More about the Liturgy

The Divine Service: Its History and Theology Bible study by Pastor Frahm

Many of us Lutherans, when we were growing up, simply weren’t taught much about the liturgy or understanding the hymnal, the church year calendar, or related ceremonies.   There are various reasons for this but it has not been to the advantage of the Lutheran Church that these things were neglected.   Below we will post some resources to help give greater understanding for the biblical basis, history, meaning, doctrinal implications, and comfort of the historic liturgy of the Lutheran Church.


The first president of the Missouri Synod worked long and hard to restore a common historic liturgy to the church when so many churches were following their own devices. C. F. W. Walther’s efforts received some negative feedback. He responded in a publication that he edited for many years: Der Lutheraner, as in this example, translated from the July 19, 1853, issue, volume 9, number 24, page 163.

Whenever the divine service once again follows the old Evangelical-Lutheran agendas (or church books), it seems that many raise a great cry that it is “Roman Catholic”: “Roman Catholic” when the pastor chants “The Lord be with you” and the congregation responds by chanting “and with thy spirit”; “Roman Catholic” when the pastor chants the collect and the blessing and the people respond with a chanted “Amen.” Even the simplest Christian can respond to this outcry: “Prove to me that this chanting is contrary to the Word of God, then I too will call it `Roman Catholic’ and have nothing more to do with it. However, you cannot prove this to me.” If you insist upon calling every element in the divine service “Romish” that has been used by the Roman Catholic Church, it must follow that the reading of the Epistle and Gospel is also “Romish.” Indeed, it is mischief to sing or preach in church, for the Roman Church has done this also . . .Those who cry out should remember that the Roman Catholic Church possesses every beautiful song of the old orthodox church. The chants and antiphons and responses were brought into the church long before the false teachings of Rome crept in. This Christian Church since the beginning, even in the Old Testament, has derived great joy from chanting… For more than 1700 years orthodox Christians have participated joyfully in the divine service. Should we, today, carry on by saying that such joyful participation is “Roman Catholic”? God forbid! Therefore, as we continue to hold and to restore our wonderful divine services in places where they have been forgotten, let us boldly confess that our worship forms do not tie us with the modern sects or with the church of Rome; rather, they join us to the one, holy Christian Church that is as old as the world and is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

More thoughts from C.F.W. Walther, first president of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod:

“We know and firmly hold that the character, the soul of Lutheranism, is not found in outward observances but in the pure doctrine. If a congregation had the most beautiful ceremonies in the very best order, but did not have the pure doctrine, it would be anything but Lutheran. We have from the beginning spoken earnestly of good ceremonies, not as though the important thing were outward forms, but rather to make use of our liberty in these things. For true Lutherans know that although one does not have to have these things (because there is no divine command to have them), one may nevertheless have them because good ceremonies are lovely and beautiful and are not forbidden in the Word of God. Therefore the Lutheran church has not abolished “outward ornaments, candles, altar cloths, statues and similar ornaments,” [AP XXIV] but has left them free. The sects proceeded differently because they did not know how to distinguish between what is commanded, forbidden, and left free in the Word of God. We remind only of the mad actions of Carlstadt and of his adherents and followers in Germany and in Switzerland. We on our part have retained the ceremonies and church ornaments in order to prove by our actions that we have a correct understanding of Christian liberty, and know how to conduct ourselves in things which are neither commanded nor forbidden by God.

We refuse to be guided by those who are offended by our church customs. We adhere to them all the more firmly when someone wants to cause us to have a guilty conscience on account of them. The Roman antichristendom enslaves poor consciences by imposing human ordinances on them with the command: “You must keep such and such a thing!”; the sects enslave consciences by forbidding and branding as sin what God has left free. Unfortunately, also many of our Lutheran Christians are still without a true understanding of their liberty. This is demonstrated by their aversion to ceremonies.

It is truly distressing that many of our fellow Christians find the difference between Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism in outward things. It is a pity and dreadful cowardice when a person sacrifices the good ancient church customs to please the deluded American denominations just so they won’t accuse us of being Roman Catholic! Indeed! Am I to be afraid of a Methodist, who perverts the saving Word, or be ashamed in the matter of my good cause, and not rather rejoice that they can tell by our ceremonies that I do not belong to them?

It is too bad that such entirely different ceremonies prevail in our Synod, and that no liturgy at all has yet been introduced in many congregations. The prejudice especially against the responsive chanting of pastor and congregations is of course still very great with many people — this does not, however, alter the fact that it is very foolish. The pious church father Augustine said, “Qui cantat, bis orat–he who sings prays twice.”

This finds its application also in the matter of the liturgy. Why should congregations or individuals in the congregation want to retain their prejudices? How foolish that would be! For first of all it is clear from the words of St. Paul (1 Cor. 14:16) that the congregations of his time had a similar custom. It has been the custom in the Lutheran Church for 250 years. It creates a solemn impression on the Christian mind when one is reminded by the solemnity of the divine service that one is in the house of God, in childlike love to their heavenly Father, also give expression to their joy in such a lovely manner.

We are not insisting that there be uniformity in perception or feeling or taste among all believing Christians-neither dare anyone demand that all be minded as he. Nevertheless, it remains true that the Lutheran liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches to such an extent that the houses of worship of the latter look like lecture halls in which the hearers are merely addressed or instructed, while our churches are in truth houses of prayer in which Christians serve the great God publicly before the world.

Uniformity of ceremonies (perhaps according to the Saxon Church order published by the Synod, which is the simplest among the many Lutheran church orders) would be highly desirable because of its usefulness. A poor slave of the pope finds one and same form of service, no matter where he goes, by which he at once recognizes his church.

With us it is different. Whoever comes from Germany without a true understanding of the doctrine often has to look for his church for a long time, and many have already been lost to our church because of this search. How different it would be if the entire Lutheran church had a uniform form of worship! This would, of course, first of all yield only an external advantage, however, one which is by no means unimportant. Has not many a Lutheran already kept his distance from the sects because he saw at the Lord’s Supper they broke the bread instead of distributing wafters?

The objection: “What would be the use of uniformity of ceremonies?” was answered with the counter question, “What is the use of a flag on the battlefield? Even though a soldier cannot defeat the enemy with it, he nevertheless sees by the flag where he belongs. We ought not to refuse to walk in the footsteps of our fathers. They were so far removed from being ashamed of the good ceremonies that they publicly confess in the passage quoted: “It is not true that we do away with all such external ornaments”

(C.F.W. Walther, Explanation of Thesis XVIII, D, Adiaphora, of the book The True Visible Church, delivered at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, Beginning August 9, 1871, at the 16th Central District Convention, translated by Fred Kramer, printed in Essays for the Church [CPH: 1992], I:193-194).

Quotations from our Lutheran Confessions:

1] Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among 2] us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved, save that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns, which have been added 3] to teach the people. For ceremonies are needed to this end alone that the unlearned 4] be taught [what they need to know of Christ]. And not only has Paul commanded to use in the church a language understood by the people 1 Cor. 14, 2. 9, but it has also been so ordained by man’s law. 5] The people are accustomed to partake of the Sacrament together, if any be fit for it, and this also increases the reverence and devotion of public 6] worship. For none are admitted 7] except they be first examined. The people are also advised concerning the dignity and use of the Sacrament, how great consolation it brings anxious consciences, that they may learn to believe God, and to expect and ask of Him all that is good. 8] [In this connection they are also instructed regarding other and false teachings on the Sacrament.] This worship pleases God; such use of the Sacrament nourishes true devotion 9] toward God. It does not, therefore, appear that the Mass is more devoutly celebrated among our adversaries than among us.
+ The Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV,1-9 +

At the outset we must again make the preliminary statement that we 1] do not abolish the Mass, but religiously maintain and defend it. For among us masses are celebrated every Lord’s Day and on the other festivals, in which the Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved. And the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments, and other like things.

+ Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV,1 +


From our Lutheran Confessions:

Of the Term Mass.

78] The adversaries also refer us to philology. From the names of the Mass they derive arguments which do not require a long discussion. For even though the Mass be called a sacrifice, it does not follow that it must confer grace ex opere operato, or, when applied on behalf of others, merit for them the remission of sins, etc. 79] Leitourgiva, they say, signifies a sacrifice, and the Greeks call the Mass, liturgy. Why do they here omit the old appellation synaxis, which shows that the Mass was formerly the communion of many? But let us speak of the word liturgy. This word does not properly signify a, sacrifice, but rather the public ministry, and agrees aptly with our belief, namely, that one minister who consecrates tenders the body and blood of the Lord to the rest of the people, just as one minister who preaches tenders the Gospel to the people, as Paul says, 1 Cor. 4, 1: Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God, i.e., of the Gospel and the Sacraments. And 2 Cor. 5, 20: We are ambassadors for Christ, as 81] though God did beseech you by us; we pray you in Christ’s stead, Be ye reconciled to God. Thus the term leitourgiva agrees aptly with the ministry.

+ Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV, 78-81 +

See also Luke 22:27; Mark 10:45; Romans 10:17; I Cor. 10:16.

Terms used by Lutherans in other languages:
German – der Gottesdienst or der Hauptgottesdienst
Swedish – Gudstjaenst
Finnish – Jumalanpalvelus

Greek term for liturgy: theia leitourgia


Why isn’t Contemporary Christian Music used in services at TRINITY?

A. We don’t use CCM music for lots of reasons.

1. It is generally music that focuses more on the emotions and entertainment than on the Gospel, on the Christian more than the Christ.  It also tends to open the door to see the liturgy as entertainment as the musicians as performers rather than as instruments of the means of grace, promoting catechesis.   Furthermore “praise music” as a style or focus of the service is putting the accent back our our efforts like the Reformed or the Roman Mass, which is something rejected by Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions (Apology, Article XXIV, under the “the term Mass”).

2. It is music that mirrors the culture of this world rather than the culture of Heaven, that claims to praise Jesus but does not really do so (praise is always about telling what Jesus has done).

3. It is a genre that focuses on the individual’s internal piety rather than on the Faith that saves. 

Contemporary Christian Music comes out of the background of Pentecostals, charismatics and Baptists, and does not fit biblical, Lutheran teaching and practice. Those nominally Lutheran churches which indulge in this sort of music eventually lose their Lutheran heritage in teaching and practice. This is why we prefer the solid Lutheran chorales as the core of our hymn repertoire. Generally speaking, Lutherans who use such music and worship forms eventually lose their Lutheran identity, practice, and doctrine. Lutheran substance with non-Lutheran songs, practices, and such do not co-exist for long. 

Q. Do you use a screen for the words during worship?

A.  No.  At TRINITY for most services we use mainly the hymnal, Lutheran Service Book, along with a bulletin insert with the Scripture readings, Introit, and Gradual. We desire that the cross and altar are the focal point of the sanctuary, so that our eyes are fixed on Christ. We also desire that the sanctuary, which means “holy place,” be different from our living room at home or other places where we look toward a screen. The church is then seen as a reverent place of “comfort” rather than merely making us “comfortable.” The sanctuary is a house of prayer and receiving the Lord’s means of grace. As those who worship the Son of God who has become a man, who is the Word who became flesh (John 1:14),and uses tangible earthly elements to deliver His grace (water, bread, wine, book), we desire to reflect that through continuing to use a good Lutheran hymnal and solid printed pages, rather than something which can be switched off and on. 

Q. Why does the pastor wear those catholic-looking robes (vestments)?

A. Vestments help cover the man and proclaim Christ. Vestments are a sort of uniform, indicating that the person wearing them is not acting as a private citizen, but as one who has been given a certain role and authority to act in it, almost like a police officer’s uniform or a military uniform. Here the office is that of speaking and giving the Gospel in the stead and by the command of Jesus. The white alb covers his person, the stole indicates the pastor’s ordination into the office of the holy ministry, and the chasuble is a special vestment for Holy Communion services. The asistants (elders, acolytes) also wear a basic white alb since they are serving to assist in the liturgy as well.

Q. Why do the musicians, soloists, and choir perform from the back?

A. Music is used in the Church to beautify the worship and assist the congregation in singing the praises of God. Music is never used in church simply for the sake of entertainment, or for personal glory. The musicians perform from the back so as not to take center stage but rather to give Christ all glory and keep the focus on Him and on the altar where He gives Himself to us. The Divine Service is not about the personality of the pastor nor the musicians.

Q. Why do many at Gloria Christi make the sign of the cross at various times?

A.  Because they are free to do so or not and find it helpful. Although Roman Catholics make the sign of the cross, they do not have a monopoly on the practice. The sign of the cross is not a uniquely Roman Catholic practice. It is shared by Christians who maintain something of historic Christian piety and liturgical practice. As pointed out above, the sign of the cross is a practice continued by Luther, and prescribed by him in the Small Catechism and other writings.

The basic meaning of the sign of the cross is derived from Holy Baptism (hence Luther’s connection with the Triune invocation of God’s name). In the Baptism Liturgy the pastor makes the sign of the cross “both upon the forehead and upon the heart” to mark the candidate for Baptism as “one redeemed by Christ the crucified.” Hence the sign of the cross is a way of remembering one’s Baptism into Christ the crucified and the blessings that come through Him (Romans 6).  That is its most basic meaning and that is how Lutherans interpret it in an evangelical (Gospel) way. Since it is neither commanded nor forbidden, Christians may or may not use it in freedom. However, it is not something to be condemned. St. Paul the Apostle exhorts us to “pray without ceasing.” The sign of the cross assists our prayer in a physical way so that we may remember that Christ is our help in every time of need and that we are baptized into Him.  Sometimes a physical gesture or postures help us to focus our mind for what is at hand and upon God’s Word. Bowing, kneeling, folding one’s hands, not to mention the sign of the cross, help us to focus our body and soul for prayer and worship, especially in the context of the Divine Service of Word and Sacrament, but also in our personal and family prayers.