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When Luther Made Fun of A Guy Overly Fascinated with Rubrics and Rituals

June 28th, 2011
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I know this is going to make some people angry, but I think it is about time we realize that when some among us say that there is a certain “level” of liturgical activity that marks what is really Lutheran or really liturgical, they are just whistling Dixie. Appealing to older practices is fine, to a point, but I’ve noticed that in reacting to really, really BAD practices among us, such as Lutheran churches dropping the name Lutheran, and ditching the liturgy, the reaction against those errors winds up just causing a problem in the other direction.

In his work documenting liturgical practices in the territory of Braunschweig, Bodo Nischan shared a delightful incident when Luther let the prince in the territory have it with both barrels. For you see, this man was very concerned with making sure they had all the liturgical finery possible and that the preachers were draped in pretty, shiny chasubles. Luther had to remind the good man that there is more to worship, liturgy and the church’s life together than obsessing over rites, rituals and rubrics in the Divine Service. There were calls in the area for continued Roman practices, which Luther rejected, such as consecrating the elements first in church and taking them to communicants, or keeping them stored up in a ciborium. And then, Luther tried to calm the anxiety of a man who was feeling bad about being forced to continue to engage in elaborate rituals:

Provided the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached purely with no human additions and the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are observed, with no invocation of the saints, no carrying of the sacrament in procession, no daily masses and vigils for the dead, no holy water and salt, and provided that pure hymns are sung in Latin and German, then it does not matter if there be a cross of gold or silver, whether the cope be of saffron, silk, or linen; and if the Elector is not content to put on one gown, let him have three, the way Aaron wore them, one on top of another; and if doesn’t find one procession enough, let him go around seven times like Joshua with trumpets blowing; and if wants to leap with the harp, psalter, and cymbals, let him dance like David before the ark. Conscience is not to be bound, and if we have given up these practices in Wittenberg, we may have reasons which are not valid in Berlin. Except where God has commanded, let there be freedom. [Nichan, p. 22]

You see, dear reader, much as some among us would like to make you think that there is some certain “best” way to do the liturgy and that the wearing of certain vestments is the “most” or “more” Lutheran way of doing things, they are wrong and while they may want to give you the impression that unless you reach their “level” of liturgical correctness and hold your hands just so, and gesticulate in just the right way, they have no right to do so. They have no right to put themselves in the place of judging the content of the Synod’s hymnals or liturgies, or indicating that such content is not “good enough” or that there is some “better” way. Such things are every bit as damaging to our fellowship as Pastor Bob with his polo shirt and jeans parading around like a non-denominational preacher. And we must be willing to say it is or we have no credibility to criticize the other side of the coin.

Source: Prince, People, and Confession: The Second Reformation in Brandenburg by Bodo Nischan.

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  1. June 28th, 2011 at 11:41 | #1

    “and if wants to leap with the harp, psalter, and cymbals, let him dance like David before the ark”

    So would Luther have tolerated liturgical (or not-quite-liturgical) dancing? :)

  2. June 28th, 2011 at 11:57 | #2

    Pr. McCain,

    Thank you for this posting. You write, “Such things are every bit as damaging to our fellowship as Pastor Bob with his polo shirt and jeans parading around like a non-denominational preacher. And we must be willing to say it is or we have no credibility to criticize the other side of the coin.”

    But isn’t Luther telling us in the quote you provide that just as long as the Gospel is preached in its purity and as long as the Sacraments are faithfully delivered, then it doesn’t matter if a pastor claims that certain liturgical practices are the “best way?” Saying something is the best practice is not the same as claiming God prescribes only such and such practices and all others are forbidden. Obviously you believe that “parading around like a non-denominational preachers” in “polo shirt and jeans” is not the best practice, or am I misunderstanding you? Some could say you are putting yourself in a place where you are judging these pastors who are “parading around like a non-denominational preacher” so where’s the beef?

    • June 28th, 2011 at 13:04 | #3

      Jim, I do not think you are aware of the kind of “more liturgical than thou” behavior among some in our circles that has caused great offense and upset among many people, and frankly, has driven many people away from even considering reasons why the liturgy is a treasure. That’s the point.

  3. Weedon
    June 28th, 2011 at 12:03 | #4

    Absolutely right, but do not neglect Nischan’s point that these truly adiaphoristic ceremonies came to have a distinctly Lutheran meaning in Brandenburg when they were used to confess AGAINST the Calvinism that the elector was seeking to foist on the people. Nischan’s whole thesis is that things like the elevation and the exorcism in Baptism became bigger than themselves – they became clear identifiers for the common people of those who held the Reformation doctrine from Wittenberg and not from Geneva. In a similar way today you might note that some of our laity today find the use of vestments (in any form) the mark of a certain approach to Lutheranism that they recognize as such – and the khaki and polo shirt to be a mark of something else.

    • June 28th, 2011 at 13:02 | #5

      Yes, in that time, at that place, they did. Insisting on their use today as the “gold standard” for liturgical practice is wrong, and making people feel ,as some have done, not you Pr. Weedon!, that *not* doing these things means that their liturgy is somehow lacking is wrong.

  4. Christine
    June 28th, 2011 at 13:05 | #6

    Amen, Pastor McCain. When I was still in the ELCA the clergy in some parishes were as Romanizing as can be, chasubles and all, yet much of the ELCA has jettisoned historic Lutheran practice.

    My mom’s Lutheran ancestors fled Salzburg rather than convert to Roman Catholicism, having been given the choice by the Catholic archbishop. They kept the faith and handed it on to my mom’s congregation in East Prussia. Her pastor wore the black “Geneva” but they maintained authentic Lutheran faith and practice because it was anchored in the Word of God.

    Vestments do not orthodoxy make.

  5. Weedon
    June 28th, 2011 at 13:14 | #7


    Well, I may be ignorant, but I’ve not encountered that. I’ve seen them used in a similar way to confess against the encroachment of American evangelicalism/church growthery in our parishes.

    • June 28th, 2011 at 13:27 | #8

      You are not ignorant, but you do need to get out more.

      : )

      Using a liturgy at all is “counter cultural” and of course, Will, the point of my post is that there are those in our circles who would want to suggest that their choice to add more bells and whistles to their liturgical practices is the “best” practice. And that is wrong, as I know you would agree.

  6. June 28th, 2011 at 13:47 | #9

    ptmccain :
    Jim, I do not think you are aware of the kind of “more liturgical than thou” behavior among some in our circles… .

    I, then, have yet another thing to be thankful for today! :)

  7. Allan
    June 28th, 2011 at 19:20 | #10

    Pr. McCain,
    I was struck by Luther’s comment that, “conscience is not to be bound”. The ELCA has institutionalized the concept of bound concience. Could you elaborate on Luther’s use of the term in general and in this context?

    • June 28th, 2011 at 20:31 | #11

      I do not mean to be dismissive, but when it comes to the ELCA “bound conscience” theory, it is a bunch of garbage and not even worth dignifying with any response or explanation. It is to be rejected outright.

  8. Jonathan Trost
    June 28th, 2011 at 19:55 | #12


    Christine -

    Without knowing for sure, of course, my guess would be that the pastor’s vestment in East Prussia was not a Geneva robe. Rather, it was likely a Luther’s gown. Both are black

    The Geneva robe has a deep V-neck, is usually seen worn over a white shirt and tie by sitting judges, many (most?) Reformed pastors, and educators in academic processions.

    When I was a kid, many Lutheran pastors wore the Luther’s gown. Unlike the Geneva robe, it has black buttons running down the front from top to near bottom, and a collar, under which go the strings which tie to hold the Beffchen (2 tabs) which lie in front under the pastor’s chin and on his chest Whenever I visit churches in Germany, the Luther’s gown appears still to be the most common Lutheran vestment. That may vary some from one provincial Lutheran (or Evangelical) church to another.

    I have heard, howver, that some (many?) WELS pastors do wear the Geneva robe.

  9. Joanne
    June 28th, 2011 at 21:25 | #13

    As the grand duchess of the Missouri Synod, it is my wish that you all should wear three robes as did Aaron. Now, wasn’t that easy?

  10. June 28th, 2011 at 23:17 | #14

    Luther’s conscience was bound to the Word of God, thus he couldn’t recant at Worms. The ELCA “bound conscience” is only bound to the zeitgeist.

  11. Sven Wagschal
    June 29th, 2011 at 00:27 | #15

    Originally the lutheran churches in Germany used the liturgical vestment they had used for centuries before. Then came enlightenment and rationalism — and pastor abandoned these vestments for whatever they liked. It was pure chaos. So 1811 the prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm III ordered that all of his pastors, judges and rabbies had to use the vestment of professors, the black robe. This gown became now the standard liturgical vestment in all of Germany, and the german immigrants brought it to the USA.
    So originally the black robe was a measure against arbitrariness by rationlistic pastors, but since the prussian king, himself being a calvinist and later the founder of the prussion union, was not well versed in the liturgical practises of the lutheran church, he failed to restore the common practises of lutheranism.

  12. June 29th, 2011 at 06:43 | #16

    Paul, surely no one in the LCMS says that fuller ceremonial makes for a better mass. The point may be that fuller ceremonial is more in keeping with the full intent of the “keeping the mass” and adhere to ‘church usages” of the Confessions but everyone knows that more does not make better. There are places in the Synod in which less is thought to be better — better at reaching out to unchurched, better at keeping the focus on the spiritual and not the physical, better to identity us as in the evangelical camp, etc… I have no issue with what you have posted but do believe that this is not really a big issue. How many are there in the LCMS who are insisting upon the more that you suggest? Compare that to the many who insist upon the less being better (I mean no liturgy, no Eucharist, no lectionary, no church year, no hymnals) and then tell me which is the greater threat to the LCMS?

    • June 29th, 2011 at 08:23 | #17

      Larry, please not that I did not accuse any of saying that fuller ceremony means that their Divine Service is “better” or “works better.” I am saying that we have those among us who would make others of us feel guilty if we do not follow their lead in adding additional ceremony and rubrics and rituals and who have, and continue, to hold themselves up before the Synod as models of the “best practice” of the liturgy. This is the problem. And, of course, if you want to say that this is not “as big” a problem as those ditching the liturgy, that would be true, but only to a point.

      The point I wish you would acknowledge, my friend Larry, is that when there are those among us, a vocal minority, putting themselves forward as leaders in liturgical practice and who sit in judgment over the Synod’s chosen forms of worship and liturgy, creating other/extra forms and practices, this is a big problem and makes it all the more difficult to hold up the historic liturgy.

  13. Christine
    June 29th, 2011 at 07:58 | #18

    @Jonathan and Sven,

    I guess I am using the “Geneva robe” in a generic sense, not intending to apply a Calvinistic/Reformed paradigm to it although I can see how it would sound that way. I have never been a member of an WELS congregation but from what I understand many WELS pastors do use the Geneva robe.

    My mother told me that her pastors vested in the black robes in order to emphasize the importance of learning and Christian education for the laity in the Lutheran Churches, thanks to Luther’s emphasis on catechesis. I am aware of the influence of the Prussian Union but my mother was born in 1920 and received a solid Lutheran upbringing.

  14. Rahn Hasbargen
    June 29th, 2011 at 10:55 | #19

    There is a whole blog dedicated to bad liturgical vestments with the subtitle “it’s not about you”. I think it miught be fitting to link it here:

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