Cultural diversity and unity in the Church are perennial questions. Whether on bishops or on the order of worship or on postures for taking Communion or on forms of music, Christians have often differed in practice. Perhaps just as often, we’ve agreed to disagree, noting that some matters are adiaphora, or matters indifferent. While affirming that some practices aren’t matters of salvation and damnation, I hold that many of the differences are significant theologically, not just practically.
The Christian faith has essential doctrines, of course, but doctrine also determines our way of life, especially our worship. Since there is but one faith, we have but one practice, just as we confess the same faith as formulated in the creeds: our words signify our practice, so unity in confession implies unity in worship and in morals. Indeed, worship and morals are equally governed by biblical precepts, and ways to implement these precepts are adiaphora. This is not to say, however, that adiaphora can be dealt with arbitrarily.
Following Jesus’ designation of himself as the Vine and the parts of the Church as the branches, I draw a related grapevine analogy. The gospel is the common DNA of the Church – being in one Head, we have exactly the same genes, and we drink of one cup in the Eucharist – but how exactly to treat the plant will vary by terroir: just as you factor soil, altitude, terrain, sun-orientation and microclimates into decisions on pruning, irrigation and harvest time, so you will do differently in England and in France, not least in the choice of English versus French as the language in which to worship. Cultivated in different conditions, the same plant (or the same clonal variety) will look different and make for wines that look, smell and taste different.
So the bishops of England, who regarded themselves as joined in full communion with the reformed churches of France, were under no compulsion to change the English prayerbook to direct worshippers to take Holy Communion standing, nor did they feel the need to tell their French brethren to take it kneeling. While the posture for receiving the bread and the wine is theologically significant – to stand is to praise God for his gift, and to kneel is to receive that gift in solemn reverence – we can reasonably disagree as to which is better: indeed, one may be more edifying in England and the other more edifying in France. The concept of adiaphora, then, is not to posit theological neutrality but only to affirm that more than one choice is lawful.
Despite the legitimate variations in worship, however, liturgy itself is not a matter of mere style. It’s not about styles and viticultural technique, so to speak, but about theology, the basis of liturgical unity: the liturgical view is that the Church has the duty to proclaim the word, to pray, to administer the sacraments and to praise God, but that none of these count for anything in themselves. During the liturgy, as we do these things, we objectively receive the benefits of Christ’s finished work, not just by our receiving information and accepting distant truths but by the Holy Spirit working in the present to bring us to heaven in Christ. Because man can do only earthly things, God does all the spiritual work; independent of anything we do, the Holy Ghost remains absolutely free to act, whether in turning a sinner’s will or in joining to Christ, by faith, the one who receives the sacrament.
I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. Our duty fulfilled, though rewarded, ultimately contributes absolutely nothing to men’s souls. As even the best bread and wine can’t cause the recipient to partake of Christ’s Body and Blood, so the best sermon, preached by the most pious preacher and drawing on the soundest logic and the best emotions, has no spiritual benefit of its own: God alone can (and does!) objectively join spiritual effect to word and sacrament. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.