AT 05: A Vision of Multi-voiced Worship

by Eleanor Kreider
Originally published in Anabptism Today, Issue 5, February 1994

Imagine a sixteenth-century Anabaptist visiting one of our churches today. She might agree with many of our views and practices—but perhaps would notice a tendency toward one voice, or very few voices, dominating worship. Would she observe expectant, active listening for the Spirit's word to the congregation? Would she see that the church in a disciplined and concerted manner "proves all things" so that love and maturity flourish? Might she ask in what ways the congregation and preacher interact in understanding a text and its effect on our lives?

Early Anabaptists understood worship and teaching in the congregation to be a multi-voiced and dialogical activity. We see this perspective clearly in an untitled and unattributed tract of about forty pages, probably written in Switzerland in the 1530s.1 In tones both defensive and aggressive, the anonymous Anabaptist author answered a question commonly put to the radical reformers: Why don't you Anabaptists attend the (state) churches?

Freedom to exercise spiritual gifts

The Anabaptist's first reason for abandoning worship in the Reformed churches is that they do not observe "the Christian order as taught in the word of God in 1 Cor 14." According to that text, if something for edifying is revealed to believers during worship, Christian love compels "that they should and may speak of it"-after which they should again he silent. The author of the tract underlines Paul's emphasis upon the desirability of the spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of prophecy, for the building up of the church.

In the Zurich state church, the tract argues, preachers "presume they need yield to no one ... and especially (yield) not to us". In keeping with a tradition over a thousand years old, preachers kept a tight hold on their pulpits and allowed no informal contributions from the congregations. But the apostle Paul had commanded that no one should forbid speaking in tongues which serves to edify the congregation (1 Corinthians 14.39). "How much less authority", our Anabaptist argues, "has anyone to forbid prophesying, teaching, interpreting or admonishing?"

The author passionately clinches his argument:

"When someone comes to church and constantly hears only one person speaking, and all the listeners are silent, neither speaking nor prophesying, who can ... regard it to be a spiritual congregation? Or confess according to 1 Corinthians 14 that God is dwelling in them through his Holy Spirit with his gifts, impelling them one after the other to speak and prophesy?"

All sixteenth-century Reformers insisted that, in keeping with their motto of sola scriptura, they were returning to scripture alone for the renewal of worship forms. But to Anabaptists, 1 Corinthians 14 spoke of a different kind of worship than they found in the Reformers' churches. In their assemblies they longed to emulate Paul's vision of a Spirit-gifted congregation praying and worshipping in a manner that was free but orderly.

Our tract emphasises that participation in worship must be open to all members as they are inspired by the Spirit. The "congregation is a temple of the Holy Spirit, where the gifts of inner operation of the Spirit in each one (note, in each one) serve the common good... Everyone of you (note, every one) has a psalm, a doctrine, a revelation, an interpretation." This, with all its attendant risks, was a long way from worship in the Reformed church, where the Spirit was only allowed to speak through the mouth of one person.

Hazards of single-voice worship

The author of the tract pursues a serious implication for worship which is dominated by one human voice. "All judgement is bound to the preacher and to his teaching, whether it he good or evil." The state church preachers "at first taught that they do not wish to set any judge over God's word ... and that there is no authority over the word but God alone". But to our author it was clear that the preachers were not openly accountable for their teaching. Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 14 required that "an error of the minister must he treated openly before the congregation which has heard it, and not privately with the preacher". With single-voice worship, "the congregation is deprived of all right of judgment concerning matters of the soul, bound exclusively to the preachers and their understanding."

Some state church preachers taught that the true meaning of "everyone has a psalm, doctrine, etc" and "you may all prophesy, one by one" empowered the elected ministers, and not members of the congregation, to speak. But surely, our author contends, if Paul meant only specified prophets to prophesy, he would have said so. In fact, Paul said "you may all prophesy." All the members of Christ, the whole congregation, should be ready to speak when the Spirit inspires.

To sum up, our author's first reason of the nine outlined in this tract2 for refusing to worship in the state church comprises a double critique. Worship dominated by one voice blocks the Spirit's freedom to edify the church through the variety of gifts. In addition, the powerful single voice is beyond the discernment and correction within the congregation. Our author concludes, "The church of Christ should together `prove all things and hold fast to that which is good'. 1 Thess 5."

Multi-gifted worship today

The sixteenth-century Anabaptist critique of single-voice worship raises questions of how Christians today can be most faithful to a New Testament model of corporate life. Congregational worship dominated "from the front" is to be found both in churches led by a single pastor and in those led by music/worship groups. Both types must address the question of balancing responsibilities of designated leadership with the necessities of developing the gifts of all the members.

Some churches with a single pastor allow or expect that one person to do all the up-front ministry, to "take the service". What is the biblical or theological rationale for this pattern? There is no evidence in the earliest Christian communities of formal, single-voiced, up-front worship leading. Theologically, this practice tuns head-on into the Pauline doctrine of the body of Christ; practically, it contradicts what we know of the reality of worship in the Corinthian church. Paul needed to encourage order there, it is true, but he assumes an active, multi-gifted worshipping congregation.

Following Paul's example with the Corinthian church, leaders in our churches will continually seek out, train, enable, and make space for the Spirit gifts to emerge in worship. Mature leaders can take their own place in worship leading and at the same time train up others to assist. They can deliberately allow open places in the worship service for members to contribute ex tempore. Congregations can make clear to their leaders that they expect this approach. If the same voice dominates week after week, the congregation is either renouncing its responsibility or its gifts are being stifled.

Surprisingly, even churches with multiple worship leadership can suffer a sense of being boxed in or dominated from the front. One particular problem is with music groups, often called "worship groups". A narrow and simplistic equation of singing songs and "worship" can result. Slickness and professionalization of worship music sometimes sidelines and discourages the very ones who should be included and encouraged. Love is the measure, and that means encouraging every member's growth, including young musicians—as well as the poets, dramatists, visual artists, pray-ers and readers among us. Openness, inclusiveness, as well as seriousness of purpose and discipline should characterise worship groups. Otherwise they will become what Paul deplores in I Corinthians 13: noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

Another well-intentioned approach is to operate on "democratic" principles: let everyone have a go at everything; put up a rota for people to sign; everyone should do their share of the jobs. This approach, however, denies what every congregation intuitively recognizes-that some members are gifted by the Spirit in particular ways. It is not difficult to spot people in the congregation who are gifted at leading prayers, teaching the Word with clarity, or sensing the movement of the Spirit in worship with intuitive humility. The congregation should affirm and call out these Spirit-gifts, not just pass around a rota of work to he done.

"Prove all things" together

Our early Anabaptist author objected to the word of preachers from high pulpits descending upon people who have no chance to respond. The author contended later in the document that the very teaching the state preachers used to give in the first days of their reforming activities they later repudiated, and practised the opposite. Where was their forum for accountability?

This is no dated problem. Historians of preaching show that the long rhetorical sermon from a pulpit is a relatively late development. Early Christian assemblies interacted with their preachers, commented and asked questions. Even as late as the fifth century, sermons of the famous Augustine were dialogical.3 Those early preachers had to he able to explain further, to illustrate, to apply the word to their life on the basis of people's questions.

Some will object that this kind of interactive discernment of the word between preachers and people is impossible in big church buildings. Acoustics and seating arrangements in many modern churches, as well as habits of etiquette, militate against easy interchange about meanings and applications. These are indeed impediments, as is the assumption that successful churches will he large ones. There is nothing more "Constantinian" in the life of our churches than the assumption that big is beautiful.

Our churches would do well to listen to the warnings of our sixteenth-century Anabaptist. There is undoubtedly a place for carefully crafted addresses on theology or biblical exposition. But is the typical Sunday assembly really that place? Our preachers (and why shouldn't we have several per congregation?) have the opportunity to present the story of God and God's people in ways that invite, convince, and inspire us to live courageously the way of Jesus. They can do this spiritual task in vigourous interaction with us, the members of the church, and our everyday life concerns. There is an exciting hope in this vision which can unite us with our anonymous Anabaptist author in the pursuit of a church which is truly "a temple of the Holy Spirit".

Eleanor Kreider is a Mennonite author and lecturer, and was serving as a Theologian-in-Residence at Northern Baptist College in Manchester when she wrote this article. Her, first article in the Anabaptist Worship Series was on the Lords Supper (February 1993).


1. See Shem Peachey and Paul Peachey, eds., "Answer of Some Who Are Called (Ana)baptists Why They Do Not attend the Churches: A Swiss Brethren Tract", Mennonite Quarterly Review 45 (1971:5-32). In 1560, Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli's successor as leader of the Zurich reformation, published a major work against the Swiss Anabaptists entitled Der Widertoeufferen ursprung (Zurich, Christoph Froschauer, 1560). Bullinger published the Anabaptist tract in order to refute it.

2. Additional reasons include: the preachers have forsaken their own earlier teachings (whereas the Anabaptists are faithful to the Reformers,' early insights); the preachers are colluding in violent suppression of dissenters; the preachers employ the sword of the state to compel faith and to protect their own interests; the Reformers' state church is not a disciplined church, but is a place of lovelessness, untruthful slander, infant baptism, and a general imperviousness to the work of the Holy Spirit.

3. G. Wright Doyle, "Augustine's Sermonic Method", Westminster Theological Journal 39 (1976-1977), 236.