Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ritual or fellowship

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Mat 23:27-28)

Is there anything ritualistic about the Christian faith?

The reason I ask that question has to do with a comment made on a blog discussion about mormonism. The blog post was called Genuine Christian Discipleship in the I-15 Corridor? . I made the comment that I often turn to Acts 2:42 when looking at the issue of what Christians life and fellowship looks like. A response stated quite strongly that the Lord's Supper has always been a ritual and that is not only OK but people need rituals because they are built to desire ritual. My response was that nowhere in the New Testament do we see the Supper as a ritual, not even at the Last Supper. Jesus didn't have His disciples bring bread and wine because they would need something topass around. They were having a meal and Jesus used the typical elements of that meal to make a much greater point. It is commemorative as well as communal but nowhere was it ritualistic. It is not about the bread and wine, it is about Christ.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the individual in question was partially correct. Humans do crave ritual. We love it but not because we are commanded to engage in ritual or see examples of it in the New Testament or even pragmatically speaking because it is spiritually healthy. We love ritual because it makes us feel a certain way. We feel like we are doing something whether or not we really are. Ritual coupled with tradition leads to religion and then we end up with scenes like the one in the picture above of a number of men prostrate on the floor, bowing to an altar. I am trying to break that sense of ritual in my own life. For example, I wore a short and tie today to fellowship but not a suit coat. That was probably the first time in at least 4-5 years that I showed up for church without a suit coat. Baby steps.

The focus is on the "what" we do and the "how" we do it instead of "why" and I think it has been that way even way before the cross. The meaning of the Lord's Supper and the impact on the fellowship of the Body is lost and instead we argue about who can partake, or what the elements should consist of or what the proper schedule is. What is wrong with simply saying that we should break bread, soberly and joyfully, whenever we gather as an integral part of worship and fellowship? It is not something that is reserved just for Roman Catholics although it is certainly most pronounced in their liturgy. I can tell you that even minor changes to the "worship service" in Protestant churches has the same impact. I remember one Sunday when I asked the congregation to come up and get the cups of grape juice and the crackers instead of passing them out in the pews. Many people were very uncomfortable. Keep in mind that the basic service was the same, we still used the little cups in the same holder, still took crackers from the same platter, I still intoned the same words from 1 Corinthians 11. Just one minor change. People crave ritual because it makes them comfortable. The problem is that comfortable becomes complacent quite easily. That is one of the huge issues with the Jewish religious leaders and Christ. They argued that they were right with God because they performed the rituals but they had long ago forgotten why they performed them. Christ exposed their hypocritical hearts, performing rituals for the sake of rituals.

As humans we crave many things that are unhealthy, and that is as true in the church as anywhere else, perhaps more so. We love tradition, ritual, repetition. We love anonymity, passivity, uniformity. But we are called to something very different. We are not strangers who gather for an hour, go through motions, watch a performance and then go our separate ways until next Sunday. We are called to community with one another. We cannot not, nor should we seek to, replace that sweet fellowship with artificial sweetener. Our craving for ritual stems from a sinful desire to exalt ourselves, to feel that we are right with God because of our actions and that is something that we should not give in to, no matter how much our hearts may crave it.


LisaM said...

It is with trepidation that I write, because I agree with what you say... except...

I think we need "ritual" - because we forget. We need memorials and traditions - because we forget. Jesus didn't command a ritual; you are correct I think, in your reading. Jesus commanded the memorial - and we need the memorial, though it does often become trivialized or argued about and the true meaning can be forgotten - but if we never did anything - we would forget. We would forget because our minds - even minds created in GOD's image - are small, and we forget.

A headcovering does not mean that a woman is submissive, nor does it make her submissive - but it is a ritual of a sort that calls to my remembrance ... so many things taught by Paul, and Jesus, and in the Old Law.

Marriage can be abused, misunderstood, forsaken, made a mockery - but we do not abandon the "ritual" of marriage because of the error - no, instead we cling more strongly to what it represents, we remind ourselves more urgently of its dearness, its representation of Christ and the church.

The ritual of the Lord's Supper is the same. It does not save. It can become something that it was not meant to be. People can go through the motions not understanding, and elders can command its observance or abstinence. That does not detract from the insistence of the Lord and his apostles and first disciples from following a "ritual" - use whatever word suits you better - for a memorial. Because we people need memorials. Because we forget.

Arthur Sido said...

Ritual and tradition are fine, up until they cross the line and replace the truth. I think the difference is that while we have explicit commands for women to cover their heads and for men and women to marry, the rituals to which I am speaking are manmade. The Supper is replaced with a ritualistic eating of a tiny portion. The fellowship of the saints is replaced with a scheduled performance. Where we have gone astray is in The offering becomes a budgetary issue accompanied by a tax incentive instead of sacrificial giving. The cause of all of this is failing to hold fast to His Word and instead we have allowed the rituals we have developed to fill in.

gloria said...


I was raised Roman Catholic ( lots of ritual!) and then converted to mormonism at the tender age of 21. ( even more ritual!)

All I can say is this -- I am burned out with ritual. The name even makes my stomach turn.

I am so thankful that I attend a church that feels the same. We do not have programs or ritual. Praise God!!

Just yesterday, pastor turned all the pews to face one another, instead of the traditional, pastor faces group, etc. He tries very hard to fight against any sense of ritual or "program".

I think many appreciate ritual because there is a sense of "comfort" in the known. There is a sense of security in doing the same thing over and over agan. Kind of like, there is comfort that every Thanksgiving turkey is served, even though it most definately doesn't have to be!

I have spoken to mormons and catholics who love and crave ritual.

I personally think it lulls people to sleep... and brings apathy.

Just my thoughts, and definately some may disagree.

God bless,