by Matthew Y. Emerson
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the beginning of the season of Lent in the traditional church calendar. In its broadest sense, Lent is a time of fasting, a fast that reminds us of our dependence on the grace of God due to our sinfulness and our creatureliness. It is also a time to reflect on and find hope in Christ’s success in the face of temptation, even though we fail daily in our attempt to be holy as God as holy. It is good news that, where Adam, Eve, and we have failed, Christ succeeds and gives his Spirit to those who repent and believe in his death for the forgiveness of sins and resurrection from the dead.
For a few years now (at least), there has seemed to me to be a simultaneous uptick in non-mainline Protestants interested in Lent and an increase in opposition to Lent from those convinced of a strict regulative principle of worship (RPW). At its most basic level, as far as I can tell, opposition to Lent from RPW advocates comes from exactly the angle one would expect – Lent isn’t commanded in Scripture. This is part of a larger opposition to the church calendar by RPW supporters; according to them, the church calendar is not mentioned or directed in Scripture, and so is not a proper part of Christian worship. I sympathize with the RPW, and find it helpful in the sense that it continues to direct our attention to Scripture as the final authority for faith and practice. But I do not think even the strictest advocates of the RPW have to jettison the church calendar for RPW reasons, or rationales related to the RPW in some way. Here I want to address the issue of the calendar in five ways, three of which are in response to objections, usually raised by RPW advocates, and two of which are more positive explications of the benefits of the calendar and relatively unrelated to RPW conversations.
1. The calendar isn’t in Scripture – and neither is the word “Trinity.”
One common objection to the calendar is that it isn’t mentioned in Scripture. RPW supporters especially maintain that the calendar, and particularly a few of its more controversial elements like Lent, is not found in Scripture. This is true.
Here I would just say that neither are a whole host of things that orthodox Christians believe and practice. The word “Trinity” is an obvious example in the realm of doctrine; it is a term used to render an accurate conceptual judgment on the patterns of biblical language that describe God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. With respect to practice, there are many things we do related to worship that aren’t commanded in Scripture. For instance, responsive readings aren’t commanded, but many, and even some in the RPW camp, would see this as a legitimate way to obey the command to read Scripture publicly. How many hymns we sing, and what hymns and songs we sing, isn’t commanded, but we organize our singing in obedience to the overarching command to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another. And preaching calendars aren’t commanded, but every pastor I know organizes their preaching schedule in one way or another. They choose books through which to preach expositionally, topics to explore, etc. And this is what the calendar is – an organizing principle. It is not an element of worship, but a way to organize God’s commands about what to include in worship - which brings us to the second objection to the calendar.
2. Everyone has an organizing principle.
Another objection to the calendar brought by RPW proponents and others is that it is rigid and demands too much. And in fact Paul warns about calendric insistence in his letter to the church at Colossae, saying, “. . . don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ” (Col. 2:16–17). This admonition is not against organization worship in a calendric fashion per se, though, but against the insistence that righteousness, justification before God, comes as a result of following strict calendric observation.
In fact, everyone organizes their worship, and usually in large calendric chunks. Even those who are adamantly opposed to the calendar but also insist (rightly, in my view) on expositional preaching through books of the Bible take time to organize their preaching schedule. Every pastor I’ve ever had, and many of the ones I know personally (but not as a congregant), take annual or semi-annual retreats to pray about and solidify their preaching schedule each year. Sometimes this is simply organizing how one will continue to preach through the same book as the year before; other times it includes deciding which new book or books to preach through in a given season. The point is that everyone has an organizing principle for how they preach, even expositional, book-by-book preachers and teachers. The calendar is not antithetical to this, but is merely one way of providing an organizing schema. The calendar is not used because it is commanded in Scripture; it is used because it helps the church throughout space and time organize its exposition of God’s Word to his people.
To put it differently, the RPW recognizes that preaching and reading God’s Word are clearly evidenced in Scripture. They are non-negotiable elements of corporate worship. The calendar merely helps organize these God-given ecclesial tasks. As a Baptist and therefore a proponent of local church autonomy, of course I would not say that any particular church must use the calendar. A pastor and their team can use any number of organizing mechanisms for their preaching and Scripture reading schedules. My point is that the objection to the calendar related to the RPW doesn’t stand in light of the fact that the calendar is simply another way of organizing how one will fulfill God’s command to preach and read his Word to his people.
3. The calendar doesn’t prevent, discourage, or diminish expository preaching.
A subsequent objection to the calendar is that it prevents expositional preaching. Even if one accepts that it doesn’t violate the RPW explicitly, so the argument goes, it still demands that you preach particular texts each week and prevents pastors from preaching expositionally, book-by-book. There are at least a couple of points to make here. First, the calendar’s organization doesn’t prevent expositional preaching through a book, it promotes it. The lectionary – the prescribed readings each day, including Sunday, from a Psalm, an Old Testament passage, a New Testament passage, and a Gospel passage – mostly moves passage by passage through a particular book in each of those sections. During the 6 months of the calendar focused on the life and work of Jesus in the Gospels (Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide, Pentecost), a pastor could preach expositionally through whatever Gospel is being read in the lectionary that year. During the 6 months between Trinity Sunday (the Sunday after Pentecost Sunday) and Advent, called Ordinary Time, the pastor can preach through any of the Old or New Testament books being read, or through a portion of the Psalms. Again, the calendar doesn’t prevent exposition; it organizes it.
Some might say here that some lectionaries, especially the Revised Common Lectionary, do not always include every passage in a biblical book, or they move around in a book instead of moving verse by verse. This is true, at least in a few limited cases. Again, as a Baptist and thus because of local church autonomy, each church is free to adjust the readings or sermon schedule under the direction of the Spirit as exhibited by the congregational governance of Christ’s body and as administered by the pastors of the church. (I would also add that these instances of variance in the lectionary are relatively few and far between.) But the overall schema of the calendar – spending half our year thinking about the life and work of Christ in the Gospels, and half our year in the rest of the Prophets and Apostles who proclaimed him – is simply an organizing principle for which books a pastor will exposit during which time of year. It is no different in that sense from a notebook a pastor brings back from a preaching retreat, with the exception that the calendar is common to many traditions and used in many churches throughout the world.
4. The calendar helps us read canonically.
Those objections aside, there are at least two benefits to using the calendar for organizing our Scripture reading and expositional preaching. I want to emphasize again that I am only suggesting this as one possible way Baptists might think about organizing these worship elements; I am not making a demand. Nevertheless, there are two reasons I find the calendar beneficial.
First, it helps me read the whole Bible together as one book. I can’t just hang out in Paul most of the time, either in my personal devotion or if I were to choose Scripture readings for the week. If we are honest, I think many conservative evangelicals have precisely this temptation, to only or mostly read and teach from Paul, and particularly Pauline passages about substitutionary atonement. As wonderful as Paul is, all Scripture, including but not just Paul, is God-breathed and therefore the inspired Word of God for the people of God. The calendar thus contains readings from every part of the canon every day, including every Lord’s Day. Reading the Bible canonically and seeing how it is all ultimately one Book by one Author with one Subject is hermeneutically impinged on us through reading the verses listed in the lectionary.
5. The calendar centers our life on the life and work of Christ.
This canonical reading inherent in the lectionary is also Christocentric. Each day, including the Lord’s Day, the selections culminate in the passage from whichever of the four Gospels is being read at the time. This in and of itself centers our Bible reading and therefore our faith exactly where it should be, on the person and work of Jesus. It also centers our life, through the yearly repetition of the ecclesial calendar, on the person and work of Jesus. Advent through Pentecost is all about Jesus. This is not to pit the Old Testament or the rest of the New Testament against the Gospels; far from it! But it is to say the rest of the prophets and apostles are pointing either forward or backward, respectively, to the content of the four Gospels.
6. The church calendar is an area of Christian and ecclesial freedom.
Of course, churches don’t have to use the calendar. Once more – I’m a Baptist! One of the impetuses for the Separatist movement in 17th century England and the Baptist churches that arose out of it was a reaction against the Church of England’s insistence that every church and every believer use its liturgical practices, including the calendar, lectionary, and Book of Common Prayer, or experience retribution from the church and the state. In that historical light, I want to say again and again that Baptist churches can use whatever organizing scheme, or liturgy, they like. I hope that they do so reflectively and carefully, but I wouldn’t ever expect every Baptist church to do things exactly as I preferred.
There’s also more to say about the calendar and its employment in Protestant churches and devotional practices, especially with respect to commemorations and the like. I also think there are some misconceptions to address regarding Lent. So this post isn’t intended to encompass everything one could say about the calendar. But I hope that I’ve at least knocked down a few common objections and given some benefits that will help Baptist pastors interested in using the calendar think through it.