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Baptists and the ordinances, part 1

September 27, 2007

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2007 9:49 pm

    Thanks for this, Ryan.

    I have understood (why? from whom? I don’t know!) that Baptists use the term “ordinance” in order to distinguish their view of the things so named from what more catholic (note the small “c”) Christians have called sacraments. Can you verify this for me?

    I have also noticed some baptists using the term sacrament and have wondered if their views were different from the Baptists who insist on the term “ordinance,” or if, perhaps, they were simply uncaring to make the distinction that “ordinance” was supposed to put forth.

    As to the matter of two or more sacraments (or, ordinances), catholic thologians — whether Protestant or Roman — have always said that baptism and communion were “cardinal” sacraments, recognizing that these two were expressly commanded by Christ.

    As far as the other sacraments, these are ordinarily understood as sacraments in the same sense as baptism and the communion are sacraments, but that they come to us via Christ’s Apostles, who in their ministry in Acts and the Epistles are fulfilling Christ’s command to teach whatsoever Christ had commanded them. It is necessarily understood, of course, that the canonical gospels do not contain everything that Christ commanded the Apostles, but that subsequent NT writings — in fulfillment of the Great Commission — do.

  2. September 28, 2007 1:32 pm

    Hello, Father Bill.

    There are indeed some Baptists who insist that we call these things “ordinances” rather than sacraments. I would even go so far to say that the majority of Baptists do. Those Baptists above who call them “sacraments” would differ from those Baptists who forbid them being called such.

    I should add that my theology professor had no problem calling them sacraments. I have no problem calling them “sacraments” (using the term in no way offends me), but I am also interested in how one defines sacrament.

    I appreciate the interaction.

  3. September 28, 2007 10:18 pm

    “I am also interested in how one defines sacrament.”

    MMMmmm. Well, as near as I’ve been able to understand so far, those who use the term “sacrament” with a full-blown theology of sacraents in view — these folks still are not all on the same page as to the definition of a sacrament.

    Most will point back to Augustine’s definition, which appears in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer cathecism as follows: “A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

    So far, so good, I suppose. But it doesn’t go very far, and so those who believe that spirituality generally is sacramental in its dynamics will still quarrel about what those dynamics actually boil down to.

    Everyone will concur that a sacrament *means* something, and so it functions as a kind of communication medieum. Unless I misunderstand them, Anabaptists would pretty much confine sacraments to this function. Hence, communion is a picture. Baptism is a picture. And, that’s it!

    Beyond this, the debate (among sacramentalists, even) surrounds this question: does a sacrament like baptism or the eucharist *do* anything beyond meaning something. The answer usually give is that a sacrament is an instrumental means of conveying grace, or perhaps a particular grace. And, then we’re off to further issues such as whether or not the sacraments accomplish this conveyance of grace by virtue of their enactment (i.e. ex opere operato) or not. Also, precisely what the grace amounts to gets debated.

    The Anabaptist treatment of the sacraments is certainly simpler. But, is it complete? Are the Anabaptists playing with a full deck? I don’t think so, on the basis of some pretty bald affirmations in the NT.

    On the other hand, those who believe that the sacraments (whether two or many) actually do something have made a pretty nasty hash of it.

  4. September 29, 2007 12:06 pm


    It was interesting to read the various viewpoints regarding Baptists ordinances or sacraments. I was a bit disappointed that you started with John Smythe late in his life recognizing only two sacraments. John Smythe was first an Anglican, as were his father and grandfather. As Anglicans of that time, John and his fathers would have held to seven sacraments. How does John come to recognize only two and discard the rest? By what authority may John do this? As an Anglican priest?

    How do Baptists view Christ’s instructions to the apostles to forgive sins (John 20:21-23) and its corresponding verse in James 5:16 to “confess your sins to one another”.

    Ditto for James’s instruction for the annointing of the sick with oil (Jas. 5:14-15), which is also mentioned in Mark 6:13. The annointings in Mark were done with the authority of Christ who sent His disciples forth to heal.

    God bless…


  1. Baptists and the ordinances, part 2 « Immoderate
  2. The Historical Use of the Word Ordinance vice Sacrament - The PuritanBoard

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