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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

05 March 2006

Liturgical Differences

Q: Why is the Liturgy of the church celebrated in diverse ways?

A: There are two main historic Liturgies, one growing out of Eastern Europe and Asia, the other in Western Europe and parts of North Africa. Many of the differences are cultural. However, even with the differences, both East and West kept the Lord’s Supper as a central feature of the regular celebration of the Lord Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

Lent at Holy CrossDuring the years, rite and ritual and even Holy Communion sometimes overshadowed another important aspect of the Liturgy, the preaching of the Word. The Reformation returned the sermon to a position of greater prominence than it had seen for centuries in the Western Church. The Lutheran reformers also removed much of what had been added through the years, in order to also highlight the Lord’s Supper as pure gift, having nothing to do with human actions.

While the Liturgy involves a back-and-forth “conversation” between God and man, Lutheran liturgical thinking properly emphasizes the divine aspect. In other words, what God does for us in Word and Sacrament is more important than what we do in response to Him in confession, song, and prayer. Thus, the German term for the Communion service is Gottesdienst, literally “God’s work.” In English-speaking German churches, we often use the congruent term “Divine Service.”

Non-Lutheran reformers, because of theological differences, emphasized or downplayed portions of the Liturgy. Many of them finally abandoned it as “culturally irrelevant”; this continues happening in much of the modern Church Growth Movement. Others thought it untrue to their concept of “primitive” Christianity. While I don’t want to dwell on either topic, a few words on each are appropriate.

First, the Liturgy is and should be separate from whatever culture the Church finds itself in, since a culture is largely the product of sinful human invention. Second, the idea that the ancient Christians had no formal order of service is false. Extremely early documents, some written while many of the disciples may have yet lived, speak of an order that sounds like a simplified version of what is heard and seen in Christian churches around the world to this day. Even the Scriptures, especially the Pauline Epistles, point to order and ritual, much of it seemingly from either the synagogue services or the Passover celebrations of Jewish homes.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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