Why Baptists Don’t Do Lent

Pieter Bruegel, Detail of The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559), oil on wood, 46 in x 65 in, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

There are a lot of things Baptist aren’t supposed to do. Baptists don’t drink, dance, gamble, or chew. Most Baptists don’t do Lent either. Lent is the forty-day period from Ash Wednesday (this year it’s tomorrow, Feb. 22) to Easter Sunday (not counting the Sundays in between). The odd-sounding name comes from the Anglo-Saxon “lencten” meaning “spring.” The Latin name is “Quadragesima,” which means “fortieth.” It’s symbolic of Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:2). 

So why don’t most Baptists do Lent? It’s a curious omission for an uptight group like ours that’s obsessed with avoiding sin. Maybe that’s part of the problem we have with Lent. If we set aside a particular period for fasting and self-denial, then it might be admitting that gorging and indulgence is OK the rest of the year.  The programmed austerity of Lent might also give license to the frivolity of the pre-Lenten celebration of Carnival (aka Mardi Gras). Also, Lent is just too Catholic for most Baptists. In 1522, Protestant followers of the Zurich Reformer Ulrich Zwingli famously broke the Lenten fast by eating sausages as a symbol of their freedom in Christ. Lent is not found anywhere in the Bible, and Baptists generally follow the Zwinglian “regulative principle of worship” that says we should practice only what is explicitly commanded in the New Testament. Jesus even said something that seems to go directly against the tradition of Lent. Jesus said, 

Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:16-18)

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday when many Christians receive ashes on their forehead in the form of a cross as a sign of their penance and fasting. It seems to violate what Jesus said in the passage above.

Despite these important objections, there are some good reasons for Baptists to consider adding this somber season to our impoverished church calendar. Neither Christmas nor Easter is found in the Bible, yet these holy days are universally celebrated in Baptist churches. And Lent is even older than Christmas. The first historical mention of Lent was at the Council of Nicea in the year 325. Christmas was first mentioned in 354. It’s strange that many Baptist churches celebrate Advent in preparation for Christmas but have no corresponding preparatory season leading up to Easter.  Maybe it’s time we change that.

For Baptists, Lent is a choice not an obligation. Freedom in Christ means we are free to choose to observe Lent or not. Observing Lent puts us in sync with the broader Christian community. Also, we cannot fully appreciate Jesus’ resurrection without spending time reflecting on his sufferings. We live in a privileged society where hardly anyone suffers for being a Christian. A little self-imposed hardship during Lent builds spiritual character and can deepen our understanding of our faith.

You can read more of my thoughts about Lent here.

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “Why Baptists Don’t Do Lent

  1. Kristi

    Good, as always. Interesting that the Gospel passage you quoted is the one used during the Ash Wednesday service.

    • Ijaz

      Can you send me some Biblical refrences about ash wednesday, being Bible believer why do not celebrate ash wednes day?

      • There is no reference to Ash Wednesday in the Bible because the observance does not go back to Biblical times. There are many passages in the Old Testament that refer to “sackcloth and ashes” as an outward sign of inward repentance.

        The tradition of Lent goes back at least to the fourth century A.D.; however, the tradition of Ash Wednesday as the beginning of that period began much later. According to James F. White the practice of imposing ashes on the foreheads of Christians dates “at least from the late eleventh century” A.D. (Introduction to Christian Worship, revised ed., pp. 56-57).

        Most liturgical churches use Matthew 6 as their Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, even though it seems IMHO to contradict the practice of wearing ashes as a sign of fasting/repentance. Here’s what Jesus said in Matthew 6:1, 16-18 (NRSV):

        “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

        “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

        Because of this passage, our church does not observe Ash Wednesday but we do observe Lent.

        I hope this information is helpful to you.

  2. I like the post J T but actually I don’t think lent should be encouraged even as a freedom. Lent is religious practice that is very much married to the Old Covenant. It is about rites and rituals intended to produce some consecration and holiness of life that are actually completely unable to do so. Consider Paul’s words,
    Col 2:16-23 (ESV)
    Therefore 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. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations- “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)-according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

    Note – all these practices are ‘of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh’. They may seem wise and holy but this is mere appearance. They are actually ‘fleshly’ methods of pursuing holiness that belonged to the law and are redundant. Holiness is achieved through recognising by faith that we have died to this world and our true life is with Christ in heaven (Col 3).

    Much could be said but I recommend a careful study of Colossians 2/3.

    • sarath

      Brother John’s argumentation, I find, is a classic example of how we the Baptists have thrown the baby with the bathwater. Simplistic negation of ‘spiritual disciplines’ goes against the very ‘drift of the gospel’ toward carrying our own cross. The same energy that Brother John deploys in denouncing what ‘need not be done’, could be used in talking about what ‘ought to be done’ to follow Jesus. Or, he could use the same energy to decry the way market has appropriated Christmas which doesn’t seem to disturb him. Fasting is important and necessary for a disciple of Christ.

    • Grey Pitner

      Why don’t Baptists drink or dance? Jesus and his disciples drank wine , Paul said a little wine was good for the stomach and David danced unto The Lord . Not trying to be argument just wondering.

      • Aurora

        Hi! I go to a Baptist church, and the reason we do not drink is because it leads to drunkedness, which leads to sin. Pretty much the same reaspn we don’t allow dancing; it starts with waltzing and ends with twerking, lol. Personally, I am not yet of drinking age, but I do not intend to when the time.comes, simply because I don’t really see how any good could come of.it. but I will have a first dance with my.husband on my.wedding.day. sorry, but i cant agree with the no dancing.

  3. PS I hope to get round to blogging on this topic shorty.

  4. Hi, John.
    I’m glad you liked my post and I appreciate your comments; however, I think you may be pushing Paul’s warning in Col. 2:16-23 too far. The concern seems to be aimed against legalism which forces conformity to religious rituals. My point is simply that Christians are free in Christ either to participate in Lent or not. If we take the passage too literally, Christians would not be allowed to observe any “special days,” including Christmas and Easter. Notice what the first verse says in the passage you quoted: “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to festival or new moon or Sabbath” (v. 16). I won’t judge you for not observing Lent, and I hope you won’t judge me if I do.

  5. Pingback: Lent 2013 | ashleycraig79

  6. FBCC

    Thank you very much! Me and my church group, at First Baptist Church of Carrolton, were wondering why baptist do not do Lent. We found this article very helpful!

  7. LAURA

    I AM A CHRISTIAN AND I CELABRATE LENT. WE ALL NEED TO REMEMBER HOW MUCH CHRIST SUFFERED FOR OUR SINS. LENT WILL HELP US TO REFLECT AND UNDERSTAND HIS GREAT GIFT TO US.

  8. Marriah

    Thanks I really appreciate you article. God bless

  9. Sherry Icklan

    A person in Christ is “free” to do a lot of things. My opinion on these things is based solely on the Bible. I think that fasting and denying oneself should be done as a person feels led to do it, not on any specific time period.
    I would consider these questions, did the Apostles do it and teach it? Does the Bible command us to do it? Does it have any pagan origins?
    Each must do according to their conscience but personally I do not see bringing oneself or their church closer to the Christian community is a reason for doing anything. If many people are doing it, it should be evaluated most carefully. We are not to follow the world but only Jesus Christ. (by the way, I feel the same about all holidays including Christmas and Easter)

  10. annie

    thank you I went to bible study last night (ash Wednesday) im Baptist and lent or ash Wednesday was never mentioned and I just wanted to know why my friends that are Methodist did have a service thanks to the people that keep us informed

  11. Funny, you never hear a Catholic say “I don’t do that because it’s too Baptist”.

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