I have been greatly challenged by Jim Peterson’s book Church Without Walls. In chapter nine, “New Boundaries for the Church,” he states, “One lesson that comes through in our discussion of history and of form and function is that the church has constantly tended toward narrowing.” What he means by this is that historical periods (i.e. the church fathers, the reformation), theological systems, denominational distinctives, and culture add limitations to our understanding of Scripture and, therefore, our understaning of the church. Here is one example:
One example is the Reformers’ treatment of the sacraments. Previously the pope had served as the unifying factor for the church. He defined the church. Since all the Reformers rejected the authority of the pope, a replacement symbol was needed. It is significant that the sacraments-particularly baptism and the Lord’s Supper-are included in virtually all of their definitions. But do they belong at all? Is that why the sacraments were given to God’s people? Is it baptism that makes a church a church? Is that why the Lord’s Supper was instituted? The sacraments were not given to define the church for us. And whenever we impose a second meaning on something in this manner, its true significance is diminished or even lost.
For the past few months, I have been pondering a definition of the church. I even had a series of blog posts about the definition of the church (Final post with links to previous posts). My definition did not include the sacraments. I believe the sacraments are very important, but I do not see where Scripture uses the sacraments to define the church. Are the sacraments something that the church does? Yes. Do the sacraments define the church? No. Is a church still a church if it does not practice the sacraments? Yes. Does a group become a church because they practice the sacraments? No.
Am I correct? If not, why not? If so, then what is the purpose of the sacraments (or ordinances, if you prefer)? Also, if I am correct, have we diminished the true significance of the sacraments?