the weblog of Alan Knox

Luther talks about the church meeting

Posted by on Jun 26, 2009 in church history, gathering | 9 comments

I’ve written a couple of posts concerning Luther’s “The German Mass and Order of Divine Service” (1526). I think most people are surprised when they read what Luther wrote about the church meeting. Here are those posts:

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Luther and the non-Christian “worship service”

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…

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Luther and the church

In the preface of “The German Mass and Order of Divine Service” (1526), Martin Luther describes three different kinds of “divine service”. The first and second kinds of “divine service” are differentiated only by the languages used (Latin and German, respectively). Importantly, this is what Luther says of these two kinds of “divine service”:

Both these kinds of Service 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.

Thus, for Luther, the public service in both Latin and German are for the purpose of exposing unbelievers to the Gospel. Notice that he does not see these services as being for Christians. So, what does Luther proscribe for believers? Keep reading for his “third sort of divine service”:

But the third sort [of Divine Service], which the true type of Evangelical Order should embrace, must not be celebrated so publicly in the square amongst all and sundry. Those, however, who are desirous of being Christians in earnest, and are ready to profess the Gospel with hand and mouth, should register their names and assemble by themselves in some house to pray, to read, to baptize and to receive the sacrament and practise other Christian works. In this Order, those whose conduct was not such as befits Christians could be recognized, reproved, reformed, rejected, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matt. xviii. Here, too, a general giving of alms could be imposed on Christians, to be willingly given and divided among the poor, after the example of St. Paul in 2 Cor. ix. Here there would not be need of much fine singing. Here we could have baptism and the sacrament in short and simple fashion: and direct everything towards the Word and prayer and love. Here we should have a good short Catechism about the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. In one word, if we only had people who longed to be Christians in earnest, Form and Order would soon shape itself. But I cannot and would not order or arrange such a community or congregation at present. I have not the requisite persons for it, nor do I see many who are urgent for it. But should it come to pass that I must do it, and that such pressure is put upon me as that I find myself unable with a good conscience to leave it undone, then I will gladly do my part to secure it, and will help it on as best I can.

It seems that Luther is calling for a different type of meeting for believers. In this meeting, Luther does not have to order things. Instead, he sees that “the form and order would soon shape itself.” (I would add that it is the Spirit that forms and orders the meetings.) In fact, Luther sees baptism and the Lord’s Supper happening in this group – not in one of the public meetings that are meant for unbelievers. Notice also that in this meeting, believers would teach one another and take up money to give to the poor.

So, why did Luther not pursue this type of service? Well, he tells us here that he does not know “earnest” Christians willing to participate in this type of meeting. History tells us that Luther later relented from this position in order to appease the state church.

Everything that follows this point in “The German Mass and Order of Divine Service” describes how to carry out the first two kinds of “Divine Service”, which Luther said were not intended for believers, but for unbelievers. We will never know what would have happened historically if Luther had held to his convictions: “I will gladly do my part to secure it, and will help it on as best I can.”


9 Comments

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  1. 6-26-2009

    Alan,
    This is some good information. I stumbled upon this very writing last year when I was doing a lot of searching.

    Thank you for posting this.

    Steven Owen

  2. 6-26-2009

    Alan,

    So would it be fair to say that what Luther advocated for Christians is very similar to what we see described in the New Testament?

    -jeff

  3. 6-26-2009

    So how does this work it real life? Should we have two “services”, one for believers and one for evangelism?

  4. 6-26-2009

    Steven,

    I read this during a PhD seminar. We actually jumped over what Luther actually said and studied his “worship service” order… well, some of the students jumped over what he said.

    Jeff,

    I think that Luther’s third type of meeting (for believers) is very similar to what we see in the New Testament. Of course, you can still see Luther’s liturgical background in his description of the Christian meeting.

    Arthur,

    Actually, Luther described three different types of meetings. Two of those meetings would be evangelistic in Latin and German. The third type of meeting would be for believers.

  5. 6-26-2009

    But I speak neither Latin nor German.

  6. 6-26-2009

    Arthur,

    Right. But for Luther, Latin was the language of the university, and German was the language of the people. He wanted a meeting in Latin and a meeting in German in order to proclaim the gospel to all. In my area, perhaps he would want meetings in English and Spanish.

    -Alan

  7. 6-27-2009

    After a quick read of Luther’s writings here(thanks Alan, it was very informative) It seems Luther was not immune to modern Pragmatism even in 1526……whatever “works” for whatever group of people he was “trying to reach”…seems to be the thought process. Regardless of what the Apostolic tradition says about CHURCH practice.
    I believe the modern “seeker/purpose driven non-denoms” embody philosophy like this today, at least it seems more evident in their philosophy of “ministry”………

    Thanks Alan…keep them coming :) :)

  8. 6-27-2009

    EROPPER,

    If I understand Luther correctly, he did not consider the German and Latin Masses to be church meetings. I think he considered them to be more like evangelistic meetings. Unfortunately, they were accepted and continue to be taught as church meetings.

    -Alan

  9. 4-9-2012

    It amazes me that we “assume” to understand when we follow “blindly” the traditions of men.

    How great is the deception of separation, and vaunting the individual over the community.

    We are right to pose the question “Who says?”, and then direct our attention to scripture, and the will of our common Lord and Savior.

    Great post Alan!