I read Bart Barber’s recent suggestion on Lent with interest. I see staunch anti-papists in my newsfeed as well as those who have no issue with poaching and learning from other faith traditions. At the risk of a(nother) well-earned lesson from the well-learned Dr. Barber, I’d like to dive into this.
So how do we determine a best path through the issue? Let us consider two sides of the coin: Catholic Tradition and the evangelical understanding of the Bible.
Catholic teaching presents Lent as a spiritual practice drawing us closer to God through self-examination and self-sacrifice. Practitioners fast from something to reorder their priorities with Christ at the apex. In lieu of pursuing Xbox or fishing or chocolate, Catholics time reflecting on Christ’s sacrifices and nature.
Lenten activities are penitential in nature, with the season being the primary penitential season of the year. Penance, penance worship services, and penitential acts all shape the season.
Lent is also about living as Christ lived through fasting, praying, and serving others. Many ministries provide channels of service during Lent for believers to serve.
The Catholic Church declares Lent to be the duty of all children of God. All Catholics must receive Communion during the Lenten season, though confession and penance are only required for those who have committed a grave sin since their last confession.
In short, the scriptures say nothing about Lent or any sort of specific spiritual, liturgical, calendared event. Does this free us from Lenten obligations?
Romans 14:1-6 addresses the matter obliquely:
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.
He picks up the topic again in verse 13:
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
Clearly the author references the personal convictions that separate us. More interestingly, Paul specifically mentioned days some viewed as special. He refused to condemn those who felt called to participate in acts of Godward service that did not violate any sort of divine expectation.
At the same time, Paul warned people not to pursue something – say, special days – at the detriment of those around them. An SBCer who has a healthy approach to Lent should tread lightly when talking with those who are somewhat more tenuous in their understand. Insisting on practicing Lent in solidarity with Catholic friends might pose a risk for weaker evangelical Christians who are uncertain of their convictions.
Addressing the specific Catholic claims will be easier if we list them.
- Self-examination and self-sacrifice in the name of drawing closer to God is wonderful. I do not think we’ll find any sort of contradiction in the Bible. Paul calls for self-examination before the Lord’s Supper. Jesus assumed in Matthew 16 that we would fast (self-sacrifice). We could go on, but this is enough to say these two concepts are quite acceptable.
- Penance is a very Catholic concept that allows for errant believers to make up for their earthly mistakes and draw nearer to heaven. As well, the sacrament of penance holds a position of necessity for being in a state of grace. These things have no clear biblical support. All the support I’ve seen on Catholic sites for the sacrament of penance requires a certain set of assumptions prior to reading the Bible.
- A season for penance runs counter to the orthodox evangelical understand that we must consistently engage in confession and repentance. Saving it for a single emphasis just does not seem to fit the overall ethos of the Bible.
- Living as Christ lived is a great goal, but it should be a year-round event. Even if one pursues Lenten sacrifice and service, an emphasis on this particular period seems somewhat self-limiting.
- The Bible does not mandate any specific acts of worship as a part of a particular time or season.
A Conclusion and A Suggestion
As I understand Lent and the approach of it proponents, there are superficial aspects that are or should be a part of our current Christian experience. We should always serve others. Living as Christ lived remains our goal. Examining ourselves and our sins forms a nice chunk of our spiritual lives.
However, the undergirding philosophy remains suspect. Penance, mortal sins, and a specific period of confessional emphasis are implied. Asking people to engage in Lent without accepting the doctrine behind it is roughly akin to eating steak while avoiding protein.
People are drawn to spiritual disciplines, though. They want to face challenges and draw nearer to both God and their fellow believers. Perhaps we could suggest that Baptists consider a season of self-sacrifice similar to a Nazarite: make a commitment and carry it out as an act of worship. Fasting and service are just two approaches. Anything that draws us closer to God without causing those around us to stumble can only be good, right?