Last month we published the first volume of our new journal of theology, Gloria Deo Journal of Theology. I’d encourage you to take a look at some of the excellent articles and book reviews in the journal. I have an article in the issue titled, “Biblical Ordinances and Visible Signs: How Baptists Weakened Biblical Authority by Limiting Ordinances to Two.” In it, I argue that we Baptists ought to stop saying that there are only two ordinances because this weakens biblical authority over our worship practices. Allow me to explain.
It is quite common for Baptists today to claim that the church has been given only two ordinances—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This is often reflected in the first “T” in the convenient acrostic “B-A-P-T-I-S-T”: Biblical Authority; Autonomy of the Local Church; Priesthood of the Believer; Two Ordinances; Individual Soul Liberty; Saved, Baptized Church Membership; Two Offices; Separation of Church and State. You’ll also find language describing “the two ordinances of Christ” in descriptions of Baptist theology in places like the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) and the website of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.
Baptists today sort of take this for granted; pastors often say from the pulpit that we have been given only two ordinances, and if you were to ask the average Baptist, they would agree.
However, this language has not always been so among Baptists. In fact, it’s rather recent.
Defining the Term
Think about what the term ordinance means. It means “command.” So an ordinance of Christ given to the church would be a command that he has given.
In the ESV, we find the term ordinance only twice, both in Daniel, and they refer to commands given from the king. We find other terms, however, that would be synonyms. For example, Luke 1:6 describes Zechariah and Elizabeth as those who walked “blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord.” Romans 13:2 describes “what God has appointed,” that is, a command of the Lord. In both of these cases, other translations render the terms statues and has appointed with the term ordinances.
Even more pertinent to a discussion of what has been commanded for churches to do, Paul commends the Corinthian church for keeping the “traditions” he delivered to them, and again, the term has the idea of practices that God commanded churches to observe through Paul’s teaching (1 Cor 11:2). Indeed, Paul’s whole argument in 1 Corinthians 11–14 involves what the church ought to be doing when they gather together, and he concludes his argument by saying that we “should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a commandment of the Lord” (1 Cor 14:37). Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:15 that there is a particular way “to behave” in the church, and thus we find in the New Testament the commands God has given to the church through his apostles, the “commands” or “ordinances” churches ought to observe.
Early Baptists’ Use of the Term
This is the way early Baptists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used the term ordinance. They used it to describe the commands Christ gave to the church through the apostles. They believed that churches must obey the ordinances given to them in the New Testament, and they must not add anything beyond what the New Testament prescribes.
For example, Benjamin Keach admonished churches to “keep all the ordinances of Christ as they were once delivered to the saints, owning the Holy Scriptures to be the only rule of their faith and practice.”1Benjamin Keach, The Articles of the Faith of the Church of Christ, Or Congregation Meeting at Horsley-Down (London: Wing, 1697), 27. Hanserd Knollys insisted that “the whole worship of God and all the sacred ordinances of the Lord be administered according to the gospel institutions, commandments, and examples of Christ and his holy apostles,” and he condemned “inventions and traditions of men being mixed with the holy ordinances of God.”2Hanserd Knollys, An Exposition of the Whole Book of Revelation (London, 1688), 123–24, 101–103. William Kiffin claimed, “I have no other design, but the preserving the ordinances of Christ, in their purity and order as they are left unto us in the holy Scriptures of truth, and to warn the churches to keep close to the rule, least they be found not to worship the Lord according to his prescribed order he make a break among them.”3William Kiffin, A Sober Discourse of Right to Church Communion (Baptist Standard Bearer, Incorporated, 2006), 1. Likewise, J. L. Reynolds argued, “To a devout mind, it cannot be a matter of trivial interest, that the ordinances of the gospel not only derive their validity from the appointment of the great Head of the Church, but are hallowed and commended to our imitation by his own example.”4J. L. Reynolds, “Church Polity or the Kingdom of Christ, in Its Internal and External Development (1849),” in Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life, ed. Mark Dever … Continue reading
Indeed, Baptist use of the term ordinance to describe all of the biblically prescribed elements of public worship fit within their broader concern for what Matthew Ward calls “pure worship” based upon clear biblical prescription.5Matthew Ward, Pure Worship: The Early English Baptist Distinctive (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014). Early English Baptists clearly articulated in their confessions of faith, “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself” (LBC 22:1). John Spilsbury (1593–1668) declared, “The holy Scripture is the only place where any ordinance of God in the case aforesaid is to be found, they being the fountain-head, containing all the instituted rules of both of church and ordinances.”6John Spilsbury, A Treatise Concerning the Lawfull Subject of Baptisme (London: n.p., 1643), 89. John Gill later proclaimed, “Now for an act of religious worship there must be a command of God. God is a jealous God, and will not suffer anything to be admitted into the worship of him, but what is according to his Word and will.”7John Gill, Complete Body of Practical and Doctrinal Divinity: Being a System of Evangelical Truths, Deduced from the Sacred Scriptures (Philadelphia: Printed for Delaplaine and Hellings, by … Continue reading They insisted that the practices of the church be limited to what Scripture—specifically, the New Testament—commanded, and as Kiffin noted, “that where a rule and express law is prescribed to men, that very prescription, is an express prohibition of the contrary.”8Kiffin, Sober Discourse, 28–29. This concern among Baptists continued well into the early nineteenth century, as seen by John Fawcett’s (1739–1817) very direct assertion in 1808:
No acts of worship can properly be called holy, but such as the Almighty has enjoined. No man, nor any body of men have any authority to invent rites and ceremonies of worship; to change the ordinances which he has established; or to invent new ones. . . . The divine Word is the only safe directory in what relates to his own immediate service. The question is not what we may think becoming, decent, or proper, but what our gracious Master has authorized as such. In matters of religion, nothing bears the stamp of holiness but what God has ordained.9John Fawcett, The Holiness Which Becometh the House of the Lord (Halifax: Holden and Dawson, 1808), 25.
Thus, the term ordinance meant those practices for the church’s worship that were clearly prescribed in the New Testament; these ordinances must be practiced, and no other. Knollys defined the “pure worship of God” as that which strictly observed the “holy ordinances of the gospel.”10Knollys, An Exposition of the Whole Book of Revelation, 189. Likewise, Henry Jessey (1603–1663) insisted, “Forms or ordinances are ways and means of divine worship, or Christ’s appointment,”11Henry Jessey, A Storehouse of Provision to Further Resolution in Several Cases of Conscience (London: Charles Sumptner, 1650), 9. and these early Baptists defined “will-worship” as “every administration and application of an ordinance of Christ, otherwise than according to the rule of the Word.”12Benjamin Cox, Hanserd Knollys, and William Kiffin, A Declaration Concerning The Publike Dispute Which Should Have Been in the Publike Meetinghouse of Alderman-Bury (London: n.p., 1645), 18. Edward T. Hiscox (1814–1901) helpfully defined ordinance as “institutions of divine authority relating to the worship of God, under the Christian Dispensation.”13Edward T. Hiscox, The New Directory for Baptist Churches (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1894), 119.
What are the Ordinances?
So what, then, are the ordinances that have been given to the church? Early Baptists actually debated this question quite vigorously. So concerned as they were to make sure what they did as churches followed the prescriptions of the New Testament, they debated over what those commands were. However, at minimum, early Baptists agreed that there were at least six biblically-prescribed ordinances given to New Testament churches:
First, Paul commands Timothy, in the context of teaching him how to behave in the house of God, to devote himself to “the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). He repeats similar commands in Colossians 4:16 and 1 Thessalonians 5:27.
He also commands Timothy to devote himself “to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13) and to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Third, Paul commands that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:1–2). He commands the Colossians to “continue steadfastly in prayer” (4:2), and to the Ephesians he urges them to pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication . . . making supplication for all the saints” (6:18).
A fourth biblically prescribed element might not be a separate element at all but may be another form of Scripture reading or prayer, and that is singing. In two of Paul’s letters, he commands gathered believers to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, thereby “singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19) and “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Col. 3:16).
Fifth, Christ commands in his Great Commission to the disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
And finally, Paul tells the Corinthian church that he delivered “the Lord’s supper” to the church, having received it from the Lord himself (1 Cor. 11:20, 23). These are the only corporate worship elements given to the church in the NT for the purpose of building up the body into mature disciple/worshipers. To add or subtract from these God-ordained elements would be to distrust the sufficiency of God’s Word in giving us what we need to equip us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17).
Clearly, early Baptists used the term ordinance to refer to more than just baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However, these last two ordinances are distinct in some ways from the other four: First, they are unique to the church (and not Israel). Reading the Word, preaching, prayer, and singing have always characterized the worship of God’s people, but baptism and the Lord’s Supper are unique for the New Testament Church. Second, while unbelievers can participate in preaching, Scripture reading , prayer, and singing, baptism and the Table are restricted to believers. And third, baptism and the Table are distinct from the other ordinances in that they are visible signs of spiritual realities.
So if early Baptists described more than two ordinances given in the New Testament for churches, why do modern Baptists only refer to two ordinances? As I explain in the journal article, I believe at least part of the reason is this difference between the two visible signs and the other ordinances. Historically, Christians have used the word sacrament to describe baptism and the Lord’s Table in distinction to the other ordinances. Even early Baptists used that term. Sacrament originally simply meant an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality.
However, due to how Roman Catholics changed the meaning of the word sacrament, and the fact that the term sacrament isn’t found in Scripture, many Baptists began avoiding the term altogether. This left them without a term to describe the two visible signs, which as I’ve explained are clearly distinct from the other ordinances. Over time, then, they began to narrow the term ordinance to only refer to these two visible signs, even defining the term in that way.
How This Weakened Biblical Authority
While I understand why Baptists stopped using the term sacrament, I believe it was a mistake to redefine the term ordinance to mean “visible sign” rather than what it actually means— “command.” I believe that it was a mistake primarily because it contributed to a weakening of the commitment to biblical authority over worship practices among Baptists. By restricting the term ordinance—a term that both means and is explicitly defined by Baptist authors as “a command”—to only baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Baptists at least imply that churches need not restrict their practice only to what the New Testament commands. Certainly churches may do more than baptize and celebrate the Supper. All other elements of public worship are left ambiguous and, by implication at least, require no biblical prescription. Thus, while all Baptist churches also include preaching, prayer, Scripture reading, and singing, most do not refer to them as NT ordinances, and they often include more than what the New Testament prescribes.
That modern Baptists lost the early Baptist allegiance to strict biblical simplicity in worship during roughly the same period as the shift in language from at least six ordinances to two is no coincidence. Many Baptist church services today could hardly be described as regulated by Scripture, including as they do many elements not prescribed in the NT. Along with other factors, such as revivalism, pragmatism, and church growth methodology, one contributor to this loss of concern about biblical authority in worship may be the language Baptists use to describe what they do when they gather. Recovering the term ordinance for all of the biblically-prescribed elements of worship could help to stress their importance and prevent the introduction of elements not prescribed.
At minimum, I propose that we should stop claiming that holding to two ordinances is a Baptist distinctive. It may be now, but it has not been historically nor biblically. The New Testament prescribes at least six ordinances for the church: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, preaching, Scripture reading, prayer, and singing—we ought to call them ordinances to emphasize their biblical mandate, just like our Baptist forefathers did. In order to distinguish baptism and the Lord’s Table from the other ordinances, for reasons I described earlier, we could use a term like “visible sign” to communicate their significance.
Attention to clarity in the terms we use for the practice of public worship may help us to “stand firm and hold to the [ordinances] that [we] were taught by [Christ’s apostles], either by [their] spoken word or by [their] letter[s]” (2 Thess 2:15).
|1||Benjamin Keach, The Articles of the Faith of the Church of Christ, Or Congregation Meeting at Horsley-Down (London: Wing, 1697), 27.|
|2||Hanserd Knollys, An Exposition of the Whole Book of Revelation (London, 1688), 123–24, 101–103.|
|3||William Kiffin, A Sober Discourse of Right to Church Communion (Baptist Standard Bearer, Incorporated, 2006), 1.|
|4||J. L. Reynolds, “Church Polity or the Kingdom of Christ, in Its Internal and External Development (1849),” in Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life, ed. Mark Dever (Washington, D.C.: Center for Church Reform, 2001), 364.|
|5||Matthew Ward, Pure Worship: The Early English Baptist Distinctive (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014).|
|6||John Spilsbury, A Treatise Concerning the Lawfull Subject of Baptisme (London: n.p., 1643), 89.|
|7||John Gill, Complete Body of Practical and Doctrinal Divinity: Being a System of Evangelical Truths, Deduced from the Sacred Scriptures (Philadelphia: Printed for Delaplaine and Hellings, by B. Graves, 1810), 899.|
|8||Kiffin, Sober Discourse, 28–29.|
|9||John Fawcett, The Holiness Which Becometh the House of the Lord (Halifax: Holden and Dawson, 1808), 25.|
|10||Knollys, An Exposition of the Whole Book of Revelation, 189.|
|11||Henry Jessey, A Storehouse of Provision to Further Resolution in Several Cases of Conscience (London: Charles Sumptner, 1650), 9.|
|12||Benjamin Cox, Hanserd Knollys, and William Kiffin, A Declaration Concerning The Publike Dispute Which Should Have Been in the Publike Meetinghouse of Alderman-Bury (London: n.p., 1645), 18.|
|13||Edward T. Hiscox, The New Directory for Baptist Churches (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1894), 119.|