Why do many Protestants insist on calling them ordinances instead of sacraments? And why only two instead of seven?
Gregg Allison, secretary of the Evangelical Theological Society, has an essay on “The Ordinances of the Church,” which begins by declaring that “among the three branches of Christendom, two church rites—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are regularly celebrated.” This is a bit misleading, since Catholics and Orthodox (two of the “three branches of Christendom” in Allison’s reckoning) celebrate seven sacraments, not two ordinances.
The Orthodox Church does not officially number the sacraments, and the line between sacramentals (like blessings) and sacraments (like baptism) is sometimes blurred. But as the Encyclopedia Britannica points out, “contemporary Orthodox catechisms and textbooks all affirm that the church recognizes seven mystēria (‘sacraments’): baptism, chrismation, Communion, holy orders, penance, anointing of the sick, and marriage.” And the Council of Florence, which was accepted by the Orthodox and Coptic delegates present, declared:
There are seven sacraments of the new Law, namely baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders and matrimony, which differ greatly from the sacraments of the old Law. The latter were not causes of grace, but only prefigured the grace to be given through the passion of Christ; whereas the former, ours, both contain grace and bestow it on those who worthily receive them.
So why do so many Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, believe there are only two? And why do many of these same Protestants insist on calling them ordinances instead of sacraments? As Allison explains, Protestants were worried about sacrament having “too many connotations associated with Catholic theology and practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper,” whereas the word ordinance was meant to signify “that these rites were ordained, or instituted, by Christ himself.”
In other words, much of the theology of ordinances is a reaction against the Catholic (and Orthodox) position that God saves his people through the sacraments. But the Catholic position is also what a plain reading of Scripture reveals.
On Pentecost, St. Peter proclaimed to thousands of Jewish pilgrims that Jesus had risen from the dead, exhorting them to repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38; see also 1. Pet. 3:21). Jesus promised that “he who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).
Likewise with regard to the Eucharist, Jesus proclaimed that “ “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:52-54). It’s why St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. A.D. 107) could call the Eucharist “the medicine of immortality,” and why St. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 210-258) could describe it as “the food of salvation,” and why St. Augustine (354-430) could call the Mass “the sacrifice of salvation.”
It’s this view that God chooses to save us through the sacraments that the Reformers opposed. A clear example of this can be seen in the “Statement of Faith” of the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA):
The Lord Jesus mandated two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which visibly and tangibly express the gospel. Though they are not the means of salvation, when celebrated by the church in genuine faith, these ordinances confirm and nourish the believer.
Even in explaining what they think the ordinances are, they stress what they’re (allegedly) not: the means of salvation. This one difference ends up having a number of consequences.
First and foremost, it takes the focus off God and places it onto us. Got Questions, a Protestant FAQ website, explains that “a sacrament, at some level, involves a supernatural work of God. An ordinance is simply an act of man in obedience to God.” The Catholic understanding is that God is the one doing something for us through the sacraments: as Jesus says at the Last Supper, “this is my body which is given for you” (Luke 22:19). But the Evangelical understanding twists this into the ordinances being something we do for God. And because Evangelicalism is adamantly opposed to anything resembling “works righteousness,” this means they have to strip the sacraments/ordinances of any power.
In 2019, Mark Galli, then editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, asked, “Whatever Happened to Communion & Baptism?,” lamenting how the major sacraments of Christianity had been relegated to unimportance. At a mass baptism of four hundred people, Galli recalled, in which four or five people gave their testimony, and the pastor asked each one, “But you don’t believe that baptism saves you, right?”
It wasn’t just the question, but the leading way in which it was asked time and again that suggested to me that the pastor was deeply afraid of the power of the sacrament. And the fact that he also asked this right before each person was baptized went a long way into ensuring that the sacrament did not become a means by which God broke in and blessed the recipient but became all about the horizontal: an act of the person’s faith.
This points to another problem: the Evangelical misunderstanding robs baptism and the Eucharist of any real importance. If these rituals are just the means by which I proclaim how much I love God, why couldn’t I do that in any of a thousand other ways? After all, a handwritten card is a better romantic gesture than grabbing one off the rack. If the sacraments are all about what I can do for God, why give God the scripted, ritualistic answer when I can create something more personally meaningful? The problem here is not merely hypothetical. A prison chaplain (and former Evangelical pastor) named Jeremy Myers has argued, “Don’t Get Baptized. Cut Your Hair!” His argument was that if “a new believer gets baptized today, almost nobody will ask why,” but someone getting a dramatic haircut can expect to field a lot of questions. So why not replace baptism with haircuts . . . or any other ridiculous gesture designed to draw attention to ourselves and get people to ask us questions?
From an Evangelical perspective, the answer to that question is because Jesus told us to do this, not to cut our hair. As the EFCA says: “The Lord Jesus mandated two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” This explains the difference in terminology. Sacrament comes from the word sacrare, “to consecrate” or “to hallow” (it’s where we get sacred). But those who understand them as ordinances are understanding them legalistically—we do these things not because they are a means by which God makes us holy, but out of obedience to the law. An ordinance, after all, is a legal term, referring to “an authoritative direction, decree, or command” that was “narrower or more transitory than a law.”
This still doesn’t explain why Evangelicals have only these two. Christ commanded countless other things, which is why the early Anabaptist theologian Dirk Philips argued that Church discipline, the washing of feet, loving your neighbor, suffering, and bearing your cross were also ordinances. Modern Mennonites will sometimes add head coverings for women (1 Cor. 11:2) and greeting “one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16) as ordinances as well.
Worse, this legalistic misunderstanding of the sacraments also dooms Protestants to obsessing over incidental details, like whether a baptism was done by “immersion” or “sprinkling,” or the age of the person being baptized, or his level of theological sophistication. (These are not to be confused with the essential details that determine the validity of a sacrament, like using water for baptism and chrism for confirmation. Catholics and Orthodox take those details very seriously, and rightly so—if they’re not right, then the sacrament didn’t happen!)
The Evangelical objection to understanding baptism and the Eucharist (or “Lord’s Supper”) as sacraments is well intentioned but misguided. In an attempt to preserve the centrality of faith, and the reality that God is the author of our salvation, their theology inadvertently (even ironically) results in a view of the sacraments in a way that is legalistic and almost Pelagian. This distinction explains why two of what Allison calls “the three branches of Christendom” sharply disagree with the third branch, Protestantism.