A while back I read John Gill’s Body of Practical Divinity and discovered that he believed that the church observed more than two ordinances. This struck me, since I had been reared to hold to only two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Gill seemed to be defining ordinance as activities ordained by Christ in public worship. What is more, in my days spent under Baptist teaching, the definition of ordinance was usually (not always!) assumed. More importantly, when that definition was articulated, the significance of that definition was not always specified. Why is it important to hold that there are only two ordinances? What is the significance of certain definitions of ordinance? What are the implications of holding that the ordinances are those elements of public worship ordained by Christ and that there are more than two?

This set me out to research the various Baptist positions concerning the ordinances. While this study is not comprehensive, I want to share some of those conclusions here. Part 1 of “Baptists and the ordinances” will be set aside for that purpose. Part 2 will discuss the significance of the study, and what conclusions I think we can draw.

John Smyth’s 1610 Short Confession called the Lord’s Supper and Baptism as the only two “sacraments,” and connected their administration to the teaching ministry of the church. The biblical “holy ordinances” included ministers, doctrine, sacraments, care of the poor and ministers, and discipline. The first London Confession of 1644 listed among the ordinances preaching (XXXVII) and baptism (XXXIX-XLI). The Faith and Practice of Thirty Congregations (1651) says that church should follow “all the Laws or Ordinances of Jesus Christ”: Eucharist, prayer, and praise (183). The Second London Confession says that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper “are ordinances of positive, and sovereign institution; appointed by the Lord Jesus the only Law-giver, to be continued in his Church to the end of the world” (XXVIII.1). Only those called by God could administrate them. The confession seems to hold that there are more than two ordinances (e.g., XXII.5; XXVI.6, 8). The Orthodox Creed of 1679 lists baptism and the Lord’s Supper as two “sacraments.” They are positively appointed by Christ, continued in the church until the eschaton, and only administrated by those “rightly qualified.” (XXVII)

In his Glory of a True Church, Benjamin Keach in 1697 distinguished between public ordinances and those strictly for the church. The former category included public prayer, reading, preaching, and singing. In other words, those who were not church members could attend these. Those ordinances strictly for those who were church members were “the Lord’s Supper, holy Discipline, and days of Prayer and Fasting” (Polity 88).

Benjamin Griffith (A Short Treatise Concerning a True and Orderly Baptist Church 1743) does not define what an ordinance is, and is ambiguous if there are more than Lord’s Supper and Baptism (Polity 98). A Summary of Church Discipline expresses similar ambiguity, but tells ministers to “administer the ordinances of the gospel in a strict conformity to the Word of God.” (Polity 121) Only faithful believers have a right to the ordinances. (Polity 122)

Writing in his Body of Practical Divinity (1769), John Gill listed several “public ordinances” of churches, including the Lord’s Supper, preaching, hearing the Word, prayers, and psalms. He did not believe that baptism was properly a church ordinance, but one administrated outside the church.

The New Hampshire Confession of 1833 said that churches should be “observing the ordinances of Christ” (xiii). It calls the Lord’s Supper and baptism neither “sacraments” or “ordinances.” (xiv).

In 1846 W. B. Johnson, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote that ordinances were “exercises of divine worship” (Polity 204). He believed that 1 Corinthians contained the comprehensive pattern for them. Ordinances include church discipline, the Lord’s Supper, singing, prayer, prophesying, exhorting, teaching, and taking collections for poor saints.

J. L. Reynolds, on the other hand, believed there to be only two Christian ordinances–the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. I could not find a definition of ordinance in the 1849 work. He says that ordinances “derive their validity from the appointment of the great Head of the Church.” (Polity 364) John Leadley Dagg similarly said that the Lord’s Supper and Baptism were “standing ordinances of the Christian church lead the mind directly to the great Author of our salvation, and to the atoning sacrifice by which that salvation had been effected” (Manual of Church Order 1858).

Edward Hiscox in his New Directory for Baptist Churches (1894) brings more clarity to the question. He defines an ordinance as “institutions of divine authority relating to the worship of God, under the Christian Dispensation.” Therefore there are “various ordinances” in a “general sense,” including preaching, singing, and prayers. Yet the Lord’s Table and Baptism have been called ordinances in a more distinctive sense, they being understood by Baptists to be “the only Christian ordinances committed to the churches, . . . for perpetual observance.” Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are distinguished in that they alone are given to the church. Hiscox continues,

They are the two symbols of the new covenant; the two visible pillars of the spiritual temple; the two monuments of the new dispensation. Christ has ap-pointed no others. They are positive institutions, as distinguished from those of a purely moral character, their claim to honor and obedience arising exclusively from the fact that Christ has ap-pointed and made them obligatory. Their claim to respect and observance rests not on their peculiar fitness, though that is manifest, but on the simple fact that Christ has established them and commanded their observance.

A. H. Strong held that the Lord’s Supper and Baptism were the only two ordinances. He defined ordinances in his Systematic Theology:

By the ordinances, we mean those outward rites which Christ has appointed to be administered in his church as visible signs of the saving truth of the gospel. They are signs, in that they vividly express this truth and confirm it to the believer (930).

In sum, the material above shows that Baptists have held somewhat conflicting definitions of ordinance, resulting in various conclusions as to the number and their place in the church. In part 2 of this series, which should arrive sometime in the immediate future, I will discuss the implications and conclusions of this sampling of Baptist theology concerning the ordinances.

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