Thursday, January 19, 2006

Why two ordinances?

Since Jim and I discussed feet washing in the comments section of the last blog, I decided to go this direction for tonight. I realize what I will say below will open me to a lot of criticism from friend and foe, but I believe it is something that deserves more than the passing thought most of us give it.

In my opinion, to be fixated on the idea of "only two ordinances" goes beyond what we can prove by the Scriptures. Again, IMO, a certain amount of contrivance is needed to defend the "only two ordinances" position. Baptism and the Lord’s supper are not termed ordinances in the New Testament, as far as I can tell. There is a problem with most attempts to answer "why only two ordinances?" Our approach is something like this: We see that baptism and the Lord's supper are observances that stand out in significance and frequency more than any other rites or symbols in the New Testament, from feet washing to the holy kiss. Then we try to find ways to define and categorize this -- to make them stand out and explain why they do. First, it is said there are two ordinances -- baptism and the Lord's supper. Then it is said that baptism and the Lord's supper speak of who Christ was and what He did. So, ordinances speak of who Christ was and what He did, and therefore, there are two ordinances. This is a round of circular reasoning that assumes what we are asked to prove.

Because this is the prominent view today, many folks believe that all Baptists have always held that there are only two ordinances. Of the earliest known English Baptist confessions, some use the term "ordinance" and some do not. The Philadelphia Confession of Faith, first adopted by Baptists in America in 1742, added two articles to the former London Confession of Faith. In these two articles, they identified singing of psalms and laying on of hands as "ordinances".

There were other rites observed by the early church -- right hand of fellowship, laying on of hands, feet washing, holy kiss, anointing with oil, headcovering, and others. I do not see any reason that observing these, if a church so chooses, poses any threat to the value and importance of baptism and the Lord's supper. Baptists almost universally observe some form of the right hand of fellowship and laying on of hands.

Why two ordinances? Because most Baptists so define them and so say. It is Biblical enough to just say that baptism and the Lord's supper are pre-eminent in meaning and practice, without denying that other symbols had meaning to the apostles and the early church.


Anonymous said...

I think the widespread use of the "BAPTIST" acrostic also has influenced many modern Baptists.

I would suggest that the Reformed tradition has affected modern Baptists in this regard, whether we realize it or not. Lutherans reduced the number to only two (as did the Calvinists), while the Church of England retained the Catholic/Orthodox sacraments, though it treats only baptism and communion as "great sacraments" and the others as "sacramental rites."

In that regard, I would suggestion that rejection of additional ordinances may owe something to a lingering sacramental view of the ordinances; while Baptists don't hold to sacramentalism, it seems most have picked out ordinances that reflect the unique work of Christ, almost as if they are sacramental and the only ones worthy of being called ordinances.


Anonymous said...

Baptism and the Lord's Supper fit in as ordinances with eternal significance. They are commands for the believer to obey. whilst the other items mentioned have cultural significance, they do not carry the same eternal weight. The right hand of fellowship is directly related to the use of a sword, which was common down through the ages. The sword was handled in the right hand. When one shakes hands, the sword is disabled...fellowship. The holy kiss is definitely a cutural event, even to this day. We just don't kiss men, or women, in public, or other than our own family. Many European cultures do kiss men and women when they meet. Annointing wih oil pertains to prayer for the sick, and laying on the hands simply shows approval of that event, such as at ordination, or receiving into the local church membership or office of deacon and sometimes pastor.

I cannot take them beyond that anymore than I can accept the washing of feet out of cultural context.

Ordinance is an authoritative order...Christ gave is an enactment by a local authority,,,the local church....a religious rite. Just as a candidate for ordination is called an ordinand (ordinance, ordination,,the word)



R. L. Vaughn said...

The initial post grew out of some thoughts incited by a Baptist Board thread on which it was asked, "Why do Baptists believe there are only two ordinances?" I don't disrespect those who take that position. But one of my main points is that most Baptists believe there are two ordinances because that is what they've been taught, and really have little idea beyond this tradition why they think as they do. In a minority of Baptist traditions, there is a belief that there are three ordinances. If that had been the question, my answer would have been basically the same, with minor adjustments to discuss "why three" instead of "why two".

Historically, Baptists have not always held that there were two ordinances, nor have they even consistently used the word ordinance. I think that is justification for deeper thinking into what we hold on the basis of tradition.

Jim, I think your comments about the cultural significance of some of the things mentioned has validity. But it is also true that at least some of these things are still observed to some extent in most Baptist churches today. I mentioned laying on of hands and the right hand of fellowship --which brings in focus rsr's comments. Do we still have some sacramental idea of the ordinances, as opposed to viewing them as "mere symbols"? The right hand of fellowship is symbolic. The shake symbolizes fellowship, even when truly there may be none. The laying on of hands is symbolic. At least I'd say most Baptists don't think they're passing on something through their hands. So however we divide them out or explain them, we do have more than two symbolic practices.

Again, if we look at "ordinances" as an authoritative order given by Christ, I think a good case can be made for feet washing. Christ did command them to do it. The rub comes in whether we think this is to be done literally as a custom, literally as a service, literally in church as a symbol, spiritually as any humble service, or perhaps any combination of the above.

Headcovering makes an interesting example, though far removed from most Baptist usage. It is usually struck with a double-edged sword coming and going -- that Paul's teaching is based on a cultural construct in the city of Corinth, and that since it has no cultural meaning today, it should not be practiced. A review of I Corinthians 11, though, reveals that of the arguments Paul outlines for the use of a headcovering, cultural observance is not one of them.

Much of what I'm doing is raising questions, but they are questions I think need to be raised. If each succeeding generation does not think about why they believe what they have been taught, in a few generations we will have no idea why we believe what we believe.