An Open Letter to the Rev. Terry Forke, Montana District President, By Klemet Preus

Dear Brother Forke,

Allow me first to apologize for not having responded earlier to your thoughtful letter which was posted on the Brothers of John the Steadfast site on November 14. I was in the Philippines from November 12 until the 26 and am just now catching up with my parish work.

My tardiness of response has allowed others to “jump in line” ahead of me in response to your letter. Consequently, I find myself responding to the responses as well.

As to the meaning of the word “Liturgy;” I would note that the word has more than one meaning. I asked the three laymen of my congregation who accompanied me to the Philippines what they thought when they heard the word liturgy. Each responded that it meant the “order of service” used on Sunday morning as in the statement, “Which liturgy are we going to follow today.” So their understanding conforms closely to yours, “A man-made order for the public service of God to men, through the Word and Sacraments.”  A pastor with me answered more technically that it meant the service which the pastor rendered. This definition corresponds more closely to the way in which I defined the word in my book, “The Fire and the Staff” (a must read from CPH) where I say:

The Liturgy

There are thousands of books on worship and the Liturgy. Read them all and you will still be uninformed. The fundamental question regarding the liturgy is this: What is its purpose? The purpose of the liturgy is the same as the purpose of hymns and sermons. It is to teach or to show us Jesus. Of course, the liturgy moves, transforms, edifies, illuminates and inspires God’s people; but only if it teaches and shows Jesus.

What is the liturgy? The word comes from the Greek word “leiturgia” which means service. Actually the word is a bit more precise. In ancient literature the wealthy had to render a liturgy or “a direct discharge of specific services to the body politic.” [1] The liturgy was a kind of tax which benefited others. By New Testament times it had come to refer to the service that a priest would render in the temple with the people as beneficiaries. Zechariah was doing the liturgy (ceremonies) on behalf of the people when, in Luke 1, he saw the angel Gabriel. (Luke 1:23) It is a word used to refer to helping others, not in a vague sense but through the ceremonies of the church such as the offering. Paul refers to the contribution or service (liturgy) of the Christians in Philippi (2:30) when he says that Epaphroditus almost died making up for the “help (literally ‘liturgy’) which you could not give me.” The word often refers to ceremonies such as in Hebrews 9:21 where it says that Jesus purified with his blood everything in the tabernacle used in its ceremonies (literally “liturgies”). The word liturgy, then, is a Bible word which refers to religious ceremonies and services rendered by God through His people to His people. A church which says that it is not a liturgical church is, in fact, saying that it is not a Bible church.

Just as there is an ambiguity connected to the words “service” and “worship” so a similar ambiguity exists with the word “liturgy.” Are the ceremonies and services of the liturgy directed from us to God, or are these the services and ceremonies of God to us? The answer is really quite brilliant.

Liturgy is directed from God to us through us. In liturgy the people of God must be the beneficiaries. That’s what the word means. God has given to us the gifts of His Gospel and Sacrament which are distributed through ceremonies or rituals. Again, that’s what the word, “liturgy” means. The ceremonies of the historic Christian Liturgy are really little more than Bible verses. But they are verses which were not thrown together randomly as if some old Monks were throwing darts at scrolls one day back in the dark ages. In fact, the liturgy was developed long before the “dark ages.”….

In the liturgy, then, we are serving each other with the gifts of God. Whether the service is a song, a prayer, an offering, a canticle, a creed, even a sermon it is God serving us through the ceremonies performed by us. Every church has ceremonies. To the extent that these ceremonies are carriers of God’s gifts they are Divine Liturgy. But if the worship service is viewed as us serving God then it ceases to be liturgy (pp. 164-166).

As I read these words five or so years after I wrote them I would concede that I might say things a bit more succinctly now but I think they are still helpful and they indicate my understanding of the word.

But the fact that the laymen of my congregation all seemed to accept your understanding of the word indicates, at least to me, that we are in danger of falling into a type of semantic trap here. Language does change and words take on new meanings. It seems unwise to me for us to argue too much on definitions and instead acknowledge that words can have more than one meaning. The dictionary I consulted indicates precisely this.

I would suggest that in our discussion we recognize that the word has two meanings and maybe more. The confessions acknowledge that the word Gospel “is not used in a single sense in Holy Scripture” (FC Ep V 6) and that the word repentance is also “not used in a single sense in Scripture” (FC SD V 7). The use of the word Leiturgia is used with different nuances in the Bible where its usage is rather sparse.

This acknowledgment would allow us all to be correct as far as definitions are concerned (something I always enjoy being) and also would allow us to further the discussion more charitably than has always been the case. Let’s stipulate one definition and proceed. Let’s then stipulate the other and proceed there. A statement such as “We must do the liturgy at the risk of faithlessness” is either hopeless legalism or incontrovertibly true depending on your definition of liturgy. So is the sentence “It is a matter of freedom whether or not we do the liturgy.” In each case we should be painstakingly slow to make accusations.

There is more to be said about these matters and I will have further responses to your thoughts. We need to talk further about Ap XXIV. We need to talk about Adiaphora and the application of FC article X to today’s situation. We need to talk about the manner in which godly change is effected in the church. But this can do for now.

[1] Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 1964) Volume IV p. 216.


An Open Letter to the Rev. Terry Forke, Montana District President, By Klemet Preus — 10 Comments

  1. I don’t know what the big deal is. Jesus First says ‘The Worship Wars are over.” That settles it for me.

  2. Johannes, the words of John Paul Jones are ringing in my ears….
    “I have not yet begun to fight”. They told him it was over too!

  3. Could someone please help a layman out?

    Depending on how one defines mass, does Ap XXIV forbid contemporary worship?

    I prefer liturgical worship, but am not educated well enough to say that contemporary worship goes against Scripture or the Book of Concord.

  4. “The worship wars are over” –usFirst, 2009

    “You can leave. We won!” — an usFirst member, 2001

    usFirst does not determine Truth for me. Scripture and the Confessions do. –Helen

  5. “Contemporary” worship if/when it means songs without substance; omission of the Lord’s Prayer; “re writing” the Creeds or omitting them; sermons without reference to sin or the atonement; sacraments relegated to a weekday evening, so as not to “offend seekers” on Sunday morning; music that appeals to the Saturday night viscera instead of raising one’s thoughts heavenward, [any or all of the above] cannot provide God’s service to the pewsitter.

    Your “contemporary” worship is “not that bad”?

    Why don’t you want worship that is good?

  6. Problem with so-called “contemporary worship” is that it’s 60’s and 70’s worship for the most part. I’m not sure we could endure more than a couple minutes of genuine contemporary worship.
    CW tries to differentiate itself from liturgical worship by tossing out first the melodies of liturgy, such as they are, then the texts themselves. Of course, the hymns have to go, except for a few standards, and next thing you know, the creed gets re-engineered. But, as I said above, the songs are from 30 years ago mostly.
    Oh yes, I almost forgot–as time goes by, the decibels have to increase almost exponentially. That is a given. Loud is where it’s at.


  7. We’re reading The Screwtape Letters in adult Bible class currently.
    In today’s lesson, Screwtape (a middle range devil, if you haven’t met him) attributes “music and silence” to the heavenly sphere (and therefore he can’t stand either one).

    He prefers noise, the louder the better, and says it is the incessant atmosphere and production of Hell.


  8. Sometimes the organ makes a lot of noise…especially when there are trumpets and choirs too. Incessant atmosphere.

  9. Pastor Preuss,
    I too have been absent for a time. A little COP, a little BRTFSSG, and a lengthy hunting trip which serves as an antidote to the previous two.

    First, let’s deal with the word, “liturgy.” I agree that it is used in various ways in the vain attempt to be correct. (Funny thing, I too like to be correct.) That is why I proposed a definition to keep our discussion on track. The intent of my definition was to recognize the historical roots of the word, (a common or public service), while at the same time making it recognizable to those who use it regularly.
    1. Since the Scripture and the Confessions do not prescribe a form of liturgy, (my definition) I think it is appropriate to admit that all liturgies are manmade.
    2. Since the Scripture, in the context of worship, enjoins us to do all things in order it is appropriate to acknowledge that there should be order to this service. (Something that appears to be lacking in what passes for “worship” in many places.)
    3. Since we are talking about what takes place in the context of the congregation I acknowledge that this is a public, and not prescribing private devotionals.
    4. Since God is always the giver and we are always the receiver it is essential that we acknowledge the service rendered by the use of a liturgy as God’s service to us. This little detail, if admitted by all would help carry the conversation past many disagreements. I am afraid that a large part of the LCMS would be unwilling to confess this. (I fully aware of the argument that we respond to the service of God with prayer and praise. This too we receive, but it is not primary.)
    5. Since God has bound us to receive His gifts through the Word and Sacraments it is fitting to confess that the liturgy is also bound to His means of grace for the sake of its purpose, that is proclaiming the Gospel.

    Secondly, the “adiaphora.” I would like to spend some time talking about this, but first let me explain why I wrote the Theses the way I did. I often hear something to the effect, “Worship is adiaphora.” That makes me crazy. Worship is not adiaphora. It is commanded by God. Such a statement betrays a basic misunderstanding of what the Scriptures and Confessions say about worship. I did not want the discussion of worship to get drug in that direction. That is why I said the whole discussion will turn on this distinction between worship and liturgy. Despite what others have written about the Theses a brief summary would run something like this: God commands worship and He draws some fairly strict parameters around the freedom He has given us to receive that worship. In my view we can say that worship and liturgy, (in its simplest sense, an order), are commanded. How the liturgy is constructed, (forms, rights and ceremonies) is not commanded. There are parameters, for the sake of the Gospel, that bound how the liturgy may be constructed. These I have tried to outline in Theses II, III, and V.

    Thirdly, the Jesus First comments are abominable. I have not had time to answer them. I hope to get that done this afternoon.

    I will have to let Article XXIV go until another time. I have a five hour drive ahead of me. God bless you. I am not adept at negotiating the halls of the blogs yet so I hope to be able to find your answer because I enjoy the conversation.

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