[For the record, I wrote this a few years back for the church website. Going back through it—and after some minor edits, of course—I thought it appropriate for the current state of things -Ricky]
Form over function. Style over substance. These are phrases commonly used to frame what may fairly be described as a failure of priorities. I believe that it is human nature for us to default to formality or ritual when we feel ourselves facing anxiety. When we find that the things we are accustomed to or that we are comfortable with are beginning to shift, and we find life beginning to move in directions with which we are not familiar, it is completely natural for us to withdraw into a world that is recognizable to us. To put a finer point on it: when it seems that all the processes and procedures that we know and hold dear are crashing down around us, it is no surprise that we end up retreating into that which we deem to be definitive and “normal.” It is understandable—because we are all human—that we are attached to a particular way of doing things; that we are comforted by routine; that the established pattern soothes us; that we find solace in what is rote and mundane. We are wired this way.
Thinking on these things I find myself confronted with many questions—questions that I am not sure I am fully prepared to answer. Questions like: Am I incorrectly prioritizing when it comes to “style” and “substance,” or to “form” and “function?” Put another way, which one of these drives the other, for me? Is it the form that drives the function, or the other way around? Is style supposed to dictate substance, or is it the other way around? More pointedly, what does scripture say? What does Jesus say? Is it God’s intent that, as a Christian, I first BE something, or that I first DO things in an exact way? Is tradition supposed to drive who I am and how I live, or is it the other way around? Does God call me to religious custom, or does God call me to holiness and obedience (not that these are mutually exclusive—but we certainly seem to have a long history of choosing one over the other)?
Jesus was fiercely opposed by a significant—and powerful—group of people who, though incredibly religious, had completely lost sight of what it was that God actually wanted from them. They knew scripture, they attended “church,” and they performed all the appropriate religious rites in precisely the right ways (that sounds GREAT to many of us!). Yet it was against them that Jesus quoted this from Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men” (Matthew 14:8-9). With all of their knowledge and all of their experience in the formal matters of “church,” they turned out to be people who were spiritually vacant—people whose hearts were bankrupt. They had so elevated form over function—style over substance—that what they actually presented in their lives was in complete contrast to what God intended. “They preach, but do not practice,” Jesus warned (Matthew 23:3).
There are a couple of dangers here. The first danger is that we look at the “example” of the Pharisees and go no farther than pointing fingers at them. This is a danger because it permits us to stop short of the serious reflection that each of us needs to do in order to steer clear of their foibles. The second danger is that we continue to see ritual as the pinnacle of our spiritual lives. Ritual is not to be worshipped—God is to be worshipped. Ritual, though important, is not to become the ultimate expression of our faith and our salvation—our daily walk, and our daily representation of Christ in the world, is to be the ultimate expression of our faith and our salvation. And there are times in our lives—many, many times—when that expression manifests itself in ways that do not bring us comfort or peace. But we must remember that our call in this world is to imitate Christ. It behooves us, therefore, to pay careful attention to who Christ was and to what he did—and to how he responded not only to the needy and weak and helpless, but also to the religious people of his day—in order that we may ensure that we are truly following him. Otherwise, we likely will find ourselves focused solely on style with no real thought about substance. And that is never what God intended.