Thursday, June 13, 2013

An Apologetic for Scripted Christian Worship

When Christians tell the story of God, they do so from within the context of particular practices of worship, prayer, and everyday life. A general survey of the history and diversity of liturgical worship reveals that these practices often show a clear trend and evolution towards being “scripted” performances. Church history and tradition demonstrates that it is altogether appropriate that Christian worship be scripted. As defined, “liturgy” describes the conduct of a duty, in this case, the duty of a public and often well-defined response to God. Admittedly, this can create a potential paradox within the Christian community. Despite belonging to the priesthood of all believers (1)—the potential implication being that the conduct of worship be approached liberally without planning—the tradition left by the Church is one of communal conformity in liturgical practice. Support for this conformity and “scripted” quality can be mustered from a variety of sources.

There is an indirect correspondence between the Church’s conduct of Christian liturgy and the Old Testament ritual service of temple worship. The Hebrew Bible normally uses the verb (LXX ‘leitourgein’) to express the idea of a “professional or priestly ministration,” used for example in Ex. 29:30 and Num. 16:9 (c.f. Heb. 10:11; Lk. 1:23). In the New Testament, leitourgein has been applied, in a metaphorical sense, to the spiritual service rendered by prophets and preachers of the gospel (Acts 13:2, Rom. 15:16) and to the “more excellent ministry” of Christ (Heb. 8:6). Despite this metaphorical understanding, there are clear evidences that the early Christians expressed their worship in planned or scripted ways. 

Paul admonishes the Corinthian church that “all things be done properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Cor. 14:40). This orderliness would apply to a host of practices, including the four elements that characterized a Christian gathering in the early church in Acts 2:42. In this familiar devotional formula of the early Christian community, the root of later liturgical development is likely already in place. In the “continual devotion to the apostle’s teaching”: the origin of later homiletical practice; in “the breaking of bread”: the devotion to the Eucharistic tradition (2); in the devotion to fellowship: the sharing of a common religious experience; in prayer: the likely observation of the set Jewish hours of prayer (c.f. Acts 3:1). A cautionary note is appropriate here: it is difficult to speak comprehensively about specific liturgical form in the first three centuries of Christianity, and when doing so, it is best to restrict the view to where the practice was located geographically. That caveat aside, the reality of a scripted form is evident in the very earliest expressions of the Christian faith, no matter what shape it took. 

Why should the Christian liturgical form have emerged in such a scripted manifestation and why the apologetic for a continuing, “planned” approach today? One way to answer this question is to point to what the Christian does in worship, particularly in the sacraments, which is to participate in a re-enactment meant to bring about the “encounter between the worshippers and the saving mystery” of the Redeemer (Crichton 1992, 14). Because the re-enactment itself is predicated in a historical action, there should be an expectation that the “script” is rooted in the historical acts of God, or at least the commemoration of those acts. In many ways, this explains the “meta-script” (3) of Christian worship, and accounts for the presence of similarly specific elements in the worship services of a broad variety of Christian traditions (e.g. the Eucharist). It is likely that future forms of Christian worship will continue to be rooted in the historical acts of God; therefore, ongoing reflection will necessitate a formatted and planned approach to worship.

‘Negative’ evidence of a “planned” worship practice can be used to support the thesis as well. For example, even in the more austere forms of liturgical practice imaginable—the Quaker silent practice known as an ‘open’ or ‘waiting’ service—there is an ironically “scripted” form, and everyone is expected to wait in silence until the Holy Spirit moves a person to speak (Dandelion 2008, 53). This waiting in silence is enforced and adhered to; after all, it is the expectation of how the worshippers will respond to God that is most “scripted,” whether in the high liturgical forms of the Roman Catholic or Anglican traditions, or in the silent anticipation of the Quaker worship. The expectation of how worshippers collectively will respond to God is what delineates the koinonia of a particular tradition from another, and is at the heart of the apologetic for “scripted” worship.

Differences in “scripts” should abound. The modern North American worshipper might better identify with the extension of the “right hand of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9) rather than the first-century worshipper’s preference for the “holy kiss of peace” (Rom. 16:16). Nonetheless, historically this tradition of the ‘holy kiss’ has been incorporated into the liturgical practice of the church, in some instances, following the consecration of the Eucharist (Augustine 1959, 197). The fact that there are differences in the scripted liturgical practices of various traditions does not obviate the need for a planned, programmed response from a local Christian community. As was true in the early church, some “scripts” will vary from time to time and place to place, and this phenomenon is appropriate and welcome. This realization should comfort those Christians rooted in the more exclusivist traditions of the Church.


(1) This is an admittedly Protestant view of the doctrine of a ‘universal priesthood’ rooted in the polemical writings of Luther against the Roman Catholic Church. Concerning 1 Peter 2:9, Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians would affirm the responsibility of all believers to defend and propagate the Gospel, but would assert the necessity of the ministerial priesthood for the administration of the sacraments (Olson 1999, 375-442).
(2) This understanding of the “breaking of bread” seems to be a consensus view, though it is not without dispute. See Marshall 1980 for a defense of this position.
(3) Whether this term has been used previously to describe the elemental pattern or broad occurrence of similar Christian worship practices across traditions is unknown to the author. 

For Further Reading

Augustine. 1959. “Sermon 227.” The Fathers of the Early Church. Ed. Deferrari, Joseph. New York, NY: Fathers of the Church, Inc.

Bradshaw, Paul. 2002. The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Crichton, J.D. 1992. “A Theology of Worship.” The Study of Liturgy. Ed. Cheslyn Jones et al. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Cunningham, Davis. 2003. “The Trinity.” The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology. Ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Dandelion, Pink. 2008. The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Marshall, I. Howard. 1980. “The Book of Acts: An Introduction and Commentary.” The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Ed. Leon Morris. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Marshall, I. Howard. 2007. “Ministry.” New Bible Dictionary. Ed. I. Howard Marshall et al. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Olson, Roger E. 1999. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Vine, M.E. 1993. “Minister.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Peabody, MA: Henrickson Publishers

Wainwright, Geoffrey. 1992. “The Periods of Liturgical History.” The Study of Liturgy. Ed. Cheslyn Jones et al. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.