Different Gospel, Different Practice


Ritual and Sacraments Are Incompatible with Pentecostalism

The following statements are a compilation of the author’s comments in recent debates with proponents of bringing Liturgy and Sacramentalism back into Pentecostal worship, particularly in regard to a review of Simon Chan’s book Liturgical TheologyChan is associated with the Assemblies of God of Singapore.

[For starters,] I cannot see [liturgy and sacrament] as other than a human effort to supplement or replace the intended work of the Spirit directly through the individual without further mediatorship; and moreover to suggest a severely limited realization of the person and work of the Paraclete, and the intended unlimited nature of the Pentecostal experience (without relation to sacraments or liturgy), as presented in John 14-16, Acts, etc.  It is a big stretch to suggest that the NT teaches spiritual efficacy through ritual acts or sacraments.

Defining Liturgy and Sacramentalism

Liturgy (Gk. LEITOURGIA) . . . was the word for rendering service to God used in the LXX [Septuagint, Greek OT] for the work of priests and Levites.  [In the NT, it is a synonym of DIAKONIA.]  It is not literally “work of the people” [as was suggested].  Regardless, in the past several centuries it has meant ritualized formal worship in church, conducted by priests and assistants.

Sacramentalism, at its base, is the idea of efficacy of the elements of the Lord’s Supper toward salvation, administered by a priest.  It has over time been spiritualized toward identification with Christ’s sufferings, and lately the notion of metaphysical union with Christ.  A longstanding debate is between supporters of Transubstantiation and Consubstantiation, whether the emblems “become” the body of Christ when eaten/drunk, or Christ’s body “accompanies” the emblems.

No Exegetical Proof of Validity

Of course, none of these dogma or practices can be established exegetically from Scripture.  Yet my objection to them goes beyond that point, noting that Sacramentalism and its natural conclusion, Sacerdotalism (administration by a priesthood), represent “another gospel,” a form and means of salvation and other spiritual efficacy that is foreign to Scripture as well as to Pentecostalism.  Liturgy, on top of that, and far beyond purported “Pentecostal rituals” and traditions, promotes a canned, formalized, and in the end rigid, top-down, priesthood-led worship which is contrary to the Pentecostal message and NT concept of the Spirit being poured out broadly on “all flesh” and true ministry being that of horizontal “edification” (Paul’s ubiquitous term) within the gathered Body — a worship in which anyone on any level can speak spontaneously “as the Spirit gives utterance,” and perform ministry as the Spirit “divides severally as He will.”

Supporters of liturgy cannot demonstrate, among other things, an Apostle in the NT leading a congregation in such formalized top-down worship, nor the Apostles administering the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament.  Instead, what we find is Paul’s concept of Body Ministry that is horizontal, wherein individual congregants receive vertically, directly, from the Spirit; minister encouragement and miraculous deliverance to one another, horizontally; and then direct their worship vertically to the exalted Christ.  It is a direct connection, sans priesthood, sans intermediary, sans ritual or relics, via the Holy Spirit.

Bondage and Error

It is from the bonds of liturgical top-down formalism that Pentecostals had to be freed to practice such gifts and worship.  Words fail me to describe what we will lose if theologians — who somehow deem inadequate the limitless gifts and power and “riches in glory” of the Spirit which indwells us individually and frees us from subservience to higher powers — lure us back into it in the guise of a richer, easier, more pleasing, more heartfelt form of worship.

Personally, I have to think that like the mainstream proponents of Sacramental and Liturgical worship, those theologians have a seriously underdeveloped Pneumatology as well as Christology and Soteriology.

I have no doubt that [the hearts of many proponents are sincere, but] I fear that [they] have been led down a primrose path.

Compared to New Testament Heresies

It is all too easy for us, in our earnestness, to bind ourselves to ritual acts and outward expressions of religiosity, which can take on a life of their own and derail our walk of simple faith and spiritual maturization.  The Galatian heresy that Paul vehemently opposed was the addition of a requirement to be circumcised, and by implication, to keep the Law.  Paul warned them that they could not by these outward acts be justified and, moreover, by trusting them they had “fallen from grace” (Gal 5:4).  The Colossian heresy was giving heed to those who taught performing outward acts in order to achieve a higher spiritual plane and overcome higher powers.

But Paul taught that the Law had already been fulfilled in Christ, and the higher powers were already defeated in Christ, such that those who were “in Christ” by faith were subject to neither.  Thus Paul taught no outward acts, no liturgy by modern definition, no outward acts of efficacious suffering or devotion, only simple faith in the pattern of Abraham, and a simple, moral life exemplifying Christ in our lives.  The one who was circumcised should not seek to be uncircumcised, nor the uncircumcised circumcised, no matter how devotional such might seem, no matter what spiritual affections, because the outward act of circumcision means nothing.  The same for other outward acts of religiosity.

True Worship

The Woman at the Well [John 4] asked Jesus regarding true worship.  He replied that God is Spirit (not flesh) and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit (not acts of the flesh) and in Truth (not trusting the outward act to replace true heart devotion).

“The blood of bulls and goats [could not] take away sin” (Heb 10:4), having no efficacy in itself.  It remains Abraham-like faith, which predated circumcision and the Law, that prompts God to impute righteousness and true worship.  Whether outward acts of devotion — rituals — are considered salvific or merely “communion” with God (as [proponents] put it), in them we risk focusing on the acts themselves, which leads to veneration of the acts, which can further lead either to subservience to the acts, or to vaunted pride in them which causes reliance on them and division.

So I conclude that if a ritual leads you closer to the Lord, fine; but I cannot recommend that Christians be taught that such practice is normal Christianity.  Those who are “weak in the faith,” to use Paul’s phraseology, will tend to fall into ritualism, reliance on ritual to be Christian.  As Paul wrote, “Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God” (Rom 14:22).

The Question of ‘Real Presence’ of Christ in Communion

“Real presence” in Communion is not something that can be proven exegetically . . . , patently not following Pentecost.  Rather, that would be a throwback to temporal “shadow” rather than eternal “substance.”  “Real presence” associated with objects, such as the Ark or the Temple, cannot be established in Scripture after the departure of the glory of God from the Temple in Ezekiel, as I recall.  Certainly after Pentecost, the real presence is vested only in the Spirit-filled individual, via the Holy Spirit, not in any object.  [You will recall that Christ “had to go away” in order to send the Paraclete, Jn 16:7, who would be “in us,” Jn 14:17.]  As Peter quoted from Joel, the Spirit is poured out upon “all flesh,” manifested through revelation and powers — a concept never connected with Communion emblems.


I must suspect that people who seek meaning in rituals must . . . be desperately seeking meaning, and moreover have not come to a realization of the Pentecostal experience.  They might not have been taught about it, they might have rejected it (as many reject tongues), perhaps they have not seen its reality in the shallow commitment and experience of elders.  It seems to be the spirit of the age for younger generations to not just question everything but reject out-of-hand everything that is “old” or not of their own conception, just as they reject music of the past in favor of their own.

I find that even most Pentecostal preachers do not have a grasp of the broad meaning of the Exaltation of Christ and the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  They do not talk much about “walking in the Spirit.”  Many just think in terms of speaking in tongues, or sanctification, but their knowledge and experience is very narrow.  They just know that you are supposed to do and have those things.  Indeed, the Exaltation and Indwelling are central to NT theology, and should be to Christian experience.  [See book.]  Through Christ and the Holy Spirit, not just rules, human effort, and emotions, comes power to witness and to overcome.  We cannot create our own means and shortcuts to the power, or our own alternatives.

That is what ritual is — a human alternative or shortcut to the real thing, or perhaps a token reflection of the reality.  [As the saying goes, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”]

What about the NT Ordinances?

Communion (the Lord’s Supper) is actually a remembrance or memorial (the literal Greek), not a sacrament or ritual.  I would rather call it a “testimony” or “witness” in which one declares oneself blood-guilty and in need of receiving and identifying with Christ’s sacrifice.  Paul makes it clear in 1 Cor 11 that if one takes it lightly, not meaningfully, one testifies against himself unto condemnation.  Likewise, Water Baptism is meant to be a testimony of one’s faith, not a ritual.  It is the faith that saves, not the outward action.

In foot washing [in reply to a question], Jesus actually did not institute an ordinance, certainly not a ritual, but an illustration of the attitude of humble service to brethren He expects.  If some believers wish to act out their true humility by washing others’ feet, good.  But again, if it becomes a ritual that is not heartfelt and expressive of true humility, further manifesting itself in edifying and serving brethren in more substantial ways, then one is hypocritical and testifies against oneself.

© 2013 Paul A. Hughes


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