In the year 1517 Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Luther’s complaints, and the disputes that came about because of them, led to revolt in a church that had been governed by clergymen whose authority and privileges made it impossible for them to hear criticism or voluntarily implement reforms. On Reformation Sunday we commemorate beginning of the Reformation, but we should also lament the resulting division of the church into warring denominations and sects. When the rulers of the church closed their minds to criticism, as raised by Luther and others, the result was warfare in the name of Christ. A succession of leaders maintained that they were God’s duly appointed overseers of the church, and that if there were to be any changes, only they should implement them. Their intransigence could not suppress the fury building in Germany. It spread throughout the Christian world with such violence that religious wars have since become the primary evidence unbelievers cite in refutation of the truth claims of the church.
Today the fighting among various factions of the church is less bloody than in past centuries, but few would argue that denominationalism or the frequent squabbles among sects and within individual churches is not a disgrace to the Lord who prayed that we might be one. Jesus could have had no illusions about the propensity of religious people to argue their own perspectives into schism. After long disputation with the religious authorities of his own day, he was crucified in a plot instigated by them. The church, itself, was born of a schism within Judaism. What could Jesus have meant when he prayed that we might be one? Is it even conceivable after so many centuries of violation of the Lord’s will that we might be united in spirit, even when we are certainly not united in polity or interpretation of the scriptures? Reformed theology, in principle, honors both the scriptures and tradition as authoritative on matters of faith and practice, yet we disagree on so many points of interpretation of the scriptures, and over whether tradition shall have any importance among us, that it seems impossible that we will ever be united.
The wars of the Reformation era demonstrated conclusively that unity cannot be achieved through suppression of dissent. Maintaining an agenda that marginalizes people whose understanding of the church is at variance with the leadership has been shown to be the way to division and strife. The judgments of a few, or even of the majority, cannot unequivocally ascertain God’s will, and some disagreement is inevitable. When one group imposes its will on another, the manner in which decisions are made becomes as important as the actual results of these decisions. We hear a great deal about tolerance and diversity these days. In church this has been used to justify the abandonment of traditional forms and music. Tradition, still enthroned among Catholic and Orthodox believers and in historic Protestant confessions, was once a cohesive element in church polity. Now even this has been become the ground of many disputes.
Our issues may be trivial compared to the sale of indulgences or salvation by grace as opposed to works, but they divide us just as bitterly. In absence of community, we are left in a situation like that becoming apparent in the larger society where political maneuvering and power determine which kinds diversity will be tolerated. Worship can be organized many ways, but, in the midst of disagreements, it seems impossible to maintain that all of us can be led into worship by planning that goes on in private. When decisions are made in conferences that are out of reach of interested parties, a lot of people are going to end up feeling that worship is more a performance than an inclusive, community experience. Worship needs to affirm people in the offerings they bring before God, not expect them to be auditors who sit while others put on a show. If nobody speaks except by invitation, there is little hope that unity can be achieved that is anything more than suppression of diversity.
In our authoritative scriptures we find the example of the Corinthian church where Paul the Apostle sent corrective instruction that could be quite helpful in the pervasive problem of unity amid diversity. Despite serious problems at Corinth, Paul recommended that a collaborative, participatory order of worship be maintained. Ordinary Christians were encouraged to initiate things. 1st Corinthians 14:26 says: "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. But, let all things be done for edification and in order." The people in Corinth were encouraged to bring their contributions before the assembled church despite many excesses that had elicited Paul's corrective letters. Things had gotten completely out of hand in Corinth. People were all talking at once, engaging in a kind of devotional anarchy, and even getting drunk. But Paul did not suggest the overseers take charge in an authoritarian manner. The collaborative methodology was to be continued, but under a more orderly format. If those instructed personally by Jesus did not impose their will on the community, but sanctioned collaborative worship, we should concur.
Again in 1st Corinthians we find the analogy of the body as a pattern for the church. We all know 1st Corinthians 12:14: “The body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” Etc. This discourse on body ministry is followed by the beloved 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians extolling love as a more excellent way to unity than knowledge or even prophesy. If it is possible for unity in spirit to be achieved through collaboration rather than authoritarian governance, this, in itself, is worthy of our endorsement, but it is only part of the reason for maintaining open communication and collaborative processes. An even better rationale for open discussion and lay participation is that the work of seeking and saving the lost, to which our Lord commands us, must be done in a way consistent with the goals the Lord sets for us. If there is one message the church should leave with people week by week, it is that they are of ultimate concern to God. When people cannot make their voices heard in worship and in open discussion of issues, and when they cannot contribute to worship from their own understanding of the faith, the message they will receive in unmistakable terms is that they are not important enough to be taken seriously. Regardless of good intentions, this will be the net result of our efforts, if we try to impose order on people. The goal of worship is to bring people into the presence of God with the understanding that their prayers, their praise, and their petitions are important and that God will hear them from heaven. How will this objective be served if even the church will not hear them?
Given the goal of affirming people in what they offer to God, worship services cannot be choreographed by planners of any persuasion. It cannot be ordered by theme to the exclusion of what some people would bring if they were encouraged. Worship, when it is born of the inspiration of the people, can be diverse, yet one in spirit. Traditional liturgical forms have come to us from the long history of the church, and we dispense with them at our peril, but it must be conceded, we also miss the mark if we obstruct the development of new worship idioms when they come from contemporary Christians. Whether people work from tradition or from invention, the liturgy that evolves through their efforts will be alive and free. Imposed order, whether that of traditionalists or of trend-followers, will be stifling and lead to discord. Our job as facilitators of worship—not planners—is to empower and encourage the congregation to participate in worship, not try to do it for them. We can't.
When we have created services in which people are not coming merely as auditors but participating in ways that only they can imagine and create, we might have something that resembles the model Paul envisioned for the church at Corinth. It will also be a diverse and vital fellowship in which nobody will have to complain that tradition or trends are driving out worship as they understand it. The laity-generated form of worship taught by the Apostle is clear. Worship comes about through the inspiration and contributions of the people. Their impulses need to be encouraged, their ideas put into practice without much hesitation or critique. When evaluation is needed, or problems arise, things should be discussed in an open, collaborative setting. Forms imposed through command-control management practices are likely to be counterproductive. In spite of disagreement, the church should in all its methodology, as well as in its proclamations, bring people into the presence of a God who draws them into worship because He has been looking for just what they have to offer.