A Conversation on Lent and Church Observances

This “Lenten” exchange has been taking place on Facebook, and as my responses were getting longer and longer, I decided to leave my latest response here. I have included the preceding conversation below. To my friends in the Facebook debate, I’m not trying to force the whole debate to move to this site, so please continue the discussion on Facebook if you prefer. (I’ve used initials as a courtesy to anyone who might prefer anonymity outside Facebook.)

Click here to jump to my response.


“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” -Jesus, explaining how to fast, and thus contradicting the observance of Lent.


My church observes Lent, but not in a way that is hypocritical, but to resist the things of this world that would lead us away from the faith.


W., I think your church then is fundamentally not celebrating Lent. Historically and Culturally the way Lent was conceived and idealized was totally against what Jesus (and thus the general view of self-pity and self-piety in his day) said. That’s why I’m giving up Lent for Lent. 🙂

R. (Me)

I’m not convinced, nor even sure what part of Lent you think violates this teaching. Christ seems here to be speaking clearly about the hypocrisy of those who make a show of fasting to impress others with their piety rather than fasting in righteous devotion. It hardly strikes me as an absolute command against communal fasts and public repentance, or the symbolic potency of the “sackcloth and ashes” ritual. Ironically, Catholic and Lutheran (I assume Episcopal) liturgical traditions include at least the first part of this passage in their services every Ash Wednesday.




I think Lent rides a hard and fast line between Gnosticism and self-pietism. I also believe that Lent devalues Sunday worship: What is so special about Ash Wednesday that we don’t celebrate in the faithful preaching of the Gospel each Sunday? What does Maundy Thursday teach that isn’t taught faithfully by the Gospel each Sunday? What does Good Friday teach that isn’t faithfully taught by the authentic gospel each Sunday? There is just no real warrant to separate and convoluted Christian worship by separating what ought to be in every worship service into special calendar days.

This is what the Puritans and the Magisterial Reformers argued – furthermore, they argued that seasons like Lent (as originally conceived and carried out) do not cherish the Christian spirit of Freedom as described by Paul. http://www.covenant.edu/docs/faculty/Stewart_Ken/Much_Ado_about_Something.pdf

W., I think the article doesn’t address the heart of the issue, and it isn’t really Catholic at all. What was conceived in the 500s as a cultish practice was originally idealized to be a time of self-devaluing and poverty, which is not warranted in the Bible. Furthermore, it overwhelmingly devalues the practice of normal Christian fruit, the fruit that should be present in every saved persons life.

What the article argues is not Lent, but general therapeutic self-pietism. To be truly Lenten in study, you would have to be, like C. says, de facto anti-Jesus. You can and should be “Lenten” like the article says, every day.


R., I’m not against calls to public fasting or repentance, however I am opposed to the binding of the conscience of the worshipper in a mandatory yearly observance of said things. If Christ demanded for us to do this in a yearly, cyclical manner, then this wouldn’t be an issue.

Just two examples of hypocrisy in Lent, from my own experience: I have been startled by how the concerns of most people during Lent seem to include telling everyone what they are “giving up” or “taking on”, which seems to defeat the purpose of receiving the reward of God in secret. Further, placing ash on the forehead is a kind of demarcation that others see and understand as a mark of piety, as opposed to washing your head and anointing your head with oil “that your fasting may not be seen by others”.


I washed off the ashes on my forehead after the service before I left.


Having just returned from a Reformed Episcopal service, I can confirm that Matthew 6:16-21 is the Gospel selection for Ash Wednesday in the Book of Common Prayer. There is a clear and deliberate context of humility in which the Lenten fast is intended to take place.

Most low church Evangelicals whom I have heard discuss Lent regard it as a thing you may choose to either do or not do—by giving something up, or making an effort to pray more. This has minimal connection with its ancient purpose, and these are things we should indeed be doing throughout the year, but Lent has peculiar meaning to the Christian community as a time of solemn spiritual preparation for Easter. Corporate fasting dates to the earliest days of the church, though durations and nature were not fixed until later centuries (and arguably not even then). Catholicism and liturgical Protestantism have greatly relaxed the expectations for fasts, both in number and in stringency. The practice of Ash Wednesday itself started to assist the penance of a few, and it soon became a means of reminding every Christian of his or her sinfulness and mortality, the need for the coming Easter.

So nobody is arguing that these things are fixed-for-all-time and immutable; they change and develop over the life of the Church. They are merely traditional ways for the church to celebrate Christ throughout the year. Any “binding of the conscience” that takes place within the high church communions does so in a context that assumes a visible, continuous community which may freely bind itself to traditions which it finds most useful in corporately following after Christ (or remove or change these practices when appropriate). Christ did not institute Easter or Christmas any more than he did Lent, but the value of these special celebrations is evident to most. How the annual practice of Lent or Advent or holy days in general infringes on the goodness and efficacy of the weekly rhythm of worship, I have not worked out.

Not having grown up in a tradition that thought much about Lent (or fasting) one way or the other, I have not witnessed such hypocrisy directly, but I’m not at all surprised it exists. My parents would sometimes tell me about friends who would make a show of private fasting, and it turned them off fasting almost entirely. But that ultimately says nothing about fasting itself. And if, as at an ideal Lent for the high churches, virtually everyone in the body is observing the season together in solemnity and quietude, without any individual calling attention to his or her particular rigor of discipline, there is no cause to claim the practice overlays a root of hypocrisy.

Admitting that the ash cross is a clearly visible “mark of piety” (or, more precisely, penitence and humility), I still see nothing deleterious in the custom. As W. noted, some Christians do wash the ashes off immediately—often to staunch the threat of hypocrisy or pride in themselves—and others believe that the ashes properly understood are both a sign of contrition and of identification with Christ about which we need not be ashamed, if we are not obviously bearing the sign out of pride. It is not a sign to non-fasting Christians, or even (principally) to non-Christians, but to its bearer, and to one to another within the congregation. Nor is it necessarily a sign that one is strictly fasting that year, or even at all. Who in the body keeps the fast (or not) and how well is not at issue. And at least in Eastern Orthodoxy, the words of John Chrysostom are used to declare the Paschal feast open to all, however they have acted during the fast. Though of course ashes or fasting are subject (as anything) to abuse, against which we have Christ’s clear warning, their true meaning has nothing to convict it under this teaching of Christ.

I would ask, if you are opposed to any form of public fasting, are you opposed to any form of public prayer? Just a few verses before, Christ commands that “when you pray” you are to go into your inner room, yet this is obviously not about corporate practice. The whole context of the passage, it seems to me, is not a normative statement about the life of the Church, but about properly directing one’s works to receive honor from God, not from men.

In short, is the tradition of Lent flagrantly unbiblical or “anti-Jesus,” at least on the basis of this one verse against hypocrisy? I do not think there is any warrant for claiming so. The argument as I’ve heard it so far smacks me as an excessively literalist approach to an isolated passage. Whether or not Lent is really worth observing is a different matter, and one that relies in part on ones perception of the value of the liturgical year.


R., I think this might help out: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/02/22/should-you-cancel-good-friday/ I’m sure C. would approve too. 😉


Hey R., as I said up a few comments ago, “I’m not against calls to public fasting or repentance, however I am opposed to the binding of the conscience of the worshipper in a mandatory yearly observance of said things.” Lent itself might not be considered mandatory in EO and RC traditions today, however certain aspects of it are indeed still mandatory (see http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/is-lenten-penance-something-voluntarily-sought-or-does-it-mean-just-accepting-difficu)

Further, Lent’s previous mandatory nature actually sparked the Reformation in Switzerland, which shows how important of an issue this really is. This is an issue of how we worship God–by the traditions of men or by His commands. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affair_of_the_Sausages)

You argue that “any ‘binding of the conscience’ that takes place within the high church communions does so in a context that assumes a visible, continuous community which may freely bind itself to traditions which it finds most useful in corporately following after Christ.” But imagine if your small church was the only local church community, and they engaged in worship that wasn’t commanded by God. Why not reform your way of worship in accordance with how God has actually taught us to worship and not oppress your own congregants with man-made traditions?

As far as hypocrisy is concerned, perhaps my quotation of Matthew is a low-blow, but it was quoted in accord with my own experiences. But I do think you are right: Systemically, the tradition might not be rooted in “hypocrisy”; it might have an aim at true penitence. However, since it is not commanded as a way to worship God (its mandatory aspects, its symbols and signs, its yearly nature) I will not engage in it or support its practice.

In summary, R., I understand that your main problem with my quotation is my exegesis and application. I agree and even assumed your understanding of the passage when I posted that, and applied that meaning to my experiences of Lenten hypocrisy. My larger issues with Lent are rooted in the regulative principle, as you can tell.


Okay, I think I understand better now what you meant by stating the verse “contradict[ed] the observance of Lent”–you spoke primarily to practice as you have observed it rather than the principle. And yes, I agree that the larger issues at stake in Lent surround the Church calendar, asceticism, tradition, and principles of worship, and the conversation should take place there.

J., I listened to Dr. Duncan’s portion of the podcast, and I have to say I agree substantially more with the comments (which are preponderantly critical, including one from a Kuypurian who linked to his blog response) than with Dr. Duncan. I’m sure Dr. Duncan has worked this out more thoroughly in his own thought than he gave evidence in the podcast, but his argument as presented is unconvincing.

If the issue is indeed the regulative principle, it could easily be argued not only that Dr. Duncan applies the principle inconsistently with regard to Christmas and Easter, but even with Sunday worship. On the latter, the direction in the New Testament is vague at best. Moreover, I still see no reason why an annual spiritual rhythm, integral to actual human experience and clearly incorporated in Old Testament worship, should interfere with the weekly rhythm of work and Sabbath. In a sense, of course, all days are holy–just as in a sense every day for the Christian is Sabbath (per Hebrews 4)–but in lived human experience, when everything is “set apart,” nothing is “set apart.” The consecration of particular days for communal celebration of particular aspects of the faith and observation of redemptive history–like the consecration of particular physical spaces for corporate worship–seems to me manifestly beneficial to the corporate body. As someone comparatively new to these ancient rituals but cognizant of their place in the heritage of all Christians east and west, I have found them enriching, and I’ve yet to hear a solid argument against their propriety.


R., I agree that including Christmas and Easter is inconsistent. I think that the regulative principle abolishes the church calendar. Also, more than just by evidence of the regulative principle, I think that it is plausible to draw a parallel between Paul’s suggestion in Galatians, that he fears for the Galatians because they return to the observance of the Jewish calendar, to an issue with a new, man-made calendar. While the Jewish calendar itself might not be wrong, it is part of the “old” age in which we were trained by a guardian and overseer (law), but now we live by the Spirit. To return to a system like this suggests an underlying belief that the calendar-system is somehow efficacious for salvation. Similarly, to implement a new calendar system suggests some very negative things about our understanding of the efficacy of the means of grace and of God’s commands for how we ought to worship.


R., I agree that his presentation was incomplete, but that is certainly not a valid argument to dismiss the principles of his argument. I think C. is catching onto something: imposing any kind of calendar for the sake of “enrichment” or “lack of evidence” is going to beg the efficacy of God’s means of grace.

My Response

J., I’m not sure which principles of his argument you think I am merely “dismissing.” I heard a series of assertions that struck me as inconsistent, as I noted in my comment, where I also directly addressed the particular idea that marking out particular days as “holy” detract from Sunday worship. (Not even Catholics, I should perhaps note, believe one day is intrinsically more sacred to God than another.) Other specific criticisms are articulated well in the comments on that page.

Personal enrichment is not an argument, but it is as relevant an observation as that of hypocrisy. I don’t think I’ve just been arguing solely from that and from a lack of evidence against its permissibility. But the main thrust of my argument is indeed to assert that the Church has the authority to observe religious holidays not specifically ordained in Scripture. Only when this point is conceded can one approach positive reasons to celebrate particular holidays in the religious calendar.

I am also now a little confused. Are both of you objecting to churches corporately observing the religious calendar in a way not mandatory to every individual believer, or are you objecting solely to Catholic-Orthodox imposition of some aspects of the calendar on every believer within their communions? At times it feels like the latter (which I have little interest at present in defending, as it would require an ecclesiological remodeling), but a number of your statements seem to attack the holidays themselves. If you would clear this up I would appreciate it. Your answer may obviate parts of the following discourse, but I’ll plow on nevertheless in the hope of making my position clear.

C., I would not be so quick to apply Galatians 4:10, directly or by analogy, to this case. Most interpreters to my knowledge read that verse in the context of the passage as simply a rhetorical assault on those falling into Jewish legalism. Paul even suggests in Romans 14:5-6 that Christians are free to observe the Mosaic holidays as they see fit, as part of their Christian liberty. And there are other good Biblical and historical reasons for doubting Paul meant it as a blanket condemnation of religious festival, which I describe below.

Your latest comment, as I understand it (and feel free to correct me), argues that Christian liberty and a Church calendar are mutually exclusive, or at least at odds. The supersession of the Jewish calendar means that any establishment of an annual cycle of religious observance for believers calls into doubt (1) the doctrine of grace by faith apart from works (i.e., observance of a calendar); and (2) the sufficiency of Biblical prescriptions concerning worship and sacraments. Neither, I think, follows.

In answer to (1), I do not see how the institution of a Church calendar endangers the primacy of faith for salvation. We are under obligation as Christians to a life of good works (according to those “prepared for us,” Eph. 2:10), and this would include the practices Scripture implicitly assumes Christians will follow as part of a healthy spiritual life, such as fasting and regular prayer and charity. I assume you can go this far with me. If commitment to works in no way necessitates reliance upon them for salvation nor repudiation of dependency on God in faith, how can an institution designed to facilitate annual, corporate participation in the good things of God be regarded as implicit works-righteousness? How does this signify a resumption of faith in the works of the Law, or an infringement on “life in the Spirit”? Who is arguing, especially among Evangelicals observant of the calendar, that the said calendar plays any role in justification?

Although the Law’s major function as overseer has been abrogated in the age inaugurated by Christ, there is a vast distance between merely engaging in a system of works and relying on works for salvation. You seem to make them contiguous, if not continuous.

Or is it the mere fact that it is an institution, not prescribed in the Bible, the objectionable part? Responding to (2), I see no reason to believe that Scripture dictates every worthy expression of our call to works, corporate or individual. The New Testament leaves plenty of questions open and in itself established few (if any) temporal systems for the spiritual life, but that does not mean systems as such are ordained to be totally absent. Though I assume you would concede that individuals are free to direct their spiritual practices as they see fit throughout the year, I am not sure why you think a different principle must be in place for the corporate body.

Again, I am not addressing those communions which make it incumbent for individuals to fast or perform some similar discipline. Whether or not that violates the liberty of the congregant goes beyond my intentions here. I am addressing the Church calendar to the extent that it has usually been observed by Protestants: as an edifying traditional practice which recommends to congregants participation in corporate disciplines and celebrations.

Though I incline against the regulative principle in general, I must inquire, do you think the regulative principle is to be interpreted as requiring Church practice to remain in a perennially static form? Most people who claim to adhere to the regulative principle (including Reformed) do not seem to have the same problems with religious holidays that you do. The Westminster Confession of Faith seems to offer cautious approval on the basis of the Jews’ adoption of Purim. Even Calvin believed that annual Church festivals were appropriate, if held in moderation and edifying to the congregation, though he was a fierce proponent of the regulative principle. How much the regulative principle actually covers, and how much is adiaphora, is an open question that has divided churches for centuries. Should it be so?

And again, I would suggest that this argument is potentially problematic to the idea of (mandatory) Sunday rest and/or worship, which is a “day” and might thus by your interpretation fall under Pauline condemnation in Galatians, or of the reference in Colossians 2:16. There are descriptions of believers gathering on the first day of the week, as there are of them gathering on Pentecost, but that is something much less than a prescription, let alone instruction on how to go about things. Even the strictest Reformed church service must, to a certain extent, go beyond the letter of the Bible to build its liturgical practice.

The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, by Duccio. Lent is traditionally associated with Christ’s fast in the wilderness.

The Church, back to the earliest years, has kept holy days; as far as we can tell, Christians universally recognized Pentecost and the Passover, and by the fourth century, most had added Christmas and Epiphany as uniquely Christian celebrations. Fasting, private and communal, before the feasts was common; the Didache even prescribes fasting before baptism for both the baptized and the baptizer, as well as Wednesday and Friday fasts for everyone. Many in the Apostolic age still went to the synagogue for prayers on the Sabbath in addition to Sunday worship. The New Testament suggests the continued observance of some Jewish holidays in Acts 20 and 1 Corinthians 5. And remember the Quartodeciman controversy that shook up the breadth of the Christian world? That came only a few generations after the death of St. John the Evangelist, by the middle of the second century, and involved some of his immediate disciples (such as Polycarp). Yet as far as I know, in the midst of the arguments about when to celebrate, no one suggested that observance of Easter/Passover ought to be abolished altogether. Instead, “traditionalists” such as Polycrates argued against changing the date because the Apostles themselves had celebrated it on 14 Nisan. Some secular scholars even posit that observation of the Easter festival predates weekly Sunday services—that Sunday worship was instituted as a “little Pascha.”

All that is to say that your apparent understanding of the Church calendar as an (“cultic”? certainly “man-made”) imposition on an original divinely-ordained simplicity of weekly services is certainly radical and probably widely off the mark.

Gentlemen, I am not trying to say you personally should feel bound to celebrate Lent, or Christmas, or even Easter—though I think there are more than adequate reasons to do so, unity with the historical body of Christ not least. I simply assert, in the absence of clear Scriptural contradiction (and with the overwhelming balance of Church tradition behind me), the freedom of the Church to mark and celebrate festivals as a healthy expression of its unity and dominion over the whole of life. If I have misunderstood your reasoning or put words in your mouths, I ask your forgiveness. If I have not explained my position adequately by now, I do not know how better I could articulate it, and for my part am content to let the matter rest.

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