Sacrament or Ordinance

by Aaron

At our last Weekender (the new name for our Gospel Class), I got a question that I didn’t fully understand. I kept calling communion and baptism “sacraments” for Element. A person asked me if I meant “sacrament” or “ordinance” when talking about those two things. My response was that it wasn’t a hill I was going to die on and you could call it whatever you wanted; I said this because I didn’t understand what the person was getting at. I went home that night and thought about it and at about 2 AM, the light went on in my brain and I was like, “OH, I know what they were asking now.”

I was not raised in a religious environment. I could probably count on one hand (probably even 2 fingers) the number of times my family went to “church” while growing up. Because of my upbringing, I do not attach deep meaning to certain words or phrases that many people who have been raised in a church setting do. One of those words happens to be “sacrament.”

The word sacrament comes from the word for mystery; mystery was a word that was used for something that was once unclear and now is clear because of God’s work in Christ. The mystery of Christ is that: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. They called this “revealed mystery” because it was what the Old Testament had been saying all along and we now see the reality in Jesus. Where did we get the word sacrament from if the word meant mystery? The answer to that comes from when the Latin language was taking over the world.

People didn’t know what mystery (mysterium) meant, so when translators wanted to make this word clearer, they borrowed a word from the Roman Army. A recruit for the Roman army became a soldier by undergoing a “sacramentum.” The sacramentum had two parts:

  • The soldier took an oath of office
  • The Army branded him behind the ear with the number of his legion

The “sacramentum” brought about new advantages like acquiring social and legal benefits. Ancient Latin theologians used the word sacramentum because they thought it was the best Latin equivalent because the church rite is spiritual and physical (we get new responsibilities and a new spiritual status before God).

Back to the Weekender question…Catholics are taught that a sacrament is, “An outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” Meaning it is a MEANS OF GRACE and can be tied to salvation. There are many outward signs of inward grace that are not sacraments in Catholicism (like the benediction at the end of a service), but in 1545-1563 the Council of Trent said true sacraments were a means of grace (and there were 7 of them): Baptism, Confirmation, Penance (Confession), Communion (Eucharist), Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders (setting people aside as clergy), and Marriage.

Now, do we believe that marriage or communion is a means of grace being bestowed upon as believers? Not at all. We believe they are GIFTS of grace, but they do not affect our salvation. This is why, in order to not confuse people, the protestant church started to use the word “ordinance.” Ordination to the clergy can’t be a sacrament, because not every Christian is called to the ordained ministry. Marriage can’t be a sacrament, because it is not something only Christians do (and Jesus didn’t require it). Anointing the sick with oil can’t be a sacrament, because what happens to healthy Christians? Any time we try to make something a “means” of grace, other than Christ’s propitiating work for us, we shrink the Gospel.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church they still call certain things “The Holy Mysteries” which shows that the words can be used interchangeably. Essentially I use the word sacrament because communion and baptism at Element are sacred, but they are not a means of grace. We believe they hold great significance to our church and communal life, but should never be a substitute for the Gospel.

That’s a long way to say, “that is why I use the word sacrament; it is sacred, but it is not the Gospel.”