(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Roman Catholicism from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. For this lesson, I will also draw from James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy, (Bethany House, 1996).There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
Non-EssentialsContinuing our temporary sidetrack from Gerstner’s book to James White's The Roman Catholic Controversy, (Bethany House, 1996), we begin by looking at some nonessentials. These are practices of the Catholic Church which we may find odd, but which in fact are not anything that should prevent fellowship. There are quite a few items that we could examine as non-essentials—we’ll just look at two examples.
The Sign of the Cross
Catholics (and some Protestants) make the hand motion of two perpendicular lines which is commonly called the sign of the cross. The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its entry of the Sign of the Cross, reads:
A term applied to various manual acts, liturgical or devotional in character, which have this at least in common: that by the gesture of tracing two lines intersecting at right angles they indicate symbolically the figure of Christ's cross.
Most commonly and properly the words "sign of the cross" are used of the large cross traced from forehead to breast and from shoulder to shoulder, such as Catholics are taught to make upon themselves when they begin their prayers, and such also as the priest makes at the foot of the altar when he commences Mass with the words: "In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti".
The Catholic Encyclopedia describes variations on the practice, and also provides some history from the early church:
"In all our travels and movements", says Tertullian (ca. 155-230) (De cor. Mil., iii), "in all our coming in and going out, in putting of our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupieth us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross".Apart from the danger of the practice becoming a superstition, the sign of the cross—much like wearing a cross or a WWJD bracelet, is a matter of Christian liberty. Many Protestants (especially Baptists) have a visceral, negative response to the sign of the cross—an assumed pagan-like practice and guilt by association with Rome. But, as James White points out, “Godly men have crossed themselves and Godly men have refused to cross themselves.” (TRCC, p. 33).
Suppose a visitor at the next pot luck crossed himself. What would you think? Would your private reaction be mildly or extremely negative? What if a member of the church had practice? Should the elders pull him aside? My own view is that it is not much different from wearing a cross—and yes there are some mainstream denominations (as well as Mormons) who strongly discourage if not out outright ban the wearing a cross. This may be mild legalism, but legalism it is.
The sign of the cross, in my opinion, should fall under the umbrella of Christian Liberty. Without question its debate has no standing among the substantive differences we’ll soon discuss.
The Liturgy and High Worship
A Catholic service sure doesn’t bear much resemblance to what goes on in a Baptist church. Ornate churches with stained glass. Processions, candles, incense, robes, kneeling, crossing, chanting—it is all very foreign.
It is also not unique to Catholic Churches. Lutherans and Anglicans also have very formal liturgies. Even Baptists have a liturgy, albeit, in general, a very simple one. We comfort ourselves that God surely likes this simplicity—but in fact we are merely assuming that to be the case. Scripture does not tell us how formal or informal to make our worship service. The best approach, once again, is to place the liturgy in the category of Christian liberty.
Of course—if the liturgy replaces the gospel, that is a serious problem. But virtually anything can become a stumbling block to the gospel. Legalism is a pernicious problem in many fundamentalist churches with informal liturgies. The fact that a given local church’s liturgy may be creating inattention to the gospel is a problem with the leaders of that church, not with the practice. Formal liturgies don’t shortchange the gospel, people do. Many highly respected Protestants wear robes, light candles, and worship in stained glass buildings. This is not worth arguing over.