What does the Bible say about rituals and traditions?
by Carole McDonnell
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Decisions to be made: Traditions, sacraments, ceremonies, rituals, and habits: which to keep, which to toss?
Bible passage: The council at Jerusalem fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts.
The Bible and Christianity are full of traditions and ceremonies. Some Christian ceremonies, such as weddings, are similar to ceremonies in religions in the rest of the world. Other ceremonies and traditions, such as “crossing one’s self” and making the sign of the cross across one’s chest, are peculiar to Christianity Some rituals are only seen in certain
denominations. These include crossing one’s self and making the sign of the cross. Many religious habits are required by Scripture. But some religious habits are performed because the
act is important to individual Christians. Many are based in cultural or ethnic tradition. Many Christians, for instance, have a family Bible Reading at bedtime. Others would never think of going to bed without saying a bedtime prayer or praise time. My husband and I sing praises an hour every night and make intercessions for those on our prayer list. In this respect, Christianity is a religion which allows great freedom in the way one approaches God.
Let’s start with a few definitions:
Sacraments: When I was studying for my first communion --I am a charismatic episcopalian, by the way if you ever wondered--, I was told that a sacrament is an external sign of an inward and spiritual grace. This means that the Church and God’s Holy Spirit work together to create a spiritual change within the person. And this spiritual change within the people involved is given lovingly and graciously by God. In the meantime, we know that something is taking place because of something that the person, pastor, or church member is doing on the outside.
There have been wild disagreements about what exactly is a “sacrament.” The Lutherans and the early Anglicans believe that a sacrament was “Jesus instituted.” By this, they meant that
those traditions which Jesus began were sacraments and nothing else. Wars, hangings and burnings raged all through Europe over the doctrine of Baptism and Holy Communion. During the Reformation in England, the Protestant (Anglican) church accepted only two sacraments.
Many Protestants died rather than accept the Catholic Church’s decree that there were seven sacraments. These seven are now accepted by the modern Anglican (Episcopalian) church. Every denomination has its own ideas on what is sacramental. The Christian religion is sacramental --seeing God in many acts and things— and this has added to the mix.
Since it is not my wish to focus on any one religion but on Christianity as a whole, I will describe as many sacramental acts as I can without too much comment. The important thing to
remember is (A) these sacraments usually have some Biblical verse to back them up and (B) the power of a sacrament depends on the faith of the participants.
Some sacraments are only reserved for the clergy. This is one of the more contentious area of discussions on sacraments. The word “clergy” means preachers, priests, nuns, bishops,deacons, and others who have taken Religious Orders of some denomination. Opposing this word is the word “laity” which means the average regular Christian. This is where the dispute often begins. The Bible acknowledges that there are these distinctions: laity and clergy. But the distinction is not quite as clear-cut as many denominations have made it. For instance, in the Bible, all believers are made “ministers.” All Believers receive a “calling” and a “spiritual gift” to share with his Christian brothers and sisters and the world. The Bible also does not create a hierarchy of believers. To the Bible writers, clergy are no better than missionaries or the little old lady down the street. They are not in a permanent superior status, forever closer to God than everyone else. In fact, throughout the Bible, clergy are notorious for being far from God. God is always sending some shepherd-prophet to get the priests and nation in line. But many make sacraments only a matter of clergy.
The Biblical view is that most sacraments are for everyone. The simplest universal sacrament is prayer. When we pray, we believe that this act of praying has accomplished something in ourselves and in the world. One specific prayer sacrament is the prayer of grace over our food. When we pray and ask God’s blessing on our food, we believe that this external act of praying has made the food safe for us to eat.
Other sacraments are for us at different stages of our lives. The sacrament of marriage means that when two people marry, through the act of the church, the minister, the marriage
partners and the Holy Spirit, these two people become one person. This means that they are now joined in a special way that would never have happened if they had not married. And if they divorce, this connection between them still exists. This kind of spiritual bonding can only happen in a religious ceremony because in the religious ceremony, the participants ask God to make them one. But St Paul also talks about the sexual bond that is created when two people have sexual intercourse, marriage or not. This could lead to all kinds of unintended bonds and attachments.
Other sacraments that are “rites of passages” or dependent on some stage in our lives include, Baptism, Confirmation, The Prayer for the Sick, The Prayer for those near death, Extreme Unction, commonly called the Last Rites. Baptism is the spiritual inward grace of renewal. A baby or adult is sprinkled with water, or dipped or plunged into water. This symbolic dying --being put inside the water-- and being raised to life --coming back out of the water-- means that the baptized person is now dead to this earthly life and born again into a spiritual life because of Jesus Christ. The issue of infant baptism is a touchy one with many Christians.
Some denominations believe that only adults can be baptized. Those who do not believe in infant baptism say that the Bible doesn’t show any instance of children being baptized. Those who
believe in infant baptism point out that the Bible records Baptism as an act of repentance of sinners. It doesn’t show what external ceremony was performed for children of those already in the church. In addition, early church records show that children were baptized at birth, based on Paul’s
injunction that children of those made holy are already holy. Paul didn’t say how long this holiness would last, however.
The Sacrament of baptism also serves different functions in the Christian community. The Eastern church believes that the work of Jesus destroyed original sin. Therefore, for them, original sin doesn’t apply to a child of a saved person and therefore since the child is not a part of the fallen world, the baptism is equivalent to a circumcision It brings the child into the family of God and forbids the evil one from touching the child. The Roman Catholic church, because of its belief that Original Sin is ever active requires a speedy baptism for a newborn child. Many a religious Roman Catholic grand-parent have nagged a new mother to get her child baptized as quickly as possible. Many a priest has rushed to the hospital to baptize a dying newborn and to give the newborn the Last Rites. Many a supposedly dying newborn has suddenly been healed by the sacrament of baptism. Many a dying person have been raised to new life again when given the Last Rites.
As you can see, these sacraments vary depending on the Christian denomination, the circumstances, the faith or the age of the person involved.
For instance regarding the sacrament of marriage, many Episcopalian churches have divorce ceremonies because they believe that people become connected and are somehow bonded with each other through the act of sex. It's a part of a sacramental understanding of the importance of the sexual act.
The signing of a contract is a fairly new institution, only about 3000 or so years. The Bible was created before, during, and after this signing of the contract. In some cultures, there is a bill of divorcement. But Jesus said, "if a man divorces a woman, he forces her to commit adultery. And he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery." In Jesus' phrase, even AFTER the divorce, there is adultery.
Other sacraments include the Laying on of hands. Once again, there are varying interpretations. Some denominations see the laying on of hands as something done once and for all by the bishop at confirmation. (Confirmation is the sacrament of Commitment and Publicly affirming that one belongs to God) In other denominations, Baptism is more like confirmation.
Some denominations believe that the Laying on of Hands can be done at any time by a priest. Some denominations believe that all believers can lay hands on each other, as an act of praying and healing. Some denominations practice the rite of layingon of hands as a means of transferring a spiritual gift upon a person they feel God has called for a special purpose. Writers, missionaries, singers are often prayed over and blessed with a laying on of hands. And some denominations do not practice the laying on of hands at all.
Many Bible verses deal with the importance of ceremonies, traditions and rituals. These Bible sections include Paul’s letters, the book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit, (commonly called the Acts of the Apostles) and the Letter to the Hebrews. Many Bible verses concern themselves with the abuse of empty rituals, and the cruelty and stupidity of those who trust in empty rituals.
In approaching a sacrament, the thing to remember is Paul’s verse: let each man be fully convinced in is own heart.
Some traditions are man-made.
Some man-made traditions include:” the three bells rung during the episcopalian communion, bowing and crossing one’s self when one enters a church are all traditions.
Some traditions are forbidden in the Bible and were the cause of many deaths during the Reformation. The Protestants argued that Jesus told his followers us not to use the word Father
as a name for any of their spiritual teachers. Yet modern Episcopalians, a protestant denomination, often allow their congregation to call the priest “father.” The episcopalian tradition of ringing the bells during certain parts of the service rose out of a genuine need. The bells were used in earlier centuries to signal significant moments of the service to the illiterate congregation.
Some traditions arise out of spiritual respect for God. Genuflecting (or bowing before the altar when one enters a churcn) shows a respect for God and His church. Traditions are helpful in that they remind believers of their faith. But
spiritual trouble arises when these traditions over-shadow the real spiritual truth and become ends in and of themselves. People have gotten lost inside their traditions and left God far behind. They often become enamored of sentimentality, obsessively perform religious habits and/or fall into self-worship of their religious persnickettiness. This was the problem with the Pharisees of old. The Bible tells us to worship God in our spirit. But often our spirits remain untouched while we glory in our traditions.
1. Read Paul’s letter to the Colossians to see what Paul says about rules and regulations.
2. If you have not read the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, please read it.
3. Do a search in your concordance for the word “tradition.”
4. Compare Jeremiah chapter 31:33, Isaiah 58, Isaiah 66, the book of Malachi, Mark 2:23-26,
John chapter 16.
5. Go to the library and find a book on religious traditions.
copyright 2002 Carole McDonnell
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