It is typically taught in Protestant, Baptist, and all other types of churches under various denominational and non-denominational labels that God commands the Body of Christ (“the Church”) to observe two ordinances. In this article, I would like to examine this teaching in the light of scripture. If you have read or heard other studies on this website, you might know that I approach study of the scripture according to 2 Timothy 2:15. I rightly divide it. Thus, only what is addressed TO me in scripture has direct doctrinal application. Paul is the apostle of the Gentiles (Acts 22:21; 26:17-18; Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:7-9; 1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11) and to the Body of Christ today. Therefore, as a Gentile and a member of the Body of Christ, Paul is my apostle and his gospel and his doctrine applies to me.
The two ordinances which are commonly taught as applying to the Church are water baptism and the Lord’s supper (or Communion). Some teach that these ordinances (especially water baptism) are necessary for salvation while others teach that they are symbolic. Detailed studies on each of these are beyond the scope of this article. The focus here will be on whether or not ordinances are required of the Church today – regardless of what function they may serve. Particularly, what is in question are those ordinances which are set, prescribed, ordered, ceremonial observances. Water baptism and the Lord’s supper as practiced today would certainly fit that description.
Three scripture passages in Paul’s epistles speak directly to the relationship between the Church and ordinances. Let’s look first in Colossians chapter 2. To get the entire context, it would be useful to read the whole chapter. However, verses 14 and 20-22 are of particular interest. Note how Paul states that ordinances were nailed to Christ’s cross and blotted out. Then he asks why those who are dead with Christ (the Church) would desire to be subject to ordinances. He asks a similar question of the Galatians in his epistle to them (Gal. 4:8-11). In Ephesians 2:15-16, Paul states definitively that, through the cross, Christ abolished ordinances in the new body he created – the Body of Christ. In all these cases, the ordinances he references are ceremonial observances given by commandment.
So why then does Paul praise the Corinthians for keeping ordinances in 1 Corinthians 11:2? How do we reconcile this with what Paul said in Colossians, Galatians, and Ephesians? Well, let’s look at what the verse does not say. First, note how Paul does not specify how many ordinances there are in this verse. More to the point, there is no indication here or anywhere else in his epistles that there are exactly two. Furthermore, there is no clear evidence that water baptism and the Lord’s supper are the ordinances he is referencing. While it is true that this verse introduces the chapter which is typically used to administer the Lord’s supper, the context does not necessarily demand that it be a reference TO the Lord’s supper. I have come to believe that these ordinances are likely what the apostles and elders in Jerusalem decreed to the Gentiles and communicated through Paul and his companions. Please read Acts 15:19-31 and Acts 16:1-4 to get the full account. Very simply, the aim was not to offend the Jews in the various cities throughout Asia Minor and Europe where Paul ministered. And Acts 18:1-17 makes it clear that there was a synagogue in Corinth and a considerable Jewish presence. There was never any intent to impose prescribed, ordered, ceremonial observances or ordinances of any kind on the Corinthians or Gentiles in general.
To conclude, I used to believe that God commanded the Church to symbolically observe the two ordinances of water baptism and the Lord’s supper. I no longer do. According to rightly divided scripture, this runs contrary to one of the very important reasons Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross. Ordinances were “against us” and “contrary to us”. Jesus Christ took them out of the way. It would make no sense for Him to then turn around and institute new ones. For these reasons, I now believe that these two ordinances are NOT after the commandment of the Lord Jesus Christ but, rather, “after the commandments and doctrines of men” (Gal. 2:20-22).