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Ritual vs. Ritualism

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’ ” (vv. 3–4).

- Jeremiah 7:1–4

As we consider the place of the arts in the Christian life and particularly in worship, we should note that coming out of the Reformation there were two broad approaches to the arts. Martin Luther, for example, was willing to preserve much of the art that had been present in the churches leading up to the Reformation. In fact, he returned from hiding in Wartburg Castle to put an end to the iconoclasm—the smashing of artwork in the churches—in which some of his radical followers were engaged. To this day, there continues to be much use of the visual arts in Lutheran worship.

In contrast, the Reformed tradition has been more hesitant to embrace the visual arts in worship. In Geneva, for example, John Calvin set out to simplify the liturgy and eliminate many of the visual elements present in church sanctuaries. Yet, even Calvin was not opposed to the arts entirely. He believed art still had a place in the Christian life, and he was willing to reintroduce music into the worship in Geneva once he had seen how valuable it was in Strasbourg’s worship services.

Later in the Reformed tradition, the Puritans worked to purge what they saw as unbiblical intrusions into public worship. They sought to reform some of the liturgical practices of Anglicanism. While they wanted primarily to make Christian worship conform to what they believed was a simpler, more biblical pattern, we cannot overlook the concerns about ritualism that drove them. To this day, in fact, many Christians oppose elaborate liturgies because they believe they can produce people who simply go through the motions, who worship by rote without a heart commitment to Christ.

Scripture certainly warns us that our worship can become mere routine and that we can falsely put our trust in worship practices and elements and not in the Lord. In today’s passage, for example, we read Jeremiah’s warnings against the people of Judah who trusted in the fact that the temple stood in Jerusalem when they were confronted with their sin. They thought they could do whatever they wanted because they had the temple and the liturgy given by God. But they failed to understand that rituals are useless without faith (Jer. 7:1–4).

That is not to say that rituals are inherently bad. If they were, God hardly could have instituted the sacrificial system and other ritual events such as the Lord’s Supper. The problem is not with rituals themselves but with ritualism, which happens when we go through the motions without an inner disposition to worship the Lord.

Coram Deo

Any group of professing Christians can fall into ritualism. Even those with simpler liturgies can go through the motions without their hearts’ truly being in the worship. It is a danger for all of us, so we should ask God to keep us devoted to Him, and we should seek to engage our entire being in worship every time we gather with God’s people to praise our Creator.

Passages for Further Study

1 Samuel 15:22–23
Amos 5:21–24
Matthew 23
2 Timothy 3:1–5

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.