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Religion Library: Baptist


Written by: David Buschart

The fact that, according to Baptist belief, baptism and the Lord's Supper are ordinances rather than sacraments could mistakenly lead to the conclusion that, because they are not regarded as means of grace they cannot be symbolically significant. However, from a Baptist perspective quite the contrary can be said to be the case. Because they are regarded as ordinances, their significance is largely and precisely symbolic. These rites do not "do" anything directly related to the reality of salvation itself; rather, as ordinances they symbolically represent and testify to that reality. Thus, they are highly and profoundly symbolic.

Fourth, while its primary function and use is not symbolic, there is nonetheless considerable symbolism in Baptist churches associated with copies of the Bible. Baptists are often referred to as "people of the Book," and the Bible is central to worship and devotion. Consequently, even if not always consciously or intentionally, a copy of a Bible (as well as textual or oral references to it) is symbolic of the highest source and authority, next to God, of Baptist belief and practice.

A final, more general observation with regard to symbolism in the Baptist tradition should be noted. Traditions that tend to have rather "plain" churches and sanctuaries and rather simple rites and worship services, as is often the case with Baptist churches, can be misunderstood as lacking symbolism. In fact, this very plainness and simplicity is symbolic. Baptists believe that the individual Christian relates directly and immediately to God, and that neither the Church nor pastors mediate this relationship. Thus, there is, in a sense, no need for elaborate worship spaces.

Furthermore, the central acts of corporate worship are preaching, singing, baptism, and the Lord's Supper, and, once again, the Baptist understanding of each of these is such that they do not require an elaborate material culture. While there are some sub-traditions where ministers wear robes during worship services, many Baptist ministers do not. In the case of those who do not wear robes, their dressing "like the rest of the people" is an expression of Baptist belief in the priesthood of all believers.

Study Questions:
     1.    What are the four instances of symbolism within the Baptist tradition?
     2.    Describe the symbolism associated with the cross.
     3.    Are the elements used at the Lord’s Supper symbols of Jesus, or his actual body manifested? Explain.
     4.    Why could it be argued that simplicity is a form of symbolism?


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