Monday, March 19, 2007

Lent Filter

I was looking around yesterday when I stopped by the website for New Wineskins magazine. At the top right of the homepage, I saw something that surprised me: a button labeled "Lenten Devotional."

Now, I've read and talked with enough people to know; it's no longer unheard of for folks in the Churches of Christ to observe days and seasons of the traditional Christian calendar, and to practice various ways of worship and devotion that years ago our people would have avoided and even condemned. What surprised me was that a magazine that's basically by and for people in the Churches of Christ would be providing instruction and guidance about the purposes and the ways of Lent. That seemed to me like a step beyond.

Anyway, I clicked on the button to see what was there. No surprises. Most of the "Lenten Devotional" material comes from outside our circles. There are even some elementary question-and-answer sections (again, written by someone from outside the Churches of Christ) designed to teach readers what Lent actually is and how it's observed.

Also among the entries is a well-reasoned, finely-written article by John Ogren entitled, "Give Up SEX for Lent?" Ogren serves as "the Communities of Faith Minister" at the South MacArthur Church of Christ in Irving, Texas. Finally, I thought. Here's something extensive, about Lent, by one of us. Maybe he'll take up the question. I wasn't disappointed. Ogren writes:

"It should be acknowledged that Lent is offensive to many evangelical Christians, perhaps because it is a remarkable feature of the Catholic tradition that we have, historically speaking, rejected. Furthermore, Lent is trivialized to many by the caricatures of Lenten discipline that abound (maybe you've know someone who gave up candy bars for Lent). But hopefully it is clear . . . how richly evangelical an authentic pursuit of Lenten discipline might be. And what some have trivialized might yet be realized, even by Christians with no place for Lent in their tradition or experience of Lent in their own past."

He continues:

"In Churches of Christ, the tradition in which I am happy to live and serve, there is no corporate observance of Lent, but we do practice something of a parallel to Lent in our weekly communion service. As long as I can remember, the Lord's Supper has been marked as a time for self-examination, following Paul's instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29. If we have not always read this passage in its context or appreciated the corporate dimensions of this self-examination, we have still recognized the call to test our lives and behavior in light of what we affirm and proclaim when we eat the bread and drink the cup. Lent can be understood and practiced in a similar way: in parallel with the weekly testing that accompanies the celebration of our fellowship at the Lord's table, Lent is an annual season of testing and discipline that accompanies the celebration of the Resurrection. Like the self-discerning that Paul required of the Corinthians, Lent should be practiced in the context of relationships and community. We are not solitary individuals attempting to perfect ourselves, but rather we are members of a new humanity being built up to perfection in the Body of Christ."

A response or two. Then I want to hear what you think.

First, is it accurate to suggest that evangelicals and people in the Churches of Christ have rejected Lenten practice because "it was a remarkable feature of the Catholic tradition"? Was Lent something our forefathers objected to because it was Roman Catholic?

My own experience and reading suggest that those kinds of prejudices were probably never far away from a lot of our folks, including me. However, I would argue that in keeping with the best principles of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, we in the Churches of Christ have objected to Lenten practices not because they seemed so Catholic, but because they were what we called "unscriptural."

This is where I would question any comparisons drawn between Lent and the Lord's Supper. If I grant that believers need a ritual and a time for self-examination in the presence of Christ and his church, I also say that, according to Scripture, those have been given to us by the Lord Jesus himself. The same cannot be said for Lent.

I am not suggesting that Ogren has put the two on a par. He hasn't. What I am suggesting is that if leaders in the Churches of Christ want to pinpoint the source of our much-discussed "idenity crisis," they need to look no further than the rationale, right or wrong, that Ogren provides, as well as the question he doesn't answer: What about the unscriptural character of Lent?

It strikes me as an abandonment of the interpretive principles that are very close to, and inseparable from, some of what the Churches of Christ have put forward as their reasons for being a distinct group.

What do you think?


Matt said...

On one side you have people say - whatever helps draw people closer to God is something that couldn't hurt so why not.

The other extreme would say - if a denomination does it, we can't.

There is a HUGE difference between Lent and the Lord's Supper. It seems to me that Ogren is just using an example of something CofC folks already know to help them see what Lent is kind of like. Just like a parable, not everything is parallel in meaning/not everything that applies to the Lord's Supper applies to Lent. Just my 2 cents. God bless

Arlene Kasselman said...

I think that any practices we can put in place in the rythym of life that help us draw in close to Jesus are awesome. One could argue that "centering prayer" or some of the other spiritual disciplines are not "scriptural" but they are so formative in our spiritual formation.

Trying to retain indentity markers as a movement just does not resonate with me or my experiences. My prayer is that looking like Jesus is the only identity marker we care about.

Greg Newton said...

I think the scriptural versus unscriptural discussion is the wrong concern and unproductive. To ask what is scriptural is to have a legal versus illegal mentality.

Lent is never alleged by anyone to be mandated by scripture. As a practice, it was developed as a formative help, and that it can be.

This is my fourth year of observing Lent with others (never mandated, but as an option), and it has only become richer each year. I have discovered more about myself, about Jesus' 40 days in the desert, temptation, my need for grace, and much more.

For those who want to think in the "scriptural mandated" mode . . . fasting is absolutely expected by Jesus and practiced in the early church, though generally ignored by those who claim to be scriptural. For those who want to argue against Lent being unscriptural, they argue against fasting, repentance, mourning, self-denial, prayer and much else.

One of my devotions for Lent this year to write a daily prayer, which may be found at (

I heartily recommend Lent and much more from the Christian calendar for our spiritual formation.


Frank Bellizzi said...

Matt, Arlene, and Greg: Thanks so much for your input. I'm really glad to have conversation partners like you.

John Alan said...

We did lots of things that don't have any scriptural basis: Sunday School; bus ministry; owning our own building; invitation songs.

Those didn't bother us very much. Looking back it seems somewhat arbitrary -- which things we accepted vs. rejected.

I do think there's more Roman Catholicism running around in the Churches of Christ than we'd ever admit out loud. We take a sacramental view of baptism and (in some places) the Lord's Supper. We have a high view of The Church and its traditions.

Arlene Kasselman said...

Greg, I like the way you said that, and that is I guess where I was going.
Matt, I think you are right in what you assume about John Ogren.
I know John and his wife Wendy (who is undoubtedly one of the children's ministry guru's of our fellowship, and David Wray's daughter)very well. They are both extremely intellectual people, but it is their heart for people and ministry that will make you love them.

Frank Bellizzi said...

You're right, John Alan. We have been arbitrary when it comes to what we're willing to allow, or not. Having spent a lot of time among traditional Churches of Christ, I've sometimes been amused at the creativity employed by those who were trying to keep it all consistent.

I can remember hearing a panel discussion in which a big-name CofC leader explained, with a straight face, that the silence of the Scriptures had to be regarded as exclusionary; if it wasn't, how would we deny instrumental music?

I think that what bugs me about Lent is not Lent; it's the neglect of the Supper. You mentioned, John Alan, that in some Churches of Christ, the doctrine and practice of Lord's Supper has "caught up" to our traditional view of baptism. Where do I go to "place membership"?

John Alan said...

I didn't mean that as a positive. For example, my father once had a man tell him that he knew he was going to heaven because he had taken the Lord's Supper more than 1,500 times!

That's the kind of sacramental view I was thinking of.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Oh. . . . That . . . I should have known better.

Maybe that guy was taking it in the morning and then going to the little room for the Sunday-night special too. My question is, Does that really count as twice, or just once?

Frank Bellizzi said...

Having slept since yesterday, I want to add a couple of responses to what some have said so far. Naturally, I don't want to be too picky. I'm just aiming at greater clarity.

Greg, you say that scriptural vs. unscriptural is not the way to go. But in your second paragraph, you add that no one thinks Lent is mandated by Scritpure. What would be the difference between mandated vs. unmandated and scriptural vs. unscriptural?

John Alan, regarding your first comment, I still don't know what to do with the word "sacraments." If by that term we mean something that conveys to us the grace of God, then the whole world is a big bunch of sacraments. On the other hand, I do see baptism and the Lord' Supper as depicted in the NT as having a unique sacramental character to them.

For many years now, I've wondered about those passages in the Gospels where Jesus demands others to eat his flesh and drink his blood and, especially, where the eyes of the disciples are opened to the identity of the resurrected Christ whenever he breaks and blesses bread, giving it to the disciples to eat (Lk. 24:30-31). Could those passages be understood in the same way John 3 ("born of the water and the Spirit") points forward to baptism and the reception of the Spirit, ala Acts 2:38 et al?

If so, then thinking in the Churches of Christ regarding the Lord's Supper really should "catch up" to our "sacramental" view of baptism, which, as you know, maintains significant distinctions from Catholic views and practices.

john alan turner said...

I think the number of people who could articulate the differences between the Church of Christ's sacramental view of baptism and the Roman Catholic's sacramental view of baptism are very few indeed!

Frank Bellizzi said...

John Alan, I guess I was thinking about how Churches of Christ baptize only believers. According to Roman Catholics (as well as Lutherans), the sprinkling of an infant effects regeneration.

john alan turner said...

I think you're articulating something that few people in the Churches of Christ understand. Granted, they would never baptize an infant, but the idea of baptismal regeneration is what many folks in the Church of Christ actually believe.

Frank Bellizzi said...

I'm afraid you're right.

lisa duncan said...

I know I'm just a country pumpkin, but I can't find Lent anywhere in the Bible. What I do find is whenever I have a difficult decision or heaviness on my heart I should take it to the Lord. Therefore fasting and time in prayer is the model my Jesus sat before me. Not just one time a year. Lisa