My goal in first part of this series has been to place clearly before our minds the essential features of the New Testament church so that we can use this vision to assess the forms and activities of the contemporary church. Only one more question remains in the first part. Does the New Testament mandate any essential practices that the church must perform?
The issue of church practices moves us into new territory and raises a significant problem. Defining the essential nature of the church as the faithful in Christ and the essential nature of the church’s work as witness puts some distance between the church’s essence and first-century culture. However, religious practices and their symbolic meanings are always deeply rooted in specific cultures. Had the first-century church designated dozens of its culture-bound practices as essential, it would have been impossible for Christianity to become a world-wide movement for all time.
The first great challenge to the church’s universal nature arose as the question of what Jewish practices must be incorporated into its life: circumcision, kosher rules, Sabbath laws, etc.? After a long and intense struggle, the view of Paul prevailed: Christians do not have to practice the Jewish law. Faith in Christ is enough. We can only imagine what would have happened had Paul lost this argument.
There are two practices, however, that the first-century church passed on as essential: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. Like all practices they have deep cultural roots. Baptism harkens back to the Old Testament’s ritual washings, which were continued and modified in Second Temple Judaism (515 BC—70 AD) and in Jewish sects like that at Qumran, in which the faithful were baptized several times a day. Jewish baptisms enacted ritual, symbolic cleansings to remove defilement and render the object or person qualified for interacting with God. John the Baptist, drawing on these traditions, demanded that the Jews of his day repent of their sins and have themselves baptized in preparation for the impending divine judgment on the nation.
Jesus instructed his followers to be baptized and to baptize others. Even though baptism has deep roots in the Old Testament and first-century Judaism, the church has held the practice essential for its life because Jesus instituted it as a permanent practice for his people. The meaning of baptism, then, must be explained with reference to its historical background. Yet, baptism is not utterly alien to any culture, for it involves the symbolic use of water as a cleansing and life-giving agent, something universal in all cultures.
The second essential practice is the Lord’s Supper in which the church gathers to share a meal in the presence of Lord. The Supper has deep roots in Jewish identity, deriving from the Passover meal eaten in haste as the Lord delivered his people from Egyptian slavery. The Eucharist must not be uprooted from its background in the Old Testament, for then we will not be able to understand Jesus’s adaptation of it to signify his sacrificial act of delivering his people from sin, death, and the devil and creating a new covenant. Like baptism, the Lord’s Supper is not alien to any culture, for everyone has to eat and knows the life-giving properties of food. Eating is a social act in every culture.
I will have more to say about these two essential practices later, but here I want to bring out the significance of the simplicity and universal adaptability of the church. The church consists of those who believe and are baptized into Christ, whose work is to witness to Christ, and who by participating in baptism and the Lord’s Supper remember and proclaim Jesus’s redemptive sacrifice. The church travels light as it moves from one culture to another and one century to another. It does not center on a holy site, for the Holy Spirit dwells in its midst. It speaks in the common tongue and not in a holy language accessible only to the learned. To make its sacrifices it needs no altars, animals, or priests. Its whole life is worship, and its prayers are its sacrifices. It needs no golden candelabra or silk robes. Its riches are good deeds, and its treasures reside in heaven. Though dispossessed of all its worldly goods, it loses nothing of its substance. It needs no alliances, and seeks no privileges from nations and empires. Its citizenship is in heaven, and it pledges allegiance only to the King of kings. It can meet in a basilica, in a living room, by a river, on a street corner, or a prison cell. It matters not, for the whole world is the Temple of the Lord.
I find this discussion of the church’s essential functions really fascinating in the present pandemic context where ‘essential functions’ has a very particular meaning. And these two essential church functions of baptism and eucharist—which I agree are the most enduring and defining—are not easily possible under social distancing measures. What identity does the church take on when deprived of its most defining functions? Only time will tell, as the pandemic drags on.
True. But it is still possible to share the Lord’s Supper in an online community or in family units or in small groups outside. And audiences for baptisms can congregate through online media. Not ideal but possible.
Ah yes—I’m in a liturgical church tradition now (Anglican), so localized communion slipped my mind. Still, there’s something to be said for both sacraments being intended as a community celebration in its ideal form. Localized sacraments are possible, but it does seem like something important is lacking from such a presentation. Still, desperate times.
Is anyone familiar with the scenes in the Matrix ( books) where human beings’ virtual minds undertake all kinds of eutopian dream scenarios? Whilst their bodies are captive in the Matrix, milked for proteins and than discarded when they do not meet their quota?
Being on-line in a pandemic feels a bit like that to me. Without the hope and promise of goodness, love, joy and real friendship at the end… perhaps it’s the same? A parody of existence without God?
Please. Don’t have nightmares. No offence meant.