How important is baptism and the Lord’s Supper? How should we practice them? What about the sinner’s prayer? How do we confess our faith in the church today? These are the subjects tackled in chapter ten of Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. If I mix in a few things from Viola’s recently released follow-up book, Reimagining Church, forgive me. My family is presently reading this book together and I do get things mingled together after awhile.
In the Christian church today, and especially in the evangelical church, we’ve come to rely heavily on the relatively recent “Sinner’s Prayer” as a testimony of faith for new believers. I’ve been a little confused about this subject for a while now. It’s so easy to “repeat after me” as the pastor leads some version of this prayer. People do it all the time. People do it who have been Christians for decades. People do it who are not now, nor have they since become Christians. So what does it really mean?
You’ve heard preachers and others say, “If you really meant this prayer as you prayed it, then Welcome to the family! You are now headed for Heaven. You’re a new creature in Christ.” And I think God does honor this prayer, but you won’t find it in the bible. What did people do in New Testament times to confess their new faith? Can you guess? It was a practice they all understood–no doubt they understood it a great deal better than we do today. They were baptized.
I don’t know whether they were all immersed or not. Immersion seems to be the preferred method, and people in those days needed to live near bodies of water as they didn’t have city water systems and so forth. Those who didn’t have that luxury and depended on deep wells still often had public bathing areas, but surely there were some for whom immersion would have caused great difficulty and I suspect they practiced sprinkling without any feelings of guilt or inadequacy. This isn’t addressed in Pagan, but I’ve been thinking about it so . . . just my own musings. It particularly interests me as I live in the northern regions and dunking in a river or lake isn’t a thing to be taken lightly in the middle of January.
This becomes an issue because in NT times, it wasn’t the common practice to “get saved,” make the walk down the aisle, pray the prayer, tell someone about it, and maybe get baptised in the chuch’s next quarterly or biennial baptism service. The services are held so seldom for a couple of reasons. First, it takes that long to build up enough people (often one or two) to be baptised and second, it takes many hours to fill up the baptismal font and get all that water warmed up. Anyway, immediate baptism upon salvation just isn’t the way we do it these days.
Viola and Barna argue that baptism is the prescribed method for proclaiming to the world and to the spiritual rulers of the darkness of this age that one has officially changed citizenship from the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of our God.
The Anabaptists (rebaptizers) paid dearly for this and other idiosyncracies, both at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church and at the hands of their fellow, though less radical reformers. They believed that people should be baptized when they believed; not when they are born into this world, but when they are born into the kingdom of God. This was not looked upon with favor by the RCC, and many of these radicals paid with their lives for being baptized as adults.
Viola and Barna go into the whole history of why people made a larger and larger separation between becoming believers and being baptised. It’s an interesting read, and you should read it. The conclusion is that in the NT it’s expected that people will, whenever possible, declare their new faith to the world by undergoing baptism immediately upon believing. This was the way people entered the kingdom of God. Baptism was how you initially manifested your salvation.
Second, the authors discuss how the Last Supper changed from its early practice to the way we practice it today. I’m not going to go into the history in detail. Again, it’s fascinating and well worth reading, but if I told you everything you wouldn’t want to buy the book. 😉 You also probably wouldn’t want to read my blog, because it would be too long. 🙁
Here’s the story in brief. The NT church practiced the Lord’s Supper as a fellowship meal. You can see this from reading 1 Corinthians 12 and other scriptures. Over the years and for various reasons that sounded good at the time, it was reduced to the ceremonial “meal” now practiced in the Protestant church, and then to a mystical ritual/show practiced only by the clergy and watched from a half-fearful distance by the congregation.
Some believed that the words of the ordained minister physically changed the bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Jesus. It was called a sacrifice–not only re-enacting the death of Christ but actually repeating it week after week. It was the central feature of the Catholic mass. It became a more peripheral feature of the Protestant service and was there offered to all believers, but was still practiced in much the same mystical style used by the RCC.
Today the church, both Protestant and Catholic, are moving away from that extreme. The Protestant church is trying different ways of offering what we call Communion or, in the more high church denominations, the Eucharist. In some cases, Communion may even be offered in conjunction with a fellowship meal or “Love Feast” as practiced in the early church. The RCC has taken the large step of offering the cup as well as the bread to members.
The authors’ main point, I feel, is that Communion was meant to be a joyous remembrance of Jesus’ redemptive death and what He accomplished by it, as well as a reminder that He will be returning in triumph. It’s also meant to be a time of building one another up in our faith and becoming one people; one new man, as the apostle Paul put it. Viola and Barna feel that the Lord’s Supper loses much, if not most of its meaning when we separate it from the communal meal and the manifestation of God’s supernatural love amongst the brethren.
I wouldn’t necessarily agree that Communion as practiced today is devoid of meaning. I’m glad we still participate in this ancient practice and that people still “remember the Lord’s death until His coming again.” Nevertheless, I do agree that Communion taken in the way that Viola and Barna (and the New Testament) describe would be even more meaningful. There might be appropriate occasions for both types of observations. I’d love to have the opportunity to participate with other believers in this type of fellowship in honor of our Lord and His triumph on, and beyond the cross.
Grace and Peace