the weblog of Alan Knox

When ritual loses meaning

Posted by on Mar 22, 2010 in edification, gathering | 5 comments

The religion of ancient Rome was one of ceremony and festival, without belief, revelation, or teaching. Every Roman citizen learned to perform the prescribed rituals by watching their parents in the home, the priests in the temples, and the civic officials in the public places. The meaning behind the rituals was secondary to the correct practice of the rituals themselves. From generation to generation, as meaning was lost but ritual retained, the community would add new meaning to the traditional ceremonies and festivals.

It is also possible for Christians to place ritual above meaning, replacing the importance of the content of the message with methodology. While never teaching that human traditions are bad on their own, Jesus warned his disciples never to place those traditions above the commands of God (Mark 7:1-13). Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus reminded his listeners that God does not accept worship that is based on the traditions of men: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6-7; Isaiah 29:13).

The Pharisees were teaching people to uphold their traditions even when those traditions were contrary to the commands of God (c.f. corban in Mark 7:9-13). The Pharisees had forgotten that God’s commands must take precedence over the traditions of men. Similarly, the church must always remember that the commands of God found in Scripture take precedence over the traditions of men, regardless of how long believers have practiced those traditions, or how “successful” the traditions have become.

For example, it has become commonplace to refer to the gathering of the church as the “worship service,” and to understand the purpose for that gathering to be “corporate worship.” However, as with any tradition, this tradition must be analyzed through exegesis of Scripture. In this case, the student should study passages dealing with the gathering of the church to determine the scriptural purpose for that assembly. According to those various passages, the purpose of the gathering of the church in the New Testament is the mutual edification of the gathered believers.

Over the last several years, as I’ve read books, commentaries, and articles about the church, I’ve often read about the importance of edification. But, I have seen few examples of the importance of edification in the practices and beliefs of the modern church. Even as the language of edification becomes more common among Christians, few are thinking about what it would actually mean to work toward edification when we meet together.

It seems that our practices and beliefs are continuing to be forms of ritual that have lost their meanings. We come into a room together. We sing some songs together. We listen to someone teach/preach. We go home having done our “job” for the week.

We say it was “edifying,” but we barely know the names of the people around us.

This is not edification.


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  1. 3-22-2010

    Great thoughts. The ritual has become the reason for the gathering.

  2. 3-23-2010

    Good post. I’ve spent most of my life in churches that criticized more liturgical groups for their “empty rituals,” not realizing that they had as many usless rituals in their church.

    In the fellowship I’m in now, we try to keep the purpose of gathering the edification of one other. I’m finding that I’m growing far more than when I sat in “worship” services followed by a 40 minute lecture.

  3. 3-23-2010

    Arthur and Fred,

    I have to remind myself of this occasionally, because meaninglessness can sneak into any ritual.


  4. 3-26-2010

    I’ll just chip in as the village contrarian. 🙂 I for one have had experiences of and seen examples of edification (even mutual, I’d say) in “worship services” and “corporate worship.”

    The exegesis of the text must drive our forms of meeting, yes. But you also have to exegete and understand what it is you’re applying our biblical exegesis to. One can’t rightly critique something (from Scripture or otherwise) if he doesn’t understand it on its own terms.

    That said, I think you’re right that it’s not edification in any worthwhile sense if we don’t know the folks around us.

    The false assumption in your criticism as it seems to come across (as I the village contrarian have mentioned before ;)) is that church “services” that feature a (large?) portion of lecture-style teaching are necessarily not about believers being mutually and corporately built up.

    But I’m not surprised that you guys haven’t had such an experience. Too many churches ARE all about the pastor. Especially here in the South. But don’t base your entire understanding (and thus critique) of the genre off of poor examples.

    (Let the usual hazing ensue… 😉 Just kidding, y’all tolerate me well around here.)

  5. 3-26-2010


    Read through the post again. I didn’t say that the sermon was a ritual without meaning. I said that anything we do, including the sermon, can become a meaningless ritual.

    I agree with everything else that you said.