Many years ago the local Episcopalian Church received a new Pastor. This church was a strange mix of 'evangelical outlook' Combined with 'high church mass' rituals and predominantly catered to the older generation, but with an influx of younger people into the neighborhood, the church still managed to run a reasonably populated Sunday School.
This church had for many years been used as 'the last assignment' for prominent priests prior to their retirement and Father John (as he was habitually referred to) was a lovely man who preached vibrant sermons.
I had not previously known John but it did not take too long to realize that he was a man of the people and didn't stand on ceremony (and neither did the local bishop). We became good friends and I occasionally attended his services, and sometimes helped him out.
Father John's 'casual' attitude toward (or should I say 'failure' to enforce) many matters did upset a number of his congregation, but not enough to affect the well being of the community.
Now for a priest, Father John had a particularly interesting problem. He couldn't stomach the communion wine - it made him ill. Without saying a word publically, he switched the regular 'authorized' brand to a more 'comfortable on his stomach' peach wine.
Within his denomination, priests are required to drink all of the unused communion wine and for Father John this was problematical, for in addition to his upset stomach at drinking the regular wine, he was also 'a cheap drunk', which is to say, that he could not drink much wine at all, and to help him avoid the problem, he had a few good folk hang back at communion time and polish off the leftover wine.
One day he gave me the sad news that he had received a directive from above - presumably not from the Lord himself - that he was to discontinue the wine substitution at communion. The reason? Some persons had lodged an official complaint about his failure to adhere to the strict regulations governing what wine could and could not be used. Said persons did not bother to discuss the matter directly with father John.
Whilst it is quite probable that those who complained merely 'used' the issue of the wine substitution to vent their displeasure at the good pastor, for some people, strict adherence to ritual and formula is paramount. It can be for them a substitute for personal relationship with the Lord, which is another way of saying that they have turned ritual and formula into idols.
Years previous to the event recorded here, I was given a word for word description of a confrontation between a member of the local Roman Catholic Parish and her Parish Priest.
Now it seems that within the congregation there was a good Catholic family whose father was not a baptized Catholic, but nevertheless attended mass faithfully with his family. Additionally he was on the Parish Council and wherever and whenever hands were needed to do something within the Parish, this man was there to lend a hand. Despite his commitment to the Parish, the Parish priest would weekly refuse him the communion wafer. One day the concerned parishioner chastised the priest for not allowing the man to partake of communion. The priest pointed out that as the man was not a 'Baptized Catholic' that he could not allow him to have communion. The parishioner then pointed out that Jesus himself was not a 'Baptized Catholic' and asked what the priest would do if Jesus turned up to take Communion. 'I would not allow him' said the priest 'unless he became a Baptized Catholic!'
And therein lays the problem with rules, regulations and rituals. When our rituals and practices lock out the grace and Spirit of Christ, we have the form of religion, but not the purpose. We have in fact, made an idol of them. Jesus himself would be locked out from communion with us, if he did not fulfill our ritualistic practices.
We see prophetical correction of this 'ritualistic' idol worship in the writings of many of the Prophets, as exampled in Isaiah Chapter 58 in relation to 'religious fasting', and Jesus himself directly addressed the problem in Mark 12:42-44 - the story of the 'widow's mite', (in relation to giving -- -and Hypocrisy); Luke 10: 25-37 - 'The good Samaritan' (Ritual cleanliness); and Matthew 21:12-17 - 'throwing out the money changers' (illegitimate use of legitimate regulations - And Note 21:23-27 Jesus' Challenge to the Priest regarding John the Baptist).
In each of these references we can see the underlying principle of idolatry at work; whether idolizing our own giving; idolizing our purity or idolizing our service provision.
When our Religion and its ritualism replaces our relationship with God and by default, with our fellow man, we have made our religion a 'false religion', and our ritual practices become idolatry.
M. Wallace Johnson
Articles by M. Wallace Johnson
Introducing M. Wallace Johnson
Holy, Wholly or Holey SERIES
Idols in Ministry SERIES