Defining and Defending Liturgy

Note: This post in an excerpt from the author's new book, Trembling Joy: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Worship (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, 2022).

What first comes to mind when you hear the word “liturgy”? You may believe that “liturgy” is something mechanical or impersonal, not really speaking to the heart. Perhaps you think it a cold, lifeless term, expressing a concept that does not have practical value or promote spiritual worship. Liturgy? Who needs it!

If you are familiar with Protestant history, perhaps you will recall that some of our forefathers objected strenuously to certain imposed liturgies, and were subsequently defrocked and imprisoned fighting for Christian liberty. We demand freedom in worship! Is that not the very reason the Pilgrims came to America?

Indeed, we should reject liturgies imposed upon us that demand rigid, universal adherence, to be read through mechanically without any freedom of expression. However, our Godly forefathers did not oppose all liturgy.[1] How could they? For, every church service by definition is a liturgy.

Liturgy Defined

“Liturgy” is a transliterated Greek word, which, when translated into English, means “service” or “ministry” (e.g., Lk. 1:23; 2 Cor. 9:12; Phil. 2:17, 30; Heb. 8:6; Heb. 9:21). In Exodus 38:21, the Tabernacle items were used for Levitical “service” or “liturgy.”[2] Likewise, the NT refers to the more excellent “ministry” (or “liturgy”) of Christ (e.g., Heb. 8:6). Thus, when we speak of a worship “service,” we are really speaking of liturgy. The terms are interchangeable. G. Vandooren explains:

The word ‘liturgy’ is derived from a verb that in the Old Testament (Greek translation or Septuagint) is used for serving the LORD in general. In a more special sense it describes the service in and around tabernacle and temple; the specific ‘service’ of priests and Levites. Thus it became the obvious term for what we usually call ‘public worship.’[3]

Today, we understand liturgy to refer especially to the order and sequence of our worship services. It is what we find in a church bulletin: a simple sequence of events.

Liturgy Defended

By definition, every church has some form of liturgy. It is not a question of whether we should have a liturgy but what type of liturgy we will have. Even in the “freest” of liturgies, the leaders have established at least some order of events. Further, we must remember the clear command from the Apostle Paul: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). In fact, God Himself has always prescribed order in His worship services. For example, God prescribed in minute detail how to sacrifice during the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). In the NT, likewise, Jesus Himself participated in the synagogue services that observed a particular order (Lk. 4:16). For example, rulers of the synagogues allowed men to speak, only after the reading of the Law and the Prophets (Acts 13:15; cf. Acts 15:21). When the Apostle Paul, therefore, commanded the Corinthians to do all things decently and in order, he was simply declaring what God had always revealed as His will for worship. Both by precept (1 Cor. 14:40) and by approved example (e.g., Lev. 16; Acts 13:15), God commands liturgy. Even if pure spontaneity in worship is possible, it is not permissible. We must arrange worship according to the command of God. 

So what is the proper or best order of worship? Or, is any order acceptable, so long as there is a pre-arranged, formal order? Is there such a thing as the proper worship order? Or, are a variety of orders acceptable? 

When the Apostle Paul commanded worship to be conducted decently and in order, he has in mind specific principles to guide that order. He did not mean: “Whatever you do, let there be some order to it—no need for any specific rhyme or reason, just order, any order whatsoever.” Even if that made any sense whatsoever (can order be without reason?), that is not what Paul meant. For example, Paul would not be content for the church to have ten people speaking in tongues simultaneously without interpretation—as long as it was scheduled. No. Paul says in this same chapter, “If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God” (1 Cor. 14:27-28). The Apostle Paul gives his reasoning, his principle: speaking in church should be done for the edification and encouragement of all (1 Cor. 14:26, 31). If church leaders allowed chaotic and/or untranslated speaking in tongues, then they would be practicing disorderly and improper worship. Such chaos is not according to God’s character. He is the God of peace, not confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). In other words, the Apostle consults God’s character and Biblical principles that he might rightly direct us in ordering worship.

Consider the order of a meal. If you are about to have a meal and someone says to you, “Make sure you eat that meal in order,” what would you take that to mean? Clearly, there is an implied order to follow. The person speaking believes there is a right order (at least one, maybe more) and a wrong order (or orders) of eating. Likely, in the example of a meal, that person means that you should arrange your meal as is customarily done: have appetizers first, the salad or soup next, the main course afterwards, and dessert at the very end. We recognize a typical order for eating a meal. Furthermore, we understand that there are reasons for this order.

The same is true in worship services. We should have Biblical reasons for the flow and order of our worship services. Church leaders must study the Scriptures carefully to establish a wise order for worship services.

Ryan Speck is Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Columbia, MO.

Related Links

Trembling Joy: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Worship by Ryan Speck

"How Ordinary Worship Is both Reverent and Relevant" by Stephen Spinnenweber

"The Death of the Evening Service" by Mark Jones

"Clarkson on the Profitability of Public Worship" by Jacob Tanner

What Happens When We Worship? by Jonathan Landry Cruse


[1] See, for example, Douglas Bannerman, The Worship of the Presbyterian Church: With Special Reference to the Question of Liturgies, pp. 16-17.

[2] This “service” is literally the word “liturgy” in the LXX, which is the Greek translation of the OT (cf. Num. 4:24, 27-28, 33). 

[3] Vandooren, The Beauty of Reformed Liturgy, p. 13.

Pc: Channel 82