Why We Need The Worship Wars

Unless you believe in orthopathy as essential to Christianity, the worship wars are much ado about nothing. They represent the dying thrashes of hide-bound traditionalists, raging against the waning popularity of those songs most familiar to them. They represent the immature clamour of people who do not understand the Romans 14 principle, and want to elevate their preferences to the level of orthodoxy.

If you believe, as I do,  in the very notion of orthopathy, then the worship wars are a natural, and indeed, essential part of church life. While no Spirit-filled Christian delights in conflict, no Spirit-filled Christian doubts that some conflict is inevitable and necessary. Consider how important doctrinal conflict has been.

We should be very thankful for the heretics and their heresies. Without them, we would not know all the ways that Christian orthodoxy can be denied and twisted. Before the heretics come along, orthodoxy is assumed, without clear definition. Through the heresies of Gnosticism, Ebionism, Apollonarianism, Eutychianism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and Sabellianism, the church hammered out orthodox Christology and trinitarianism. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds represent responses to heresies, and defining points for orthodoxy. The creeds represent points of definition. After the definition, deviations represent heterodoxy. A certain amount of vagueness or imprecision is expected before the point of definition that becomes intolerable after the point of definition.

For that matter, we can be thankful for the heresies of transsubstantiation, indulgences, baptismal regeneration, Mary as co-redemptrix, and others, for leading to the Reformation with its five solas. In many ways, our propositional statements of faith, as ornate as they now appear, partly represent a kind of timeline of doctrinal combat.

What has been true in the area of orthodoxy, has also been true in orthopathy. The affective domain of the faith, which is not merely what we have said, but how we have felt, how we have responded to those truths, has had its heresies, and its turning points of definition. If we are orthodox in doctrine, we should expect that we will respond to the truth as other orthodox Christians in history have, not an identical reaction, but an equivalent one for our place and time. And in two thousand years of doctrinal development, there has also been two millennia of affective, aesthetic development.

Steve Miller, in his masterful misrepresentation of liturgical history in The Contemporary Christian Music Debate, enjoys surveying the worship wars of previous centuries, in hopes of persuading us that sooner or later, the critics of CCM will get with the times, as did the critics of Watts’ hymns, or the critics of the organ, or the critics of a liturgy in the vernacular. That these debates existed, we do not doubt. That the modern worship wars are simply the contemporary version of these discussions, we do not dispute. That they represent nothing more than initial alarm to what will become standard orthopathy in one generation, we vehemently dispute.

Certainly there have been overreactions and over-corrections. Certainly, novelties are often regarded with suspicion, and once they become normative, the previous objectors seem amusingly alarmist. But what we often miss is that through the debates over orthopathy such as conflict over polyphony, original (that is, non-psalmic) hymns, or the gospel song, the church was doing in the affective domain precisely what it had done in the doctrinal domain. Doctrinal controversies said, “We speak of Christ like this, and not like that.” Affective controversies said, “We respond to Christ like this, and not like that.” And before the nearly wholesale abandonment of traditional worship forms in favour of entertainment at the end of the 19th century, Christian worship represented an inheritance of hundreds of years of corrections and refinements.

We should not be surprised that there exists in our era contention over proper sensibilities toward God. The truly alarming thing would be if there were none. What is somewhat different in our era is the post-modern mood that despises debate and clear definition. This pseudo-tolerance has long ago compromised the doctrinal integrity of professing Evangelicals. The same worldly mood that abhors necessary conflict and clear definition in doctrinal matters, is even more incensed at the thought of anything similar in the more subjective realm of orthopathy. In some ways, the most problematic people are not the combatants in the worship wars, but those who insist there should be none.

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