A rite is a ceremonial action performed in an approved manner and following a specified form. Often, rites are religious in nature, but not always—clubs, guilds, and fraternities may have initiation rites for new members, for example. Rites are usually based on long-standing traditions, which, in church rites, people often consider to be sacred. The word rite is related to the word ritual.
In the Old Testament, various rites were commanded as part of the Mosaic Law. The Day of Atonement required a complicated series of rites to be performed (Leviticus 16). God specified the minutiae of the ceremony: the high priest laid aside his official garments, bathed himself, and put on a garment of white linen. He then offered a bull as a sin offering for himself and the priests. He took a censer of live coals from the altar of incense and took it into the Holy of Holies. He sprinkled the blood of the bull on the mercy seat and on the floor before the Ark of the Covenant. Returning to the courtyard, the high priest cast lots over two live goats. He killed one goat as a sin offering for the nation and took the blood from that offering through the veil and sprinkled it as before to make atonement for the Holy of Holies. He went back outside, placed his hands on the head of the live goat, and confessed the sins of the people. He then sent the live goat—the scapegoat—into the wilderness. The high priest then bathed again, changed clothes, and offered one burnt offering for himself and one for the people with the fat of the sin offering. The flesh of the bull and the goat were then burned outside the camp. Other regulations are also specified.
The author of Hebrews points out some of the many rites observed under the Mosaic Covenant: “The first covenant had regulations for worship” (Hebrews 9:1). But those rites were only “external regulations applying until the time of the new order” (verse 10). Scripture is clear that Christ, “the mediator of a new covenant” (verse 15), has fulfilled the Law with all its rites and regulations (Matthew 5:17). The blood of bulls and goats could never take away our sin (Hebrews 10:4), but “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (verse 10).
To various extents, churches today follow religious traditions and rites. Catholic churches emphasize the sacraments and a ritualistic faith. Liturgical Protestant churches also follow prescribed ceremonies and observe assorted rites. Non-liturgical churches observe ordinances (usually baptism and the Lord’s Supper) but downplay other church traditions. All churches, no matter how unstructured their ceremonies, fall into patterns and end up doing things a certain way. Even churches that eschew formal, traditional rites will eventually form their own “rites” based on what they grow accustomed to.
The important thing to remember is that rites and rituals cannot replace true worship of God. “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23–24). A rite performed in a church may be full of meaning, or it may be nothing but a cold, hollow routine. It may be beneficial in drawing a humble worshiper nearer to God, or it may be keeping a distant heart at its distance. The difference is a matter of the heart. Certain rites may be helpful, but can we worship the Lord without rites? Absolutely. Should we allow rites to replace a personal relationship with God? Never.