Reflecting on the Rosary
May Christians Use Prayer Beads?

Over the years I have had a number of people ask me about my thoughts on the Rosary, and the use of Rosary beads, by those who profess faith in our Lord Jesus. Is such a practice a sin? Similar questions have to do with having a cross on or in the church building, or Christians wearing a cross. What about paintings or statues of Jesus, Mary, the Twelve, or other religious figures? What about someone making the sign of the cross (as one might often see those doing within the Roman Catholic faith)? A few weeks back we had a couple of baptisms here at our building (a group of brethren from one of the smaller congregations in a neighboring town asked if they could use our church building that Sunday evening), and our own congregation assembled with them to encourage these new brethren. Just before one of these disciples was immersed, he quickly "crossed himself," and was then lowered into the waters of the baptistery. I'm sure many people noticed this, but I am proud of the Christians present that evening, for not a single person had a negative comment to make (although I know of places where such an act would have practically called for an Inquisition and a burning at the stake).

This question is really much bigger than beads and crosses, paintings and statues! It has to do with whether or not there is ever a legitimate place for various visible and tangible aids to the practice and expression of a Christian's devotion! Does God approve of the use of such material objects as practical aids to our spiritual worship? Frankly, this issue is not quite as simple as some might want to make it. There are a number of factors that must be considered.

First, it must be noted within the context of this study that the use of prayer beads is most certainly not a uniquely Christian phenomenon, nor did their use originate within Christianity. The vast majority of the religions of our world, whether they be ancient or modern, have long employed various forms of "knotted strands" to help facilitate the prayers of their adherents. One of the exceptions to this is Judaism, where such aids were considered by the rabbis a form of paganism. The actual origin of prayer beads (or objects of similar design and purpose) is uncertain, and has been the focus of a certain amount of scholarly debate, although many think they may have first developed, along the more familiar lines known today, among the ancient Hindus (who used them for reciting mantras and to help them focus their breathing rates during meditation). These are also rather common among the native American tribes, African tribes, in Buddhism, Islam, the Bahai faith, and on and on. Christian prayer beads are most generally associated with Roman Catholicism, and it is widely believed that they were first introduced (as they are used today) by St. Dominic (1170-1221), founder of the Order of Preachers (the Dominican Order), after a supposed visitation by the Virgin Mary. Such religious objects did not carry over into the majority of Protestant churches, in part as a reaction against the perceived abuses of Catholicism. A number of these reformers regarded the use of such objects and icons as being little more than paganism with a Christian veneer. John Calvin (1509-1564) "rejected materialism and ritual, feeling that the faithful should read and analyze spiritual texts in direct relationship with God, rather than simply memorize set prayers," repeating them by rote. Thus, Calvin rejected the use of prayer beads as being contrary to the above stated spiritual goals.

The word "rosary," first used by Thomas of Cantimpre (1201-1272), a medieval writer, preacher and theologian, comes from the Latin word "rosarium" (meaning "rose garden" or "garland of roses"), as it was common for many to string beads made from crushed rose petals to be utilized to count their prayers. The Rosary is divided into sections known as "decades," each of which is preceded by an "Our Father" and followed by a "Glory be to the Father," with a number of "Hail Marys" within each. To each of the decades is attached one of the "mysteries" (sacred events) in the life of Jesus Christ. There were initially only three "mysteries," with each one depicting five events in the life of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Pope John Paul II, in October of 2002, introduced a fourth "mystery" to the Rosary. Each of these four "decades," and their five events (with a bead on the Rosary representing each), are:

The Joyful Mysteries
The Annunciation
The Visitation
The Nativity
The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple
The Finding of Jesus in the Temple

The Sorrowful Mysteries
The Agony in the Garden
The Scourging at the Pillar
The Crowning with Thorns
The Carrying of the Cross
The Crucifixion

The Glorious Mysteries
The Resurrection
The Ascension
The Descent of the Holy Spirit
The Assumption of Mary
The Coronation of the Virgin Mary

The Luminous Mysteries
The Baptism in the Jordan
The Wedding at Cana
The Proclamation of the Kingdom
The Transfiguration
The Institution of the Eucharist

The vast majority of the above events have tremendous spiritual significance for all disciples of our Lord Jesus, however two of them will be regarded as somewhat offensive, and perhaps even heretical, by those who are not of the Catholic faith: the doctrines regarding the Assumption and Coronation of Mary as the "Queen of Heaven." These two are simply not biblical teachings, but are rather dogmas of later leaders within the Roman Catholic Church!! I personally reject them as false teaching, and those who pray these sections of the Rosary are, in my view, giving a voice to lies!! Further, there are promises associated with the faithful reciting of the Rosary, promises said to be made by the Virgin Mary herself. For example: [1] To all who recite my psalter (Rosary), I promise my special protection, [2] He who calls on me through the Rosary will not perish, and [3] I will deliver from Purgatory, in the space of a day, those souls devoted to my Rosary. There are others, but you get the idea. Although it is ostensibly focused on Jesus, the reality of the Rosary is that it is far more focused on Mary.

Pope Paul VI declared that the praying of the Rosary was a powerful means of reaching Christ Jesus "not merely with Mary, but indeed, insofar as this is possible to us, in the same way as Mary." Cardinal Newman has stated, "The strength of the Rosary lies in the particular manner in which it considers these mysteries, since all our thinking about Christ is intertwined with the thought of His Mother, in the relations between Mother and Son." One Catholic web site, which is devoted to the history and purpose of the Rosary, stated: "In general, the Rosary has two main purposes: first, as a vocal prayer it is a petition, through Mary, for grace and mercy. Mary is the channel through which all grace comes to the world and is constantly interceding for us with her Son before the Throne of God. Hence, it is most fitting that we petition God for grace and mercy through her and her Son. It is part of God's plan that grace come to us through Mary, and therefore, petitioning for grace through Mary follows the divine Plan. This is the first purpose of the Rosary. Second, as a contemplation of the mysteries (i.e., the meaningful supernatural episodes) of the lives of Jesus and Mary, the Rosary is meant to make the truths of Christian faith live in the minds of the faithful." This veneration of, and virtual deification of, Mary is something that I personally have an extremely hard time stomaching, as it is completely contrary to the Truth of God's Word. Thus, I can in no way endorse or condone the stated purposes of the Rosary.

But, let's take this a step further: What about the utilization of prayer beads conceptually?! Would it be sinful to make use of some tactile device to help one focus on one's prayers or meditations? Does the fingering of beads (or any other object) really negate or invalidate the devotion of one's heart if the only purpose of said objects is to help focus the heart?! I knew a man, for example, who used to place several pennies in his pocket when he had the prayer in the Sunday assembly, as it served to help him remember the number of things he wanted to pray for that morning. Would this man be a "son of perdition" for his pocketed pennies?! The real question here is, as was noted at the very beginning of this study: Is there ever a legitimate place for various visible and tangible aids to the practice and expression of a Christian's devotion? Does the Lord God approve of the use of such material objects as practical aids to our spiritual worship? Frankly, I believe the answer is a resounding "YES."

What do you think the physical elements of the Lord's Supper are?! Are the bread and wine aids to the remembering of greater spiritual realities? Of course they are! What do you think the water in the baptistery is all about? Does God really need water to "wash away" sin? Of course not. It is merely something physical that conveys to our hearts and minds something spiritual. What about a book filled with numbered songs to help us sing? Is such an aid helpful in the focusing of all our hearts in worshipful expression? Is such an aid sinful? If so, how? What about the use of PowerPoint presentations in the preacher's sermons? Is such an aid sinful? If so, how? What about instruments to aid us in our singing? Is such an aid sinful? If so, how? And if so, where did GOD ever say so?

In the preparation of my PowerPoint slides for my weekly sermons on Sundays, I have often used paintings and depictions of Jesus, the apostles, and other figures from the Bible. Are such aids, that I've used for the purpose of helping people grasp the thoughts I am seeking to convey in the lesson, sinful? Some think so! In the December, 2010 issue of Rocky Mountain Christian, Dr. Denny Petrillo (in his column where he answers readers' questions) was asked: "Denny, I would like to see you address the problem of Church of Christ congregations using images, idols and icons. We seem to see them more and more (e.g. crosses on buildings and inside of buildings). I would hesitate to attend a lectureship at a congregation using images of Jesus. That tells me they are not very sound." This reader goes on to talk about adult Bible class materials using "images of Bible characters such as the apostles." Some of our brethren obviously have a huge problem with ANY kind of visible, tactile aid to our expressions of devotion. And yet, our God Himself has given His people many such aids to help His people focus their hearts and minds upon spiritual realities. Denny pointed this out, saying, "God commanded the Israelites to build images. The Ark of the Covenant is one of many examples in the Old Testament where God gave instruction to build images. ... The Ark had on its top the figures (images) of two Cherubim. The veil that hung between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place had portrayals of Cherubim on it." Denny also mentions the bronze serpent God instructed Moses to form in the wilderness, to which the Israelites were to look whenever bitten by serpents (Numbers 21). True, they later made an idol of it, but its original purpose was NOT sinful. Denny concluded his response by declaring, "I do not believe that one could condemn the creation of religious symbols. Even our Lord's Supper includes that which represents the body and blood of Jesus. Depicting the Apostles, Jesus, Moses --- or any Bible character --- is not sinful. Building a church building that includes a cross on its steeple is not a sinful practice, unless that cross becomes an object of worship and veneration. Wearing a necklace that has a cross on it does not make it an idol."

I believe the principle is the same for such aids as prayer beads. Some simple aid to help someone focus their thoughts and prayers is not sinful in itself, in my view. Yes, like the bronze serpent, such objects can come to be venerated, and in the abuse of these objects one may indeed find himself or herself at odds with the Lord. However, just because something may have been abused and/or misused does not make it, if used as it was originally intended, sinful. I personally do not approve of what the Rosary is today. Frankly, I believe it to be extremely close to idolatrous in its veneration of Mary and in the belief by many that praying the Rosary can actually generate and impart specific blessings!! However, the concept of some such aid to one's prayers I find no fault with in principle. To quote Denny Petrillo: "It just shows that man needs to be careful. So, as we create various images of Bible characters and symbols, we should always keep them in their proper place and perspective." I would echo this caution with respect to other aids that may help facilitate the expressions of our devotion unto our Lord God, whether these be used individually and privately, or collectively and publicly.

by Al Maxey via Reflections Issue #468 ------- December 16, 2010

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