If it looks like Rome …

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.

35 thoughts on “If it looks like Rome …

  1. Zrim says:

    The contemporary practice of intinction among P&R seems often to be associated with those that favor paedo-communion. So whatever other practical arguments that may exist involving time and hygiene, one can’t help but wonder if it’s a pragmatic method for those who want the elements to go down easier for the younger (and unexamined) participants. Where there is intinction smoke, there is PC fire?
    And if Phillips is right, that “the Lord’s Supper is important to the life of the church,” as a reason to enjoin vigorous debate, would that frequency became as much a concern as either form of administration or even content of the cup (i.e. juice or wine?). And if it’s medieval practice we want to avoid, then the more frequent the better. The Scottish Presbyterian practice of the so-called Communion Season has more in common with the once-a-year practice of the medieval church, the eucharistic version of the Lenten Season.


  2. Mary Beth Witt says:

    I am currently reading a book called “The Fire and the Staff–Lutheran Theology in Practice”. The premise of the book is that when the church changes it’s practice it is actually changing its doctrine. As practices are evolving across the ages it is often changing the doctrine because the doctrine that created the practice is forgotten. The pastor that wrote the book gives a very detailed explanation of traditional Lutheran practices and the doctrine upon which those practices are based. He then gives very illustrative examples of how new practices are giving way to new doctrine. You should get the book and read it. I am not recommending for persuasion, clearly there are differences between LCMS and PCA, that is not what I am discussing her. I am recommending it so that perhaps you could consider a similar book for the PCA. I have learned so much from this book and come to a great understanding of Traditional LCMS practices that it has completely changed the worship experience for me.


  3. maryannehelms says:

    Just came here, via Aquila Report. Thank you for speaking to such a valid issue. I have noticed the same leanings, and reformed believers caving to what is simply unbelief in the sufficiency of Scripture.


  4. chrishutchinson says:

    @ Mary Beth — We do have a few books like that, though no binding Book of Worship or Prayer that would enforce conformity. Even when our Directory of Worship is binding and clear, such as how to conduct the Lord’s Supper, we can’t seem to find the courage to enforce it. But one such helpful book is by Pastor Terry Johnson and is called Leading in Worship.
    @ Rachel — Good observations. One reason I have heard about a move towards more Roman-looking worship is for the PCA to stop being so sectarian, and more part of the “Great Tradition.” It seems to me that when we start doing that, we need to decide whether we are a Sola Scriptura denomination any more.


  5. Phil Pockras says:

    Your concerns are valid and well-made. Thanks! However — a wee complaint.
    “Reformed Presbyterian” is a denominational name. It has been around since 1743. As an RP minister, I can assure you that within the Synod of the RPCNA, there is no problem of Lent, Advent, or other such. It has never existed. Other problems have, but not this. Commenter Zrim, above, had a good usage when he called that which you mean “P&R”. That’s well put. It doesn’t confuse people, making them think that the RPC has trouble this way in some of its people and congregations.
    Yeah, I know there are other “micro-Presbyterians” that call themselves RP here in North America. Without talking about the wisdom of their “borrowing” our name (and one group does have it legitimately, as well as any individual PCA congregation that used to be RPCES), none of them go along with this “Church Calendar” nonsense, either.


  6. Brian says:

    So Rachel, what you’re arguing is, “it may be beautiful, it may be true, it may helpful, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it, but because it comes from a different tradition we should reject it?” That makes no sense at all. Nor does it accord with the Reformed value of common grace that all truth is God’s truth.


    • Rachel Miller says:

      Actually, no Brian, I’m not. What I’m saying is that these practices represent doctrine that are antithetical to Scripture and to the Reformation. I don’t believe them to be true or helpful, and I believe I gave reasons as to why I believe there is something wrong with these practices.


  7. Sarah says:

    Hmmm. I’m not sure I agree with your conclusions here, mostly because they seem to be based on a fallacy: that only the Catholic church uses these forms. You should explore denominations (Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, Episcopalians) that use the liturgical calendar and other practices that you object to here, but do not use them as ” penance and the earning of merit towards salvation” and indeed have not done so for several hundred years. For example, these churches celebrate communion the way you describe, but do not teach or believe transubstantiation (at least, Anglicans don’t. I’m not sure about Lutherans, since I’ve gotten different answers from different Lutheran friends in the past.) These are historical protestant churches that have long since broken from Rome but maintain some of these practices. How long is long enough to decide that using them isn’t imitating the Catholics?


    • Rachel Miller says:

      It’s not a logical fallacy. Even if other denominations have continued the use of some of these practices, the origins are still from the RCC. And the problem with that is not simply that they are RCC practices, but that the practices are the result of doctrine that is both unBiblical and contrary to the Reformation.


      • Sarah says:

        I’m not saying that you have to discount the historical roots of the practices. I’m saying that your discussion of their contemporary usage is incomplete. In linguistics we talk about the etymological fallacy, which says that the current meaning of the word has to be similar to its historical meaning. That’s not true, or we’d be worried about insulting women when we talk about someone being hysterical. Meanings change over time, and the new meaning of a word may or may not have anything to do with its historical meaning.

        You’ve established that these practices have their origins in the RC church and in doctrines that are, as you said “unbiblical and contrary to the Reformation.” It doesn’t necessarily follow that the churches who use them now are linking themselves to those doctrines, or that they’re implying unity with Rome. Meanings change over time, even the meanings of symbols.

        You’re asking why many people are returning to these practices, and if their usage is acceptable among reformed believers. I’m saying that one way to begin to answer the question is to look at protestant churches that use them. Ask: do these churches affirm and deny what we affirm and deny? If so, then how do they justify continuing these practices, given their historical roots? Look at how they understand the words they use in the liturgy. Look at how the meanings of the symbols have changed as they’ve been used in a community separate from the RC church.

        I’m not saying that all churches should embrace these practices, or that their use is always helpful (or even just neutral). Everyone who uses a form in worship has to ask themselves why they use it. Our hearts get so easily puffed up with pride, especially when it comes to outward expressions of piety. I think that’s the real danger in practices like these- not necessarily their historical links to Catholicism, but the constant temptation to pridefulness.


    • Anne says:

      Exploring the denominations that do employ these various liturgical elements will show that, barring the Missouri Synod, Lutheranism is a liberal and doctrinal disaster (at least that’s the only conservative Lutheran denomination of which I’m aware), Methodism ditto, and goodness knows the TEC is an absolute theological train wreck. Therefore, history tends to teach that utilizing RCC practices takes denominations down a destructive path. Of course, it’s possible the reverse is true, and as a denomination goes awry it becomes increasingly attracted to these practices. Either way, adopting them is not a positive step.


  8. Bryan says:

    Fantastic Article! I grieve when I see my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ practicing such. I’m not judging their motivation or the intentions of their heart, because I know they are looking for Christ in these practices. BUT, it concerns me because in looking for Christ they may find the Pope, Mary, or the traditions of men! It’s seems as though the Roman Catholic church is making a comeback. Sadly, some of my millennial friends are embracing Roman Catholicism (or orthodox churches) because they are tired with the mainstream evangelical church and long for more liturgy, traditions etc…In the same way, many of my Pentecostal friends are embracing Jewish Traditions (Hebrew Roots Movement) b/c they are weary of the mainline evangelical church growth purpose driven stuff!!!


  9. bonnie943 says:

    I “found” this blog via Tim Challies and want to continue to follow your postings. I appreciated your creative and thoughtful descriptions of my concerns, too. Press on!


  10. Jay says:

    I am not a member of the RPC, so take that for what it’s worth. Most of what is stated here is right on the money. I do take exception on what I would understand as contemplative prayer. The writer of Ecclesiastes speaks about the “taking to heart” of our existence in light of its vanity and the eternity that is in our heart (yes I’m distilling a few passages for brevity.) Contemplative prayer to me is simply mindfulness of my life as a creature and reflecting that back in prayer. A retreat can be quite powerful in reminding me of who I am, what God has made, and what he is owed in worship and devotion. I do agree that the book Jesus is Calling is just an awful concept. Whenever people put words in the Lord’s mouth–words that that He did not speak–we’re on proverbially thin ice.


  11. T. Webb says:

    Thanks for this article, and the courage you have to write it. Often when I mention these things in my Presbyterian church, I get funny looks, like “what’s wrong with him”? Be aware, however, that Protestants have long worn clerical collars of different kinds… many (even most?) pictures of Jonathan Edwards show him wearing the clerical collar of his time. The white collar all around is Protestant, the black collar with white at the front is Roman Catholic. I have no problem with the former, but wonder why “Protestants” would want to wear the latter.


  12. Jerry van der Pol says:

    Do RC’s actually practice intinction? I have done part time work for a Roman parish for over 20 years and have never seen intinction!


    • Mary Beth says:

      Luthers stance was if “it isn’t broke then don’t fix it”. He only insisted on changes that were not Biblical and those changes should never come by force but by teaching. Much of the Lutheran liturgy is the same as the Catholic church because of this. Also Lutherans believe that nothing should become law that is not in the Bible– meaning you can not do it or you have to do it, but there are traditions of the Church that are just that traditions and these are okay to observe as we join with Christians across the ages by participating in them. Some of these practices have doctrinal issues attached to them and we must be careful how we change them if we change them so that the doctrine is not changed along with the practice. And further still somethings should not be changed because other denominations have attached a meaning to them to defy our doctrine. Here is an example: At communion it really does not matter if a loaf of bread is broken and distributed or if individual wafers are given out, however the Baptist began breaking the bread to show that there was not presence of Christ in the bread because scripture says the body of Jesus can not be broken and clearly they can break the bread. Lutheran pastors were asked to stop breaking loaves of bread because some may construe this meaning from it. However I have still seen it broken by some Pastors–In the Lutheran churh it is indifferent.


  13. Kyle says:

    I am neither Presbyterian nor Catholic. Above all else I am Christian. I understand the objections to and comparisons to the Catholic practice of distinction. However, I find it consistent with the practice of communion as told to us in the scriptures detailing the “last supper”. A single cup used by all. Perhaps some adjustments for modern hygienic concerns. As long as I do not believe as our Roman friends do I have difficulty seeing any objection as relevant. As I am fond of saying, intinction is the “traditional biblical style of communion…” Thoughts on my view?


  14. Duncan says:

    This was a very good, thought provoking article that raised concerns I had not considered. Thank you for the insight. CT had an article about “Jesus Calling” that raised some alarms, and I shared it with someone in my church using the devotional. But your points about intinction and Lent are very insightful. Thank you.


  15. Natalie says:

    Thank you for this post. This is not just found in Presbyterian churches. One reason I left my previous church (nondenominational Christian church) is because they see nothing wrong with contemplative practices. I know of someone at a Baptist church that participates in Lent. Seems that many people are searching for more when prayer and reading the Word would fill them with more than enough.


  16. Zach says:

    I absolutely mean no offense, but it would seem that what defines your Christianity is that it is not Roman Catholic. Case in point: the Mystery of Faith; you say that the words are true words, and your only objection is their “Catholic” (I’d say Christian) origin.


    • Rachel Miller says:

      The problem is that those words are prefaced by Let us proclaim the mystery of faith … . In this section of liturgy, from its roots, the mystery of faith being proclaimed is transubstantiation, that the bread and wine are actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ.

      It’s the doctrine that’s the problem.


  17. Kassandra says:

    I’ve noticed the uptick in the keeping of Lent amongst Protestants (the non-Episcopalian kind). My college experience makes me think it may be more of a reflection of rejection of doctrine in favor of experience than of embracing Catholic doctrine in any meaningful way.

    My Methodist-founded, broadly Evangelical college required a Christian Life course, a ridiculous hodgepodge of pseudo-spiritual mystical nonsense covering every nominally Christian contemplative and ecstatic experience from Quaker divine light to a Catholic hagiography of a martyr who kills herself in the arena. Very little of the actual doctrine behind any of the vaunted ecstasy-producing and ascetic practices (and even less of the criticisms of them) was discussed. The whole focus was on experience. And the more spiritual and exotic the experience the better.

    A great deal of Catholic practice feels spiritual and a little exotic (if you didn’t grow up Catholic, of course). If no one explains the purpose of the practice, that’s even better. The ignorance helps keep the exotic patina on, and lets the practitioner pin on whatever meaning he likes best.


  18. Maria Tatham, a gentle iconoclast says:

    Thank you for this excellent article!
    Perhaps the adoption of these practices comes from a lack of reverential fear of God, and a dismissal of the Reformation understanding that the Papacy Is Antichrist.


  19. revmarkholler says:

    Thank you Rachel Miller for so clearly and succinctly summarizing some of my same concerns. Angloterian for sure IMO. Many relevant comments, but I would offer this: the regulative principle (ensconced in the WCF & Catechisms) is of the essence of the Reformation, namely it simply asks “What does the Bible say?). Failing to ask this question and instead rationalizing what is not forbidden introduces autonomy again by the church and undermines the authority of the Lord and His Scripture. IMO this in principle is why some have left reformed doctrine and practice for either/or the Orthodox or RCC; again the reason the autonomy of church “tradition”. (BTW I have observed some using the regulative principle in a legalistic way also, it is a principle, not casuistry to defend presbyterian tradition for it’s own sake). Specifically on the matter of intinction I do feel it is a matter of being “hip” and/or saving time in a larger crowd. But: What does the Bible say? The one cup is passed and the bread is taken separately, not combined. Not caring about this question is not Christian, let alone reformed.


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