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The Church: The Rites of the Church | Theology Matters

  • October 2005 Issue
Practical Theology

“The sacraments have been sources of division in the church more than of unity,” theologian Donald Bloesch has observed. “This does not abrogate their significance, since they could not be a serious cause for division unless they were essential to the well being of the church.”

The church has been divided over the number and nature of the rites that it should practice, and even about what they should be called. Some refer to them as “sacraments.” Others prefer the term “ordinance.” Despite this disagreement, nearly all believers agree that Christ has commanded the church to observe baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In the Scriptures baptism symbolizes both the forgiveness of sin and new life we receive when we put our faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3; 1 Peter 3:21). Communion (the Lord’s Supper), which was initiated by Christ during His last observance of Passover, is a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24–26). Those who were baptized in the early church practiced this “breaking of bread” regularly (Acts 2:42).

Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are essential components of the church’s practice and are included in Christ’s commission to the church in Matthew 28:19–20. Baptism is explicitly mentioned, and the observance of the Lord’s Supper is implicit in Christ’s directive to teach those who are baptized everything He has commanded (Matt. 28:20).

Why Theology Matters

The theological differences that Christians hold regarding the observance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are significant enough that they should not be minimized. They warrant careful reflection rooted in a serious study of the Scriptures. Such differences, however, should not obscure the tremendous spiritual importance of these two foundational rites of the church. Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are reminders of the work of Jesus Christ. From God’s perspective, they remind us of His promise to provide grace and forgiveness. From the believer’s perspective their observance is a pledge of faith and commitment. The church has been commanded to practice both until Christ returns.


To learn more, read the chapter “The Ordinances of the Church: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper” in Introducing Christian Doctrine by Millard J. Erickson (Baker). 

BY Dr. John Koessler

Dr. John Koessler, who retired as professor emeritus from Moody Bible Institute, formerly served in the division of applied theology and church ministry. John and his wife Jane enjoy living in a lakeside town in Michigan. A prolific writer, John’s books include Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good (Moody Publishers), The Radical Pursuit of Rest (InterVarsity), The Surprising Grace of Disappointment (Moody), and True Discipleship (Moody). John is a contributing editor and columnist for Today in the Word.

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