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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Ted Vial

The two most important rites in Reformed churches are the two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper.  The most contentious theological issues in Protestantism have centered on these sacraments, which have divided not only Protestants from Catholics, but Lutherans from Reformed.

A sacrament is an action in which God's grace is especially present.  Roman Catholics have seven: baptism, confirmation, confession, Lord's Supper, marriage, ordination, and the anointing of the sick (formerly known as last rites).  Luther cut this list down to the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper.  He believed that, to be a sacrament, a ritual had to be explicitly instituted for the Church by Jesus in the Gospels.  Jesus does tell his disciples to go and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19), and at the Last Supper as he breaks bread he tells them to "do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19).  Other rituals, while important, do not meet these criteria.  They are rites but not sacraments.  Rites that are for specific occasions such as marriage or ordination take place during "occasional services." Reformed Churches followed Luther's lead on this.

Reformed and Lutheran Christians continued the practice of infant baptism, though they disagreed with the Catholics that baptism was strictly necessary for salvation (so, they discouraged emergency baptisms of sick infants).  For Luther, infant baptism was a sign that salvation was a gift from God, not an act of human understanding.  Calvin in addition argued that there was only one covenant between God and humans.  Baptism was the precise functional equivalent of circumcision among the Jews, and so Christians ought to baptize at about eight days of age as the Jews did.  For Zwingli, who did not share Luther's theology of two kingdoms but expected civic leaders also to be Christian leaders, baptism also functioned as a rite of initiation into the civic community, and thus was necessary for citizenship in Zurich. 

The basic symbolism of baptism is that water washes away original sin.  Reformed Christians do not believe that the sin itself is actually removed, but that the penalty for sin is removed.  In other words, in baptism Christians are not made perfect, but they are forgiven.  Many churches baptize by sprinkling or pouring water on the head of the person being baptized.  Some Reformed churches (they tend to be more conservative ones, but need not be) practice full immersion.  In full immersion the person being baptized, either outdoors in a river or more commonly in a special tank near the sanctuary, is completely submerged and then pulled out of the water by the minister.  Some believe full immersion to be more biblical-it comes closer to the way baptism was practiced as described in the New Testament, for example when John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.  This practice, in addition to the symbolism of washing away the stain of sin, also symbolizes dying, being buried, and being resurrected to a new life in Christ.


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