Sorry to Burst Your Bubble: Liturgy Doesn’t Mean “Work of the People”

Zac HicksUncategorized4 Comments

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that “liturgy” means, “the work of the people.”  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said it myself.  I, for one, won’t ever be saying it again.  The reason for this is a test case in why linguistics, history, and etymology are important disciplines.

Here’s what Nicholas Wolterstorff1 has taught me:

As almost every book on liturgy points out, the English word “liturgy” is simply the transliteration of the Greek word leitourgia.  In classical Greek the word was used to refer to a service performed by an individual for the benefit of the public, usually at his own expense.  For example, if a warship had to be outfitted, sometimes, instead of taxing the citizenry as a whole, the officials invited a wealthy individual to do the outfitting as a personal contribution to the public. Such a public service was a liturgy, and the person performing it, a liturgete (leitourgos).

Etymologically the word leitourgia comes from two Greek words, leitos and ergon, meaning, respectively, “of the people” and “action.”  In numerous books on liturgy it is said, accordingly, that the word originally meant action of the people.  And often nowadays an argument for more participation of the people in the church’s liturgy is based on this claim.  It is said that for something to be liturgy, it must be action of the people and not action of a few priests or pastors.  But the word leitourgia never did mean action of the people.  It meant action for the benefit of the people.  A liturgy was a type of public service.

In the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, the word leitourgia was regularly borrowed from its Greek civic use and applied, by metaphorical extension, to the kind of service rendered by the priests in the temple. Apparently this was the best that could be done with the language of the day in translating the cultic language of the Old Testament into Greek.  This metaphorical extension was continued in rabbinic usage of New Testament times and in the New Testament itself. For example, in Luke 1:23 we read of the priest Zechariah that “when his time of liturgy was ended, he went to his home.”

It is only a small step from speaking of the cultic acts of the temple priest as (his) liturgy to speaking of what transpires in the Christian assemblies as liturgy, or service.2

Whoa!  Whether we liturgo-philes like it or not, etymologically speaking, it appears that “liturgy” is quite the opposite of the work of the people.  It is the work for the people.  We must be fair, then.  We cannot argue that liturgy, linguistically, encourages corporate participation.

Why should this not rattle us, though?  First, if anything, it gives more glory to God and his sovereignty.  Even our “work” of liturgy is ultimately a “work” done to us, for our benefit.  Sure, it may be mediated through “liturgetes,” but worship, ironically, ends up being God’s work on us, in us, through us, and sometimes in spite of us.  Second, who cares what the etymology of the word is?  Liturgy still is the work of the people.  While the etymology of “liturgy” can’t defend this, scripture can.  All over the sacred page are commands, admonishments, descriptions, and examples of active, communal engagement in the act of corporate worship.  So, while “liturgy” doesn’t mean “the work of the people,” it certainly still is the work of the people.  We don’t need etymology to prove that.

Perhaps this post is a bubble-burster for some of us.  Reading Wolterstorff was for me.  But maybe we can understand clarifications like these not as bubble-bursting, but as bubble-sharpening.  It’s an important part of being truthful and authentic thinkers.  So don’t kill the messenger, folks.  If you take issue, contact Dr. Wolterstorff.  I happen to really like this bubble.  And, chances are, if you’ve come this far in reading this post, you do to.  Cheers to the bubble!



1I’ve got Woltersorff on the brain because I’ll be hearing him lecture at the Bifrost Arts’ “Liturgy, Music, Space” Conference next week!

2Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Reformed Liturgy,” in Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition, ed. Donald K. McKim (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1998), 274.

4 Comments on “Sorry to Burst Your Bubble: Liturgy Doesn’t Mean “Work of the People””

  1. Zac,
    Thank you for this post. First of all, thank you for sharing the N. W. excerpt — very interesting and enlightening! Thank you even more for the way you framed this information within the context of Scriptural vision of corporate worship. Do you think that understanding this truer nuance of the word liturgy changes anything in how we do the work of worship in our churches?
    I had tried to make a way to get to the Bifrost conference next week but won't be able to be there. Enjoy!

  2. Thanks Tamara,

    I'm unsure. It is the case that sometimes etymology is irrelevant to the current meaning of terms. It's nice when they line up well, but it doesn't always happen.

    I love the concept of "work in behalf of the people" helping us to realize that, despite how it seems, worship is more often God's work ON us and THROUGH us than our work for God. Still, as Wolterstorff points out, that's not really what's behind the word in its Classical Greek usage. Benefactors would give money for some kind of civic project that would benefit the people. Perhaps liturgy is a cousin of our phrase "community service," only with positive connotations, not coming from people who are in trouble with the law and need to do time.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. May God bless your ministry, Tamara!

  3. I promise I'm not trying to be a stalker leaving my blathering thoughts all over your site! However, I was just reading through some old notes of mine from a proposal I wrote for our elders, requesting their affirmation for a "renewed liturgy" in our congregation. In the proposal I included an excerpt from Eugene Peterson's book, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. It brought to mind this post and the Wolterstorff excerpt. Somehow, two years ago when I wrote the proposal I didn't catch the nuance between "of the people" and "for the people" that you extracted in your thoughts here.
    Hopefully it's OK to paste the paragraph from Peterson:
    "It is useful to reflect that the word ‘liturgy’ did not originate in church or worship settings. In the Greek world, it referred to public service, what a citizen did for the community. As the church used the word in relation to worship, it kept this ‘public service’ quality – working for the community on behalf of or following orders from God. As we worship God, revealed personally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our Holy Scriptures, we are not doing something apart from or away from the non-Scripture-reading world; we do it for the world – bringing all creation and all history before God, presenting our bodies and all the beauties and needs of humankind before God in praise and intercession, penetrating and serving the world for whom Christ died in the strong name of the Trinity."

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