People use various adjectives to differentiate styles of worship. Some speak of high liturgy or low liturgy, or they speak of formal worship in relative degrees, depending on whether the ministers or priests wear vestments, whether printed prayers or spontaneous prayers are used, whether the music is classical or contemporary, and other criteria. These adjectives are employed because different styles of worship have arisen as a reaction against what could be called a high liturgy or a classical, traditional pattern of worship. Why has that reaction occurred?
At the time of the Reformation, some people in Protestant churches reacted against the traditional Roman Catholic style of worship. Some of that reaction was theological, but not all of it. Some of it was based on a zealous desire to do nothing in the way Rome did it. For instance, during the time Martin Luther hid at Wartburg Castle and translated the Bible from the original languages into German, one of his disciples in Wittenberg, Andreas Carlstadt, started vandalizing churches, smashing stained-glass windows, overthrowing the furniture, and doing all sorts of damage in the name of reform. When Luther heard of this, he was upset and disciplined Carlstadt for his over-zealous reaction against the sacred things of the past.
Carlstadt erroneously directed his ire against the "form" of Roman Catholic worship. The problem was not with the form but with the formalism into which Rome had fallen. The word formalism means that the form becomes the end in itself. Another word that means much the same is externalism, which is the condition that exists when all that exists are the external elements, while the internal elements, the heart and soul, are absent. The Reformers' true goal was to cure the formalism and externalism of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the same way, the Old Testament prophets were vehement in their denunciations of the dead, empty formalism into which Jewish worship had degenerated. As a seminary student, I had to read two books on worship, one that favored a low liturgy and another that favored a high liturgy. The book that favored the low liturgy was presented as an expression of "prophetic" worship in the church, whereas the book that advocated a high liturgy presented itself as following the priestly tradition of worship. After reading these books, we students had to defend one or the other style of worship. I was astonished to discover that I was the only person in the class who favored the high liturgy and the priestly tradition. My professor was equally surprised at me, because he knew that I was a committed evangelical Christian, and evangelicals traditionally shy away from liturgical worship.
Why did I choose the high liturgy position? The author of the book on the priestly tradition convinced me by showing that when we go back to the prophetic critique of the deadly forms of worship that God rejected in Israel, the prophets were reformers but not revolutionaries. What's the difference? The prophets nowhere rejected the liturgies of worship that God had ordained for His people. Instead, the prophets denounced the decadence of the people's practice in following these liturgies. The problem wasn't with the liturgies; the problem was with the worshipers, who came with cold hearts and went through the liturgies simply by rote, with uninvolved and untouched hearts.
Jesus, too, was a reformer in this sense. Exhibit A of externalism in the Bible is the Pharisees, who went through all of the outward rites, all of the liturgies that God had prescribed, but their hearts were not in it. They skated on the surface of superficial lip-service to God. As Jesus said of them, "Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me . . .'"(Matt. 15:7–9a).
There is no doubt that God wants His worship to have form, so the question is not whether we will have a liturgy or not. The issue is whether the liturgy is biblical in its content, and ultimately, whether we are using the liturgy to worship in spirit and in truth. No matter what the liturgy is, whether it's a plain liturgy, a simple liturgy, or a complex, highly symbolic liturgy, it can be formalized and externalized so that it is corrupted to the point that God despises it. As we seek out the forms of worship that please God, we must be vigilant lest we fall into formalism or externalism.
Written by R.C. Sproul and used by permission of Ligonier Ministries.
Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international multimedia ministry based in Lake Mary, Florida, and can be heard teaching around the United States and overseas on his daily radio program Renewing Your Mind. He also serves as senior minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew's Chapel in Sanford, Florida.