CEREMONY OR CEREMONIALISM?
T. PIERCE BROWN
The majority of denominational teachers ridicule some of the commands of God, such as baptism, as “mere ritual” or “ceremonialism.” We are reminded of a statement of Jesus in Matthew23:23, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law; judgment, mercy and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” He expresses the same idea in Luke 11:42. Notice carefully that He did not say, “Forget about the things you consider trifles.” He said, “These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”
We have no right to take ANY command of God and suggest that it is not important. But we DO have the right and responsibility to know what things are more basic and central, and put proper emphasis on them in our teaching and living.
Because some religious leaders scoff at ceremonies God has ordained, we need to make a distinction between “ceremonies” and “ceremonialism”. The Law of Moses, given by the authority of God, authorized certain washings of hands of the priests before offering sacrifices (Ex. 30:21). These were ceremonies ordained of God. But the Pharisees had apparently considered washing as an act of great importance of itself, and had added many washings (Mt. 15:1-2) which had nothing to do with what God had commanded. So they had made void the word of God by their traditions (Mt. 15:16), partly because they had perverted the commandments and made washings, per se, important, and partly because in so doing they made it impossible for the ordinary man to discern between a religious act that God had commanded, and a religious act which man had designed. That is, they made their ceremonial worship equivalent to, and sometimes even more significant than, God’s ordained ceremonies of worship.
Remember that a ceremony may be “a formal act prescribed by law.” That law may be God’s or man’s. Baptism is a ceremony. Taking the Lord’s Supper is a ceremony. They are not “church ordinances,” ordered by some group of religious persons for their own purposes. They are God’s ordinances — ceremonies ordained of God.
“Ceremonialism” would take those acts and give them sacramental value — from the idea that through the performance of the ritual itself, the grace of God is conferred upon the person. When baptism is viewed in this way — as a mere ceremonial act — two bad results are achieved, or two wrong attitudes produced.
First, one may view it as a sacramental or meritorious act, for Peter says, “Baptism doth also now save us” (1 Peter3:21). Thus one may take a little baby, presumed to be tainted with “the original sin,” and perform some sort of ceremony, called “baptism,” which, it is assumed, will remove that taint. Even a man in a drunken stupor could be “baptized,” especially if he were at the point of death, and the act would release him from the guilt of sin. This is, in principle, what happens in cases of “Extreme Unction.” That is Roman Catholic doctrine, but there are probably more persons connected with the Lord’s church who have an idea like that than we would like to admit.
Second, in a rebellion against that unscriptural view, one may conclude that baptism is a “mere ritual” which has no value, and in rejecting the “ceremonial” view, reject the value or purpose of the ceremony itself that God ordained. We are not concerned now with which is worse, any more than we would be concerned with which is worse — stabbing a man to death with an ice pick, or shooting him with a rifle. They both produce death!
“Ceremonialism” — the act of MERELY going through a ritual — has NEVER had any value. But ceremonies ordained of God and carried out by His authority, in the WAY He said, for the PURPOSE He said, with the prerequisites or conditions He prescribed, have always been approved of God, and those complying with them have received His blessings!
If we are to have the mind of Christ, we will condemn “ceremonialism”, which may lead a person to “get baptized” — merely go through the ceremony — either to join the church of his choice, or so he will not be lost, or “take a piece of cracker and grape juice” (which is what some persons do instead of taking the Lord’s Supper), or do some other foolish or useless thing. But we will approve of God-ordained ceremonies, which include a penitent believer being baptized into Christ for the remission of sins, by the authority of Christ, and will involve a person’s spirit communing with God’s Spirit and being changed thereby as he properly engages in the ceremony of partaking of the Lord’s Supper in memory of the sacrificial love of our Lord. There IS a difference. Make sure you know and practice it!