Pluralistic Worship

During the Reformation era, debates raged over what things must be considered crucial to Christian faith and practice, and what could be considered adiaphora (Latin for “things indifferent”). All sides agreed that the doctrines of the Trinity, the atonement, and justification were central. But what about worship issues? What about the elements of worship, sacramental theology, church architecture, and furnishings?

Theological considerations drove the Reformers to insist upon biblical preaching, congregational singing, vernacular Bible readings and services, and sacramental practices that were consistent with their rejection of a sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist. The Reformers did not always agree on the details, but the principle was clear: “Let us, therefore, repudiate everything that smacks of sacrifice,” said Luther in his Formula Missae (1523). One could argue (I wouldn’t, but one could) that there is nothing wrong with a minister standing in front of the table, with turning his back on the people as he mumbles the words of institution, with elevating the host, with fencing the altar with a rail that keeps the laity at a distance, with serving a communion wafer that won’t crumble. All of these could perhaps be justified with reference to reverence for the eucharistic service, with the aim of maintaining dignity and order. One could argue that they are adiaphora. However, to many Protestants they were not adiaphora, because, they argued, these practices grew out of the doctrine of transubstantiation and implied a sacrificial understanding of the mass.

Is the sacramental host a sacrificial offering of Christ’s flesh and blood placed by a priest on an altar that satisfies, even propitiates a holy God? Yes, said the medieval church, Tridentine, and even post-Vatican II (1960s) Roman Catholicism. If so, then of course one should perform the miracle of the mass at a distance from carnal curiosity seekers; of course the host should be elevated and adored — it is, after all, the actual body of Christ; of course great pains should be taken to prevent clumsy or careless lay people from spilling the wine (so deny them the cup) or dropping crumbs of Christ’s flesh (hence wafers).

But since (in a Protestant understanding of things) none of these things is true, language, gestures, and furnishings that imply that they are true cannot be regarded as adiaphora. They must be purged from the church’s eucharistic practices. Priests must be called “ministers” or “pastors,” and altars must be replaced with tables. As Luther put it: “everything that smacks of sacrifice” must be repudiated. Everything that implies sacrifice must be removed. Calvin summarized: “[The Lord] has given us a table at which to feast, not an altar on which a victim is to be offered; he has not consecrated priests to make sacrifice, but servants [ministros] to distribute the sacred feast” (Institutes, 4.18.12). Neo-medievalists in conservative evangelical circles would do well to learn the language of church architecture, furnishings, and gestures, and not naively reinstate that which we theologically reject.