In the late twentieth century it was debated whether the ancient church orders were comprehensive and descriptive or selective and polemic. This paper will argue that this is a false dichotomy. As 'living literature', the church orders need to be read as multiple layers of tradition and cannot be said to have one single purpose. At least in part their compilers and redactors were trying to preserve what they thought was ancient, and the results evolved into literary texts rather than manuals intended for practical use. However, their attempts either to maintain or to promote particular practices ultimately had rather limited effect.