The Blessing and Benefit of Mutual Agreement in Adiaphora

As I’m attending and participating in the LCMS Institute on Liturgy, Preaching, and Church Music this week, and as I’ve also recently begun working my way through The Church Order, by Martin Chemnitz, et al. (CPH, 2015), while also considering recent discussions and debates about “Lutheran Identity” (what it is, what it means, and what it looks like), I’ve excerpted and redacted a portion of the paper I presented at the LCMS International Church Relations Forum last year,* in which I touch on some of these topics. For clarity’s sake, please note that the point at hand is simply the blessing and benefit that our Lutheran forebears have found in adopting and abiding by mutually agreed-upon practices which are otherwise free in themselves (adiaphora). Which is to say that I am not here advocating for any particular set of practices vis-à-vis others (although I have elsewhere recommended that we should use those things that we have agreed-upon together as a Synod, and at this point in our history that would mean, e.g., using the LSB).

In asserting that “it is not necessary that human traditions or rites and ceremonies, instituted by men, should be alike everywhere,” the Augsburg Confession cites Ephesians 4:4-6 in affirming that “the true unity of the Church” is found in the pure and right preaching and administration of the Gospel; for “there is one Body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all” (AC VII). Although Dr. Luther does not cite the Ephesians passage in the Preface to his Deutsche Messe (1526), he offers a comparable premise as a compelling reason to seek unity and harmony in liturgical practice, not as though it were necessary, but because it is appropriate and edifying: “As far as possible,” he writes, “we should observe the same rites and ceremonies, just as all Christians have the same Baptism and the same Sacrament [of the Altar] and no one has received a special one of his own from God” (Luther’s Works AE 53, p. 61). So, the very oneness of the Gospel which is entirely sufficient for the true unity of the Church is also, in its own way, the ground on which the Church is well able to establish common and consistent practices.

The Lutheran Church has generally followed Luther’s advice in seeking to adopt, adapt, and make consistent use of worship practices in common, largely preserving the liturgical traditions, rubrics, rites, and ceremonies of the Church catholic (AC XXIV.2-3). Consider the Lutheran Church Orders of the 16th and 17th centuries, which specify to varying degrees the way that pastors and congregations within a given territory should carry out the work of the Church. Those Lutheran Church Orders give directives in matters that are theologically free before God, but which the Church in her freedom chose to arrange and govern for the sake of consistency and unity in practice. Such consistency and unity are beneficial, not only for peace and harmony between neighboring parishes, but also for the clarity and precision of the Church’s catechesis and confession of the faith within each parish and beyond. “After all, the chief purpose of all ceremonies is to teach the people what they need to know about Christ” (AC XXIV.3).

We all know that actions speak louder than words, and just as we choose words with care in our preaching, teaching, and otherwise, so do we rightly exercise care in our liturgical practice at the heart and center of the Church’s life. Luther’s recommendation that churches should ideally seek to have Services, rites, and ceremonies in common is analogous to his admonition that we should choose “one fixed, permanent form and manner” of teaching the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Our Father, and strive “to teach the young and simple people these parts in such a way that we do not change a syllable or set them forth and repeat them one year differently than in another” (Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, CPH, 2008, pp. 247-248). While Luther did not dictate a particular “form and manner” for everyone, he did provide his Small Catechism for the use of the Church, and the Lutheran Church in freedom and love has chosen to continue using that beautiful contribution – to the great benefit of many generations.

Similar principles of pastoral care in respect to liturgical practice are exemplified in the case of Wilhelm Löhe’s Agenda, written for the mission of the Church in the United States, based upon the forms and practices he found “in one or the other of the many old Lutheran [Church] Orders” (Liturgy for Christian Congregations of the Lutheran Faith, Third Edition, tr. By F. C. Longaker, 1902, p. xi). To prepare and produce such an Agenda is, in itself, to make decisions and offer directions in matters that are free; and to do so on the basis of past precedent demonstrates the intention to be in continuity with those who have gone before us in the faith and confession of Christ Jesus. Similarly, Friedrich Lochner, a student of Löhe and one of the first pastors of the Missouri Synod, likewise gives careful attention to the practices of the Lutheran Church Orders in his thorough study of the history, theology, and practice of the Liturgy (see The Chief Divine Service of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, translated by Matthew Carver, CPH, 2020).

The Missouri Synod took these things seriously from the beginning. A conservative hymnal and liturgical agenda were among the first things that C.F.W. Walther and the congregations under his care took the time and made the effort to produce in the early years of the Synod’s existence (the hymnal within a year, the agenda within a decade of the Synod’s beginning). As the Synod began to use the English language, it also adopted the “Common Service” of 1888, based upon “the common consent of the pure Lutheran Liturgies of the Sixteenth Century,” or, where there was not “an entire agreement” among the Church Orders, “the consent of the largest number of greatest weight” (Luther Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, Fortress, 1960, p. 183).

The Lutheran Church throughout her history has recognized the benefit of common and consistent liturgical practices and the corresponding need for direction and guidance in these areas. It is true that Church Fellowship does not depend on uniformity in adiaphora, but where there is fellowship in doctrine the Church will tend to gravitate toward a common and consistent usage of adiaphora in the conduct of the Divine Service. And the Church is beautifully free to pursue that path! It is not a violation but an exercise of faith and freedom when the pastors and congregations of a particular territory or jurisdiction of the Church mutually agree – in love – to order and conduct their liturgical life according to common rubrics, rites, and ceremonies.

* For those who are interested, here is a link to my entire paper, as written for the 2023 LCMS International Church Relations Forum: