Distancing Through Ritual
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men” (Rom 14: 17-18).
Today’s church is filled with ritual, form, and institutional structure. I believe the presence of all this religion not only distances people from God, but by its very presence is a sign that people have already been distanced from God through the institutional or kingship model of the church. I propose that people could not be involved in ritual and structure to the extent Christianity has become unless it had first been subverted and then institutionalized. I further propose that ritual is a mark of institutionalism and has little or nothing to do with true faith in Christ. In other words, institutions promote rituals for the benefit of the institution. I will show it is ritual and structure that gives the institution power over its membership and helps perpetuate the institution.
When talking about religious ritual, it is hard to predict the imagery that the word ritual might summon up in the reader’s mind. Therefore, for the sake of clarity, I need to define what I mean by the word ritual. In my usage, ritual is the using of words or actions symbolically in a repetitious way or in a pretentious way believing this will invoke God’s favor or bring God closer to the practitioners. The problem becomes immediately evident. Ritual can easily become a way for man to manipulate or at least believe he or another human has the power to manipulate or control the divine. In this, ritual becomes a way for man to hide his finitude in the belief he can order his life through divine manipulation. Or that he can invoke divine favor and blessings through the repetitious or ostentatious acts of some religious practice. Therefore, ritualism becomes nothing more than self-righteousness or disobedience in the form of obedience or religion.
I recognize, of course, there is a difference between mere ritual and acts of faith. Often the only difference is in the attitude of the worshiper. But it is important for the believer to note the forever-present danger of acts of faith slipping into mere ritual. Later in this chapter I will talk more about the differences between what I call mere ritual and acts of faith. I also understand that a certain amount of structure and form is needed in any gathering of people. However, I also see the danger of those who are involved in evangelical or fundamental churches thinking they stand above the question of ritual. I have found that much of the form and structure of these churches has lapsed into nothing more than ritual and is used in the same way as the high churches use their ostentatious ceremonies. In view of this we would have to conclude that even structure or form could become nothing more than a tool for carnal man to delude himself into thinking somehow God is more present because of his manmade structure. In this thinking, if you do not do it right, God cannot be there and if you do it right, He’s got to be there.
The True Reasons for Ritual
(1) To Invoke God’s Favor
Religious men often believe that through the practice of certain institutional rituals and ceremonies they can get the Divine’s attention, thus His favor. An example of this is the person who believes through fasting, God will be more apt to hear his prayer. Another example would be that of the religious person who believes God will be more likely to hear long repetitious prayer than a short single utterance. Yet the Lord said, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:7,8). In this statement, Jesus is simply pointing out to His disciples they need not go through a parody of ritual to receive God’s favor for they already have His attention and favor in Jesus Christ.
The reason for this favor is that God is just that kind of God. He loves to give freely to all of mankind and all the religiosity in the world will not invoke more of His favor; “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:46-48, Titus 3:4,5). Jesus spoke these words about the Father because He knew that the religious people believed God loved them more and blessed them more than the nonreligious. In these words we find Jesus saying “not so.” Christians are not called out of the world to receive more physical blessings than worldly people, but rather they are called to be a blessing to the world and to recognize and proclaim the blessings God has given to all men in Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 3:8,9, Gen. 12:2,3). God has given all things to all men. The only difference between men is that some have recognized the gift (Jesus) and the others have not. Of course, the greatest gift of God is to see that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Those who accept the gift of Jesus, live in Him under an open heaven where they continue to receive one spiritual blessing after another (John. 1:16). There are no ostentatious rituals that need to be performed by holy men to invoke these blessings. These are given to us freely, in the Son of His love, apart from all works of religion (Titus 3:4, 5, Eph. 1:3-10).
(2) To Invoke God’s Presence
Religious people have been led to believe by organized religion that God is more present in some places than others. Therefore, most religions have their sacred places where the presence of God is felt more than other places. These sacred places form the very foundation of any organized religion for they shape and form the identity of the organization as well as giving it a sense of cohesiveness. Without them, there may be some question as to whether or not an institution could survive. But how does this fit into the reason that religious men practice so much ritual? The answer is that ritual is a part of the visual stimulus that creates in the worshiper a sense of God’s presence. (In creating the sense of God’s presence, the holy place and the holy man, who usually invokes the presence of God through magical language or ritual, is
101How Forms of Mediation Have Subverted the Christian Faith
confirmed.) All of this strengthens the grip the institution has on the individual.
There are a number of serious problems with this for those who profess Christ.
. It reduces the Christian faith to the same status as the rest of the religions of the world that practice the same kind of manipulation and deceit. The true church does not need manipulation to keep itself together for it has as its bond, the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:3). It is this same Holy Spirit that keeps the true church from using the methods of the world to win and keep people. . When the Christian faith is reduced to just one among the many, then Jesus Christ is reduced in men’s eyes to just one among the many. . The whole idea of a God who resides only in any given place in this world makes the true God small and can only create a false image of God in people’s minds. . It confuses human feeling with the presence of God, and thus it may give the worshiper a false sense of security about his relationship with the true God. Unfortunately, many religious people are sight or visual oriented and therefore are easily deceived by visual stimuli. Many interpret their feelings, created by outside visual stimuli, as spirituality when, in fact, it is nothing more than emotion created by a visual illusion created by the institution (2 Thess. 2:9-12). . Probably the greatest problem for the Christian with all of this is the New Testament Scriptures clearly teach that God is not only in any specific place and should not be imaged as living in buildings made by human hands (Acts 17:24-31).
(3) To Be Seen of Men
Unfortunately, the Scripture also points out that some religious men practice religious ritual, not to win the favor of God nor to invoke His presence, but rather to win the praise and favor of men. Jesus said of the teachers of the law and the very religious people of His day, “Everything they do is done for men to see” (Matt. 23:5). In this, the Lord is simply saying that everything these religious people did was to make themselves larger or to increase their status in the eyes of men. The verdict that the Lord made on the religious people of His day can still be pronounced on much of what is called Christian today. For the institutionalized church has had one goal in the world and that is to make itself larger in the eyes of the world. In the building of its edifices, its pompous ceremonies, and even its huge membership, it has been about the business, and I mean business, of winning the praises of men and making itself larger in the eyes of the world.
The Illusion of Ritual
Here we might examine the relationship between ritual and the idea of institution. In the last chapter I showed that institutions are dependent on power. And the source of their power comes from the law and its holy men. Here we must add a third source of power and that is ritual. For ritual gives an illusion of control and power, which is the power to order not only the things of this world, but God Himself. In this, we could say that institutional ritual and structure become a very subtle form of propaganda influencing the individual on a subconscious level into believing the institution or the group has authority and power. Even the size of the group can be used as a tool for propaganda seeing that large numbers of people are influenced greatly by large groups. All propagandists know that ostentatiousness mixed with larger numbers are two of the chief forms of propaganda. When you mix these two with ritual, you have a powerful trinity that can easily deceive the fleshly man. This trinity of deceit gives the fleshly man a sense of security, which of course is nothing but an illusion that has been created by the institution (2 Thess.2:9-12). Is it not strange that the modern church, for the most part, glories in the devil’s chief forms of deception, which is its worldly success, its ostentatiousness, and its structure or ritual? The apostle Paul speaks of these men who glory in the flesh and what is seen; “For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things” (Phil. 3:18, 19).
No New Testament Authority
Some may be surprised to learn nowhere in the New Testament is a single command or injunction given to practice or participate in any form of cultic ritual or worship, that is, religious ritual performed in a sacred place, at a sacred time, by sacred men. The reason for this is early Christians believed that through the act of one man, the favor and grace of God had forever been invoked once and for all by His death on the cross. So, there was no need for any cultic ritual or worship that would invoke, keep, or increase the favor of God. Early Christians believed that all believers have God’s undivided attention in Christ, at all times and in every place. For in Christ, all times and every place have become sacred. The whole of the believer’s life has become worship to the Father. Therefore, there are no sacred rituals that can be performed to invoke God’s favor, for all of life’s activities have become sacred in view of the Christ event. To try to invoke God’s grace or favor today through religious ritual reflects a total misunderstanding of Christ and His work.
Ritual, the Loss of the Personal
Religious men however, seem to persist in the idea God is somehow impressed with ritual, form, and ceremony, the official and the pompous show of religion. Kierkegaard gets to the heart of this when he says, “And that thou canst well understand; for since God is a personal being, thou canst well conceive how abhorrent it is to Him that people want to wipe His mouth with formulas, to wait upon Him with official solemnity, official phrases, etc. Yea, precisely because God is personality in the most eminent sense, sheer personality, precisely for this cause is the official infinitely more loathsome to Him than it is to a woman when she discovers that a man is making love to her… out of a book of etiquette.” Attack Upon Christendom (page 153)
Jesus taught His disciples that in Him they had what we might call an Abba relationship with God the Father. The word Abba was the most intimate and personal name for one’s father. It was similar to our word dad. When used, it denoted a deeply personal and intimate relationship with one’s father. The question is, does the modern church’s worship, structure, and ritual reflect or symbolize a personal relationship to the father or more of a slave-master relationship? From the worship of some Christians, it would be hard for an outsider to believe they had a personal loving relationship with the deity they worshiped. Their worship more resembles a funeral or the inauguration of a king than a family celebration. In contrast, in the New Testament, the church’s meetings more resembled a celebration or even a wild party. Jesus Himself likened the kingdom of God to a party and on the day of Pentecost when the church had its first birthday party, the apostles were accused of being drunk with new wine. There is not one passage in the New Testament that would indicate that God is impressed with all our form, structure, and ritual. Granted, the apostle Paul did say to do everything in decency and order, a passage that is well worn out by religionists. But in this, Paul surely did not mean for men to structure the gatherings to resemble a funeral or an inauguration ceremony. He was simply telling them to keep it down lest the visitors think them mad.
Moreover, we need to remember that early Christians gathered in their homes for their meetings and were surely less obsessed with structure and form than we moderns. Psychologists tell us man’s obsession with form and structure comes from his insecurity and the belief that through the structures and rituals he creates, somehow he has control over his being. That is not a very good reason for Christians to play religion, especially when one understands Christian worship is to be a confession of our finitude and our total dependence on God. Could it be that our worship says more than we would like it to say? Could it be our worship is more of a symbol that speaks of our self-worship rather than our reverence for God?
The True Significance of Ritual
This is not to say that some ritual is not significant for a religious group, for it is through its traditions and rituals that a sense of identity and community is formed. But even here we would have to say ritual is more of an aid to the institution or group’s solidarity than it is to true faith. For though ritual may give identity to a group, it can slip all too easily into tradition, then into law, and finally into mere ritual that is empty of all faith. When ritual slips into law or tradition, men then begin to live from their traditions and ritual instead of Christ. In other words, their traditions become law and their law becomes their absolute instead of Christ. It is at this point that people lose the ability to distinguish between matters of faith and matters of opinion, between their ritual and God’s will.
When this happens ritual becomes divisive and even sinful. It takes little reflection to see that ritual is often the thing that gives a group an identity, an identity that too often ends up being a wedge of division that keeps it from fellowship with other brothers and sisters in Christ.
Is Ritual Sinful?
In view of the above statements on ritual, one would be tempted to conclude that all ritual is sinful and disobedience to God. However, that would be saying too much. In fact, we humans are so inclined toward ritual we could define man as homo-ritualist, which means, by his very nature, he is prone to practice ritual. So, in view of this, we would be forced to admit ritual in itself is not sinful. But from all that has been said, we must conclude, ritual is dangerous and can easily become a foothold for the devil. Karl Jasper testifies to this danger when he says the following about ritual as symbolism, “Symbolism constantly degenerates into superstition, allegory, aestheticism, dogmatism, or magic. All five of these mutations have appeared in Christian worship and have evoked iconoclastic reaction.” I may add here that the history of both Judaism and Christianity bears out the fact ritual not only degenerates into nothingness, but also that its very presence is often a sign of a dead and lifeless faith. In fact, instead of invoking God’s presence and favor, it often negates it. Thus, it distances the people from God in the name of God. Though we cannot say ritual in itself is sinful, we can say history and man’s very nature seem to bear out the fact that ritual, given adequate time, will become institutionalized and then slips into what I have labeled mere ritual, and mere ritual is always sinful.
Ritual as Faith
In a true sense, ritual only speaks symbolically of true faith when it is the outward form of that faith. But, even here I must add, the outward form of faith that God is looking for from the Christian is good works directed toward one’s brother, not pomp and ceremony of any kind. The true worshiper of God must be aware of our potential problem areas when it comes to ritual. These are:
. The attitude of the worshiper must be pure. By this I mean, what does he expect the religious acts he is performing to accomplish? If in some way he expects it to invoke God’s favor or presence, then he is wrong and his act has slipped into a form of self-righteousness and becomes nothing more than what we have called mere ritual. Mere rituals are acts that are void of faith and understanding. In essence, mere ritual becomes symbolic of groups and individuals who have a misunderstanding of the Grace of God and the Christ event. . Ritual that is acceptable must be a personal action that is a bodily expression of one’s personal faith and one’s total life. For example, if one has a ritual of kneeling before God in prayer, which is a symbol of one’s acceptance of God’s Lordship over one’s life, one better believe in his heart and exemplify in his life-style what is symbolized by the ritual. If someone lifts up his hands to God in prayer, he better make sure his hands that are lifted up are holy and not involved in works of evil. For if they are, lifting them up to God can only bring or invoke a curse. . All ritual must be a self-expression of one’s relationship to God and the family of believers. Therefore, acceptable ritual cannot be commanded or institutionalized by men. It must come out of a group or individual’s own experience with God and a personal relationship with Him. When ritual is institutionalized or put into some religious structure, it will slip into mere ritual that will invoke God’s judgment on those who practice it. . Acceptable ritual must also symbolize a truth and be understood by the one performing it. Practicing ritual without understanding its meaning is like speaking in a language that one does not understand, which borders on nonsense (1 Cor. 14:9-12). Therefore, the symbolism used in ritual must not only have a correct meaning, but it must be understood by the one performing it. Here someone might raise the question, if all this is believed and done, could such an act still fall into our definition of ritual?
I would like to clarify the expression “acceptable ritual.” In the Christian faith, set forth by Jesus and His apostles, ritual can only be viewed two ways. It can be viewed as sinful or just neutral. It can never be viewed as having any real spiritual power apart from faith to please God. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love…Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (Gal. 5:6, 6:15). The most we can say then about the expression “acceptable ritual” is it is a rite that does not have God’s judgment on it. However, it could never be said of any rite that it is an expression of pure worship unless it can be shown that it comes from the Father and thus can return to Him as pure worship. When an act falls into this category, of coming from the Father through the Son, it can no longer be looked at as a ritual. Examples of this are seen in Christian baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Here the question could be raised as to whether or not ritual could be the embodiment of faith and be viewed therefore as faith. The answer is an emphatic yes. In fact, any physical act done in faith could be viewed as the embodiment of faith. We should not make the mistake of many Protestants who believe just because an act is physical it cannot be spiritual. In New Testament times, faith and the outward expression of that faith were not separated. The hard and fast separation between faith and works comes more through Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation than the New Testament. Evidence is beginning to mount showing that the reformers viewed Paul more through their own needs and polemics with Rome than through the eyes of Paul himself. Therefore, their separation of faith and works was somewhat artificial, though serving their need at the time. This separation today creates more problems and confusion than it solves. The artificiality of dividing faith and works becomes even more evident when you consider, by its very nature, Biblical faith always leads to good works. By good works I do not mean religious ritual or rite, but obedience to the commandments of Christ. When Paul talks about not being saved through good works, it is obvious he is talking about the religious rites of Judaism and that his statements have nothing to do with the relationship of the ethical life of the believer and his salvation.
Baptism and Ritual
An example of faith taking on a physical form is Christian baptism. If one is looking for an acceptable meaning of faith, there is no better definition than the symbolic meaning of Christian baptism, which in a true sense is a bodily confession of faith and a statement of the very meaning of the gospel and faith in Jesus. Baptism, as an immersion in water, symbolizes the immersion of one into the will of God and solidarity with the work and person of Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:1-4, Gal. 3:26,27). However, the act of baptism stands empty if the heart of the one being baptized is not experiencing the thing being expressed outwardly. As one man has said, “Baptism is from the inside out.” When the inward is absent, the outward has degenerated into mere ritual. On the other hand, when true faith is present, it will always take its form in the outward or physical and then the outward should be viewed as a purely spiritual thing or as faith itself (Gal. 3:26,27, Acts 2:38, 1 Pet. 3:21). Unfortunately, over a period of time, many acts of faith will be institutionalized by organized religion and degenerate into mere ritual and then slip into idolatry. This is why the Christian movement must always be in a state of reformation and on its guard against mere ritual that empties faith of its meaning.
Ritual as Mediation Between Christians
Still another aspect of the problem of religious ritual is after it becomes institutionalized, it then becomes a symbol of mediation between believers. It was the religious rites of the Jews that formed the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles in the first century. Today it is often religious rites that form much of the wall of division between Catholics and Protestants. In this, religious ritual becomes just another way for man, as animal, to stake out his religious territory. His rituals become a religious “no trespassing sign” telling others, symbolically, to stay out or conform to his tradition and surrender to his authority. Therefore, man plays the animal before God, distancing himself from God and his brother.
We all need to recognize that we, by our very nature, practice ritual to varying degrees. In fact, most of us practice ritual when we put our socks on every morning. When ritual is practiced in good faith, it becomes the language of faith. Here we are not talking about the pretentiousness of the institutionalized church, but rather simply the way we do things. You see, ritual in a broad sense is simply our way of doing things and in many cases our way of saying things. For language itself in many ways is nothing more than a form of ritual. In the story of the tower of Babel, we find that God confused the language of the people. If language is ritual, we can infer that it was at the tower of Babel that God imposed on mankind different cultures or rituals or a different way of saying and doing things. The differences in speech we call language, and the differences in ritual, we call culture. When we look at these two things, it is obvious that both are main sources of division among men.
What is the answer to this division? Well, the answer of the world has always been to try to force everyone to be the same. In fact, it seems one of the chief obsessions of worldly men is to have everyone the same as they are. However, this obsession to make everyone the same is not limited to the world but seems to be very much a part of all organized religion as well. Maybe that is why organized religion is so boring. It may be here we can find the answer as to why men seem so involved with war and why the intellectuals in the Christian movement have created an intellectual battle among themselves. Could it be they are simply bored with it all? I think for the answer, we need to go back to the story of the tower. What is God trying to teach us in that story? Is He not
telling us that sameness will never get us into a relationship with Him? It was sameness that caused the people to believe they were the center instead of God. It is remarkable to watch and listen to religious leaders try to obtain religious unity by sameness. It is somewhat fun, though sad, to watch grown men bludgeoning each other over the head with their ideas. When they do accomplish unity like some have by a rigid and ruthless conformity, they have created nothing more than another tower of Babel, which does nothing but add another voice to the gibberish.
What God is telling us in the story of Babel is that unity and relationship with Him will not come through human effort or the sameness of language or ritual. It will only come when men turn to the true bond of peace and unity, which is the man Jesus Christ. Until we realize that unity is through the Spirit of Christ, we will continue to make systems the center and in turn try to force others into our system, which is nothing more than our way of saying and doing things.
The secret of unity is that we must get the horse before the cart. Unity does not lead to Christ, but rather Christ leads to unity. When men make Christ the Center, then and only then, will we have true unity, but it will not be the unity of sameness. It will be the unity of Christ. (If we seek unity in any other thing, that thing will become our center and our tower of Babel.) The question would seem to be, what does the life of Jesus have to say about it? For His life is truly the will of God manifested in bodily form. He is the standard and model of everything called Godly. Therefore, of necessity, we must ask the question, was Jesus a ritualist? The answer is an emphatic no. There is no evidence in the gospels that Jesus was a ritualist. He lived in constant relationship with His Father and saw no need to invoke God’s favor or His recognition through the practice of ritual. He was not a great promoter of public prayer or cultic worship. He often violated the tradition and ritual practices of the more religious people and bordered on being indifferent to all outward religious rites and ceremonies except baptism, which He seemed to do to identify with the people. It seems He even made it a practice of criticizing the religious leaders, which seems to be the closest thing to a ritual He practiced. If anything, He seemed to be antagonistic toward the ostentatiousness of religion. In fact, we could go so far as to say that the life and teaching of Christ are completely the antithesis of organized religion, even the Christian religion.
The Greatest Problem with Ritual
The greatest problem with ritual, at least when it comes to our theme of the distancing of God from the common people and their everyday experience, is most ritual that is practiced by the institutional church removes God from the ordinary and places Him in the sacred. The long-term effects of this are undeniable; God is distanced from the everyday experiences of the common people. In this, the God who drew near in the person of Jesus Christ is portrayed as some other God, a God of religion who is in some distant place and must be approached through the mediation of religion, that is, through its sacred places, times, people, and ritual. Today believers need to realize the world is no longer impressed with the high churches’ pomp and ritual, nor the low churches’ form, structure, and entertainment. In fact, the world today is not impressed with any institutions. What the world wants to see is a group of people who practice pure religion. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 2:27). Based on James’s definition of true religion, we would say that those who want to worship God in spirit and truth should be more concerned with doing good to their neighbors.
We must conclude that the practice of cultic or pretentious religious ritual may be symbolic of a basic misunderstanding of the Christ event. If God has entered into the everyday making it holy by His Word and His very presence, there can no longer be any religious ritual that would invoke the favor of God in any way, nor would there be any ritual that would bring God closer to the worshiper. The Scripture clearly teaches that all of the favor or grace God has for man was given to man in the Christ event and is received through faith apart from all religious ritual. This includes all form and structure of the institutionalized church. Therefore, all ritual has been rendered powerless before God by the Christ event. If this is all true the question must be asked, why do people practice it? I have offered some answers to this question. Much of it is practiced because of a basic misunderstanding of the Christ event. Still others practice ritual to be seen of men, and it is practiced to a large degree for the benefit of the institutional church that is dependent on it for authority over its worldly membership.