Modern Worship and the Protestant Reformation

church history bookThe church history class I teach most often at our university is a so-called “survey” course — one in which we try to absorb elements of all 2,000 years of Christian history in ONE SEMESTER.  As you can guess, we’re always having to treat things at less depth than I would prefer, in the interest of getting the “big picture.”

When we get to modern American Christianity, it can sometimes be hard to see how church life in our day is connected with events from previous centuries.  However, it’s important to know — and a class focused on the history of Christianity in the U.S. would teach you — that many modern American denominations come directly out of the events of the Reformation.  There are, of course, Lutheran churches in America, as well as Episcopal and Methodist churches that are descendants of the Anglican Reformation in England.  But there are also churches descended from the Anabaptist movement (like the Amish and Mennonites) and several denominations that descend from the teaching of John Calvin (e.g., the Baptists and Presbyterians).

But something else that is true is that many denominations in America are based on a mixing of various Reformation traditions.  Think, for example, of the Churches of Christ, which (despite their claims to “non-denominationalism”) have their organizational roots in both Baptist and Presbyterian churches.  A more common example lies in the doctrine (that is, the theological teachings) in various churches.  When preachers focus on justification by grace, they are influenced by Luther.  When they focus on the sovereignty of God, they are influenced by Calvin.  When they strongly lean on the separation of church and state, they are influenced by the Anabaptists.  And you can hear all of these things in one and the same church, despite the variety of influences!

christomlinFor many of us, though, doctrine can be rather dry, and it often doesn’t affect us directly.  But the ways that we worship do affect us directly.  They are important to us, and they are important vehicles for our relationship with God.  And many of these ways of worship also go back to Reformation practices or principles.  Here are just a few examples:

  • We worship, pray, and hear Scripture read in the vernacular, a practice that arises from all the Reformation traditions.
  • We can sometimes emphasize the Eucharist (Communion) very strongly, and this emphasis sometimes goes back to Catholic or Anglican influences.
  • We very often lean heavily on a sermon in our worship, and this tradition arose in the Reformation world with people like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.  That’s especially true with preachers who are able to make the word relevant to contemporary life – as is so often the case in many of our “megachurches.”  Luther might not love some aspects of modern church life, but he would love the connection of “sound doctrine” with everyday life.
  • Finally, we use music a lot in our worship, and most of the ways are reflections of Reformation ideas.  When we have beautiful music performed by talented (maybe even professional) musicians, we participate in an impulse that was prominent the Catholic church after the Reformation.  When we emphasize congregational singing, we follow the same impulse for church participation that animated Luther.  That’s especially true when we put Christian words to familiar songs.  When we sing psalms set to music, we follow Calvin’s ideas.  When we sing simple, heartfelt songs, we follow Zwingli and the Anabaptists.  Note that a modern worship often has all of these: simple, meditative song, psalms and hymns set to music, rousing congregational pieces, and maybe even a “special” performed by a choir or ensemble.  We are truly a mix.


So what does this mean for us?  As was the case with universities, I find myself in a spirit of gratitude with regard to the Reformation influence on our modern worship.  I love music, and I love worship, and I am so grateful that Christians have found so many tools with which to worship God in the varied history of our faith.

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Liturgy / Worship as a Unifying Force

CharlemagneMany of you will have heard of Charlemagne, the great Frankish (Germanic) ruler of the late seventh and early eighth centuries.  Charlemagne influenced Western Europe in many ways, both in the church and in the state, but I’m thinking today about a quest he made for unity in his empire.  As you may know, Charlemagne’s efforts included conquering lands, repelling invaders, securing his borders, reviving culture, etc.  But the unity that he achieved in a political way wasn’t totally secure, because people could always rebel.

However, there was also a spiritual question, in that there was a spiritual power down in Rome that people had begun to call the “pope” — the spiritual “father” of all Christians, in the eyes of some.  One big question for Charlemagne concerned how political and spiritual powers would co-exist: who is in charge?  Is it the pope or the emperor?  Or some combination of the two?  Could this question even lead to a breakdown in the unity of the empire?

One tactic that Charlemagne used to unify his empire was to unify the worship that existed throughout the empire.  In other words, he attempted to standardize the Christian worship of his “Carolingian” empire.  You might think that would be easy, but you’d be wrong.  Besides all the difficulties of communication across hundreds of miles in those days, there were some very specific, distinct, and already ancient worship traditions associated with lands in his empire: in Spain, in northern Italy (centered in Milan), and in Gaul (now France).

So what was Charlemagne to do?  Should he take one of these local traditions and make it “empire-wide”?  Actually, what he did was to send messengers to Rome to find out how they “did worship” there.  He knew that Rome was a very ancient Christian city, and he viewed Roman traditions as the most authoritative.  It’s not unlike the reasoning employed by King Oswy at the Synod of Whitby in the late 600s — but that’s a story for another day.  (Feel free to research it, if you like!)

I don’t think this move on Charlemagne’s part is just an interesting historical footnote.  I think that many of us have experienced the same kind of cultural cohesiveness that comes from a common worship tradition.  Those of us in the Churches of Christ may know what this is like.  Until recently, all over the Bible Belt, people in Churches of Christ sang many of the same hymns, heard much of the same prayer language, and experienced similar preaching.  This was comforting: if one was traveling, one could visit an unfamiliar Church of Christ and yet feel right at home.

More broadly, and more recently, the most common way this unity happens nowadays concerns modern worship music.  As you know, there’s been an explosion of modern worship music in the last 20 years, and whether you are in a Bible church, a community church, a Baptist church, etc., there’s a good chance that you’ll hear songs you know.  Does this create unity outside the church walls?  Maybe.  But it certainly creates unity as we share worship experiences together.

lifting hands

Closest to home, as members of the our university community, we all experience communal worship on campus (in our daily “Chapel” gatherings).  Some of us like the all-music “Praise Day,” some prefer the more contemplative “Come to the Quiet,” and still others like the aptly-named “Small Group” Chapels.  But we all know the experiences, and we all know the standard complaints that students levy against required worship.  Despite those complaints, though, one reason that the University administration preserves the Chapel requirement is that, while our students come from different worship backgrounds, worship as a bonding social experience is very powerful in community-building.  This bonding occurs on a sociological level – there are human-level phenomena working here – but we believe it also happens in a spiritual way.  We believe that the Holy Spirit binds us together as Christians, and one way the Spirit does this is through our worship.

So, the next time you’re bored in a worship service, I’d encourage you to think a bit about what’s actually happening during that service, and why lifelong Christians often find hymn-singing to be so powerful in their later years.  God is binding us together, as the old song goes, with cords that may not be able to be broken.

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medieval universityOne aspect of the so-called “High Middle Ages” that is a natural candidate for a “Why Church History is Relevant” post is the phenomenon of universities, both in the medieval period and in our world today.

You may not have ever thought about this much before, but if you did, you might have assumed that universities as we have known them have always existed in this form.  But in fact, modern universities derive from an educational development that took place in the High Middle Ages, and specifically a development in the church.  In fact, some scholars have said that universities and cathedrals are the two great legacies of the medieval period.

As you may know, there were universities in different places in Europe during this time (e.g., Oxford in England, Paris in France, Bologna in Italy, etc.), and the universities varied in their structure.  In some cases, the faculty were the power-brokers, dictating everything from the classes taught to the table manners of the students.  In other instances, the students had the real influence and could almost hold faculty hostage until they got what they wanted, whether concerning topics or hours.

In our world, the diversity comes mostly with attitude, rather than in structure.  On the surface, it would seem that faculty and administrators hold all the cards: we give lectures, we assign grades, administrators set prices, etc.  But increasingly, students have more and more power.  Just because we admit a prospective student at my university, that doesn’t mean that that student will come.  And if they decide not to come, we lose thousands in potential revenue.  So, we spend lots of resources on marketing and financial aid, partly to help students but also to convince them to come spend their own (or their financial aid donors’ ) dollars on tuition, room, board, etc.  This may sound very crass and market-driven, but it is the world in which we now live.

university of phoenix logoA second way that this conversation is relevant concerns the rise of so-called “for-profit” universities, like the University of Phoenix.  Traditional institutions are “non-profit” or “not-for-profit” – like other non-profits, the goal is not to make money, but rather (in our case) to provide higher education.  But some organizations, realizing the money that can be made in education, have established for-profit schools – some brick-and-mortar, some online.  These institutions have become controversial for a variety of reasons.  One reason is accountability – are they providing the same quality of education when there is a profit motive?  Another reason concerns student recruitment – some for-profit schools have been accused of targeting veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, usually young people who have access to government assistance funds for education but may not be able to make fully informed decisions.  The schools claim that they will “work with” the students, helping tailor their education to a very practical end; however, some folks have found those claims unfulfilled.

oleanna1Underlying all of this is the fact that, since the Middle Ages, there has been a power dynamic in play in higher education.  When we hear the word “university,” we may have idealized images in our minds – ivy-covered walls, grassy quadrangles, etc.  But these pictures are not realistic for either the medieval period or the modern world.  However, this is not the only way we can be unrealistic about college.  Faculty can think administrators should fully support them in their “noble pursuit” of knowledge, when they actually have other interests to serve.  Students can think faculty should largely exist to serve their own educational needs, when faculty actually have their own agendas and goals.  Unfortunately, administrators, faculty, and students can all abuse the power given to them.  If you want to see an artistic representation of this issue, check out the play Oleanna by David Mamet – it concerns the complicated relationship between a female student and a male professor.

So how do we respond as Christians, or as a Christian university?  First, I hope that we all are really looking to serve one another and not just fulfill our own desires.  Second, I am reminded of the power of hope, that great Christian virtue, as we face the challenges of money and power in higher education; we can always strive to make things better.  Third, we can cultivate gratitude in this area; we can be thankful, not just to God for giving us this opportunity, but also to those who have gone before us, opening up opportunities for us to better ourselves through education.

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New Monasticism

benedict of nursiaMany American Christians know something about “monks” and “nuns” — people who give up their “normal” lives in various ways to live in a way that is dedicated to God.  Those dedicated lives sometimes play out in intentional communities, sometimes called “convents,” “cloisters,” or “monasteries.”  But most people do *not* know much about the history of monasticism in the Christian tradition, despite its relevance for our world.

In fact, monastic impulses go back almost all the way to the time of Jesus.  Beginning in the third century, we begin to hear stories of people going out into the wilderness in an attempt to follow Jesus more fully.  In the Western tradition that has influenced the Christianity with which most of us are familiar, the most important early movement was that of Benedict of Nursia at Monte Cassino in Italy.  In fact, Benedictine monasteries still exist all over the world, still living out the ancient ideals with which their movement was founded.

But I don’t want to discuss “ancient monasticism” today — you can read about that in many good places — but rather a phenomenon called “new monasticism,” which you may know something about.  New monasticism is a movement that has arisen in the last 20 years or so, and it tends to be rather like the “coenobitic” (or “communal”) monasticism of the ancient world.  Further, it tends to be a rather urban phenomenon; most new monastic communities are not going out into the desert or mountains, but rather trying to transform neighborhoods and cities from within.

New monasticism is an attempt to revive the ideals of ancient monasticism in our modern world, and just as ancient cloisters were different, so new monastic communities are different.  Some highly emphasize a form of poverty, with members selling all their possessions and holding a common bank account.  Many emphasize chastity, whether by having men’s and women’s houses, or by having a number of chaste, single members.  A challenging virtue for many new monastic communities is that of obedience; the members are influenced both by American individualism and by our ideals of democracy, so that leadership and authority can be challenging things to negotiate.

Why are these relevant for us?

  • First, these are people who are trying to follow Jesus in a radical, thoroughgoing way.  And you know how compelling such intense lives can be in our culture.
  • Second, most new monastic communities are indeed communal, and people in our fragmented, individualistic society really value communities in which people can find authentic relationships with other human beings.
  • Third, many people in our world are rather anti-authoritarian or anti-establishment, and new monastic communities often exist outside the bounds of traditional church structures.  It’s not that the people involved are not part of a church, but that the communities themselves are not under the authority of a particular church leader.  Also, the communities themselves may not be anti-establishment, but people may be drawn to them because they can seem that way.

new monasticism

So, what if you want to know more?  Well, a first step is to learn about some of the “new monastic” communities that are well-known in American Christianity.  Two examples are the Simple Way community associated with Shane Claiborne, and the Rutba House in North Carolina, for whom Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove often serves as something of a spokesperson.   Then, you might spend a little time reflecting on and learning more about the movement/impulse as a whole, as in this news story or this feature piece.  And finally, you might look around and see if there is anything like this in your hometown.  For example, students from the university where I teach have founded a couple of these movements.  I have had wonderful conversations with many of them about their common work.  You may find your own faith challenged and stretched… and then manifesting itself in new ways in your life!

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The Problem of Authority

In the decades before Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, persecution began to ramp up a bit — specifically in the form of the only two empire-wide persecutions the church experienced during that time.  After the persecutions were over, a new problem arose for church leaders: how to re-integrate people who have fallen away as a result of persecution.  Some who had undergone great persecution but had not died began to be revered as people of great spiritual fortitude, and people even began to seek them out as spiritual authorities.

Now, this may not be the most obvious candidate for a “Why Church History is Relevant” post.  We in the West don’t deal with a lot of overt persecution, and we certainly don’t have beaten and bloodied people challenging our pastors for spiritual authority.  However, I was recently reading a book about the early church with a couple of friends in Abilene.  One chapter in that book is devoted to early Christian perceptions of what the church is and what ministry is.  A member of the book club who is a lawyer asked, “So, what was the early church’s attitude toward authority?” His law training has taught him to be a close reader but also one sensitive to issues of coercion and consent; further, he is a Christian who loves the church, and he is concerned about how spiritual authority “works” in the modern church.

cartman authority

Here’s the deal: most of the people where I live are from the Protestant tradition, and the university community of which I am a part is historically and currently connected with the Churches of Christ. Both of these movements have historically said that authority is simply found in the Bible… and yet in both groups there has always been some kind of mediation, like a preaching pastor, a traditional way of reading that Bible, etc., to help us understand what the Bible is actually saying to us.  Crucially, though, in both groups that attitude is combined with a strong American individualism that  rebels against any authority that is perceived to be coercive or overbearing.

The real problem, honestly, is that pastoral authority often involves talking with people about how they live their lives.  That is not surprising given how we treat our spiritual leaders… but we should also remember that the words used in the early church for their leaders were names that had to do with age (and presumably wisdom), oversight, or shepherding.  All of these words have to do with relationship and guidance.

These days, and in most cases, someone who is struggling with an issue can easily read the Bible and make some conclusions of their own, perhaps based on how they think “God is speaking” to them through the Word.  If they go talk to a counselor, the counselor might ask how they feel about certain alternatives that they themselves have considered.  But if they talk to a pastor or a spiritual friend, that person might actually say, “You should do X” or “You should not do Y.”  And as Americans, we often don’t like that.

But then again, we do in fact let people tell us how to live our lives.  Some of us let political commentators tell us what to think.  Some of us let athletes or artists tell us (without words, sometimes) what a good life looks like.  Some of us let pastors who are not our own – someone we might listen to online, or someone whose blog or books we read – tell us how to live like Jesus.  Why do we do that?  Why do we trust people who do not know us to tell us how to live our lives?

dr phil

I think the answers can vary, but they often involve our respecting them in some way, or our wanting to be like them.  That makes sense, but from a Christian perspective, there’s a problem: those people don’t know us personally.  That’s true enough of celebrities, but even the pastors of our churches may not have the kind of intimate knowledge of us and our lives that would help them help us, beyond having something good to say generally.  To put it bluntly, people with whom we are in some kind of personal relationship know us more like the ways Jesus knows us, and thus they have a better ability to pastor us, whether formally or informally.  In other words, I think it may be more beneficial to us to allow people with whom we are in relational proximity to have authority over us.  They may not know us well, but they hopefully know us to some degree.

But then, of course, the final problem comes in: the human heart.  As Americans — as I noted above — we don’t like people telling us what to do.  That blends with the brokenness of our wills and hearts in troublesome ways.  Here’s what I mean.  We could have sensitive, thoughtful friends or pastors who know us well.  They could have full knowledge of a particular problem in our lives, and they could have prayer-filled advice to give us.  But what if we don’t want to take it?  What if our hearts are too hard?  That, my friends, is what preachers have been dealing with for 2,000 years — sometimes with persecution and “unforgivable sins,” or in more recent days with adultery, financial sin, and/or family brokenness.  May God bless us with authority figures who know us and whom we respect — and may God also give us the willingness to obey!

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Orthodoxy and Heresy

Burning StakeWhen people learn about the second and third centuries of church history, they are sometimes troubled by the concept of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” — especially the notion that there are ideas that are SO wrong that people should be excluded from the church for holding them.   The phenomenon began with the sense, on the part of those early Christian leaders, that certain beliefs were appropriately Christian, and that others, eventually called “heresies,” did not accurately represent Christian teaching.

So, the reason this is relevant for us is this: how do you deal with people who disagree with you?  And are there “levels” of disagreement?

One challenge in our world, given the plurality of religious beliefs and the variety existing within Christianity, is that we have to decide how we are going to treat people who differ from us in their Christian beliefs, not to mention those who are not Christian at all.  Just within Christianity, some people who want to keep the language of “orthodox” and “heresy” often use a third category called “heterodoxy” to refer to people who think differently – it’s different from the norm, but it’s not all the way to “wrong.”  So, one way to deal with difference is to functionally drop the category of “heresy” and put everything “different” into the box of “heterodoxy,” then you sort of avoid the problem – you say that people have different opinions, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.

But what if you really think that someone’s beliefs are SO wrong that they approach the level of being harmful?  To cite an example from the early church, the early church leaders thought that the Gnostics’ ideas about Jesus were so off that they could harm the faith and even the salvation of those believed them, what do you do then?  There are some modern leaders who do not shy away from this language, calling a movie or book or belief or person “heretical.”  I hear zealous students use this language as well.  In other words, the beliefs aren’t just different – they are wrong to the point of being harmful!

So, some questions:

  • If you think someone’s beliefs are heretical, what do you do?  Do you confront them?  Do you talk about them, perhaps on social media?  Or do you keep your beliefs to yourself?
  • Does it matter if you are a church leader or just a “regular” church member?
  • If you do choose to condemn this person, do you so publicly, privately, or “only” in your heart?
  • Do you pray for the person in question?
  • Do you take him/her aside, asking about his/her beliefs?

I don’t think there is one right answer, to these questions but I do think that while we can sometimes be a little too accepting of anything out there as just “different,” other times we can be too quick to condemn and reject.  I am grateful that I do not live in a time when (most) church leaders have the power to put others to death for their beliefs, as I might have been tempted to exercise that power inappropriately.  That is, of course, a reality that one encounters in learning about the Reformation.

I’d like to propose that we find a middle course – somewhere between the phenomena of a) the student who sits in class and wants to agree with everyone, and b) the politicians who cannot find anything to agree on and demonize their opponents.  Middle courses are much harder to chart than these extremes, but we need to find them.  I don’t know what that middle ground might look like, but surely it exists, right?

(BTW: if you’d like to read an interesting book on this topic, check out Alistair McGrath’s recent Heresy.  Very readable and thought-provoking.)

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New Testament Christianity

If you’re just getting started with church history, you might be wondering a couple of things:

jesus portrait1) Why do church history books often start telling their story with Jesus?  Wasn’t he a Jew?  Didn’t the
Jesus-followers only gain the name “Christians” after Jesus died (Acts 11:26)?  So shouldn’t the story start after his death — once the church got going?

2) I can imagine how later things, like the Reformation, are relevant for our world; after all, we follow people like Martin Luther.  But how is the very first century actually relevant for our church life today?

These are good questions, and you might be able to anticipate the answers.  First, there are many churches today that pride themselves on being “biblical”; in many cases, that includes a certain simplicity in worship.  Some churches emphasize charismatic gifts, such as speaking in tongues or the laying on of hands, precisely because those things were done in the early church and are a manifestation of God’s power.  (Sometimes it’s also because they have not been done in most churches since then, and some folks have an ax to grind against history…)  Other churches emphasize simple, “Bible-based” preaching, in part because that’s what we see in Acts. And still others reject elements from other denominations’ worship because those things are not found in the New Testament; examples here would include having priests/leaders who are commanded to be celibate, or using creeds in worship time, or praying to Mary.

In other words, if you are an American Christian — especially a Protestant one — it is relevant for you to know the story of the early church, because it probably impacts your church life more than you realize.

But the tradition I come from — a denomination called the “The Churches of Christ,” which is part of a larger movement often called “The Restoration Movement” (by insiders) or “The Stone-Campbell Movement” (by historians) — has a deeper connection with this impulse.  In fact, from the very beginning, its leaders focused on “restoring” (hence the name) New Testament Christianity in a particular way — and not only in worship.  The first leaders of the movement lived in the early 1800s, a time just after the American Revolution when there were many Christian denominations in the young America, and many of these denominations were divided in significant ways.  They longed for a united Christianity, and they saw how so many efforts at unity had failed.  Ultimately, some of these folks decided that the New Testament was the one thing on which all Christians could agree, and so they wanted to make all aspects of church life to be “according to the New Testament.”

ChurchofChristSignNow, because of their social location and time period, that aim ultimately meant that this emphasis was focused in worship — in other words, worshiping as we seem to see it in the New Testament.  While there has been debate about how to apply this principle in specific situations, it has been a hallmark of the Churches of Christ ever since.  Sometimes it’s even led to strange statements on the part of Church-of-Christ folk — like the line that sometimes appears on church signs and cornerstones that reads “Established 33 AD.”  But if you’ve ever wondered why Church-of-Christ worship regularly features musical worship without instruments, this is your answer.  We don’t see it in the New Testament, and so most Churches of Christ don’t include it, either.

We will have many more posts on this blog about ways that church history is relevant for our day, but it’s important to remember that history’s influence on today’s churches goes back to the very beginning of the church.  We truly are a people who have been shaped by 2000 years of history.

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