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I’ve been noticing a trend within the Reformed Presbyterian world. Many churches seem to be drawn to practices that have more in common with Rome than with Geneva. I’m not really sure what exactly the attraction is, but here are some of the things I’ve noticed, in no particular order:

  • Eucharistic liturgy
  • Intinction
  • Monastic Retreats
  • Contemplative prayer
  • Vestments
  • Observance of Ash Wednesday/Lent

It seems worthwhile, given the current fascination, to consider these practices and to ask whether they are in keeping with Scripture and our Reformed Presbyterian heritage.

First, while there are many opinions and preferences on liturgical style in worship, there is more going on here than simply responsive readings. Some churches have begun to borrow liturgy from the Catholic Eucharist mass to use in their own communion services. Most often what is used is the “mysterium fidei”

Minister: Let us proclaim the mystery of faith:
All: Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

These words are absolutely true. Christ has indeed died, risen, and will come again. But it’s important to consider the origin and meaning of this piece of liturgy.

This liturgy comes from the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The purpose of the liturgy is to consecrate the host or Eucharist for the celebration of the communion rite. The mysterium fidei comes from the part when the priest consecrates the wine, turning the wine into the blood of Jesus.

This is important because the “mystery of faith,” according to the Catholic church, is that once the bread and wine have been consecrated they are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. Which is why the consecrated elements, bread and wine, are held up for veneration. In fact, the entire celebration of the Eucharist liturgy is to offer up Christ as a sacrifice to God each and every time.

John Calvin wrote in his Institutes:

Does not each mass promise a new forgiveness of sins, a new purchase of righteousness, so that now there are as many testaments as there are masses? Therefore, let Christ come again, and, by another death, make this new testament; or rather, by innumerable deaths, ratify the innumerable testaments of the mass. Said I not true, then, at the outset, that the only true death of Christ is obliterated by the mass? For what is the direct aim of the mass but just to put Christ again to death, if that were possible? (IV.18)

Why would any Reformed Presbyterian believer want to return to Eucharistic liturgy in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper? We certainly don’t believe that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus. Words have meanings, and liturgy has a history. Is our own liturgical history so empty that we need to borrow words from a ceremony whose very meaning is contrary to all we believe?

John Calvin, like many of the Reformers, had a liturgy. It was Biblical and beautiful. As the author of the article noted, John Calvin believed that simplicity was good in liturgy:

Liturgical practices that call attention to themselves obscure God, kill worship, and subvert the life of faith. One must understand Calvin’s long passages against images, relics, veneration of the saints, sacramental ism, and all human ceremonies as his conscientious effort to restore direct, simple fellowship between God and his people. What was at stake was the renewal of spiritual life. For John Calvin, the true preaching of the Word, heartfelt prayer, congregational praise, and proper use of the sacraments were the liturgical means for joining the believing worshiper to the living God.

Maybe we should look to our own history and liturgical tradition first when considering our order of worship.

A related topic is the practice of intinction. Intinction, or dipping the communion bread into the wine, is a practice that originated with the Catholic and Eastern churches. One of the most common reasons given for the practice within those churches was to reduce the risk of spilling the consecrated wine. Remember, once the wine has been consecrated it is believed to be the actual blood of Christ.

Most of the current arguments for intinction, such as reducing the time it takes to celebrate communion and being more hygienic than drinking from a common cup, are more pragmatic. Some ask why it even matters how we celebrate communion. Rick Phillips answers:

Still, people will say, “Okay, but why does this really matter?” The first answer is that it always matters greatly how we respond to the clear teaching of our Lord. A spiritually-alive church will “rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2:11) at the Word of God. We should joyfully desire fully to obey the Scriptures and fearfully tremble at the thought of doing otherwise. This is a very big matter for any church and denomination, and it makes the intinction debate important.

Second, intinction matters because the Lord’s Supper is important to the life of the church. To say that this is a “silly” debate that “wastes our time,” raises questions about what our ministers think is important to the spiritual life and health of our churches.

Another curious trend within the Reformed Presbyterian world is the fascination with monastic retreats and the related focus on contemplative prayer. Several churches have begun having silent retreats at monasteries and abbeys. What is the purpose of such a retreat? According to one abbey:

The monastic milieu offers a place apart “to entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God – to pray for your own discovery.” (Thomas Merton)

Communing with the Lord requires a measure of solitude, a stillness and an emptiness, a waiting on and attending to the Spirit. Silence fosters and preserves the climate of prayer and is thus a fundamental part of the Gethsemani retreat experience.

Prayer is necessary and silence can be blessing, but the mystical approach approach inherent in listening for the voice of God is not in keeping with what the Bible teaches. Contemplative prayer and mysticism are becoming increasingly popular within the Reformed Presbyterian world. Consider the popularity of Sarah Young’s book, Jesus Calling. Mrs. Young, wife of a PCA missionary, wrote her book as if Jesus were speaking directly to her:

Increasingly, I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day. I decided to listen to God with pen in hand, writing down whatever I believed He was saying. I felt awkward the first time I tried this, but I received a message. … I have continued to receive personal messages from God as I meditate on Him. (Introduction to Jesus Calling)

Meditating and listening for a private, direct message from God is contrary to what the Reformers taught regarding the sufficiency of Scripture:

God is a speaking God to be sure. He has spoken and continues to speak to his people. In past days of redemptive history God spoke in various ways through the prophets and apostles (Heb 1:1-2). But the canon is now closed. We live in that privileged age of redemptive history where we possess God’s completed and inscripturated Word. It is a living and active Word. It is an unerring and authoritative Word. It is also a sufficient Word not needing to be supplemented by extra-biblical voices, messages, revelations, or vague murmurings.

As the saying goes: If you want to hear God speak, read the Bible. If you want to hear God speak audibly, read the Bible aloud. We have Scriptures which are the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Why would we seek something more?

Equally curious is the move towards wearing Catholic style robes and vestments, including the increasingly popular clerical collars. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with robes and stoles and collars of various shapes and colors. However, certain styles are strongly associated with particular religious traditions that we are not part of as Reformed Presbyterian churches. While I agree that these robes, etc. are visually striking, if a pastor wants to wear a robe, why not a traditional Geneva gown? Why look like something we aren’t?

Last, an appropriate one for this time of year, many churches have begun celebrating Ash Wednesday and Lent. I have absolutely nothing against prayer, fasting, and reflecting on Jesus and His death and resurrection. However the historic practice of observing Lent is more than that:

However, the observance of Lent in the life of the church of the Middle Ages was a required fast, not voluntary or optional as it is in many churches today. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) has made the observance of Lent obligatory for all its members. This is well established in the Canon Law of the RCC. …

Therefore, according to the RCC, to fail to observe Lent and its required fasts is a violation of established church law and sinful. While it is certainly appropriate for Christians to observe times of fasting and sober reflections as an expression of their devotion to their Lord, it is quite a different matter for the church to bind the consciences of believers with observances which are not mandated in Scripture.

Many articles have been written about Lent and why Reformed believers should question the practice, but what is important to remember is that the purpose of Lent, historically, is penance and the earning of merit towards salvation. It is a practice so antithetical to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. If something is a sin, we should stop doing it, but not just for 40 days. If something is not a sin, we are free to enjoy it or not. Our lives should be always marked with sober reflection of our sin and of our salvation.

In the end, I’m not sure why so many Catholic practices are finding their way into Reformed Presbyterian churches. It seems to me that these things have the “feel” of worship, and maybe that is the attraction. Maybe there is boredom or discontent with our own traditions. Maybe there is a desire to “do church” differently. Whatever the reason, maybe we should stop and reconsider. All of these things are part of a religious tradition that our spiritual ancestors broke away from. Maybe we should give more thought as to why.