I don’t know about you, but my early morning startup process is a mixture of ingredients. Coffee in hand, it typically involves a brief interaction with the Bible as prompted by a devotional resource. After that, as long as nothing is pressing, I spend a few minutes reading, whether that be an article or a casual scroll through social media. Last Sunday’s routine enjoyed a visit with John 1:14 followed by commentary from Luther, a portion of which encouraged believers to “further and increase [God’s] kingdom, which is in so many suppressed and hindered by the devil and the world.” Luther continued by saying this happens when we “open to Christ our treasures and present them to Him, as the wise men did. And how? Behold, His Word is written (Matthew 25:4): ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’”
Not long after visiting with these things, I read a relatively intuitive quotation from Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament during the American Revolution and a critic of Britain’s treatment of the colonists. He said, “All men that are ruined, are ruined on the side of their natural propensities.” In other words, pay close attention to your natural inclinations in any particular situation. Doing so can spare you some of life’s biggest headaches, the kinds that will inevitably do you in.
This is incredibly insightful, so much so that it came to mind later that morning during the Adult Bible study. We’re currently studying Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Last week, we continued our walk through chapter 5, which began with revisiting:
“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (vv. 1-10).
Relative to this, Burke’s words seemed strangely appropriate. They understand that restraining the types of behavior Saint Paul forbids requires self-awareness, the kind born from genuine honesty.
I didn’t know it, but philosophically, Burke appears to have been a man after my own heart. He wrote a book entitled A Vindication of Natural Society. I managed to read about ten pages of it on Google Books before ordering a hard copy for myself. In the book, Burke chisels away satirically at deism’s popularity while also showing how proper manners help steer and uphold morality while fortifying the boundaries of natural law. He doesn’t necessarily use the following example, but it came to mind as I read those ten pages—and I shared the thought with the Bible study attendees.
Consider a man opening a door for a woman. When a man does this, he isn’t just being properly polite. He’s also acknowledging essential distinctions between men and women. There are things men can and should do that women cannot and should not. The same is true in the opposite direction. There are things women can and should do that men cannot and should not. And yet, while these things might be otherwise offensive to some, the distinction is acknowledged and upheld by an act of humility. Burke argues that the practice of manners—which are, for all intents and purposes, societal rites and ceremonies—restrain darker inclinations.
Now, think back to Burke’s original quotation insisting that one’s natural propensities, if unguarded, can be ruinous.
Everyone has improper tendencies. Let’s say a particular man has a propensity for lording over women, treating them as shameful lessers. By making a conscious effort to begin opening doors for women, this man takes a step toward restraining this unfortunate inclination. He’s submitting himself respectfully to the role of caretaker without unnaturally emasculating himself. The process acknowledges a man’s biblical role of headship, yet it does so in love. The practice of manners—the societal ceremony—helped maintain this framework. I’ll give you another, more personal, example.
I had a good circle of friends in my earliest high school years in Danville, Illinois. Believe it or not, even as testosterone-enriched athletes, we were never inclined to swear. The rest of our teammates were. Outnumbered in this regard, as a result, there came a time when swearing began infecting our circle. To stop it, the four of us pledged to punch one another anytime an inappropriate word crossed our lips. A few days and lots of bruises later, we brought what was becoming a natural propensity under control.
It’s too bad I cannot continue employing such tactics as a clergyman. But I digress.
In short, my friends and I knew ourselves. We were honest about what was becoming a dreadful propensity. We were Christians, and we sensed foul language’s incompatibility with our faith (and, as Burke might suggest, its erosive effect on a moral society). With that, we warred against the tendency with a ceremony capable of maintaining the boundaries (Ephesians 4:29-30, 5:1-13). We did this before the propensity ruined us. Interestingly, the ceremony was unpleasant when used. It hurt. But it was worth it. I should say, it’s likely even Saint Paul would have approved. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, the verb for “discipline” (ὑπωπιάζω) means to strike something physically. Paul appears willing to use extreme techniques to keep his own body under control. Getting punched, perhaps by Timothy, wasn’t off the table.
During last week’s Bible study, I wondered out loud if any of this was relevant to worship style. Of course, my wondering was rhetorical. How could it not be? That’s one of the benefits of traditional worship’s maintaining of historic rites and ceremonies. In a way, they’re theological manners.
Tradition understands man’s propensities. It knows we want things to be our way (anthropocentrism). To restrain this more-often-soiled-than-not tendency, rites and ceremonies—spiritual etiquette—carry the worshipper along in ways designed to exchange anthropocentrism with Christocentrism. In other words, their purpose is to force man out from the center of his own universe and put Christ firmly in the middle.
Understandably, rites and ceremonies are multifaceted, and like getting punched by three friends all at once, they can sometimes be uncomfortable. I get that. They’re strict means of exercise. But the most rigorous kinds of training often produce the best results. In this case, the singular goal of each word and motion is a heart fixed securely on Christ by faith and a new propensity—a Spirit-driven inclination—to imitate Him in the world around us (Ephesians 5:1).