Are We Sacramentalists? Introduction

Baptism“Sacramentalist” just sounds kind of cool, doesn’t it? Lots of alliteration and sibilance. But it’s not a word you hear much in Church of Christ circles. We’ve been accused by many of teaching baptism as a sacrament. We usually figure that’s a Catholic thing and so deny the accusation. But things are changing.

In this quarter’s Restoration Quarterly, John Mark Hicks argues for taking a frankly sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and the Lord’s Day — following Alexander Campbell and, no coincidence, three excellent books he’s authored or co-authored: Come to the Table: Revisioning the Lord’s Supper; Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God’s Transforming Work; and A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter.

Well, Hicks is one of our few truly interesting theologians, and so I want to spend a little time considering what he has to say.

“Sacrament” and the Churches of Christ

Hicks argues,

Though this [sacramental] language is the [Stone-Campbell Movement] at its best, many in the twentieth century have become more anthropocentric in orientation, more concerned about, as R. C. Bell put it, “human mechanics” than “divine dynamics.” Our anti-sacramentalism owes more to Zwinglian Protestantism and/or Lockean epistemology than we might admit.

Is baptism merely a human act in response to God’s accomplished work or does God himself do something? Is the Lord’s Supper merely a human act of remembering or does God himself somehow participate? Is the assembly simply a place to obey commands to perform five acts of worship or to edify one another? Or does the special presence of Jesus “where two or three are gathered” in his name mean that something more takes place?

Ulrich Zwingli was one of the founders of the Protestant Reformation, whose movement is older than Calvin’s but which was absorbed into Calvinism. Zwingli denied that God worked through the sacraments, denying any spiritual effect from anything physical. Although Calvin often disagreed with Zwingli, both their influences are felt in the denominations with Calvinist roots (including the Restoration Movement).

John Locke’s epistemology (theory of how we know things) is that all knowledge comes from experience of the physical world — there is no innate knowledge. Locke was very influential on American political thought and religious views. Campbell clearly was influenced by him. Hence, Hicks is suggesting, not unreasonably, that we’ve tended to ignore the supernatural side of these things as we’re part of a culture that tries to deny the supernatural.

Hicks notes that many denominations have attached all sorts of theories to the term “sacrament,” but its essential meaning is simply “a means of grace.”

The material elements do not merely represent, but they participate in the reality to which they point. They are not mere signs, but symbols that mediate a spiritual reality. The signs become symbols because God does something through them.

Now, I have to admit that, by this definition, the Churches of Christ have always been sacramentalists as to baptism, but not so as to the Lord’s Supper or the assembly. We’ve always taught that salvation occurs at the time of immersion — through the power of Jesus’ sacrifice, concurrently with the physical baptism but not by the power of the water.

And we’ve always disputed those who sought to reduce baptism to a mere symbol. It is, of course, rich with symbolism, but it’s more. We rejected the term “sacrament,” as the water itself has no magical power, however. And we’ve rejected the notion that the power of baptism comes through the church or requires an ordained minister. Rather, as was true of Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit and declaration of sonship come straight from God in heaven.

There is also just a little sacramental strain regarding the assembly, as we’ve often taught that Jesus has a special presence there, as two or three are gathered in his name. However, there’s been very little elaboration on this thought — what significance does Jesus’ presence have?

On the other hand, we’ve been obsessed with contradicting Lutheran and Catholic teaching of consubstantiation and transubstantiation in the Lord’s Supper — with this point being repeated before communion in some congregations nearly weekly. We very typically begin the communion by stating that, in contrast to these views, these elements are mere symbols. Our communion theology is not sacramental in the least.

Moreover, we’ve routinely objected to the language of the sacrament. As stated in an insightful article in the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, 214 (1984),

Although the term “sacrament” is virtually never used in orthodox Church of Christ theology, it is nonetheless clear that there is a sacramental theology. While Catholics have seven sacraments and orthodox Protestants have two, Churches of Christ have only one: baptism.

There is a sense in which two other Church of Christ observances have a kind of sacramental character. Preaching is one of these observances, since it is through preaching that the saving logic of the Lord is mediated to the intellects of the hearers. Indeed, Churches of Christ are a verbal people rather than an aesthetic people, and the language typically is characterized by logical rather than emotional or liturgical appeal. The other observance that has a kind of sacramental character for the Churches of Christ is church attendance, usually three times a week. Regular church attendance is generally seen as essential to one’s spiritual well-being, especially since it is there that one attends to the proclamation of the Word … .

That’s right, isn’t it? In fact, I’ve just done a Google search on “sacrament” and “Church of Christ” and the first hit I got was this article on page 5! We just refuse to the use the word.

“Sacrament” in orthodox Protestant use

The Wikipedia says,

The most conventional functional definition of a sacrament is that it is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, that conveys an inward, spiritual grace through Christ. The two most widely accepted sacraments are Baptism and the Eucharist; the majority of Christians recognize seven Sacraments or Divine Mysteries : Baptism, Confirmation (Chrismation in the Orthodox tradition), and the Eucharist, Holy Orders, Reconciliation of a Penitent (confession), Anointing of the Sick, and Matrimony. Taken together, these are the Seven Sacraments as recognised by churches in the High church tradition – notably Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Independent Catholic, Old Catholic and some Anglicans, while the Orthodox Church typically does not limit the number of sacraments, viewing all encounters with reality in life as sacramental in some sense, and the acknowledgment of the number of sacraments at seven as an innovation of convenience not found in the Church Fathers, but used infrequently later on from its later encounter with the West. Other denominations and traditions typically affirm only Baptism and Eucharist as sacraments.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines “sacrament” as a —

religious sign or symbol, especially associated with Christian churches, in which a sacred or spiritual power is believed to be transmitted through material elements viewed as channels of divine grace.

Now, the Catholic view of the sacraments (and for most other churches that teach apostolic succession) is that, other than baptism, the sacrament must be administered by a duly ordained minister of the church — that is, grace is mediated via the church’s officials. In this sense, the Church of Christ view is not sacramental. In fact, we nearly insist that communion be administered by laymen. It’s not wrong for the preacher to lead the communion, but it’s rarely done that way.

But this is not the Protestant meaning of the term, although some denominations do insist on ordination in order to preside over communion or administer baptisms.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink.My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Are We Sacramentalists? Introduction

  1. Alan says:

    You are right — there is a very clear difference in how we view baptism versus how we view communion. I'm not sure that is a problem. The scriptures say quite a bit about what happens in baptism, but not so much about what happens in communion (yes, a few things).

    The most prominently stated purpose of communion is to remember Jesus. That is something we do ourselves. Of course partaking in an unworthy manner leads to negative consequences, and perhaps some sacaramental meaning could be derived from that.

  2. josh says:

    Much of what you Lipscombites believe is foreign to me, but over in the true church of Christ we read and believe what Paul writes in 1 Cor 10 where he connects being in the one body with eating the one loaf. I've mentioned it before on here and got maligned for it. I guess you have to either have a thd or be a laWyer to get any respect around here. Poor Paul–he's neither.

  3. josh says:

    "For we many are one loaf, one body: for we are all partakers of that one loaf." 1 Co 10:17. But what if we many Be not partaking of one loaf? What if per our previous discussion a 'congregation' discontinues the Lord's Supper? or again what of those who partake of a thousand wafers rather than one loaf? "For we many are many wafers, many bodies: for we are all partakers of those many wafers"? You w revary opposed to a sacramental view of the Lord's Supper a few short weeks ago, Jay–what has changed? or will Mark be able to talk you out of it again in order to justify his multiple wafers?

  4. josh says:

    You read this article yet?

  5. Jay Guin says:


    I've read the article. I refuse to treat the Patristics as somehow authoritative. If we do that, we'll all have to become Catholic or Orthodox.

    Being "silent where the Bible is silent" particularly means not claiming uninspired men have authority equal to that of scripture itself.

  6. Mark says:

    If you have the Lord's Supper as part of a meal as they seem to have been doing in Corinth, do you break one loaf and then take pieces to each table, or can each table have its own loaf? If you make everyone get quiet so you can say one main prayer, I guess you would need one loaf to divide among the tables. If you let every table say their own prayers, maybe they could each have their own loaf. It's kind of confusing. How would you folks in the true church of Christ handle it?

    One more question: when did I ever talk Jay out of anything? Please point it out to me. I think it would look good on my resume to show that I had swayed a lawyer.

  7. Mark says:

    Josh says:
    Therefore, Paul recalls them to observing the Lord’s Supper the way that Jesus established it and sends their potluck home where it belongs. If you would be so kind, however, as to go verse by verse and exposit where you get the notion that Paul was establishing a big dinner to tuck the Lord’s Supper away in, please do.

    Actually, Josh, the way Jesus established the Lord's Supper was as part of a larger meal. I'm sure you have heard of the Love Feast. It seems to have been a fairly common part of the fellowship of the early church.

    Who said anything about wanting to "tuck the Lord's Supper away?" You're a spin doctor. You tend to create some negative caricature of what we're saying, and then you react to the caricature instead of what we actually said. Don't worry. I'm getting used to it.

  8. Jay Guin says:

    Jude 12 refers specifically to "love feasts" with approval. We know from history that "love feast" refers to a common meal, which typically included the Lord's Supper.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Josh wrote, "But it is interesting that they unanimously considered it to be Judaizing."

    It is interesting. It shows how ignorant these writers were of the origins of their practices. You see, until about 100 years ago, going back to before Jesus, the synagogues were all a cappella. Many still are. Being a cappella made the Christians like the Jews, not unlike the Jews!

    The Jews refused to use the instruments because (a) they considered the instruments a mark of the temple and wanted to take care not to create a temple substitute in the synagogues and (b) playing an instrument was work in violation of the Sabbath.

    It's not surprising that the Christians, who were originally Jews, continued a worship tradition built on the synagogue. But when later generations made it into doctrine, they unwittingly were preserving the Sabbath prohibitions and worrying about a destroyed temple replaced with the congregation itself (1 Cor 3:16; Eph 2:21-22). What more appropriate place to play instruments than the new temple in which the Spirit lives?!

  10. josh says:

    Where do you find that Paul was ok with them tucking the Lord’s Supper off into a potluck (even if that is what they were doing), Mark? He says “Don’t you have houses to eat in?” It seems very clear that he is telling them to cease and desist on the potluck thing and just observe the Lord’s Supper by itself. Furthermore, it doesn’t look to me like they were even partaking of the Lord’s Supper in the middle of their potluck but had replaced it altogether. He certainly has a reason for recalling what the Lord established “I received of the Lord that the night in which he was betrayed he took bread…” If the issue was that they were observing the Lord’s Supper right as far as the symbolism, but just were being too selfish in not waiting for one another, then there would have been no reason to recount the institution of the Supper. The issue clearly was that they had replaced the Lord’s Supper with their own supper. The potluck deal was not part of Christian worship but was something they replaced the Lord’s Supper with. Therefore, Paul recalls them to observing the Lord’s Supper the way that Jesus established it and sends their potluck home where it belongs. If you would be so kind, however, as to go verse by verse and exposit where you get the notion that Paul was establishing a big dinner to tuck the Lord’s Supper away in, please do.

    Yes, Jay, I agree that the ‘patristics’ can’t be treated as authoritative. But it is interesting that they unanimously considered it to be Judaizing. Anyway, I was just curious if you had read the article. I’ve never heard of the Restoration Quarterly before, so when you mentioned it I looked up their site. That was the first article they had listed.

  11. Nick Gill says:

    I love this sentence: "it is through preaching that the saving logic of the Lord is mediated to the intellects of the hearers."

    They've got us pegged perfectly. Wow.

  12. Yes … or we should be.

    Bobby Valentine

  13. Jay Guin says:

    I just got my copy of "A Gathered People" in the mail. I'm very excited. Will read soon.

  14. David Newhouse says:

    Baptism is a sacrament or means of grace in the sense that a follower of Christ, by the authority of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, pronounces a believer's sins forgiven. The one doing the baptizing is "standing in for" the Trinity. Whether that is actually God's presence or not could be argued.

    The cup is {represents} the New Covenant in (consideration of} Christ's blood. When we celebrate the Lords Supper we are allowed to view the "written evidence of the contract" we have with God. The Lord's Supper affirms God's grace on us while baptism intially pronounces grace on us. Therefore; I would classify both as sacraments.

    I am of the Church of Christ and a "sacramentalist".

    Anonymous says:

    Jesus on the cross pronounced our sins forgiven when He said "It is finished!" That is where we receive forgiveness of sins.

    We do not earn grace and mercy but are given grace and mercy. God's gift of grace and mercy is given to us through the loving sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ.

  15. Dan Smith says:

    If Paul had not used the words "lord's supper," and if the Upper Room meal was, in fact, a Passover seder, then we would be left with ONLY Jesus' redirecting the attention of JEWISH disciples from a recently slain lamb at the annual Passover, to His being the Passover lamb. There is NO example of Jewish Christians eating "the Lord's Supper" as the Corinthian (and probably all Gentile churches) cerebrating their common relationship in Christ during EACH mealtime gathering (Sunday AND all other days).

    It should be clear to all of you that I deny any "break bread" is anything other than a sustinence meal.