How do you practice the ordinances?

Most who ask about our church’s ordinances want to know specifically about how and whom we baptize. Funny thing, I would rather talk about communion. These two practices called ordinances or sacraments, according to your church background, are bound upon the Church by the commands of Christ and the example of the Apostles. Actually the word used (ordinance or sacrament) is fairly important. If you hold them to be sacraments, you likely believe they impart grace to the individuals practicing them. If you use the term ordinance then you likely believe them to be more symbolic of the actions of Christ in the life of the individual believer and the corporate Church.

We hold these practices to be ordinances. This means we see in them a great deal of symbolism and their spiritual significance comes from (1) the picture they represent, and (2) the blessings that accompany obedience.

Are these the only two ordinances? That is hard to say. Most sacramental churches list other sacraments, and the list differs among Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant. So for a sacramental believer these are just two of a longer list (Catholics, for example claim seven sacraments). Being non-sacramental, we see them as commands intended to picture the truths of Christ, and focus on these two. Of course, there are other things Christ has commanded; however, we concentrate on these because they are central to our identity as a Church, the local expression of Christ’s body. We would say these are the two ordinances of the Church, but there are other ordinances for individual believers.

Baptism

We have very specific views of baptism. There are three primary questions to be answered:

  1. How does baptism relate to salvation?
  2. Whom do we baptize?
  3. What is our mode of baptism?

We’ll take each of these in turn, but remember answering one impacts the other. Baptism must be considered systematically. Any attempt to define the entire practice of biblical baptism in such a brief form is going to leave many questions unanswered.

First is the relation of baptism to salvation. We do not believe one must be baptized to be saved. The baptism that saves you is the initial receiving of the Holy Spirit. It is this Baptism in the Holy Spirit which baptizes you into Christ’s Church. It is this baptism that washes away your sins. It is this baptism that seals you for eternity and equips you for service. Baptism with water is a picture of this. When the one being baptized goes down into the water it demonstrates to the world what the Holy Spirit has already accomplished.

Since we do not believe water baptism saves us, and instead is a picture of what the Holy Spirit has already done, it is easy to see why we only baptize those who have confessed their faith in Christ. Since an infant cannot confess their faith—or even have faith—we do not believe infant baptism to be scriptural.[1] Since water baptism illustrates what the Holy Spirit has already accomplished, the physical immersion in water offers no benefit to one who has not already experienced the cleansing of the Holy Spirit.

This question brings up two different but related questions. Some parents from a background of infant baptism feel uncomfortable with their child not being baptized. We encourage parents to dedicate their children to the Lord. In this the parents are promising to raise their children in the faith and committing them to the Lord’s protection. This “raising up your children” to believe is actually a command of scripture (Ephesians 6:4).[2]

The other question related to this is “How do we handle those who want to join our church, but were baptized as infants?” We teach baptism is only for those who have expressed their faith in Christ. We also teach that baptism of the Holy Spirit is the baptism that saves us, not water baptism. Because of this, if a person comes to us and confesses their faith in Christ but was baptized as an infant we teach them the biblical view. Since we believe baptism to be an act of obedience, we leave it to them and their conscience to decide if they should be baptized, though we encourage it. If such a person decided that they wanted to be part of us, but in their own conscience find their “baptism” as infants sufficient then we accept them as members. This is not something we would divide over.

So, what about mode of baptism? We practice the biblical example of baptism by immersion. We believe this to be the practice of the apostles and the early church. However, as the earliest writings of the post-apostolic church show, there is leeway in this. If immersion is simply not an option we have no problem with baptism by sprinkling. For example, many of our Chaplains serving in desert countries simply do not have enough water to immerse, so they occasionally resort to sprinkling. I’ve also seen people baptized by sprinkling while confined to a hospital bed. We believe God honors the meaning behind the action.[3]

We would rather not divide over these things. A practice intended to celebrate our unity and encourage our fellowship has for too long divided us. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying our tolerance of other views is because we doubt or are uncertain of our own view. We are certain that baptism for believers by immersion is the scriptural form of baptism. However, we are tolerant of individual believers who, for some reason or another, are not willing to repudiate a childhood experience—especially one that would have been so important to their parents. I’ve known people who refused baptism because it would hurt a beloved parent. I’ve known others who refused because they were not yet convinced. We allow liberty in such cases, but such tolerance should not be confused with apathy or uncertainty.

The Lord’s Supper

I have not experienced as many questions about the Lord’s Supper, but want to explain our view for those who might find it useful. There are three primary ways of looking at communion (The Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist). These are transubstantial, consubstantial, and symbolic.

Transubstantiation is the belief that during the sacrifice of the Mass the bread and wine have their substance literally changed (trans+substance) into the body and blood of Christ. In this view you are not eating bread and drinking wine, but are literally eating the flesh of Christ and drinking his blood.

Consubstantiation is the belief that, while the elements are not actually changed, the substance of Jesus’s flesh and blood accompanies them (con+substance). In this view one still consumes bread and wine, but God miraculously imparts the actual body and blood of Christ along with the elements.

Our church holds the elements of Communion to be symbolic of the flesh and blood of Christ. We do not see ourselves as literally consuming the flesh and blood. Instead the bread is symbolic of the flesh of Christ broken for us. It is also symbolic of the body of Christ—the Church. The blood of Christ was shed for our salvation and this is remembered whenever we take the cup. Communion is both a reminder and a promise. It promises the final consummation, prophesied in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Our view of communion differs little if any from most other Protestant churches.

The primary way in which we differ from some other churches is in whom we permit to partake of communion. Many churches practice a closed communion in which only members of the actual local church, or those baptized in the church or denomination are permitted. We serve an open communion. While this does not mean we encourage non-believers to partake, it does mean we leave it up to the individual to decide if they should partake. We ask those who wish to partake to examine themselves in the light of scripture and decide if they are part of the body of Christ. Those believing themselves to be part of the body are encouraged to partake.

We leave it up to parents to decide if their children are ready. There is no formal class for them to complete. Once parents are reasonably sure their children are Christ’s disciples and understand what they are doing, we let them partake.

Why would we serve communion in such a cavalier fashion? It is only cavalier if you assume there should be more control. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul rebukes the Corinthians for their way of taking communion. It wasn’t their form; it wasn’t their way of serving it. The problem was that they were partaking of it with division between them. In that case the wealthy were partaking without waiting for the poor members of the body. When he tells them to examine themselves, he says taking communion in an unworthy manner is taking it without recognizing the body of the Lord. Notice that it does not mention recognizing the blood, but only the body. By this, Paul means the unity of the Church as Christ’s body. Taking communion in an unworthy manner is taking it while preventing others who belong at the table. We would rather risk a non-believer taking the elements than risk barring a believer from the Lord’s Table. Think of it this way. If you came to my house for supper, but for some reason you decided my son was not welcome at the table, you would have insulted me. It is my table, I decide who may or may not sit at it. In the same way, communion is the Lord’s Table; He decides who may or may not partake. Of course, some will argue, “But if you serve an open communion there is danger of a non-believer taking part.” I would answer by pointing out that there was a non-believer present when Jesus served the first communion (Judas). And Jesus not only served him, but made sure to serve him. Guilt falls on the one who takes part when he should not, or on the one who wrongly blocks another from partaking. If we unknowingly permit one to partake who should not have done so, there is no guilt upon us. However, if we bar from the table any who belong to Christ, then it is no longer the Lord’s Supper that we serve.

Of course, many will point out that people were barred from communion for discipline. This is the biblical practice, so it is part of our practice. However, this is the only time someone will be asked not to partake of communion. Keep in mind, such discipline is always done with a desire to bring that person back to full fellowship through repentance. Once the person repents they are encouraged to partake.

[1] I have yet to have anyone give me a convincing biblical argument for infant baptism or even a biblical example of such a practice.

[2] While dedicating your children to the Lord is biblical, the idea of a ritual in which this is done has no biblical mandate. We have a way of doing this in a service that best models the biblical concept, without being an infant baptism in all but name.

[3] The Didache, a collection of teachings from the early church dated to the early second century, goes into detail about baptism and encourages immersion in water, while permitting sprinkling with water if sufficient water is unavailable (Didache 7:1-3). While this is an extra-biblical source and not as authoritative as scripture, it does show our practice to be in line with that of the early church.

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