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“O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”

Psalm 96:9

Before we consider the meaning of the various elements that constitute our public worship, there are some matters that demand prior consideration. A general orientation in the science of Christian Liturgies will give us the necessary background for the proper understanding of the material of our subject. It is difficult, if not impossible, to form a real sense of appreciation of the elements that constitute our public worship without realizing first the principles, the history, the doctrine and interpretation that lies behind these elements. The science is not complete unless it is viewed in this broader perspective. Much then as we might like to delve immediately into the consideration of questions and problems that relate directly to the things we do in our public worship, this will have to be held in abeyance until we have finished our preparatory study. 

The Name—Liturgies 

In our last article we stated that the term “Liturgy” is derived from the Greek term “leitourgia” or “leitourgein” which is a composite of two terms, “leiton” meaning people, and “ergon” meaning work or service. Hence, the root meaning or idea of the term is that it denotes the “people’s work or service.” 

In Classical Greek the term was used primarily to denote civic service required by law of wealthy citizens, or voluntarily proffered by them, as the discharge of the duty of public-spiritedness. Since religious services were conducted under the auspices of the civil magistrate, the term could have a religious connotation in some instances. But even so it was primarily civic and social and only secondarily religious in its specific character. A very prominent instance of “leitourgia” was providing entertainment for the populace. Ultimately the term acquired a wider meaning and was used for all manner of work or services by whomsoever performed, viz. the labor of slaves, the work of artisans, the conduct of business, etc. It is worthy of note that by calling all manner of work, the ordinary word for which was “ergon,” “leitourgia” the Greeks expressed their philosophy of work. According to their views the connotation of all labor performed was social and altruistic; it was done ultimately in the interest of the people, and not for personal enrichment and aggrandizement. How far would this conception of work be accepted in our modern American society? Furthermore, how many are there who belong to the church who would be quite ready to approve this view of the labor of man, forgetting of course that the sole objective of man’s labor and service must always be the promotion of the Kingdom of God and His glory. “Labor not for the meat that perishes!” (John 6:27

In the New Testament the word (leitourgia) occurs repeatedly in various forms. According to Zahn¹, Paul uses the term consistently in the antique Greek sense and with particular reference to the financial sacrifice involved in serving the people.² Public service, spiritedly rendered at considerable cost, would seem to be the sense of the passages mentioned. 

In other New Testament writings the term appears to have a more specifically religious signification.³ This use of the term was not arbitrary. Among the Greeks this term, as we have found, might denote financing a religious festival and rendering assistance to the religious leaders upon such occasions. The Septuagint accordingly used the term for the services of the priests and Levites in the Temple. In Luke 1:23 it is used for priestly service with reference to the labor of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. In Hebrews 10:11the sense is similar. In Hebrews 9:21 mention is made of the vessels that were employed in the service (leitourgia) of the temple. In Hebrews 8:2 reference is made to Christ as the minister (leitourgos) of the sanctuary; in Hebrews 8:6 to his ministry (leitourgia) as being more excellent than the Aaronitic ministry. InHebrews 1:14 the angels are called ministering spirits (leitourgika pneumata). The meaning might be simply ministering in general but it is more likely that the term here too has the connotation of temple-service, since the writer to the Hebrews represents heaven, the abode of the angels, as the New Testament temple into which Christ has entered with His own blood. If it be remembered that in Paul’s writings the church is considered God’s temple, this term as apexegeted inHebrews 1:14 would also appear to signify temple-service.Acts 13:2, where the verbal form of the term is used, is an-interesting passage. The entire verse reads: “As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” Some contend that this ministering refers to the public worship of the congregation at Antioch. Others hold that it signifies the specific services or functions of the prophets and teachers mentioned in verse 1. At any rate, these men no doubt exercised their function upon the occasion of public worship and so it would seem that we have here a foundation for the technical use of the term in the history of the Christian Church. 

Even so, however, in ecclesiastical literature the term was not used to designate public worship at first. Subsequently the Eastern church styled the administration of the Lord’s Supper “leitourgia” and still later the official public labors of bishops, presbyters and deacons were so denominated. The Western church at first called the public services of its office-bearers officium or ministerium divinum, but eventually also adopted the word “Liturgia.” 

Protestantism was slow to use the term for its public worship. In light of all the foregoing the reason for this is not difficult to see. In its original meaning and exclusive Old Testament and partial New Testament usage, the word did not altogether suit Protestant public worship. In Athens and among Israel the “leitourgoi” (worshippers) were set over against the people sharply; their work was done for the people, the people themselves meanwhile being utterly passive: not serving at all, but being served. In spite of the New Testament a hierarchical spirit arose in the church at an early date. The Greek Orthodox, the Eastern section and the Roman Catholic, the Western section, of the original Ecumenical church to 1054 A.D. have on principle excluded the laity from active participation in public worship. The term “leitourgia” consequently suited their ecclesiastical views but was militant to Protestant views of worship. 

The Protestant conception of worship is based on the New Testament and takes into account the majority which the church attained at Pentecost. It proceeds on the assumption that the position of the clergy must be construed not only in terms of authority but also of fellowship, and that even the authority of the clergy has as its corollary the liberty of the laity. It is to be noted that a strong element in the liberty which the apostle Paul advocated and defended was freedom from Old Testament ritualism, i.e., liturgical freedom. The implication of that freedom is activity. The New Testament idea of worship includes not only the leadership of the ministry, but a series of liturgical activities on the part of the people. The Roman Catholic liturgician, Thalhofer, therefore concludes that Protestants cannot properly use the terms liturgy and liturgical. However, this conclusion is entirely unwarranted. The use of a term in the course of history is not conditioned by the retention of all its original implications. Lexicography is an organic growth and is not dominated by etymology. The example of Acts 13:2, mentioned above, is proof against Thalhofer. The application of the originally political term to the temple-service of the Old Testament by the Septuagint also is a telling instance of the new adaptation of old terms. Moreover, the fundamental idea of “leitourgia” is that God is worshipped. The manner how is accidental. The term then denotes worship, however performed, whether after the Old Testament or after the New Testament fashion. Be that as it may, Protestantism could hardly help associating the blight of hierarchy with the term Liturgy, and was therefore inclined to avoid the term in order to steer clear of its obnoxious historical implications. According to Rietschl the term does not occur in the multitudinous Kirchenordnugen of the 16th and 17th centuries in which public worship was regulated. It seems to have come into use in England in Angelican circles toward the end of the 17th century. It was soon adopted in other lands and before long was everywhere in use. There is however a slight discrepancy in the use of the term. The science of Public Worship is generally called Liturgies; the adjective Liturgical is used as the technical description of public worship; yet some writers persist in classifying the churches as liturgical and non-liturgicalchurches, on the basis, not of engaging in worship or not, for obviously all churches without exception have worship, but of the distinctive manner in which worship is exercised, ritualistically or not. In other words, liturgical and ritualistic are mistakenly considered convertible terms. This is obviously an error although it may also be said that the two are often difficult to differentiate. Perhaps we may say that because ritual is so often interwoven into the liturgy, ritualistic practices become part of the liturgy but at the same time all ritual is not liturgical. 

The term “Liturgy” then, in our present study, is to be taken in the broadest sense to include all that is embodied in the worship of the people of God, the church. 

The Concept of Liturgy 

Liturgies is that theological science dealing with Public Worship. Some liturgicians will not subscribe to this but hold that it is the science dealing only with theprescribed forms of Public Worship. One of the objectives of’ this distinction is to exclude from the field of Liturgy the sermon or the preaching and to relegate this to another theological science which is known as Homiletics. These then further distinguish the prescribed forms of worship as being eitherprescribed or free. By the former is meant those forms whose character and content have been prescribed by the church institutionally while the latter are determined by the choice of the worshippers. Conceivably all the forms of public worship might be either prescriptive, as in the hierarchical churches, fully or nearly so, or free, as the Puritans desired. Lutheran and Reformed Churches condemn neither prescriptive nor free forms of worship in principle; and have so signified by combining the prescriptive and the free in their public worship. Hence, there is really no reason why these should not be treated in the same science. 

“By public worship”, wrote Rev. H. Hoeksema,4 “we mean that service of God which takes place wherever God meets with His people as the instituted church on earth, and that too, through the medium of the offices. Public worship must principally always be ‘in Spirit and in truth.’ This implies that it is not limited by a prescribed, code of laws or rules that determine its external form, but is characterized by freedom, so that the form of public worship is controlled and determined by and is .the proper expression of its idea, viz., the meeting of God with His people.”


¹ Romerbrief, pg. 560

² Rom. 13:6, 15:27II Cor. 9:12Philippians 2:17, 25, 30.

³ Luke 1:23Acts 13:2Heb. 1:14, 8:2, 6, 9:21, 10:11

4 Liturgics, pg. 1.