the weblog of Alan Knox

The Sacraments and the Church

Posted by on Nov 6, 2009 in books, definition, ordinances/sacraments | 7 comments

Three years ago, I was a new PhD student and very new to blogging. In fact (believe it or not), I only wrote a few blog posts each month. During the fall of 2006, I started reading a book by Jim Peterson called em>Church Without Walls. Later that I year I would write that that book was the “Best Book of the Year” that I had read.

In a post from three years ago called “The Sacraments and the Church,” I interacted with a statement from Peterson’s book concerning one of the reformational “marks” of the church: the sacraments (ordinances, whatever). Here is that post:


The Sacraments and the Church

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?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 11-6-2009

    Hmmm. Not sure if I agree with the Pope “defining” the Church, although Catholics certainly do have a different definition of what the Church is than Protestants do. The Pope for us certainly is the visible sign of unity of the faithful.

    The Sacraments don’t define the Church, although to Catholics the Church herself IS a sacrament in that she herself is a visible manifestation whereby God’s grace is made present in the world.

  2. 11-6-2009


    Thanks for the comment. This post was primarily directed toward Protestants, especially those who see the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism to be one of the “marks” of the church.


  3. 11-6-2009

    I think that if you gather as the church but do not break bread together and baptize believers, I am not certain you are faithfully expressing the church. I would agree that the presence of these sacraments do not make a gathering “the church”. As a Reformed guy, I find the “Word rightly preached, sacraments rightly administered, discipline rightly applied” marks of the church highly lacking in some of the most important aspects of what identifies the church: love, service, humility, joy. Without these the most “orthodox” of churches is nothing more than a piety club.

  4. 11-6-2009

    There is conversation going on over here about that very issue. Individuals are asking/wondering if what we are doing is considered “church” because our service (family) does not include the sacrament(s). We are focusing on loving God and loving others and place-sharing with one another — however that may look. We consider it church. Many in our ‘larger church’ don’t consider what we are doing church ….

  5. 11-6-2009


    Is there a difference between “being a church” and “faithfully expressing a church”? While the church will express the things you list if they are following Christ, do those things define them (their identity) as a church?


    I understand the argument. I think the disagreement you mention is exactly what I’m trying to get at here: what makes a group of people a church?


  6. 11-6-2009

    Our identity stems from our common redemption and adoption, our expression is the visible manifestation of that unity.

  7. 11-6-2009

    Hi Alan,

    Here’s my two cents.

    I think it is easy to get hung up in the language of what “defines” the church, as though the mere carrying out of certain acts makes something a church. I don’t believe that is the sense in which the Reformers identified the sacraments as a mark of a true church.

    First of all, the church is Jesus Christ’s. He defines what it is and what it should do.

    Second of all, sacraments were instituted by Christ for his church, and they are signs and seals that point to him. So I think this is why the Reformers included the proper administration in the sacraments in their lists of the marks of a true Christian church. Christ told the disciples to baptize, and he indicated that the Lord’s Supper was to be done in remembrance of him.

    To put it another way: it’s all about Jesus.