Bad liturgy, bad ethics?

This (heavily-ironic) quote from Stanley Hauerwas is fun:

One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.


But, while bad liturgy may not lead to bad ethics in the crude way described by Prof Hauerwas (and the good professor has a point in telling Christians to get a sense of perspective), ethics should only be a secondary concern for Christians anyway. This is described well by Luther in the following statement (reference is given as WA TR 1:624; LW 54:110, for hardcore Luther geeks):

Doctrine and life are to be distinguished. Life is as bad among us as among the papists. Hence we do not fight and damn them because of their bad lives. Wyclif and Hus, who fought over the moral quality of life, failed to understand this … When the Word of God remains pure, even if the quality of life fails us, life is placed in a position to be what it ought to be. That is why everything hinges on the purity of the Word. I have succeeded only if I have taught correctly.

And the problem with bad liturgy – with “singing some sappy, sentimental hymn” and praying “some pointless prayer” – is that it obstructs (at best) the Word of God and distracts people from the gospel. “The purity of the Word” is not simply a matter of what goes on in the pulpit – it’s what goes on in the rest of the service, too.

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5 Responses to Bad liturgy, bad ethics?

  1. Chris Jones says:

    bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics

    Where does this come from? The aphorism is lex orandi lex est credendi, not lex orandi lex est agendi.

    I agree with the point you are making, but I would make it even more strongly. Liturgy is not something added to the Gospel, which can either enhance or obscure the presentation. Liturgy is how the Gospel is delivered. Good liturgy (orthodox liturgy) is liturgy that delivers the Gospel. Bad liturgy doesn’t simply “obscure” an otherwise orthodox Gospel; it delivers a false Gospel.

  2. John H says:

    Chris: I think Prof Hauerwas was speaking with tongue firmly in cheek.

    Agree with you re the liturgy being how the gospel is delivered – which is what I think Article 5 of the Augsburg Confession is getting at (see this post from last year). As you know, I’m always a bit reluctant (perhaps too reluctant) to swing the “false gospel” club around too hard, given what Paul has to say in Galatians 1 on the subject of those delivering a false gospel…

  3. Matt J. says:

    Our understanding of God and what living the Christian life looks like – from where is it derived?
    If you have no Christian parents or mature mentors to look to and don’t study the Bible much yourself personally, then the bulk of Christianity it likely being presented to you in that 90 minute window on Sunday mornings. If the liturgy is sappy, then that’s a problem because you don’t have much else to go off of. Bummer.

    I also am very reluctant to swing the “false gospel” club around. Machen said the liberal’s gospel was false. Well, OK. Not a few reformed folks have followed in saying things like “Charles Wesley preached a false gospel”. Uh, whatever. “Obstructs” or “distracts” is a lot better in most cases I think. For example, I know many people (myself included) who WERE preached the gospel growing up. But the fundamentalism was a major distraction.

    I love the quote. I reminded me of the section in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy where he talks about why so many fights have broke out in Christian history over something as small as one word of the creed.

    “Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years.”

    “Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.”

  4. Chris Jones says:

    John and Matt,

    While I understand your reluctance to “swing the ‘False Gospel’ club,” I have to stand by what I said. Bad liturgy — if it is bad enough — conveys a false Gospel.

    A-liturgical Protestant worship basically consists of singing hymns, listening to a lecture, and some improvised prayers uttered by the lecturer. Its function is to convey information and to elicit emotion. At best, the information may be accurate and the emotions genuine. But information and emotion are not the purpose of proper Christian liturgy.

    The Christian liturgy is all about the objective means of grace. It does not tell us about God, it unites us to God. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given. Where the Psalms are not sung, the Scriptures are not publicly read, the Creed is not confessed, and the Eucharist is not celebrated, then the Word is not being proclaimed according to the regula fidei and the Sacraments are not being administered rightly.

    The Gospel is more than accurate information about God. It offers us the concrete way to be reconciled with God and to be united with God. And that reconciliation is ineluctably liturgical. Any “Gospel” that gives us only information, but not the objective means of grace, is truncated and therefore false.

    To put it more succinctly: the Eucharist is not an add-on to the Gospel. The Eucharist IS the Gospel.

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