Don’t Just Tell Me What You Believe: Lex Orandi-Lex Credendi and its Implications for Evangelical Worship

Marc Brown:

lexEvery week I plan worship for my church’s worship services. Our church has four of them; one is traditional, led by choir and orchestra and the other three are modern, led by band and vocal teams. We are, for the most part, unburdened with the conflict that seems to arise in churches when more than one style of worship is present. Our church members and attendees don’t seem simply tolerant of the other’s worship service choices; they are supportive – despite our differences. I believe our services share several qualities that aid in this unity: each service shares the same space; each service shares the same (for the most part) leadership and no matter the style, each service shares the same doctrine. You may assume that the same doctrine is expressed in each service because they are all located in the same building. Unfortunately, it is not necessarily the case. While emotional unity is one of the most important qualities to monitor in churches that offer worship services in different styles, it is likely not the root of most disunity. I believe that the primary reason for my church’s unity is found in our common doctrinal beliefs – and the key to doctrinal unity may not be as rooted in preaching as you might think. Rather, the key may be found in a theological principal that has been around since the 5th century: Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi. A loose translation of this phrase could be, “the way you worship shapes the way you believe.” Many churches may suffer from a lack of unity because they do not understand the power of this principal.

Written sometime between 435 and 442, Prosper of Aquitaine’s original phrase is, ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. This translates to “that the law of praying establishes the law of believing.” Prosper was a student and follower of Augustine and originally wrote this to support Augustine’s fight against Pelagianism, or the belief that people are born without a “sin nature.” Pelagius thought people were born innocent, without the curse of original sin via Adam and Eve.  In 325, the Council of Nicaea settled this and other issues when they adopted the Nicene Creed. The Council of Bishops knew that belief in original sin is crucial to understanding Christ’s role in the redemption of creation. Though his efforts to champion orthodoxy, Prosper promoted the awareness that prayer and worship are the believer’s first expressions of faith; the church’s teaching (credendi) is made tangible through the church’s prayer and worship (orandi).  Simply stated, the way a church worships not only reflects its beliefs, worship actually shapes a church’s faith and doctrine. According to Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, faith gives birth to and “shapes” worship, but it is worship, that by fulfilling and expressing faith, “bears testimony” to faith and becomes thus its true and adequate expression and norm: lex orandi est lex credendi.

In Henry Blackaby’s book, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, Christians are encouraged to ask God to reveal where He is at work. From that point, when the praying believer becomes aware that God is at work, this awareness becomes God’s invitation for the believer to join in His work. Blackaby writes that whenever the praying Christian becomes aware of God’s invitation, a crisis usually manifests that must be overcome in order for the person to fruitfully comply with God’s invitation. As individual Christians (and by extension, worshiping congregations) successfully navigate these cycles of revelation and response, a greater depth of discipleship is achieved and more fruit is produced for the Kingdom. Simon Chan shows the same holy dialogue is found in corporate worship. He wrote that when God reveals Himself to us as the church, worship is the best response. In worship we can actually participate with God.  Our worship either shapes us into disciples or something less: Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi.

Primary Theology

Many times Protestants don’t agree with Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi because they understand worship as something that naturally flows from a believer’s faith and doctrine. There are biblical and historical precedents for both. My purpose in writing is not to promote one over the other, but believers, especially evangelicals, must realize that no matter which concept they want to be right, both regularly occur in every church. Therefore, it is extremely important that we plan, structure and lead our worship services with the greatest intentionality. The concept of Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi is instrumental in creating the primary theology for worshiping communities. As opposed to the academic study and discourse of theology (secondary theology), worship actually does theology. If this is right, then the theology and doctrine of our churches could be expressed as Lex Orandi Lex Credendi et Agendi: Worship shapes our belief and action.

Assuming our worship does shape our faith, in what ways is this accomplished? How can we learn about worship’s effect on our faith as we think and express it?  In most evangelical churches, the primary way to understand our purpose as the church is through the lens of the Great Commission. My church reads this together at the end of every worship service. Historically and liturgically, this functions beautifully as the “sending” portion of our services.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” -Matthew 28:18-20 ESV

Many evangelical churches go to significant lengths attempting to use their worship services as a means to fulfill the Great Commission. The consensus among many is that we must make our congregational worship more “attractional” to those with little or no understanding of church culture – we don’t want to do anything that inhibits the lost from hearing and understanding the Gospel. Sometimes, in using the church’s corporate worship as a tool to fulfill the Great Commission, churches take shortcuts. These shortcuts often have unintended side effects. Theologian E. Byron Anderson believes that as we seek to capture the attention of the unchurched, there is a growing tendency to dispose of or hide our often unexplored worship traditions (Anderson uses the words “liturgical” and “sacramental”). Continuing, Anderson states, “Replacing these traditions are patterns and practices that more readily express the unfaith of the seeker than an invitation to the particular ethical way of God in Jesus Christ.”  In other words, whatever our worship most resembles is where we will be leading our people.

Is This Just an Opinion?

Isaiah 6A biblical perspective of Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi can be found in Isaiah 6. The first eight verses are referred to as Isaiah’s call and are commonly used as a biblical structure for planning worship. The framework for this worship sequence looks like this:

1) We come into God’s presence and being in His presence compels us to worship Him.

2) By worshiping God, we see Him for who He is.

3) Then we honestly see ourselves for who we are.

4) This leads us to confession and repentance.

5) When we repent, God mercifully forgives us, cleanses us and declares us clean.

6) Now we are fit to hear Him speak.

7) He speaks, calling us to join Him in His work

8) As we respond in willingness, He commissions us to go.

The biblical understanding of Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi comes in the rest of Isaiah chapter 6 where God gives Isaiah the message he is to bring to Israel; it is not a pleasant message. God asks Isaiah to bring a message of judgment to Israel. Israel’s chief sin is Idolatry. It seems that as Israel’s corporate worship became more inclusive of and accessible to other cultures, the values of these other cultures crept into Israel’s worship. These values included the worship of idols. Psalms 115 and 135 are examples of where the impotence of pagan idols is described:

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of a man’s hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak; They have eyes, but they cannot see; They have ears, but they cannot hear; They have noses, but they cannot smell; They have hands, but they cannot feel; They have feet, but they cannot walk; They cannot make a sound with their throat. Those who make them will become like them, everyone who trusts them. -Psalm 115: 4-8

After generations of idol worship growing in practice and influence, God calls Isaiah to tell Israel,

Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand. Render the hearts  of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and turn and be healed. -Isaiah 6:9-10

This passage doesn’t, as some believe, demonstrate doubt of God’s everlasting kindness and grace. Rather, it’s an example of what happens when an entire people group continues to willingly walk away from God. If Israel longs most for the idols they worship, then God will deliver them over to the desires of their hearts. The people worship things that are blind, deaf and mute and God allows them to assume the qualities of those things they worship.  When we insert things into our worship that are more of culture instead of God, these become the things we most desire. God will then deliver us over to the desires of our heart and we will assume the qualities of those things we worship; Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi.

Church history also demonstrates that the way we worship creates doctrine, and in turn faith. One of these examples comes through perhaps the most defining action in Christian life, baptism. Baptism has always been a tangible evidence of God’s grace through Christ Jesus. In the Patristic age of the early church, evidence for the life transformation of each baptismal candidate was formally vouched for by the candidate’s God-father or God-mother. These individuals were the church representatives who served as the candidate’s one to one faith mentor through the duration of their pre-baptismal discipleship process; a process that could last up to three years. Even though baptism was never meant to achieve the “work” of salvation, its status was so revered that it was considered necessary for the demonstration of salvation. This is evident in the early church in the writings of Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem that in the late 4th century:

“Great indeed is the Baptism offered you. It is a ransom to captives; the remission of offences; the death of sin; the regeneration of the soul; the garment of light; the holy seal indissoluble; the chariot to heaven; the luxury of paradise; a procuring of the kingdom; the gift of adoption”

“The bath of Baptism we may not receive twice or thrice; else, it might be said, Through I fail once, I shall go right next time: whereas if thou failest once, there is no setting things right, for there is One Lord, and one Faith, and One Baptism: none but heretics are re-baptized, since their former baptism was not baptism.”

Infant mortality was much greater in the 5th century than today. It is easy to see why the worship practice of infant baptism gained popularity as a worship practice when believers understood the only path to heaven goes through the waters of baptism. Even though Tertullian strongly cautioned against infant baptism at the turn of the 3rd century, 40-50 years later Hippolytus accommodated the practice in his Apostolic Traditions:

“You are to baptize the little ones first. All those who are able to speak for themselves should speak. With regard to those who cannot speak for themselves, their parents, or somebody who belongs to their family should speak.”

Two hundred years later, the practice of infant baptism had become so widely practiced in the church that Augustine wrote, “This doctrine is held by the whole church, not instituted by councils, but always retained.”  Somewhere along the line, churches began the widespread worship practice of baptizing infants without articulating a theological reason. Through worship practice alone, infant baptism had become so accepted, that even Augustine tried to make a theological argument by simply pointing to the pervasiveness of the practice. Have today’s churches also adopted doctrinally dangerous practices in worship based more on felt needs than solid theological grounding?

Can I Get a Witness?

Examples of how Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi impact churches don’t have to be negative ones. As I wrote earlier, my church, as the closing act of worship, reads or recites together the Great Commission. My Pastor instituted that change to our worship order over a year ago. At a recent staff meeting, while discussing the many changes that have occurred in our church over the last year or so, our Executive Pastor brought out the point that before our entire worshiping congregation (four different weekly services) began saying these words, the direction and attitude of our church was quite different. Since the advent of this new worship practice, our church has changed its goals and vision in a way that has made off campus ministries and starting new churches a prime directive. It seems that hearing Christ’s charge in our own mouths for countless weeks actually changed our primary theology and in turn, the values of our church. Something that was formerly of less value became primary. Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi.

Turning the spotlight on yourself is always harder than turning it on other people. While discussing the content of this article, my Pastor asked me if my own faith and values have been changed through intentional changes in personal and corporate worship. After reflecting, I realize the past few years of considering Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi have increased my regard for using the Psalms in personal and corporate worship. As a worship planner, Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi has motivated me to spend much more time considering scriptures than songs. When I choose songs, the lyrical content is usually of much larger concern than the music itself. The greatest change I recognize in my faith is that now, rather than wanting to get away from people to spend “quality time” with God, I am much more interested in finding “quality time” through worshiping God with others.

Questions to Consider

  1. Are you as intentional as you want to be when planning or entering corporate worship?
  2. In what ways does Lex Orandi Lex Credendi motivate you re-examine your church’s worship services?
  3. How is God revealing Himself to you over this concept and how will you respond?
  4. In relation to the way you worship alone or with others, are there any changes you would make?

Resources Cited

Anderson, E. Byron. Worship and Christian Identity: Practicing Ourselves. Collegeville, Minnesota. A Pueblo Book. The Liturgical Press: 2003.

Bass, Ralph E.  What About Baptism: A Discussion on the Mode, Candidate and Purpose of Christian Baptism – Revised Edition. Greenville, South Carolina. Living Hope Press: 2010.

Beale, G. K. We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology or Idolatry. Downers Grove, Illinois. IVP Academic, 2008.

Blackaby, Henry. Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God. Nashville, Tennessee. LifeWay Press, 1990.

Chan, Simon. Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community. Downers Grove, Illinois. IVP Academic, 2006.

Cyril, St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Lectures on the Christian Sacraments: The Procatechesis of the Five Mystical Catecheses. London. S.P.C.K., 1960.

Hilgartner, Rick F. “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: The Word of God in the Celebration of the Sacraments.” Catechetical Sunday Newsletter of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. September 20th, 2009.

Hippolytus. On the Apostolic Tradition. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001.

Kavanagh, Aidan. On Liturgical Theology. Collegeville, Minnesota. The Liturgical Press, 1992.

Schmemann, Alexander. Liturgy and Tradition: Theological Reflections of Alexander Schmemann, ed. Thomas Fisch. Crestwood, NY. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990.

Wainwright, Geoffrey. Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life. New York, NY. Oxford University Press, 1980.

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