Ever wonder why we Lutherans use the form of worship we do? In this series we examine the depth and meaning of the various elements of our worship service, beginning with the history of Christian worship itself.
In the Old Testament God laid out explicit instructions for worship. Specific sacrifices were to be offered at specific times and in specific ways. The priests were to be careful to carry out these instructions in every detail. All of this served the purpose of teaching the holiness of God and the sinfulness of the people; they could not approach Him except with the blood of sacrifices that He had instituted, sacrifices that pointed to the blood of the Lamb of God that would take away the sin of the world.
With Christ’s fulfillment of all that was pictured in the detailed Old Testament system of sacrifices, we no longer are bound by a system of rules for worship. Instead of comprehensive instructions, the New Testament gives us principles to follow: worship should be orderly, dignified, and—above all—edifying (1 Corinthians 14:40; Romans 14:19; 15:2).
These were the principles that guided the Lutheran reformers in the sixteenth century as they examined the worship practices of their day and set about to reform them in the light of God’s Word. This was done through the new Church Orders that were produced in Luther’s time to give the churches in the Lutheran lands forms of worship that were edifying and uplifting.
The need for these Church Orders became evident after the Diet of Spires (1526), at which the German princes that accepted the teachings of the Reformation gained the right to govern the churches within their lands. The churches needed guidance now that they were no longer connected with the Roman Catholic Church. They weren’t getting it from the bishops, many of whom were still loyal to Rome. It was the Lutheran princes who took the lead and asked Lutheran theologians to draw up the Church Orders. These included statements of doctrine, rules governing organization and administration of churches and schools and other matters, as well as detailed directions for worship. Between 1523 and 1555, many such Orders were produced, but they differed mostly in minor matters, owing largely to the influence of Luther.
The emphasis in these Church Orders was on worship that would be truly edifying to the participants. Doctrinal purity was the main consideration. The services needed to be cleansed of all ideas that attending worship was a deed that earned God’s favor. The lay people needed to be active participants in worship, not just observers. The service needed to be in the language of the people.
But the purpose of the Orders was not to enforce uniformity everywhere. Latin was still permitted in places where there were Latin schools. Orders of service for village churches were simpler and entirely in German.
Luther wanted to retain what was good in the liturgy rather than make a complete break with the past. “The Lutheran Reformation was not a radical revolt. It was a conservative reform.” (Luther Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy) “We take the middle path,” Luther wrote in his 1525 tract, Against the Heavenly Prophets, neither holding onto anything merely to retain the traditions of the past nor throwing out good things just because they could be identified with Rome.
Luther also recognized music, art, and architecture as gifts of God that could be and should be used to glorify God. There should be beauty in Christian worship.
The God-given wisdom of Luther and others in their approach to reforming the liturgy has been a great blessing to Lutherans down through the centuries following the Reformation. They followed the guidance of the New Testament and passed down to us forms of worship that are orderly, dignified, and beautiful, and that lead us in confessing our sins and rejoicing in the forgiveness and life that we have in Jesus Christ.