Church is confusing.
After centuries of believers gathering together, some of the practices that we regularly do are quite odd to the outsider.
And often to the insider.
At face value, baptism and communion are the two of the most unique things we do in the church. Unfortunately, in my experience, these practices are rarely, if at all, explained well.
I grew up in church with my daddy as a pastor. I have seen plenty of communion and baptisms at dozens of churches (if it yields any additional credibility, I was also baptized twice – but thats a story for another time). As a kid, all I could figure out was that we cheered after baptisms, but remained (painfully) quiet during communion.
While the meaning behind the practices baffled me, I clearly understood that these two ‘events’ were important. We did a lot of things in church – potlucks, offering, Christmas Eve candle light service – but these felt different. I saw from the leaders that baptism and communion were important activities – even if I didn’t understand why.
When I reached adulthood, I realize how many people in the church have an unclear understanding of baptism and communion. The phrase “a mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew” is apt here. I wrestled with my understanding as I sat through dozens of Bible and theology classes in college and seminary.
It wasn’t until I read through the Heidelberg Catechism that something clicked.
In this post and the two that follow (3 parts total), I hope to offer a simple paradigm for thinking about baptism and communion.
Why the confusion?
In the centuries of Church history, communion and baptism have landed at the center of vast debates and controversy. That is probably putting it lightly. Excommunication, wars, church splits, and many angry words fill the history books on these topics. In fact, differing views on baptism and the Lord’s supper are the primary source for the hundreds of different traditions we see today. I would get bored, and you would stop reading, if we tried to outline all the different views on these two elements. It’s simply overwhelming.
Controversy stems from complexity which results in confusion.
Unfortunately, it seems like only the seminary professor has enough skill, resources, and time to sort out all the nuances. Therefore, the student, the pastor, and (especially) the congregation suffer from the remaining confusion.
I don’t pretend to understand the complexity of these topics. But I hope to offer some clarity and simplicity.
Why is this important?
Among all the differing views, nearly everyone can agree on this: baptism and communion are necessary elements of the Church. Without these two practices, you don’t have a church. Nearly everything else we do is optional, but “do this in remembrance of me” and “baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” we cannot neglect.
If we miss these two things, than we miss the core of the church’s work. When we are confused about communion or baptism, we can tend to think church is about preaching or singing.
A clearer understanding of communion and baptism leads us in obedience to the Lord and a full grasp on what we do on Sundays.
Sacraments or Ordinances?
Throughout this post I have used the term “practices” and “things” to refer to baptism and communion. Sorry if that feels irreverent. People typically use the term “sacraments” or “ordinances” however those words carry suitcases full of extra meaning and I want to avoid that. Please forgive me for referring to communion as a “practice” or “thing”. I know they are important. Thats why I wrote this article.
For the believer, baptism and communion hold two primary purposes. They unite the believer to Christ. And the confirm to the believer the work of Christ.
Remember those two bolded words. If we can grasp “unite” and “confirm” and apply them to the Baptism and communion, then church might become a little less confusing.
The next two posts will explain in greater depth how uniting and confirming help us understand The Table and The Water.