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Showing posts with label liturgy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label liturgy. Show all posts

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Are Christadelphians Non-Liturgical?

Growing up in the Christadelphian sect, one word that I almost never heard was 'liturgy.' In fact, the only time I recall encountering this word in Christadelphian usage was in the title of a lecture delivered at my ecclesia (local congregation), entitled something like, 'How a Priesthood and Liturgy Arose in the Christian Religion.' While I cannot recall the content of the lecture, since the lectures were invariably polemical in nature, the premise of the lecture was that priesthood and liturgy represented corruptions or aberrations of the original Christianity practiced by the apostles. The Wikipedia article on Christadelphians, as it currently stands, describes Christadelphians as a 'non-liturgical denomination.' (The Christadelphians are actually a sect, not a denomination, but that is a separate issue.)

The Oxford English Dictionary (via Google) defines 'liturgy' as 'a form or formulary according to which public religious worship, especially Christian worship, is conducted.' It would seem to follow that a 'non-liturgical denomination' is one that conducts public religious worship without a form or formulary. Now, clearly there are degrees of how formulaic Christian public worship is. Roman Catholic worship would be at the more formulaic end of the spectrum. However, allow me to make a simple observation: there is no such thing as Christian public worship that is 'non-liturgical,' that is, completely non-formulaic. Certainly Christadelphian public worship is not devoid of liturgy, and even were one to make a concerted effort to be non-liturgical, liturgical forms would inevitably develop. In what follows I will delve into different aspects of Christadelphian 'liturgy'.

Order of Service in Public Worship

First of all, there is the order of service. Every Christadelphian ecclesia that I have ever visited had an order of events that was followed more or less rigidly at the Sunday meeting. In the ecclesia I grew up in in Canada, if memory serves, the order was Hymn, Psalm, Hymn, Prayer, Old Testament Reading, New Testament Reading, Memorial Service Remarks and Readings, Prayer for Bread, Distribution of Bread, Prayer for Wine, Distribution of Wine, Hymn, Exhortation, Hymn, Prayer. Every Sunday. The pattern may vary from one ecclesia to the next, but every ecclesia has one. How very, well, liturgical!

Scripture Readings in Public Worship

'Ah,' you might say, 'but the readings do not follow a lectionary.' That was only partly correct, in this case. The exhorting brother typically chose one of the readings to match his topic; at least one of the readings was ordinarily taken from a Christadelphian Daily Readings plan—in other words, a lectionary.

Prayer in Public Worship

'Ah, but the prayers are not scripted.' Again, only partly true. For one thing, our ecclesia had a long-standing convention—dare I say tradition—that the Sunday evening service would be closed with the Lord's Prayer, following the KJV of Matthew 6:9-13. A scripted prayer! For another, the public prayers were offered by the presiding brother and by men in the congregation. The presiding brother would make prior arrangements with these men, precisely so they would be prepared for their prayer. In other words, spontaneity was not seen as the ideal. And you didn't have to attend the ecclesial meetings for long before you would learn that each man in the congregation had certain 'favourite lines'—that is, forms—that he liked to use in his public prayers. In certain instances one could literally finish the brother's sentence for him. The younger baptized men, when they first began offering public prayers, would often borrow from these tried-and-true forms used by their elders. I am sure that every family has observed in prayers before meals this same tendency for forms of prayer to develop. All of this is liturgical, and no one seems to find it objectionable.

Sensory and Physical Public Worship

'Ah, but we don't have sensory or physical forms of worship, like candles and incense and kneeling.' Partaking ritually of bread and wine—regardless of one's doctrinal understanding about it—is clearly a sensory form of worship. The breaking of bread service in the Canadian ecclesia I grew up in always involved a ritual uncovering and covering of the bread and wine with a piece of white linen. Visual forms of worship! Liturgy! Moreover, although there was no kneeling, the ecclesia had very specific customs about standing and sitting. Everyone stood for hymns and prayers after hymns. However, only baptized persons stood for the prayers for bread and wine. As for the hymns themselves, they were invariably selected from a Christadelphian hymnbook, a collection of hymns deemed musically and theologically appropriate. The hymns were categorized in the hymnbook according to liturgical occasion, e.g., morning, breaking of bread, dismissal.

The Liturgical Calendar

The aspect of Christadelphian worship that is probably the least liturgical is the calendar. Christadelphians do not formally observe any major festivals of the Christian liturgical calendar (or the Jewish), such as Easter, Christmas, Pentecost, etc. Christadelphians also attach no liturgical significance to Sunday: their Statement of Faith explicitly rejects the doctrine 'that the observance of Sunday is a matter of duty.' I have heard Christadelphians remark that their memorial service is held on Sunday only out of convenience and could arbitrarily be held on any other day.1 Yet Christadelphians do inevitably have liturgical seasonality. The convention of Sunday worship punctuates a weekly cycle that Christadelphians would surely acknowledge is historically rooted in a divinely instituted Sabbatarian framework.  Similarly, while Christadelphians do not have an annual liturgical cycle per se, and do not celebrate any religious festivals, they do have a de facto annual cycle of events, such as 'fraternal gatherings,' 'Bible schools' and 'youth conferences'. Many Christadelphians would describe these occasions as highlights of their religious life, something they look forward to every year. They undoubtedly fulfill the same spiritual needs that an annual liturgical cycle fulfills for traditional Christians (as well as Jews, Muslims, etc.)


It should be clear from the foregoing that, notwithstanding considerable diversity between ecclesias in forms, the Christadelphian religion is indeed 'liturgical' in its worship; very much so. Even though Christadelphian liturgy is in numerous respects less rigid and less regulated than the liturgy of other Christian traditions, Christadelphians are not accurately described as 'non-liturgical'. Indeed, I do not think it is possible to practice a religion for any length of time without liturgical forms developing, even where the adherents of this religion express an antipathy for anything formal or traditional.

My hope in writing this article is that Christadelphians who consider themselves 'non-liturgical' might realise that their worship is actually quite 'liturgical,' and that this realisation might give rise to further reflection on the value of liturgical traditions as practiced by most other professing Christians past and present. Also, maybe someone should update that Wikipedia page.


  • 1 On the other hand, I have also heard presiders at Christadelphian Sunday meetings refer solemnly to the meeting being held on 'this first day of the week,' implicitly linking their practice to certain New Testament texts (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2).

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Christmas in July: Where did this holiday come from, and should it be celebrated?

For many Christians, Christmas is the highlight of the liturgical calendar. Indeed, for some nominal Christians it is practically the only event in the liturgical calendar. Other Christians, however, reject this holiday in view of its lack of biblical warrant, alleged pagan roots, or contemporary commercialization. How did Christmas come about, and should it be observed today?

By 336 A.D., Christmas, held on December 25, marked the beginning of the festal year in Rome.1It is difficult to determine how much earlier than this the observance originated, with most scholars opting for a date in the late third century or early fourth century. A couple of earlier Christian writers speculated about the date of Christ's birth but gave no indication of a festival associated with it. In fact, the early third century Christian writer Origen decried the practice of celebrating birthdays and observed that it was something that sinners, not saints, got involved with.
“The whole discussion communicates a general attitude held by some early Christians that birthdays were something only ‘pagans’ (non-Christians) celebrated, not good Christians.”2
What can be said with certainty is that there was no observance of Christmas in the apostolic age or for several generations thereafter. This absence is important for anyone with a restorationist vision of Christianity:
“Restorationism, or Christian primitivism, is an ideology that identifies early Christianity (variously defined) as the timeless norm for Christian doctrine and practice. Restorationism’s adherents seek to replicate this normative ‘early Christianity’ in their own times.”3
For anyone who views the doctrine and practice of the apostolic age as normative to the exclusion of later developments in the patristic church, Christmas will likely appear as an unwelcome innovation. This probably explains, at least in part, why some restorationist groups either reject Christmas (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses) or view it with some ambivalence (Christadelphians).

Does Christmas have pagan roots? There are two main hypotheses concerning how December 25 came to be the date on which Christ's birthday was celebrated: the History of Religions hypothesis and the Calculation hypothesis.4 The History of Religions hypothesis posits that Christians of the early fourth century, with their new-found legal backing under Constantine, hijacked an existing pagan holiday known as Natalis Solis Invicti. This holiday was a commemoration of the unconquered sun-god which coincided with the winter solstice. With biblical backing for the use of sun imagery in relation to Christ (Malachi 4:2), and a festal vacuum left by the increasing conversion of pagans to Christianity, it is argued that Christians appropriated Natalis Solis Invicti to mark Christ's birth.

The Calculation hypothesis holds that early Christians held a highly symbolic view of time in which God only worked in whole numbers and not fractions. Persons regarded as great in God's eyes would die on the same day as they were born. Christ was regarded to have died on March 25, based on calculations between the Jewish and Julian calendars. Thus his conception (i.e. the Annunciation, regarded as more theologically significant than his actual birth) was also dated to March 25, from which it was inferred that he was born on December 25.

These two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive,5 so the symbolic calculations may have provided the impetus for the Christian takeover of Natalis Solis Invicti. Importantly, neither one lends any credibility to the view that Christ was actually born on December 25, which must be regarded as extremely unlikely. If the History of Religions hypothesis is correct, then Christmas does indeed have its roots in paganism. However, it represents a reaction against paganism. While it may also suggest a willingness to accommodate former pagans, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as “the early Christians had little choice but to adapt to the surrounding Hellenized-Roman culture if they had any pretensions to universality.”6

Neither of these hypotheses fully explains why the church began to celebrate Christmas. It is unlikely that the need to replace former pagan holidays in the calendar with some Christian analogue can entirely account for the invention of Christmas. Some scholars have tentatively suggested that the Arian controversy played a role in the spread of Christmas observance. Since Arians placed less emphasis on the incarnation than proponents of Nicene orthodoxy, Christmas may have been promoted in line with anti-Arian polemic.7. Kochenash has argued in an unpublished work that the origin of Christmas coincided with the development of a belief that certain spaces and times were inherently sacred, which had not been part of Christian belief in prior centuries in which house churches were the main place of worship.8

What is the significance of Christmas today? From a secular standpoint it has been heavily commercialized:
“The massive production, advertising and marketing essential to the stability and health of the retail sector of the economy in developed countries serves as the secular form of the feast, the content of which derives not only from the incarnation in the salvation history of Christian belief, but even beyond Christianity in a complex of folklore, custom, art, familial bonding, common values and personal and collective memories. The Gospel story of the birth of Christ secures the base, the original core, sometimes amounting to only a barely-detectible pretext, for the feast in its contemporary manifestation; yet the story is not in itself determinative of what Christmas is.”9
Forbes observes that many of the cultural features of Christmas observance in the contemporary West derive from pre-Christian winter solstice festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia or the Yule/Jul of northern Europe.10

Nevertheless, in Christian communities today which emphasize the religious aspect of Christmas observance, the liturgical context depends largely on the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. In such situations, the historical event of Christ's birth, which is portrayed in Scripture as a joyous occasion, is the focal point of the celebration. For me this suggests that, although the origins of Christmas are somewhat dubious and although this holiday is heavily exploited by commercial interests today, there exists a potential to rehabilitate Christmas into an observance that glorifies God. This is my vision. However, I believe there is a warrant for freedom in Christ with respect to the observance or non-observance of Christmas. As Paul says, 
"5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God...13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer." (Romans 14:5-6, 13)
From a restorationist point of view, the observance of Christmas can be legitimately called an un-biblical corruption of the purity of apostolic worship. However, for those communities which allow for a sense of history within the church,11 Christmas can be viewed as a tradition which, in spite of its shaky origins, rightly encourages celebration of the birth of the Saviour.

1 Roll, S.K. (1995). Toward the Origins of Christmas. Peeters Publishers, p. 174.
2 Forbes, B.D. (2008). Christmas: A Candid History. University of California Press, p. 18.
3 Dunnavant, A.L. (2012). Restorationism. In B.J. & J.Y. Crainshaw (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Religious Controversies in the United States, Vol. 2. ABC-CLIO.
4 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 50.
5 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 108.
6 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 69.
7 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 174.
8 Kochenash, M. (n.d.) The Origin of Christmas in Early Christian Sacred Space. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/5226888/The_Origin_of_Christmas_in_Early_Christian_Sacred_Space.
9 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 269.
10 Forbes, B.D. op. cit., pp. 3-11.
11 It has been said that one of the central themes of primitivism (a term roughly synonymous with restorationism) is “a rejection of any sense of history.” (Hughes, R.T. (1995). The Meaning of the Restoration Vision. In R.T. Hughes (Ed.), The Primitive Church in the Modern World (ix-xviii). University of Illinois Press, p. x).