in their new book, Christian Worship: the Apology of the Unchanging Forms of the Gospel, Pastors Paul Strawn and Holger Sonntag give current examples of “When Different Ceremonies Give the Appearance of a Different Theology”:
What instances of current worship practices did we have in mind when we wrote that changing the forms, rites, and ceremonies gives the appearance of a different theology? Obviously, there are first and foremost the divinely instituted forms, rites, and ceremonies: If these are changed, then definitely the appearance of a clearly different theology is given. Examples include women’s ordination; open communion (often made worse by weak or wrong communion statements in the worship folder); “lay ministers;” the use of juice in the sacrament; changes in the formulae of administration of the sacraments; the omission of the words of consecration in the Lord’s Supper; the mere “blessing” of infants; a service without preaching.
Then there are ceremonies that in and by themselves militate against the humble nature of the means of grace by offering a dazzling spectacle to those in attendance. Here one might think for instance of major musical productions during the service (regardless of the preferred style used) that for some, at least in part due to the major emotional “lift” derived from them, have come to be the only reason why they attend church, and have come to be what they seek in a church, regardless of that church’s actual teaching and confession (which is then why they, when they move away, do not necessarily rejoin an LCMS congregation). Furthermore, the usage of praise choruses to begin the service, or to introduce a sermon, “to pump up” the crowd.
Then there is also the usage of “worship leaders” who do not simply sing, or lead singing, but must speak as well. And these “leaders” (they are not pastors) and musicians – all of them preferably young and esthetically pleasing to the eye to communicate the vitality and viability of a given congregation to prospective new members – are placed in the front of the church to be seen by all (and thus quite in keeping with Luther’s diagnosis of the appealing services of the papacy that belong to the visual kingdom of the world, not to the aural kingdom of God). However, one also needs to include elaborate vestments at variance with the customarily simple ones in current use among us as another example.
What perhaps best captures this “progress” from simple and insignificant to elaborate and pompous is the simple yet odd example of the simple hymn, which was first sung from memory, then from a hymnal, then printed in a bulletin, then projected on a screen, then projected line by line on a screen, then projected line by line on a screen in front of a beautiful picture. And now it is displayed on a large digital television line by line in front of a movie or video of whatever else is deemed to capture the attention of those singing long enough to get them to the end of the hymn. In keeping with this visualization of the hymn’s words, a more emotionally appealing arrangement of the hymn’s tune is often used as well.
Clearly, these and other things seem to be introduced mostly with the casual visitor or the lukewarm Christian in mind, not with what Christ has given his church in the means of grace as standard. At any rate, the impression is given that a different theology is driving these decisions: After all, why do other pastors / congregations not do things in this way? Perhaps because the changes betray a different theology not shared by those other pastors and congregations?
There are other ceremonies that, today, have taken on the character of “confessional ceremonies,” that is, of ceremonies that, while free in and by themselves, have come to be perceived as being associated with a certain controversial theological position. Observing them or not observing them is a case of confession, as outlined in FC X. Examples include the omission of the general confession and absolution at the beginning of the service; the removal of the pulpit and preaching from the aisle; the removal of a fixed altar; the removal of a baptismal font; the refusal by the pastor to wear any traditional vestments. Again, the impression of a different theology is given, here even to the point of suggesting far-reaching agreement with those who clearly do not believe as we do.
Then there are, as a general violation of Christian love, major changes that are introduced here and there without seeking agreement with (at least) the neighboring congregations of our Synod. Is this not also indicative of a different theology, one which no longer teaches, let alone practices, loving concern for the fellow believer?
Given that for Luther and the Lutheran Confessions, doctrinal agreement should ordinarily be expressed by uniformity in worship, it seems to us that the burden of proof lies with those who wish to deviate from the once-enjoyed uniformity in our Synod. They need to show not just that doing things differently is theologically possible (the Theses do offer a rationale for this), but that what they are doing differently is actually theologically warranted, i.e., necessary and not just possible. And if they are right, then all of us should do likewise! In most cases, however, a clear public theological justification is not provided. Requests for such are regularly denied with an attitude of “well, who made you my keeper?” or “the Confessions aren’t the Bible.”
In summary, it is clear that the technological possibilities that are readily available at the local parish level today (internet, computers, printers, copy machines, large screens, projection devices, stage lighting, etc.) facilitate and accelerate change in an unprecedented way. However, this acceleration is not just a result of technological change. To us, it appears to be driven chiefly by a theology that is markedly different from that of our father and mothers in the faith. Having pondered these issues for several years now in light of the Scriptures, the Confessions, and Luther’s pertinent writings, it seems to us that one of the major factors in the current proliferation of change is indeed a lack of understanding of the importance of love when it comes to worship in particular and being the church in general.
In this, to be sure, our time is no different than Luther’s or Paul’s: we know freedom but we, puffed up by this knowledge, do not use it properly in our relationship with fellow Christians, that is, tempered by love and for their edification.
We believe, however, that the problem today does not simply lie in not translating what is clearly confessed and believed by all into an equally clear practice. Lutherans have always acknowledged that there will always be unfortunate shortcomings of this practical kind in this life (cf. only AE 41:216-217). Consequently, also the uniformity in our worship practices will never be complete on earth.
Yet when reading through various materials on worship, the glaring absence of any mention of love in this context (that is, on a theological/doctrinal level) points to a different theology that is afoot among us. This theology allows the resultant absence of uniformity in worship to be affirmed. In this sense, then, we must say that the Theses, even though there naturally was “no desire” to do so, do provide or at least strongly endorse “a new theology of worship.”
They then immediately go on to say, in the following section, “The LCMS Orders of Service Are not the Only Christian Forms of Worship”, that:
It is a standard concern that is raised with regularity against this position by some: “I am not sure if you are saying this but some seem to be saying that the liturgy as it is expressed in the current or former hymnals of the LCMS is the only proper form of worship for Christians.” We are not sure why this concern is expressed. For if we said or believed that, why would TUFOTG contain a lengthy section dedicated explicitly to “devising new ceremonies” (p. 76-86, emphasis in original)? Since this speaks for itself, this cautiously voiced concern almost sounds like the “concern” voiced by others who assert that our emphasis on distinguishing orthodoxy from heterodoxy or our practice of closed communion somehow means that we believe that LCMS Lutherans will be the only people in heaven….
(pp. 70-73, all unitalicized words italicized in original ; all bold mine)
To close this series, I will leave you a couple final important thoughts from Pastor Sonntag:
In other words, only if we properly love the members of the household of faith who believe as we do and present a unified “front” to those on the outside can we also properly love those who are not yet members of our churches and call them to repentance, without giving them some mixed message culminating in “open communion.”….
… some might think today, if we could only go along with what everybody, or at least almost everybody, else is doing in worship, would we then not have ended the “worship wars” in our denomination? We might have done so but, according to the Christian Book of Concord, we would also have betrayed Christian faith and Christian love. Both faith and love compel us to express simply, clearly, and accurately our Christian confession by means of our worship service for the glory of Christ our one Redeemer and for the salvation of those who believe like we do and of those who believe differently.
(From materials received at the 27th Annual Lutheran Free Conference: “The Character of Christian Worship: It May Not Be What You Think”, which took place on Saturday, October 25th, 2014 at Redeemer Lutheran Church in St. Cloud, MN (full audio available here) ; pp. 102, 103 ; all unitalicized words italicized in original ; all bold mine)