Resurgence of Religious Ritual
by David Dunlap
Large numbers of evangelical Christians are
returning to the maze of religious ritual. Liturgical worship incorporating
incense, candles, vestments, and ancient formal prayers has found its place on
the platforms of evangelical churches. A recent study has reported that
evangelicals are returning to ancient ritual at an alarming rate. Ritualism is
finding that leading Bible schools and denominations are fertile soil in which
to germinate. Robert Webber, a professor of theology at Wheaton College, IL
and a leading spokesman for ritualism, writes,
"I had to find a faith that brought me into contact with the transcendence and
mystery of God."
Church of the Nazarene minister Randall Davey has begun to incorporate elements
of Anglican liturgy into church services in Kansas. On the west coast, four
former workers with Campus Crusade for Christ have formed the Evangelical
Orthodox Church, which uses Byzantine liturgy. President Peter Gillquist
"Our goal is to bring America to orthodoxy."
Ritual and New Testament Assemblies
Our concern is that ritualism is beginning to
find inroads among so-called "brethren" assemblies. Assemblies have long been
noted for their singlemindedness in worship, love for Christ and devotion to
the scriptures. Yet some Assemblies are undermining the spirituality and
richness of worship through subtle and overt forms of ritualism. The Lord's
Supper has been dissected, dismantled, organized, and structured reducing it to
only a shadow of its true character. The foundation of reverence, holiness and
the lordship of Christ during the remembrance meeting is slowly being eroded.
In its place we now find ancient prayers, priestly theatrics, chants and
mystery. Sadly, one seeks in vain to find among all these forms the
cultivation of a more worshipful and Christ-honoring people. As in nature, it
is only a matter of time before the subtle seeds of ritual sprout into fully
developed error. A commended worker, who speaks throughout the US, has
promoted this practice. He said,
"To see people working in an organized, orchestrated and beautifully planned
out way is beautiful...in liturgical churches when the procession would come in
and the congregation would stand, and someone would enter carrying the Bible,
and the music would play, and the trumpets would blast, there was a glorious
feeling in the air. This may not be your style, but it is God's style. This
type of worship went on in the Old Testament."
For more than a century the "assembly"
movement has studiously avoided ritualistic error. Formalism has been fiercely
denounced from its pulpits. Early leaders of the "brethren" movement exposed
this lethal error for what it was, a contradiction of the true nature of New
Testament worship. John Nelson Darby, a gifted and discerning leader among
them summarized their convictions when he wrote,
"A worldly religion, which forms a system in which the world can walk, in
which the religious element is adapted to man on earth, is a denial of
C.I. Scofield, Bible teacher and author, lays
bare the fatal danger of this false worship when he writes,
"The judaizing of the church has done more to hinder her progress, pervert her
mission, and destroy her spirituality than all other causes combined. Instead
of pursuing her appointed path of separation from the world and following the
Lord in her heavenly calling, she has used Jewish scriptures to justify herself
in lowering her purpose to the acquisition of wealth, the use of imposing
ritual, the erection of magnificent churches, and the division of the equal
brotherhood into 'clergy' and 'laity'."
These solemn words should sound out a
warning. The revival of ritualism represents strands of a cord which together
strangle spiritual life. The dangers of formalism should be trumpeted far and
wide within the assemblies. Our liberty of expression, which is a great
privilege in corporate worship, may prove to be the very gate for error. All
too often, any expression of worship is permitted rather than spiritual
expression in worship. Graciousness often wins out over the biblical mandate.
The Errors of Ritualism
What is wrong you may ask, with liturgical
worship? Isn't it just another approach to worship? What biblical principles
does it violate? First of all, ritual, by its very nature, creates an
unbiblical class within the assembly of believers through its use of vestments,
honorific titles, and special privileges. The Bible states in Job 32:21,
"Let me not, I pray you, accept any man's person, neither let me give
flattering titles unto man."
Again in Matthew 23:8 scripture says,
"Be not called Rabbi; for one is your master, even Christ, and you are all
One of the most esteemed leaders of the early church was Paul, the apostle.
What was his honored title within the church? The unassuming title which was
used three times in the book of Acts (Acts 9:17, 21:20, 22:13), was simply
Ritual creates unwarranted offices, distinctions, and titles within the
body of Christ. Ritualism rejects the priesthood of all believers. This
treasured truth of the church does not exalt one spiritual gift above another,
but teaches that all spiritual gifts are to be valued and are indispensable.
The unjustified religious practice of ordination for the priesthood and
ministry in many churches undermines the priestly responsibilities of every
believer. C. H. Spurgeon, the British preacher, has aptly stated that
ordination was often,
"Placing empty hands on empty heads."
Vestments cannot signify a spiritual gift any more than a baseball cap
signifies a position with a professional baseball team. Dr. Martyn
Lloyd-Jones, usually very sound and reliable in his expositions of Scripture,
on the subject of ordination and the importance of vestments, he swerves
uncharacteristically from the sublime to the ill-reasoned when he writes,
" I believe it is good and right for a preacher to wear a gown in the pulpit.
How do I reconcile that with what I have just been saying about spiritual
authority? The gown to me is a sign of the call, a sign of the fact that a man
has been 'set apart' to do this work. It is no more than that, but it is that.
Of course, I must hastily add that while I believe in wearing a gown in the
pulpit, I do not believe in wearing a hood on the gown! The wearing of a hood
calls attention to the man and his ability, not to his call. So wear a gown
but never a hood!"
Ritualism and True Worship
Secondly, ritualism emphasizes form, beauty,
and tradition above the Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul warned the
Colossians about the dangers of ritualism in worship(2:8). Paul explained in
his first chapter what the focus of our worship must be, writing,
"He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the first-born
from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence"
(1:18). Formalism refuses to recognize the centrality of Christ in worship.
Since her very inception, the essence of the New Testament church has been to
gather unto the Lord Jesus Christ alone. He is the sole "attraction"; all
other activities and church "traditions", new and old, pale in significance to
the person of Christ. In the weekly remembrance meeting believers do not come
together to admire colorful vestments or listen to a recital of ancient prayers
or to light candles. A believer's desire is to glorify his risen Saviour.
Worshipers who bring praise may be clothed in the latest fashion or in simple
dress. They may gather together in a newly erected auditorium or in a simple
hall. This makes no difference to our Lord. That which does make a difference
is for Christ to receive all the emphasis and priority in worship.
Ritualism, Israel and the Judgment of God
Thirdly, the word of God thunders scathing
denunciations against empty form in worship. Israel's history teaches that the
empty form remains long after the spiritual life has departed. For this very
reason the discerning Christian must be cautious concerning unauthorized forms
and structures in the New Testament church. The prophet Isaiah rebukes Israel's
outward religion, writing,
"Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto Me...your
appointed feasts My soul hates, they are a trouble unto me; I am weary of
(1:13-14). There is no more grievous act to the heart of God than that of
empty worship and the meaningless repetitions of prayers and chants. God
delights in the heart-felt songs and praises of his people. Structure without
spirituality and formalism without reality does not bring glory and pleasure
to God. In our present-day evangelical mentality of
"anything-goes-if-people-are-attracted", many worship their work, work at
their play, and play at their worship. Many are seeking for something new,
unique and innovative to appeal to the emotions and senses of unredeemed man.
Little forethought is given to what God requires or what may please the heart
of God. Author A. P. Gibbs rightly observes,
"Christendom has its own specially educated and ordained priesthood, whose
presence is indispensable. Men robed in gorgeous vestments who, within a roped
off sanctuary, stand before a bloodless altar with a background of burning
candles, crosses and smoking incense. With the use of an elaborate, prepared
ritual and stereotyped prayers, and responses from the audiences, the whole
service moves with mechanical precision. Yet if Jesus were to arrive on the
scene today, He would indict this ritualistic worship and would accept only
the true worship of those who worship the Lord in 'spirit and in truth.' "
May we be found to be worshippers who worship in spirit and in truth, seeking
God's glory alone.
Finally, religious ritual causes preparation
and participation in worship to be unnecessary. Ritual permits but the select
and privileged few to prepare for and minister in corporate worship. Many can
testify that the weekly preparation and worship at the Lord's supper has
revitalized their spiritual life. Ritualism excludes the majority from the
privileges of the believer's priesthood. Worship is then reduced to a
spectator activity. The sad result of all this is that God's word becomes
trivial and worship is robbed of its importance. The liturgical system, by its
very nature, usurps the rightful place of Christ and the scriptures in the
worshiping assembly. Therefore, all advances of ritualism, subtle or obvious,
must be vigorously resisted.
(1) Jeffrey L. Sheler, "From Evangelicalism to Orthodoxy",
U.S. News and World Report,
January 15, 1989. pp. 58-59
(2) Ibid., p. 59
(3) John Nelson Darby,
Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, vol. 5,
(Addision, IL: Bible Truth
Publishers), p. 347
(4) C.I. Scofield,
Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth,
(New York, N. Y. , Loizeaux Brothers, Inc., 1892), p. 17
(5) D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones,
Preaching & Preachers,
(Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 1971), p. 160
(6) A. P. Gibbs,
(Kansas City, KS, Walterick Publishers, 1980), p.97-98
"We tend to avoid liturgical activity because we do not want to be like
lutherans or catholics. Yet let us not be afraid to use the best advantages of
liturgical worship--they may have something we are missing!"
Ronald B. Allen
Old Testament professor at Western Baptist Seminary
"Christ is the substance of all true worship. Nothing else will suffice. Mere
religion, with its forms and ceremonies, may stir the feelings and emotions;
art and music sentimentality, but only a sight of Christ crucified and risen
can produce true worship to God."
"Bishops, Priests and Deacons."
"Evangelicals need to reclaim their Old Testament heritage. We need to
unburden ourselves of those reflexes forged during the Reformation that shunned
the pageantry and visual media of medieval Catholicism."
Professor at Wheaton College,
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