Teacher: Rich Lusk
Objections to Liturgy/Ritual
“Liturgical” worship is highly “ritualized.” But since the Reformation, many
Protestants have viewed ritual and ceremony with suspicion. Several
arguments against ritualized, liturgical worship are offered:
1. “Old Covenant worship was full of rituals and ceremonies, but Christ’s
coming abolished the ceremonial law. We are free from such strictures in our
worship. Our worship in the New Covenant is ‘spiritual’ – spontaneous,
inward, and simple.”
Christ did not actually abolish the ceremonial system; he fulfilled it (Mt.
5:17ff), and in doing so transformed it. Thus, the categories of temple and
sacrifice are still used to describe New Covenant worship in the NT. Jesus
and the apostles established new rituals and ceremonies (baptism, the Lord’s
Supper, new prayer forms, new songs, etc.) for the new epoch. The NT is not
opposed to ritual per se, but to doing the wrong rituals, either because (a) they
belong to the old age (e.g., circumcision), or (b) they are human inventions
inconsistent with biblical principles (e.g., some Jewish oral law washings).
2. “Ritual leads to dead orthodoxy and dead formalism. It kills the freshness
of New Covenant worship and quenches the Spirit. If we do the same things
routinely, we’ll just go through the motions.”
This is a false dichotomy. Often, churches which favor “spontaneity” and
“freedom” become stale and dead themselves, as many ex-charismatics attest.
While dead formalism is a problem we must guard against, ritual per se is not
the real danger. If ritual is so dangerous, why did God give an entire
ritualized system to Israel that allowed virtually no variation? Surely God
would not tempt his people this way!
Rather, the real issue here is the heart of the worshippers. If we really love
God, the “liturgical routine” should never be dull.
God’s own life is one of tireless repetition. God is a ritualized being. He
moves through his divine life in an orderly, habitual way. The creation
account, with its repeated patterns, is very telling: Even when God is at his
most original, he acts habitually. We are made in his image, and so we are
“creatures of habit.”
3. “Liturgical worship is ‘high church.’ It is elitist and snobbish. It leaves
out the common man.”
Snobbery is a problem, but not unique to those who worship liturgically.
Extreme RPW minimalists and free wheeling charismatics can also take undue
pride in their worship.
Actually liturgical worship is the most “common” style of all, in the sense of
being accessible to anyone. (It was called the Book of Common Prayer after
The vast majority of Christian worshippers the last 2000 years (just like the
Israelites before them) have been mostly common folk and yet they’ve learned
to recite creeds and prayers, chant psalms, kneel and stand at appropriate
times, and so forth. The irony in the above mentioned objection is that until
rather recently in history (with the invention of printing and the rise in literacy
rates), worship had to be highly ritualized (and therefore memorized) for the
people to participate at all!
Ritualized liturgy is actually far friendlier to children, the elderly, immigrants,
etc. than other forms. For example, many traditional Presbyterian and Puritan
forms of worship are really only accessible to college educated, middle class
“thinkers.” As a result these kinds of churches end up with a very unbalanced
membership and become distorted, disfigured manifestations of the body of
Jordan is entirely correct that worship should be “childish.”
4. “Liturgical rituals, ancient prayer and hymn forms, etc. simply aren’t
intelligible in our modern culture. We need more contemporary styles and
forms to reach people today.”
This objection smuggles in several false assumptions. For example, Frame
argues for “intelligibility” from 1 Cor. 14, but he badly misreads the text.
The way this objection is sometimes stated, it presupposes confusion between
liturgy and evangelism. In evangelism, intelligibility is critical. In worship,
other concerns come to the fore. Worship is only indirectly evangelistic; the
primary audience is God himself.
This objection also assumes that worship should come easy. We have to teach
kids how to tie their shoes and ride a bike, but supposedly worship should
come “naturally.” Surely the King of the universe is worth more effort!
Worshipping well is a skill that has to be acquired (cf. references to musical
skill in the psalter). This skill is learned over the course of a lifetime through
practice and repetition.
This objection assumes the symbolic character of ritualized worship forms is
unintelligible to moderns. But surely this is false, even if moderns are
symbolically impoverished compared to their ancestors. Consider recent
examples: flag burning in the U.S.; tearing up billboard pictures of Saddam in
Iraq. Symbolic actions are still intelligible!
The real reason many American Christians object to liturgical worship is
laziness! We don’t want to have to learn the “grammar” or “language” of
historic, biblical worship forms. We put our personal convenience and
pleasure above honoring God. This is idolatry.
Given the broad scale idolatry of American culture, the church simply must
stake out her ground as a counter-culture. This means liturgical worship! So
what if it’s weird?
5. “Liturgy and ritual lead to Rome.”
Two can play at this game. Rejection of ritual leads to Pennsylvania . . . and
The fact that Rome does something is not, in itself, an adequate argument
against it. After all, Rome believes the Trinity, incarnation, etc.
This objection forgets that the Reformers themselves wrote liturgies that were
to be viewed as “fixed forms.” In fact, prayer books were a Protestant
invention, basically! Among the Puritans, liturgy was generally accepted
early on in the movement, but when worship forms got entangled in churchstate
issues with the British crown and persecution began, there was a
backlash against anything that smacked of Anglicanism or Romanism. There
is no reason to follow the Puritans in this area today since our cultural
situation is substantially different. The strict RPW which came out of the
Puritan interaction with the crown was an innovation, as Packer has pointed
The irony is that the Roman Catholic counter-reformation has implemented
more of the liturgical reforms that Calvin desired than Presbyterians have!
The early Reformers wanted weekly communion in both kinds for the
congregation, a lot of corporate participation rather than “spectator worship,”
etc. The Reformers were actually more medieval than modern.
Arguments in Favor of Ritualized, Liturgical Worship Forms
The traditional Christian liturgy balances form and freedom. It features both
ordinaries and propers – elements that remain fixed and elements that vary.
Life as whole is this way. In fact, biblically sound rituals will encapsulate
A good prima facie case can be made for liturgy from several places in
Scripture. We could argue covenantally that if Old Covenant worship was
ritualized, New Covenant worship will be as well, albeit with new forms. We
could point to the worship of the synagogue, with its regular structures and
patterns. Jesus participated in this worship, even reading the scheduled
lectionary passage from the scroll rather than “following the lead of the Spirit”
(Lk. 4). Paul clearly desired orderly, regimented worship (cf. Acts 20:7ff; 1
Cor. 14; Col. 2:5).
Perhaps the best argument for liturgical worship comes from the book of
Revelation. The entire book is an unveiling of the heavenly liturgy and
follows the same basic pattern as temple worship in the Old Covenant. John,
as a representative of the church is in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day and enters
into heaven to witness and participate in this worship service. If there is
“Spirit-led” worship anywhere, surely it’s in heaven! What do we see?
We can’t survey the entire book, but consider a few details from Rev. 4-5.
• The worship is corporate, as the actions of the worshippers are clearly
coordinated together. There is no individualistic spontaneity.
• The worship is scripted, and apparently memorized. It is orderly and
routine. The angels do not tire of singing the Sanctus; it never
becomes “vain repetition.”
• It is bodily. There is physical movement, to show reverence and
• It is symbolic, e.g., the worshippers wear special clothing. It is not
Towards a Biblical-Theology of Ritual
1. We should not think of rituals as specialized ceremonies tacked on to ordinary life.
Ritual – and therefore symbolic action -- is pervasive. Intensified forms of ritual –
“ceremonies” – give shape to life as a whole. Ritual is inescapable in God’s world,
though rituals are never neutral.
Our entire lives have a ritualized flow to them, as image bearers of the Ritual God.
Sometimes, we highlight the ritualized dimensions of behavior more than at other times,
e.g., weddings. But without an overall ritual character, our lives would be chaotic and
meaningless. Sin wrecked human life, taking it out of its God ordained rhythm; God uses
ritual to re-establish his pattern for human life. These rituals are microchronic
encapsulations of what human life should be.
Ritual in everyday life is simply a matter of habit. We have various ritual systems, or
“mini-liturgies,” we employ all the time, e.g., greeting protocols, manners, etc. These
become “second nature” and virtually invisible to us (analogous to “dead metaphors”).
Society cannot run smoothly without these ritualized patterns of action.
We move through day-to-day life ritually; we also surround important events, such as
birth, marriage, and death with more specialized rituals. Interestingly, most people know
better than to trust their spontaneity and intuitions on such momentous occasions.
2. Ritual both expresses and stimulates emotion.
Contrary to the claims of some, ritual does not kill feeling or emotional freedom. Rather,
it shapes and guides our emotions in proper ways.
Of course, sometimes, we go through the rituals of daily life without much feeling. This
is precisely why ritual (or habit) is so important. If we only showed signs of love,
friendliness, manners, etc., when we felt warm and fuzzy, we’d be very unloving!
Faithfulness to “the routine” is actually a demonstration of love. Proper everyday rituals
structure life in such a way that I show love towards my neighbor whether I feel like it or
not. It’s the same with weekly worship. You cannot experience a “revival” 52 Sundays a
year. Nor can you, Quaker-style, wait on God to move you inwardly before you obey.
Do the rituals; feeling will follow in due time. Bodily actions can shape the heart
outside-in. Performing rituals inscribes character and inculcates virtue. Proper rituals
generate appropriate theological concepts (Kerr, Edwards, church fathers, Calvin).
3. Ritualized worship provides the best possible cradle-to-grave pastoral care for the
Liturgy forms personal and corporate identity. It gives us a sense of who we are. It gives
us a sense of belonging. It creates and sustains bonds of covenant life and communion.
Rituals gel us into a body.
Liturgical rituals engrave certain habits into our hearts and minds, forming our character
in a virtuous fashion. Ritual begets character.
The liturgy gives us a world-view and world-praxis, a certain way of viewing the world
and being in the world. It gives us our symbolic matrix or grid, through which we
interpret reality and in terms of which we take action.
Liturgy and ritual disciple us as a distinct people, or counter-culture, in the world. These
patterns form us into “God’s army.”
Liturgy gives us a way of celebrating and coping – it enables us to express joy in
constructive ways, it enables to channel grief appropriately, and it allows us to die well.
4. Rituals transform human consciousness. They are performative.
5. Rituals can serve as microchronic enactments of all of history and life.
6. Proper rituals are necessary to generate and sustain Christian culture.
7. A proper ritual theology holds together the equal ultimacy of mind and body, doctrine
and praxis, the individual and community.