Evangelicals and the Christian Year – Lent

Greg Strand – March 7, 2013 2 Comments

All churches follow a calendar – some follow the calendar of the Christian year; others follow the secular calendar.

Many Evangelical churches follow the latter. Though they celebrate two of the major events of the Christian year – Christmas and Good Friday-Easter – they are much more likely to celebrate Mother’s Day (nothing wrong with that), Father’s Day (nothing wrong with that, though often with less emphasis than Mother’s Day), Memorial Day and Fourth of July than they are to celebrate other major events in the Christian year, e.g. Pentecost Sunday and Trinity Sunday.

There is, on the one hand, something healthy about focusing more on the Christian year in the local church, even as Evangelicals. But there is also, I confess, something that is a bit disconcerting about the way in which some Evangelicals undiscerningly pick up a liturgical practice without understanding its true history and meaning.

Kenneth J. Stewart, Professor of Theological Studies (specialist in the history of Christianity from the Reformation to the present with special interest in the development of the evangelical Protestant tradition), Covenant College (PCA), Lookout Mountain, GA, recently addressed this in “Much Ado about Something? Nagging Questions about Observing Lent.”

Stewart is not “anti-liturgical,” affirms a “modest use of the ‘church year’” and believes “evangelical churches need to be more deferential towards our Christian heritage.” His primary concern is that Evangelicals are appropriating some liturgy of the Christian year from the vantage point of “a liturgical inferiority complex.”

Stewart concludes that the following six considerations are important when seeking to discern what from the past ought to be appropriated or reappropriated regarding the celebration of Lent.

  1. Lent (“The fast of forty days before Easter” says the ODCC [Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church]) is indeed an early Christian practice, but a fast of such duration is both untraceable in the Apostolic period, and unrecorded in the first three Christian centuries. During that early post-Apostolic period, any pre-Easter fasting “did not as a rule exceed three days”. The idea of a forty day fast finds first mention in the Canons of the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.). Thus an initial question is: if a pre-Easter fast is to be re-instated at the present time, which version of the fast is to be preferred?
  2. The idea of a forty-day fast was itself diversely practiced. In the centuries immediately after 325 A.D. there was a strict approach. One meal a day, taken towards evening, was allowed. This could not include meat, fish, eggs or dairy. But by the ninth century the strictness was relaxed; the daily meal was allowed at 3 p.m. By the fifteenth century, one was allowed to dine by noon. . . . A second question therefore might be: which level of severity is to be aimed at, and why? What constitutes authentic practice? It is authenticity that we are seeking, isn’t it?
  3. Conscious of this varied past record of Lenten practice, and conscious that for many, Lenten observance had come to be grasped at as a means of acquiring merit before God, the Protestant Reformers treaded carefully. They understood that the earliest post-Apostolic pre-Easter observances had been for just a few days and that the extension of the period to forty days came considerably later. . . . While allowing for the Christian discipline of voluntary fasting, they warned against any understanding of fasting which nourished mistaken notions of merit. These could only undermine the gospel understanding that we are accepted before God by His grace in Christ, or not at all. Not surprisingly, in some Reformation lands Lent seemed to vanish altogether.
  4. Even in Anglicanism, where Lent survived the Reformation, the practice was not uniformly maintained, and by the eighteenth century it was being largely ignored. . . . Do evangelicals of all stripes understand the recent pedigree of the Lenten observance being urged today?
  5. Leaving aside the known abuses to which Lenten observance has contributed (and happily, all evangelical Christians avoid these), and accepting that “abuse does not rule out right use”, the question remains: by what authority and according to what measure does evangelical Protestantism now promote or re-instate versions of Lenten practice? It is not enough to “sense” or to “hope” that by the restoration of such practices we are somehow “standing with the church of all ages”, or “adopting earliest Christian practice”. It seems we cannot know either with any absolute certainty. . . . Evangelicals are tending to “pour into” Lent meanings we think important.
  6. Our evangelical Protestantism needs to appropriate many things from the Christian past. But as it does so, two things ought to be born in mind. First we ought to look more often to the Reformation era for help in evaluating features of Christian antiquity. . . . Second, let us be sure that when we go looking for the approbation of Christian antiquity, that we are not chasing some romanticized ideal of what constitutes the genuine and the pure. The current “chase” after Lent convinces this writer that the evangelical pursuit of romantic ideals is like a stallion, still needing to be tamed.

I do not fully agree with Stewart’s notion of our Evangelical “liturgical inferiority complex.” However, I agree that most Evangelicals are so low-church that there is little to connect us to the life and history of the longer and larger church. From this vantage point we embrace and imbibe things to rectify a perceived problem without thinking those issues through biblically, theologically, historically and pastorally. At the end of the day, we can end up creating another more significant problem.

Moreover, I appreciate greatly how he went about “studying” the matter of Lent. If we are going to appropriate the events of the Christian year, Stewart’s approach/methodology of how to do this is commendable. It is imperative for us to know the history. We are not at liberty to fill in the event with our own perceived or wished-for meaning.

A few questions:

  1. Do you follow the Christian year? If so, what do you celebrate and why?
  2. How much of the history do you know or have you studied of the events celebrated of the Christian year?
  3. Do you think that many Evangelicals have “a liturgical inferiority complex?” If so, how is it rectified?
  4. How do you ensure the local church connects with the life and history of the longer and larger church of Jesus Christ?

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

2 responses to Evangelicals and the Christian Year – Lent

  1. Our congregation keeps track of the church calendar, but we don’t *follow* it. It is printed in the bulletin each week (Today is the “Fourth Sunday in Lent.”), but it doesn’t dictate sermon topics or anything like that. It’s more a matter of being aware that we stand in a line of Christians who have traditionally viewed the seasons of the church calendar as times for particular topics of reflection. Personally, though, I think studying the ecumenical creeds and the various confessions may be more helpful in linking the Church today to the Church past. Thanks for this post!

    • Bryan, Thank you for your reply. I concur that it is vital that we recognize that we are part of a much longer (throughout time) and larger (universal) and wider church (no geographical bounds)! There are a number of ways we can and should do that, the Creeds being one very important way.

      For years I have been teaching the Sr. High youth the five-fold test of orthodoxy: One Bible; Two Testaments; Three Creeds (Apostles’, Nicene-Constantinople and Athanasian); Four Councils (Nicene [325], Constantinople [381], Ephesus [431] and Chalcedon [451]; Five Centuries along with the Church Fathers. I will include a more detailed explanation of this in some future post.

      My concern is that if we do not teach our young people that we are part of a history like this that consists of a tradition (small t, not Tradition understood as an ultimate authority as in the RCC), when they are exposed to it once they go to college, they believe the only explanation is the RCC understanding. Additionally, it may cause them to wonder what else the church in which they grew up did not tell them.

      Interestingly, we had this very discussion in our Sr. High Sunday School class this morning!

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