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.

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