Our Apostasy in Worship

by James F. White

When this article was written, James F.White was professor of liturgy in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 28, 1977, p. 842. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


If we have been delinquent in the use of God’s Word in our worship, we have been equally careless with God’s sacraments. In worship both conservatives and liberals tend to reshape Scripture in their own images, and both consistently humanize the sacraments.

 “Apostasy” is a strong word. I do not use it lightly. But it is, I think, not too strong a term to characterize worship in many Protestant churches in this country. In worship both conservatives and liberals tend to reshape Scripture in their own images, and both consistently humanize the sacraments. One finds little difference between conservative and liberal congregations in these matters. To be sure, the apostasy is never deliberate and the style varies tremendously, but the results are remarkably similar.

Sins of Omission

In thousands of churches, games are played with the use of Scripture in worship. No one purposely sets out to reshape Scripture, but in subtle and insidious ways it happens in our worship. And it is all the more dangerous since it happens unconsciously. In selecting Scripture for use in worship, choice always means elimination. What we eliminate tells as much about our concepts of the Bible as the portions we retain. Indeed, the passages we avoid account for the greater part of Scripture.

As we select passages, we can hardly help choosing those we find most congenial to our own views. Social activists tend to lean heavily on the prophets and certain parables. Some who resist change find themselves more attuned to portions of the Pauline and pastoral epistles with their fixed standards of conduct. There is nothing strange in our choosing those passages with which we find ourselves most in accord; it is inevitable. The problem is that this practice amounts to rewriting Scripture in our own image. It means choosing what we like and rejecting what we find uncomfortable.

And what about those portions we eliminate? They account in many cases for most of the Old Testament and a hefty portion of books such as Revelation. The former we find abstruse; the latter may not conform with our way of thinking unless we belong to a millenarian group. Unconsciously we have eliminated from public worship major portions of God’s Word so that the people never hear them read in church.

In some denominations there are historical reasons for such omissions. The Methodist Episcopal Church included in its 1905 hymnal an order of worship that has had a most pervasive influence. Without realizing it, many United Methodist churches, especially in the south, are still following this 1905 order of worship -- a service that begins with an affirmation of faith. Unfortunately, the order included the infamous Rubric VI, which speaks of the “lesson from the Old Testament, which if from the Psalms, may be read responsively” and then adds insult to injury with a footnote explaining that “in the afternoon or evening the Lesson from the Old Testament may be omitted.” What Marcion tried to do in the second century, Methodists accomplished in the 20th. The effect of Rubric VI was virtually to eliminate 38 books of God’s Word from Methodist worship. The Psalms survived only by being confused with the Old Testament lesson. One still hears Methodists who ought to know better referring to the responsive reading as “the” Old Testament lesson.

This is not to say that Methodists were any more guilty than other denominations. Before Vatican II, Roman Catholics left the Old Covenant relatively inconspicuous at mass, and Episcopalians did the same until recently. Only when people attended the breviary offices or morning and evening prayer did they find the existence of both covenants recognized. The free churches, left to their own devices, did little better. In short, our compass of Scripture was severely limited either by our denomination’s standards or by our own selective process.

Springboard to a Sermon

In many congregations the Bible is read not for its own sake, primarily as the proclamation of God’s Word to his assembled people, but chiefly as source of the sermon text. I recently attended a large church where only three verses of Scripture were read in the entire service. That was all the preacher needed to get his sermon going, so why bother to read more? With that approach, whatever Scripture passages are read tend to be snippets -- just enough for a springboard into the sermon. One lesson usually serves the purpose, and that often a short one.

Most orders of worship would be improved by careful analysis. What function does each item perform in the Service? If we think this question through, we might be embarrassed into the realization that God’s Word is read for a greater purpose than simply to provide the preacher a sermon text or pretext. I would argue that Scripture is read because God speaks to his people assembled to hear his Word through the readings as well as through the sermon. This means that the lections, though similar in function to preaching, also have a distinctive role as the written record of the community of faith’s common memories. It also means that the lessons deserve sufficient time that several passages of some length and not only brief snippets can be read. One cannot squeeze the prodigal son into ten verses or less, and that lesson ought not be the only one read.

How can we use Scripture in its wholeness over a span of time and use it sufficiently each Sunday? During the Reformation, Thomas Cranmer wrote a beautiful collect based on Romans 15:4: “For all the ancient scriptures were written for our own instruction, in order that through the encouragement they give us we may maintain our hope with fortitude.” That would be a good guideline to follow as we realize how important it is to be faithful to all of Scripture and not just to our favorite portions.

The New Lectionaries

Over the centuries Christians have used two disciplines for covering Scripture in a systematic way. Both are imperfect, but they do have real advantages over random selection of popular passages. The first of these is a lectionary based on the church year; the second is lectio continua, by which one reads through entire books in order as written. Catholicism inclined to the former; the Reformers to the latter. One method tended to skip around and miss much; the other, in its dogged persistence, was pretty wooden at times.

Fortunately, in our own time these problems have been largely resolved. It is perhaps ironic but nevertheless delightful that the Roman Catholic Church has done more to restore a balanced approach to the use of Scripture in worship than any other church since the Reformation. The new Catholic Sunday lectionary, which went into effect in 1969, is certainly the most carefully prepared in the history of Christianity. More than 800 consultants  -- Catholic, Protestant and Jewish -- were involved in the process. The result is a three-year lectionary covering most of the New Testament and a major portion of the Old. More Scripture is being read at Roman Catholic masses these days than in most Protestant services. If one can hear three full lessons at mass each week, it is scandalous that only one short passage is read in some Protestant worship.

The new lectionary combines the traditional use of readings organized around the church year for the Old Testament and Gospel lessons, and the Reformation insistence on lectio continua in the Epistle lections. A workable compromise, this means that each year we rehearse the ministry of Jesus according to the structure of the church year. We read Gospel passages and related Old Testament lections except during the season of Easter, when Acts is read as the new Israel continues the history of the old. At the same time, the Pauline books and other epistles are read through in a systematic way. Each of the synoptic Gospels requires a year, with bits filled out each year from John’s Gospel. In this way a well-rounded survey of the entire body of Scripture is presented to each congregation within a period of three years.

It is most encouraging to realize that major segments of American Christianity have adopted this system. Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, United Methodists, and the Consultation on Church Union have adopted virtually identical schemes of biblical readings. This development has made financially feasible the publication of excellent study aids in the form of biblical commentaries, such as Reginald Fuller’s Preaching the New Lectionary, Gerard Sloyan’s Commentary on the New Lectionary, and Fortress Press’s Proclamation series of 26 paperback volumes. Sales of these materials have been very high; one publisher called his sales figures “astronomical.” I trust that this trend reflects a massive return to exegetical preaching. Let us hope it also indicates a greater concern for the use of a balanced diet of God’s Word in worship. There are signs that Scripture is beginning to be used more responsibly in worship by a wide segment of American Christianity. This is clearly cause for rejoicing, though we certainly have far to go before God’s Word is always read in a balanced and full way as an important component of our worship.

Memory Exercises

If we have been delinquent in the use of God’s Word in worship, we have been equally careless with God’s sacraments. Just as we have often succumbed to the danger of recasting the Scriptures in our own images through selective use of them, so we have also humanized the sacraments by making them our own acts rather than God’s.

Here we are struck by a bit of historical irony. For most American Protestants, the Enlightenment of the 8th century seems to have more appeal than the Reformation of the 16th. The Enlightenment’s distrust of miracle and mystery has in many ways overcome the Reformation’s insistence on God’s use of the sacraments in his own mysterious way to fulfill his purposes. Conservatives and liberals alike seem blind to any sense that God acts in the sacraments to give himself to us. Both seem to have imbibed the Enlightenment’s desacralizing tendencies so thoroughly that any notion that God “imparts spiritual things under visible ones” (Calvin) scandalizes them. Instead, the sacraments have become for vast segments of American Protestantism simply memory exercises whereby we try to remember what God has done. But the sense of the sacraments as sign-acts through which God acts here and now to accomplish his own purposes seems strangely absent in most baptisms and celebrations of the Lords Supper. In short, the sacraments have come to depend on human agency -- our ability to remember God -- rather than on what God out of his grace does. Unfortunately, much recent experimentation in worship has only encouraged this humanistic approach, though such an attitude was certainly prevalent long before experimentation began.

It is strange indeed that many segments of Protestantism should thus prefer the Enlightenment to the Reformation. Most of the Reformers of the 16th century and John Wesley in the 18th were prone to speak of the sacraments as “means of grace” in which the agency is divine. God uses them in his own mysterious way in order to give himself to us according to his own will. In the words of Charles Wesley: “Sure and real is the grace,/The manner be unknown; / . . . Thine to bless, ‘tis only ours/To wonder and adore.” Most Methodists seem now to have reversed that to read: “Sure and clear is our recall; /The manner obvious;/ . . Ours to remember it all;/What Christ did long ago.” We seem to echo the words of an 18th century Anglican bishop who spoke of Christ “who was once present with his disciples, and is now absent.” If Christ is absent, then the burden is on us to remember him, not to respond to his present action or “to wonder and adore.”

Out-spiritualizing God

The sacraments, as Luther, Calvin and Wesley knew, are what God makes of them. And Calvin’s assertion that the Creator understands his creatures better than we do ourselves punctures the false spiritualism of the Enlightenment which tried to out-spiritualize God by avoiding the physical. The Scriptures, after all, speak constantly of a God who uses objects, yokes, pots, bread, wine and water to do his purposes. There certainly is nothing disincarnate about the Good News. Yet many congregations seem so afraid of their senses that baptism often seems like a dry run, and it takes great faith to believe that it is a real loaf of bread that is broken and eaten by God’s people. We have done our best to out-spiritualize God.

There are hopeful signs that this tendency to humanize the sacraments is beginning to change. I see two indications: recent developments in sacramental theology have helped us to understand the sacraments more clearly as divine actions, and the new sacramental services of the major denominations have made this understanding much more explicit for all to grasp.

In recent years there has been a significant development in sacramental theology which takes seriously the ways in which different sign-acts function between persons and between people and God. It stresses the analogy between a sign-act, such as a kiss between humans, and the sign-acts by which God chooses to communicate his meaning to us. This theology has led to a deeper understanding of what Calvin knew and rejoiced in -- God’s use of signs to accommodate himself to our capacities. Indeed, Calvin anticipated recent theological developments more than 400 years ago.

One way of expressing the new concepts is to say that God employs the sacraments as a means of giving himself to us just as he uses preaching. In the sacraments he uses actions and things instead of words alone to make his love known. He uses sign-acts to establish and maintain relationships of love in and through the community of faith. This theology takes seriously the ways in which human beings relate to each other through various sign-acts. It submits that God knows his creatures best and uses our senses to help us perceive his love. Such concepts recognize our social nature and our need to “discern the Body” within the Christian assembly.

New Rites of Baptism and Communion

The recent sacramental rites published by Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, the United Church of Christ, Presbyterians and United Methodists have a much richer and deeper theology of God acting in and through the sacraments to give himself to us.

Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians have taken a whole new look at the process of Christian initiation and have come up with new approaches much more in keeping with the practices of the early church. Two points are crucial in these new approaches: they assume that Christian initiation is complete at one occasion, and they assume that the renewal of this experience is a lifelong process. The United Methodist rite stresses the direct action of God; this is articulated strongly in the central prayer, a basic part of the service lost two generations ago in American Methodism. No longer does the service resemble a pious memory exercise. It is clear that God is present, acting here and now through the Holy Spirit to give himself to us by fulfilling the New Testament effects of baptism: washing; dying and rising with Christ; and incorporating us into his body.

The new communion services are equally firm in their clear articulation of God whose work the sacrament is. Here there has been a major recovery in the sense of proclamation of God’s saving acts from creation to judgment as we give thanks in the great eucharistic prayer. We have rediscovered the fervent joy of the early church in the telling forth of God’s mighty deeds in both covenants. We offer these memories as the community’s most precious gift. A new approach to sacrifice recognizes the prevalence of this language in the eucharistic passages of the New Testament and refuses to be frightened by medieval aberrations. Equally important is the frank recognition of the community’s dependence on the present action of the Holy Spirit, and the invocation of the Spirit that “we might be made one with the goodness of God himself.”

Reasons for Hope

There are, then, most encouraging signs that we are rediscovering that the sacraments belong to God and depend on his agency and not on us. On the whole, the new rites seem to have been widely accepted, though a tremendous amount of teaching needs to accompany them, and many ministers do not find themselves well equipped to perform this work. But if the basic biblical images of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are carefully studied, it will be seen how much more faithfully the newer rites echo them then did those services to which we have been accustomed.

On the whole, we have many reasons for hope that our “apostasy” in worship is being tempered if not eradicated. I think there is within American Protestantism a growing awareness that God sets the agenda in our worship -- not by prescribing particular forms but by creating the content of these forms. I sense a greater willingness to take the hard parts of Scripture as well as the soft spots as efforts are being made to deal with the full breadth of God’s word in our worship. And I discover a growing openness to the sacraments as God’s chosen way of giving himself to us by means that far surpass our own efforts simply to remember his past actions. We can all give thanks for these new-developments.