Formalism: What is It and Why Not?


Dennis McCallum



What is it?

Formalism refers to a tendency in religious thought and practice to shift focus away from the abstract, the spiritual, the personal, or the ethical principles in a religion and toward the outward forms that embody that religion. Outward forms can refer to:

  • the sacred buildings or shrines in which worship occurs
  • the calendar of sacred days and times around which religious life is oriented
  • the rituals through which followers can experience the sacred or be fixed in some way
  • special dress, diet, language, or other behaviors unique to that religion

Why Not?

Formalism is found the world over in all religions. It is also common in historical Christianity, but is roundly condemned in the Bible, both in Old and New Testaments. Formalism is an impersonal outlook which misses the point where the things of God are concerned. It diverts people's attention and affections from the important to the unimportant--from the wine to the wineskins.

At Dwell, we have developed a thorough critique of formalism, which we believe lies at the root of many of the problems in contemporary Christianity. You can see material on formalism in several other resources:

The Objectification of Religion is a research paper on one aspect of formalism; sacred space.

Formalism in Prayer is adapted from Senior Pastor, Dennis McCallum's book, Walking in Victory.

The Relation of the Church to the Old Testament is a training guide for a class on ecclesiology.

Strange Details in Stephen's Defense is a study of Acts 7 highlighting how Stephen attacked formalism.