Throughout Church history, practices in evangelism, worship music, missions, discipleship, youth outreach, and so much more have morphed and adapted to certain cultural norms. Many—if not most—of these changes have more to do with form than function. For example, the Church’s mission is always to make disciples—that’s function. Yet over the years, discipleship has taken place in different contexts according to certain cultural norms. Currently, Sunday school programs are seeing a decline, whereas small-group, in-home discipleship is on the rise. That’s form. And form varies. But for as much debate as today’s churches undertake over things that can take various forms (and some forms are indeed more biblical than others), the truth is, the basic functions don’t change—glorify God, make disciples, teach the Word, love people, etc.
But have you ever noticed that there are certain things in the Church (universal) which have really not morphed along such lines—neither in form nor in function? What are these? There are two, and we call them the ordinances. The Lord’s Supper (Communion) and Baptism.
Why do we not allow these sacred practices (functions) to take on various forms according to cultural norms? Why, for example, do we not advocate the practice of the Lord’s Supper in the home rather than with the gathered church? Why do we not advocate private baptisms if the recipient is hesitant or nervous to come before the congregation?
The London Baptist Confession of 1689—a beautiful and historic confession of Reformed Baptist doctrine—helps us here.
“Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances of positive and sovereign institution, appointed by the Lord Jesus, the only lawgiver, to be continued in his church to the end of the world.”
So, why are we not comfortable messing with form in these areas? Because these ordinances were instituted by Christ himself—both in form and in function.
This is the thrust of Paul’s admonishment of the Corinthians in his first letter to them.
“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.”
(1 Corinthians 11:20-21 ESV)
Apparently, some of the Corinthian Christians were messing with form. Driven by their selfish elitism, they were partaking of the Supper before the whole community of faith was gathered. Some were even getting drunk, using the Supper as a means of personal indulgence rather than of gospel remembrance.
How does Paul correct this error? By reminding the Corinthians that the very form and function of this sacred meal was instituted by Christ himself.
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
(1 Corinthians 11:23-26 ESV)
Paul corrects false practice with the truth of the institution of the Supper by Christ himself, accomplishing a threefold purpose: 1) remembrance, 2) proclamation, and 3) anticipation of his coming. He also reminds the church of the very form the Lord took on that night with his disciples. This at least sets a baseline for both form and function in today’s churches.
Likewise, baptism was instituted by Christ as a primary means for carrying out his charge in the Great Commission. It is an essential function to the mission of the church.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”
(Matthew 28:19 ESV)
But does the Bible also constrain us to a certain form in baptism? Absolutely.
“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
(Colossians 2:11-12 ESV)
This text is critical to the understanding of the way the Greek noun βαπτισμῷ (and its verbal counterpart) is used throughout the New Testament. Baptism is so closely linked to regeneration that the two often seemed assumed in one another. This does not mean that baptism is salvific. Rather, it means that the sign (baptism) and the thing signified (regeneration) are so intimately connected that a believer would naturally consider them under the banner of the same big act of God—making a believer alive to God through Christ. Theologically, this is called synecdoche, meaning that signs themselves are not reality, but they are not altogether separate from it either. That is why Paul, in the passage above, can say that a believer has been “buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God.” The sign and the reality are so closely related that they can be used almost interchangeably to describe this wonderful act of God.
And note here the symbolism that Paul employs. It is similar to that in Romans 6:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
(Romans 6:3-4 ESV)
Do these texts explicitly commend immersion as the only means of baptism? Perhaps not. But given the discussion of synecdoche above, it seems unmistakable that Paul is closely tying the symbolism of water baptism by immersion to the very act God does in regeneration, namely crucifying the old man with Christ and raising the believer to walk in newness of life.
In light of all of this, we hold to the historically biblical practice of these great ordinances. Christ instituted them as corporate means for the edification of the body and the signification of the new covenant in his blood, which are to be enjoyed by his gathered church and administered by those called and qualified for gospel ministry. While form may be up for debate in areas like worship style, we must hold to these principles in our practice of these sacred ordinances.