Thursday, November 15, 2012

On Sectarian Innovation

Most advocates of so-called “contemporary worship” seem to think that those of us who find some of their methods questionable are stuck-in-the-mud old foggies who can’t stand hearing guitar music blaring in our aged ears. However, I for one am not an opponent of guitars. For that matter, I am not an opponent of contemporary (per the dictionary definition - that is, "of the present time; modern") music either. While I may find myself aligned with the traditionalist Lutheran camp, I’ll admit it: I listen to Koiné. And I certainly don’t spend my free time listening solely to the oldies or classical music.

So what’s the beef? I like contemporary music. I don’t even mind listening to some of the contemporary Christian stuff that is out there.  So what’s wrong with applying new forms to our worship music?

The simple answer is that nothing is inherently wrong with new forms.  The pipe organ was not ordained by God; other instruments are not by nature sinful.  To this end, although it has its origins before the Birth of Christ, the organ wasn’t always viewed favorably in worship either.  Luther is said to have called the organ an “ensign of Baal.” In fact, instrumentation of any form was once forbidden by the Church Fathers. The use of these implements, though centuries and millennia old, was once as frowned upon as praise bands are today.

Am I saying that opposing praise bands is just as absurd as opposing the pipe organ? Not at all. The Fathers had good reason for rejecting the use of instrumentation in the early days of the Church. The theological landscape of that era did not favor a predominance of Christianity. Paganism and heresy abounded. One of the hallmarks of pagan worship was the use of various kinds of instrumentation, instruments which tended to be associated with the secular world more than the religious. So the Fathers rejected the use of these forms as secular innovations that would associate the Church with something she is not. St. Clement of Alexandria captured this ideology well when he wrote: “The Etruscans use the trumpet, the Arcadians the pipe, the Sicilians the pectides, the Cretans the lyre, the Lacedæmonians the flute, the Thracians the horn, the Egyptians the drum, and the Arabians the cymbal. The one instrument of peace, the Word alone by which we honor God, is what we employ. We no longer employ the ancient psaltery, and trumpet, and timbrel, and flute, which those expert in war and contemners of the fear of God were wont to make use of also in the choruses at their festive assemblies” (HT: New Advent).

In short, the Fathers saw the use of instrumentation as an attempt to profane the sacred, or clothe the sacred with the profane, if you will.

This highlights one of my major objections to “contemporary” (or, more accurately, “sectarian”) music. It’s a matter of origin. Simply put: it’s the music of the sects! The radical, protestant sects utilize praise bands. It is where the practice originated. Their use is associated with "evangelical" mega "churches."  If there comes a day when "evangelical," protestant ideology is no longer a major threat to the Lutheran Church and praise bands are no longer associated with the same, then their use in orthodox worship may be acceptable. In the mean time, though, why on earth would we want to align ourselves with sectarian brothels of heresy? The answer to that question may shed some light on faulty motivations. Perhaps thinking as the sects do is to blame. Perhaps thinking that the utilization of their seemingly productive methods will help attract young and unsuspecting people into our midst is a factor. 

This is another reason that mimicking the sects is so dangerous:  The way one worships is reflective of what one believes.  As I pointed out in an earlier post lauding the Divine Liturgy, the Latin dictum lex orandi, lex credendi is important to keep in mind when discussing the topic of worship.  The sects utilize praise bands because they think that their man-made worship forms enhance or attract people to the Holy Gospel.  It is reflective of a lack of faith in the efficacy of God's Word and His ability to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify the whole Christian Church on earth and keep it in the one true faith.   And more often than not, it is reflective of anthropocentric worship paradigms that "seek to offer to God our merits" rather than "receive from Him those things which He promises and offers" (Apology IV:49)

"But," one might argue,  "I make sure to carefully analyze sectarian material, using only that which is 'doctrinally pure.'  I 'spoil the Egyptians,' as they say."  This argument fails to address the points I raised above.  Even if you weed out the elements that are obviously impure, the seemingly "doctrinally pure" remnants were still written from a sectarian frame of mind.  One of the founders of the Synodical Conference, C. F. W. Walther, addressed this faulty logic well when he wrote:

"A preacher of our church also has the holy duty to give souls entrusted to his care pure spiritual food, indeed, the very best which he can possibly obtain. In Methodist songs there is much which is false, and which contains spiritual poison for the soul. Therefore, it is soul-murder to set before children such poisonous food. If the preacher claims, that he allows only 'correct' hymns to be sung, this does not excuse him. For, first of all, the true Lutheran spirit is found in none of them; second, our hymns are more powerful, more substantive, and more prosaic; third, those hymns which deal with the Holy Sacraments are completely in error; fourth, when these little sectarian hymnbooks come into the hands of our children, they openly read and sing false hymns" (HT: Intrepid Lutherans).

To be charitable, at this point it is worth acknowledging the fact that many people who turn to “contemporary” music do so only to add variety to their worship life, rather than for any sectarian reasons.  Let me be the first to say that I am no opponent of variety.   At the parish I'm playing the organ for this coming weekend, I have the opportunity to utilize a new worship setting.  We've only used it once before, and it's only been used at another parish once before that.  Spoiler alert: when we used it in September, we made use of non-organ instrumentation. Piano, trumpet, and soloist/choral singers were involved. And you know what? I wouldn’t have been opposed to using a flute, percussion, strings, or other kinds of strategically placed instrumentation either. In fact, I hope to use such in the future.

This brings me to another major problem I have with sectarian worship: the matter of words. Variety is okay, but what message are we conveying? First and foremost, Scripture needs to be conveyed. Worship music exists to glorify the Sacred text, not the other way around. This is why the Fathers favored chant over instrumentation: chant is glorified speaking. It glorifies the Word, rather than providing music for the sake of music. So if the message we are conveying is 98 refrains of “shine, Jesus shine,” we have a problem. If our message is borrowed from the Calvinists, Arminians, or even the Papists, we have a big problem.

But the issue of words goes even deeper. As Lutherans, we confess to uphold and defend the Mass and celebrate it with more reverence than anyone else (Augsburg Confession XXIV:1; Apology XXIV:1). You know that new worship setting the parish I'm playing for this weekend is using? It is a setting of the Common Service. It isn’t a sectarian innovation. It isn’t something we conveniently borrowed from the Papists’ Second Vatican Council. It is the liturgical heritage of the Evangelical Lutheran Church - the Service that was Common to nearly all of American Lutheranism prior to the advent of new liturgical rites in the 20th Century (many of which shamelessly mimic the fruits of Vatican II).

Why does that mater? Because we are not a sectarian church. We do not bend our knee to the innovations of the pope. We are the Lutheran Church - we are a liturgical church. The Liturgy most certainly changes, evolves, and allows for variation - both regional and over time. But the Liturgy does not allow for sectarian and papal innovations. 

So you want to have variety in your worship life? Fine! Just make sure you consider where the variety originated, what message it’s conveying, and that "frivolity and offense" are avoided for the sake of the weak. If your variety avoids mimicking the sects and expresses the Scriptures as found in the Liturgy of the Church and orthodox hymnody (even new hymnody!), then you’re okay in my book - even if the musical forms are different every single week.


  1. "The sects utilize praise bands because they think that their man-made worship forms enhance or attract people to the Holy Gospel. It is reflective of a lack of faith in the efficacy of God's Word and His ability to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify the whole Christian Church on earth and keep it in the one true faith."

    I've never thought of it that way before. Good point.

  2. "I've never thought of it that way before. Good point."

    When I first started coming around to the Confessional position, one of my last "hold-outs," as it were, was so-called "contemporary worship." Even though I've always preferred more "traditional" worship, I couldn't put into terms WHY one was better than the other. It was all "adiaphora" until I understood what exactly "contemporary" worship is confessing. Lex orandi, lex credendi!

    Thanks for reading and commenting!