There was a time in the not so distant past when one could step into any Lutheran church in the United States on Sunday morning and know what to expect: the familiar common order of service. Now this is no longer the case. Even within various Lutheran denominations one can no longer expect that the service will be the same from congregation to congregation. This is true even within the confessional and conservative synods. It is especially true in home mission congregations.
A memorial was brought before the ELS at convention in 2010 urging our Board for Home Missions to bear in mind the by-law regarding worship in the ELS Constitution and it application for mission congregations. Three reasons were given for the memorial: “1) The synod from its earliest days sought unity of liturgical form by its member congregations; 2) Liturgical forms are to be orthodox; 3) There is confusion regarding the meaning and application of Bylaw Chapter I of the 1986 E.L.S. Constitution” (2010 Synod Report, pp. 153-154).
The particular bylaw under discussion states, “In order to preserve unity in liturgical forms and ceremonies, the Synod recommends to its congregations that they use the Order of Worship based on the Danish-Norwegian liturgy of 1685 and agenda of 1688, or the Common Order of Worship, as each congregation may decide” (Chapter 1—Liturgical Forms and Ceremonies, 1986 By-laws of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod).
In answer to the memorial, an ad hoc committee was appointed by the ELS Presidium to study and clarify the bylaw, its scope and implications. The report of this Committee on ELS Worship (CEW) was well received by the 2011 ELS General Pastoral Conference and is being presented to the 2012 ELS convention in June in answer to the 2010 memorial.
The CEW report begins by noting the significance of this bylaw as demonstrating a distinctive feature of the ELS: “Historically, and in contemporary American Lutheranism, the governing documents of other American synods usually do not recommend specific orders of worship for use by their congregations. In contrast, a feature of the ELS—and of its predecessor body, the old Norwegian Synod—is that we place a high value on fostering and maintaining liturgical unity. This is seen in our bylaw concerning Liturgical Forms and Ceremonies, Chapter 1, which recommends specific orders of worship for use in our congregations.” (Introduction, Report of CEW)
The report of the Committee on ELS Worship (CEW) then briefly summarizes the theology of worship in the Lutheran Confessions: “Confessional Lutheranism’s balanced approach toward such matters is evangelical and pastoral in motivation, while also being generally conservative in application. The Apology bears witness to this defining trait of the Church of the Lutheran Reformation when it states: “We believe that the true unity of the Church is not injured by dissimilar ceremonies instituted by humans… However, it is pleasing to us that, for the sake of peace, universal ceremonies are kept. We also willingly keep the order of the Mass in the churches, the Lord’s Day, and other more famous festival days. With a very grateful mind we include the beneficial and ancient ordinances, especially since they contain a discipline. This discipline is beneficial for educating and training the people and those who are ignorant” (Ap VII/VIII:33, CTLC p. 149; cf. 1 Thess. 5:21-22”
[The entire report, which includes a detailed exegesis of the 1986 Bylaw can be found here]
The CEW report concludes by bringing out the benefits of Lutheran liturgical worship: “The two orders of service that are mentioned in the bylaw, in their received texts, faithfully offer and facilitate the following benefits: 1. They conserve and testify to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), as they set forth without ambiguity the changeless Gospel of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 13:7-9). 2. They establish a framework for a clear proclamation of the Gospel and a reverent administration of the Sacraments (Hebrews 12:28,29). 3. They serve a proper catechetical purpose, in that they instruct God’s people even as they guide them in prayer, so that they are led to desire the Sacrament of the Altar, and to desire an ever fuller participation in and with Christ and His church, in heaven and on earth (Colossians 3:16).”
“Worship forms that are based on or derived from the received text of these recommended orders of service—even if they do not reproduce these orders of service in an exacting manner—would still be expected to retain in a clearly-recognizable way these three Biblically-based features of Lutheran worship.”
In the sea of Lutheranism, the ELS remains a place where a haven of confessional unity and liturgical uniformity has generally prevailed. While occasionally, pockets of contemporary worship are reported, they are usually confined to isolated areas and Monday night services. Recent decades have shown how an excess of liturgical variety has been damaging to the unity of the Lutheran church, across denominational lines. The report of the CEW presents the blessings of liturgical worship in an evangelical manner. May the ELS be one place where the confessional and liturgical heritage of the Lutheran church wins the day in the “worship wars,” not by force of compulsion but motivated by the Gospel in loving service toward our brothers and sisters in Christ.