Freedom and Order

Freedom and Order

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2:42

Immediately after his account of the Day of Pentecost, St. Luke describes the worship life of the church at Jerusalem.  From its very infancy, the Church had a common order (ordo) of worship that included the reading of God’s Word, preaching, the Lord’s Supper and prayers. While there may be expressions of freedom from one congregation to the other, through the years the ordo has been preserved as the saints of every age gather to receive Christ through the Word and the Lord’s Supper given and responding in prayer and praise. This focus of the common order in worship should always be on Christ and His forgiveness for His people through Word and Sacrament.

The seventh objective of the Synod according to the constitution is to, “Encourage congregations to strive for uniformity in church practice, but also to develop an appreciation of a variety of responsible practices and customs which are in harmony with our common profession of faith.”

At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther’s liturgical reforms were carried out with a pastoral concern that highlighted both an emphasis on Gospel freedom on one hand and maintenance of the common order out of love for the neighbor on the other hand.  Luther’s pastoral sensitivity and the careful tension he held between freedom and order serve as a helpful model for pastors, parish musicians, and church leaders involved in the planning of worship today. Our goal in worship planning is never to make changes, but always that the Gospel is proclaimed through the words that are spoken and sung. Lutherans seek to avoid a legalistic attitude that prohibits any freedom, but also recognize the great benefit that a common language of worship provides in teaching and pastoral care.

Freedom in worship means that not every rite and ceremony will be identical from one congregation to another. But bearing with one another in love also means that we are sensitive to other congregations and recognize the unity that we share expressed in our worship. Sadly, our conversations about worship have too often been appeals to either freedom or order, rather than both. This has led some to some expressions of freedom that have not been beneficial for of our life together and demonstrative of our love for one another. In other cases, some call for legalistic observation of rites and ceremonies that are neither scriptural nor confessional. While we should strive for uniformity in worship, to demand absolute uniformity runs the risk of obscuring the Gospel and binding consciences. Lutheran worship seeks to focus on Christ, His gifts of forgiveness and grace for His people and the response of faith in prayer and praise.

The Divine Service in a Lutheran congregation maintains a common order of service for the sake of love but also allows for appropriate freedom. Our concerns about worship are not about musical instruments, but a zeal for the Gospel and how that Gospel is taught and applied to young and old. There is actually great freedom that can be celebrated in our services while maintaining a common order. Dr. Luther wrote, “Now even though external rites and orders…add nothing to salvation, yet it is unchristian to quarrel over such things and thereby confuse the common people. We should consider the edification of the lay folk more important than our own ideas and opinions. Therefore, I pray all of you, my dear sirs, let each one surrender his own opinion and get together in a friendly way and come to a common decision about these external matters, so that there will be one uniform practice throughout your district instead of disorder – one thing being done here and another there – lest the common people get confused and discouraged. For even though from the viewpoint of faith, the external orders are free and can without scruples be changed by anyone at any time, yet from the viewpoint of love, you are not free to use this liberty, but bound to consider the edification of the common people.” (Luther’s Works, vol. 53, p. 47)

Prayer - Lord God, heavenly Father, we thank you for giving us your holy Gospel and revealing your love to us. In your boundless mercy, help us hold on to this blessed light of your` Word, and through your Holy Spirit govern and guide our hearts, so that we may never stray from it, but hold fast to it and finally be saved; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Fraternally in Christ,

President Lee Hagan


(Excerpts of this were included in an article I wrote in 2017 on Freedom and Order in Worship)

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