In the most general sense, an ordinance is a law, something whose observation is commanded. Following this broad definition, all the elements of public worship in the New Testament are ordinance. So, in a certain manner of speaking, there are more than two ordinances. We as believers have also been commanded by Christ and his apostles to sing, to preach, to read the Scripture, to pray. For this reason, some Baptists have spoken of several ordinances, including baptism and the Eucharist. I find it helpful to think of the elements of worship in this way, as ordinances, things the Lord has commanded us to observe. True churches observe these things, not simply because tradition has entrusted them with their maintenance, but because they are “laws” under which the believer happily submits to Christ in public worship. These general ordinances are the things we are told to do in Christian churches by the Lord (either directly or through his apostles). We should do them, and not be in the practice of creating our own.
At this point, it seems to me misleading to assert that it is “historic Baptist belief” that there “only two ordinances.” My study seems to show (and I could be convinced otherwise) that Baptists have sometimes put forth several ordinances, at other times just two. The word “ordinances” has taken on different nuances among Baptist theologians and pastors. At the same time, it seems clear that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper rose to the forefront in Baptist thought. And I think for good reason, not the least of which being the way Baptists practiced these ordinances resulted in their receiving special emphasis.
At the same time, it is proper to speak of two church ordinances. I think we can rightly say, even if we believe in what I am calling “general ordinances” that there are two ordinances in the church. I believe that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper stand out among the general ordinances for several good and proper reasons.
- Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have been given to the church by the Lord and were not to the nation Israel (however much their shadows may have appeared in the Old Testament). While proclamation of the word, singing, and prayer were all given to the nation Israel, baptism and communion are the church’s alone.
- Baptism and the Eucharist are positive ordinances, i.e., the two ordinances have no moral quality in and of themselves. I do not mean to address with this point whether or not they are “saving” or a “means of grace.” I am distinguishing the positive ordinances from those of moral benefit. For example, there is a moral benefit to hearing the Word of the Lord proclaimed and read. Spiritual benefit comes through the church’s sitting under preaching. There is a moral and spiritual benefit to prayer, and to singing. The benefit of washing feet (which I do not believe is an ordinane in any sense) is merely moral. In the act of washing in water there is no moral benefit per se (leaving aside the question of whether baptism is a “means of grace”). So in eating bread and drinking wine there is no moral benefit in the act itself. The benefit received (and there certainly is a benefit of some sort) in baptism and the Lord’s Supper comes (in part) from their being instituted by the Lord for the church to observe, as acts chosen by the Lord Jesus in order to benefit his body.
- Some theologians point to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as being rites whose observance has been particularly commanded by the Lord. Although this is somewhat debatable (is it not true that our Lord told us to fast, to pray, to preach, and to teach as well?), I think there is something to this. I have to work further in how to express it adequately. The author appreciates the readers’ patience.
- Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as many have pointed out, point symbolically to the saving work of Christ as revealed in the Gospel. In the Eucharist, we see symbols of the Lord’s death, of his body in the bread and of his blood in the wine. In baptism, we similarly see a sign of the believer’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection. While the Lord’s Supper points to our Lord’s life (we continue to do it until he comes), and baptism points to our Lord’s death (we are buried with him in baptism), it seems that the Lord’s Supper most acutely points to the death and Baptism to the resurrection of our Lord. In these sacred rites we see great memorials of the death and resurrection of the Lord. On this point, allow me to quote, as I did last time, A. H. Strong’s 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).
I am sure that the list I have given here is incomplete. But I think the reasons above give us good reason to “single out” baptism and the Lord’s Supper above all the other general ordinances of the Lord. They are the church’s two ordinances, given to it, of positive command, particularly commanded by the Lord, and symbols or signs of the Gospel.