Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 12, 2011

Ashes & Adiaphora

This will be short, sweet, and to the point.

In light of Ash Wednesday earlier this week, a Facebook friend sought feedback from her cyber-community in response to this post:  “Poll! Imposition of ashes: Adiaphora, or too ‘Catholic?'”

As you might suspect, I had something to say.  Facebook isn’t the forum to offer a full-length, detailed explanation of one’s point, but this might be a useful way of looking at ceremony in worship from a different perspective.

Adiaphora, and beneficial. If we can have the Lombardi Trophy “processed” to the “chancel” while carried by a former Super Bowl MVP (i.e. an NFL “saint”) wearing his NFL Hall of Fame “vestments,” and if we can have a “ceremonial coin” for the coin toss, then we can have a ceremonial statement of the law on Ash Wednesday. Ceremony and symbolism are all around us, even in secular life, but we don’t call it “Roman Catholic” the rest of the time.  No, we shouldn’t shove something like this down people’s throats either, especially if they’re not comfortable with it, but we should be honest about the flawed argument behind ashes, etc. being “Roman Catholic.” They’re not.


For what it’s worth…


  1. I am glad someone else asked the question that I was hesitant to ask. My friend attended as a guest a church last year on Ash Wednesday that did the imposition of ashes, on a volunteer-basis only, and immediately let me know about it. Being a former Roman Catholic and now deeply involved in her WELS congregation, it was horrifying to see this happening in one of ‘her’ churches.

    Then, at the School of Worship Enrichment event I attended, the discussion of imposing ashes came up, and I thought to myself, and perhaps aloud, “What in the world is going on here???” In other blogs I have read about the seeping of reform and RC theologies and/or practices into our Synod’s churches. This concerns me, though I am a lover of symbolism, but never over substance.

    Go easy on me, I am a humble layperson…

  2. Hi Kim,

    It is unfortunate that the idea has been promoted in some Lutheran circles that ashes are a Roman Catholic practice with Roman Catholic theology behind it. That’s not the case. That misunderstanding, however, has been the case for the imposition of ashes and for other practices, such as making the sign of the cross on oneself. In his Small Catechism, Luther suggests that a person make the sign of the cross in conjunction with his morning and evening prayers. Nevertheless people who make the sign of the cross on themselves as a personal reminder of their baptismal connection to Jesus’ death (Romans 6) have been viewed with a bit of mild suspicion in some settings. I don’t fault you as a layperson for thinking that ashes is a Roman Catholic practice, but it is unfortunate that the idea that “ashes = Roman Catholic” has been promoted when it is not the case historically or theologically.

    Now, if I, as a pastor, find myself in a congregation where that is the predominant perspective, I would try to correct the misunderstanding, but I also would not begin the practice. Love for others and a desire for unity is more valuable than exerting one’s Christian freedom in a loveless, divisive, or confusing manner. If there are people who believe that a practice is connected to another theology, even if it isn’t, and if the people who are expressing this concern are sincerely troubled (as opposed to someone just trying to “stir the pot” or someone being intentionally difficult), then I can’t think of a good reason to do something that would offend them even if there is nothing necessarily wrong with the practice itself.

    I am one of the presenters for the School of Worship Enrichment (SoWE) and have lectured on the presentation you’re talking about at several SoWEs. I assure you that the discussion about ashes has everything to do with a visual, sensory, tangible expression of our sinful condition (Genesis 3:19) and not a promotion of false doctrine. Our goal for ceremonies in worship is always built around the proclamation of law (in the case of ashes) and gospel (in the case of many other practices and ceremonies). While one church may have more ceremonies and another less, the proclamation of law and gospel is always at the heart of the texts we hear and the the traditions we observe.


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