The Gospel according to the Sacraments (Part 3): One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

In the first post of this series, I proposed that the sacraments of baptism and communion are the nexus point for the evangelical and ecumenical movements. In the following post, I proposed a new orientation for ecumenism – a conciliarity of the cross – with the necessary confession of guilt as the first step towards reconciliation. In this final post, I offer up several suggestions for how evangelical pastors and lay Christians can pursue unity within the fractured church.

Pastoral Ecumenism

Evangelical pastors can practice mutual understanding by looking beyond the particularity of their own perspective on the mode, timing, and efficacy of baptism or the nature of the mystery of the Lord’s Supper and recognizing the sacraments as signs of the gospel. As signs, baptism and communion direct one’s attention beyond themselves to union with Christ. Infant baptism directs one’s attention to our union with Christ who loved us before we ever loved him. Believer’s baptism points towards union with Christ in which we actively count the cost of discipleship. Believer’s baptism and infant baptism can both respectfully learn something from each other. Infant baptism can recognize the necessity of discipleship as the manifestation of union with Christ; while believer’s baptism can recognize that baptism is not something one does to oneself but is a sign of the salvation initiated by God.1

Likewise, variant views of communion can both honor and learn from each other. Those who hold to a memorial view of the Lord’s supper can recognize the biblical theology of the Eucharist in which Christ is instituting a meal that both incorporates and transforms the Passover feast, manna from heaven, and the bread of the presence into the communion meal – a meal in which, as with the bread of the presence, Jesus himself is with his people in a unique way in the Eucharist.2 So also, Christians who hold to a view of the real presence of Christ in the host can learn from their memorial brothers and sisters recognizing that the Eucharist is a sign of the gospel, not the gospel itself. As such it directs our eyes to Jesus, not to the mystery of the sacrament.

What we cannot lose sight of is that baptism and communion are not only signs of union with Christ but simultaneously also signs of the unity of the body of Christ. Surely confessing “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” means more than limiting visible unity to those who agree on a certain interpretation of the mysteries of baptism and communion. However, recognizing these sacraments as gospel signs does not mean that our doctrinal convictions no longer matter. What it does mean is that pastors across confessional and denominational lines can recognize one another’s baptisms as valid despite our variant interpretations of the sacraments. The same can be said for the Lord’s supper. Evangelical pastors can honor different understandings of the Eucharist and welcome all who feast on Christ by faith to the Lord’s table. Thereby, our unity as the one body of Christ can be honored without collapsing unity into uniformity.

Lay Christian Ecumenism

Lay Christians can foster unity in the church by praying and worshipping alongside believers outside of their own tradition. Holidays are times when many of us connect with family members that we do not otherwise visit on a regular basis. The church calendar is filled with holy days which provide ample opportunities for evangelicals to worship alongside brothers and sisters they would not otherwise be with. A Baptist can worship alongside her Catholic brothers and sisters at a midnight mass service. Or a non-denominational charismatic can worship alongside his Orthodox brothers and sisters on Trinity Sunday. Or an Evangelical Anglican can worship alongside her Calvary Chapel brothers and sisters at a Wednesday night service. All Christians can pray together and long for gospel unity in the churches that are presently fractured.

No doubt this orientation towards one another will require a wisdom and discernment that the institutionalized divisions of denominationalism have allowed us to neglect. Not every church is orthodox and not every orthodox church is healthy. As with Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Asia minor (Rev. 2-3), there are serious concerns in each church. Thus, it is not despite doctrine but precisely because both life and doctrine matter that we must care for our brothers and sisters in other churches and be open to receive their care if we are to persevere to the end together.

Conclusion

The Evangelical and the Ecumenical movements have coexisted with minimal interaction in the larger Christian world for over a century with neither contributing substantially to the life of the other. I have suggested that the sacraments of baptism and communion are a nexus point where the two movements converge. The sacraments are simultaneously the visible signs of union with Christ (prized by evangelicals) and of the unity of Christ’s body (valued by the ecumenical movement). Evangelical theology can contribute to the ecumenical movement by reorienting the pursuit of unity from an ecumenism of glory to a conciliarity of the cross—from a focus on the clarification of doctrine to confession and reconciliation. Ecumenism will likewise have an effect on the evangelical movement, waking it from its cozy complacency with institutionalized division and tribalism. There are reasons why the churches are divided, important reasons. But those reasons, however important, cannot be the basis for division between the churches that all confess “Jesus Christ is Lord” together. Therefore, the church must share in one baptism and one bread, because we are the one body of Christ.

Michael Spalione is a Ph.D. student at Trinity College, Bristol.

References   [ + ]

1. This point on mutual recognition and learning concerning baptism and communion is wonderfully made in “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (Faith and Order Paper no. 111, the “Lima Text”),” https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/faith-and-order/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text.
2. For an excellent biblical theology of the Eucharist see Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Last Supper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).