Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Presbyterians & Liturgy - Part VIII

Continued from Part VII

Terminology & Glory

The terminology we use to describe what happens on the Lord’s Day can be confusing. We’ve inherited the designation “worship service,” which, to my mind, often leads to confusion about what's really happening in the congregation.

“Service” comes from the Latin serviium, as in servitium Dei (“the service of God” or “God’s service”). This older way of designating the Christian liturgy is delightfully ambiguous. In the “Divine Service” or “the service of God” who is serving whom? Is God serving us? Or are we serving God? Or is it both?

Classically, the “Divine Service” was thought to include both God’s service to us and our service to God. Even so, our fathers in the faith considered God’s service to us (the forgiveness of sins, the ministry [service!] of the Word, the Sacraments, etc.) as primary and our service to him as secondary response.

But the priority of God's service to us is exactly what is lost when we call our corporate, Sunday assembly “worship.” This term comes to us by way of the Anglo-Saxon word “worth-ship,” which simply meant to accord someone his proper worth. What we appear to be emphasizing with this term is not God’s gifts and ministry to us through his Word and Sacraments, but our ascribing “worth” to him.

Sadly, many people that preach and teach about "worship" have a tendency to miss this. We are too ready to accept the misleading definition of liturgy as “the work of the people,” which is in fact only half of the story, and the second half at that!

What happens on Sunday is the continuation of the service of the ascended Lord Jesus for his people. “For who is greater: the one at the table or the one who serves? The one at the table, surely. Yet here am I among you as the one who serves! (Luke 22:27; see also Matt. 20:28; John 13:5-16; Phil. 2:7-8).

Without this understanding, our worship inevitably degenerates into Pelagianism with a Calvinistic veneer. The worship service is not first of all for God. Rather, first, we receive from God, then, secondly, we give back to him with gratitude precisely that which he graciously continues to give us.


After all, God stands in no need of our service or praise. He has not created us primarily so as to get glory for himself, but to distribute and share the fullness of his glory with his creatures. This needs to be carefully considered. The true God is not like the pagan gods who need to suck up as much of the glory and praise as they can. With the true God the determination of the amount of glory possessed by him and us is not a zero sum game. If he has all glory, that does not imply that we have none. If we possess glory, it does not come at the expense of his glory. Only when we refuse to acknowledge the source of our glory and assert our own over against his do we then fall under the condemnation of the prophets.

Thomas Howard rightly challenges this distortion:
“If God alone is all-glorious, then no one else is glorious at all. No exaltation may be admitted for any other creature, since this would endanger the exclusive prerogative of God. But this is to imagine a paltry court. What king surrounds himself with warped, dwarfish, worthless creatures? The more glorious the king, the more glorious are the titles and honors he bestows. The plumes, cockades, coronets, diadems, mantles, and rosettes that deck his retinue testify to one thing alone, his own majesty and munificence. He is a very great king to have figures of such immense dignity in his train, or even better, to have raised them to such dignity. These great lords and ladies, mantled and crowned with the highest possible honor and rank are, precisely, his vassals. This glittering array is his court! All glory to him, and in him, glory and honor to these others” (Evangelical Is Not Enough [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984], p. 87).
It is this cruder form of the doctrine that is too often the popular view. If anyone has an ounce of glory, then it must be confiscated by God. This is pagan. Rather, we must say that if anyone has an once or two pounds of glory, it has been bestowed on him by God from the plentitude of his own glory and so all glory in the world must ultimately redound to him. “For of Him and through Him and to Him [are] all things, to whom [be] glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).

This mistaken view of the relationship between God's glory and ours leads to all sorts of errors. Our churches cannot be beautiful (glorious), but must look like whitewashed meeting halls or worse otherwise we might be deflecting people from the God who alone has all glory. Nonsense. Beauty is not dangerous in this way. God bestows beauty and glory on his people. What kind of God is projected by churches that make their environment of worship ugly? A husband who keeps his wife looking ugly, not allowing her to beautify herself, does not really love his wife. How much worse would it be if he wanted to draw attention to his own good looks by keeping her drab looking?

The Father desires to glorify his Son's bride. The Son is dedicated to beatifying her as well. The Glory Spirit is directly involved in the makeover. What do you think this means for Christian liturgy? Think about it like this. What do we do with wedding ceremonies? Typically, the parents and the couple are dedicated to making the service beautiful. Time and care are taken to make sure everything is done just right to glorify the bride and insure that the ceremony is glorious. Why don't we have the same attitude towards our Lord's Day services? Where is the corresponding concern for beauty and significance in the liturgy of the church?


Anonymous said...


On my computer, this new installment appears as Part V, but it should be Part VIII (I've been saving each one, and I have seven already).

Jeff Meyers said...

Oh, yes, thanks, Mike. I'll correct that.

Jim said...


As you know, Lutherans have a (German) word for it, Gottesdienst -- or God's service.

Without being too tendentious (just tendentious enough), don't you think that popular sacramentology contributes to how Reformed Christians think about the service?

For example, for many, baptism is not God taking a person and uniting him to Christ, but is an offering of the baby to God, or a public confession of faith (if an adult). Even the idea of baptism as a sort of "covenant oath" would seem to me to focus on the human agent, swearing fealty to the covenant lord.

So, too, for many, the eucharist is what Christians do to remember Christ's work and to offer thanks to God, it's not a means by which we receive God's forgiveness by receiving Jesus' true body and blood.

For these folks, the service can only be a worship service and not Gottesdienst because God is not in fact active in the service.

Of course, that may also explain why the sermon takes up so much time in the typical Reformed service -- as a practical matter, that is the only mode through which many Reformed Christians believe that they receive from God in the service (although I expect many would avoid that characterization in order to avoid what they would deem to be incipient sacerdotalism).