Posted by: Johnold Strey | February 5, 2009

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

It’s time for a Latin liturgical lesson: “Lex ordandi, lex credendi.”

“Lex orandi, lex credendi” is a Latin phrase that literally means, “The law of praying [is] the law of believing.”  The idea behind the phrase is that the way you pray says something about what you believe (a point I made in my recent sermon on Mark 1:14-20; see the beginning of part one).  Practically speaking, this observation can be extended beyond prayer to worship in general.  The way you worship as a Christian congregation says something about your beliefs.

“Lex orandi, lex credendi” is a shorthand version of the original Latin phrase, “Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi.”  A translation of that phrase is, “The law of praying establishes the law of believing.”  The original phrase is even stronger than the more common, shortened version: The idea is that the way you pray and worship actually establishes what you believe.

Before arguing the truth of that phrase, it helps to know the context in which this concept was developed.  The original phrase is attributed to Prosper of Aquitaine, a fifth century Christian writer, lay theologian, and student of St. Augustine.  Prosper is said to have used this phrase as a defense against a heresy called Pelagianism (work-righteousness), which suggested that people earn their way to eternal life by the good works they perform.  Prosper is said to have argued that the way Christians prayed in worship indicated that the Church had never taught salvation by works; rather, the public prayers of Christians had always indicated that the Church believed that we are saved by grace alone and through faith alone in Jesus’ redeeming work.  The way Christians prayed had established what Christians believed.  (Addition on 2/23/2009: Please note the correction and clarification about this paragraph’s specific point offered by Pastor James Waddell in the comments appended to this post).

Now, if you are like me, you are probably jumping up and down right now and screaming, “No, wait a minute!  The Bible establishes what we believe.”  And you’d be exactly right.  Christian teaching is determined not by the content of public prayers, but by the content of the Scriptures.  Even the Lutheran Confessions (specifically, the introduction of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord) make the point that all Christian teaching must be derived first and foremost from Scripture; citing church fathers or other religious documents of the past may support the Scriptural position, but such writings do not by themselves establish any doctrine of the faith.  The proper way to establish proper Christian doctrine is to go back to the Old and New Testament Scriptures and see what they say.

That’s what should be done.  Pastors and theologians should be well-versed in the Scriptures that they know where to find the answers to the doctrinal questions of the day.  But that’s not always the case with lay members of the church.  And so the laity will often appeal to what they know the best: the Sunday morning gathering of the congregation.  What do we do in worship?  What do we sing in our hymns and songs?  What do we say as we pray?  What points of emphasis are given in the sermon?  What customs and practices do we use?  How are the sacraments celebrated — or are they celebrated at all?  These and other similar questions go a long way to establish people’s perception of Christian doctrine.  We would prefer that people would open their Bibles first and look at church practice second, but the reality is that lay members will often appeal to church practice before citing chapter and verse from the Bible.  In other words, the way we pray and worship establishes what we believe in the minds of many people.  “Lex ordandi, lex credendi.”

When visitors to our church comment on similarities or differences between our church and theirs, their observations are usually about the order of service itself.  “The way you do your service is a lot like the Mass.”  “We usually sing several more songs at the start of worship.”  “Our church lets anyone who believes in Jesus receive Holy Communion.”  More examples could be given.  But comments about differences in the content of preaching are given far less frequently than comments about similarities or differences in the service.  The point is that many people in the pew form their ideas about the church’s beliefs from the service.  And that’s the reality expressed in “Lex ordandi, lex credendi.”

To this point, the discussion may seem very academic.  But there is a major pastoral reality-check involved here.  Because many people look to the service as the basis for what they believe and as a summary of a church’s confession of faith, the way we conduct worship has significant ramifications for people’s perceptions.  We would prefer that people draw their beliefs solely from the Scriptures, but since there is a natural tendency to look to the service as the primary expression of a church’s teaching, then we have to make doubly sure that the service clearly, faithfully, and regularly reflects what Scripture teaches.

Let me offer a fictitious and ridiculous example.  Let’s say that a Lutheran congregation decided to place the offering at the start of the service, between the confession of sins and the absolution (announcement of God’s forgiveness).  There is no law that says you can’t collect the offering just before the absolution.  Scripture doesn’t tell us how we should specifically arrange the elements in our service.  We have the freedom to place the offering wherever we choose in the service, or even to take an offering at all.  But what impression is given?  The people confess their sins, then everyone puts their money in the offering plate, and then the pastor says, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”?  It won’t take too long for people to get the idea that we earn the forgiveness of sins by giving something to God or to the church.  Nothing in the service specifically states that, but the placement of the offering and opening progression in this fictitious service strongly suggests a form of work-righteousness: You give your offering, then you get forgiven.

It’s no secret that many churches today have been reexamining their worship practices.  A careful analysis of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it is a good thing.  We don’t want to get ourselves into a liturgical rut (what I like to call “page 15 autopilot mode”), nor do we want to jump on the next bandwagon just because it’s passing by.  Before we do what we’ve always done, or before we change anything, we need to understand our own theology and how worship reflects (or fails to reflect) what we believe.

Take the example of singing multiple songs at the beginning of worship.  There is no law that says you can’t sing multiple songs at the start of worship.  Scripture doesn’t tell us how we should specifically arrange the songs in our service.  We have the freedom to sing songs wherever we choose in the service, or even to sing at all.  And since there are more than a few churches pulling in big numbers each week that begin worship with multiple praise songs, perhaps that’s something we should look into.

So let’s look into it.  As I wrote in my recent essay, “Proclaiming the Gospel in Worship,” many people do not realize that the whole idea of singing multiple songs in worship comes out of Pentecostal thinking.  The following quotation from Donald Hustad warns non-charismatics that they should not copy charismatic worship ideas in their own services unless they want to adopt charismatic theology (emphasis mine):

Praise and worship music itself originated with the Charismatic Renewal Movement; all of the approaches identified in these chapters … are carefully devised according to charismatic theology and Scripture interpretation and are expected to lead to characteristic pentecostal experiences. … Charismatic believers have a right to develop their own worship to match their own theology and exegesis, and they have done this well. Noncharismatics should not thoughtlessly copy or imitate their worship formulae, unless they expect to enter the same “Holy of Holies” in the same way. Instead, they should develop their worship rationale based on their scriptural understanding, and then sing up to their own theology!

In many Evangelical circles, music and prayer are the “means of grace,” i.e. the way God comes among us and strengthens our faith.  For Lutherans, the means of grace is the gospel, the message of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ redeeming work; the gospel message is administered to us in the Word and the Sacraments.

If you look at a Pentecostal or Evangelical service, it is quite clear that singing and praying are the “means of grace.”  Multiple songs are sung to call God into our presence (following a curious misinterpretation of Psalm 22:3, KJV; see Bryan Gerlach’s quotes in my aforementioned essay for further explanation on this point).  Prayers are scattered throughout the songs and the service.  Obviously I’m not against prayer, but the content of the prayers often reflects the idea that we are praying God into our presence.

Let’s take the content of the songs out of the discussion (for a prior post about song content, click here).  Let’s simply examine the practice of multiple praise songs at the start of the service.  Again, there is no law saying “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not.”  But consider these factors.  American Christianity is heavily influenced by the Evangelical movement.  If Evangelicals believe that we can sing ourselves into God’s presence, and if they include a series of songs to do that at the beginning of their worship, and if Lutherans subsequently borrow that idea from Evangelical worship and place it into Lutheran worship, what will be the long-term effect on Lutheran churchgoers?  How could they not, over time, be led to think that music is the means of grace?  Even if the pastor never said or taught anything remotely close to that, the influence of Evangelicalism in American Christianity and the continuous use of their worship concepts will teach and reinforce a bad understanding of the means of grace over time.  “Lex ordandi, lex credendi.”

An aside: Someone may argue that if we shouldn’t borrow from the Evangelicals, we also shouldn’t borrow the liturgy from the Roman Catholic Church.  A few things should be noted.  First, the liturgy’s so-called Western Rite was around long before Rome’s false doctrine.  The liturgy was not based on false doctrine, and Lutheran versions of the liturgy do not incorporate any later elements that reflect Rome’s theology.  Second, Catholics and Lutherans both acknowledge that the Word and Sacraments are the means of grace, so it’s no surprise to see some similarities — though not total similarity.  Finally, while Catholic and Lutheran liturgical outlines are similar, there is quite a bit of difference in specific content between the two.  Compare the absolutions at the start of the service (Rome’s absolution is not), or the Eucharistic Prayers (Prayers of Thanksgiving) prior to the reception of the Lord’s Supper (Rome’s prayers turn the Supper into our sacrifice to God; Lutheran prayers keep the Supper as God’s sacrament for us).

Many other examples could be offered about the way that worship practices can affect our beliefs, whether they are practices borrowed from other denominations or practices developed within a church or denomination.  But the point should be clear.  Whether it is a developed or borrowed practice, every worship practice needs to be carefully examined to see if we’re communicating the gospel message clearly and without compromise.  “Lex orandi, lex credendi.”

One of the reasons for this lengthy post came from a recent news item published in “Together,” the WELS bi-monthly e-newsletter.  The WELS Conference of Presidents (COP) recently resolved to form an ad hoc committee to address the matter of church adopting or adapting worship and music practices (among other things) from non-Lutheran sources.  Here us a link to the January 19, 2009 edition of “Together” that first reported the COP resolution.  And here’s the pertinent quotation:

One of the most important roles of the COP is to oversee doctrine (what we believe and teach) and practice (what we do in applying our beliefs). When it met, the COP had a lengthy discussion about the importance of retaining our unity in both areas.

Some congregations, in a desire to reach as many people as possible with the gospel, have been considering some new and different approaches and methods, especially in the areas of worship and outreach. Cautions and concerns have been voiced about some of these trends. Expressing the commitment to maintain our synod’s faithfulness to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, the COP concluded that “the underpinnings of ‘non-traditional’ type of worship cannot be ignored” and that we need to be careful to “walk the ‘narrow Lutheran road’ between legalism and ignoring and failing to admonish where practices are contrary to or dangerous to the principles of gospel proclamation and the efficacy of the means of grace.”

As a result of this concern, the COP resolved that “an ad hoc committee be convened in consultation with the [COP] doctrine committee that can . . . address this issue and produce a study document that can be shared with circuits and also congregations for study and careful evaluation of practices in worship, sacraments, outreach, organization, music selection, etc.”

Perhaps someone will read the COP’s resolution and mistakenly assume that the COP is out to end any sort of creative ideas.  I don’t see it that way.  I know that I am biased toward the Commission on Worship, but one look at the newly published Christian Worship: Supplement and it’s obvious that the WELS Commission on Worship is open to creativity and musical variety.  And it’s obvious that the synod at large is on board, given that Northwestern Publishing House has reported far better than expected sales of the supplement.  There’s no mass movement toward rigid repristination in the WELS.

What there is is a healthy, honest, and legitimate concern that we cannot borrow anything and everything from other denominations.  We can certainly explore worship and musical variety within a Lutheran context, and we’d be the poorer if we didn’t.  But we cannot simply take a Protestant or Evangelical worship concept, say “by grace alone” a few times in the sermon, and call it Lutheran.  Why?  Not because there’s a biblical law against it, but because history, wisdom, and experience suggests otherwise.  “Lex orandi, lex credendi.”

Let’s put our best Lutheran efforts forward, so that our “lex ordandi” is always a true reflection of our “lex credendi!”



  1. Thanks for this! It’s definitely a discussion worth having and I’m glad that we’ll be having it now as a Synod.

    At our recent Pastor-Teacher-Delegate Conference our District President responded to a question about the formation of this committee saying (and I’m paraphrasing):

    “Christian freedom does not allow us to go to the very edges of orthodoxy and thumb our noses at those in the middle. The COP is concerned about an indiscriminate use of materials, resources, and speakers, especially coming from heterodox sources.”

    Always let us be ad fontes!

    P.S. If you check out the website link I left, you’ll see the new blog we’re trying as a congregation to reestablish an internet presence. You might recognize some of the look and format. I hope you’re not mad that I so shamelessly stole the look of yours.

  2. Hi Johnold. You article is quite thought-provoking and very well-written. You raise some of the most critical issues related to our worshiping as Lutherans. Very informative.

    One of the difficulties we all face, as you point out, is the relationship between the faith we believe and the way we worship. If you examine carefully the Latin text of Prosper’s 8th Capitulum, where “ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi” appears, and other documents of his from this same context, you will discover that “ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi” does not mean “lex orandi lex credendi” at all.

    The latter phrase was coined near the end of the nineteenth century by a Roman Catholic monk named Dom Prosper Gueranger, and then later generations of Liturgical Theology scholars have scoured the historical sources looking for Gueranger’s principle. The methodology is quite backwards.

    What Prosper of Aquitaine actually referred to when he wrote “ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi” was not the “way we pray,” but the apostolic “command to pray” in 1 Timothy 2.1-6. There is no reference to the “way” the church should pray. There is the admonition to pray which depends on the grace of God for conversion. This was Prosper’s point against the Semi-Pelagians.

    Keep up all your fine work. You make a valuable contribution.

    By the way, the web site for WorshipConcord is not yet launched for public use. But I offer it in the way of a “preview.” I hope to have it up and fully running by May.

    Best regards in Christ,
    James Waddell

    Addition by Johnold Strey on 5/23/2009: Pastor Waddell has set up a blog site, in conjunction with the “Worship Concord” site, that is devoted specifically to the “lex orandi, lex credendi” discussion. You can find it at this link.


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