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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Church "sacraments", "ordinances" or "dramas"?

Before sharing how an elderly sister inadvertently challenged my thinking regarding certain practices which churches designate by the words above, let me briefly discuss how these words are generally used.

Your own religious background and upbringing most likely have shaped your thinking regarding which of the above words you would use to denote such practices as communion or baptism. Those in the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed traditions would call these practices “sacraments”, i.e. outward signs which they believe bestow or communicate inner graces from God. Roman Catholics would include 5 other practices with communion and baptism for a total of 7 sacraments, while Reformed congregations would only acknowledge two “sacraments”.

Most evangelical congregations which are not Reformed would call baptism and communion “ordinances”. While recognizing that they are outward acts which speak of inner or spiritual realities, they would not see the acts themselves as actually bestowing grace but simply symbolizing or testifying to facts already established.

But all would agree that neither the word “sacraments” nor “ordinances” are scriptural words which are used to specifically designate communion or baptism. There are many other “ordinances” mentioned in scripture but when we speak of “church ordinances” we generally mean physical acts or practices which believers in the Lord Jesus are commanded to observe to which God has attached spiritual significance.

Growing up in Baptist meetings and then having fellowship with believers in assemblies of brethren (Christians gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus), we traditionally acknowledged “two ordinances”: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But in the brethren assemblies another physical practice having spiritual significance was also observed but was not designated an “ordinance”. In these assemblies men kept their hair short and women generally grew theirs longer and men uncovered their heads in assembly meetings and women, in those meetings, covered theirs.

When I was just a young boy, most women covered their heads or wore hats in public and in church meetings. But when the styles changed and women no longer wore hats in public, hats also disappeared from church meetings. But in the assemblies, with which we were associated for 16 years, women continue to cover their heads in assembly meetings because of the teaching of the first half of I Corinthian chapter 11.

But it was while we were in the assembly that met in the Gospel Hall in Collingwood, Ontario that my thinking was challenged by an elderly sister in the assembly whose name was Mabel Williams. Mrs. Williams’ husband, William Williams had passed away some years before but they had served together for many years as pioneer missionaries in Venezuela. Regarding scriptural principles of Gospel preaching and assembly gatherings of first century Christians, William Williams had written a book, “It Can Be Done”. It was his personal testimony that first century church practices were still valid and could be followed with great blessing even in the 20th century.

I never had the opportunity to meet William Williams. But our family often enjoyed Mrs. Williams’ kind and generous hospitality and I occasionally helped her with chores in her yard or doing simple repairs to her home in Collingwood. One Saturday morning I was doing some chores in her yard and went back to the house to inquire what she wanted me to do next. As I stepped through her front door, I found Mrs. Williams on her knees in prayer in her own living room with her Bible open in front of her. Nothing was unusual about this, but what struck me and deeply impressed me was that she had her head covered with a veil!

The assemblies where Mrs. Williams enjoyed fellowship with the Lord’s people taught that women’s heads were to be covered only in assembly meetings. But the thought that struck me at that moment was, “Mrs. Williams is not guided in this practice by what the assemblies teach, but rather by what the Word of God says!

I had not given this matter any serious thought before this moment, but seeing Mrs. Williams with her head covered in prayer in the privacy of her own home, I instantly recalled that I Cor.11 did NOT instruct men to uncover and women to cover their heads in assembly meetings, but rather whenever they were involved in one of two activities, namely when they, themselves, were praying or prophesying!

And this got me pondering another radical idea! Is it possible, I wondered, that there may not be just two but rather three physical practices which portray spiritual realities which are important to God? You can call them “sacraments” or “ordinances” if you like, but I began, not long after this, to think of such practices as “DRAMAS”! A drama tells a story, and it seems to me that every time a believer is baptized in water, every time we break bread and remember the Lord Jesus and every time believing men pray with their heads uncovered and believing women pray with theirs covered we are telling very important stories!

I began thinking of the stories that are told when we obey the Lord's commands in these matters:
- Baptism tells a story about the dead. (It is a picture of a burial.)
-Our remembrance of the Lord in communion tells a story about the bread. (It is a picture of His body.) and
- Our conduct when praying or prophesying tells a story about our Head! (God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of the man and man is the head of the woman.)

(There is so much more, so I must continue at another time!)

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