Friday, February 08, 2008

Church Calendars, Scriptural Authority, and Liberty of Conscience, no. 1a

Whew. I didn't guess that this post would generate such "interest" (in fact, that post had the largest number of comments in the short history of this blog). While I don't have time to respond to all the comments, I wanted to respond to the general themes of some and then write a separate post about Christmas and Easter.

1. This may surprise some of you in the light of what you think I said (as opposed to what I actually said): I think Wayne Larson's approach makes a lot of sense. He wrote:

What if our session chose to do this by way of organizing a good portion of those 52 Sunday's around, say, the major events in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ? We could have a series of Sundays in which our Scripture readings and prayers reflect on his promised coming (from both the vantage points of OT Israel and our present hope in his return). Then perhaps we could have a few Sundays in which our Scripture readings and prayers center on the incarnation of our Lord. We might then even have a few Sundays that reflect on those portions of the Scriptures where we see the Son of God revealing himself to his people and the nations and consider how we might take that message of the gospel to all of the world. Then we could have a few Sundays where our readings and prayers consider why our Lord came for us in the first place - to redeem us from our sin and bondage - even noting that our Messiah was rejected by men, smitten and afflicted. We could then have a few Sundays where we give special attention to his death, resurrection, ascension, and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit.

However, I would suggest that there is a difference between a church's session structuring its Sunday worship services around major themes and texts like this and a deliberate ordering of the church's life around the historic church calendar. I agree that we need to teach and preach the whole counsel of God and doing so in this fashion would assist our people in inculcating the Gospel. Once that teaching and preaching moves into a full observance of the church calendar with the rites attached to those observances--such as the placing of ashes on the forehead, for example--then it strikes me that we've moved beyond or beside the expressed command of Scripture. And that is my concern.

2. That would then be my answer to the several charges of hypocrisy: "well, you preached at a Reformation Day service; a Valentines Banquet; a pro-life service; a Christmas service; an Easter service, etc." In preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God, it is appropriate to order the ministry of the Word to draw people into the major themes of the Gospel itself. The fact that our culture still views Christmas and Easter as major poles of our calendar makes it convenient to preach and teach on the themes of Jesus' advent(s), death, and resurrection. [I'd also note that the Valentine's Banquet is tonight, Friday; and it is always appropriate to bring God's Word at such settings--but it is not a stated service of the church, either.]

I must admit, however, that I am very uncomfortable with the way some churches I have attended have "candle light" services on Christmas eve or decorate the sanctuary with greenery for Advent or have (what we called) "the creeping cross," which progressed toward the center of the sanctuary in the Sundays leading up to Easter. I wonder about the biblical warrant for these things and worry that people are led to believe that those things are necessary for the worship of God--which is only a few steps removed from formalism, legalism, and superstition, which were concerns of the Reformers themselves.

3. Kyle Wells asked the best question--where is all this talk about the conscience in the NT especially? It strikes me that a key text on this point would be Colossians 2:16-23--Paul clearly urges the Colossians not to allow their consciences to be bound ("let no one pass judgment on you...with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath") by religious observances that were no longer in effect ("the substance belongs to Christ"). These things "may have the appearance of wisdom," but I wonder whether such observances actually led people to trust in the ritual actions rather than in Jesus himself.

4. Finally, Luther. While Jeff Meyers raised the appropriate comment regarding my use of Luther, even he would agree that I was not appealing there to Luther as liturgist, but to Luther as defender of liberty of conscience as bound by God's Word. I thought when I typed that in someone would probably suggest that it was a bit of a non sequitur, but I had just finished doing my Luther lecture in class and used the Diet of Worms clip from the Luther movie--so I thought it was a good place to end.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sean,

You wrote: "I agree that we need to teach and preach the whole counsel of God and doing so in this fashion would assist our people in inculcating the Gospel. Once that teaching and preaching moves into a full observance of the church calendar with the rites attached to those observances--such as the placing of ashes on the forehead, for example--then it strikes me that we've moved beyond or beside the expressed command of Scripture."

Wouldn't you agree that the teaching done in the Lord's Day service extends beyond the sermon? The hymns and psalms teach. The prayers teach. The order of the service teaches. The placement of the choir teaches (something). The furniture in the sanctuary teaches (Why do baptismal fonts always have 8 sides? Why is the pulpit placed where it is? Why is the sanctuary shaped like a cross?). Surely with all this biblically warranted and non-warranted teaching going on there's an allowable place for the gradually-increasing light of the advent wreath to teach us something about the nature of Christ's coming. And so on. No?

Richard Hiers

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Richard:

I think you are making a fair point. Of course, you are right that all of the things you mention "teaches" in the same way that my not wearing bow ties into the pulpit "teaches" (but I'm not denigrating my friends, Jimmy Agan or Shawn Slate, who do).

However, I think that your approach could legitimate all sorts of things as "teaching" moments--having a procession with the Cross at the beginning of a service; having a pyx at the head of the cross in which the bread as the body of Christ is placed; "burying" the cross in a carved out, tomb like space--all of these things "teach," but they all strike me to be drawn from "the imaginations and devices of men." I guess I want us to be careful in the use of what we think will "teach" our people.

Hope that helps, sml

Wayne said...

Hi Sean,

Thanks for your reply and I appreciate your interaction with my reply. I was afraid that with the flurry of comments, mine would simply fade into the furnature.

I can respect your reservations regarding candles, greenery, etc. Certainly these sort of decisions call for sensibility and pastoral discernment. What these things teach aren't always what they're intended to teach. I suppose, however, the same can be said for the stripped-down austerity of "four white walls."

In any respect, while my pastoral practice tends to expose my Lutheran up-brining at times, I appreciate the liberty we have to serve our congregations among fellow presbyters who can disagree without acrimony or division.

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Wayne:

Thanks. I really appreciated your tone in your reply. I agree that the "stripped-down austerity of 'four white walls'" can create issues as well, teaching that God himself is austere and wholly other. It was the place particularly where I agreed with Richard's comment--we can't help but "teach."

Like you, I also appreciate the liberty we have within the PCA to serve our congregations in a contextual fashion. Here in STL, we have such a range of churches and worship styles--and I very much appreciate that.

I must confess that I do worry that sometimes our worship practices may trump our theological commitments--whether "low-church" services that often feel like a indescript Bible church or "high-church" services that lean toward Anglicanism.

And yet, part of our "settlement" within the PCA is theological unity and contextual (and programmatic) diversity. And that, IMO, is a much, much better "settlement" than the old mainline church (i.e. theological plurality and insitutional/progammatic unity).

Thanks again for the exchange; blessings on your ministry in Iowa, sml

Anonymous said...

Sean,

Thanks for the reply. I think we would both agree that there is a line somewhere that needs to be drawn, though we would disagree where that should be. My concern is that we not accept an unthinking dualism that pits ideas (good) against artifacts (bad).

Words spoken from the pulpit are necessary and should be evaluated as to their worth. Keep the good, chuck the bad. Artifacts in the sactuary (architecture, symbols, furniture placement, etc.) are inescapable and should also be evaluated as to their worth. Give the good a fresh coat of paint, and the bad a good smashing. And of course be charitable in the midst of it all.

Thanks again for your interaction.

Richard

Jeff Meyers said...

Sean,

I just want to be clear that I was not arguing for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. We don't do that for various reasons. The kind of church year calendar I argue for is one that orders readings, preaching, hymns, prayers, and also color according to the life of Christ as traditionally practiced in churches.

No holy days of obligation. No multiplication of saints days. No added rituals. Just the normal Lord's Day liturgical service with nothing added to bind the consciences of the people.

Just a bit of clarification so that no one thinks the wrong thing about our church. Thanks!

Justin Donathan said...

Dr. Lucas,

You said...

"I wonder about the biblical warrant for these things and worry that people are led to believe that those things are necessary for the worship of God--which is only a few steps removed from formalism, legalism, and superstition, which were concerns of the Reformers themselves."

But those few steps are important. Orthodoxy is only a few steps removed from Nestorianism, Amyraldianism or a host of other heretical -isms. Truth is always only a few steps from error. This doesn't prove that anything close to error is true, but it takes the force out of the implication that because something is only "a few steps removed" from something bad, the thing itself is bad.

You also say,

"'high-church' services that lean toward Anglicanism"

Again, I just find this kind of argument unhelpful. What does it mean to lean toward Anglicanism? Are Anglican's not orthodox Christians? If so is leaning toward their practice in terms of liturgy prima facie a negative thing? Don't most of the urban, primarily African American PCA churches lean toward a more congregational or African American Methodist Episcopal style of worship?

Sorry if I'm nitpicking; I've just seen a number of people tarred and feathered for 'leaning toward x', or having a certain 'trajectory,' or arguing for a 'modified x.'

nickg said...

Hi Sean,

Even with something as unconventional (in our circles) as an Ash Wednesday service, I can understand how a minister and session might find that a useful way to bring the Word of the Gospel to the congregation in their care in a contextualized way. What's important is that they use it as a tool in the service of bringing the Word of the Gospel to those to whom they minister. With such an intent, the responsible use of the historic church calendar (or even the kinds of things Richard was mentioning earlier), becomes not something that is beside the Word, binding the conscience, but something that is under the Word, serving it in its intent to draw the heart and mind to Christ and His Gospel.

I guess one point I am rather unconvinced about is that any of these practices you are talking about--at least in the way I've seen them practiced in PCA churches--are actually binding the consciences of Christians. I can understand how they could do that and I certainly know how they have in various historical moments of the life of the church, but abusus non tollit usum. Consider that there have been thousands of sermons throughout the history of the church that have bound the consciences of Christians to unbiblical convictions, but that does not mean we should get rid of preaching in worship in favor of a time of silent reading of the Bible.

You mentioned being "very uncomfortable" with "candle light" services because you "worry that people are led to believe that those things are necessary for the worship of God." Really? Do you really think that is an actual danger in our PCA churches? I understand that we must always be on guard against the legalism that our sinful hearts prefer to the Gospel. But in our context, I just don't think that candle light services are a very pressing concern. I honestly believe that we are far closer to binding peoples' consciences to the notion that one must wear a suit and tie to worship God than we are to anything that might be communicated by utilizing the historic church calendar.

I appreciate the regulative principle. And I certainly agree with you that the Church has 52 feast days each year that are all tied as the greatest and most important in a church's life and ministry that year (especially in churches that actually celebrate the Lord's Feast each Lord's Day...but I suppose that's another discussion for another time). I just don't believe that use of the historic church calendar necessarily conflicts with either of those principles.

Take care,
Nick Gleason

Wayne said...

Hi Sean,

You write:

"And yet, part of our 'settlement' within the PCA is theological unity and contextual (and programmatic) diversity."

I think it's appropriate to keep those scare quotes in the word "settlement." I've wondered at times just how stable this arrangement will prove to be ultimately. In the 20 years that I've been in the PCA and 10 years that I've been in ministry, we've continued to grow and further diversify our contextual ministry. One wonders what sort of pressures this places on theological unity and what future attempts at adjusting to or resisting these pressures might produce.

Just thinking out loud, I suppose. Had I a crystal ball, I'd be in another line of work.

Blessings,