A back issue of Word&Way — about 50 years back — reported on the subject of whether Baptists needed to observe Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter. The matter was a question in The Baptist Program, the monthly Southern Baptist leadership magazine published in Nashville, Tenn.
The consensus among the pastors and other workers who responded 50 years ago was that Southern Baptists did not need this religious exercise. The reasoning was simple (with perhaps a hint of self-righteousness): Believers should make Christian self-denials every day of the year.
“To observe Lent for a short period of time and then forget it until next year is far from a Christian virtue (it is a mockery as practiced by many),” one Texas pastor responded.
A Missouri pastor suggested, “There is no scriptural teaching for the idea of Lent. However there is much scriptural teaching for daily and constant self-denial.” He and other ministers suggested instead a revival service for the time leading up to Easter.
According to The Baptist Program, a majority of respondents noted that churches called attention to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ throughout the year rather than during a 40-day period before Easter.
A public relations director at a Baptist Bible institute added: “Our people do not need this seasonal observance as long as we maintain the picture of the resurrection by frequent baptisms.”
“I have observed that the biggest night of the year in the night clubs is Saturday night just before Easter because Lent ends on Saturday at noon,” a Louisiana pastor pointed out. “After 40 days of self-denial, indulgence is the practice of the day.”
The paper's report of the survey results concluded: “Lent is a 40-day period of fasting, penitence and self-denial observed by many denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches. While it may be observed by some few Southern Baptist churches, no attention is called to it by the denomination.”
As a youngster, I didn’t know of any Baptist churches that practiced Lent. My sense was that we didn’t observe it because of the churches and denominations that did. We acted a little superior to the Catholics and others in our town who declined to eat meat on Fridays. We had an underlying suspicion about most of the people who went to those churches anyway.
Like the brethren quoted in The Baptist Program, we said we believed that Christians ought to draw near to God every day, not just a paltry 40 days a year.
It didn’t seem to dawn on us that perhaps these Lent proponents may also have tried to serve Christ year-round, too. Our assumption that all the Baptist brethren drew close to Christ, denied themselves and lived wholly for Him every day was a theory with a lot of holes in it.
What many Baptists have been discovering for the past several years is that 40 days in preparation for the highest holy day of the year for believers has merit. One might easily assume during the time I was growing up that the primary preparation for Easter among some Baptists (and others, of course) was a shopping trip for a new set of Easter clothing.
In retrospect, some of us reduced the celebration of Christ’s sacrifice and His resurrection to a single day — or a part of a day if you only count the Sunday morning worship service. Even Good Friday was suspect.
While some Baptists once believed — and perhaps some still do — that whatever benefit came from 40 days of spiritual focus was basically all used up on Easter, I’m not so sure. Perhaps the preparation helps us better appreciate, if not better understand, what God did on Resurrection Sunday and what propelled the early Christians to turn their world upside down.
Anything can be abused or misused, but it is hard to believe that God frowns on conscious efforts to grow as a Christian and be drawn closer to Him. Perhaps our efforts at spiritual preparation are imperfect, but many who claim to have a relationship with Christ don’t even try. Some find it more convenient to criticize those who at least make an effort. Jesus had a few words for those types in His day.
All of us would do well to take time to get re-acquainted with the Savior we celebrate at Easter. Call such efforts what you will. Just be sure to make the effort. We only have a couple of weeks left, but nothing says we have to stop with Easter.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.