Smells and Bells — Orthodoxy or Legalism? You Decide

Smells and Bells — Orthodoxy or Legalism? You Decide

Catholic Ritual — Yes, or No?

What’s Love Got to Do With It? This is a question I’ve been asking many times over the past several weeks. Love is the preeminent ethic of Christ’s message. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life (Jn 3:16);” and “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (Jn 15:13)” The thing is that yes, we can find love on virtually every page of the Bible. However, this message of love is tempered with a whole bunch of qualifiers. Repentance, justification, grace, mercy, and even free will are just some of the concepts that we need to consider. For instance, teaching a gospel message simply of God’s love may fail to take into account the necessity of faith. Likewise, a message of faith alone will probably miss the mark from the perspective of repentance.

Teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ is not an easy thing to do. In our day, an over-emphasis on the feel-good side will garner you accolades from the pews. Conversely, overemphasizing sin just may get you labeled a hater or a legalistic pharisee.

My wife and I had the pleasure of meeting an amazing couple of Christians a few years back. Have you ever met people where you have an immediate bond? Well, that’s how it was with these two saints of God. It seemed ( and still does) like it was in God’s master plan and even divine providence that we met. We crossed paths in a small town in a remote part of the world that has a reputation for chewing people up and unceremoniously spitting them out; which happened to both of our families in relatively close proximity of time.

Another thing we had in common is that we’ve also both been through trials by fire, so-to-speak, with various and sundry faith communities. It is surprising to me how many churches are every bit as evil and controlling as that small town. In Churches like these, it’s either their faith or no faith, their water or none at all. They are often so rigid that they’ve lost track of the spirit of the Gospel. With the best possible motivation, this saintly couple recently suggested that I check my motivation. Their question to me was, in essence, “are you substituting legalism for the Gospel of Christ?”

I was initially taken aback, but, I realized that this was an all too common feeling these days, even from well-intentioned and even educated friends. One thing you need to know about me is that I enjoy discussions regarding faith and morals. This enjoyment does not come from some prideful place, eager to win an argument. In discussing my reasons for believing with others, I am often challenged too much-needed introspection. Also, for myself, it’s much like the excitement you felt when you talked about your first teenage love — full of hope and passion. But, it wasn’t the right time to fully engage the question right then and there, but I promised, I’d put some prayerful thought into the subject.

My Own Introspection

So, what exactly is legalism, in the context of church stuff? Well, the simple, dictionary definition describes it as the dependence or emphasis on moral law rather than on personal religious faith. In particular, according to this definition, legalism stresses obedience apart from faith.

Does this definition from a secular dictionary hit the mark? On the surface that sounds pretty straight forward. So I had to ask myself, “does that describe me or my attitude and practice of faith”? (Pause for prayerful introspection…) (Praying some more…)

So, after some serious prayerful consideration, I’ve concluded, no, I am probably not legalistic, either in the dictionary definition nor, from a biblical perspective. But, there is a caveat— I can understand how folks can come to the conclusion that I am. There are two sides to Michael Callahan. No. I’m not developing a multiple personality disorder. There is “Bishop Michael” who is commissioned to teach the gospel truth, and then there is this guy who is a husband, father, and friend, who must live in the real world.

Unfortunately for my friends and family, the majority of my time is spent in the Church persona. A few years back, someone near and dear to my heart, “came out” to me. She started the conversation saying, “I know you hate gays, but I’m now involved with a woman.” The thing is that I’ve never said that I hate any particular group of people. I was flabbergasted.

I was culturally savvy enough to recognize the significance of the words used. Her understanding was molded by popular culture, not by anything hateful I’ve said. We’ve been able to talk through the subject since that time. It is my prayer that this couple understands my love for them. My Christian religious and moral views in this instance are tempered by LOVE. So, at least from this example, you can be fairly certain that legalism is not part of my motivation.

I mentioned above the dictionary definition of legalism, does the Bible talk about it at all? How do I stack up I those terms?

Legalism is a word that is often misused by many Christians. For example, some people might call “John the Baptist” a legalist because they view him as narrow-minded. But the term legalism does not refer to narrow-mindedness. Similarly, the Apostle Paul gets an unfair rap from modern Christians listening to pop culture. In reality, legalism manifests itself in several subtle ways.

Catholic Since 33ad

Basically, legalism involves abstracting the law of God from its original context. In Jesus day, the temple elite found a way to profit from the sacrificial system detailed in Jewish law. These hypocrites twisted the law for their own personal gain. Jesus became so incensed over this abuse of religious authority that he fashioned a whip and drove those defilers out — tipping over their tables as he went.

Using purely secular eyes, many pre-judge the Christian life as simply being focused on obeying rules and regulations, and they conceive of Christianity as being a series of do’s and don’ts, cold and deadly set of moral principles. That’s one form of legalism, where one is concerned merely with the keeping of God’s law as an end in itself.

Legalism in the Bible is probably best portrayed in the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” I’m sure you’re familiar with the story of a Jewish traveler, attacked by a group of thieves. He was beaten, robbed an left half alive on the side of the road. The story continues with other Jewish travelers passing by; in their personal concerns for religious-ritual purity, they simply walked past this battered individual, leaving him to his fate. Then along comes a foreign traveler. He was from a region despised by the Jews, however, this man had compassion and gave substantial aid, where the devout, legalistic Jewish men refused.

Where is your heart in this matter?

God certainly cares about our following His commandments. Yet there is more to the story that we dare not forget. God gave laws such as the Ten Commandments in the context of the covenant. First, God was gracious. He redeemed His people out of slavery in Egypt and entered into a loving, filial relationship with Israel. Only after that grace-based relationship was established did God begin to define the specific laws that are pleasing to Him. A friend once said, “The essence of Christian theology is grace, and the essence of Christian ethics is gratitude.” The legalist isolates the law from the God who gave the law. He is not so much seeking to obey God or honor Christ as he is to obey rules that are devoid of any personal relationship.

In this approach, there’s no love, joy, life, or passion. It’s a rote, mechanical form of law-keeping that we call externalism. The legalist focuses only on obeying bare rules, destroying the broader context of God’s love and redemption in which He gave His law in the first place.

To understand the second type of legalism, we must remember that the New Testament distinguishes between the letter of the law (its outward form) and the spirit of the law. The second form of legalism divorces the letter of the law from the spirit of the law. It obeys the letter but violates the spirit. However, there’s only a subtle distinction between this form of legalism and the one previously mentioned.

How does one keep the letter of the law but violate its spirit? Suppose a man likes to drive his car at the minimum required speed irrespective of the conditions under which he is driving. If he is on an interstate and the minimum posted speed is forty miles per hour, he drives forty miles per hour and no less. He does this even during torrential downpours when driving at this minimum required speed actually puts other people in danger because they have had the good sense to slow down and drive twenty miles an hour so as not to skid off the road or hydroplane. The man who insists on a speed of forty miles per hour even under these conditions is driving his car to please himself alone.

Although he appears to the external observer as one who is scrupulous in his civic obedience, his obedience is only external, and he doesn’t care at all about what the law is actually all about. This second kind of legalism obeys the externals while the heart is far removed from any desire to honor God, the intent of His law, or His Christ.

This second type of legalism can be illustrated by the Pharisees who confronted Jesus over his healing on the Sabbath day (Matt. 12:9–14). They were concerned only with the letter of the law and avoiding anything that might look like work to them. These teachers missed the spirit of the law, which was directed against ordinary labor that is not required to maintain life and not against efforts to heal the sick.

Another type of legalism adds our own rules to God’s law and treats them as divine. It is the most common and deadly form of legalism. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees at this very point, saying, “You teach human traditions as if they were the word of God.” We have no right to heap up restrictions on people where He has no stated restriction.

Each church has a right to set its own policies in certain areas. For example, the Bible says nothing about soft drinks in the church’s fellowship hall, but a church has every right to regulate such things. But when we use these human policies to bind the conscience in an ultimate way and make such policies determinative of one’s salvation, we venture dangerously into territory that is God’s alone.

Many people think that the essence of Christianity is following the right rules, even rules that are extrabiblical. For example, the Bible doesn’t say that we can’t play cards or have a glass of wine with dinner. We can’t make these matters the external test of authentic Christianity. That would be a deadly violation of the gospel because it would substitute human tradition for the real fruits of the Spirit. We come perilously close to blasphemy by misrepresenting Christ in this way. Where God has given liberty, we should never enslave people with man-made rules. We must be careful to fight this form of legalism.

The gospel calls men to repentance, holiness, and godliness. Because of this, the world finds the gospel offensive. But woe to us if we add unnecessarily to that offense by distorting the true nature of Christianity by combining it with legalism. Because Christianity is concerned with morality, righteousness, and ethics, we can easily make that subtle move from a passionate concern for godly morality into legalism if we are not careful.

Another form of Legalism would be teaching man’s rules as spiritual Law. I learned early in my spiritual journey that this was something to be avoided. In fact, Jesus quite often chided the Jewish leaders, the Scribes and Pharisees for doing this very thing. Unfortunately, it seems that many in the Modern Catholic Church are taking certain aspects of church teachings to pharisaic levels. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, took their pious traditions in 1870ad and formed new, legalistic requirements for salvation.

One of the things which my friends who sparked this article liked about my spiritual philosophy was that I was not rigid about the smells and bells of Catholicism. The question I present here is, how much of our liturgical practices are either Holy tradition (immutable), or simply pious tradition? Is being rigid regarding liturgical traditions another form of legalism

In this question, I’m not advocating for change, but an understanding of how we got to where we are today. In this, I’m also prayerfully suggesting that we utilize this understanding to temper our relationships with those Catholics whose style of or approach to the liturgy are different than our own.

When I began my personal journey to Catholicism from an Evangelical Christian paradigm, I became enamored by the beauty and historic symbolism of the liturgical church. I discovered that much of the imprecation which I learned as a young Christian was simply fabricated by those with an anti-Catholic agenda. Now, over thirty years later, I am finding other Catholics calling the liturgy which played a role in bringing me into the Catholic Faith, to be “Protestant.” Go figure.

One thing is certain within the Church, whichever church you may attend — we all develop emotional attachments to liturgies. A liturgy, in a very simplistic description, is merely a prescribed form of worship. Our liturgies provide a certain amount of order and set the tone and expectation for worship and connectivity to the Divine. Even Protestant and non-denominational Christian Churches, by that definition, are liturgical. It is quite common for parishioners in any culture to become uncomfortable, at a minimum, or angry in the extreme, when their notion of liturgical propriety is challenged.

Just as we often put our conception or understanding of God in a rigid box, people generally do the same with liturgies. At times, it seems some people’s reverence towards particular liturgies verge on idolatry — as if their liturgy was God-breathed and handed to the Church on stone tablets, from the very beginning.

This is just not the case. Liturgies have been developing and evolving throughout Church history. Even within western-Rite Churches, the liturgy used by the patriarch of Rome did not become the mandated standard in that jurisdiction until the 8th century.

Though all Catholic Liturgies maintain certain consistent features, we know for certain that even the Roman Liturgy has transformed over the years.

Although there was considerable liturgical uniformity in the first two centuries there was not absolute uniformity — there never has been. Liturgical books were certainly being used by the middle of the 4th century, and possibly before the end of the third, but the earliest surviving texts date from the seventh century, and musical notation was not used in the west until the ninth century when the melodies of Gregorian chant were codified. The only book known with certainty to have been used until the fourth century was the Bible from which the lessons were read. Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer were known by heart, otherwise, the prayers were extempore.

In the earliest liturgies, there was little that could be described as ceremonial in the sense that we use the term today. Things were done as they were done for some practical purpose. The lessons were read in a loud voice from a convenient place where they could be heard, and bread and wine were brought to the altar at the appropriate moment. Everything would evidently have been done with the greatest possible reverence, and these gradually became signs of respect, which then became established customs, in other words, liturgical actions became ritualized — now, it seems legalized in many circles.

The Lavabo or washing of hands is just one example. In all rites, the celebrant washes his hands before handling the offerings, an obvious precaution and sign of respect.

St. Thomas Aquinas remarked: “We are not accustomed to handling any precious things save with clean hands; so it seems indecent that one should approach so great a sacrament with hands soiled.” The washing of the hands almost inevitably came to be understood as a symbol of cleansing the soul, as is the case with all ritual washing in any religion. There were originally no particular prayers mandated for the washing of hands, but it was natural that the priests should say prayers for purity at that moment, and that eventually, such prayers should find their way into the liturgical books. What prayer could be more appropriate than Psalm 25, Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas? All ritual grew naturally out of these purely practical actions, just as vestments evolved out of the ordinary dress of antiquity. The only real ritual actions we find in the first two centuries are certain postures, kneeling or standing for prayer, and such ceremonies as the kiss of peace, all of which were inherited from Jews practices.

It is easy to understand that the particular order, or the general outline of worship services, would become constant almost unconsciously. Humans are creatures of habit who do the same thing repetitively, we naturally do things in much the same way all the time.
Historically speaking, there has been little reason for the change; to reverse the order suddenly would disturb and annoy people. The early Christians knew for instance at which moment to expect the lessons when to receive Communion when to stand for prayer. The fact that the catechumens were present at some part of the service, but must not see other parts, involved a certain amount of uniform order. But the prayers too, although there was as yet no idea of fixed forms, would naturally tend towards uniformity, at least in outline. Here also habit and custom would soon fix their order.

The people knew when to expect the prayer for the emperor, the thanksgiving, the petitions. The dialogue form of prayer, of which we have many traces in this first period, also involves uniformity, at least in the general idea of the prayers. The people made their responses, “Amen,” “Lord have mercy,” ” Thanks be to God”, and so on at certain points because they knew more or less what the celebrant would say each time. In a dramatic dialogue, each side must be prepared for the other. So the order and general arrangement of the prayers would remain constant. We find in many cases the very same words used; whole formulas sometimes long ones, recur. In context, this can be easily understood.

The early church incorporated much of their liturgical practices from their common Jewish liturgical heritage. This was not due to any prophetic command, but out of both convenience and expediency. In the first place, there were many formulas that occur in the Old or New Testament, that were well known in Jewish services. These were used as liturgical formulas by Christians too. Examples of such forms are: “Amen,” “Alleluia”, “Lord have mercy”, “Thanks be to God “, “Forever and ever”, “Blessed are Thou O Lord our God.” Moreover, it will be noticed that extempore prayer always tends to fall into stereotyped formulas A man who prays for the same object will soon begin to repeat the same words. This may be noticed in extempore preaching. The fact that since all early Christian language was saturated with Biblical forms means that it would hardly be possible for the bishop to use different words and forms each time he prayed, even if he tried to do so. And why should he try? So the same expressions recurred over and over again in the public prayers. A formula constantly heard would soon be considered the right one, especially as in some cases [the psalms and Lord’s prayer] the liturgy already contained examples of constant forms. A younger bishop when his turn came to celebrate, could do no better than continue to use the very words [as far as he remembered them] of the venerable predecessor whose prayers the people, and perhaps himself as deacon, had so often followed and answered with reverent devotion.

So, now, in the 21st century when we witness certain sects claiming that particular liturgies or languages are somehow more reverent, or even more efficacious than others due to their antiquity, I inwardly smirk. I think to myself that is probably the same response that the Church in Milan had when the Roman Patriarch demanded that they adopt a different liturgy. In fact, history records several armed, military conflicts over this very subject.

A certain bishop I know in the UK advocates using Elizabethan English because it is more reverent than modern “vulgar” or common language. My response to that position is; when liturgies were created in that older style, that too was the common language of the day. When did old-style English become more “holy” than modern vernacular? Similar questions can be addressed to those who insist that Latin language liturgies are somehow more holy.

Yes, in Sacramental theology we believe that form or certain liturgical practices are indeed essential. This is most evident in the liturgy of the Eucharist. However, from the earliest historical example (the Didache), we find that the “words of institution,” and matter (bread and wine), are requisite. The rest, the accompanying prayers songs, and movements have mostly been an evolution of customs and traditions, that in some cases have taken on legalistic proportions.

In the Catholic Church, we need to differentiate between holy tradition, Pius belief, and avoid legalism. Within the International Catholic Confederation, we allow our parishes and jurisdictions the freedom to utilize any traditional liturgy and language. We believe that our sense of what is holy or reverent in our individual liturgies is more a matter of our individual dispositions, pastoral leadership, and catechesis than any particular liturgical form.

From the smells and bells of our liturgical celebrations to our preaching of gospel truths, each and every action we make or proclaim MUST be in the context of LOVE. Otherwise, without love, our words and actions become muted, and not reflective of the One we serve.
We have virtually no control over how the secular world may perceive our words. Quite frankly that is not our responsibility. As long as we remain, faithful teachers of TRUTH, it is up to God to germinate those seeds of faith. God alone is responsible for softening the hearts of sinners and bringing them to contrition and faith in Jesus, the Christ.

“And now these three remain faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” ~1 Corinthians 13:13

Pax Vobiscum
++Michael Callahan


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Patriot is the founding editor of Koinonia News. He is also an avid blogger and vlogger, active on several platforms. Patriot is available for public speaking engagements.

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