Liturgy is our order of worship. God requires His people to worship Him in an orderly way (1 Cor. 14). This order should not and must not preclude or exclude Christian joy and enthusiasm, but God requires His people to be thoughtful and to worship Him with reverence and awe (Heb. 12). Paul says that gathering before God in the New Covenant is not less glorious than the Old Covenant but more glorious, more terrible, more wonderful (Heb. 12). While we do not offer the bloody sacrifices of the Old Covenant system, that system nevertheless was a shadow of our true sacrificial worship in the New Covenant, in which we offer sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, the sacrifices of broken and contrite hearts, the sacrifices of tithes and offerings, the sacrifice of peace in fellowship with God and one another — we do all of this in order to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, and this is our reasonable service, our spiritual priestly ministry (Rom. 12:1).
Part of this is the practical result of determining to do something together: like an army going to war, we plan before hand what our good order will be (1 Cor. 14:40, Col. 2:5). When we gather to worship God together, we have to agree ahead of time about what time we will meet, where we will meet, and then, if we want to sing together, we will need to agree on the tune and the words. Whether a church prints the words in a bulletin, uses a hymnal, or some form of projection, they are agreeing together to pray those words together. Hymns and psalms are just prayers set to music. Many churches pray the Lord’s prayer together, recite the Creed together, and greet one another with prescribed words of blessing and encouragement from Scripture. As at any other event of high significance, the planning involved is meant to be a way to love one another and bestow glory and honor, in this case chiefly to the living God. A well planned party is an enormous blessing to all who attend. It has just the right amount of freedom mixed with organization, a plan, and this is just thoughtfulness about the details, about the purpose of the event, about how to make it special and memorable. It’s no different when it comes to the worship of God; in fact, how much more should the worship of God be planned, thought through carefully, for the glory of Christ and the building up of His body?
And this is what manners are in general. They are agreed upon signs and signals of honor and respect and love. Dressing appropriately for an event signals respect. Waiting for everyone to be served dinner before beginning is an expression of thoughtfulness and love. Handshakes, standing when a woman enters a room, holding doors, and so forth are agreed upon liturgies of love and kindness and honor. Even birthday greetings, anniversaries, flowers, gifts, and decorations can play into various ways we show honor, love, and kindness. And the thing to get is that they happen largely through thinking through things ahead of time, talking about them, and giving thought to what God thinks and what will be more useful for building up of the saints, and calling the world to life in Christ.
Now in a world gone mad with sin and rebellion, the main game plan is anarchy. Rearrange all the signs and symbols until they are meaningless, until personal expression is king. But don’t you see that this is to destroy language and ultimately an attempt at destroying love and honor? Love and honor require language, signs and symbols of kindness, thoughtfulness, concern, and respect. This includes both what certain things mean objectively and how various gifts and customs may be more or less appropriate or appreciated in particular contexts. We’ve all heard stories of attempts at good manners that were just awkward and out of place, sometimes especially in cross-cultural contexts. Nevertheless, Christians having been loved by our Lord with such lavish love should be at the forefront of rebuilding forms and liturgies of kindness, rebuilding language with which to communicate honor, gratitude, thoughtfulness, friendship, and hospitality because these are vehicles of grace.
But when someone shows up randomly with bright pink hair, and it wasn’t Halloween last night, what is being communicated? When someone uses very dark mascara and eye liner, what is being communicated? When someone dresses eccentrically, what is being communicated? What does it mean? Christians are obligated to do everything to the glory of God, offering their bodies as living sacrifices, laying their lives down in love for one another as Christ has laid His life down for us. At best, eccentric and odd presentations are like speaking in tongues. Maybe you are a specialist in make-up history, and you can trace your thick eye-liner to the pious prayers of St. Augustine’s mom. But if no one else knows that, you’re speaking in a foreign language: “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me” (1 Cor. 14:10-11). And if you speak in the tongues of men and angels and have not love, you are a noisy gong or a clanging symbol (1 Cor. 13:1). But that’s at best — at worst, you’re actually adopting some of the anarchy and relativism of the world. They are saying that anything can mean anything. They are destroying love by their actions. They insist that a man sodomizing another man may be defined as love. They insist that a woman having her breasts removed (for psychological reasons, e.g. she thinks she is a man) can be defined as kindness. They insist that a woman having a boy’s hair cut can mean beautiful. And they insist that telling the truth about any of these things is actually hate speech. And they are busy offering this anarchic worldview up in their clothing catalogues, their fashion shows, their movies, and music. Be yourself. You can be anything you want. Choose your own destiny. Follow your heart. Except of course, if you are Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump or Kevin Spacey. Then you might not want to follow your heart so much or be yourself because… um… well, we don’t really know why, but… the Russians!
So here’s the point: we are always called to serve one another, love one another, including our enemies, including those who persecute us, returning blessing for cursing. But all of this depends upon a vocabulary, a language of words, signs, and symbols that allow for love and kindness and honor to be communicated. In the classic missionary account Peace Child, Don Richardson recounts the custom of certain savage natives of befriending members of another tribe, inviting them for meals, sharing holidays, a custom they called “fattening with friendship,” the goal of which was to eventually (and suddenly) kill and eat the person. This is what paganism always does, and this is one of the great problems with Black Panther (but that’s for another blog post). Paganism, unbelief, rejection of the Triune God always cuts at the heart of love and friendship and hospitality and honor. But God in His mercy has come to bring us back to the truth, to tell the truth about our lies and sin and rebellion, and to truly deal with it all. This is the path of Christian sincerity, love, and hospitality — it isn’t flattery, it isn’t hatred masked as friendship, it isn’t pretending.
Christian worship should be the center of this sincerity because God only receives worship in spirit and in truth. But the good news is that this is what salvation is. When God gives sinners new hearts, He gives them the desire to worship, and this is principally given in the gift of the Holy Spirit who also gives the ability to worship. This Spirit is in the process of reversing the curse of Babel, so that we might offer sincere worship together, with one voice, one heart, and one mind. And if this is the center of our lives together in Christ, surely other signs of friendship, hospitality, and thoughtfulness flow from this too. It’s not legalism to say that all that metal in your face is barbaric — literally, it communicates confusion, like those ancient European savages that seemed to the Romans to be saying bar-bar-bar. It’s not legalism to say all those tattoos make you look like a cannibal. That kind linguistic violence is cannibalistic. And I’m not talking about some dumb little heart you have on your ankle. I’m talking about the culture of ink, the lust for cutting, the self-loathing and self-mutilation that necessarily accompanies the rejection of the peace of Christ. But don’t fool yourself, saying that when you go into that temple, to get that sweet Hebrew tat on your neck, you’re not worshiping their gods.
It’s not legalism to say that your clownish-colored hair is like a clanging cymbal. Lots of sophisticated words without love is a noisy gong. Manners are love in these little things, communicating kindness, care, thoughtfulness for others in the back and forth of community life. And yes, all of us are learning this a little bit at a time. And all of us have habits and customs that still need refining. All of us are still rather savage, but when we have already died and our lives are hidden with Christ in God, our identities are not in any of those things. We may happily lay anything down for the glory of Christ and the building up of His body. And all those old scars and pictures and memories become monuments to His grace.