Prior to the 1970s, most Baptists did not observe Lent, a 40-day period of penance, voluntary fasting, and self-denial. Lent customs are practiced by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and some Protestant groups, but not by most congregations in the free church tradition. Now several Baptist leaders are suggesting this should change:
- Jim Denison, the theologian-in-residence for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, suggests that Lent is a spiritual discipline practiced for “more than 17 centuries by the vast majority of Christians.” Because of this, Denison says “Lent for Baptists” is a valid practice today.
- The 2010 release of Celebrating Grace: Hymnal for Baptist Worship was noted for its topical headings from the liturgical calendar, including an entire section of Lenten hymns. Some of the hymns in the “Lent” section would be found in any Baptist hymnal, such as “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” and “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” But Baptist congregations were surprised to find less-familiar songs with lyrics such as these: “I take the cross of Jesus Christ in ashes on my face / This ancient symbol made in dust reminds me of His grace.”
- Steven R. Harmon writes from his Baptist perspective in “Lent—Why Bother? To Take Up the Cross,” a 2010 Christianity Today article. “All Baptist congregations observe some sort of calendar in their worship,” he rightly observes, reminding Baptists that they have long celebrated Christmas and Easter. But if Baptists have already accepted “two feasts of patristic origin,” they should also observe Lent, Harmon says. “Baptists not only can but should observe Lent, because it will help them take up the cross and follow Christ in the midst of a suffering world.”
Roger Olson, on the other hand, says that he won’t be observing Lent, even though other Baptists may find meaning in the ritual. “I’m not saying throw out the church calendar or Lent and all that, but I’m sad when Baptists think observing Ash Wednesday is by itself a step toward experiencing God. In fact, I think for many people, all this Baptist flirting with high church is just a way of putting more distance between ourselves and God,” he says in “Some Lenten Meditations for Baptists.”
Olson’s cautious approach seems worth considering, even as Baptists continue to study the extent to which they can follow the traditional Christian calendar. At the very least, Baptists seem comfortable observing Palm Sunday (Christ’s triumphal entry), Good Friday (Christ’s crucifixion), and Easter Sunday (Christ’s resurrection). If so, we could even add Maundy Thursday to the list, as a commemoration of the Last Supper. All of these events seem rooted in the New Testament narrative and can be easily harmonized with our theological heritage.
Lent, however, poses more problems.
First, it is difficult to reconcile Lent with our Baptist ideas about New Testament authority. Though it has a very long heritage, Lent should be viewed as an extra-Biblical human tradition. When recent Roman Catholic theologians have addressed the origin of Lent, they rightly avoid connecting Lent to any apostolic command, neither do they claim Lent is consistently taught by the pre-Nicene fathers. A well-taught Catholic will recognize Lent as a later tradition. This is not a problem for Catholics, who can be expected to worship within their own theological traditions. But Baptists define the activities of the gathered church solely on the basis of New Testament authority. This belief does not mean Baptists are disconnected from two millennia of church tradition—but it does mean our observance of common traditions must be rooted in clear Scriptural teaching. Though some Baptists may find private devotional value in Lenten traditions, one cannot imagine how an entire Baptist congregation could corporately observe Lent without violating individual consciences.
Second, it is difficult to practice Lent without abruptly facing its theological roots. While fasting is commended in the New Testament, it is not taught as a means of penance, or as a means of obtaining spiritual merit. In contrast, Roman Catholics continue to believe that Lenten good works (penance, voluntary fasting, self-denial, alms-giving) are performed for purification. These good works are a form of holiness that mixes with the good works of deceased saints in Heaven to form the Church’s treasury, which also includes the good works of the Virgin Mary. The church can then apply these merits to the negative merits of believers still in purgatory (or other believers still on earth). This traditional meaning of Lent should trouble Baptists. Too often we are tempted to borrow any and every religious tradition—then redefine it with ideas that are closer to our evangelical beliefs. While Baptists have much to learn about proper worship, we cannot reverse-engineer the theological background of Lent. The road to Rome, or even the road to Canterbury, is too far for Baptists to travel.
Finally, the observance of Lent also raises a subtle question of emphasis. The liturgical calendar is skewed toward a celebration of Jesus Christ’s life as taught in the Gospels (including the 40 days reserved for Lent). Please don’t misunderstand—every thinking person can benefit from a gospel-centered emphasis on Christ. On the other hand, one must also observe how the liturgical calendar invests significantly less time (and structure) to an exposition of the Epistles, especially the apostolic teachings about the church. For Baptists, the “whole counsel of God” must be taught in its proper relationship to “the pillar and ground of truth,” the church. Here the traditional church calendar offers less support. Perhaps Baptists could respond by offering better ways to celebrate Pentecost Sunday (May 27, ), remembering the birth of the church. Certainly Baptists can learn a fuller, richer appreciation of the Bible by returning parts of the liturgical calendar to its rightful place in our worship. But such ideas must be approached cautiously, avoiding those traditions that are not rooted in clear New Testament teaching.
The question of Lent has been addressed several times in the Baptist Bulletin. While the various authors approach the subject from various perspectives, all agree that Regular Baptists have historically viewed Lent with some skepticism:
- “Are Baptists Protestants?” by Rembert Carter (March 1968) details how Baptists parted company with reformers over issues of hermeneutics, religious liberty, and the concept of the church.
- “Lent and Today’s Baptists” by Joseph M. Stowell II (April 1959) addresses the question as a matter of New Testament authority. “Baptists tend to reject and look with suspicion on that which is not explicitly outlined in Scripture.”
- “Lent and Related Observances” by Kenneth R. Kinney (April 1956) says, “The Word of God is explicit on all things. The observance of days and diets has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins or the acquiring of righteousness.”
- “Should We Observe Lent?” by E. A. Lockerbie (March 1963) raises the question of local church autonomy. Should a Baptist congregation follow the dictates of an ecclesiastical hierarchy? “Hardly had the apostles gone home to be with the Lord before the church officers were endeavoring to climb into their seats, as places of authority,” the author says.
- “Why Don’t Baptists Observe Lent?” by Robert A. Mundy (April 1968) addresses the misuse of the Lenten penance, where a period of devout observance is preceded by wild “Marti Gras” behavior. “In a fundamental Baptist church, one should find dignity, but not formalism. . . . Fundamental Baptists believe Christians should live godly lives throughout the year.”
- “Why Do Baptists Overlook Lent Yet Observe Christmas?” by Norm Olson (April 1992) answers this very question that a reader asked Olson to address in his Q&A column. “As believers we know we don’t have to limit God to 40 days per year of getting near Him and doing something for Him. We have the blessed privilege of communion and life with Him 365 or 366 days a year.”
Perhaps Roger Olson’s recent comments provide a helpful conclusion. While admitting that some Baptists might observe Lent in ways that do not contradict their own theology, Olson does not follow such rituals himself. Instead, he offers a more Baptist alternative: “If we are going to observe the church calendar, let’s also return to our own roots and sing emotional hymns and gospel songs and give our testimonies and talk about Jesus and memorize our Bibles and give altar calls and kneel at the altar to pray,” Olson says.
His solution, rooted in the free church tradition, also acknowledges that some Baptist churches have dropped the ball when it comes to their own worship. Perhaps we could observe a 40-day period of “penance” for our poorly planned and organized church services! The reflection would do us good.