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Adiaphora and Worship

Pastor Jim Johnson (Pastor-Theologian Program, Center of Theological Inquiry)

June 26, 2003

Rifts among many Christian denominations today, including my own Lutheran church, have been experienced over the form and feel of worship. But how much thought in such debate is given to the reason for worship and how it is practiced? Whether one prefers traditional worship or contemporary worship is often founded on a subjective bias formulated by one’s upbringing. Little attention is given to the difference between what is necessary for worship and what is optional in worship. While the litmus test for determining what is essential versus what is negotiable may vary depending on the foundational principles and beliefs of one’s own denomination, I have chosen to take an historical look at Martin Luther’s approach to such matters during the time of the Reformation. In this paper, I will chronicle Luther’s understanding and reform of the mass through certain key treatises, and make some interpretive assertions for discerning how to navigate through the church’s current “worship wars.”

Much like today, Luther was faced with opposing views and practices of worship between the liturgical legalists, whom he called the Romanists, on the one hand, and the Enthusiasts, on the other hand, who were minimalists – often throwing the baby (the gospel) out with the bath water (the liturgy). Luther wrote against the Romanists, insisting on Christian freedom with respect to external orders, yet unadulterated words of institution with regard to the sacraments. Luther also wrote against the Enthusiasts who had used their Christian freedom to the detriment of the Christian community, making freedom a law unto itself. Luther was neither a liturgical legalist, nor a minimalist; he was a purist! Though he did offer a reform to the Mass, he provided it with hesitation and caution. His litmus test[1] for discerning what is essential and what is negotiable for worship was the doctrine of justification by faith. His main concern was how worship served the proclamation of the gospel, the witness to faith, and the justification of the ungodly.[2]

Before launching into Luther’s treatises, it may be helpful to begin with a definition of “adiaphora.” When my father graduated from seminary in 1952, the classroom definition he learned for adiaphora was: “things neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture.”[3] When I graduated from seminary, some forty years later, we were taught adiaphora related to “matters of indifference.” Adiaphora may be matters of importance, but they were considered matters non-essential. Traditionally, for Lutherans, the definition of this term has been informed by Article Seven of the Augsburg Confession, which states:

“For this is enough for the true unity of the Christian church that the gospel is preached harmoniously according to a pure understanding and the sacraments are administered in conformity with the divine Word. It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that uniform ceremonies, instituted by human beings, be observed everywhere.” [4]

The distinction is made between that which is necessary and essential (word and sacraments), as opposed to that which may be of benefit and helpful, but is not considered necessary. Adiaphora is derived from the Greek diaferw, which means differ, different, or difference.[5] The prefix, a, negates the word diaferw, thus giving the definition, indifference. While Luther may not use the word explicitly in the treatises below, it is implicit and inferred in his thinking and writing, as we shall see.

A Treatise On The New Testament, That Is, The Holy Mass

In July of 1520 Luther published a treatise entitled “A Treatise On The New Testament, That Is, The Holy Mass.” Though he had written treatises on the sacraments (“The Sacrament of Penance,” “The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism,” and “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods,” all published in 1519), Luther had so far only dealt with the definition and theology of the sacraments. While these treatises certainly addressed differences of understanding, Luther had not yet addressed the implications of changes in practices (worship) that were necessary to reflect this theology. In “A Treatise On The New Testament, That Is, The Holy Mass” Luther began his attack on the practices in the mass, particularly those practices that reflected the theology of the mass as a sacrifice – our sacrifice to God.

Luther’s aim in this treatise, evidenced by its title, is to define the mass as a testament. If the mass is defined as a testament, then worship must be ordered and practiced to reflect such an understanding. Before defining the mass as a testament, Luther confronts one of his foremost concerns with the way mass is practiced – the distractions from the gospel. Luther laments:

“And now it has finally come to this: the chief thing in the mass has been forgotten, and nothing is remembered except the additions of men! … Indeed, the greatest and most useful art is to know what really and essentially belongs to the mass, and what is added and foreign to it. For where there is no clear distinction, the eyes and the heart are easily misled by such sham into a false impression and delusion. Then what men have contrived is considered the mass; and what the mass really is, is never experienced, to say nothing of deriving benefit from it ... If we desire to observe mass properly and to understand it, then we must surrender everything that the eyes behold and that the senses suggest – be it vestments, bells, songs, ornaments, prayers, processions, elevations, prostrations, or whatever happens in the mass – until we first grasp and thoroughly ponder the words of Christ, by which he performed and instituted the mass and commanded us to perform it. For therein lies the whole mass, its nature, work, profit, and benefit. Without the words nothing is derived from the mass.”[6]

We begin to see Luther making distinctions between that which is necessary[7] – starting to be defined as word and sacraments – and that which is adiaphora. Luther acknowledges:

“Although I neither wish nor am able to displace or discard such additions, still, because such pompous forms are perilous, we must never permit ourselves to be led away by them from the simple institution of Christ and from the right use of the mass.”[8]

Luther’s intention is not to rid worship of traditions instituted by men, but to subordinate all tradition and practices to the justifying word of God. To perform the mass properly, the mass must first rightly be understood in the literal terms by which Christ instituted it – as a testament – when Jesus says: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”[9] Why one must define and understand the mass as a testament, Luther explains:

Luther’s intention is not to rid worship of traditions instituted by men, but to subordinate all tradition and practices to the justifying word of God. To perform the mass properly, the mass must first rightly be understood in the literal terms by which Christ instituted it – as a testament – when Jesus says: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”[9] Why one must define and understand the mass as a testament, Luther explains:

“Not every vow is called a testament, but only a last irrevocable will of one who is about to die, whereby he bequeaths his goods, allotted and assigned to be distributed to whom he will. Just as St. Paul says to the Hebrews [9:16-17] that a testament must be made operative by death, and is not in effect while the one still lives who made the testament. For other vows, made as long as one lives, may be altered or recalled and hence are not called testaments … For if God is to make a testament, as he promises, then he must die; and if he is to die, then he must be a man … Christ also distinguishes this testament from others and says that it is a new and everlasting testament, in his own blood, for the forgiveness of sins; whereby he disannuls the old testament.”[10]

Early on in the treatise, Luther refers to Holy Communion both as a testament and sacrament and follows that wording throughout the whole treatise.

“The words are the divine vow, promise, and testament. The signs are the sacraments, that is, sacred signs … the best and greatest part of all sacraments and of the mass is the words and promises of God, without which the sacraments are dead and are nothing at all, like a body without a soul…”[11]

Again Luther says, “This is all easily understood, if one only considers what the mass really is, namely a testament and a sacrament. It is God’s word or promise, together with a sacred sign, the bread and the wine under which Christ’s flesh and blood are truly present.”[12]

What is critical to Luther is distinguishing between that which is essential to the proclamation of the gospel and the salvation of the soul, and that which is non-essential, and may become a distraction or distortion of God’s justifying word. When we begin to worship the act of worship itself; or when traditions and practices instituted by humanity take precedence over that which Christ has instituted; or when it is suggested or inferred that our acts and forms of worship are somehow salvific, then the mass and our theology is in need of reformation. Properly understood and practiced, the mass is not a sacrifice we make to God, but God’s sacrifice to us – we are purely recipients!

“I fear that many have made the mass into a good work, whereby they have thought to do a great service to Almighty God. Now if we have properly understood what has been said above, namely, that the mass is nothing else than a testament and sacrament in which God makes a pledge to us and gives us grace and mercy, I think it is not fitting that we should make a good work or merit out of it. For a testament is not beneficium acceptum, sed datum [Not a “benefit received but a benefit conferred”]; it does not take benefit from us, but brings benefit to us.”[13]

The confusion over sacrifice – whether we make a sacrifice to God in the mass, or whether we are the recipients of God’s sacrifice – is largely owed to the traditional practice of presenting the offering at the time of the meal; a practice dating back to the time of the apostles, when Christians gathered food, money, and necessities and distributed them to the needy.[14] Luther is willing to concede that we offer our sacrifices of prayer and ourselves to God, but we do not offer Christ – he offers us! We lay ourselves upon Christ, our mediator, and he in turn offers himself for us. While certain aspects of worship – the act of worship itself, our prayers, offerings, our selves – may properly be understood as our sacrifice to God, the mass – word and sacraments – must properly be understood and performed as God’s sacrifice to us.

“We should, therefore, give careful heed to this word “sacrifice,” so that we do not presume to give God something in the sacrament, when it is he who in it gives us all things.”[15]

The purpose of this paper is not to determine or debate a proper understanding of what takes place in the sacrament, nor is it to justify Luther’s theology of the sacraments. But in this treatise it is important to notice that Luther takes issue with the language used in the mass, for the practices and performance of the mass shape the theology of the church. It seems from Luther’s argument, this is completely backward and a reversal of the way it should be – like the tail wagging the dog. Luther appears to argue that the proper understanding (or theology) of what takes place in the sacrament ought to determine the practice and the performance of the mass. For Luther, what is not justification by faith is adiaphora; and if the language and/or performance of the mass is in conflict with this foundational presupposition then it must submit and be considered as subordinate, thus subject to reformation.

The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Also written in 1520, this treatise attacks Rome’s tyrannical use of the sacraments to control its subjects. The title betrays Luther’s sardonic view of the church’s employment of the sacraments. “Just as the Jews were carried away from Jerusalem unto captivity under the tyranny of the Babylonian Empire, so in Europe the Christians have been carried away from the Scriptures and made subject to the tyranny of the papacy. This tyranny has been exercised by the misuse of the sacraments, chiefly the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.”[16] Luther delineates the captivities he sees: the practice of serving only one kind (bread) to the laity, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and again, the sacrifice of the mass. Though a repeat of his entire argument in “A Treatise On The New Testament, That Is, The Holy Mass,” Luther goes into further detail, laying out a more complete and substantial argument. Luther hammers away at the papacy in a scornful manner, marking a “final and irrevocable break with the church of Rome.”[17] Reiterating his previous writing, Luther again sets out to properly understand what the mass is, and is not – it must be understood in the terms, or words, in which Christ instituted it

“In the first place, in order that we might safely and happily attain to a true and free knowledge of this sacrament, we must be particularly careful to put aside whatever has been added to its original simple institution by the zeal and devotion of men: such as vestments, ornaments, chants, prayers, organs, candles, and the whole pageantry of outward things… All the rest is the work of man, added to the word of Christ and the mass can be held and remain a mass just as well without them.”[18]

It is not so much that Luther rejects such things as pageantry and human traditions that have been added in worship, but rather wants the essential and necessary matters of the mass, which have eternal consequence, distinguished and clarified. What is the true mass? Everything else is a matter of adiaphora – important maybe, but not salvific – and therefore subordinate and subject to reformation.

Luther was consistent in this view throughout his life. In a letter he wrote to George Buchholzer, Dean of Berlin, on Dec. 4, 1539, Luther said:

“This is my advice: If your lord, the margrave and elector, etc., permits the gospel of Jesus Christ to be preached with purity and power and without human additions and the two sacraments of Baptism and the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to be administered and offered according to their institution…go along in God’s name and carry a silver or gold cross and wear a cope or alb of velvet, silk, or linen. And if one cope or alb is not enough for your lord, the elector, wear three of them…Moreover, if His Grace is not satisfied that you go about singing and ringing bells in procession only once, go about seven times…If your lord, the margrave, desires it, let His Grace leap and dance at the head of the procession with harps, drums, cymbals, and bells…I am fully satisfied, for none of these things (as long as no abuse is connected with them) adds anything to the gospel or detracts from it. Only do not let such things be regarded as necessary for salvation and thus bind the consciences of men…Only what God commands is necessary; the rest is free.”[19]

Concerning the Order of Public Worship

Though Luther had resisted the pleas from friends to provide an evangelical reform to the liturgy, circumstances in the spring of 1523 impelled Luther to do so. Karlstadt, one of Luther’s nemeses, had discontinued daily private masses in Wittenberg, and did not replace them with any form of worship. In reaction, Luther wrote daily Matins and Vespers services with the Word of God as the principle element in the service.[20] Spurred on by the congregation in Leisnig (Saxony), Luther, in July of 1523, offered some guidance in determining how one is to approach the formation and/or reformation of the mass by writing this treatise, “Concerning the Order of Public Worship.”

In the opening lines of this short treatise, Luther relates the order of worship and the office of preaching, acknowledging both as having roots from the early Christian church. But he also claims that both have been “perverted” and “corrupted” through the years.[21] Luther demonstrates a healthy respect for the tradition, desiring to re-establish and prioritize the core elements, purpose, and focus of Christian worship.

“As we do not on that account abolish the office of preaching, but aim to restore it again to its right and proper place, so it is not our intention to do away with the service, but to restore it again to its rightful use. Three serious abuses have crept into the service. First, God’s Word has been silenced, and only reading and singing remain in the churches. This is the worst abuse. Second, when God’s Word had been silenced such a host of un-Christian fables and lies, in legends, hymns, and sermons were introduced that it is horrible to see. Third, such divine service was performed as a work whereby God’s grace and salvation might be won.”[22]

Even to this point Luther continues to resist offering proposals on forms of worship; rather, whatever suggestions he offers in this treatise are still primarily concerned with the purpose and meaning of worship. One thing is apparent: for Luther, the primacy of the Word must be central to any form of Christian worship.

“Let everything be done so that the Word may have free course instead of the prattling and rattling that has been the rule up to now. We can spare everything except the Word. Again, we profit by nothing as much as by the Word.”[23]

By the term “Word,” I believe Luther would include Holy Communion in its simplest form – the elements accompanied by Christ’s words of institution – for it is the proclamation of the gospel in a nutshell.[24] Calvanists, Anabaptists, Zinglians, and others may have appealed to the Word of God as the principal element to worship, but in Luther’s view, Rome did not. For Rome, the principal element was tradition – the performance of the mass as a sacrifice to God, based on human additions to the worship service. And what differentiated Luther from other reform movements that may have appealed to the Word of God as the principle element in worship was Luther’s insistence on that “Word” being God’s declaration of justification to the ungodly

Certainly Luther was not opposed to readings and singing in worship; but whatever was read and/or sung must be applied to the litmus test of God’s Word of justification. If anything said, sung, or performed in worship is in conflict with God’s justifying Word, then it must be reformed or removed.

An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg

Thus far, Luther indicated the basic principles of liturgical reform, but any detailed outline of an evangelical mass was wanting.[25] Urged on by friends, in December of 1523 Luther reluctantly published this treatise as a guide to forming an evangelical mass. In his earlier writings, Luther used the term “mass” synonymously with the sacrament of Holy Communion. The title of this treatise implies a shift in terminology. It appears Luther now defines “mass” as something different than just Holy Communion. It becomes apparent in this treatise that the mass is now understood as the order of worship, and the sacrament of Holy Communion is one part of the mass, or order of worship.

In his opening lines Luther attacks both the liturgical legalist – or ceremonialists – and the enthusiasts – those who only desire novelty and change for change’s sake.

“Until now I have only used books and sermons to wean the hearts of people from their godless regard for ceremonial… For I have been hesitant and fearful, partly because of the weak in faith, who cannot suddenly exchange an old and accustomed order of worship for a new and unusual one, and more so because of the fickle and fastidious spirits who rush in like unclean swine without faith or reason, and who delight only in novelty and tire of it as quickly, when it has worn off. Such people are a nuisance even in other affairs, but in spiritual matters, they are absolutely unbearable. Nonetheless, at the risk of bursting with anger, I must bear with them, unless I want to let the gospel itself be denied to the people.”[26]

While Luther may have found the enthusiasts, who desire only novelty, to be a nuisance, his disdain for the ceremonialism of the papacy was even greater.[27] Most of the recommendations in this treatise are aimed against the liturgical legalists, and the additions to the mass that had made it a part of the penitential machinery of the church. In discerning matters of adiaphora in worship, Luther appeals to the freedom of the Christian.

Some may accuse Luther of being a minimalist – only promoting bare-bones word and sacrament – ridding worship of pomp and circumstance to recapture some intangible apostolic tradition. But Luther was not a minimalist; rather, he was a purist. Luther clearly indicated no desire to do away with the liturgical form of worship, only to reform it

“It is not now nor ever has been our intention to abolish the liturgical service of God completely, but rather to purify the one that is now in use from the wretched accretions which corrupt it and to put out an evangelical use.”[28]

Luther even found some additions – even some from the early church fathers – commendable. He was in favor of the kyrie eleison, reciting the creeds, reading of Psalms before communing, the alleluias, the graduals, the Sanctus, and many other additions. It was the canon of the mass that Luther found most objectionable.

“What I am speaking of is the canon, that abominable concoction drawn from every one’s sewer and cesspool. The mass became a sacrifice.”[29]

Again Luther says,

“Let us, therefore, repudiate everything that smacks of sacrifice, together with the entire canon and retain only that which is pure and holy, and so order our mass.”[30]

In other words, in matters of necessity [word and sacraments] we are bound to uniformity – to Christ’s institution. In matters of adiaphora [things helpful, maybe even important, but not essential] we have freedom.

Luther begins to delineate practices in the liturgy, picking and choosing what he’d prefer to keep or throw away – giving his opinion – but making it very clear (repeatedly) these are matters of little concern and indifference, left to the discretion, discernment, and freedom of the Christian. The following statements are a sampling of Luther’s intent to offer proposals for reform only as suggestions, not to be received as binding:

“Let these things be free.”[31]

“Likewise, we do not think it matters…”[32]

“…It seems particularly fitting to preach before mass.”[33]

“Yet since we are free, this argument does not bind us…”[34]

“…Not wishing, however, to prejudice others against adopting and following a different order.”[35]

“I have no intention of cramping anyone’s freedom or of introducing a law that might again lead to superstition. Christ will not care very much about these matters, nor are they worth arguing about.”[36]

“We permit them [vestments] to be used in freedom, as long as people refrain from ostentation and pomp… But I do not wish them to be consecrated or blessed – as if they were to become something sacred as compared with other garments…”[37]

Though he doesn’t use the word, the intent is there – these are matters of indifference – Adiaphora! It is not to say that such considerations make no difference or that they don’t matter at all, but that we have freedom with regard to such things. Luther goes out of his way to argue for freedom with regard to matters of adiaphora in worship.

“But in all these matters we will want to beware lest we make binding what should be free, or make sinners of those who may do some things differently or omit others. All that matters is that the Words of Institution should be kept intact and that everything should be done by faith. For these rites are supposed to be for Christians…who observe them voluntarily and from the heart, but are free to change them how and when ever they may wish. Therefore, it is not in these matters that anyone should either seek or establish as law some indispensable form by which he might ensnare or harass consciences. Nor do we find any evidence for such an established rite, either in the early fathers or in the primitive church, but only in the Roman church. But even if they had decreed anything in this matter as a law, we would not have to observe it, because these things neither can nor should be bound by laws.”[38]

So convincing an argument does Luther make that the enthusiasts will use his words as rationale for excising the liturgy altogether – an issue we will see him address in the next treatise.

One of Luther’s concerns is the issue of pastoral care. Noticing divisions already created between the ceremonialists and the enthusiasts, Luther did not want to see further rupture in the body of Christ over that which should be uniting Christians – worship! Though we have freedom with regard to matters of adiaphora, this freedom should be exercised with respect to the good of the neighbor and community of faith, lest schisms arise over matters of little difference. Luther encourages tolerance and patience with one another as one employs their Christian freedom.

“Further, even if different people make use of different rites, let no one judge or despise the other… Let us feel and think the same, even though we may act differently. And let us approve each other’s rites lest schisms and sects should result from this diversity in rites…”[39]

The final concern Luther addresses in this treatise is the need for singing in the vernacular, and singing that is engaging rather than the “boring repetition”[40] with which people had grown accustom. He encourages the poets and musicians within the church to compose evangelical hymns that can be used in worship. Within a few years, Luther would be commissioned to work with such people to fulfill that very need.

A Christian Exhortation to the Livonians Concerning Public Worship and Concord

From its very title one can discern Luther’s dual purpose and point in this writing this treatise: discuss matters of worship, and equally important, discuss matters of worship as they relate to concord or unity in and amongst the faith community. Written in 1525, two years since he wrote “Concerning the Order of Public Worship” and “An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg,” where Luther argued for Christian liberty and attacked the legalism of Roman liturgists who clung to external forms, now Luther is faced with the enthusiasts who have misused and abused their Christian liberty resulting in schisms and disunity. Addressing the churches in Livonia in the same manner – even some of the same vocabulary – as Paul addressed the Corinthians, Luther tries to reason with them by applying his understanding of Christian liberty put forth in his treatise, “The Freedom of the Christian.”

From the outset, Luther points out the tension between the Romanist’s legalism, which has lead to no freedom, and the enthusiast’s claim to absolute freedom, which has lead to chaos and discord – for where there is no law, there is chaos

“Those who devise and ordain universal customs and orders get so wrapped up in them that they make them into dictatorial laws opposed to the freedom of faith. But those who ordain and establish nothing succeed only in creating as many factions as there are heads, to the detriment of that Christian harmony and unity of which St. Paul and St. Peter so frequently write.”[41]

The treatise “The Freedom of the Christian” can be summed up in Luther’s memorable phrase: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[42] With respect to salvation and the kingdom of heaven, the Christian is absolutely free by grace through faith, subject to no one and nothing – including the law. With respect to life in the kingdom or earth and relationship to the neighbor, the Christian is a dutiful servant to all and subject to all, out of the law of love. Luther applies this understanding of the Christian life – and the difference between faith and love – to the Christian community’s life in worship.

“For even though from the viewpoint of faith, the external orders are free and can without scruples be changed by anyone at any time, yet from the viewpoint of love, you are not free to use this liberty, but bound to consider the edification of the common people, as St. Paul says, I Corinthians 14:40, ‘All things should be done to edify,’ and I Corinthians 6:12, ‘All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful,’ and I Corinthians 8:1, ‘Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.’”[43]

Again Luther says,

“You cannot plead, ‘Externals are free. Here in my own place I am going to do as I please.’ But you are bound to consider the effect of your attitude on others. By faith be free in your conscience toward God, but by love be bound to serve your neighbor’s edification…”[44]

Similar to his plea for tolerance and patience in the last treatise, Luther gives an exhortation to preachers: “We should consider the edification of the lay folk more important than our own ideas and opinions… let them [pastors] so conduct themselves that they establish and preserve unity of mind and spirit among themselves… There is no better way to do this than for each not to take himself too seriously and to think little of himself, but very highly of the others… get together in a friendly way and come to a common decision about these external matters… But at the same time a preacher must watch and diligently instruct the people lest they take such uniform practices as divinely appointed and absolutely binding laws. He must explain that this [uniform practices] is done for their own good so that the unity of Christian people may also find expression in externals which in themselves are irrelevant… If for yourselves you have no need of such uniformity, thank God. But the people need it.”[45]

One can hear Luther’s own internal struggle going on in this discussion. His purpose is to warn against using freedom as license to sin, or in this case, to cause discord. Yet he is also leery of squelching freedom and succumbing to a liturgical legalism. Luther views the discord taking place as the work of the devil.[46] Could not the same argument apply to the Romanist’s insistence on one form of liturgy as binding and necessary? Yes. In fact, Luther denounces them with the same accusations in his treatise “The German Mass and Order of Service” the next year.[47]

The German Mass and Order of Service

By 1526 there were many “German” masses being published. Luther was certainly not the first to “reform” the mass.[48] However, most of the German masses published simply took the Latin text from the mass and translated it into German. There was something incongruous with the music from the old Latin mass put to German vocabulary. What was innovative about Luther’s reform of the mass was that he not only translated the text into the German vernacular, but he also changed the flavor of the music into a distinctively German feel and rhythm. In “Against the Heavenly Prophets,” written the same year he was working on this new German mass, Luther commented:

“I would gladly have a German mass today. I am also occupied with it. But I would very much like it to have a true German character. For to translate the Latin text and retain the Latin tone or notes has my sanction, though it doesn’t sound polished or well done. Both the text and notes, accent, melody, and manner of rendering ought to grow out of the true mother tongue and its inflection, otherwise all of it becomes an imitation in the manner of the apes.”[49]

With the financial patronage of his Elector, Luther consulted with two of the leading musicians in the church to write and compose a new German mass.[50] His intention was to offer a new external form to worship that would both provide the novelty desired by many, and the uniformity needed for the church in his region. Yet Luther was cautious about making a fresh new form into something legal and binding – replacing one oppressive form of worship with another – and prevails upon the pastors and people:

“I would kindly and for God’s sake request all those who see this order of service or desire to follow it: Do not make it a rigid law to bind or entangle anyone’s conscience, but use it in Christian liberty as long, when, where, and how you find it to be practical and useful.”[51]

Likewise, Luther did not offer this contemporary German mass as a replacement of the traditional Latin mass, but as one alternative for worship. Luther objected to those who desired to abolish the Latin mass and legalistically require mass only in German. Their legalism – in the name of freedom – was as absolutist as the Romanist’s liturgical legalism

“For in no wise would I want to discontinue the service in the Latin language, because the young are my chief concern. And if I could bring it to pass, and Greek and Hebrew were as familiar to us as the Latin and had as many fine melodies and songs, we would hold mass, sing, and read on successive Sundays in all four languages, German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.”[52]

Luther had great respect for the tradition and heritage of Christian worship. He had contempt for those who held the tradition as sacrosanct, and therefore encouraged freedom to be exercised with regard to external forms of worship. On the other hand, he had disdain for those who only desired novelty and possessed no appreciation for the tradition and liturgy that had been handed down through the ages. Reform was necessary in the mass where additions of the church were in conflict with the proclamation of the gospel – turning the sacrament into a work we perform rather than Christ’s salvific work for us. This German mass Luther offered attempted to preserve the purity of the gospel as the central focus of worship, while at the same time providing an order of service that was engaging to the people, and respectful to the tradition of Christian worship.


As is the case with any issue Luther tackled, his writings were contextual. A person cannot read only one of Luther’s treatises on a given topic – whether it is worship, war, sacraments, marriage or anything else – and come away with a comprehensive understanding of Luther’s thought on the issue. In the case of worship and the reform of the mass, the “enthusiast” who desires to expunge the traditional liturgy from worship will find plenty of ammunition in Luther’s treatise “The German Mass and Order of Service” to pursue her/his agenda. In the same vain, the traditionalist could accuse Luther of ruining their beloved mass (and perhaps did) by changing not only the content of the mass, but the flavor and feel of worship with all the new music introduced in that same treatise, “The German Mass and Order of Service.” On the other hand, could not the liturgists and traditionalists find plenty of ammo to ridicule the enthusiasts, and pursue their own agenda to keep one uniform order of worship, from Luther’s biting words in “A Christian Exhortation to the Livonians Concerning Public Worship and Concord?” Could not the enthusiasts have grumbled and complained (and perhaps did) that Luther’s reform was still too liturgical and traditional?

If Luther’s writings are contextual, what is his overall thought and approach to worship? Helmar Junghans remarks: “Already in the earliest lectures on the Psalms from 1513 to 1515 Luther’s concept of the basic structure for how God and humanity relate was clear. The God who speaks works through his Word to each individual person, for whom there remains only hearing and obeying. In this relation God is the active partner, the individual is the passive one… With this explanation, Luther underscored the basic structure of worship: the action proceeds from God, not from human beings.”[53] As noted above, Luther’s litmus test for determining what is essential to worship and what is negotiable in worship is the doctrine of justification – God’s justifying promise proclaimed through word and sacrament in worship. Externals – such as the order of worship, vestments, styles of music – are open to discussion, and possible change. If any additions or subtractions to worship conflict with God’s proclamation of the gospel through word and sacrament, then there must be change

Some may argue with the rationale for “justification” as the litmus test. In our Pastor-Theologian, West Coast Group, winter meeting this year, one person from the Anglican tradition argued for “being in Christ” as her litmus test. A Presbyterian pastor argued for “sanctification” as the litmus test for a Calvanist. A Methodist pastor offered “holiness” as the litmus test from his tradition. But in each case, the pastor was forced to contemplate what their over-riding or under-girding principle was for ordering worship. How does worship reflect the community of faith’s theology – their particular witness to the faith, and the proclamation of the gospel, as they understand it?

Luther’s contention was that praxis must be subservient to principle. All worship must be subject to, and submit to the essential, guiding tenet of the faith – the proclamation of the gospel. “He demanded the following: from the inside to the outside, not the other way around. That is to say, God’s Word must first work faith in the heart before this faith can express itself outwardly in new forms of worship. It is wrong to change externals before the proper faith is present, ‘For the Word created heaven and earth and all things [Ps. 33:6]; the Word must do this thing, and not we poor sinners.’”[54]

Luther was not opposed to externals – the word and sacraments are externals, for they come to us extra nos – but he was opposed to the legalism of the church by its insistence on the necessity of outward forms. “Much offense has been taken at his complete excision of the canon of the mass, but this ruthless operation freed the Words of Institution from the rank growth around them and placed the gospel squarely in the center of the eucharistic rite.”[55] The whole order and idea of the sacrifice of the mass is what ran counter to Luther’s basic insights into the gospel and the purpose of worship. The direction of giving and receiving had become reversed, and God had been reduced to a kid on the play field hoping to be picked to play.

This paper is primarily concerned with the issue of adiaphora in worship. What is negotiable in worship – and why? Are negotiables one thing for Lutherans, another for Romanists, another for Calvanists, and another for Anabaptists? Or is there something necessary and essential for the Christian church, and its witness to the gospel? Are there some things we’re united in understanding as essential and non-negotiable? Can Luther be of help in our struggles over worship today? In his article in Lutheran Quarterly, in 1999, Junghans reports: “Luther’s reform of worship has attracted attention in the twentieth century even outside Lutheran circles. After the Second World War Roman Catholic liturgiologists have also directed their attention to Luther’s reform of worship. This, too, happened not only out of purely historical interests but also to promote liturgical reform that came to fruition during the Second Vatican Council.”[56]

The differences in worship styles and experiences among the various Christian denominations today – are these the things of adiaphora? Should there be uniform orders and styles of worship among denominations today – or even within one denomination – out of love for the neighbor and unity in the Christian church? Or is the diversity an expression of faith and love? Today, rich and varied ways of expressing and proclaiming the gospel are experienced by people who are not uniform, but varied and diverse in personality, culture, mentality, and depth of faith. But one thing that is essential and needed by all is the gospel of Jesus Christ, which the church catholic must deliver in word and sacrament.


  • Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Translated by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich. Second ed. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • Junghans, Helmar. “Luther on the Reform of Worship.” Lutheran Quarterly XIII (1999): 318-319
  • Leaver, Robin A. “Luther and Bach, the "Deutsche Messe" and the Music of Worship.” Lutheran Quarterly XV, no. Autumn (2001): 317.
  • Leupold, Ulrich S., ed. Introduction to Volume 53. Edited by Helmut T. Lehmann. American Edition ed. 55 vols. Vol. 53, Luther's Works. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965.
  • Luther, Martin. “Against the Heavenly Prophets.” In Church and Ministry, edited by Conrad Bergendoff. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1525.
  • Luther, Martin. “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” In Word and Sacrament, edited by Abdel Ross Wentz. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1520
  • Luther, Martin. “A Christian Exhortation to the Livonians Concerning Public Worship and Concord.” In Liturgy and Hymns, edited by Ulrich S. Leupold. Phiadelphia: Fortress Press, 1525.
  • Luther, Martin. “Concerning the Order of Public Worship.” In Liturgy and Hymns, edited by Ulrich S. Leupold. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1523.
  • Luther, Martin. “The Freedom of a Christian.” In Career of the Reformer: I, edited by Harold J. Grimm. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1520.
  • Luther, Martin. “An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg.” In Liturgy and Hymns, edited by Ulrich S. Leupold. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1523.
  • Luther, Martin. “To George Buchholzer.” In Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, edited by Theodore G. Tappert. Vancouver, Canada: Regent College Publishing, 1539.
  • Luther, Martin. “A Treatise On The New Testament, That Is, The Holy Mass.” In Word and Sacrament, edited by E. Theodore Bachman. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1520.
  • Melanchthon, Philip. “Article VII of the Augsburg Confession.” In The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1530.
  • Metzger, Bruce M., and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.


[1] One may choose to use a different term here other than “litmus test,” such as “hermeneutical principle,” but the intent is to suggest some sort of measurement by which one evaluates and discerns between that which is essential and that which is negotiable.

[2]Leaver. Luther and Bach, the "Deutsche Messe" and the Music of Worship. 317. “Luther reversed the accepted action of Mass: instead of prayer and intercession directed from the church to God, he saw it as the proclamation of the gospel from God to the worshipping community, gathered at the altar. The proclamation of the gospel was the unifying principle of Luther’s Deutsche Messe…”

[3]Conversation with my dad, retired pastor A. Wallace Johnson, February 24, 200 3.

[4]Melanchthon. Article VII of the Augsburg Confession. Pg. 42

[5]Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, pg. 190. See also Paul's use of the term diaferw in Galatians 2:6.

[6]Luther. A Treatise On The New Testament, That Is, The Holy Mass. LW35: 81

[7]Ibid. 81.

[8]Ibid. 81.

[9]Metzger and Murphy. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version. In Luke 22:20, and the parallel passages in the synoptics, the word diaqhkh is translated as either covenant or testament. If covenant can connote a bilateral contract in which both parties must necessarily contribute for its efficaciousness, then it would not be an appropriate translation. Testament, understood by Luther in terms of one’s “last will and testament,” may be a better term if it’s understood as a unilateral commitment by the testator.

[10]LW 35:84.

[11]Ibid., 91.

[12]Ibid., 94.

[13]Ibid., 93.

[14]Ibid., 94-98.

[15]Ibid., 98.

[16]Luther. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. LW36: 6.

[17]Ibid., 8.

[18]Ibid., 36.

[19]Luther. Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Pp. 3 05-307

[20]Luther. Concerning the Order of Public Worship. LW53: 9.

[21]Ibid., 11.


[23]Ibid., 14.

[24]LW 35:106. “For the preaching ought to be nothing but an explanation of the words of Christ, when he instituted the mass and said, ‘This is my body, this is my blood,’ etc. What is the whole gospel but an explanation of this testament?”

[25]Luther. An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg. LW53:17.

[26]Ibid., 19.

[27]LW 35:106-107. “The pope does not have a hair’s breadth of power to change what Christ has made; and whatever of these things he changes, that he does as a tyrant and Antichrist.”

[28]LW 53:20

[29]Ibid. 21.

[30]Ibid., 26.

[31]Ibid., 25.




[35]Ibid., 20

[36]Ibid., 31.

[37]Ibid., 30-31.

[38]Ibid. 31.

[39]Ibid. 39

[40]Ibid. 36.

[41]Luther. A Christian Exhortation to the Livonians Concerning Public Worship and Concord. LW53:46.

[42]Luther. The Freedom of a Christian. LW 31:344.

[43]LW 53:47.

[44]Ibid., 48.

[45]Ibid., 47-48.

[46]Ibid., 49. “I also ask the people to have patience and not to be astonished if differences in teaching and practice are caused by factions and sects. For who can stop the devil and his legions?… Thus among Christians there must also be factions and heretics who pervert faith and love and confuse the people.”

[47]LW 53:62. “For this is the damnable thing about the popish services: that men made laws, works, and merits out of them…That is the work of the very devil. The ancients did not institute or order them to that intent.”

[48]Leaver. Luther and Bach, the "Deutsche Messe" and the Music of Worship. 317. “It was not the first German vernacular order. German masses had appeared in such places as Nuremberg, Strasbourg, Augsburg, and Alstedt, before Luther’s work on his Deutsche Messe.”

[49]Luther. Against the Heavenly Prophets. LW 40:141.

[50]LW 53:55.

[51]Ibid., 61.

[52]Ibid., 63.

[53]Junghans. Luther on the Reform of Worship. 318-319.

[54]Junghans. Luther on the Reform of Worship. 323.

[55]Leupold. Introduction to Volume 53. XVII.

[56]Junghans. 315.