125 Years of Seven Ordinances — Rough Draft

When a baby is born at 10 months, we don’t usually call it premature. When a writer has been promising for that long to release an essay, however, his “baby” may still be scarcely ready for the light of day. But everyone likes babies. (Right?) And everyone handles newborns gently. (Right?) And one can definitely only handle being pregnant for so long. So I’ve decided it’s time to release this overdue, unfinished essay into your hands.

Here it is, then: “that paper on the ‘ordinances.'” Click here to download, or find it on my Essays page.

Oh, isn’t he cute! He looks just like his daddy!

Now that I’ve given birth, I’d like to do two more things in this post: (1) Explain what I mean by “rough draft.” (2) Summarize the essay.

What Do I Mean by “Rough Draft”?

Though I’ve been working intermittently on this essay since the fall of 2011, I am aware of improvements that still should be made. For example:

  • My survey of pre-Reformation history is very brief.
  • I have still more Anabaptist-era primary sources I could peruse, to weigh my current survey for representative accuracy.
  • I could include more discussion of how the Coffman/Kauffman era was a time of transition, institution-building, and doctrinal formulation.
  • I should weigh more carefully whether the concept of ordinances is found in the NT, apart from the question of whether the word ordinance is used there as we use it. (In other words, is ordinance biblical in the same sense that Trinity is?)
  • A more nuanced discussion of sacramental theology would help, assessing it and contrasting it with other options such as a strictly symbolic understanding of the “ordinances.” I really don’t want to get too deep into this heated question (of which whole books are written!), but it is unavoidably related to the central questions of this essay.
  • My tone could be improved in places, better anticipating possible difficulties or challenges of readers and avoiding overstatement.
  • Technical details need help: Cleaning up footnotes, adding a bibliography, perhaps another appendix or two, switching to ESV as the primary translation, including Greek NT words in my exegetical discussions, etc.
  • Most importantly, I need to answer the “So what?” question. For this draft version of my essay I’ve included a list of problems possibly exacerbated by our concept of seven ordinances (see page 28). But I’m saving my discussion of these problems to share later. And should I note some benefits as well as problems?

I have been invited to share this essay at the Forum for Doctrinal Studies, probably in July 2017. After that I hope to post a fuller version here.

Your feedback is most welcome as I continue writing! Post your thoughts in the comments thread here or send me a private message.

Summary of the Essay

First (pp. 1-5) I summarize the pre-Reformation history of ordinances by noting three developments:

  1. The growth of formal ritual instead of simple obedience to NT commands;
  2. The development of the theology and vocabulary of sacraments; and
  3. The formation of a defined list of seven Roman Catholic sacraments.

Next (pp. 5-14) I discuss the early Anabaptist era, including their rejection of ritual and sacramental theology, their failure to fully restore all NT practices related to ordinances, and their various lists of sacraments/ordinances. This section is full of primary source quotes, including this gem from the Martyr’s Mirror, from the trial of an Anabaptist named Jacob de Roore:

Jac. If you want to imitate all the things which the apostles did, and regard them all as sacraments, why do you not also regard your aprons or handkerchiefs as sacraments, and lay them upon the sick, as Paul did? For what greater sacredness was there in the oil of which James writes, than in Paul’s aprons, by which he also healed the sick, as is written in the nineteenth chapter of the Acts of the apostles?

Fr. Corn. If the devil does not wag your tongue, I do not understand the matter. You accursed Anabaptists may yourselves make a sacrament of your filthy handkerchiefs or aprons; for you people have no sacrament, but we Catholics have seven sacraments; is it not enough, eh?

Jac. Yea, in troth; for since the term sacrament is not once mentioned in the holy Scriptures, you have only seven too many.

The third section (pp. 14-24) finally explains the origin of our own seven ordinances. I survey ordinances among early American Mennonites, then focus on J.S. Coffman and Daniel Kauffman, who appear to be primarily responsible for formulating and codifying the list we have inherited. (Thus the “125 Years” in my title, dating from 1891.) This section ends by asking what Kauffman meant by the term ordinance.

The fourth section (pp. 24-27) continues this linguistic focus by comparing Kauffman’s use of ordinance with biblical vocabulary.

The fifth section (pp. 27-30) proposes some responses to the previous historical and biblical discussion. I ask whether we can redeem the term ordinance and whether our inheritance of a theology and practice of seven ordinances is really anything to be worried about. (In other words, is this essay merely much ado about nothing?)

Finally, I’ve included three appendices (pp. 31-34) with more technical data:

  1. “Words Translated ‘Ordinance” in the King James Version”
  2. “Who Baptizes in the New Testament?”
  3. “Who May Anoint With Oil?

Again, I warmly welcome your help with this project! Those of us who are conservative Anabaptists have inherited these seven ordinances as a shared legacy. Our response to this heritage will also be a shared project.

How can we hold onto the best of the past while also making needed changes? How radical dare we be in our changes? How can we avoid overreacting? How can we let Scripture speak anew in our generation? What understanding and practice of “ordinances” do we want to leave to our children?

Please share your comments here or, if you prefer, in a private message.

For Christ and his Church,
Dwight Gingrich


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23 thoughts on “125 Years of Seven Ordinances — Rough Draft”

  1. Very fascinating!! I am full of questions. At the risk of being tiresome, I will ask just one or two for now… 🙂

    Who/what began the practice of women covering their heads all the time, instead of just for public worship?

    Also, what is the meaning/purpose of baptism? (Perhaps this is beyond the scope of your paper.) I asked this question 15 years ago at CBS. The answer I got then was that baptism is a symbol of what Jesus has done for us, as well as a public confession of our faith. I was not satisfied with that answer then, and I am still not satisfied with it now. It makes more sense to me, though, in the context of defining our “ordinances” as a symbolic, religious ceremony. But what does Scripture actually teach about baptism?

    Thanks for taking the time to research and write and bless us with your paper!

    1. Rosina, you ask more questions than I can answer! 🙂 But that is good. Keep asking! Perhaps others can help answer, or perhaps one of your questions will trigger someone to study.

      In response to the two you asked here:

      (1) I don’t know whether sisters in the early churches wore veils only for worship or all the time. Does anyone else know? Perhaps it varied between Jewish and other cultures? What is our earliest, best evidence?

      (2) I think the explanations you received of baptism are basically accurate, but not complete. Here is a definition of baptism that I once tentative proposed: “Baptism is our confession of faith in Christ through which we are saved by the grace of God.” See here for a brief explanation: http://dwightgingrich.com/definition-baptism/ And see here for an essay by Stein that has helped my understand the relationship between baptism and conversion in the NT: http://dwightgingrich.com/other-resources/essays/ It seems clear to me that baptism, in the NT, is much more closely tied to our initial union with Christ (“conversion”) than what we practice today. It is the physical element of our initiation into saving faith. What do you find as you read the NT for yourself?

  2. My question about the woman’s head covering was more about how it changed in the last 125 years. Your essay mentioned that JS Coffman’s wife as recently as 1889 covered her head only for worship. Was that typical of the conservative Mennonites of the time, and if so, what changed the rule?

    Your explanation of baptism makes sense. I could not shake the impression from Scripture that it is tightly connected to conversion, part of the conversion process, even. However, my CBS teachers reacted pretty strongly to that, insisting that baptism is merely symbolic. (Kind of a painful memory, actually.)

    Yes, sometimes I feel like an overgrown teenager with all my questions. 🙂 Thanks for your patience!

    1. Rosina, thanks for the clarification. I would like to study the answer to your question more. For now, I will give my best guess, based on what little I know of that era. J.S. Coffman was a prominent leader and, though he was not afraid to try new things, I don’t get the sense that his wife’s practice of wearing a covering only to church was an innovative practice for the time. I suspect rather that it was a comparatively recent general development among at least some Mennonite communities, who were being influenced by their Protestant surroundings. (That hypothesis needs testing.)

      However, one complicating factor in our understanding of the veiling practices of this era is that Mennonite women commonly wore both coverings (caps) and bonnets (worn at least some of the time over the coverings). While some women stored their coverings at church for use only there, I understand they may have worn bonnets other times while in public. So I’d like to research more to determine *when women covered their hair,* not merely when they wore their official prayer coverings.

      What changed this? I suspect the move to wearing coverings (the Sunday prayer caps) daily may have been part of the proto-Fundamentalist move toward being a more serious Christian worker, part of the same thinking that encouraged standardization of plain suits for men as the appropriate “uniform” for those serious about being engaged in God’s work. This thinking also led (as I understand) to plainer coverings, caps with less lace than was sometimes seen earlier.

      I’m vastly over-simplifying, and relying on my memory of rather limited reading, but that’s the best I can do in answering your question. I’d like to learn more, and hope to incorporate at least a bit more information in a final version of my essay.

  3. I appreciate the effort and thought put into your ordinance essay, I have skimmed it but want to spend more time on it later.
    I have been resistant for quite some time to the ‘7 Ordinance’ teaching. I’ve actually taught against considering 3 of them as ordinances (not against the practice) during scripture studies in SS and Bible Study, namely anointing with oil, marriage, and feet-washing. May not have been wise.
    I would consider anointing, with prayer, an essential part of maintaining the health of the Body where the necessity arises. Perhaps prayer is the more important part(?)
    A ritual/sacrament/ordinance, no.
    Regarding feet-washing, I believe the principle I understand Jesus to have been teaching was that we are to be willing at any time to perform a needed service to anyone, even if it seems to be demeaning. That evening in the upper room and at other times during that era, one example of that kind of service was washing someone’s dirty feet. In our day, not so much.
    Probably not much blessing in performing the ritual of washing someone’s clean, possible pedicured for the occasion feet twice a year but not being available to serve someone in need.
    As to marriage, I would consider it as a Creation principle rather than an ordinance of the church, one thing that does, at least in my mind, is to strengthen our position on D&R and on same-sex marriage.
    Incidentally, I would consider that Paul’s teaching on the woman’s veiling also contains a thread of Creation principle rather than being ordinance material.
    The only 2 that I would possibly consider as ordinances, and that dependent on the definition used for ordinance, would be baptism and communion/Lord’s Supper, and those perhaps not as we practice them.
    And this too is somewhat in that familiar state of flux.

    1. Interesting, Wayne! (And good to have you back.) I am impressed with your courage in challenging assumptions as you have, and am in basic agreement with what you have written. I am also interested in learning what your working definition of “ordinance” is. I sense that you are retaining ordinances as a useful category, but using a different definition than Kauffman, and thus identifying a different list. I, on the other hand, am at least tentatively challenging the validity or usefulness of the term or category altogether–while still, as you, wanting to strongly affirm obedience to what the Bible teaches on each practice, I hasten to add.

      1. That was a poor choice on my part to use the term ordinance.
        I guess I used the word ordinance in referring to baptism and communion simply because it was the common term being used.
        I’m not comfortable with any of the Greek words that are sometimes translated ordinance(s) as properly portraying how I would view baptism or communion.
        I think that both have an essential presence in the life of the regenerate believer. Both are to some degree symbolic and to some degree not. I think the practice of both/either should be done because of spiritual desire rather than because they are mandated.
        As I sit here and think about it though, I’m not sure that any of the remaining 5 ‘ordinances’ are useful in the life of the believer if they are compulsory rather than voluntary because of the Spirit’s guidance.

        1. Thanks for that clarification. I agree it’s very hard to talk about such matters without confusion about terminology, since (a) the Bible provides us with no clear vocabulary for identifying the category of practices we are discussing and (b) throughout history a wide variety of terms have been used with a wide variety of assumed meanings.

          Perhaps *for the purposes of church instruction* (teaching what *should be*) we should just include such practices under the biblical categories of “teachings” and “traditions.” Then *for the purposes of historical theology* (analyzing *what is*) we could use a modern term such as “rituals,” with the awareness that we may be imposing modern categories on Scripture.

    1. It certainly is unusual for “ktisis” to be translated as “ordinance”; this is the only time it is translated that way in the KJV. It would appear from the BAGD lexicon that in this kind of usage “ktisis” could refer either to “the act by which an authoritative or governmental body is created” or “the result of the act, *the institution* or *authority* itself.” The KJV translation doesn’t really suggest either, but is perhaps closest to the first option, for it suggest the idea of a law, a legal decree that is supposed to produce a result. The ESV opts for the latter sense, saying “institution,” that is, “every human institution.” The examples of such institutions are “the emperor” and “governors,” which are authoritative positions which have been established by law. BAGD cites a similar example of an ancient writing that “has [ktisis] as the title of a high official.” So this seems to be a comparatively rare usage of this word, but not a unique usage.

      I think the ESV makes better sense in this case. Either way, “ktisis” here has nothing to do with “ordinance” as we use it in the context of Christian rituals.

  4. Sorry, I’ve been poking around since that last question.
    There are some translations, including the NIV, the Lamsa Peshitta, and the Jewish Bible, which use the term ‘human authority’ in this verse. (1PE2:13)
    This would allow us to paraphrase the meaning of ‘ktisis’ in this passage as — ‘the creators of ordinances’ — perhaps?

    1. Maybe. Although BAGD suggests more the idea of “the products of ordinances”; i.e., institutions/governmental offices established by law, rather than institutions/offices that create law. This idea also fits well with the NIV’s “human authorities,” which also fits with the ESV’s “human institution,” or with its footnote option, “institution ordained for people.” (I’m no Greek expert, just relying on BAGD and translations.)

      1. I’m less of an expert than you, I was looking at some Lexical Aids by Spiros Zodhiates, (some of which I find very helpful, some not so much) as well as how the KJV translates ‘ktisis’ in other passages.

  5. Intriguing summary. Looking forward to reading the rough draft. Blessings as you develop the final product.

    The thoughts which follow have their genesis in several other people’s observations over the years of discussing this topic in several different contexts – conservative Mennonite, Grace Brethren, Catholic, etc. In consideration of space, I provide neither documentation not scriptural support for the following.

    One suggested that ordinances could/should be defined as symbolic symbols of our faith instituted by Christ for the practice of all of the body of Christ. I personally favor a definition similar to this. As a result, he (she?) suggested three ordinances – baptism (symbol of washing away of sin, buried with Christ in death and raised in new life and/or outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the life of the new believer), communion (remembering what Christ has done/is doing for us–vertical), and Feet Washing (symbolic of our servant relationships with each other–horizontal). The Grace Brethren would add, from 1 Cor. 11, the Love Feast (a simple meal of equal portions for all looking forward to the rapture and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb). All three, or four if one wishes, generally conform to the definition above.

    In regard to the other four typically recognized by much of the Mennonite Church, each has one or more problems fitting the definition and its classification as an ordinance may be questioned.

    Marriage–instituted at creation for all people of all faiths. If this is a specifically Christian ordinance, then it could be argued, as some do, that any marriage which is not a between two believers is not a marriage and any guidelines related to divorce and remarriage do not apply (a totally different discussion, I know). Also, singles don’t get to practice it, so it can’t be observed by a significant portion of the body.

    Christian Women’s Veiling–worn only by women, not men, so can only be practiced by half of the body. Also, if it is a symbol, any object worn on the head defined and sanctioned by the body as an appropriate expression passes as a symbol. This, unfortunately, is exactly what has happened to the covering in many churches, leading to a misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching and its application. In actuality, the practice Paul is teaching is the modest covering of a woman’s hair as part of her modest attire in respect for her husband and as a testimony of her own personal purity. In reference to the earlier question about Paul’s encouraging the practice only in worship, one of the early church fathers explained that women would never have been seen outside the church unveiled in order to not be mistaken for “loose” women; however, within the church in the community where he was writing, women would take off their veilings upon entering the church as an expression of their freedom in Christ, but, at the same time, driving the men to distraction. (I can provide a source for this, but it might take a while.) Perhaps Paul was addressing a similar situation in Corinth. In any case, it would appear that in many cultures with Semitic roots throughout history (Jewish, Muslim, Christian), it was and still is customary for women to be modestly veiled whenever they appear in public.

    Anointing with oil–not instituted by Christ. Only practiced on the sick. Not a specifically defined/described as a symbol.

    Holy kiss–practical expression of Christian love and fellowship. Not a symbol, but a cultural greeting and show of affection. However, in my home church growing up, it was generally only practiced at baptism and counsel meeting between the pastor (or his wife for the women), not as a general greeting. So in that case it was practiced as an ordinance.

    Blessings on the journey, both in terms of theological and historical research and in hearing the voice of the Spirit.

    1. Thanks, Jim. I enjoy reading other people’s conceptions of what constitutes an ordinance. It seems definitions vary significantly among us. For example, the definition you are using emphasizes that any practice that is a candidate for “ordination” (!) must be one that is practiced by “all.” Others don’t feel that is so important, placing the emphasis instead on an act’s symbolic function. Thus marriage is a powerful symbol of the relationship between Christ and the church and clearly qualifies. Interestingly, if I understand correctly, a controlling emphasis for the medieval Catholics was the idea that all sacraments helped save us from sin, whether past (baptism) or present and future sin. Thus marriage qualified as a sacrament because it provided a way that people could engage in sexual activity without sinning. For similar reasons, perhaps, “holy orders” provided a setting where those with the gift of singleness could live free from sexual sin. (I need to dig up my sources on this and include it in my essay yet…)

      The problem, as I am proposing in my essay, is that all these conceptions of ordinance or sacrament are extra-biblical. The Bible never discusses any of these Christian rituals/activities as belonging to each other in a distinguishable category. There is no language in the NT that matches our words “ordinance” or “sacrament.” Not even baptism and Lord’s Supper are ever mentioned together in the same passage, to my knowledge! (Again, I hope to strengthen my discussion of these points in a future version of the essay.)

      I invite more feedback as you read the essay itself. And thanks much for your comments and blessings!

    2. By the way, I fully agree with your critique of calling the veiling a “symbol.” Rather, it is the act of covering that has symbolic value. The purpose is defeated when we reduce it to something that symbolizes a covering, but doesn’t actually cover! That is only a symbol of a symbol.

  6. There does not appear to be any mention made of anointing with oil in the 1890 Mennonite Ministers’ Manual.

    1. Your are correct, Wayne. Here is one paragraph from my essay about that Ministers’ Manual:

      In this manual the word sacrament is never used and no list of ordinances is given. Usually ordinance is used in a vague way, referring either to any of Christ’s commands or to any of the church’s requirements, or perhaps sometimes more narrowly to an unspecified subset. The only activity specifically called an “ordinance” is marriage, in the wedding vows. The manual includes teaching on “the administration of baptism,” semiannual observance of “the communion of the Lord’s Supper,” and “the exercise of feet-washing,” also called a “ceremony.” The “kiss of peace” or “brotherly salutation” is mentioned multiple times passing, always in connection with baptism, foot washing, or ordination ceremonies. There is no mention of the woman’s veiling or anointing with oil. None of this is surprising, given past American Mennonite understandings.

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