Popularly accepted terms for the church’s worship, whether the form of worship is traditional or contemporary contain within them the ideological wedge which creates division in the churches. This is especially so among the Lutheran churches, not least because we teach that, “…it is sufficient for the true unity of the Church, that the Gospel is preached therein according to its pure intent and meaning, and that the Sacraments are administered in conformity with the Word of God. And for the true unity of the Church, it is not necessary that uniform ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere observed, as Paul says, Eph. 4:4,5.” (Augustana, Art. 7)
The question which the Reformers originally took up in relation to the Word of God and worship, “What is the truth?”, has been converted at present to, “What works?” We are not so much occupied with the question of true Catholicity, what it means that we claim to believe, teach, and confess the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic faith. We have instead succumbed to, “the charms of whatever beast happens to arise out of the abyss, if only it speaks in a somewhat religious vein.” (Hermann Sasse, Letters to Lutheran Pastors, “Concerning the Freedom of the Church”)
Yet, the mode of worship, the form of the liturgy, does not establish Catholicity. It is not external forms which establish Catholicity. If one asks whether one congregation employs a contemporary form of worship (whatever that means), or a traditional form of worship (whatever that means), he does not go deep enough. He has not yet dug down and exposed the root. The deeper question, the persistent question which drives to the heart of the matter, to the truth, is the question our Lord asked his disciples on His way to Calvary: “Who do men say that I am?” How the Church answers this question is determinative for whether she can claim to be truly Catholic. Is she truly a Church of the New Testament and of the Lutheran Confessions? Listen to her confession of faith in the Divine Service and you will hear the truth.
That is, as Wilhelm Loehe put it:
The Lutheran Liturgy is an outgrowth from the Roman. The Lutheran Church itself is not a new building, but the old, cleansed from unauthorized additions. For more than three centuries the Church has advanced no new doctrines, but on the contrary has been purifying the old systems from added perversions. In a liturgical way, like wise, no new path has been marked out; but after the removal of inexpedient innovations, that which has proved valuable from the beginning has been preserved. It is for this reason that our Church possesses in common with the Roman the principal parts of the Communion Service.
For the same reason it was possible for the framers of the Augustana to assert: — “Nor has any perceptible change taken place in the public ceremonies of the mass.” Also: — “It is well known that the mass is, without boasting, celebrated with greater devotion and sincerity among us than among our adversaries.” If any one is inclined to charge this Order with a Romanizing tendency, the same must then be brought against every Lutheran Order, if not against the whole Church. It would, however be more correct to say, that the Romish Church had a tendency to Catholicize in those parts of the Liturgy which it holds in common with us, because in those parts the Romish Church stands high above its own standard, and agrees with that which is truly universal.
I say, and without fear of contradiction, that Constitutions and Organizations, Liturgies and Ceremonies, valuable in the service of the truth as they may be, do not in the real sense constitute the Church. From these the Church does not derive its life; they are fruits of its life, but not its source. It is gratifying to the enemy, and humiliating to the devout, to see many overestimate the value of externals, thus going the way to Rome. In their insistence on externals they forget the great word of the Augustana, for our times perhaps the greatest word of that document, viz., the immortal: — ”It is sufficient for the true unity of the Church, that the Gospel is preached therein according to its pure intent and meaning, and that the Sacraments are administered in conformity with the Word of God. And for the true unity of the Christian Church it is not necessary that uniform ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere observed, as Paul says, Eph. 4: 4, 5.”
The Church does not rely on human innovations for her livelihood. She does not need human crutches to get along. Constitutions, Multiple Liturgical Forms, Political Statements, Convention Votes, and the like are not Word and Sacrament. They are not the Church’s one Lord and Head. They are not the holy Church of God. They are not the center. They cannot establish true unity and harmony in the Church. Only true worship of God, worship in the Spirit and truth, can accomplish this. That is, as Loehe writes, “The Order or Liturgy in which … worship is expressed ought therefore to be the image of the inner unity and harmony of the spiritual life — an ecclesiastical aesthetic in concrete form. In the Church’s inner life, as well as in the public expression of her worship, Word and Sacrament constitute the center. Like waves of the sea, breaking and falling upon the Father.”
In fact, continues Loehe, “A close examination of [a truly Catholic] Liturgy must convince everyone that it is constructed on that which is fundamentally necessary for the right conduct of public worship.’ In public worship the Church experiences an especial nearness to God; she approaches into the very presence of the Bridegroom, and tastes the blessedness of Heaven even here below. Public worship is the prettiest flower that can bloom on human stems.”
What ought one to listen for then? How can one hear the confession of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church? First, is there Confession and Pardon of sins? Is there the Introit, which introduces the particular joys of the particular season? Where is the Kyrie that, in spite of its brevity, expresses a prayer for temporal and eternal deliverance? Where are the lofty strains of the Gloria in Excelsis where our Lord makes his first approach to the worshiping congregation? What about the Collect, wherein the congregation frames all its needs into a single petition, and unitedly presents it to the divine Throne? Are the Apostolical writings read? Do the people express their praise in the Hallelujah and Gradual? Does our Lord speak in the very words of His Gospel? Does the congregation confess its’ baptismal union with her Lord in the Creed? Is the face of God unveiled in the Sermon for you? What about the great prayer of the Church where she bears in mind the needs of one another, as well as those of the whole world? For here, writes Loehe, “With nothing but blessing for mankind in their hearts, the people are thus fitly preparing themselves for a right approach to the Altar. And along with this Great Prayer the thought comes to them, that the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven is the One Holy Catholic Church, and that the prayers of the pilgrims here and the prayers of the glorified there, are borne to the Father’s Throne by the same Mediator.”
After this does the Church then approach the Altar, to receive the Sacrament? What about comes the Sanctus wherein, writes Loehe:
“…the worshiping people see the Lord’s approach to the Sacrament, and they hail him in prayerful Hosanna. The people can rise no higher; they are as near Heaven as it is possible for a human soul to come on earth. A brief, but deep and expectant silence now settles on the people. Without transition the verba testament (words of the testament) are now heard. He comes in the name of the Lord! God and his Lamb, slain for the sin of the world, are present! Humbled, the congregation lies before the Highest, not indeed as though cast down from the heights of the Sanctus, but by it deeply impressed with the near ness of God, commends to him in the Agnus and Pater Noster everything which is necessary for time and eternity.”
Then, concludes Loehe:
The worshiping congregation now receives the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, From faith to faith, from one height to another, the devout soul has gone up to the most blessed experiences of the of the divine nearness and pardon. The soul can reach no higher station, except in death (Nunc Dimittis). The service closes, and the worshipers, with hope, born anew, seek in their daily occupations that which God has given to each as the discipline preparatory to glorification. Brief and incomplete as this examination of the Liturgy will necessarily be found, I am nevertheless persuaded that a perusal of it will show more clearly the beauties of our matchless Order for the Public Worship of God. And may God himself so preserve and Order his Zion, that the time may speedily come, when imperfections shall be no more, and the Church give him nobler praise in Heaven.
Along with our fathers in the faith the Lutheran Church in this generation must concern herself (again) with the question about the truth of God’s Word and whether our worship is God-pleasing in form and content. The Church in every generation is called to do this. Not that she might bind weak and terrified consciences through the implementation of forms of worship which contradict God’s Word and cause division in the body. Not to cause others to stumble in faith because of the rubbish men pile on to the true worship of God with the best of intentions. The Church hungers after the truth about God’s Word and Godly worship so that she may be free from bondage to sin, from “ceremonies instituted by men,” that the teachings of the one, holy Catholic and apostolic faith might abound, and the true unity of the Church be establish steadfast therein.
Therefore, “…it is sufficient for the true unity of the Church, that the Gospel is preached therein according to its pure intent and meaning, and that the Sacraments are administered in conformity with the Word of God. And for the true unity of the Church, it is not necessary that uniform ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere observed, as Paul says, Eph. 4:4,5.”
All Loehe quotes are from, “Liturgy for Christian Congregations of the Lutheran Faith,” by Wilhelm Loehe, from the preface to the First Edition.