Religious Rituals — What Is Their Proper Role?

The Role of External Ritual with an Inward Faith

What Is Ritual?

Ritual is a sequence of events done in a set order. We all have rituals, whether it be the way we eat, or how we brush our teeth; our lives revolve around rituals. In Christianity, we have rituals of baptism, communion, celebration of holy days, in the way we do church, and in the way we conduct our lives in relationship with God.

Religious Rituals: Good or Bad?

It may seem strange to raise this question. But for some, when we think of rituals, we think of the Pharisees who fasted twice a week, tithed of their mint and anise, washed their hands ritualistically, and made the Sabbath a burden through their rituals. We read Christ’s condemnation of the Pharisees (Matthew 12:2-7; 12:9-14; 15:1-20; 23:4, 14, 16-22, 23, 25-28). We read also God’s condemnation of the empty rituals of Israel (Isaiah 1:11-15; Jeremiah 6:20; Hosea 6:6; 8:13; 9:4; Amos 4:4-5; 5:21-27; Zechariah 7:5). We know of people who seem to have made rituals the proxy for a relationship with Christ and exalted the external forms of religion over the internal transformation of life. Accordingly, some conclude that religious rituals are bad.

Some rituals are bad. Rituals that enslave and condemn and become an end to themselves are bad.

However, God commands and commends religious rituals when they are done rightly. When Israel first came out of Egypt, God commanded Israel concerning the rituals of the annual Passover celebrations (Exodus 12:43-49). He set up the rituals of the sacrifices (Leviticus 1-7), the rituals of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), the annual feasts and fast (Leviticus 23), the rituals of the seventh year and the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25). He commands us to baptize (Matthew 28:18-20) and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Paul urges holy men everywhere to engage in a ritual of prayer (1 Timothy 2:8). In Hebrews 10:25 we are urged not to forsake the ritual of gatherings. Daniel set aside time three times daily to pray to God (Daniel 6:10). Jesus observed rituals. He was baptized (Matthew 3:13-17), performed His first miracle at a wedding ritual (John 2:1-12), experienced His first rejection at a Sabbath ritual (Luke 4:16-30), died during another ritual (Luke 22:7-23:56), and sent the Spirit to His disciples during another ritual day, the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). Rituals done properly enhance relationships, remind us of what is important, and keep us from going astray. They serve as checks on our tendency to drift (Exodus 12:24-27; 13:8-10, 14).

The Proper Role of Religious Rituals

Rituals can serve as reminders of God. We can so easily get caught up in the cares and affairs of this world that we forget Christ. A ritual can bring our thoughts back to Him. This can be as simple as a stop for a snack which reminds us of gratitude to God for the food we eat. It can be our holiday celebrations that remind us of the greatness of our God, or even our weekly Sunday gatherings. Maybe we develop certain personal rituals such as offering a praise to God when we first wake from sleep, or using events as triggers to pray for others, or special things we do to draw our hearts to our God. When the ritual is used to drive us to a deeper relationship with God and to be of greater service to God and people, the ritual is serving a good function.

Rituals also can help us understand spiritual truths. We may attend Easter sunrise services which remind us of the great truths of a new day and new life bought to us by Christ’s resurrection. The rituals of the Old Testament help us understand the atonement of Christ, the need and nature of His sacrifice for us, and what it means for us to be His temple.

Rituals when done rightly serve as reminders and as explainers of the great truths of God.

The Prescribed Rituals: Baptism and Communion

Two rituals are prescribed for us in Scripture; baptism and communion.

Baptism

Jesus told His disciples to baptize (Matthew 8:18-20). Baptism is a picture of our death and resurrection with Christ (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12). Jesus ties baptism to His own death (Luke 12:50; see also Matthew 20:22; Mark 10:38). The ritual of baptism is the ritual of showing our own deaths in Christ and our rising to newness of life.

Some argue that baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins and entrance into life, relying largely on their understanding of four texts (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21). But Mark 16:16 grounds perdition solely in unbelief, not baptism. In the clause “repent and be baptized for the remission of sins” in Acts 2:38, the word “for” does not necessarily mean “to achieve.” Depending on the dictionary or lexicon, there are 10 or more separate meanings for “for.” The context decides. I argue that the word “for” here most likely means “in regard to” or “in relation to, ” perhaps leaning towards the “because of” meaning of this word as it is employed in Matthew 12:41 “repented for (or we may say “at” or “because of”) the preaching of Jonah.” Certainly, Jesus never conditioned forgiveness of sins on baptism and indeed never even mentions baptism in terms of salvation or eternal life except perhaps in the Mark 16:16 passage, but rather repeatedly promised salvation on the sole basis of belief (John 1:12-13; 3:15, 16, 18, 36; 4:39-43; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 7:38 [belief as the condition for having the Holy Spirit]; 9:35-38; 10:37-38; 11:25-26; 12:46; 14:1; 17:20; 20:30-31). As for Acts 22:16, the connection between the words “be baptized” and “wash away your sins” is a simple conjunction which shows no dependency. In fact, our sins are removed by the cross, our entrance into life is a result of faith (John 3:16; Romans 4:5; 1 Corinthians 15:1-2; Ephesians 2:8), and baptism in Scripture always comes after the faith (Acts 8:36-38; 10:44-48; 16:30-34; 19:1-5). Finally, the 1 Peter 3:21 passage seems to argue that it is not the baptism of water that saves, but the baptism of calling out to God. Certainly, Noah was not saved by the water, but he was saved from the water. Likewise, we are not saved by baptism, but we are saved from our own spiritual deaths through faith in Christ. If baptism were necessary for salvation, then Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 1:17 (that he was not sent to baptize) makes no sense to me, especially as he claimed to be the one who brought to them the gospel by which they were saved (1 Corinthians 15:1-2).

Baptism is a picture of death and resurrection in Christ. It is a ritual by which we re-enact our dying and our rising in newness of life. I believe it is this picture that was present in Christ’s own baptism. He was not baptized for the remission of His sins, but to show His own impending death.

What mode should baptism follow? Some groups sprinkle, some pour, and some immerse. I join with those who think that immersion is the best picture of our death, and this was the practice of the early church. The word “baptize” literally means to dip, immerse, or sink. If it is too difficult to immerse, then I do not have a problem with pouring water over the person.

Who should be baptized? I stand firmly in the Anabaptist tradition that baptism should only be given to those who believe. Those who have not believed, including children, should not receive baptism, as such is never taught in Scripture.

The Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper is instructed by Christ for us to observe (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). The Lord’s Supper reminds us of what Jesus has done (“proclaiming His death”). The Lord’s Supper also reminds us of our dependency on Him (“eating of His body and drinking of His blood”). Finally, it anticipates the day when He comes and we can share the meal with Him (Matthew 26:29; 1 Corinthians 11:26).

The Lord’s Supper consists of two elements: the bread and the wine. (I note that while we have different words in English for wine [which is always fermented] and grape juice [which is not], in Greek there is no separate word for unfermented wine. The fruit of the vine was “wine,” whether it was new or old, fermented or not [see Luke 5:37-39]. There is one reference in the New Testament to “new wine” in Acts 2:13 and it clearly is not a reference to “grape juice.”)

The bread represents the body of Christ which was broken for us. We partake of His body, not in some cannibalistic fashion, but rather through the simple act of eating we remember and partake of His words (see John 6:53-58, 63). The bread we eat represents His brokenness on the cross and the life that we gained through that brokenness.

The wine represents the blood of Christ that was shed for us to remove our sins and bring us into a new covenant with God (Matthew 26:28; 1 Corinthians 11:25).

I do not accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the view that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. Jesus Himself called what He drank with His disciples “the fruit of the vine” (Matthew 26:29). It represents His blood but it does not become His blood and the bread represents but does not become His body.


The preceding article was written as a handout for a Sunday School class. There is no formal benediction or typical conclusion as Tim did not write this for publication on this site.

So, may God bless and keep you as you seek to do His will.

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