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.” (1)
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 writes, “Our goal is to bring America to orthodoxy.” (2)
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 Christianity.” (3)
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’.” (4)
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 brethren.” 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 “brother.” 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!” (5)
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 bearing them” (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.’ ” (6)
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, Worship, (Kansas City, KS, Walterick Publishers, 1980), p.97-98