Christian Worldview

Exploring Worship: Part One, Form and Freedom


Glenn Sunshine

A few years ago, one of the issues that divided evangelicalism was the so-called “worship wars,” which centered on the use of contemporary music in church services. While we are largely (though not entirely) past that issue, the question is itself part of a larger debate within the church over the appropriate conduct of worship. In this series, we will look at several of the tensions that exist within worship in the history of Christianity and will discuss what the Bible tells us about worship in the Old and New Testament periods and in Heaven itself.

Form and Freedom in the Early and Medieval Church

One important polarity in worship is the tension between form and freedom. In the apostolic period, it appears that there were two approaches to worship in use in different churches. The first was built on the synagogue liturgy plus the Lord’s Supper. Acts 2:42 tells us that the church in Jerusalem “devoted themselves to … the prayers.” Note the definite article: they did not simply devote themselves to prayer, but to the prayers, which strongly suggests they were following a scheduled, liturgical approach to prayer almost certainly based on the synagogue liturgy and featuring the Psalms and other prayers.

Presumably in communities in which there were few Jews, an alternative approach to worship seems to have developed, as described in 1 Corinthians 12-14. This was far less formalized and more spontaneous and charismatically-driven. Members of the congregation could offer Scriptures, hymns, prophecies, etc. The Lord’s Supper was also celebrated as part of a community meal known as the agape.

By the second century, churches had become more clerical and hierarchical. For example, the office of bishop (episcopos), which in the pastoral epistles was interchangeable with elders (presbyteros), had become a separate office held by the senior elder in a city. The office of elder evolved as well as part of this increasing clericalization: the term “presbyter” would become the root word for the English “priest.”

Alongside these developments we also see the decline in charismatic worship and the overwhelming acceptance of formal liturgical structures led by the presbyters. Although variations of these liturgies would evolve and expand over time, they became the unquestioned backbone of Christian worship for 1500 years.

Aside from a theological question concerning the Nicene Creed, a significant split occurred in the liturgies in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic worlds. In the Orthodox Churches, the liturgy was conducted in vernacular languages, as opposed to the exclusive use of Latin in the Roman Catholic Church. Latin had originally been a vernacular language in the western part of the Roman Empire, but over time fewer and fewer people understood it: it had become the language of scholars and of the church, leaving most of the population uncomprehending spectators at the liturgy.

The Reformation

With the Reformation, several changes were introduced into Protestant churches. Luther translated the Mass into German (adjusted as necessary to fit his theology). This made it accessible to the common people, not just scholars. Luther also introduced congregational singing as part of his worship services. In medieval Catholicism, there had been pilgrimage songs and other versions of contemporary Christian music, but during Mass, all singing was done by the clergy or professional choirs.

In contrast to Luther, Zwingli took a more austere view of worship. He believed that anything that distracted from the preaching of the Word needed to be removed from the church. That included organs and artwork—stained glass windows, statues, paintings, etc.—which were removed in an orderly manner under the supervision of the government. The congregations sang, but only a cappella psalms. He also stripped down the liturgy, making it far simpler and centering it firmly on the sermon. Although Calvin considered himself a faithful follower of Luther, he followed Zwingli in most of these innovations.

Despite these changes, worship remained highly liturgical in both the Zwinglian and Calvinist branches of Reformed Christianity. For example, in the French Reformed Churches in the sixteenth century, the pastor was only permitted to pray extemporaneously during the Lord’s Supper; all other prayers were read.

Anglicans and Puritans

The early Anglican Church had strong ties to the Reformed tradition, but it would take a direction in worship more like that of Luther. Under Queen Elizabeth I, the Anglicans maintained a high level of ceremony reminiscent of the Catholic Church while adopting a moderate Calvinist theology in what has been called the Elizabethan Settlement. The Puritans—English Protestants strongly influenced by Calvin—were not happy with this, but under Elizabeth and her successor James I they were unable to make much headway in “purifying” the Church of England of “papist superstition and idolatry.”

Despite their Calvinist background, many Puritans departed from Calvin’s example by rejecting set prayers and formal liturgies, the church calendar including celebrations of Christmas and Easter, and other traditional practices because there was no warrant for them in Scripture.

Under King Charles I, these disagreements flared into civil war. His Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, issued a new Book of Common Prayer for all the churches in Charles’ kingdoms, which included both England and Scotland. The Scots by this point were firm Calvinists. The new prayer book was seen as too “papist” and so provoked rioting in Edinburgh. Charles tried to quell the riots with force, but the Scots drove the English army out of Scotland and invaded England. Charles was forced to call Parliament to raise money for the army, but Parliament was controlled by Puritans. To make a long and complex story short, Parliament and the Scots allied against the king, and he was defeated and executed.

The coalition that won the war included quite a range of ideas, including Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and a variety of radical sects. During the period of the Commonwealth which followed Charles’ execution, a wide range of theological ideas and worship styles were tolerated. These ranged from Anglicanism’s formal liturgies to the completely spontaneous meetings of the Quakers: both ends of the form and freedom spectrum were thus represented, with everything in between.

When the monarchy was restored, Charles II and Parliament enforced a strict high church Anglicanism throughout the kingdom. Dissenters of any stripe were persecuted, and many fled to the American colonies. After a second revolution under Charles’ successor James II in 1688, the Edict of Toleration (1689) granted freedom of worship to Trinitarian Protestants.


In the American colonies, the full range of worship options was present in different regions. These were inevitably tied in with differences in polity (i.e. church organization), a topic which would take us too far afield. For present purposes, it is enough to note that due to the influence of Puritanism, the expansion of the frontier, and revivalism (especially the Second Great Awakening), worship styles in the distinctively American denominations tended to turn away from formal liturgies. Churches with ties to Europe such as the Episcopalians and Lutherans continued to use traditional liturgies, but many denominations, including the Baptists, the largest in the country, saw themselves as militantly non-liturgical. (How true that self-assessment was is open to debate, given that their services followed a standard, predictable outline that almost never varied from week to week. Their liturgy was thus less formal—there were few if any standard prayers or readings, for example—but it was a liturgy nonetheless.)

These informal liturgies continued to evolve, particularly over the last 50 years. The influence of the charismatic movement, the development of contemporary Christian music (CCM) that mirrored the style of secular music, the gradual incorporation of CCM songs and performance practice into church services, the rise of the Seeker Sensitive movement, and a variety of other factors have changed worship in evangelical churches in significant ways. Through it all, however, most evangelicals have maintained a critical attitude toward formal liturgies.

In Defense of Liturgy

And yet it is worth noting that formal liturgies were the norm in churches for over 1500 years, and they remain the norm today except for churches with roots in Puritan England or the Anabaptists. There are several reasons for this. First, although formal liturgies are criticized for being “rote repetition,” there is a benefit to this. C. S. Lewis once commented that he could not worship if he had to keep looking to see what’s coming next—it distracted him from his focus on God. Familiarity with the form and structure of the liturgy and even its words can free us up to be more engaged with what we are saying. The danger, of course, is that we can go through the motions with our minds elsewhere, yet in my personal experience I can find my mind wandering very far afield during worship whether I am following a formal liturgy or not.

Further, traditional liturgies were constructed with much good theology embedded in them. They typically have a great deal more substance than you find in services with less formal structure. The spiritual benefit of the service is thus less dependent on the quality of the preacher: it is possible to hear the Gospel and be called upon to respond to it through the liturgy itself rather than through the sermon.

Formal liturgies are not fixed: the prayers and Scripture readings are different each day, and often there will be greater or lesser changes in the services through the course of the church year. Over time, these too are absorbed, recognized, and even eagerly anticipated by the worshippers.

Formal liturgies can thus be legitimate expressions of worship, contrary to what some of my low church friends and colleagues might think. They are not the only legitimate way to worship, but they do have much to recommend them.

In the next article in this series, we will turn our attention to other poles that exist within worship, starting with the balance between Word and Sacrament.


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