An Introduction to our Divine Service

Our Order of Service is not unique to us Lutherans. Martin Luther did not break away from the universal Christian Church, but rather, he recalled the Church to Her original doctrine and practice. The Church still existed, but She had become corrupt through false teachings. It was Luther’s intention to keep everything (the order of service, the furnishings, the music, vestments, candles) as long as they were not contrary to the Word of God. A manufacturer may put out an automobile with a faulty radiator, but one does not throw out the entire car for that reason – one replaces the radiator.

We use an altar, crucifix, vestments, candles, rites, ceremonies. These things are not the possession of any denomination. They belong to all Christendom, for they were handed down through the ages.  In the order that they appear in our Divine Service, here is when they became component parts of the liturgy.  Remember in all cases, they were in use before this time.  This is when they became “official.” Introit – 5th century; Kyrie – 6th century; Gloria in Excelsis – 5th century; Creed – 11th century; Preface – 3rd century.  Sanctus – 1st century; Pax Domini – 4th century; Agnus Dei – 7th century (Rev. David Kind presentation “The Shape of the Liturgy”, July 2010, Nashville, TN).

Although the “father” of the Lutheran church, Martin Luther, argued that ceremony can be used in a godly way and that we can’t in fact live without ceremonies in the church (AE, 49, 55-56), many Lutheran churches have discarded the liturgy.  While Lutherans have never insisted that there is only one divine order of service, they have insisted that how you worship shows what you really believe. This outlook goes back to the first four centuries of the Christian Church’s existence.  “Every congregation declared what it stood for in its liturgies, its selections of lection [Bible readings], and in its prayers and hymns” (Elert, Eucharistic and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, 49).

We are confessing something by using the same order of service that has been used by Lutherans since 1888.  Those who attack this order as out of date, outmoded, boring, stale, etc. are also saying something. As G. K. Chesterton observed, “There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, anymore than in offering to fight one’s grandmother.  The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers” (What’s Wrong with the World, 33).  Trinity defies both the tyranny that liturgical equals “Catholic” and the superstition that new means better.

On the first point even the first president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, C.F.W. Walther weighed in.  He said, “It is a pity and dreadful cowardice when one sacrifices the good ancient church customs to please the deluded American sects, lest they accuse us of being papistic [i.e. Catholic]” (Essays for the Church, I, 197).  On the second point, Plato weighs in.  He warns of the State praising ‘new songs’ not knowing that they are new kinds of song.  He said, “For any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited….When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them” (Republic, 203).  G. K. Chesterton makes the same point only specifically in reference to the church.  “Those who leave the tradition of truth do not escape into something which we call Freedom.  They only escape into something else which we call Fashion” (Collected Works, III, 388).

The monumental work, The Oxford History of Christian Worship, has this to say about our Lutheran tradition of worship in the United States: “In the United States, Lutherans of varied ethnic origin and theological bent had since 1888 agreed on a ‘Common Service’” (729).  This came unraveled in the 80s, and now there are virtually as many different orders of service as there are Lutheran churches.  And what we have is people who are like a character from a John Updike novel who “misses the familiar Lutheran liturgy, scratched into his heart like a weathered inscription” (Rabbit, Run, 197).  Actually if historian Will Durant it right, we have something more.  He puts this critique of Voltaire in the mouth of Pope Benedict XIV: “Tradition is to the group what memory is to the individual, and just as the sapping of memory may bring insanity, so a sudden break with tradition may plunge a whole nation into madness, like France in revolution” (The Age of Voltaire, 788).  Attend a church that prides itself in contemporary, blended, praise, or cutting edge worship and you will see the “madness” of polka, country, or blue grass Communion services; of pastors strutting around the chancel as if they owned the place; of people being applauded for their performance.  They will defend all this in the name of enculturation.  As one of my members pointed out, what contemporary worship is really engaged in is de-culturation.

From the very beginning of the Lutheran Church as a distinct fellowship, we have warned of this.  Our Apology of the Augsburg Confession says why we intend on keeping the “old traditions”: “But we cheerfully maintain the old traditions (as, the three high festivals, the observance of Sunday, and the like) made in the Church for the sake of usefulness and tranquility; (XV, 38).  In a later article we assert “that with the greatest zeal we maintain the dignity of the Mass and show its true use” (XXVI, 99).

A word about our Divine Service in general.  We are with Plato when it comes to hymn singing.  He believed it was a fact without need of substantiation that “melody and rhythm will depend upon the word” (Republic, 156).  Two Baptists, in writing about the hymns produced by the Reformation, say, “The great Reformation chorales were meant not to create a mood, but to convey a message” (The Gift of Music, 35).  In other words, even when the sermon is bad there is still a message in our Divine Service.  In a more serious vein, we should remember what 19th century poet Matthew Arnold said, “- such a price/ The Gods exact for song:/ To become what we sing” (Lines 232-234).  Perhaps you have noticed what this biographer of Douglas MacArthur did: “In times of social upheaval dazed populations turn to the irrational, the bizarre, the macabre.  Laws of social gravity are suspended.  People take up wild crazes, behave like freaks, laugh at horror, weep at wit.  One of the surest signs of this psychedelic mood is popular music.  Nonsense songs catch on, perhaps because sensible lyrics mock a demented world.  They were found in Russia on the eve of the October Revolution, and in Weimar, Berlin.  The British played “The World Turned Upside Down” at Yorktown, in the Depression and WWII Americans sang “The Music goes Round and Round,” “Three Itty fishes,” “Hut Sut Song,” and Mairzy Doats.”  Tokyo Rose crooned to the tune of London Bridge “Hello, hello, are you there?  Are you there, are you there? Hello, hello, are you there? Ah that is so” (William Manchester, American Caesar, 488-489)!

Not only are our hymns “old school” so is our chanting.  We preserve the Gregorian or plainchant.  We don’t do this simply because it is old.  As The Oxford History of Christian Worship observes. Plainchant is a more intelligible rendition of texts than polyphony and more acoustically pleasing (723).  Or as a Catholic writer has observed, “Gregorian chant is music that is strictly wedded to language” (Mosebach, The Heresy of Formlessness, 16).  Of course many churches, including the Catholic, have gone away from it for something more up to date.  “What the bishops forgot was that this music had sounded strange even to the ears of Charlemagne and Thomas Aquinas, Monteverdi and Haydn; it is at least as remote from their contemporary life as it is from ours” (Ibid. 16).  This Catholic writer’s view is supported by Pierre Riche who was professor of the history of the Middle Ages at the University of Paris when he wrote the 1973 work Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne. He observed, “We can be sure the people accustomed to the more abrupt rhythms of profane music were not easily seduced by the monodic purity of Gregorian chant” (236). Alfred Edersheim dates the use of Gregorian tones to the Temple itself saying, “There is no reason to doubt that in so-called Gregorian tones we have also preserved to us a close approximation to the ancient hymnody of the Temple, though certainly not without considerable alterations” (The Temple, 81).

Trinity Lutheran Church has not been “seduced” by sounds but by the words of the Gospel.  Our Divine Service is in service to those words and even more so to the Word made Flesh.


Rev. Paul R. Harris

October 25, 2011





About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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