we must ask ourselves here: whose standards? There
is only two choices: God’s or men. Does our worship center on men-pleasing, or God-pleasing?

Who determines what is appropriate for the worship of God, the Pastor, laymen, Synodical
Hymnal committee? If our worship is to be God-pleasing then we do not have the freedom to do anything
we want but rather that which pleases God.

The Reformed, by their own definitions, are sure of their understanding of Biblical truth not by the
objective standard of the Word, but because they “know” it, i.e., they feel it in their hearts. The internal
witness of their reason and emotions is what ultimately decides what they will believe, because they believe
that the Holy Spirit works without means, even the Bible. The content of their faith becomes a result of
intuition or the process of reason rather than clear statements of Scripture. If clear statements of Scripture
contradict their emotions or reason they simply reinterpret the passage to fit their preconceived ideas. For
example, the Reformed reject the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Why? Because it interferes
with the internal witness of reason, in other words, if it doesn’t make sense to my reason, obey the laws of
the physical world, or the rules of logic, then it can’t be true, even if the Bible does say “is.”

For worship to be decent, and truly attractive, it must communicate God’s Word correctly and
conform to His will. God cannot be praised with false doctrine. Nor can He be served with misguided
intentions. Therefore when it comes to choosing hymns for the service their theological content must be the
first criterion to be checked to make the correct choice as to whether they are appropriate to the worship of
the One True God. The spiritual ideas expressed in hymns are not theologically neutral. Lutheran hymns
will be expected to express Lutheran theology. By the same token, Reformed hymns will be expected to
express Reformed theology. If we sing hymns compose by the Wesley brothers we should expect to express
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spiritual emphases peculiar to Wesleyan theology. When it comes to picking God-pleasing hymns the tune
is secondary, although that is not say that it is unimportant, since the art of hymn writing works on making
the hymn easy to sing by the majority of people. But the point should be made that we shouldn’t pick
hymns just because the people like to sing them. The popular Gospel hymns coming out of the Reformed
confession (i.e., What a Friend We Have in Jesus, How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace, In the Garden,
etc.) are riddled with bad theology and do not belong in Lutheran services.

Hymns that concentrate especially on emotional responses both in wording and style must be
rejected. We include: 1. Hymns that emphasize rhythm or body-based music over spiritual truth as a means
to produce a “spiritual” effect. The physiological effect of repeated rhythmic patterns on the body is
obvious to anyone who examines their own responses to music with a good strong beat. The problem here
is that the beat takes over the mind and body to such a degree that the words, for the most part, become
irrelevant. The listener of this type of music experiences a disconnect of the mind because of the way the
brain processes sound. Ask any teenager about what the song they like so much is saying and most of them
won’t be able to tell you. To them it’s all about how the music makes their body feel. That is what is
attracting them to the song, not so much the ideas that are being communicated. If the point of public
worship is about communicating theological ideas (and this may be part of our confusion on the issue) then
any form of music which reduces the ideas being communicated to almost zero significance because of its
effect on the human body, must be given a good deal of scrutiny as to whether it is appropriate for the
public worship of the one true God. There may be the argument made that in private this kind of music may
be listened to without problems, but the same difficulty still remains even in a private setting: the meaning
of the words is ignored in favor of the sonic characteristics of the music. This is one of the arguments
against so-called Christian rock, and Christian Contemporary Music (CCM). What happens to the spiritual
truths (and most of these are suspect anyway since this type of music is made mainly by Arminian and
Pentecostal lay Christians with a very tenuous grip on theological truths) being expressed in the musical
context of loud, beat-driven rock music. Paul’s argument against the emphasis of the standards of the
fleshly worldview might be taken into account here as well. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be
transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and
perfect will of God.” (Rom.12:2; NKJV)

2. Trance music. This type of hymn is evidenced by the repeating of the same phrase over and
over again. It has been made akin to prayer but there is a deeper spiritual problem here. It is the practice of
eastern mystical traditions to use what is called a mantra, a word-sound that is repeated over and over again
by the practitioner in order to produce a trance-like state. In the eastern tradition they think they are making
contact with the divinity within. This physiological state, which has been scientifically studied and
authenticated as producing a very real change in perception, has been interpreted by the eastern mystical
tradition as a method for touching God. For a Christian, unaware because of their own ignorance and the
deception of the devil, this can become a very strong deception and delusion since it is so personal. The
comment is often made that the one who has the experience knows that it is real because they’ve
experienced it. The problem is that this kind of thinking becomes a matter of circular reasoning where there
is no objective criticism allowed to evaluate the experience. And usually when the Scriptural truths are
brought into the mix concerning our inability to experience God outside of the means of grace it is usually
the truth that is rejected in favor of the experience. The truth concerning these kinds of experiences is that
just because it is real does not mean it is true. The Bible tells us that the devil can masquerade as an angel
of light (2 Cor. 11:14). The only way we can tell whether the angel comes from God or not is whether what
the angel says conforms to God’s truth as revealed in His Word. That is the only way we can be sure
whether we are dealing with the devil or God. The experience itself is not capable of giving us this kind of
information. That is why we use the Word of God to judge all of our ideas and actions. This is what it
means to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. It is He who judges all aspects of our lives, including
our emotional life. Otherwise we make the experience equal to God and then we have broken the first
Commandment. It is the only objective standard of God’s revealed Word that we can use to make sure we
are dealing with His truth. The only way we can experience God in this life with any certainty is through
the operation of the Office of the Keys. Making conclusions about religious truth outside of this method
puts us in danger of being deceived by the devil and being damned as a result.

3. The way a hymn is harmonized also fits into our discussion since harmony also can be
intentionally used to elicit emotion for its own sake. Beautiful harmonies that support the melody are not
being rejected here but rather the situation where the emotional response is the be all and end all of the
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hymn and harmony is used simply as a method of manipulation. For many within the Reformed confession
this is the sole purpose of their worship services. They are only interested in the emotional response
because it is their understanding that the emotions are the indicators that the Holy Spirit is present in the act
of worship. If there is no emotion there is no certainty of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Lutheran
point of view is quite different. We believe that the Word of God is powerful and effective and produces
the effect it intends whether we “feel” anything or not. The baby we baptize has been brought to faith
regardless of whether there are cries or coos. It is God’s Word which brings about the result of faith and
forgiveness of sins. It doesn’t matter that we cannot taste blood or flesh when we eat and drink at the
Lord’s Supper. God’s Word has put it there and it tells us He is there giving us this blessing for the
forgiveness of our sins. The Word of God declares it so and we believe it even though we aren’t aware of
its results by means of our senses. The error here is one that is based on the Reformed rejection of the
power of the Word and the operation of the Holy Spirit through it. For the Reformed the
Holy Spirit needs and uses no instrument. They expect Him to work without means and so they are
dependent on what they consider the evidence of the Spirit’s actions for their certainty that He has been
present. A hymnody that depends on the evidences of emotions will serve its own purpose by creating
hymns that will elicit these very emotions. But the error still remains that they reject the power of the Word
of God to bring about its intended blessings. Since they do not believe that the Scriptures are a point of
contact with the power of God they must develop other ways of bringing this effect about. The question
thus presents itself to those of us who wish to borrow the hymnody of the Reformed to use in Lutheran
worship services: If we use or copy their hymnody are we not also adopting their theological errors as well?
The Pentecostal movement within and outside of Lutheranism has fallen into this demonic trap with
disastrous results on congregations. Emotions become primary, theology secondary.

The question raised is: what is the purpose of worship? For Lutherans it is based on Scripture, to
“pray, praise, give thanks” (Small Cat., 2nd Commandment) in response to the Gospel. The means of grace
must be present. Those denominations that do not discern the proper distinction of Law and Gospel will be
wrong in their worship practices as well. Bad theology will result in bad practice. If they do not understand
the function of the means of grace, their understanding of the purpose of worship will certainly be wrong as
well. There should be a connection to our theology in our worship styles and forms.

Can we “worship like a Baptist, believe like a Lutheran”? There are some who would answer in
the affirmative. This writer would not. We really can’t do this and remain pure Lutherans. There are
substantive differences in our theologies. The Formula of Concord deals with our theological
disagreements with the Reformed, especially on the issues of free will, Christology, the Lord’s Supper, and
election, which are central to a Lutheran understanding about what is going on in our public worship
services. Lutherans worship the way they do because of what they believe. We must see this clearly before
we can have any kind of internal reformation within Lutheranism today.

Styles of worship are just as important as the content of hymns. Here also the defining
characteristics of Lutheran theology come into play. Our specific theological point of view informs our
practice. When it came time to revise the liturgy for the Lutheran church Martin Luther removed only that
which was contrary to Scripture, leaving the remaining medieval liturgy intact, including the mass
vestments. It was his wishing to remain within the tradition of Western Christianity, that Lutheranism was
simply a return to and a continuation of the Christian Church before the Roman errors, which was his
intention. He was never intending to start a new denomination but rather to purify the one that already
existed. Therefore he let the purified liturgical forms of the Western Church stand. The Reformed, on the
other hand, saw themselves as something completely new, a complete break from the forms and theology
of the Roman Catholic Church. They saw themselves as the true reformers, and so the truly “Reformed,”
believing that Luther simply had not gone far enough in his revising process. Thus the traditional style of
worship within Lutheranism today has more in common with Roman Catholicism as to form than with the
Reformed. This is because we see ourselves, as Luther did, as purified Catholics rather than something
completely new. Regardless of their errors, the worship of the Roman Catholicism is centered on the
administration of the means of grace to God’s people. This the Lutherans agree with regardless of how we
disagree with the understanding of how they work. Public worship is about God coming to us to give us
His gifts.

The issue this writer has with the subject of style is answered in the question that should be asked
more often than it is: Does the style of worship center on the One worshipped or on the worshipper? Is it
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about “giving them what they want” to pack them in and keep them happy, or is it to present the
opportunity to dispense the means of grace? Is it about coming into the presence of God, with all that
signifies, or creating a party atmosphere where the worshipper can enjoy himself and “feel special.” Is it
about quite mediation or the buzz of adrenaline? Is it about entertainment or glorifying God? While it is
true that there are no prescribed forms for liturgy in the Scriptures, this does not at the same time mean we
can do anything we want in this area. The issue of decency and appropriateness in the sense of being God-
pleasing and theologically correct are still in play. One of the understood meanings of the Greek word is
“dignity” and “decorum.” So much for the clown-suited pastor in the pulpit and the hootenanny atmosphere
of the revival, and the din of the Praise Band. If we are coming into the presence of God in the worship
service this writer believes that this should influence our comportment in the service. This is a sensitivity
that has been lost in the last fifty years or so as our culture has been less and less formal. Gone are the days
of suits and ties, dresses and hats, of special “Sunday clothes.” In this day of cut off shorts, Hawaiian shirts,
and sandals this writer believes we could do with a bit more decorum. Does it show God His due respect
when our services are becoming so relaxed that we treat Jesus with the familiarity of the good buddy?
where some worship spaces have been converted to the coffee lounge with pews replaced by couches and
easy chairs. While it is true that the Bible calls Jesus our “friend” we ought not forget that He is still our
God as well and deserves some respect in the way we come into His house. We are coming into God’s
presence to be given the opportunity to repent and to receive His gift of the forgiveness of sins. If heaven
and earth meet at the altar there should be a corresponding behavior connected to that truth. Or is public
worship just another opportunity for physiological and psychological manipulation and the motivational
speech? Do we really think that God is actually present in our services or not? If He is, are we acting like
it? This writer is not advocating superstitious fear, but righteous awe. After all, Moses was asked to remove
his sandals because in God’s presence the very dirt had become holy ground. God’s presence does that to a
place.

B. In Order

In our text Paul combines the above expectation of morality and beauty with the very practical
concept of orderliness. This comes from the Greek word taxin. Classically it is used to describe the
arrangement of armies into their correct rankings in a battle array, everything in its place according to its
proper function. If the Greeks were good at anything they were good at the arrangement of men into
fighting arrays. The understanding that there was a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it is implicit in
the meaning of this word. The New Testament continues this understanding: speaking of the order of
priests in Zechariah’s service at the temple (Lk. 1:8) fulfilling their assigned duties for the efficient
operation of the temple; Paul praises the Colossians in their orderly worship which was combined with
their steadfastness of faith (Col.2:5); the book of Hebrews brings forth the secondary meaning of the word
but still with it’s underlying meaning intact, referring to the order of Melchizedek, that is, the order being
the class of those who fulfill a specific task (Heb. 5:6,10; 6:20; 7:11,17,21). All this implies two things: that
there is an expectation of the correct ordering of things, and that there is a correct way to do it and an
incorrect way to do it. Following this line of reasoning we are then again not free to do anything we want in
the worship service. There are divine standards and principles to be taken into consideration when ordering
our public worship even if there are no explicit forms.

When transferred to worship forms what we’re talking about here is the ordering of priorities.
How we order our priorities will determine if our worship is God-pleasing.

This brings to mind the account of Mary and Martha (Lk.10). The story is familiar but I will repeat
it here in summary. Mary and Martha were sisters who lived in Bethany with their brother Lazarus, of
resurrection fame. It was Martha who had invited Jesus into their home. While He was there Martha busied
herself preparing the meal, while her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to His teaching. In her
frustration Martha asked Jesus to tell her sister to get up and help her with all the work. Jesus’ answer to
her is important if we are to get our priorities for worship correct: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and
troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be
taken away from her.” (Lk.10:41,42)

When studying the activities of the two women we see that as far as Jesus was concerned Mary’s
expression of spiritual devotion in listening to God’s Word to be the one thing needful; Martha, on the
other hand, chose to express her spiritual devotion in activity. These types of persons are surely very
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common around us: those who feel the need to be always active, and those who find it necessary to sit and
meditate. We should not forget that both activities can be God-pleasing, but they have to be done in the
right order. There is a time for work and activity and there is a time for sitting and listening to the Word of
God. Drawing on our military picture of taxin here, it could be disastrous if certain activities were done in
the wrong order during a battle. It could also become a sin in the wrong order when we worship. If God
commands us to sit and listen and we busy ourselves with activity it becomes a rebellion against God’s
will, a sin. And God cannot be served by sin. God wants us to sit quiet so He can work on us, give us His
gifts.

When congregations and pastors take it upon themselves to devise settings for worship which are
not conducive to sitting and hearing the one thing needful and the receiving of God’s gifts, how can that be
pleasing to God or serving the congregation? The idea of order implies that there is a right way to do things
and a wrong way to do them. The question again presents itself, according to whose standards? How do
congregations find their way through the maze of options and possibilities in these days of Creative
Worship? This author is not suggesting that all forms of modern worship are sinful, but as has been stated
above, their theological foundations need to be better analyzed. If your congregation (or synod) is getting
their worship materials and ideas from Reformed publishing houses don’t be too surprised if the theology
follows it into your pews and pulpits, regardless of the attempts to Lutheranize it. Also if the
presuppositions of what the true purpose of public worship is of those who are developing these worship
materials is wrong, their product will be wrong as well.

The arena of this battle is the delicate balance of Law and Gospel in the worship service. There is
an essential tension between Law and Gospel, which neither Roman Catholicism nor the Reformed
understands correctly. If we get this wrong we do not worship in a decent, God-pleasing way. Both Law
and Gospel are to be present in the liturgy because of their functions. The Law is there to crush us and
convict us so we will run to the cross for the remedy to our guilt. If we set up worship styles and pick
hymns that over emphasize one or the other, or leave out one or the other, we render our worship less
effective because it does not fulfill the will of God. So leaving out the dark and gloomy hymns during Lent
may help keep the congregation happy, but does that do them any good? If the Law prepares us for the
Gospel and helps us appreciate it what benefit does it do the congregation if we leave the Law out of our
preaching and hymns because we’re afraid that someone’s feelings might be hurt? There is no salvation
without repentance. That is the function of the Law, to show us our true condition before God stripped of
our self-deceptions. This will then move us to fear, guilt and despair of our own righteousness. Then the
Gospel is given, the promise of forgiveness and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Any interference
with this balance will rob us of our comfort, no matter how well intentioned we are.

The mission statement of the Church according to Mt.28 is to make disciples by teaching
everything contained in God’s Word, and then baptizing, in other words using the means of grace. The
Lutheran form of public worship is centered on the administration of the means of God’s grace through the
office of the public ministry. We do it this way because the Word tells us to do it this way. Only by
centering our public worship services around the one thing needful, the truth of God’s Word which offers
us the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior can we be certain of our salvation. This is
the gift that our God offers us in public worship, the certainty of our salvation not based on our works, our
emotions, or our intuition, but Christ’s perfect substitutionary atonement revealed in the Word of God. If
our worship is not about the communication of this truth we have turned our congregations into social
clubs.

We really don’t have the freedom to ignore God’s orders on these issues. We are to preach and
teach the whole truth, baptize with water in the name of the Triune God, to consecrate bread and wine with
the words of institution for the purpose of eating and drinking and receiving the forgiveness of sins and the
strengthening of our faith, the representative of Jesus absolving the confessing congregation “in the stead
and by the command.” While it is true that we do have some freedom in how we organize our public
worship, there are things that need to be analyzed closely to make sure that we are conforming to the whole
counsel of God. As Lutherans we have traditional forms that are useful and a result of centuries of
development and improvement that this writer thinks should not be jettisoned so quickly simply to serve
the ephemeral fads and fancies of a generation but ultimately do the worshipper little spiritual good. Simply
put, if we rebel against God’s Word in these issues we lose the gifts of grace connected to them and that is
what all this discussion really comes down to in the end.
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John Gore
Reynolds, IN
October 25, 2008