Ritual is important, I wrote about that just recently, but ritualism is idolatry, and the Christian church is rife with ritualism. Ritual becomes ritualism through those who believe it was set by God in institutional concrete, and becomes for them the primary object to which unwavering obedience is due. It’s a golden calf that imitates Christianity. Heretics who fail to do it obeisance are deemed unfit for the kingdom of God.
I’ve been thinking about the danger of ritualism since picking up Ken Follett’s book, A Column of Fire. Unyielding loyalty to institutionalized ritual is its dominant theme. One of his trademark historical novels, it’s set during the time of conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the Elizabethan era. While theologians argued about the nature of a right relationship between God and humanity, Follett portrays ordinary people, Catholic and Protestant adversaries, as obsessed with the rightness or wrongness of rituals, and the institutions that enforce them. They’re committed to their own without the slightest regard for, or awareness of, what it means to follow Jesus. To them, to be a Christian is to be an observant, obedient Catholic, Calvinist, or emergent Anglican, but it’s never to follow where Jesus has led. Having chosen one way of being Christian, all others are condemned as heretical, their followers worthy of eternal damnation. Aiding their early transition through the gates of death into the hell they deserve is not only right, it’s the godly thing to do. Justice, if there is justice, is retributive. There is no other kind.
That sums up the book’s plot, although Follett weaves into it enough history, scheming, betrayal, cruelty, brutality, and sex to fill out the pages. Having said that, he does a good job of illuminating what it means to fall into ritualism. When rituals become objects of ultimate loyalty, the test of another’s right to salvation, they become idolatrous ritualism. Follett’s characters are idolaters bowing before golden calves dripping in blood.
Well, it was a bloody age. Thank God we are a better people now. We live in a kinder, gentler age. Or do we? When we fall into the idolatry of ritualism, we do it with all the emotional cruelty of our Elizabethan ancestors, except that we don’t draw, quarter, and burn heretics, at least not literally. In our intolerance of perceived deviance, our words and actions do what they can to inflict as much pain and damage as possible, while we assure ourselves of nothing but godly intent.
Who is this we of whom I speak? Surely it couldn’t be you or me, could it? We exist whenever defense of the institutional church and its rituals replaces the gospel of Jesus Christ as the center of our loyalty. It happens in some form in every denomination and congregation.
Not long ago, an Adventist pastor friend shared a copy of an article by Christopher Thompson in Adventist Today entitled "Don't be an Adventist Jerk." In it he chastised doctrinaire Adventists who, with harsh arrogance, judge other Adventists whom they deem to be lax in observance of Adventist ritual. In their strident defense of Adventist practice, they have lost sight, he wrote, of what it means to follow Jesus. Reading it, I thought, if a few nouns were changed, it could be retitled “Don’t be an Episcopalian Jerk.” When churchmanship is more important than following Jesus, and the rightness of one’s churchmanship is measured by ritual purity, the golden calf of ritualism has made its appearance.
Adherents of idolatrous ritualism deny the validity of God’s sacramental presence unless performed according to their received custom. Is baptism valid only if immersed, or administered by clergy of a particular denomination? Wine or grape juice? Common chalice or little communion cups? Female clergy? Unleavened or leavened bread? Gluten? Closed Communion or open? Organ or praise band? Gay or straight? East or West? How many ways can we fence Christ in while separating us one from another, condemning each other in the name of God? How many ways can we denounce others within our own traditions as we assert our own righteousness over theirs? It’s ritualism, and it’s idolatrous.
Ritualism claims to be in defense of God, but measures the righteousness of all things according to social customs of a particular time and place. Railing against the world of secularism, it’s enslaved to it. Ritualism places greater faith in the way things are done than in following Jesus. Ritualism places greater faith in the biblical text than in the one about whom it is written. Ritualism insists that what one was once taught about what God said can’t be wrong, and can’t be superseded by what God is saying now. Never mind that scripture itself is the story of God’s continuing self revelation bringing new understanding into the lives of God’s people who are, themselves, always growing in new ways.
Change is never easy. Ritualism seizes on that by inducing fear into the lives of believers. What if a change might be morally wrong? What if wavering in the way I am is at the risk of my eternal soul? What if “they” are intent on leading me down a dark and dangerous path? They’re serious questions, but not ones , I suspect, often asked. More likely, adherence to ritualism incites fears of losing status, power, confidence in knowing one’s place in the world. It’s the fear of losing a sense of comfort and predictability, and the embarrassment of having to accept a new understanding of what is morally acceptable in God’s sight.