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What is a rite?

A rite is a religious ritual or other solemn ceremony with a prescribed liturgy. Guilds and fraternities often have initiation rites for new members. Certain communities have rites of passage, or coming-of-age ceremonies, to mark children's entry into adulthood. In the tradition of the Christian church, there are many rites, rituals, and ceremonies, some that are prescribed in the Bible and some that have developed over time. The word "rite," rather than referring to just a single ceremony or ritual, can also refer to an entire body of customs distinctive to a particular church tradition. For instance, The Byzantine rite refers to the range of liturgical practices developed in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

God introduced certain rituals to His people as recorded in Scripture. Some rituals are merely mentioned without a prescribed liturgy, like the circumcision of male babies on the eighth day after birth (Genesis 17:10; Leviticus 12:3). Other rites are described in great detail, like the requirements for taking the vow of a Nazirite (Numbers 6:1–21). Many of the rites in the Old Testament are related to the old covenant and thus are not binding on Christians today (Hebrews 9). But there are biblical rites that Christians observe, even if the particular liturgies vary among different churches, such as: marriage, baptism, and communion.

God designed humans to benefit from repeated rhythms of practice, which is why people groups uphold traditions. Rites and rituals help remind us of our history and connect us to particular communities. It is important to remember, however, that rites are not meant to bring salvation. The writer of Hebrews declared, "For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Hebrews 10:4). Even God's prescribed rites of daily sacrifices were insufficient to provide salvation. Instead, these rituals were "a shadow of the good things to come" (Hebrews 10:1). Those good things to come were the saving work of Jesus Christ through His death and resurrection. The Apostle Paul explained, "the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian" (Galatians 3:24–25).

Rites and rituals within the church should point congregants to their need for faith in Christ's saving work and remind them of His gift of salvation. The ordinances of baptism and communion are done in obedience to God's commands, but the Bible does not prescribe a specific liturgy for their observance. These ordinances are important, but they are not salvific. Paul explained, "yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified" (Galatians 2:16). Rites prescribed in the Bible and those that have arisen through tradition can be helpful in creating community and teaching truths about God and salvation, but adherence to particular rites and rituals will not gain a person salvation from sin.

As long as any rite is being conducted for the glory of God (Colossians 3:17) and reflects the truth of who He is (John 4:23–24), Paul commanded his readers, "let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath" (Colossians 2:16). Thus rites of when or how to ask God's blessing over a meal, which holy days to recognize, or how to celebrate those holy days, are a matter of preference for each church community to decide for themselves. Fellow Christians can allow each other the freedom to practice different rites within different communities.

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