the weblog of Alan Knox

Luther and the non-Christian "worship service"

Posted by on Jun 30, 2008 in church history, gathering | 19 comments

In his essay “The German Mass and Order of Divine Service” (January 1526) Martin Luther explains how a Sunday meeting should be carried out. Specifically, these are his instructions (I’ve removed some of the details so that it is easier to see the outline):

[a] At the beginning then we sing a spiritual song or a psalm in German, in primo tono, as follows : Ps. xxxiv.

[b] Then Kyrie eleison, to the same tone, but thrice and not nine times. . . .

[c] Then the priest reads a Collect in Effaut in unisono, as follows : ‘Almighty God,’ etc.

[d] Then the Epistle, in the eighth tone. . . . The Epistle should be sung with the face turned to the people, but the Collect with the face turned to the altar.

[e] After the Epistle is sung a German hymn, ‘Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist,’ or some other, by the whole choir.

[f] Then is read the Gospel in the fifth tone, also with the face turned towards the people.

[g] After the Gospel the whole congregation sings the Creed in German, ‘ Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott,’ etc.

[h] Then follows the sermon…

[i] After the sermon shall follow a public paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, with an exhortation to those who are minded to come to the Sacrament…

[k] Then the Office and Consecration proceeds, as follows : ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the same night'(i Cor. xi. 23 ff)…

[l] The elevation we desire not to abolish but to retain, for it fits in well with the Sanctus in German, and means that Christ has bidden us to think of Him…

[m] The Sanctus in German, ‘Jesaia dem Propheten das geschach,’ etc.

[n] Then follows the Collect : ‘We thank thee, Almighty Lord God,’ etc.

[o] With the Blessing : ‘The Lord bless thee and keep thee,’ etc…

This looks very familiar. In fact, besides the various portions in German and/or Latin, this “order of service” is similar to what I was accustomed to experiencing while I was growing up in Baptist churches in Alabama. Sure, we called “The Blessing” by a different name (the Benediction), and we didn’t sing or speak the various creeds to one another each week. But, overall, our Alabama Baptist liturgy was very similar to Luther’s German/Latin liturgies. After moving to Georgia and North Carolina, and visiting church meetings in other parts of the USA and the world, I’ve also found that Luther’s “order” is very similar to the order of church meetings around the world.

Here’s the funny part… if you call it funny… Luther did not think this “order” was best for the church. Instead, he intended this “order” (whether in German or in Latin) to be for unbelievers. This is a quote from the beginning of Luther’s essay – which is often overlooked:

Both these kinds of Service (German and Latin) then we must have held and publicly celebrated in church for the people in general. They are not yet believers or Christians. But the greater part stand there and gape, simply to see something new: and it is just as if we held Divine Service in an open square or field amongst Turks or heathen. So far it is no question yet of a regularly fixed assembly wherein to train Christians according to the Gospel: but rather of a public allurement to faith and Christianity.

Did you catch that? What the church today calls a “church service”, Luther says is not for the church at all – that is, not for Christians. Instead, he designed his “Mass and Order of Divine Service” for the sake of attracting those who are not Christians. In fact, he later describes what he thinks a meeting would look like for those who are already Christians (see my post “Luther and the Church“). However, without considering Luther’s purpose, we blindly follow his design. I wonder if we’re missing something…


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 6-30-2008


    You said,”we blindly follow”.

    You said it all! What more can one say?

  2. 6-30-2008

    Very Interesting Post. As a guy serving in a Lutheran church, it was very educational. Maybe, I will use this as part of confirmation class.

    Aussie picked up on the phrase as well that I was going to touch on. I think that many times, we “copy” or “follow” and we do it WITH OUT the original intent.

    When we do it with out the original intent, we mise well not do.

    Thanks for giving me something to ponder.

  3. 6-30-2008

    Hey Alan,

    Does this mean that Luther was the first advocate of a seeker-sensitive worship service? It kind of sounds that way.

    Of course, I do not think God ever intended for us to have “seeker-sensitive” services where the service is designed for the unbeliever. It seems to me that 1 Corithians 14 demonstrates that the sincere and participatory nature of believers in assembly is a greater testimony to those who do not believe.

    What are your thoughts?

  4. 6-30-2008

    That’s incredible. The institutional church opted to follow the format designed for unbelievers. All I can say is, it’s no wonder why the church is in its present condition. Wow!!


  5. 6-30-2008

    Very interesting point Alan. I’d not heard the statement made at the beginning of his essay before.

  6. 6-30-2008

    Aussie John,

    But, if we don’t “blindly follow” then we’re considered rebels and heretics. 🙂


    I’d love to hear how others in the Lutheran church answer Luther’s introductory statement.


    I don’t know if Luther is the first advocate of a “seeker-sensitive worship”, but he certainly seemed to see the purpose of these public “divine orders” as attracting unbelievers to Christ.


    I’m not sure if Luther designed this service. Much of it came from the Catholic mass.


    I read it in a seminar, but we didn’t discuss it. We jumped straight to the “order”.


  7. 6-30-2008

    Thanks for enlightening us on this. What is interesting, I am arminian and I see the similarities.

    Another truth to add to the scene, American Family Association says “only six percent of all people who call themselves Christians, truly understand the core message of the Bible”.

    Doesn’t this mean that the formality Luther invented may be helping to bring people into the church. However, the church is failing to go beyond the inspiration of the liturgy.


  8. 6-30-2008


    You’re probably right about few people (even those who call themselves believers) understanding the core message of the Bible. Of course, its not surprising since they have been told so many times that they can’t understand Scripture without education or training.


  9. 3-9-2011

    thanks so much alan. this is great information. pretty profound……

  10. 5-27-2011

    Wow and thank you, brother.

    It is something my wife and I have been thinking and saying for a decade or more: public meetings can be effective evangelistic events if they culminate in conviction and opportunity for conversion (Acts 2:37-38).

    Luke’s record for us includes the answers to “What must we do to be saved?” and “What happened next?” We read “Let there be light” and don’t think twice about accepting “and there was light.” How is it that we read of the Genesis of the Body and turn a blind eye to the light of the Acts of the Apostles?

    Will we dare live out the rest of the chapter? Are we so radically altered by the altar of the Gospel that our lives and homes are open to others? Will the same “whosoever will” that brought us into the building of lively stones echo in our neighborhoods?

    It had until now seemed inconceivable to me that Luther would have had such a radical view of salvation, the initial invisible work of grace, without questioning the means by which the church visibly purported to display the affects of that work.

    I can’t quite explain the rush of feeling, but I guess I would say that I am relieved for my brother Martin to know that he at least at the point of the writing you’ve shared had eyes open to see and a mouth ready to asked the right questions.

    If the Gospel radically alters our hearts, should it not radically alter our hearths?

  11. 3-6-2012

    We too have the sort of “seeker sensitive” services as described here, to a point, at least in a similar pattern anyhow. On a Sunday night, we would have first: Opening Prayer, then, Song service w/offertory, then Choir numbers, then Special singing, then traditionally, the first lady, i.e. the pastor’s wife would sing and play a Special number. Then would follow the Sermon and then, Altar call. This was a general tradition in our small church, not necessarily as a rule in all of our denomination’s churches. Not all had singers for preacher’s wives, or maybe not even a choir, betimes. But atop of all that most of us have succumbed using overly rhythmatic popular style music of one sort or another; generally, rock n rollish in style, to attract others that would not otherwise enjoy the service, or to entertain the bored rather than Sing Unto The LORD. We are known as (Oneness) Apostolic Pentecostals.

  12. 9-26-2012

    You said “blindly follow” – would “blandly follow” be more accurate?

  13. 1-14-2013

    From my modest understanding of history, it seems that two streams of historical and theological influence created the public service that is commonly called a church service or worship service.

    (1) Political policies (such as Constantine’s) required all people within a geographical territory to become ‘Christians’ via baptism and allegiance to the church. Thus the church was filled with unbelievers and Christians were defined in a superficial way in many instances — not by true conversion but politically and geographically — almost like affiliation with a political party or membership in a civic club today.

    (2) The practice of infant baptism (advocated by church leaders like Martin Luther) included all people as ‘members’ of the church. While they believed that baptism regenerated the infant, the reality was otherwise. It was the reality of unregenerate unbelief which eventually had to be addressed by evangelistic preaching to unbelievers.

    Churches today carry on the tradition of an open public service. “Everyone is welcome.” The result, of course, is a mixed meeting of unbelievers and believers. The service often takes on an evangelistic focus to address unbelievers.

    I don’t know that this is all bad. It has been the path for many coming to Christ over the centuries. However, churches which practice this eventually realize that making disciples and edifying the saints cannot be accomplished by a general, public service (no matter how good the praise band and preacher might be). Thus ‘church life’ cannot and should not stop here.

    Most churches organize more meetings (study groups of various kinds, discipleship groups, Sunday School classes, home groups, small groups — whatever you want to call them) which go ‘deeper’ into the Christian faith and provide an opportunity for more intimate fellowship and mutual edification. These auxiliary groups better represent ‘koinonia’ (shared life) by the ‘ekklesia’ (spiritually-called assembly of believers).

    This widespread traditions leaves us with a couple of questions:

    (1) Should we continue the public service with it evangelistic bent and look to other meetings to supply what the ‘worship service’ cannot provide?

    (2) Should we reform or replace the ‘general audience’ service with a more open, participatory, mutually-edifying meeting intended for believers, that is still conscious of and sensitive to the reality that unbelievers will sometimes be present (cf. Acts 2: 42-47; Rom. 11:22; 1 Cor. 7:15; 14:24-25; Heb. 2:1; 3:6; 6:11; 1 John 2:19; Rev. 2:26)?

    I lean toward the second choice for two reasons:

    (1) I see this as an obedience issue. We should look to our Lord Jesus as the Architect and builder of His Ekklesia (Matt. 16:18) by following the pattern and practices revealed by His Spirit in the New Testament church. [More thoughts here:

    (2) When we obey our Lord’s commands by following HIS blueprint for HIS church, then the church is walking in the Spirit, more full of the Spirit, and, therefore, more likely to bear more fruit of the Spirit. When believers are genuinely engaged with one another in Christ-centered fellowship, even during difficult times, then a more spiritually-authentic witness is provided to unbelievers who might be present.

    I believe this spiritual authenticity, manifested by a variety of spiritual gifts serving in sacrificial love, is what we see in the New Testament (cf. Acts 2:42-27; 1 Cor. 14:24-25). When it was missing, God chastened His people and Paul rebuked them too (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:17-33). People came to faith in God through Christ as they observed the living presence of Christ inhabiting the gatherings of believers by His Spirit.

  14. 3-20-2013


    I think I can help make sense of some of this. First off, this is Luther’s second revision of the mass, a few years after the earlier Formula Missae (1523). The attempt is to further tailor the service to the local, German-speaking needs of the community, and to clarify the nature of the Christian proclamation and worship that goes on. It is of course based on earlier, Roman Catholic liturgies, themselves based in ancient Christian liturgies, which drew quite heavily on Jewish liturgies. The structure isn’t very much changed from those sources, but the details place the emphasis quite differently.

    Yes, this is considered a “public” order of worship, meant for believer and unbeliever alike, as a mixed body. But do note that Luther never actually details that service for true Christians, except to vaguely suggest what such a thing might be like–so why is that? Well, the fact that he sees such worship going on in Latin, Hebrew and Greek is a clue–Luther doesn’t actually think it’s possible to regularly assemble a body of “true Christians” for worship, as long as this world endures. That is a repeated theme in the various Lutheran confessional writings. Luther’s ideal for pure worship for Christians is mostly eschatological. This is why he never attempts to initiate or flesh it out. At best, he sees such a thing spontaneously forming, from time to time, but it cannot really be reached for.

    The error of the (that is, my own) Lutheran tradition with respect to this view of Luther’s isn’t so much that we mistook his public worship service for the better, Christian one, but that we very often mistook ourselves for a pure body, rather than a mixed one. The church frequently ignores the parable of the wheat and tares, in one direction or another, and the consequence is to misunderstand the nature of our worship. Luther’s goal was a service that preached to unbelievers, to give faith; he held that in this life we never progress beyond such preaching and worship, however much we like to think of ourselves as thoroughly converted.

  15. 3-21-2013


    You may have expressed Luther’s views perfectly, but that’s not what he wrote in this essay. (I know he changed his views on this several times.) He specifically says in this essay that the “divine orders” in German and Latin are for unbelievers. These are the “services” that he modified from the Catholic mass. He also spells out in some detail how he would like to gather with true believers, not talking about some kind of eschatological perfection of all saints, but talking about gathering with imperfect saints today.


  16. 3-21-2013


    Yes, he does say they’re for unbelievers–and then refers to “us who are not yet Christians,” and says that even the Word and the sacraments are not for Christians, but for sinners. He encourages everyone to attend them, worships this way himself, and participates in no other order. So where were those services for believers? Clearly he would desire such a thing–but he neither attempts to start one, nor does he outline one in much detail (compared, e.g., with the services he actually does lay out–full liturgies, including music). He refuses to do either.

    I think its notable that Luther is very afraid of factions forming because of an attempt at just such worship–in other words, if he has to not only create the order but determine who belongs in it, he fears it will simply be schismatic, and not of the gospel at all. So this gathering of Christians would need to be spontaneous. What he’s describing is something like the monastic ideal emerging within human society on its own.

    Within his thought, this is eschatological–not because it cannot take place on earth or must await Christ’s visible coming, but because it must come without any external order–the gospel simply bubbling up into fruition, which would result in an utterly changed society. It’s not that he holds such a thing to be impossible, but that we couldn’t possibly design it into existence. By all means, gather–but if it isn’t already happening on its own, it isn’t what he’s talking about in this particular passage.

  17. 3-24-2013


    Actually, in this essay, Luther is not concerned about factions or schisms. He is only concerned because he cannot find Christians who are willing to meet in this manner. He says he can’t find “true Christians,” but I would assume it’s because they are comfortable/familiar with the first two “orders of divine service,” while Luther’s third order is new and strange to them.

    You said, “It must come without any external order.” I agree. I think this is one of the reasons that Luther was so perplexed. Since the Spirit was driving true Christians to this third kind of meeting, then why were others not interested?


  18. 3-25-2013


    He does mentions sects. In the translation you link to, “…to the end that there be no faction-forming, such as might ensue if I were to settle everything out of my own head.” Or as the American Edition of Luther’s Works has it, “For if I should try to make it up out of my own need, it might turn into a sect.” So that is a concern–as it nearly always is for Luther after the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525.

    But yes, you’ve put your finger on the issue–Luther believes that true Christians should be driven to this, and yet they are not in evidence. All he can think to do is continue to preach and teach until such a thing may emerge–and he pairs this with a degree of caution about even his own motivations, something that I think intensifies on these matters over the years.

  19. 3-28-2013


    Interestingly, such a thing (i.e., his “third order”) did emerge among the Anabaptists, and it is still emerging today.



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