By Bill Nicks
There has always been a tendency on the part of men toward ritualism in their efforts to worship, whether worshippers of the true God or false gods. Ritualism has to do with ceremonies and forms: "In a derogatory sense, excessive devotion to prescribed ritual forms in worship" – Webster. It is the prescribing of certain "rites," such as the Liturgy, "the public rites and services of the Christian Church, specifically, as the Eucharistic rite, called the Liturgy in the Eastern, the Mass in the Western Church." These describe the deterioration of true worship into rites designed by uninspired men, and are a caricature of the true worship as prescribed by Christ.
The difference in true worship and false worship is clearly described in the Bible. Jesus said, "God is a spirit, and they who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). Ritualism is the opposite of worshipping in spirit and in truth. The Lord's supper was designed to remember Christ's death on the cross. His body that was given and his blood that was shed are signified in the first-day-of-the-week- partaking of the bread and fruit of the vine. These emblems represent his body and blood. Jesus said, "As oft as ye do this, do it in memory of me" (1 Corinthians 11:25).
There is a great difference in an emblem which the Lord has set for the purpose of impressing some truth upon worshippers, and in hollow rituals which men have added. Even Old Testament worship had its emblematic observances, but without meaning. For example, there was the instruction for the High Priest, with his holy garments, to first bathe himself, representing purification from sin, then to "kill the goat of the sin-offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the veil… and sprinkle it upon the mercy-seat." After this, he was to make an atonement for the holy place, and for the tent of meeting. This was a blood atonement for the sins of himself and "all the assembly of Israel" (Leviticus 16:4-19). After this, he was to "lay both hands upon the head of a live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; … and he shall send him away by the hand of a man that is in readiness into the wilderness: and a solitary land; and he shall let go the goat into the wilderness: (Lev. 16:20-22). Was this ritualism? No, because the Lord was impressing on Israel the heinousness of sin, and typifying the eventual plan of Jesus' coming into the world to shed his blood once for all, in contrast to the year by year shedding of the blood of bulls and goats (Hebrews 10:14). Even the laying on of the hands of the High Priest held a significance:
"The laying on of hands is not an act of blessing but is believed to be a real transference of guilt to the scapegoat. To drive out the goat meant to drive out sin itself… Alongside this, though more rare, is the laying on of hands as an act of blessing (Genesis 48:18; Isaiah 44:3). It is no doubt closely related to laying on of hands on the occasion of a man's installation in an office (Numbers 27:12 ff).
The laying on of hands, therefore, means if one compares the two very different acts of removal of sin and blessing … he passes on his special blessing or burdens to the scapegoat with the burden which he himself had carried."1
All Old Testament prophets condemned empty formality, but none went to the heart of the matter with more clarity and forcefulness than Micah:
"Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Micah 6:6-8).
It is not true that sacrificial system, which was appointed by the Lord for a purpose, was abandoned by the prophets. It continued until fulfilled by Christ, and even Christ died shortly after keeping the Passover. The condemnation which the prophets delivered was not for offering of sacrifices and keeping of the feasts, but for the failure of Israel to undergird their offerings with a sincere spiritual attitude and holy life. Many of them no doubt felt there was some magic ritual in the mere mechanical performance of empty ceremonies to change their lives from unholiness to purity. "For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6).
The same can be said of worship required under the New Testament. The problem is not with the institution of worship as required by the Lord. The problem is in the degeneration of true worship into ritualism. When our Lord was questioned, "Why eateth your Teacher with the publicans and sinners?", he heard it and said, "They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye, and learn what this meaneth, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice: for I came not to call the righteous but sinners' " (Matthew 9:11-13).
There are at least two instances when true acts of worship prescribed by the Lord become ritualistic: (1) When such additions are made to the word of the Lord that the actions performed are not authorized by the Lord, and (2) When such acts that are prescribed by the Lord are done perfunctorily, hence done mechanically and without either interest or zeal.
As an example of ritualism in the Lord's supper, the additions to the simple memorial feast in what is called the Eucharist is a case in point. Priestly rites performed in the "mass" demand that Christ be crucified again and again, and that through the doctrine of "transubstantiation" the bread when consecrated by the priest becomes by a miracle the literal body of Christ, and the fruit of the vine becomes in the same way the literal blood of Jesus. Such was not intended by the Lord when he said, "This is my body, … this is my blood of the new covenant." This metaphorical expression obviously meant that the emblems represented his body and blood, and that Christians partook of the bread and fruit of the vine "in memory" of him (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22). Clearly, the New Testament teaches the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5,9), but priestcraft actually interferes with the worshippers' communion with the Lord by its sacerdotal rites of human additions. These are innovations into true New Testament worship. Transubstantiation became a doctrine of Roman Catholicism in the Council of Trent (1560 A.D.).2
There is sufficient spirituality and inspiration available in the acts of worship in the New Testament, without additional doctrines which men have developed through councils and creeds. The wonderful Scriptures furnish us "completely unto every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Indeed, God's power has "granted unto us all things pertaining to life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3). When we sing, we are to "sing with the spirit and with the understanding also," and when we pray, we are to "pray with the spirit and with the understanding also" (1 Cor. 14:15). God demands that the worshipper approach him with a sincere heart, offering up "a sacrifice of praise to God, that is the fruit of lips which make confession to his name" (Heb. 13:15). The Lord's supper, prayer, singing, teaching the word, and offering up our material gifts are all acts which are established by divine authority. The Lord's supper is a communion, or fellowship with the body and blood of Christ. It is also to be done in the assembly when saints are gathered together in his name in a spirit of togetherness (Acts 20:7). None of these are rites, but are to be observed with enthusiasm, zeal, and meaning. Devoid of the significance these have to build us up on our most holy faith, they will deteriorate and become meaningless rituals. With consecrated lives of holiness and devotion to God, they become instruments through which we are drawn closer to God in worship to Him through our Lord Jesus Christ.
What is meant by ritualism?
What is the difference in the ceremonies of Mosaic worship and the ritualism of Catholicism and Protestantism?
Give two instances when Christian worship can become ritualistic.
Discuss the difference in the New Testament doctrine of the Lord's Supper and the Catholic mass.
How can we avoid empty ritualism in our worship?