Introducing Southern Baptists©
C. B. Hastings
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The community's rites as witness and worship

Baptists speak of baptism and the Lord's Supper as "ordinances" rather than sacraments. By this we understand that Jesus gave orders to his disciples to observe only two. Jesus told his little band just before returning to the Father: "Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20). Paul reported that at the founding of the Supper Jesus told them, "Do this in remembrance of me" (I Cor. 11:25).


In general Baptists have asked three questions about religious rites that Christians should observe permanently: Did Jesus command it? Did the Church in the New Testament practice it? Does it have meaning for the believer in the community of believers? As we see it, for example, marriage does not pass the first test, foot-washing fails the second (although a few smaller Baptist bodies do practice it), and the baptism of infants fails all three. In any case we believe that the grace of God is brought into every believer's life by the direct action of the Spirit of God upon the soul and cannot be made effective through an outward act or ceremony.

Historically the battleground has turned at least in part on the word mere. Baptists have said, in effect, that grace cannot be conveyed by a "mere" rite, for the Holy Spirit works directly upon the human spirit (I Cor. 2:1~16). Sacramentalists have said, in effect, that the sacraments are more than "mere" symbols, for they also convey the grace they signify.

Now both agree that baptism is a sign and symbol. But signs and symbols point to a reality beyond themselves. They can be means of stimulating or supporting faith, as in the case of Jesus placing clay moistened with spittle on the eyes of the blind (John 9:6). But the healing was not in the clay, nor in the washing in the Pool of Siloam. It was in the power of God operating through human faith. Jesus never limited himself to such material aids or religious observances, such as, "Go show thyself to the priest" (Mark 1:43), for he could on another occasion heal Bartimaeus with nothing more than "Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole" (Mark 10:52). In James 5:13-15 the elders of the church are instructed to pray over the sick and anoint him "with oil in the name of the Lord." The anointing with oil was a well-known Old Testament practice that signified the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon someone. So the faith of the sick is stimulated by the anointing and then directed toward the divine power that alone can heal. That this is an experience that touches the sick at the depths of his being is also revealed in that "if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him."

To speak of a "mere symbol" as though there were nothing more is to ignore the psychological and social power of symbols. If one were lecturing to a friendly audience of contemporary Jews and suddenly paused and drew upon the chalkboard a swastika, would not that symbol immediately arouse hostility and anguish? The power of symbols lies in the power of the association of ideas, the recalling of emotions, the arousal of the wills. And such power springs from within the psyche, not the symbol or act within itself.

So when Baptists insist upon the ordinances being symbols and not effecting instruments or vehicles of the grace of God they by no means want to play down the importance or the role of the "ordinance." Rather, they want to locate its power and the realm of its operation in the only life-transforming place: the power of the Spirit of God working at the center of one's being. Anything less than this is either ineffectual or can become hypocritical, for we know too many instances when religious rituals have been properly acted out with no shred of evidence that Jesus has been made Lord of the life, and that as well among Baptists also!

Another major Baptist objection to the sacramental system has to do with what is perceived as a Maw in the understanding of grace. All will agree that the biblical word primarily refers to the character of God (and of Christ) that causes him to forgive and justify us unworthy sinners (Eph. 2:4-9). Yet when grace is conceived further as a kind of divine effluent that flows from God to man, religious rites—sacraments—are seen as tapping into that flow of grace and channeling it to the sinner. This naturally calls for properly ordained clergy to control the "taps" and instruct the sinner in the right procedure for receiving grace as the end result.

Now Baptists do not accept the latter theory of grace or such power of the clergy. They view that system as violating soul competency. And while acknowledging God's use of human agents, they are not willing to trust to the control of fallible humans the operating power of the Spirit of God. Present-day Roman Catholic theologians of the sacraments are moving away from such a narrow scholastic and mechanical view of grace. But as long as the sacramental system continues to derive its authenticity from apostolic succession and "valid orders," it will be hard to convince Baptists to withdraw their objections.

Now whether we view these rites as symbols only or as sacraments, all today will agree that it is possible for uncommitted people to go through the motions with no meaning or experiential value whatever. At least the present stage of the debate is making both sides examine more closely our theology and practice in the search for deeper reality in religion.


One of the ironies of history is the widespread misconception that because of our name, Baptists hold that baptism is essential to salvation. It is quite the other way around: the salvation must be experienced (and evidenced, at least in part, by public profession of faith) before baptism has any meaning.

During the Reformation there arose a radical movement which broke both with the Catholic Church and the Reformers over "believer's baptism." These people who denied infant baptism were called "Anabaptists" (from the word "to baptize again"), because they required a voluntary confession of faith in Christ before baptism. They were called Anabaptists by their enemies, but they did not accept the name. They did not think of "believer's baptism" as a rebaptism, but as true baptism, validated only by their confession of faith. Their direct descendants today are the highly-respected Mennonites.

By the middle of the seventeenth century groups of believers in England and America had carried believer's baptism a further step and had come to insist upon immersion as the only form that carries the full New Testament meaning. Scholars of the Early Church now agree that immersion was the majority practice of the churches of the first three centuries.'

Let us look at two Scriptures which influence greatly the Baptist understanding. In Colossians 2:10 through 3:4 Paul is speaking out of his life as a Jew, where his religious privileges were his by right of circumcision. Since he has met Christ, he has rejected inherited religion, with its dependence upon external ceremonies, and obedience to law (Phil. 3:~9). He has discovered that through faith he has entered into union with Christ. This inward experience has identified him with Christ in the supreme moment of redemption—the death, burial and resurrection of his Lord. By faith he has accepted this act of the love of Christ which has freed him from sin. It is not only an act done by Christ in his behalf at a particular point in history. It is a work done by Christ at the very center of his being. In this he had died, morally and spiritually, to his old self way of living. This is not a drastic asceticism (which he repudiates in vss. 1~23),??? but a spiritual mystery which brings immediately the opposite effect, that is, an inner resurrection which goes beyond a Lazarus-type restoration to mere human innocence. It is rather the divine life which is Christ himself being born within the believer: "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Your real life is Christ, and when he appears, then you too will appear with him and share his glory!" (Col. 3:3~, TEV).

Now this kind of mystical baptism into Christ takes place in the realm of the inner life in the act of the believer's commitment of faith to Jesus Christ. The external ceremony depends for its validity upon the reality of the inner experience. This is the reason for believer's baptism.

In the second Scripture Paul is arguing against those who would take advantage of the free gift of God's grace in salvation and so continue in sin. He asks the question, "We who died to sin, how shall we any longer live therein?" (Rom. 6:2). Then he answers his question by stating the fact of the powerful reality behind the act of being baptized and concludes with the practical exhortation: "Even so reckon ye also yourselves to be dead unto sin, but alive unto God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body . . . but present yourselves unto God, as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God" (Rom. 6:11-12). So this "religious rite" is not inconsequential as to its form, for it has strong consequences for one's approach to daily Christian living.

With this instruction, let us look at the meaning of baptism as set forth in the intervening verses.

Or are we ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection; knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away, that so we should no longer be in bondage to sin; for he that hath died is justified from sin. But if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him (Rom. 6:3-8).

With such a powerful figure of what happens when the believer is united with Christ in the crucial event of death and resurrection, Baptists must make a distinction between this mystical experience wrought by the Spirit and the religious rite of water baptism. George Beasley-Murray makes this clear in commenting on I Peter 3:21, which says, "This water was a figure pointing to baptism, which now saves you, not by washing off bodily dirt, but by the promise made to God from a good conscience. Baptism saves you through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (TEV). He says, "In so writing the author puts out of court any interpretation of baptism in terms of a purely outward and physical purification or an automatic effect on the baptized. The water of baptism saves nobody. The baptism that saves is one in which the baptized declares his response to God's approach to him in the Gospel, confesses Jesus as Lord, and owns obedience to Him. Baptism is a spiritual act, and this is why the author is so anxious to correct any possible misapprehension of it.2

The religious rite of immersion in water then is a symbol of the spiritual act which has taken place in the soul of the one who has in faith responded to the Good News in Christ. To ask for baptism is to carry such faith through to its glad witness to what one experiences in being united to Christ. It is a public testimony, a dramatization of his faith in at least three aspects:

  1. He acts out his reliance upon Christ, who died, was buried, and was raised from the dead for his salvation.
  2. He acts out his witness to his own spiritual experience of death to the old sinful life and resurrection to a new kind of life as a disciple to a new Master.
  3. He acts out his confidence that at the general resurrection of all men he will stand justified before God by reason of his faith in Christ. Now this confidence is more than a subjective hope. It is based upon the believer's present possession of the resurrected life, which is the source of victory in the face of death and the power for the ultimate resurrection from the dead (I Cor. 15:2~22; Rom. 8:11).

Now someone may object—do you mean to say that everyone who is baptized understands all these theological niceties? Hardly. Certainly not to the extent that they can verbalize them as we have done here. [even Saul of Tarsus (Paul) after his Damascus road experience and after his baptism (Acts 9:1-9) needed a season of retreat into Arabia in order to work out his understandings of this life-changing experience (Gal. 1:17).

We have already said that the ability to grasp the meaning of the experience depends upon the extent of the preaching and teaching of the Word and upon the personality and maturity of the believer. Faith is not measured by its content, but by the extent of its commitment. For the most part pastors and churches take seriously their responsibility of preparing the new convert for baptism. Of course, this is most critical with children. In Baptist life there is a continuing debate over the best time for a child to "make his public profession" and ask for baptism and over the best methods of counseling children for baptism. But let it not be thought all that difficult to bring Paul's explanations to bear upon the new convert. The realities of birth and death are basic to all human experience. They are both simple facts that can readily be accepted even by children and profound mysteries that continue to challenge the wisest of adults.

If then the new convert is wisely and patiently counseled and the rite of baptism reverently carried out, the act itself becomes a peak spiritual experience for the one being baptized and for the congregation which has accepted responsibility for his Christian nurture as a new member of the People of God. Baptism, therefore, is authorized by the church and performed publicly before the congregation. It is never a private or family ceremony. "The practical liturgical consequence [of this reinforcement of the church's faith] is clear: in principle baptism cannot be celebrated as a private act or a family festival. In principle it can only be celebrated within the framework of the public worship of God."3 The present trend in Catholic practice today is to make this rite an integral part of the worship services and not one added thereto.

Baptism is a sign both of the beginning of life in Christ and the acceptance in community by the congregation (a traditional practice, somewhat lax today, is to have all candidates who have been baptized to "receive the hand of church fellowship" at the close of the worship service). Because it is not considered essential to salvation, there is not the urgent necessity to make it a once-for-all event as in the case of the sacramental practice. There are those who, having been baptized as children, come later to experience Christ in salvation for the first time, perhaps years later. They see their former baptismal rite as invalid because it was not based on a genuine experience of salvation. So they ask the church for "valid baptism" based on the reality of the now-genuine experience of salvation.

Because of this meaning of baptism, most Baptist churches will expect those who join them from those that baptize infants or those who have been baptized after confession of faith but not by immersion to ask for "believer's baptism by immersion." This in no way is judging their experience of salvation to be invalid, but is the new member's renewed testimony to his faith in the death, burial and resurrection event. This, by inference as all Christian bodies practice, is the new member's honest acceptance of the beliefs and responsibilities of the body of Christians with whom he is uniting.

The act of baptism today is carried out in the baptismal pool, usually located behind the pulpit and choir loft of the church. The old-timers used to pride themselves on being baptized outdoors and particularly in running water. There was much singing on the river banks, an opportunity for the convert to "make a good confession" of his faith and even such rejoicing as to call forth shouts of praise from both the baptized and his new "brothers and sisters in the Lord."

The pastor and baptismal candidates are robed in white. After being led into the water the pastor proclaims in these or similar words, "In obedience to the command of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and upon your free and public acceptance of him as your Savior and Lord, I baptize you, ____  ____ in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen." He then lays the person backward gently into the water, pauses to cover the mouth and nostrils, lowers him just under the surface of the water and immediately raises him upright. As he leads him out of the pool, he may quote a Scripture, such as, "We are buried with him by baptism into death that as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4, King James Version).

After baptism our churches today often place the convert in a pastor's class or new members' class where he is given special instruction in the resources of the church for his continued spiritual growth as a Christian. After baptism the new convert is now expected also to participate at the regular observances of the Lord's Supper.

Our Baptist theology and practice of "making Christians" is far from perfect. Josef Nordenhaug acknowledges that our critics would argue, "Since there is a widening gap between the principle we profess and the practice of it, should we perhaps set aside the principle of a regenerate church membership in the interest of bringing so many as possible to baptism and under the influence of the church in the hope that their attendance at church services and participation in the educational program of the church may in time produce Christian faith and a life in harmony with it?"4 But he rejects this argument, which has frequently been used to justify infant baptism. Instead he calls for continuing renewal based upon five points: (1) continual examination of the motives to which we appeal in the churches, especially the success syndrome measured by additions, budgets, and buildings; (2) ridding ourselves of "the weed of self-righteousness that grows so profusely among us.... We must cease giving doctrinal reasons for personal grudges"; (3) care not to use worldly, even devilish, means for the propagation and defense of the Gospel; (4! a recovery of the practice of church discipline; and (5) greater use of confessing of sin to one another and of the role of pastoral counseling.5

Finally the goal of all religious practices, ordinances, ceremonies should be that called for by the Apostle Paul: "And so we shall all come together to that oneness in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God; we shall become mature men, reaching to the very height of Christ's full stature. Then we shall no longer be children, carried by the waves, and blown about by every shifting wind of the teaching of deceitful men, who lead others to error by the tricks they invent. Instead, by speaking the truth in a spirit of love, we must grow up in every way to Christ, who is the head" (Eph. 4:13-15, TEV).


Nothing so proves the perversity of sinful human nature as its penchant for debasing what is pure and profaning what is holy. So it has been in Christian history with the one great religious act which Jesus left to his disciples with the obvious intent of unifying them around the supreme sacrifice of his love, the Cross. In the Eucharists or the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:20) worship rises to its holiest moment. Yet nothing has produced more divisions among Christians than the beliefs and practices of this great act of worship.

Let us start with a series of observations upon which most biblical scholars would agree:

  1. It was instituted by Jesus on the night before his crucifixion (I Cor. 11:23).
  2. It was given in perpetuity to his disciples (I Cor. 11:20, 26).
  3. It was to be a "remembering" of Christ (I Cor. 11:24-25).
  4. It somehow was a communion of the believers with the sacrificial death (the body and blood) of Christ (I Cor. 10:16-21).
  5. This involves the believers in a oneness in Christ (I Cor. 10:17).
  6. There was a celebration of the New Covenant which Christ inaugurated by means of his death (Mark 14:24; I Cor. 11:25; cf. Heb. 8:7-13).
  7. It looks forward to the final coming of Christ (I Cor. 11:26) and to the Messianic Banquet of the age to come ("until the Kingdom of God is come," Luke 22:18: cf. Matt. 26:29).
  8. The presence of Christ is experienced in the event, if for no other reason than Christ's promise, "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20).

Now it would seem that with so many points of agreement Christians would have little to divide over, but not so. Here are just a few issues:

  1. Is this a sacrament that conveys the grace of God or an ordinance that commemorates the central fact of the Gospel?
  2. Who is admitted to the Supper? Most all agree only baptized persons. But baptized by whom, how and for what purpose? Are there moral and spiritual qualifications? Who judges these?
  3. Who administers the Supper, those ordained or simply leaders of the congregation? What constitutes ordination, if this is a prerequisite?
  4. Where is the presence of Christ in the event? In the elements? In the worshipers? In the body as a whole?
  5. How often should the Supper be observed?
  6. Historically Baptists have involved themselves in these issues and a few of their own making. It is readily agreed that much of our practice grew out of the Reformation reaction to Catholic dogma and to practices which the Reformers deemed magical and abusive. Four hundred and fifty years later these issues are so deeply imbedded in the corporate life of both Protestants and Catholics that no redefinitions of theologians can soon resolve them. This author can only hope to reflect the general views of Baptists here, while recognizing that he will be disputed by other Baptists on many points.

Let us use the five problem issues as a frame to present this Baptist's view of the Lord's Supper.

1. We have dealt with the first problem already under the two previous sections. We will make a few further observations. The Latin word sacramentum in secular society meant "a military oath of allegiance." Later tradition took the word and imposed upon it the meaning, "an outward sign of an inward grace." It was not at first applied to any of the seven sacraments.' The Council of Trent formally defined the number and the meaning of the seven sacraments in reply to the Reformers (Trent: 1545-63).

With that meaning Baptists begin to get anxious. They can accept the idea of a sign or symbol (even some early and a few present-day Baptists, mostly in England, have used the word "sacrament"). They recognize the power these can have in evoking or recalling profound meanings and feelings. Such signs as words, pictures, music, bodily movements, sculpture, architecture and drama all carry symbolic power. The two disciples on the way to Emmaus recognized Jesus only in his act of breaking bread and giving thanks.

Now Jesus frequently used symbolism to reveal his nature and function to his disciples. He said, "I am the door," "I am the true vine," "I am the way." No one, not even the most literalistic among us, would try to make these other than what was intended, the striking metaphors which they are. Symbols suggest mental and spiritual realities which cannot be contained in literal terms. They are like windows which open upon great vistas. But when symbols become things in themselves and not signs to greater realities, they short-circuit the power of truth. When Jesus spoke to the crowd after the miracle of feeding the five thousand, he said, "Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life" (John 6:54, Jerusalem Bible). The Jews were greatly offended because they did take him literally. Drinking of any kind of blood was a major taboo in their Law (Lev. 3:17; Acts 15:20).

So Baptists view the Supper as powerful symbols. The broken bread and the crushed "fruit of the vine" (Luke 22:18) recollect the experience of Jesus in providing our salvation. This evokes our thanksgiving for our own experience of being crucified with Christ so as to come alive in him (Gal. 2:20). It calls forth the sacrifice of our whole selves in response to the sacrifice of Christ which is remembered, and even in a figure reenacted, but not "re-presented" (Rom. 12:1-2). The sharing of the bread and wine calls us to recognize our unity in Christ (I Cor. 10:1???21) and our dependence upon the indwelling Christ for the sustenance of our lives (John 6:54).

Baptists, therefore, react negatively to any use of the symbols which makes them ends in themselves, such as adoration of the elements or the celebration of festivals in their honor. We know our own nature well enough to know we can perform all kinds of religious rites and practices and be devoid of any meaning or reality in the act. So we hold that faith and inner experience alone can give reality to symbolic acts. We also deny the implication that since we do not locate the presence of Christ in the elements, we do not know how to celebrate the real presence in either our individual or our corporate lives and actions. We know our daily lives to be sustained on such divine "flesh and blood" as well as other Christians.

Jesus said, "This do in remembrance of me." In the context of the observance of the Passover, he is asking us for more than just a recalling of the event of the Cross or meditation upon his incarnate life. In the Jewish family's observance of the Passover meal in the home the father and the son engage in the traditional conversation after the drinking of the second cup. The son begins the dialogue by asking, "Why does this night differ from all other nights?" And the father "re-collects" the great event of the Exodus, by which the nation was constituted. Rabbi Solomon Bernards describes the moment during the Passover meal in a Jewish home when the father explains why this night "is different from all other nights." Among other things, "In each generation, every man is duty-bound to envision himself as though he personally took part in the Exodus from Egypt; as we read in the Torah: 'you shall tell your son on that day, saying, "It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I came forth from Egypt." ' It was not only our forefather that the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed; He redeemed us, the living, together with them."8 As all the family raise their winecups together they recite: "We should therefore sing praises and give thanks and pour out infinite adoration to Him Who performed all these wonders for our fathers and for us. He brought us from slavery to freedom, from anguish to joy, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to light, and from bondage to redemption; and we will sing unto Him a new song, Hallelujah."9

Is Jesus, then, not asking us to relive our union with him in the sufferings of his Crucifixion? Paul spoke of this union both as a past event and a continuing experience: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20). He glories only in the Cross, "through which the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Gal. 6:14).

Now this evoking of the crucial event of our redemption should provoke in us even greater feelings and resolves than those of the Jewish family (for we enter also into the Passover event). Here, unfortunately, the debates over Eucharist versus Lord's Supper are most regrettable, for they obscure the Lord's challenge at the core of our union with him and our participation in the Body of Christ, the Church. For the Supper invites us again and again to enter into the pain and grief of our sin, which fell upon our Brother, as well as the release and joy which he now so graciously gives us. Our overreactions against each other tend to cancel both of us out. Sacramentalists, caught up in the debate, are too concerned to prove that something happens in the words of institution. Non-sacramentalists, likewise, are too concerned to prove that nothing happens. Neither seems very concerned with the moral, spiritual and social consequences of the worshipers' participation in the rite. To parallel only that which Bernards observes above: where is the evidence that we are released into ever wider freedom, renewed joy, a true "festivity," deliverance from self in our subjection to the values and pursuits of an alien society?

Jesus also said, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20; I Cor. 11:15). As the first covenant constituted Israel as the people of God under the laws and rituals of Moses, so the new covenant creates a new people of God, which rises above all human distinctions of race and status, even those of male and female (Gal. 3:28). We are thereby made one new humanity in Christ (see also Eph. 2:15). It is hard in this light for any Christian body to persist in the hangovers of nationalism, racism and sexism.

The drinking of the cup, which symbolizes the blood of Christ by which we are brought into this new relationship with God, calls forth a renewed dedication to the covenant community: its support, mutual service, and inner discipline. Paul urges support of the weaker brother, even when it involves limiting one's own freedom of conscience (I Cor. 10:23-33). He binds us to serve one another, even when it is burdensome (Gal. 6:2). He warns against abuse of the Supper by the neglect of inner discipline (I Cor. 5) and by uncontrolled individualism (I Cor. 11:20-21). He has also a severe warning of the consequences of neglecting the necessary preparation of self-examination for participating in the Supper (I Cor. 11:27-34). Dale Moody, writing to Baptists, has said, "Controversy over close communion usually centers on the validity of baptism, which all agree precedes the Lord's Supper, but the question of confession of sin and congregational discipline too often drops into the background. It takes far more than membership in a local church holding correct doctrine to qualify for participation in the Lord's Supper.'10

2. Who should partake of the Supper?

Baptists generally have held only those who have been baptized as professed believers in Christ by immersion. There is, however, much latitude in Baptist practice in differing countries and regions upon this generally held belief. On one end there is the strict Landmark view (see below, Part III) that the Supper is restricted to members of the local church only. More in the center is the view that the Supper is open to all "of like faith and order" (namely, other Baptists). On the other end there are those who will accept anyone who knows himself to be a believer in Christ. Most today would not require any further moral or spiritual qualification than that "a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (I Cor. 11:28).

Believing that this ordinance was given to the church as a whole, we practice its observance as a corporate act of the body (an ordained minister never felt obligated to celebrate the Sum per privately). We do not usually take the bread and wine to those absent from service, largely because such was feared as encouraging a sacramental view of the Supper. Of course, to be consistent we ought to encourage prayerful participation through some kind of visitation to those who are hindered by reason of health or business, and the church in its ministries should help them to feel the outflow of love from the Lord's Table into their own need.

3. Who administers the Lord's Supper?

With the understanding of the church and its officers as described in the preceding chapter, it will be evident that the congregation is the administrator of the Supper. When a pastor is called it is usually taken for granted that he is thereby authorized to lead in the service of the ordinances. But in his absence the church may elect any member, deacon or other. Any member, but usually the pastor or a deacon, may lead in the prayers. These are understood as prayers of thanksgiving and dedication of lives rather than of the "institution" that brings about a change in the elements.

For generations most Baptists have used unleavened bread (as a link with the Passover meal) and unfermented grape juice (as consistent with the usual Church Covenant's position of total abstinence). In some areas Baptists are occasionally using one large loaf of homemade bread and one cup in a more informal setting to stress the unity and participation in the one body (I Cor. 10:1~17). And the practice is growing of making the Lord's Supper the central act of the service rather than an addition to the regular order of worship. In such case the music and the pastor's homily will lead directly into the Supper.

The "Lord's Table" is usually placed in front of the pulpit on the same level with the congregation. The pastor and his assistant, usually the chairman of the deacons, will sit on either side of the table and the deacons on the front pews. After the prayer of thanksgiving for the bread, the pastor breaks a portion of the bread and distributes plates of bread to the deacons, who in turn serve the congregation. All hold the bread until the deacons return and are served by the pastor and he in turn by a deacon. Then the pastor will speak after this manner, "This is my body, which is for you. All of you, eat of it."

Then follows the prayer of thanksgiving for the cup. The same procedure will be followed in serving everyone with small individual cups. These are held until the pastor says, "This is the new covenant in my blood. Drink of it, all of you," and all likewise drink at the same time. In keeping with the history of the night meeting of Jesus and his disciples where they "sang a hymn and went out" (Matt. 26:30), a hymn usually concludes the service.

4. What of the "real presence."

From this discussion it should be apparent that Baptists do not localize the "real presence" of Christ in the elements, but rather in the total event and in the lives of the believers who are present. I Corinthians 3:16 takes into account the Presence in the church as a whole: "Know ye not that ye are temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" I Corinthians 6:19 also places the Presence in each individual: "Or know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have from God? and ye are not your own; for ye were bought with a price; glorify God therefore in your body." And Jesus promised, "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20).

With such permanent realities of the presence of Christ Baptists see no need for localizing such in the material symbols of bread and wine. This is why many of us do not feel excluded from genuine worship by those communions which do not admit us to the Lord's Table, even though we may keenly feel the barrier to Christian fellowship. On any interpretation the great drama of Christ's atonement is being acted out for our remembrance and we can "return thanks" and say the "Amen."

5. Practice of observing infrequently

It is freely admitted that the practice of observing the Supper infrequently arose out of reaction to the high-church practice of observing it every Sunday. Baptists understand the frequency from the words "as often as you eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord's death till he come" I Cor. 11:26). Since the rite is not held essential to the daily or weekly sustenance of the Christian life, we prefer to observe less often in order (hopefully) to avoid the boredom and triteness that continually threatens all of our repeated religious acts. One good result of increasing dialogue with other Christian communions today is the growing concern of many Baptists to make our observance more significant in meaning and more powerful in worship than formerly.


A Catholic priest told of hearing a Baptist pastor speaking on evangelization. The Baptist told how during a Sunday morning worship service he had brought the meeting to a close half an hour early so that he could send all the congregation out to visit prospects for the church there and then. The priest, properly horrified, asked, "Did you do that before or after the Eucharist?" And then it was the Baptist's turn to be horrified!

Of course, this is an extreme case, but it points up the relative disparity in locating the center of worship between Catholics and Baptists. For the one the focus is upon a re-presentation of the Presence for the benefit of the communicants. For the other it is upon challenge-and-response to the Gospel for the benefit of the "unsaved."

Now, of course, evangelism is not the full end of worship. But the proclamation of the Gospel in order to secure response, both of the saved and the unsaved, is central. It is seen in the placing of the pulpit at the center before the congregation (a few churches have what is called a "divided chancel" with pulpit and lectern on either side, and sometimes a divided choir loft, but this has been resisted often as being too "high church"). This is in keeping with the primary emphasis upon preaching, even to the extent that the other portions of the service were looked upon as "preliminaries." It is seen finally in that almost every Sunday service will conclude with an "invitation" (the old-timers called it the altar call), during which not only non-members are invited to "make decisions" but also members come for "rededication" or to announce themselves for special religious vocation.

Let us look at a "typical" order of Baptist worship, recognizing that there will be much more variety displayed than in any of the denominations that have standard orders for worship. The common features are the preaching of the Word, the singing of hymns and gospel songs, prayers, special music, the offering and the invitation. Here is one such order of worship, found most commonly in a middle-class, mostly white congregation:


The Call to Worship. Either a scriptural call by the pastor or one sung by the choir.

A Hymn of Praise. By the choir and congregation.

Recognition of Visitors and Announcements. This often now is moved before the Call to Worship so as not to break the rhythm of the worship.

The Reading of Scripture. Either by the pastor, or responsively by the pastor and congregation alternating.

The Pastoral Prayer. The minister seeks to draw together all of the common elements of thanksgiving and supplication on the part of the congregation.

A Hymn of Dedication. Or a Gospel song of witness or challenge.

The Offering. The bringing of tithes and offerings of the people.

Special Music. Either by the choir as an anthem, hopefully in keeping with the theme of the sermon to follow, or by some vocal group.

The Sermon. Chosen by the minister in the light of his prayerful consideration of the needs of the congregation at the moment, although there will be some common themes on special occasions of denominational emphasis. Generally speaking, the only days observed from the liturgical year will be Easter and Christmas. National observances of Thanksgiving, Mother's and Father's Days, Independence Day and Memorial Day receive their due.

The Invitation. Always with a background of an evangelistic or dedicatory gospel song.

Presentation to the Congregation of those making decisions.

The Benediction. A brief prayer by the pastor and sometimes followed by an Alleluia by the choir.

In spite of the fact that Baptists have been comparatively weak in developing a worship service in which the music is well integrated with the theme of the sermon, music plays a very great part in the life of the people. Congregations usually enter heartily into the singing of hymns and gospel songs, often displaying good harmonies even beyond the choir. Churches with no more than two or three hundred members will have a minister of music who is full-time and has staff status. He will often organize "graded choirs" with lay assistants leading choirs for every age group. The youth and adult (or sanctuary) choirs are frequently well trained and can be capable of quite advanced music. Youth choirs also take mission tours in which they use their music and other leadership talents in Vacation Bible schools to help churches in areas where the Baptist churches may just be entering. Handbell choirs for different age groups and even orchestral groups are beginning to be popular. These varied choir organizations in the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention now number over one million, second only to the Sunday School in size of their enlistment.

Baptists have come a long way from our roots, which we trace back to the synagogue, with its reading of Scriptures, prayers and brief comments. Any medium sized Baptist church may strike the outsider as a beehive of activity. Indeed, we are children of American frontiersmen. We are first and foremost activists in religion. However, together with others today, many of us are seeking anew the dimension of spiritual devotion and inner discipline. Worship always is in need of examination and renewal so as to secure the goal:

But if all speak God's message, when some unbeliever or ordinary person comes in he will be convinced of his sin by what he hears. He will be judged by all he hears, his secret thoughts will be brought into the open, and he will bow down and worship God, confessing, "Truly God is here with you!" (I Cor. 14:24-25, TEV).


  1. Karl Rahner, et al., eds, "Baptism," Sacramentum Mundi, Vol. 1 (New York: Herder & Herder, 1968), p. 138.
  2. G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism Today and Tomorrow (New York: Macmillan, 1966), pp. 3~37.
  3. Karl Barth, The '[caching of the Church Regarding Baptism (London: SCM Press, 1948), p. 32.
  4. Nordenhaug, op. cit., p. 134.
  5. Ibid, pp. 14~147.
  6. The word is derived from the Greek verb used of Jesus' act of giving thanks before the breaking of bread and the cup: Luke 22:17, 19; I Cor. 11:24. The noun is not used for the Supper in the Greek New Testament.
  7. Karl Rahner, "Sacraments," Sacramentum Mundi, Vol. 5 (New York: Herder & Herder, 1968), p. 381.
  8. Rabbi Solomon S. Bernards, The Living Heritage of Passover (New York: Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, n.d.), pp. 33-34.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Duke K. McCall, ea., "The New Testatment Significance of the Lord's Supper," What Is the Church.?(Nashville: Broadman Press, 1958), p. 87.

Last updated Tuesday, December 29, 1998

©Copyright 1998 All rights Reserved. C.B Hastings
Text was scanned and OCRed from Introducing Southern Baptist ©Paulist, Press 1981.
ISBN: 0-8091-2364-9
Library of Congress Number: 81-80052
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