When it comes to aspects of faith, I advocate for understanding the “why” of practices. Worship is a special way that I connect to God, as do many others. Therefore, I believe it is important that believers know what the modern and ancient Christian worship rituals are. It is also important that we recognize how the practices were implemented.
Do Christians have worship rituals? The overarching Christian faith does have worship rituals. Most have been added throughout history by leaders or reformers of the church. Communion and baptism are the only ritual-like practices that are clearly expressed in the New Testament scriptures.
Since man is fallible and often led by ulterior motives, it is beneficial to look at all Christian worship rituals in light of scripture. First, we will look at the rituals of the Early Church. From there, we will explain how rituals developed through history to bring us where we are today.
Ancient Worship Rituals
What can be considered ancient Christian worship rituals, is that of the Early Church. The Early Church didn’t have specific rituals that it followed. By definition, a ritual is a ceremony constructed of specific actions and objects that follow a set order. The Early Church, as seen in scripture, did not follow a ritualistic approach in its gatherings or worship.
The Early Church was orderly but not in the sense of liturgy or ritual. The order maintained peace within the church between the members and those speaking. It only allowed one person to speak at a time, rather than all individuals voicing their opinions at once. Additionally, it created an order concerning the spiritual gifts so that they would function in a way that is glorifying to God.
However, communion and baptism are two events that some people believe are rituals. These are the only two instances that could be compared to other religious rituals. Communion was ordained by Jesus to remember His death. The bread represents His body and the wine represents His blood.
Luke 22:19-22 portrays this, “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
1 Peter 2:21-22 explains baptism as this, “This water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities, and powers in submission to him.”
Developed Worship Rituals
Over time, rituals were implemented into the Christian faith through various denominations. The main denominations that practice ritualistic worship are Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and the Episcopal Church of the United States. Monks and nuns also have their own rituals that they follow.
Monks and nuns are known for their life of devotion and seclusion. They choose not to marry and instead dedicate their lives solely to the Lord. Monks use prayer beads to lead them through repetitive prayers that must be memorized. Both monks and nuns wear specific apparel and live within a community of fellow monks or nuns. These communities are separate from the rest of the world. They are often in secluded areas. Additionally, they function very differently from the rest of the world.
Denominations are created in Christianity due to disagreements on theology, and interpretation of scripture. They also develop because of pride and desire for power. Instead of functioning as the Body of Christ and working together, many churches split, resulting in new churches. These new churches often develop new beliefs and expressions. Furthermore, leaders of denominations have made claims of being met by angelic beings. This experience that some claim to have caused them to add to Christianity or take from it.
The Orthodox Church lights candles during their services and has icons of Saints and Jesus within the church. There is a divide between these Saints and Jesus. The Orthodox Church is extremely symbolic in its use of objects and rituals. Icons are used as mediators for prayers to God. The candles signify prayers. Incense represents the incense of the Saints.
Furthermore, the objects separate the congregation from the holy place that holds the sanctuary and the altar. Only the priest is allowed in these holy places. Much like the other denominations, Orthodox believers use prayer ropes with knotted wool to guide their prayers.
Catholic Worship Rituals
The Catholic Church follows a liturgy with each service. The liturgy is consistent and mapped out in one of their books. Their services follow a specific order that relates to specific objects of worship. Some of these include infant baptism, responsive Bible readings, and repetitive prayers. Catholics use prayer beads, such as the rosary. The rosary leads them through repetitive prayers. These include Hail Mary, the Lord’s Prayer, and Our Father.
The Catholic church also orders its service around communion, and prayer to the Saints. Aside from services, Catholics also meet with the priest for confession. This is where they confess their sins in front of the priest. It is believed by some Catholics that prayer to the Rosary, confession, and good deeds can erase punishment both eternally and in this life.
Anglican Worship Rituals
The Anglican Church is similar to the Catholic Church. It follows an order of service that is formed around the priest’s leading. The priest leads the people in the collective reading of scripture, recitation, prayer, music, and Holy Communion. The church building itself is adorned with beautiful stained glass windows and objects of worship.
The altar reflects worship to God. The pulpit is the place from which the priest leads. Additionally, the Anglican Church has prayer beads that are similar to the Rosary. Each bead in the prayer rope signifies a certain prayer that is to be prayed on a repeated basis.
Modern Worship Rituals
Today’s Christian worship rituals continue in the denominations that are listed above. Most denominations that developed rituals continue them today. They do not appear modern since they maintain the order that was set years ago. In our modern context, they tend to stand out. Many Evangelical and non-denominational churches do not follow rituals.
In many churches across the U.S., ritualistic worship is decaying. Churches in other areas of the world are following suit, especially churches that are planted by non-ritualistic denominations. There are also large discipleship movements occurring in the Middle East, Africa, and China. These movements are characterized by scripture, prayer, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and discipleship, rather than liturgies.
Within Europe particularly, ritual worship is still common. The church is often viewed as more of an institution instead of a place to meet God. Most denominations continue to teach and partake in communion and baptism. Yet, most modern churches do not follow the old ways that were constructed.
What the Bible Says About Rituals
If baptism and communion are considered rituals, then the Bible most definitely commends and commands them. However, the other rituals listed are not expressed in scripture. The New Testament, in particular, does not have a structure like any of the denominations that developed rituals and liturgy.
The use of priests, symbolic items, and separation from holy places could be compared to Old Testament worship. However, the worship during that time was specifically commanded by God for a certain purpose. God did not command it to be replicated in any way. In fact, God fulfilled the way of the Old Testament through Jesus Christ. This means that He changed the system. There were no longer priests, but one High Preist, Jesus, and a nation of priests, all believers.
There was no need for an altar because Jesus was the complete and perfect sacrifice. Saints were not commanded to be prayed to or worshiped. 1 Timothy 2:5-6 clearly explains, “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.”
Furthermore, all justification comes through faith in Christ because of His lavish grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). Rituals do not equate to righteousness. Nothing can be gained through them. The apostle Paul also warns about receiving a new gospel or doctrine from any outside source, including angelic beings (Galatians 1:8).
Jesus also speaks deeply about the traditions of men. He commonly called out religious leaders for their additions to God’s law and purposes. In one instance He explains, that the leaders were “making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do” (Mark 7:13).
Jesus warns against vain repetitions which are of crucial importance to these denominations (Matthew 6:7). Jesus is especially teaching against repetitions in prayer, which is exactly what prayer beads and priests lead people to do.
There is also no divide between God and man when man places his/her trust in Christ Jesus. Jesus bridges the gap. He brings forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation. Due to this, believers can confidently and independently approach the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). They do not need a priest or religious leader to do this for them. There also is no divide, whether it be from a symbolic curtain.
How to Discern Ritual Worship
When rituals aren’t clearly explained in scripture, believers should be hesitant to follow them. They should look at scripture as a whole compared to the purpose and use of the ritual. If the ritual in any way, detracts from the gospel, or scripture, it should not be followed. It is also helpful to look at the root and origin of the practice. This historical background will give much more insight into the motive behind the practice.