Return to Ritual, Part 2:
Why Not Adopt Ancient Liturgical Practices?1
By Philippe Sterling2
What are some reasons for not returning to the rituals of historic Christianity?
A. MOST LITURGICAL PRACTICES ARE NOT DERIVED FROM APOSTOLIC TEACHING.
The return to liturgy from the “historical church” may be inconsistent with an adherence to the sufficiency of the Bible for the beliefs and practices of the church. Many such practices are not derived from the New Testament but from later church history. T. A. McMahon aptly comments, “The Ancient-Future search to discover gems from “Classic Christianity” comes up short by a century—the century in which the New Testament was written.”3
The return to ritual signals a return to man-made traditions. The warnings of Paul in Galatians and Colossians concerning “the basic principles of this world” (ta stoicheia tou kosmou) may apply (Gal 4:3, 9; Col 2:8, 16-23). In summarizing his study of this Pauline phrase, Andrew J. Bandstra asks “What are these stoicheia tou kosmou from whose slavery the church has been redeemed but which continue to threaten the freedom of the church?”4 He believes from his research that they are the principles of law and flesh operating outside of Christ. He concludes:
The contexts in both Galatians and Colossians indicate that when the law functions in the context of the flesh then religious regulations arise that seem to offer redemption but which really bring religious bondage. In Galatians it appears to be kinds of regulations that are thought to give us right standing before God. In Colossians the law and the flesh combine to bring forth regulations that are thought to promise a kind of mystic experience in participating with the angels in their worship of God. In both cases, the stoicheia tou kosmou become a kind of "enslaving power" that is "not according to Christ." It brings religious bondage.
From his study of the phrase in Galatians and Colossians, Gary DeLashmutt sees an application to the danger of ritualism.5 He defines ritualism as “making ritual observance a primary focus of the Christian life and means of its expression.” A return to Old Testament type rituals as a means of salvation or spiritual growth is inappropriate for the Christian because those rituals merely foreshadowed the substance or reality which believers now enjoy in the Person and work of Christ. A return to ritual does not result in spiritual growth but rather spiritual regression. DeLashmutt concludes, “While New Testament rituals remain a legitimate aspect of Christianity, ritualism as the means of relating to God has been „outgrown‟ and rejected.”
B. A LIFE OF FAITH DOES NOT REQUIRE TANGIBLE VISIBILITY.
Bob DeWaay sees an analogous situation to the believers addressed in the book of Hebrews who were considering going back to temple Judaism:
The key problem for them was the tangibility of the temple system, and the invisibility of the Christian faith. Just about everything that was offered to them by Christianity was invisible: the High Priest in Heaven, the once for all shed blood, and the throne of grace….All of these are invisible.
But the life of faith does not require tangible visibility: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrew 11:1). The Roman Catholic Church has tangibility that is unmatched by the evangelical faith, just as temple Judaism had. Why have faith in the once-for-all shed blood of Christ that is unseen when you can have real blood (that of the animals for temple Judaism and the Eucharistic Christ of Catholicism)? Why have the scriptures of the Biblical apostles and prophets who are now in heaven when you can have a real live apostle and his teaching Magisterium who can continue to speak for God? The similarities to the situation described in Hebrews are striking. Why have only the Scriptures…when the Roman church has everything from icons to relics to cathedrals to holy water and so many other tangible religious articles and experiences?
I urge my fellow evangelicals to seriously consider the consequences of rejecting sola scriptura as the formal principle of our theology. If my Hebrews analogy is correct, such a rejection is tantamount to apostasy.6
C. A LIFE OF FAITH DOES NOT SEEK TO INDUCE MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES.
The new liturgical movement and emergent worship emphasize mysticism and ritualism. Contemplative prayer practices and ritual are used as means of encountering and experiencing a real presence of God within and without. This opens the way for counterfeit spiritual experiences and is contrary to a walk of faith.
Two questions to ask of any church practice are (1) Does the Bible teach the practice as normative for the church? (2) Does the practice conflict with any doctrine or principle taught in the New Testament? The church is only bound to observe that which Christ and the apostles commanded as normative. A church can within the parameters of normative Biblical commands and principles add meaningful cultural elements to its services. But these elements are not to be viewed as means of receiving grace and experiencing God.
Some liturgical practices fall under the category of doubtful things. There is nothing inherently evil about them. Believers and churches may choose to include them in a service. But it may not be wise to structure the spiritual life of a church around a liturgical calendar and experiences that are not grounded in the Bible.
There is great desire today in the Evangelical community for a multi-sensory spiritual experience and a mystical encounter with God. But we are to live by faith and not by sight in this age (2 Cor 5:7). We are to focus on our mission. Our primary mission is to share the saving message and to make disciples. I encourage Free Grace churches to continue to ground worship in the Word and focus on the mission of evangelism and discipleship.
2Philippe is the Pastor of Vista Ridge Bible Fellowship in Lewisville, TX. He regularly speaks at the annual GES conference.
4Andrew J. Bandstra, “Rescued from the Basic Principles of this World,” Theological Forum (March 1994). The article can be accessed online at this link. Dr. Bandstra was Professor of New Testament Theology at Calvin College.