Christian Rituals

04 Apr
Rituals where among people since time immemorial, but where did they originated from? What is their meaning? Or how should they be treated today? In following pages I will present several points of view on this issue in attempt to answer these and perhaps also some other questions related to the topic of Christian rituals. Final part pursues the two basic rites which are part of Baptist church from its very beginning.
Christian rituals
There are several concepts in connection to rituals in Christianity, also called “sacraments”, therefore it is important to explain the ground on which Christian rituals stand. Different religions put different weight on rituals. Pagan religions often have washing rituals that “cleanse the body and soul”, which, in the bottom line, carries the belief that certain conduct changes the inward state of a person. Now also within Christianity we see various approaches to the matter of sacraments for on one hand e.g. Catholics uphold the point that without rites one cannot receive grace and because of that by every means he must not neglect them. The opposite such as “Quakers” or Salvation Army teaches that sacraments are not necessary at all. While in the previous, we see two extremes when rites have or have not a specific denotation by themselves alone, we proclaim that sacraments do not bear any purpose being done alone without other necessities accompanying it. We believe that rites are not essential hence in emergency and crisis they are even dispensable. Sacraments, by their own definition, do not add anything to the word[1] which is by itself sufficiently stable and there is no particular grace coming out of them. So why should we then render them? Why just not ignore them if salvation comes without rites such as baptism or communion? In order to satisfactorily answer this question we must go through a few fundamental ideas emerging from the Bible. Jesus is the center of both the New and the Old Testament, through mostly prophecies, gospels and epistles. He is also the center of a life of an individual Christian today. He is our Lord and God and his word carries the highest authority on the heaven and earth. Moreover because of what He had done on the cross He is our Savior, who loves us, calls us his friends or even bride, someone wants us to be in a close personal relationship with Him, fully surrendering to His divine guidance so we could one day take part of His glory in the heavenly kingdom. He revealed all of this to us, He loved us first and now if we love Him as well we will follow His commandments (John 14:15). Performing certain rituals was one of these instructions He gave us. Therefore the prime reason is to please Jesus Christ our Lord. The sacraments should always be subjoined to the word, to the preaching which comes first and foremost, for they were never meant to be performed unaccompanied. Only a person of faith can obtain a blessing out of sacraments. A woman values her engagement ring only because she knows she is loved. Likewise rites are confirming and sealing the faith, the covenant we have in Jesus Christ. It is emphatically not some kind of fundamental ritual, but more likely a symbolic act. Thirdly God knows very well that we are very often lazy and ignorant by our nature. John Chrysostom[2], later quoted by John Calvin in his work “Institutes of the Christian religion” stated this rather pertinently:
“Were we incorporeal, he would give us these things in a naked and incorporeal form. Now because our souls are implanted in bodies, he delivers spiritual things under things visible. Not that the qualities which are set before us in the sacraments are inherent in the nature of the things, but God gives them this signification.”
All of the previous point to the fact that the sacraments were given to us by God with the initial intention to strengthen our faith, not by performing certain rituals, but through coming to a realization that God is repeatedly saying something through these various specifically prescribed actions.
While Roman Catholics practice seven sacraments[3] Baptists as a section of traditional protestant church carry out only two of them – Baptism and Lord’s Supper also called the Communion. For only two are directly ordained by Jesus throughout the scriptures. The other five originated around the time of inception of Sacramentarian ideas due the growing power of priests. In scriptures there is no reference to these “additional” sacraments in a directive way which is widely agreed upon both by Reformed and Catholics. Yet they are proclaimed to be “a further revelation” or teaching equally inspired as Scriptures.
Besides the Bible inspired and ordained sacraments there are many other customs or practices that are executed in various occasions. Yet they do not bear exactly the same gravity or ideology with them as the previous. These are events such as weddings, funerals, dedications of infants, anointing of the sick, even prayers or singing hymns.
Christian rituals & Baptist church
The Baptist church which I come from understandably holds a central emphasis on the baptism in water. This ritual comes as a result of repentance, when man is surrendering his life to Christ. It is a conscience choice a deliberate decision of a person to follow and entrust himself to God, accepting the only way to him through Jesus’ death on the cross. If this is adopted the age does not play a role. However paedo (infant) baptism is reject and perceived as invalid for babies and toddlers are not able to comprehend this truth and sequentially act upon it by conscience decision. When a decision is made, person is offered a membership in the church, for church is apprehended as a living body in which only spiritually living people are united. Baptism therefore is an affirmation of such people.
Historically for the first 150 years of the early church there is no reference to any specific type of baptism, yet in 175 A.D. there is evidence that comes from Tertullian who appears to be a strong opponent of infant baptism. This somehow points at earlier practices of apostles against which would church father like Tertullian never go against. Further on there is evidence that Saint Augustine was never baptized as a child even though his mother was a Christian. It is not meant to be in any way a strong proof; nevertheless it indicates that it was not a common practice around that time.
After Reformation full immersion of body to the water was not performed yet after better comprehension of the New Testament this began to be a general practice which most suitably symbolized “going down” and “coming up out of” the water (Acts 8:39, Matthew 3:16) as well as identification with dying to sin and resurrection in Jesus Christ. While some Baptists see a direct link between salvation and baptism, in our church after accepting Christ, believer is introduced to the basic truths, to make sure he is familiar with the concept of baptism. Only then when he is fully eligible of the resolution he is baptized by full immersion to water. The full immersion once again is not meant to be a fundamental, invariable truth but rather the best possible explanation or sign of Christ being buried and resurrected again. Sparkling water does not by far reflect this occurrence sufficiently. All in all baptism is an outer, public confession of inner transformation or rebirth, it is a new beginning within the body of Christ, the church, the fellowship of other Christians which ultimately originate from humble obedience to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
Secondly, with the same relevance, the Lord’s Supper is shared among the congregation every first Sunday in the month. It serves as a memory of “the last supper” of Jesus shortly before his death. He was together with his disciples when he took bread and wine, gave it to them and they shared it among themselves. Likewise today when we are together we eat bread and drink wine (grape juice) which symbolizes His body He gave for us as well as the blood which sealed the Gods new covenant with us (Luke 22:14-20). Nothing transfigures into real body and blood[4]. Bread stays bread and wine stays wine for they both serve as remembrance of this great event which urges us to repeatedly see the everyday application of this truth for our everyday life until the very end.
I believe that the questions raised in beginning were answered adequately considering the format of this paper. There is still left some space for further discussion yet the basic elements regarding the inseparability of sacrament and faith together with the very meaning of these rituals were resolved. In the end, when describing baptism in water and Holy Communion, I have taken the theological and historical background into the aspect out of which I have concluded the current practice in Baptist church. Reaching this point made even me realize more that instructions given by Jesus concerning rituals where surely not given out of some kind of enigmatic higher plan, but they carry a direct and very down to earth intention to see his endless love, draw us closer to him and all in all glorify his worthy name.
J.I.Packer (1977, originally published: “I want to be a Christian”). Tyndale House Publishers, Growing in Christ.
Calvin, J. (1997). WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc. Institutes of the Christian religion. Bellingham,
Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (1998). The church and the last things (iv). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Shelley, M. (1995). Changing lives through preaching and worship : 30 strategies for powerful communication (1st ed.). Library of Christian leadership (6). Nashville, Tenn.: Moorings.
Hiscox, E. T., & Hoadley, F. T. (1998). The star book for ministers (2nd rev. ed.). Willow Grove, PA: Judson Press.
Brand, C., Draper, C., England, A., Bond, S., Clendenen, E. R., Butler, T. C., & Latta, B. (2003). Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (1103). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
Hodge, C. (1997). Vol. 2: Systematic theology (466). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[1] Sola scriptura (Latin ablative, “by scripture alone”) is the doctrine that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness. Consequently, sola scriptura demands that only those doctrines are to be admitted or confessed that are found directly within or indirectly by using valid logical deduction or valid deductive reasoning from scripture. However, sola scriptura is not a denial of other authorities governing Christian life and devotion. Rather, it simply demands that all other authorities are subordinate to, and are to be corrected by, the written word of God. Sola scriptura was a foundational doctrinal principle of the Protestant Reformation held by the Reformers and is a formal principle of Protestantism today.
[2] John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), Archbishop of Constantinople, was an important Early Church Father.
[3] baptism, confirmation, the Lord’s Supper (communion), penance, extreme unction, order (that is to say, the ordination of a man as deacon or priest or bishop or whatever else it may be), and, finally, marriage.
[4] Some Orthodox denominations hold the belief that the ordinary bread and wine are transfigured by the mystery of God into the actual Body and Blood of Christ.
written by Peter Makovíni
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Posted by on April 4, 2011 in Theology


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