Do we perform sacraments or ordinances?

by K.W. Leslie, 25 April

Many Protestants are weirded out by, and water down, this “sacrament” language.

ORDINANCE 'ɔr.dɪ.nəns, 'ɔrd.nəns noun. Authoritative order or decree.
2. Religious ritual; particularly one ordained by Christ.
3. What Evangelical Christians call sacraments.

I refer to certain Christian rituals as sacraments. But you’re gonna find many Evangelicals really don’t like that word. To them, we don’t call these practices “sacraments.” We call them “ordinances.”

Why? Officially, lots of reasons. Unofficially it’s anti-Catholicism.

See, a lot of Evangelicals come from churches and traditions which are historically anti-Catholic. True, all the original Protestants originated from various spats with Catholicism. But these folks were raised to be particularly leery of Roman Catholic beliefs. To them, “sacrament” has a lot of bothersome theological baggage attached. So they refuse to use it.

But we gotta call our rituals something, and for some reason “ritual” is out. So what these folks have chosen to emphasize is the fact Christ Jesus ordained certain rituals among us Christians: He ordered us to do ’em, and that’s why we do ’em. The two these people single out are holy communion 1Co 11.23-26 and baptism. Mt 28.19 (Some of them also recognize Jesus mandated foot-washing, Jn 13.14-15 but not every church is willing to list it as an ordinance. Which probably merits its own article.)

You’ll also find these Christians still practice a lot of the other sacraments. They just won’t call ’em ordinances either, ’cause Jesus didn’t ordain them. Although often the apostles did.

ConfirmationConfession of faith at baptismPeter
EucharistHoly communionJesus
PenanceCounseling, confession, and intercessionJames
Anointing the sickAnointing the sickJames
Holy ordersLaying hands on people for ministryThe LORD, to Moses
MatrimonyWedding ceremonies9th-century Christians

As you notice, Evangelicals still anoint and pray for the sick. Still lay hands on people they’re sending out to do ministry. Still perform wedding ceremonies, funerals, and baby dedications. Still counsel and intercede for people. It’s just they won’t call these other things “ordinances” because they’re not the three ordinances Jesus gave us… and they’ll still try to avoid the word “ritual,” even though it’s precisely what we’re doing.

It’s all about “not doing as Catholics do,” even though we’re totally doing as Catholics do.

Well, there is some difference in belief.

I remind you there are three categories of Christian:

  1. Sacramentalists take sacraments seriously. (Or literally.)
  2. Non-sacramentalists don’t take them seriously. But do them anyway.
  3. Anti-sacramentalists figure they’re dead religion and won’t do them at all.

Often the “official reason” Christians call ’em ordinances instead of sacraments, is because they’re non-sacramentalist. They don’t, they claim, believe as sacramentalists do.

Now, is this really true? Not always.

What they mean to say is they don’t believe as Catholics do. And sometimes as other Protestants do. Catholics, fr’instance, take holy communion literally: They believe the wafers and wine become Jesus. Not represent; become. The molecules, during the service, got swapped with Jesus’s. (The technical term is “transubstantiation.”) ’Cause Jesus did say, “Take, eat: This is my body.” Mk 14.22 KJV Not “This matzo only represents me.”

Now, my church tradition doesn’t believe this about communion. But this doesn’t mean we therefore don’t believe in practicing communion. We totally do; we just don’t buy transubstantiation. We figure the wafers, flatbread, saltines, matzo, oyster crackers, or whatever your church uses, only represent Jesus and nothing more. He was using metaphor; he does that, y’know.

Other Protestants figure Jesus’s presence is in the wafers somehow. But whenever Protestants feel like making fun of other Christians’ beliefs, we never mock those believers; we head straight for the Catholics. Seems it’s the only interpretation of the scriptures where biblical literalists finally balk: “Okay, now you done gone too far.”

But the reason Protestants will object so strenuously… is because deep down, they’re sacramentalists. They take our rituals seriously! A non-sacramentalist wouldn’t; to them it wouldn’t matter how we do ’em. You could have communion with Oreos and milk for all they care. It’s a bit tacky, but the important thing is remembering Jesus, right?

To a Protestant sacramentalist, these beliefs and practices are important. They’ve gotta be done properly. Reverently. Thoughtfully. Carefully. We’ve gotta follow what the scriptures teach (as far as we can deduce) about them. They’ve gotta meet God’s approval. And, honestly, ours.

But the reason we nitpick and condemn one another’s beliefs, has nothing to do with God’s actual approval. God does grace, remember?—if we mix something up, he can work around it. But we don’t do grace. What it all actually comes back to, is the ire Catholics and Protestants often have for one another. We fall back on that. Not on understanding one another, nor loving one another as sisters and brothers in Christ.

So yeah, it’s bile disguised as religion. Or as Jesus calls it, hypocrisy.

’Cause the “ordinances” count.

The churches I grew up in, called ’em ordinances. But like I said, it was very important how we did the ordinances. For all of them, baptism was full immersion: You went all the way down into the water. Anything less didn’t count as a baptism. When I was baptized as an infant, the priest poured water over my head, so that definitely didn’t count as far as they were concerned. But when I was baptized again at age 7, they definitely immersed me, so that counted.

Now, to a true non-sacramentalist, it wouldn’t make any difference. Immersion or pouring water: It’s all baptism. Getting baptized as an unaware baby, or getting baptized as a conscious believer: It’s all baptism. Getting baptized in a baptismal, a river, a tub, the fountain outside City Hall, or running through a sprinkler: It’s all the same to them. The important thing is we remember our salvation, right?

When I describe a real non-sacramentalist point of view to an Evangelical, they wanna know what kind of strange hippies I’ve been hanging out with again. Way too theologically libertarian for them. There oughta be some boundary lines drawn around what these ordinances oughta mean, and look like.

Why? Obviously, they respond, because they count.

Count to whom; us? No, they respond, to God.

Well that’d be sacramentalism. If they count to God—if he expects ’em done with a serious state of mind, because they represent something valid—it means God’s done, doing, or gonna do something which corresponds to our ritual. It’s not an empty ritual. It’s full.

It’s more than a mere ordinance.