The Ecclesiastical Butterfly Effect

What happens when someone makes a seemingly insignificant change in the Church? What happens when a butterfly flaps its wings on the other side of the world? Who knows?–and that’s really the point. Who are you to think that you can do anything you want with the traditions that have been, by definition, passed down from the saints of previous ages (traditio)?

Can you do things? Can you change things? Of course you can, but that’s not really the question. The real question is, should you? Perhaps you think that you can change, remove, add, or replace something without any noticeable effect on the faith of the people. What’s the problem with a liturgical, ritual, ceremonial, or political change in a particular, individual congregation? Whom does it really affect? The fact that the question can even be asked is the most vivid illustration of my point: you have no idea.

You might be able to put colloquial words into a restatement of the Nicene Creed and everyone in your congregation might know very well what the meaning is. What happens when everyone in your congregation dies and their children and their children’s children mistake the new words for a changed meaning? Yours is the only congregation that made the change; where can your children go to find out what was really meant? It is undeniable that eventually the very doctrine of the Creed will change.

Of course, this principle applies to both additions as well as subtractions. Regardless of how the music has changed in the Divine Service, it is historically demonstrable that the words have changed very little (even if their order has). The propers in the service are very much the same as when they were first written.

Does this mean ecclesiastical paralysis when it comes to churchly rites? Of course not. We are free in the Gospel to do what is most expedient to the proclamation of that Gospel. That presupposition, however, is not freedom to do whatever we want. I know this might be a radical concept in an era of “liturgical” anarchy, but could it possibly be that the reason the parts of the liturgy have been in use for so long is that they are the best vehicle for the Gospel? (I know, I know, it couldn’t be.)

Most importantly, this is simply a plea to think carefully before we do anything. Ultimately, we cannot know how our actions will affect future generations, but we should at least consider it. Are the changes we make, whether in liturgy or elsewhere, for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, or do they have other motives (e.g., to draw people to the Church; to replace some archaic item, the original purpose of which we have no idea; to entertain, etc.)? For God’s sake (literally), think!

Timotheos

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14 thoughts on “The Ecclesiastical Butterfly Effect

  1. I know that of which you speak. I just watch my old childhood LCMS church go through at terrible disrutption due to issues other than theology.

    I saw a few charter members (including relatives) leave and join a neighboring town LCMS church. Personal and family ties broken. A Pastor removed from his position and removed from the call list for the time being.

    The reason? A disagreement about building an addition… {sigh} very disheartening.

    But like you said, a wedge driven hard into a weak point…

  2. But, what about trying to reach people in, say – Thailand? They know nothing of a liturgy, of any particular creed, nor do they have any historical understanding of how all these writings and “propers” came to be.

    Now, you can say that, of course, one should adapt the presentation of the Gospel to a foreign mission field in order to reach those people. But how is that (reaching people who are unfamiliar with the propers) any different than reaching people in contemporary America? In so many places in America today, people have never been in a church in their lives. Their only experience with church might be the movies, or TV evangelists.

    I think you can get so wrapped up in traditional ways to communicate God’s Word that you forget that sometimes there are people today who have a hard time relating to those ways, or who find those ways incomprehensible and totally uninviting. You can’t just ignore those people, can you?

  3. Good point Jim,

    But neither can we present a watered down version of Christian Worship.

    Teaching tradition is important in teaching church history. Especially reformation history. But this isn’t theology, which is the most important part as you correctly illustrate.

    The point, really, is we must teach traditional liturgical protocols if we wish to maintain consistent worship focus. Substituting and/or revamping litergy walks a fine line with taking the next step and revamping doctrine… Which, btw, is one of the biggest wedges being driven into the churches here in the America.

  4. Jim, I’m guessing you know more about Thailand than I do, so I’ll leave that for the moment.

    “I think you can get so wrapped up in traditional ways to communicate God’s Word that you forget that sometimes there are people today who have a hard time relating to those ways, or who find those ways incomprehensible and totally uninviting. You can’t just ignore those people, can you?”

    I am unconvinced by arguments about relating God or His Word to anyone. What is the general movement when seeking to “relate” the Gospel to people? Atrophy. Get rid of the cross; that just doesn’t go over well in the focus groups. Don’t talk about the righteous wrath of God against sinners; those sinners might not come back.

    While you or your congregation might not be susceptible to such tendencies, that’s where the logic leads. I think that “relating the Gospel” presumes free choice, which I believe is an illusion. If someone joins a church–really, the Church–it is not because they found the people warm and inviting and they were impressed with the utilization of technology. It is because God broke them with the hammer of His Law and resurrected them with His Gospel. If people join the Church for any other reason, they haven’t really joined it. (They might be in a position to hear God’s Word and ultimately be converted, but that’s not something we have control over, so why pretend like we do?)

    I think that most unbelievers will find the faith incomprehensible and uninviting. No, you don’t ignore them, but neither do you give them what they think they want–which is likely to be the worst thing for them.

    A side-note on Thailand: I see nothing wrong with using traditional Thai instruments (is there such a thing?) and putting the words of the liturgy (i.e., Scripture!) to that instrumentation. You are probably right that both they and modern Americans will find it hard to understand at first. Who said it should be easy to just “get”? Let them who have ears, hear.

    Tim

  5. Tim, you’ll note that I was careful to talk about relating to the “ways” to communicate God’s Word, not relating to God’s Word per se. It is the methods that are used to present God’s Word that, it seems to me, might adjust over time to be as winsome as possible. This doesn’t mean that we adjust God’s Word or that our relationship to God’s Word changes. Merely that the way we present it may change. Don’t you think that St. Paul addressed the Athenians in a different way than he did the Romans, or the Ephesians? And I doubt that he was concerned about the “order of service” either.

    And I do think that we have some control over whether people hear the Word of God or not. Why else would God tell us to “go and preach”?

    I’m not suggesting that you give people what they want to hear, but you do give them God’s Word, straight, and in the most winsome way possible, and that means we make it as easy to understand as possible. Again, that doesn’t mean they don’t have to learn; it just means that the learning need not be made any more difficult than necessary.

    And, finally, yes, the Thais do have some traditional instruments, mostly reed and stringed. (But their music is, to say the least, strange to Western ears.)

    Jim

  6. Jim,

    Read parts of John 6, especially vv. 22-71. Here is verse 44a: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

    I understand your desire to speak God’s Word winsomely. All preachers, I suppose, should work at that. Yet, we must confess that the power remains in the Word itself. If it is not presented in a winsome way, do we doubt the effectiveness of that Word?

  7. Michael,

    Yes, the Word does indeed “not return void.” But adjusting the methods of presenting the Word, so that as many people as possible come to hear it does not seem a bad thing to me.

    But if the Word is preached in an empty church, how effective can it be?

    By the way, Tim,

    You said, “I think that most unbelievers will find the faith incomprehensible and uninviting.”

    I’m not sure that’s true. The message that they can have eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ should be a pretty exciting and joyous sort of message. Don’t you think?

    Jim

  8. Jim wrote: “Tim, you’ll note that I was careful to talk about relating to the “ways” to communicate God’s Word, not relating to God’s Word per se. It is the methods that are used to present God’s Word that, it seems to me, might adjust over time to be as winsome as possible. This doesn’t mean that we adjust God’s Word or that our relationship to God’s Word changes. Merely that the way we present it may change. Don’t you think that St. Paul addressed the Athenians in a different way than he did the Romans, or the Ephesians? And I doubt that he was concerned about the “order of service” either.”

    My only point would be that you cannot separate the methods/means from the message/content. Also, the Ephesians and Romans were already Christians, which is different than the Athenians. Of course, the Athenians kicked Paul out as soon as he started talking about the resurrection of Jesus, so it seems neither his method nor his message went over very well.

    “And I do think that we have some control over whether people hear the Word of God or not. Why else would God tell us to ‘go and preach’?”

    I’m not exactly sure where God told us to “go and preach.” He told the Church to make disciples by means of baptizing and teaching. Technically, I suppose we have some control over whether the Word of God reaches people’s eardrums; like you said in a different place, it doesn’t do any good to preach in an empty room. But in the spiritual sense, we do not have any control over whether they hear it in the sense that Jesus meant by “let those who have ears, hear.” Clearly the people to whom Jesus was speaking heard His words; however, they did not hear to their salvation. The parables were given not to make things clear, but to make things obscure. That’s why the disciples asked Jesus why He spoke in parables.

    “By the way, Tim,

    You said, “I think that most unbelievers will find the faith incomprehensible and uninviting.”

    I’m not sure that’s true. The message that they can have eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ should be a pretty exciting and joyous sort of message. Don’t you think?”

    It is only exciting and joyous to those in whom the Holy Spirit has created faith. What would most unbelievers do to whom you said, “You can have eternal life through faith in Jesus”? My guess is that most of them wouldn’t find it all that exciting. Foolishness, and all that.

    My main point in this whole thing was not to say that nothing can ever be changed (and that includes “the order of service” about which Paul was unconcerned). Only that we should do a little more thinking about our reasons for wanting change.

    Just to be clear, the printed word does not convey my smile (my wife thinks my arguing is arrogant). I just want to make sure my respect for anyone who comments here is apparent, so that no one takes my responses for condescension or arrogance.

    Tim

  9. Jim said… “I’m not sure that’s true. The message that they can have eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ should be a pretty exciting and joyous sort of message. Don’t you think?”

    Interesting discussion, folks. After reading through this again, I lean in favor of your position, Jim. The Word doesn’t change, but it might not be wise to speak the liturgy in Latin to new converts in Thailand. And wearing certain colors, or rituals might reflect the wrong initial impression, or their cultural moral basis is a bit different than ours.

    However, I do disagree with your statement about non-believers receiving Jesus Christ as a joyous and exciting thing. It is my argument that non-believers usually have just the opposite reaction to Christ’s message of salvation. They do not yet understand it in full context, because they have Satan guiding them rather than the Spirit.

    But, then, Tim reflects the importance of presenting the Word and trusting the Spirit to put things in context.

  10. Just to be clear, I never said we should speak the liturgy in Latin, and liturgical colors are adiaphora. However, the content of the liturgy is simply Scripture, and we should think twice (or thrice, or four times, at least) before changing it.

    On the other hand, there might be darn good didactic reasons for wearing liturgical colors. I can’t think of any for Latin, though, other than possible aesthetic reasons. Joel or Dana (or any other RC folks), what reasons would you give if you favor the Latin Mass?

    Tim

  11. But, again, Tim you are right in pointing out that the Word is, well, The Word. We can be the vessels of the Word, in whatever language or culture. And we really and simply just need to trust in the Spirit that to guide others to understanding.

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