Materialism is the enemy of spirituality. Matter is good in its place, but it is to be kept subordinate and tributary to spirit and not the reverse. The Christian is safe only when he steers clear of the baseness of mere materialism. We are spiritually strengthened by the use of religious forms and material things in worship only as we look through them to the sanctifying agent – the spiritual and unseen Power. It must be remembered that the church is not made for the form but the form for the church. We shall be free from any taint of idolatry or formalism in religion if we can rightly distinguish between material and spiritual things. The whole question settles right here at this vital point. Here is where men in all ages have made their mistake.
Though man is naturally religious, yet he has ever shown a strong tendency in his worship to associate material things with spiritual. When God allowed the ancient Jews to offer animal sacrifices as typical of the spiritual, He repeatedly warned them of the danger of idolatry. Is it any wonder that the images which the King of Israel set up in Dan and Bethel led the people away into idolatry? Those images were not considered idols, but only outward symbols intended to aid the mind in the worship of God. Idolaters put matter in the ascendency, forgetting that it is made only to sub-serve spirit. Material instrumentalities are quite essential in religious worship, but men need to beware of the universal tendency to exalt them above their place.
As God is a spirit and invisible, it becomes necessary that there be more or less of external forms as symbols of Deity. Our imperfect finite nature creates this necessity. Between the cherubim on the mercy-seat, in the tabernacle and afterwards in Solomon’s temple, the luminous cloud was the visible manifestation of Jehovah’s presence. The glory of the Shekinah shone there almost continually to assure and encourage the hearts of the Israelites, as symbolizing the majesty of Jehovah. Among the ancient Jews, the altar and cherubim, sacrifice and incense, ephod and breastplate, trim and Thummim, were all useful as object lessons – symbols of the Old Covenant. And then at Pentecost the tongue of fire appeared as the visible symbol of the new dispensation and that the former had vanished away. The ancient Jews worshiped at Jerusalem through a high priest entering the presence of God once a year. When the Great High Priest “passed into the heavens” and the true Lamb. of God was sacrificed, there was no longer need of types and shadows’ and symbols and intervening priests. But little was said under the Old Testament about heart religion -it was a religion of externals. Indeed, the whole Jewish religion seemed to be embodied in a magnificent material temple-structure designed to be a constant object-lesson to all the people.
Every old-time Jew was obliged to worship with his face toward Jerusalem and the Holy House where God dwelt, and the synagogues in every city had their seats arranged accordingly. The true worshiper may now see God by faith in his sanctuary as the ancient worshiper saw his visible token. God leaves us large liberty, expecting that we will worship Him in spirit and in truth and in the beauty of holiness.
In the worship of the ancient temple at Jerusalem there were four thousand that played on instruments, and the ritual which David perfected for God’s sanctuary was no doubt the grandest the world has ever known. Why did the ancient Jews need such elaborate ritual observances? Because their rude and undeveloped natures needed something of the kind to awaken religious thought and feeling. Their minds had to be prepared for the coming and higher dispensation. They needed the types and shadows to give them an ouline of the substance that was to come. The ceremonial law was the schoolmaster to bring them to Christ.
Is God better pleased under the New Covenant with ornate worship than with a very simple service? Let another answer: ” Since the religion of the New Testament does not admit of any peculiar outward priest-hood, similar to that of the Old, the same outward kind of worship, dependent on certain places, times, and outward actions and demeanors, has no place in its composition. The kingdom of God, the temple of the Lord, were to be present, not in this or that place, but in every place where Christ himself is active in the spirit, and where through Him the worship of God in spirit and in truth is established. Every Christian in particular and every church in general, were to represent a spiritual temple of the Lord; the true worship of God was to be only in the inward heart, and the whole life proceeding from such inward disposition, sanctified by faith, was to be a continued spiritual service. This is the great fundamental idea of the Gospel, which prevails throughout the New Testament, by which the whole outward appearance of religion was to assume a different form, and all that once was carnal was to be converted into spiritual and be ennobled. This notion came forward most strongly in the original inward life of the first Christians, particularly when contrasted with Judaism, and still more so when contrasted with Heathenism;- a contrast which taught the Christians to avoid all pomp that caught the eye, and all multiplication of means of devotion addressed to the senses, while it made them hold fast the simple, spiritual character of the Christian worship of God. It was this which always struck the heathen so much in the Christian worship; namely, that nothing was found among them of the outward pomp of all other religions; no temples, no altars, no images. ‘In the highest sense the temple and image of God are in the human nature of Christ; and, hence, also, in all the faithful, who are animated by the spirit of Christ,-living images! with which no statue of Jove by Phidias is fit to be compared.’ ”
Early Christianity was distinguished by the severest simplicity in its outward forms of worship. The simplicity and purity of the Christian religion make it unlike all others. There is some deformity and mixture of dross about every other system of religion. Of the simplicity of the Gospel message, Cowper wrote:
Oh, how unlike the complex works of man, Heaven’s easy, artless, unincumbered plan ! No meretricious graces to beguile, No clustering ornaments to clog the pile; From ostentation as from weakness free, It stands like the cerulean arch we see, Majestic in its own simplicity. Inscribed above the portal from afar, Conspicuous as the brightness of a star, Legible only by the light they give, Stand the soul-quickening words -‘Believe and Live.”
We are to judge of religions by their spirituality, by their freedom, as far as practicable, from the material, the formal, the external, and the showy. As religion frees itself from the sensuous and material, the more it approaches the purely spiritual and spotless church of the first-born written in heaven. Does not the simple taste and unassuming life of a genuine Christian forbid all extravagant display in his worship? What we want is a holy communion with God with as little external aids to worship as possible. The power of the church is a spiritual power. She must not depend on physical pomp and parade. Of what use in religion are rites without realities, or ceremonials without spirituals. All rites and rituals are to be simply vehicles seeming to be a necessity or convenience for conveying spiritual realities to the minds and hearts of men. No splendid ecclesiastical equipage can save the world. A recent writer has said:
“Intense spirituality and ritualistic services may not be incompatible, but the history of Christian worship furnishes an unanswerable argument against the belief that an elaborate ritual is an aid to spiritual worship. It is often asserted that Christian worship deserves to be clothed in the most beautiful and attractive forms; that no music is too fine, no eloquence too sublime, no architecture too magnificent, no art too classical, to be used in the cause of CHRIST. We are told that it is not right to yield all that is best in art to the world, and make the services of the church bare and unattractive. In this judgment we concur. Extremes should be avoided. There is a fault in the opposite direction.
” The Friends seek to worship GOD with the severest simplicity: The Quaker idea of worship excludes all symbols and all music. It ignores not only instruments of music, but singing, and even baptism and the Lord’s-Supper. It allows no outward expression whatever, except as the human spirit is inspired and impelled by the divine SPIRIT. It appears that this idea is absurd, because it overlooks certain plain conditions of human nature which the word of GOD recognizes and provides for. The Friends themselves have not been able to maintain this idea in practice.”
Some forms and material things are made indispensable and mandatory,- for example, the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. Inspiration declares expressly that by these “ye do show the Lord’s death till he come.” Christ makes this formal and material observance of the Lord’s Supper a duty when he says, ” This do in remembrance of me;” so that no one can fastidiously say that the Holy Communion can be taken, spiritually. The visible sign or seal is a necessity and made obligatory.