Christian theology in a Sudanese context. God lives in the Church.
The word ‘ordinance’ means an authoritative regulation or practice. (It should not be confused with a very similar English word ‘ordnance’, which means artillery and military ammunition supplies!). Our Lord Jesus Christ commanded two ordinances, one to signify joining the Body of Christ, and the other to continually look back to the cross of Christ and forward to His coming again (Matthew 28:19; Luke 22:15-20; Galatians1:11-12; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). All the church denominations that regularly use liturgy in their weekly services, and most of the ‘Free Churches’ which do not, have ‘set forms’ of service for ‘Baptism’ and for
‘the Lord’s Supper’. A ‘set form’ may be a pattern to be followed, or it may be the precise words and actions to be carried out. The ‘set form’ may be prescribed words to be said – for example, a written order of service to be followed. The ‘set form’ may give regulation concerning who can (and who cannot) perform certain parts of the service– for example, only an ordained minister or licensed lay reader can give communion or preach. The ‘set form’ may lay down rules on what materials should or should not be used – for example, enough water to immerse the whole person in baptism, or real bread rather than wafers at communion. All of these ‘set forms’ are human interpretations of how the ordinances should be practised. Another word used for these local church ‘ordinances’ is ‘sacraments’. This word includes the Latin word ‘sacer’ meaning ‘sacred, exclusively devoted to a holy God’. A ‘sacrament’ is “an outward sign combined with a prescribed form of words and regarded as conferring some special grace upon those who receive it”. Sacraments are acts of obedience to God. By observing them, Christians demonstrate they are part of the worldwide Body of the Lord Jesus Christ. While they observe them, God meets with them in a very special way through the Holy Spirit. A careful distinction must be drawn at this point. The act of being baptised as a Christian does not save the person. Neither does the act of receiving bread and wine in communion save anyone. Some people are ‘Sacramentalists’, believing the mere act of receiving these sacraments from the church, and usually in a right spirit, changes a person into being a Christian. Our studies on ‘the Mystery of Salvation’ (chapters 43-47) have shown this is not the case. I do not trust in the church’s symbols of Jesus Christ to save me, I trust in the Person of Jesus Christ as my Saviour. His offering of Himself on the cross made atonement for my sin once and for all.
However, both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are nonetheless special events. They are ceremonies (formal acts, usually in observation of something), customs (usual habits or practices), traditions (long standing, handed down practices) and rituals (prescribed forms of religious orders and patterns). They are important in the life of every Christian within the gathered community of the local church. (a). The Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper is also known as Holy Communion, Breaking of Bread, Eucharist (with the root meaning of ‘thankfulness’) and the Lord’s Table. It was instituted by the Lord Jesus (Luke 22:19-20;
1 Corinthians 11:23-26). It is an occasion for self examination, “a man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28-29). It is an occasion for remembering the salvation significance of the cross events, “the Lord Jesus said: do this in remembrance of Me” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). It is an occasion for expressing unity between Christians, “Because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one Body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:14-17). And it is an occasion for anticipating the Lord’s return, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). God wants His people to remember constantly that it is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that brings them salvation from their sin. There is no other Mediator between God and people. Jesus is the only One (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Denominational rules that restrict to ordained ministers the privilege of giving bread and wine to the congregation, must be seen as different interpretations of ‘how’ the Lord’s Supper is offered. I can find no evidence of that practice in the New Testament, which is much more concerned with the attitude of heart and actions in life of the people who participate in the Lord’s Supper by taking the representative bread and wine into themselves (1 Corinthians 11:27-29; “Examine yourself to see whether you are in the faith”, 2 Corinthians 13:5). How Jesus is present in the bread and wine of communion has been understood in different ways over the centuries. ‘Transubstantiation’ is the Roman Catholic view that the bread and wine, consecrated by prayer and a said form of words by an ordained Catholic priest, are actually changed into the physical body and blood of Jesus. The ‘Mass’ so offered to God is seen as one continuing sacrifice of Jesus. This disagrees with our view of salvation through the finished work of Jesus on the cross. ‘Consubstantiation’ is the Lutheran view (Martin Luther, A.D. 1483-1546) that the real body and blood of Jesus are present ‘in’ and ‘under’ the received bread and wine. There is no physical change in substance of the bread and wine, but as they are eaten and drunk the believer receives the present glorified body and life of Christ in a special way. This raises for me, an awkward question of how Christ’s physical body or nature, can actually be in more than one place at one time? The ‘Real Presence’ view of John Calvin (A.D. 1509-1564) is the traditional Reformed churches view. There is a real, but spiritual, presence of Christ in the communion bread and wine. There is not any physical presence of His body and blood. A believer receiving bread and wine can feed on the real spiritual presence of Jesus. This leaves the bread and wine as only representative symbols of the actual body and blood of the Lord Jesus. For a more detailed study of these issues the student is referred to the writings of others. For me, when I receive the bread and the wine in whatever form, I am able to be thankful to God for the Lord Jesus Christ, and I experience with others God’s blessing on our obedience. There are other practical issues surrounding ‘how’ communion should be celebrated. Concerning the frequency of celebrating communion, the New Testament only implies a weekly service, it does not command it. The word “whenever” means both ‘every time’ and ‘any time’ (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:26). I enjoy a weekly communion service. It helps me to keep the death and resurrection of Christ central to my life, and it provides me with a discipline of self-examination. The New Testament favours people disciplining themselves over who can and cannot participate in communion (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). It is not the job of the church leadership to decide on people’s fitness to receive bread and wine. But there are certain serious times when church discipline with a view to forgiveness and restoration of the offender should be exercised, as a warning to everyone else (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11). The New Testament is silent over at what age young children can participate in communion. Some denominations have devised extra traditions around this, generally to fit in with their practice of infant baptism as we shall see in a moment. It seems most appropriate to me that parents should decide on this as part of their responsibility in bringing up their own children from the earliest age “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4; 2 Timothy 3:15). Proper respect should be given to others in your local congregation who adopt different practices (Romans 14:1; Romans 15:1-2; Hebrews 13:17). This is always one of God’s ways of using the local church fellowship to make us more and more like JesusChrist, see
(2 Corinthians 3:17-18; Philippians 4:4-5). (b). Believers’ Baptism
The Greek word ‘baptisma’ means to dip or to plunge, to overwhelm, to go into, be submerged under, and to emerge from, water. John the Baptist baptised (John 3:23). Jesus commanded His disciples to baptise people who became disciples during their evangelism, early on during their teaching of ‘the Jesus way of life’. (Matthew 28:19-20).
While the Bible gives us no clear indication of how this baptism took place, it does emphasise why and when.
The word ‘baptisma’ was also used of the submersion of cloth into coloured dyes to change it’s appearance. Tie-dyeing businesses like those of Zagalona and elsewhere, illustrate the meaning of baptism – except I don’t think the practice of making sure a person is fully under the water by pushing them with a stick is a good idea! The ladies who tie-dye will know what I mean!
Another use of the word was in the immersion of a small cup into a larger container of water, enabling a person to draw some water out and have a drink. Outside my neighbour’s house on Shambat Road he had built a place where three ‘ziirs’ could be kept in the shade. They were regularly filled with water from a hosepipe, and provided for passers by to drink. I expect it was part of his family’s Islamic ‘zakat’ or ‘sadaqa’, legal almsgiving or freewill offerings. Taxi drivers and many others used the two or three cups left there regularly to help quench their thirst. The way these cups are used offers another picture of baptism. Examples of baptism in the early church are:
the three thousand people who responded to Peter’s preaching of Jesus on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41);
the men and women who were baptised in Samaria after they believed Philip’s preaching of Jesus (Acts 8:12);
the finance official from the Upper Nile, who was baptised after he understood about Jesus (Acts 8:34-38);
Saul (Paul) was baptised a few days after meeting, and choosing to surrender to, the risen Lord Jesus on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:18);
Cornelius’ relatives and close friends, after they had been drawn to Jesus Christ by the activities of God in their lives (Acts 10:48);
Lydia ‘s household were baptised after “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” and Paul considered her a believer (Acts 16:14-15);
the prison officer from Philippi was baptised with all his family, probably in the ruins of a prison, definitely after midnight, and certainly after he was awakened to his need of salvation and was challenged over a saving belief personally in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31-33);
Crispus, the synagogue ruler in Corinth, was baptised with his believing household, and along with other believing Corinthians (Acts 18:8);
some of John’s disciples at Ephesus were baptised when they had a clearer understanding of Who Jesus actually was (Acts 19:4-5).
Christian baptism is for believers, those who have been persuaded of the truth of Jesus Christ and have therefore placed their trust and confidence in Him. Christian baptism is an opportunity for public testimony of being born again. The method is not as important as the meaning. In general terms, the Roman Catholic understanding of baptism is ‘the sacrament giving regeneration and new birth into the church’. Many Roman Catholics believe that baptism itself delivers a person from the guilt of original and past sins. I am unable to accept this. The work of Jesus Christ on the cross is the means of my salvation, not the work of Jesus plus any act of the church. Most Protestants believe baptism is ‘a sacrament that symbolises regeneration and strengthens the already existing faith of the new believer’. The major difference within Protestant churches over baptism is between those who baptise infants and those who do not. I have good friends who baptise infants, though I myself would never be able to do so. Infant baptism is based on the covenantal relationship between God and His people. In the Old Testament God deals with families more than individuals. Abraham’s children are sealed into God’s covenant by the outward sign of circumcision (Genesis 17; Colossians 2:11-12). In the New Testament at Pentecost, Peter links both children and Gentiles into the new promise from God (Acts 2:38-39). It is possible, though not clearly stated, that infants were involved in household baptisms (Acts 16:15; Acts 16:33;
1 Corinthians 1:16; 1 Corinthians 16:15).
Today, infant baptism is seen as a covenant sign of God’s choice. For those who do not accept Catholic ‘baptismal regeneration’, it is viewed as an opportunity for believing parents, and the believing church which gives infant baptism, to welcome the baby into the family of the visible church. The parents and the local church hope ultimately in the saving work of God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and they pray that the child will in due time trust in Christ as his or her personal Saviour and Lord. Interestingly, most ‘infant-baptising’ churches have found it necessary to introduce a service of ‘confirmation’, some time later in the adult life of the grown up infant. At this, the teenager or adult ‘confirms’ for him or herself, that the baptism they were given in their infancy has now become their own, believing, testimony. The churches cannot call this later, testimony-confirmation service ‘believers baptism’, because baptism– as they understand it – has already been given. Sadly, a divisive tension sometimes develops between ‘infant, covenantal-baptising’ Christians, and ‘adult, believer-baptising’ Christians. This is especially over ‘re-baptism’, or ‘a second baptism’. Those who practise this have been known historically as ‘Anabaptists’. (‘Anabaptist’ is actually an incorrect name, because infant baptism does not involve faith on behalf of any baby. Their being baptised as an adult believer later in life, is therefore not a re-baptism, but a first believers’ baptism). Many churches that only baptise believing adults, also have services of ‘dedication’ to welcome new babies into a local church family.This enables parents and congregations to dedicate themselves to praying, teaching and living towards the time when the growing person trusts in Christ for their own personal salvation. The word ‘baptism’ is deliberately not used in these services, to avoid any possible confusion with later public testimony. I respect as fellow believers in Christ, those with a different view to my own on this issue. But having examined baptism in depth in my own study, I could never ‘baptise’ a baby for two reasons. First, I would be afraid of giving the wrong impression – that this child is now, in some way, saved by their baptism. Second, I would not want to take away from the adult in later life, the privilege of giving personal and public testimony by believers baptism. Just like new recruits in the police force are given unmistakable uniforms to wear, showing and saying they are now working in the police, so believers baptism gives the new believer a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate and to declare that he or she is now living for the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no doubt people clearly did this in the book of Acts (Acts 2:41; 8:12; 8:34-38; 9:18; 10:48; 16:14-15; 16:31-33; 18:8; and 19:4-5).
Teaching in the New Testament uses
baptism as picture language:
It describes dying to the old life and rising to the new life (Romans 6:1-7; Colossians 2:11-12);
it is used of people joining the church of Christ for the first time (1 Corinthians 1:13-17);
it describes people dressed in uniform with the new appearance of Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:26-28);
baptism is quoted as a mark of the existing unity of Christians within a local church (Ephesians 4:1-13);
and baptism draws on the Old Testament story of Noah’s ark to explain a divide between the saved and the lost (1 Peter3:20-22).
Baptism is called one of “the elementary teachings”, (Hebrews 6:1). ‘Elementary’ means a simple, first principle.
On many visits I have enjoyed the privilege of ministering within several different church denominations in Sudan as well as at interdenominational conferences. These churches hold different views to each other on the ordinances we have been examining. The Evangelical Presbyterians, the Episcopal Anglicans, the Sudanese Church of Christ and the Sudan Interior Church have all been gracious enough to overcome some differences of view and to ask me to preach and teach on many occasions. I have always tried to respect their views when I minister at their invitation, because I am responsible to respect my host church leadership (Hebrews 13:17). I have often privately discussed with them our differing views, and in doing so I have learned to appreciate our unity in diversity. As a pastor, I served Khartoum International Church. Along with four to six other elders there, I tried to serve a multinational congregation of about two hundred and fifty people, who came from many different church denominations in their home countries. This was more difficult, because integrating their different views into one congregation and one set of practices, was not without problems. Not all issues allow for a democratic compromise, with a little bit of ‘give and take’ on both sides. And in any case, such democratic compromise is not always the right thing to do! While seeking to remain true to my Lord Jesus, I also tried to see things from the understanding of others (Romans 14:19-15:2). I did my best to honour every individual (Romans 12:10); to honour every member of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:26); to serve in a way that enabled others to honour and respect me (1 Timothy 3:2 & 8; 1 Timothy 5:17); and to show the meaning of what I taught by the way that I lived (1 Timothy 4:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:1; Titus 2:6-8).
I thank God for the gracious and loving understanding given to me by those who held different views to mine. I pray that the churches in Sudan will reaffirm their honour and respect for each other, perhaps learning from the best examples of some people who have worked among them over many years, whether the people have worshipped at KIC (where I served) or worshipped elsewhere.
Thinking it through.
(a). What is the general purpose of the two church ordinances: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper?
(b). Describe how Jesus is ‘present’ with believers at communion. How is this different from His presence with us anywhere else?
(c). What is the purpose of Believers’ Baptism?
(d). What is the purpose of Infant Baptism?
(e). How does Romans 14:19-15:2 challenge our attitudes towards those of different Christian practice?