[box]RVWD is my abbreviation for Religious Vocabulary Word of the Day. (You can read my introduction to the RVWD series here.) I do not intend for these word investigations to be exhaustive, but I hope they stimulate some thinking about assumptions. Possibly they will help with honest evaluations about what is truth and what is unnecessary baggage in life. [/box]
My girls asked me the other day what an altar call is. They have not been to what is commonly called a ‘church service’ since they were quite small (they are college age now), so were not familiar with the term or the idea. They are, however, quite familiar with the Bible, so were very curious about this term that they had just heard about. They were astounded to hear about a practice that they had never read about in the Bible that was so widely accepted by organizations calling themselves churches.
The word altar is ubiquitous in the Bible. In the Old Testament, it is translated from the Hebrew word mizbeah, which is used to refer to a place where animals are slaughtered for sacrifice. (Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker: Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2003) By extension of the meaning of the word sacrifice, altar is also used to speak of any place that a sacrifice is made. There are a number of times in the Old Testament where mention of an altar notably leaves out the mention of a sacrifice, and as such is a memorial.
There are two Greek words that are translated to altar in the New Testament. Here, the writers are more particular about distinguishing between God-approved altars and pagan or unacceptable altars. Thusiasterion specifically means a place to sacrifice, implying the death of a victim. This is the word used the most for altars established by God’s direction and according to His specifications. It is used when speaking of altars in the tabernacle and temple (including the altar of incense), both historically and those in use at the time those portions of the New Testament were written.
The word bomos is the other Greek word. It seems to have less import, meaning a “elevated place”, and is used for disobedient or misguided attempts at setting up altars, whether they be to false gods or inappropriately to the real God. (See Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, by Vine, Unger, and White: Thomas Nelson Publishers, New York, 1985.)
Similarly, the English word altar comes from the Latin words ara and altaria, altaria meaning “an erection upon an altar (ara), on which a fire is lighted.” (Cassel’s Latin Dictionary, by D.P. Simpson: MacMillan, USA, 1968). Now, an altar, in English usage, can be any table or stand used for (supposed) sacred ceremony, such as a marriage or communion, but this does not harken to true Biblical meaning and function.
The altars spoken of in the New Testament fall into these basic categories:
- Actual temple activities and supernatural messages. (Luke 1:11)
- Teaching the Jewish people to evaluate their hearts, and not just rely on tradition. (Matthew 5:23-24)
- Exposing hypocrisy of religious leaders. (Matthew 23:16-22)
- Mentioning altars in historical context. (James 2:21)
- Using practices in the Old Testament to explain salvation. (Hebrews 7:13)
- Referring to false gods. (Acts 17:23)
- Speaking of heavenly things. (Revelation 8:3)
I cannot find any godly practice of the early church or answers to questions of “what must we do to be saved” where activity associated with an altar is mentioned. It is true that we are told to “offer sacrifices” in a number of ways, including our living bodies and giving financially to others. However, these things cannot be “done” in one specific, holy place. They are part of living and interacting socially with others.
The “altar call” process in religious services usually centers on people “coming up to be saved.” It is presented like they are offering themselves, when truly all they should be doing is acknowledging belief in Jesus Christ’s sacrifice that has already been made, and looking for the first opportunity to be baptized. In the New Testament examples, this is not a ceremony carefully scripted with emotional music. It is a fairly spontaneious experience that leads quickly to joy and celebrating! The locations where it occurred were quite varied and THEN the people were part of the local church and the larger body of Christ.
Sometimes, in my past, I have seen “altar calls” used for “times of repentance” or “receiving special prayer” during a church service. While there are certainly times when Christians need to recognize mistakes or pray together, turning it into a show in front of a congregation tends to keep “clergy” in charge and gives people the idea that they need to be in a religious setting for these things. Things that would probably be more relationship building and personal if done in different ways. Like many religious rituals, it tends to take the place of that which is significantly better.