Traditions help families stay together. And churches, like good families, have traditions they keep. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper—often referred to as the ordinances—are two such traditions.
Healthy churches practice these for at least four good reasons.
Jesus Calls Us to Practice the Ordinances
Of everything Jesus could have mentioned as part of making disciples, one of the first things he mentioned is baptizing them (Matt. 28:19). In similar fashion, there is also a point blank command concerning the Lord’s Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24 NIV). Looking at these two commands, it is hard to fathom how some would think that baptism and the Lord’s Supper can be seen as mere options.
God Entrusted the Church with the Ordinances
The commands to baptize and observe the Lord’s Supper were not given for Christians to obey as individuals, but as churches. It’s true that the original command to baptize was given to the eleven apostles and not a church. It is also true that there are examples of baptisms occurring in the book of Acts that were not connected with a church. But it is equally true that no churches existed yet in those places and at that time.
The commands to baptize and observe the Lord’s Supper were not given for Christians to obey as individuals, but as churches.
The orthodox Christian belief is that baptism is the rite by which a person identifies with and enters into church membership. No believer has the independent authority to go out freelancing as a baptizer. Baptism is integrally connected to churches. Likewise, the Lord’s Supper was instituted by Jesus with the apostles, who were not exactly a church. But the meaning attached to the Lord’s Supper indicates its tie to local churches.
Paul portrays the celebration of the Supper as the way that believers proclaim they are one body (1 Cor. 10:16–17). The Lord’s Supper is something believers do together when they gather as a church, not something they do as individuals or in their families (1 Cor. 11:18).
Ordinances Visually Proclaim the Gospel
Romans 6:3–4 describes baptism as portraying our death, burial, and resurrection with Christ—acts which form the heart of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:3–4). Likewise, Paul says that whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are proclaiming the message of the Lord’s death, which, again, is the heart of the gospel. It seems that the Lord may purpose to reach some who have become hardened to mere words by words connected with visual presentation.
Ordinances Promote the Vitality of a Local Church
Baptism—practiced rightly—safeguards regenerate church membership at the entry point. That is, only regenerate persons are baptized, and only baptized persons become church members. The Lord’s Supper, practiced rightly, maintains regenerate church membership in an ongoing way and it enhances local church unity. Although others may be present in the room, the only ones partaking of the Supper should be members in good standing—that is, those who are faithfully living as a Christian ought to live.
Those who eat the bread and drink the cup do so together as a pledge of their unity with one another. Both ordinances, when practiced as believing acts of obedience, bring the blessing of God, who always blesses faithful obedience.
Some Christians believe God manifests his presence in a special way during the ordinances. Others see the ordinances as means of sustaining grace. Baptists do not believe that Christ is physically present in the act of baptism or in the Lord’s Supper. Nor do we believe that the ordinances transmit saving grace. We do, however, believe that God has instituted the ordinances for our blessing. How God chooses to bless our obedience is his prerogative. Our part is to obey.
Safeguarding regenerate church membership, enhancing unity, and experiencing the blessings of obedience all promote health in a local church.
Some may think that the ordinances can only be celebrated when led by an officially ordained person, and churches in some parts of the world do not have ordained pastors. But if the ordinances are given to the church, the church can determine who should lead in the observance of them.
Pastors are certainly appropriate persons to baptize and lead in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but that is because the church has chosen them to be their leaders, not because they have some special power. In the absence of officially ordained pastors, churches may choose whom they see fit to baptize and lead them in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
If the ordinances are given to the church, the church can determine who should lead in the observance of them.
An objection heard concerning the Lord’s Supper is that persons who live in cultures where bread is unknown and grapes are not grown cannot celebrate the Lord’s Supper because bread and wine do not exist there. But such an objection stems from being unnecessarily precise. The elements themselves are not of the essence of the Supper; they are symbols. The fact that the Lord wants disciples to be made of all nations—including those who do not have bread and wine—must mean that the Lord’s broken body and shed blood may be symbolized by a common, locally available food and drink.
In the culture of the New Testament church, the common, locally available food and drink was bread and wine. But the meaning of the Lord’s Supper is not such that it requires those exact elements.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are gifts that the Lord of the church has given to his people for their health and blessing. They are responsibilities of the church that visually proclaim the gospel and promote a healthy witness of Christ’s transforming power. Let us joyfully accept them and celebrate them to his glory and our good.
John Hammett has been a professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1995. Prior to that, he was a pastor for nine years and a missionary with the International Mission Board. He is the author of Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches and 40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as numerous articles on church leadership and the Christian faith. He and his wife Linda have two adult children.