Contemporary Worship and the Divine Service – Adiaphora Issues!

Adiaphora is a term that refers to things that are neither commanded nor forbidden by God in Scripture.  In these things we are to have a position of indifference, meaning that we recognize that there is Christian freedom in these areas.  An area of great contention in the realm of adiaphora is that of what transpires in our church services – in our worship services.  Scripture does not mandate the following of a church calendar for instance, so the observance of church seasons and festivals such as Advent and Lent and Christmas and Easter are adiaphora issues.  The use of vestments and collars for pastors is also an adiaphora issue.  It is never commanded in Scripture what exactly must be worn by a pastor in his day to day work for the Church or in the church services; though there are commands such as dressing modestly in Scripture that are commanded, the details of what that might look like are not commanded.  Even the mode of baptism is adiaphora.  Scripture does not tell us how the water should be applied to a person in the sacramental washing nor how much is to be used or what type of water.  The same applies for the distribution of communion, as well as to the type of bread and the type of wine – these things aren’t commanded one way or the other.

This adiaphora issue comes to the head a lot in Lutheran circles debating if churches should use the Church’s traditional liturgy or partake in what is called contemporary worship.  I have heard it many times that to be Lutheran is to be liturgical, and I’ve heard it spoken that the Divine Service is not adiaphora, but in such cases Divine Service seems to be referring not just to the proclamation of the Gospel and the distribution of the sacraments in a church service, but at times is conflated to also refer to the particular traditional liturgy service named, the Divine Service.  It is here that I want to spend some time – is the Divine Service adiaphora and is contemporary worship adiaphora?  Can a congregation engage in either and still be considered Lutheran?  To answer this question, I’ll first define what the Divine Service is and what contemporary worship is (or could be).

The Divine Service is the liturgy of the Lutheran Church.  It is a Christocentric liturgy that emphasizes God coming to us, to serve us, offering us his presence and his grace through his Word and sacraments.  Using the liturgy every week is a great resource for consistency, teaching the Christian faith, and ensuring that the Gospel is proclaimed even if the pastor doesn’t properly distinguish between Law and Gospel in his sermon, or even fails to proclaim the Gospel in his sermon.  It consists of two services, first the service of the Word, and then the service of the Altar.  Each of these services have components to them that are typically repeated and present each week and work together to show God’s grace to his people and our response.  For example, the service will start with an invocation (in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit), followed by an invitation to confession of sins, a confession of sins to God by the congregation, and then an absolution proclamation from the pastor to the congregation.  The service has elements such as a common confession of Christian faith before partaking in communion, usually by reciting the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed together.  Many more elements are present in the Divine Service and they all are derived from Scripture with the purpose of allowing God to come to his people and to serve them through the means by which he has promised to work faith and salvation in our lives.

Contemporary worship conjures different meanings and practices among those who use this term.  If by contemporary worship, we mean a complete stripping away of the Divine Service to have a gathering comprised of random praise songs from various theological backgrounds, unscripted prayers, and a sermon each gathering, we run a great risk of becoming anthropocentric in our worship with a shift to emphasizing OUR service to the Lord instead of HIS service to us through Word and Sacrament.  However, this wouldn’t mean that a contemporary service along this format would have to fall into such a pattern or error.  Contemporary worship services can also follow a church calendar and have lectionary readings, and even use the Divine Service as a framework – updating or changing language as needed to fit the current situation and context of the congregation.  Contemporary worship typically embraces such freedom.

Based on these definitions, contemporary worship absolutely falls under adiaphora, though Word and Sacrament ministry is not adiaphora for any service since the Great Commission demands it.  When it comes to an adiaphora issue of this magnitude, since it does directly correlate to the mode by which the Word is proclaimed and the setting in which the Sacraments are distributed, there are a couple of questions that must be considered: 1.) What is the heart position behind the decision? and 2.) Which action or tradition best serves the proclamation of the Gospel?  Answers to these questions will vary from location to congregation to context, and we must be OK with that… since these are adiaphora issues.  If we were to force an adiaphora issue to be a required rule of a worship setting, then we will have destroyed the Gospel.  Supporters of the Divine Service must be aware to not force the historic Church liturgy upon congregations as if it is a law that must be adhered to in order for Christian worship to occur.  Those who advocate for contemporary worship must be careful to not look down upon their brothers who use the Divine Service and follow its liturgical calendar as not being free in the Spirit or not being loving by refusing to change with the times to “connect” or “relate” to people.  Both camps are living in their convictions and should not judge their brothers in such matters as long as both are faithfully proclaiming the Gospel and delivering the Sacraments.

Published by

Andy Wrasman

I live in St. Louis with my wife and two young kids. I am a seminary student at Concordia Seminary. I've written a book called, Contradict - They Can't All Be True. Be sure to visit my other website: https://www.contradictmovement.org.

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