Thursday, May 30, 2013

Church Ordinances

Baptism and the Lord's Supper, or Communion.  Almost every church and denomination includes these two activities as a part of their life together.  But just how they practice them, and what they mean widely vary across Christianity.

For some, like Baptists, they are ordinances.  We consider an ordinance to be a symbolic act that we do in obedience to Christ's direction.  An ordinance is an act of obedience and worship, but plays no part in my salvation or in imparting God's grace to me.

As ordinances, both of these paint a picture that describe what Christ has done for me and what has happened in my own life.  As I partake, either directly, in my own baptism or in communion, or indirectly through someone elses baptism, I remember what has happened and so am drawn deeper into worship.

For others, most notably Catholics, they are sacraments.  A sacrament is considered to be something that God uses to impart salvation, or some measure of grace, to the person who participates.  And so participation in these activities becomes important to secure, or keep oneself in, right relationship with God.

Baptism

In the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus instructs his followers to teach and baptize wherever they go.  And then in the rest of the New Testament you see them doing just that.  In Acts 2:41, Acts 8:12,  Acts 8:38, Acts 10:47-48, Acts 16:33, Acts 18:8Acts 19:5 and 1 Corinthians 1:14-17,  we see baptism closely connected to the expanding reach of the gospel.  Baptism appears to have been practiced by the church from its inception.

While Acts 2:37-38 does appear to express the necessity of baptism for salvation, a very similar question in Acts 16:30-31 makes no mention of baptism.  While we find baptism practiced and directed throughout the New Testament, nowhere else is it linked as a requirement for salvation.  On the other hand we frequently find salvation being an issue of grace and faith alone.  We are baptised, not because we must, but rather to outwardly identify as a follower of Christ and illustrate the change that we have experienced.

The Greek word from which we get baptise was a technical term used by dyers of cloth.  They would prepare a vat of dye and then immerse, or baptise, the cloth into the vat.  This idea of immersion also works well with the symbolic act of baptism: in baptism, the believer demonstrates his death to the old life, his burial as he goes down into the water and then resurrection into a new life as he comes back out.  Other modes of baptism, i.e. sprinkling, are not really able to fully symbolize what has happened in the life of the believer.

Since baptism is an act of obedience on the part of a believer, Baptists do not baptise infants, or anyone else who has not made a profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ and risen Lord.  Rather we limit baptism to those who have chosen to follow Jesus as Lord and want to declare that allegiance to the rest of the world.

While not universally true, most Baptists require that a person be baptised, by immersion and as an act of obedience, in order to become a member of the local church.  While this is not something that is explicitly taught in the New Testament, it is easy to justify.  If a person is not willing to publically declare his commitment to Christ, are they really going to effectively align themselves with a body of believers who have?  Of course there are exceptions to this for people who are physically unable to be immersed, or in places where the church is forced to operate in secret, but it is generally true.

When I watch someone being baptised, I rejoice in their commitment to Christ and their changed life.  But I can also take the opportunity offered by this ordinance to celebrate Jesus death, burial and resurrection.  I can turn every baptism into a mini Easter celebration and worship the one who has made our new life possible.

Lord's Supper

In Matthew 26:26-30, Mark 14:22-26 and Luke 22:14-20 we find Jesus, after sharing in the Passover meal with his disciples, introducing a new element to the observance: the cup of his shed blood and the bread of his broken body; symbolic of the new covenant he was establishing.  Later, in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Paul, in the midst of a correction concerning the observance of the Lord's Supper, passes on what he had been taught; that taking the elements is to be done in remembrance and proclamation of Jesus death.

In a Communion meal there are generally two elements: bread and wine or grape juice.  These elements are taken in remembrance of Jesus death on the cross and all that it means.  It is also a proclamation to the world around us that we believe Jesus died for all who will put their trust in him.

For Baptists, this bread and juice never becomes more than a piece of bread and cup of juice.  They are elements that only help us in remembering Jesus sacrifice.  For others these elements are believed to actually become, or contain, in some way, the flesh and blood of Jesus.  And as the actual body and blood of Christ, these elements introduce some element of grace into the life of the participant.  And so this sacrament, becomes more than just a remembrance of Jesus death.  It becomes a way of sharing more completely in the life of Christ.

The Lord's Supper is most commonly observed as an act of worship while the body is assembled together, although there are those who will also share in the meal in smaller group settings, something that can aid in the development of intimacy within the group.  Most churches will try and limit participation in the meal to believers, since it has no meaning to those who are not 'remembering his death until he comes'.  Some open the meal to all believers, some limit it to those of like faith, and some will limit participation to active members of the local body.

In 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, Paul gives some additional direction concerning the Lord's Supper, direction that is in response to inappropriate behavior at the meal by the Corinthian believers.  It is important, when taking the bread and wine/juice that I recognize the body and blood of Jesus.  At the very least this would mean that during the meal I am focused on Jesus sacrifice.  But it likely goes beyond an intellectual acknowledgement that Jesus died on the cross, and joining myself with him, dying to self and living for him.  What better way to remember his death than to join him, dying to self and living the life he died to bring to me.

Failure to recognize the body and blood of Christ is to eat the elements in an unworthy manner, potentially bringing the Lord's discipline into my life.  Examine your walk with him before eating, and eat remembering what he did for you.  Make your participation in the Lord's table a time of renewal and worship.

Thoughts

  • What is the difference between an ordinance and a sacrament?
  • Based on your understanding of Baptism and the Lord's Supper from the scriptures, are they best considered ordinances or sacraments?
  • When you watch a baptism, or participate in the Lord's Supper, do you do it as an act of worship?
  • When you share in the bread and cup, do you picture Jesus crucifixion in your mind, remembering what he did for you?
  • When you watch a baptism, can you picture the person coming out of a grave rather than the water?
  • How can you make Baptism and the Lord's Supper more meaningful in your own life?


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