A Threefold Distinction of Devotional and Pious Practices in the Assembled Congregation


 The “worship wars” have raged for years. Both sides in the debate seem to continually talk past each other and it is rare that progress is made by parties to come to an agreement on even a framework to discuss what is and is not appropriate practice within the congregations of the saints.

In the current landscape, there are different practices. It seems that any path to uniformity is impossible. But the question remains, can there be unity without uniformity? The Lutheran Confessions seem to indicate so, but the current terms of the debate over worship seems to preclude this.

It is for this reason that I propose taking a step back from the debate itself and examine the ground rules and terminology first. What follows is a beginning in that direction.



The local congregation is the assembling of the Universal Church of God in a particular location and time around the gifts of God in Word and Sacrament. It is the visible manifestation in time and space of the universal Church of God.

Within the local congregation God is at work creating and sustaining faith as Dr. Luther teaches in his explanation to the third article of the creed,the Holy Spirit, “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” This creating and sustaining of faith is accomplished through the means He has established, namely, the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Such faith, created and built up by the Holy Spirit is bound to overflow in praise and thanksgiving to God as well as in love and service to our neighbor.

It is of utmost importance, however, that the works of God and the works of the people are kept separate and that a clear distinction is made between what is commanded by God to be enacted in the public assembly, and what pious hearts out of love of God and a desire to respond to His mercy and grace have themselves chosen to do. What God brought into being through the example and teaching of Christ and His Apostles (who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to teach all truth) should not be confused or confounded with the “traditions of men” that originate from pious hearts sanctified and renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In our day, people are no longer brought up and well versed in the rites and practices of the historical church. Rightly or wrongly, many congregations have chosen not to continue in the traditions handed down by our pious fathers (and mothers) in the faith. In many instances, new traditions and practices have developed and evolved and become part of a “new tradition,” supplanting previous traditions. The result is confusion, dissent, and division within the church over her practices.


The problem is not necessarily with the “new tradition” or with the practices entailed within it. As the Church of God, we have the absolute right, power, and authority, within the boundaries of love for our neighbor and the promotion of unity in the Spirit, to change, decrease or increase the rites and ceremonies of the Church. The goal in every instance ought to be good order and propriety, Christian discipline, and the up-building and edification of the entire universal Church (not merely the local gathering).

The problem is with the confusion of those things that are done as by individuals within the assembly as pious expressions of the faith on the one hand, and on the other hand, those things that God, in the Scriptures, has given to us as the means by which that faith is created and sustained and the things He has given as means for us to express that faith in a manner pleasing to Him. Without a clear word from Him as to what is and is not pleasing, we cannot know. Therefore, the manner in which we enact our practices must make clear what we know and are certain to be pleasing to God and edifying to our brothers and sisters and what we piously hope to be pleasing to God and edifying to our brothers and sisters in the faith.

Those ceremonies and actions which are taught by God in His Word as good and pleasing and useful for the up-building of faith may not be cast aside or considered as merely personal expressions of an inward faith. Rather, because they have the command of God, they are the things which constitute proper reverence of God and proper activities for the public assembly of God’s people. On the other hand, those things that do not have a divine command, even when done from a pious heart and out of true reverence and love of God, are not, in themselves, true worship of God and cannot be forced upon others as if God commanded them or as if God has declared that He is somehow pleased with such displays. Jesus Himself lays down this principle as He reiterates what God said through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (Mt. 15:9).

It is incumbent upon us, then, to be clear and mark out clearly the difference between the commandments of God concerning true worship and the rules of men. The latter category of items is called, “Adiaphora.” Under the category of adiaphora fall all things that are neither commanded nor forbidden by the word of God. These things are introduced with a good intention, for the sake of good order and propriety in worship, and otherwise to maintain Christian discipline, but have no direct word of God commanding their use. Because they contain no word of command, they must be clearly distinguished from the commands of God (FC, SD, X.8, with reference to Mt. 15:9)

The commands of God, however, are those things that ought not be neglected, rejected, or considered lightly. Rather, God’s commands should be held in highest regard and put into practice and the local assembly ought to value them as the highest and truest expression of devotion and worship to our Lord.


It is typical in the discussion of worship within Lutheranism to think primarily using the category of adiaphora and not adiaphora. However, there is a third category of items. It can be argued that it is in this third category that the greatest amount of distress and difficulty in conversations on worship occurs. This third category consists in those things that are commanded by the word of God, but freedom is given with regards to the manner in which they are carried out.

One of the clearest and easiest examples of this third category relates to the specifics of even holding public gatherings. While Scripture enjoins Christians to gather together for public worship (Hebrews 10:24-25), there is no prescription as to the days and times when the Christian congregation shall gather. In fact, such prescriptions are prohibited by the apostle Paul (Romans 14:1-8, Colossians 2:16). But the lack of a specified day and time does not negate the command to gather.

Another instance of this third category is prayer in the assembly. Aside from the Lord’s Prayer, which the Lord introduces saying, “When you pray, say this . . .” (Luke 11:2, cxref Matthew 6:9) there is no prayer that is prescribed for use by the people of God. Yet, we are commanded to pray in the gathered assembly of the Church. St. Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, commands, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, . . .” (1 Timothy 2:8 – which itself assumes that is a gathering or assembly even though no indication is made as to the days and times). Earlier, Paul urges, “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions,” (1 Timothy 2:1-2) but he does not prescribe the words to be used or the exact form of those prayers. Rather, that is left to Christian freedom.

It is clear then, that the inclusion of prayer in public worship is not adiaphora. Neither is it left up to us to decide whether or not to pray “for all people”. We are even enjoined to pray for certain people. General parameters are laid out for what godly and right prayer consists of in the assembly, but there is freedom as to how that is actually expressed within the gathered assembly of the church.

It is clear, then, that the traditional designation of something as “adiaphora” or “not adiaphora” is inadequate to carry on the discussion on what is to occur in the public assembly of God’s people.

To help make this distinction clear, it may be helpful to speak in terms of three categories instead of the traditional two.

  1. Commanded Practices – these are practices that are clearly commanded in the Scriptures (e.g., “When you pray, say this:” [Luke 11:2], “Do this in remembrance of me . . .” [Luke 22:19, 1 Corinthians 11:24-25], “. . . baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .” [Matthew 28:19])

  2. Free Practices – these are practices that truly fall under the category of “adiaphora” as neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture but are freely left to individuals and congregations to enact or not as their preference and desires dictate. “Free practices” are governed only by propriety and love for others.

  3. Governed Practices – these are practices that are commanded, but the command does not include prescriptions of the precise manner in which they are to be done. They are not “adiaphora” or “indifferent” matters because they have the clear command of God in Holy Scripture. Further, while there is a command given but freedom in how that command is carried out, that freedom is not unlimited. The practice cannot be excluded lest the command be violated. What is more, there are guidelines or other statements of scripture which set the parameters within which these practices occur. For instance, in the case of the corporate prayers, there is the command to pray and several topics given but the specific petitions to be included under those headings, the number of petitions, etc., is not given.

In the next segment, we will look specifically at music in the Church in light of these categories. Then, in the following segment, we will look at one manner in which it is possible to distinguish “Free Practices” from “Commanded” and “Governed” practices. Future articles will also look at the essentials of what is commaneded, and, it is hoped that a review of the traditional orders for the Divine Service to see how (or if) they properly distinguish these elements will follow.

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