What does the Bible say about liturgy?
Question: "What does the Bible say about liturgy? Should a Christian participate in liturgical worship?"
Answer: The American Heritage Dictionary defines "liturgy" as follows: "1. The rite of the Eucharist. 2. The prescribed form for a public religious service; ritual." Looking at Scripture, there is not a "prescribed form for a public religious service" set forth for the church. At the same time, several New Testament passages do give us important ingredients that should be part of a healthy local church. Among these are the following:
True fellowship: treating fellow believers as they are—family, with the associated love, unity of heart, and giving toward others that is common to a good family (Acts 2:44-46).
The observance of the ordinances: baptism of believers and remembrance of the Lord's Supper / Communion (Acts 2:41,42,46; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32).
Steadfast observance of the apostles' doctrine, the reading of the Word of God, and the teaching / preaching of the Word of God (Acts 2:42; 1 Timothy 4:13-16; 2 Timothy 4:2).
Prayer and praise, with dependence upon the Holy Spirit's direction (Acts 2:42,47; Acts 13:1-4; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Ephesians 6:18).
Evangelism and discipleship, with all members of the church using their spiritual gifts to serve Christ as part of the Body of Christ (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 1 Timothy 4:5; Ephesians 4:11-16; Romans 12:3-8).
While some churches are labeled as "liturgical" because of their very formal and predetermined order and manner of worship, all churches to some degree have a format that they typically follow. The major distinction would be both the degree to which this is true, and the possibility of changing that common format if necessary. It is obvious from Acts 13 that the church in the city of Antioch was flexible in that they were open to the Holy Spirit's leading. If a church is so liturgical that changes according to His leading are not a possibility, liturgy has gone too far. A church that is too structured would never allow for the Spirit’s leading—they already have their own "agenda"; they don't need His.
There are two additional possible dangers in relation to liturgical worship: (1) Liturgies designed by men are fallible and thus need to be examined to see whether they are scriptural. But this is true both for so-called liturgical churches as well as for those not given that label. In both cases fallible men set the format of the service. (2) Liturgies that call for the recitation of repetitious prayers, responses, etc., can begin to be done in rote without thought or true worship from the heart. And when this happens they become "vain repetitions." But nonetheless, it is still very possible for one of a sincere heart to worship God with repetitious prayers, etc., as he reflects upon what is being said and thus enters into those prayers from the heart. Besides, even in non-liturgical churches, certain songs and choruses are sung repeatedly over time and carry the same danger of being sung glibly rather than with reflection upon what is being said and sung.
Whether a church is liturgical is not as important as the soundness of the doctrine of the church and the soundness of the pastor doctrinally and spiritually (1 Timothy 4:16; Acts 2:42). I was once a part of a very liturgical denomination. My reasons for leaving that denomination did not involve its being liturgical, but chiefly concerned its doctrine. For although they daily read from three different portions of the Scripture (Old Testament, Gospel account, and an Epistle) as part of their liturgy, the beliefs of this denomination were not in keeping with what was being read. Rather, it differed on a number of essential issues such as how a person gets to heaven, whom prayers should be directed to, whether a person can be secure in his salvation, etc. So, the main issue may not be whether a church is liturgical, since all are to some degree, but whether its teachings and practices are in line with Scripture on core issues. Agreement with Scripture, not liturgy, determines whether a church’s practices are compatible with those of a healthy and Biblically-based church.
Recommended Resource: How to Worship Jesus Christ: Experiencing His Manifest Presence by Joseph Carroll
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