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In Defense of Church Liturgy

Too frequently we hear that the contemporary worship service is a wholly novel invention. Songs, sermon, and even Sunday worship were later man-made tradition. For folks who advocate this kind of thinking, the goal is to “move back to Bible,” to the kind of informal, liturgy-free gatherings of the first Christians. But there’s a problem with this thesis: It’s not grounded in real history. We we dig below the surface rhetoric, we realize that the basic structure of ancient worship service are fundamentally similar to what Christians experiences each Sunday morning. On this, Kevin DeYoung writes:

Moreover, an examination of early church documents like Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians (c. 95), Ignatius’ Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (c. 112), The Didache (early second century), The First Apology of Justin Martyr (c. 155), and The Apostolic Traditions of Hippolytus (c. 200) show the existence of specific worship orders in the early church, including responsive readings, Communion instructions, liturgical responses, prayer formulas, blessing formulas, and various rules for teachers and preachers.35 Our worship does not need to be identical to that of the early church, especially when we move outside the New Testament to the testimony of the church fathers, but to argue for a completely spontaneous, structureless, antiliturgical, brand-new-every-week worship service in the first centuries of the church is an argument against the plain facts of history.

Think of what we find in the New Testament: a holy meal celebrated frequently (Lord’s Supper); an initiatory rite signifying those who belong to the Christian community (baptism); a day set apart (the “Lord’s Day” mentioned by John in Rev. 1:10, probably alluded to by Luke in Acts 20:7, and referenced by Pliny and Justin Martyr); the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:18-20); the probable recitation of other hymns or confessional poems (Phil 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-20; 1 Tim. 3:16 ); the teaching and reading of Old Testament Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13); contemporary epistles commanded to be read in the churches (1 Thess. 5:27). Add to this list numerous doxologies (e.g., Gal. 1:5) and benedictions (e.g., Gal. 6:18), liturgical “amens” (1 Cor. 14:16), holy kisses (Rom. 16:16), and the “maranatha” (quite possibly a set prayer for after Communion [1 Cor. 11:26; 16:22]), and even future liturgical formulas to be repeated and sung by the saints and angels in heaven (see examples in Revelation chapters 4-5, 7, 11, 15-16, 19, 22). We see evidence of patterns and structure all over the place.

-Kevin DeYoung & Ted Kluck, Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion, 126-127.

For this we can be thankful. Though there have certainly been changes and adaptations in church liturgy over the millennia, by God’s grace much has remained faithful on essential matters.

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