On Sacraments


communionThroughout its history, the church has often been divided over its praxis of certain sacred actions, with baptism and the Lord’s Supper forming the center of this debate. Pointing to the work of God witnessed in the Incarnation, some have chosen to call these actions “sacraments” and claim that God is present and active in one way or another when these actions are performed in worship. Others reject this claim and have instead chosen to focus on scriptural obedience to the commands of Jesus Christ by referring to these actions as “ordinances.” As a variety of faith communities have formed and re-formed over the centuries, all have sought their place on the praxeological spectrum between sacraments and ordinances. My personal journey has led me through several faith communities occupying a variety of locations on this spectrum. After being a member of Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and conservative, evangelical, non-denominational churches, I have now found my way to yet another branch of the Protestant church family: the Vineyard church. In its statement of faith, the Vineyard church affirms its belief in the two ordinances committed to the church by Jesus Christ in the New Testament: water baptism and the Lord’s Supper.[1] This paper will explore and critique the theological traditions which undergird Vineyard’s belief in these ordinances. It will conclude with a presentation of my own understanding of the sacred actions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “sacramental ordinances.”

The Vineyard Church began in the late 1970s on the west coast of the United States and came to be associated with a “Third Wave” of charismatic renewal.[2] John Wimber, who led the movement from 1982 until his death in 1997, drew from his heritage in the Quaker church to focus his mission on empowering “ordinary” believers to do the works of the Spirit.[3] Wimber’s fundamental “desire to give the ministry back to the people” along with his emphasis on personal experiences with the Holy Spirit locate the Vineyard Church comfortably in the anti-liturgical tradition of the Free Church, which gave birth to the Quakers, the Baptists, among others.[4]

According to Robert Webber, a key characteristic of the Free Church tradition was its understanding that God personally communicates saving grace in response to an individual’s choice for salvation, which rejects the notion of baptism as God’s chosen means of communicating saving grace.[5] This was a significant development because it allowed individuals to receive salvation apart from baptismal rites administered by a hierarchical church authority, which had been severely corrupt in the past. This Free Church idea originated in the thought of Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss Reformer, who “was convinced that faith came through the Holy Spirit alone apart from physical channels or external means.”[6] Subsequent Free Church traditions adopted Zwingli’s Bible-centric approach to worship, which gave value to a direct, “supremely inward” experience in the minds and hearts of individuals.[7] In this kind of worship, there was no place for any physical thing or human tradition which deigned to mediate God’s grace, like bread, wine, or water; individuals were freed to receive the grace of God for themselves.

Within this theological tradition, the sacred actions of the church were defined simply as “ordinances.” In opposition to a sacramental view which understood the communication of God’s grace in or through the sacred actions, ordinances were conceived as “emblems, symbols, or expressions of the grace already imparted through Jesus by the Spirit [emphasis added].”[8] The Vineyard Church’s statement that the ordinances are “available to all believers” highlights their belief in the presence of faith in the individual before an ordinance is ever performed. The term “ordinance” also defines why the church continues to perform its sacred actions: Jesus Christ “ordained” these actions for the church in the New Testament. The ordinances are performed out of obedience to Christ’s command. This dimension is also clearly reflected in the Vineyard Church’s statement. As an ordinance, baptism functions as the believer’s public confession of faith in Jesus Christ and as a symbolic participation in Christ’s death and resurrection.[9] The ordinance of the Lord’s Supper functions as a memorial – a “devotional act” performed by a believing worshipper who “remembers, meditates, thinks upon, and recalls God’s great act of salvation.”[10] The Vineyard Church’s praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Supper directs individual worshipers to “follow biblical commands and to remember what Jesus did on the cross.”[11] In conclusion, the impetus of the ordinances falls on the faith and action of the individual worshiper.

While it is necessary to preserve an individual’s freedom to know God’s grace and be empowered for ministry, this freedom should not form the foundation of the Vineyard Church’s praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These sacred actions invite the church into deeper life with the Triune God who exists as perfect communion. The Parent, Child, and Spirit are not individuals, but persons. The person is inconceivable apart from a mutual relationship with another in which both identities have freely chosen to affirm the absolutely unique otherness they see in each other. The life of the Trinity reveals a kind of freedom that is for another; a freedom that is “identical with love.”[12] The reality of God’s Triune life reveals a way to preserve personal integrity without compromising community through individualism. If the praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Suppers in the Vineyard Church is to be an acceptable act of worship to the Triune God, it cannot be a private, individualistic act. Rather, these acts should be performed as signs which point to all the ways in which God pours out grace through the mutual, reciprocal, loving relationships in the life of a local faith community.

I believe this praxeological shift will require the Vineyard Church to allow for a more sacramental theological understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The current praxis, which places a heavy emphasis on a very individualistic doctrine of salvation, needs to be enriched by a restored doctrine of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the church sees that “God wills, indeed, delights in using tangible, earthy means to draw near to his [sic] image bearers.”[13] A healthy understanding of the Incarnation should remove any suspicion held towards the possibility that God’s grace could be received through physical objects like bread, wine, and water. This understanding also reminds the church of God’s communal vision for creation and of their vocation as image-bearers to “keep” the creation in a way that nurtures and protects the ability of all created things to fulfill their God given purposes and come together in mutual, life-giving relationships.

My understanding of the praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Supper leaves room for God to be present and active in the sacred action alongside the faith of the worshiper. The freedom of the worshiper is not impeded by a sacramental theology; the worshiper has no real freedom apart from the freedom they have in God, which is not an individualistic freedom from others, but a simultaneously personal and communal freedom for and with others. This freedom is found only in communion with the Triune God who is experienced in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. While I affirm the Vineyard Church’s belief in the sacred actions as ordinances, I believe these actions are more than exercises in individual piety. I believe that God is especially present and active as the church gathers to celebrate baptism and the Lord’s Supper. God is free to communicate grace through any person and any physical means. The church should be open to receive God’s grace at all times, but especially during these sacred actions. In conclusion then, I believe I hold a moderate position on the sacrament-ordinance spectrum which could be described as a belief in “sacramental ordinances.”


[1] The Vineyard Church USA states in their pamphlet of core values and beliefs: “We believe that Jesus Christ committed two ordinances to the Church: water baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both are available to all believers.” A hard copy of this statement is attached.

[2] Wonsuk Ma, “A ‘First Waver’ Looks at the ‘Third Wave’: A Pentecostal Reflection on Charles Kraft’s Power Encounter Terminology,” PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 19, no. 2 (Fall 1997): 189.

[3] Donald E. Miller, “Routinizing Charisma: The Vineyard Christian Fellowship in the Post-Wimber Era,” PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 25, no. 2 (Fall 2003): 219.

[4] Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 114.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 112.

[7] Ibid., 112, 114-115.

[8] Amos Yong, “Sacraments and Ordinances,” in Encyclopedia of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, ed. Stanley M. Burgess (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2006), 345.

[9] Ibid., 346.

[10] Webber, 245.

[11] Rev. Larry Ellis, “Baptists (Evangelical Denominations and Independent Baptist Churches),” in The Complete Library of Christian Worship: The Sacred Actions of Christian Worship, ed. Robert Webber, Vol. 6 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 8.

[12] John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38, no. 4 (1994): 358.

[13] Christopher A. Hall, Worshipping with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), loc 140, Kindle edition.

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