Rituals and Worship

Contemporary practices of these two rituals (baptism and the Lord's supper) vary greatly, but the differences stem largely from the theological positions outlined by the early reformers. Those who call these rituals "ordinances" either follow or come close to Zwingli's view that they commemorate past events, and symbolize (rather than effect) the work of the Spirit. Those who call them "sacraments" are closer to Luther or Calvin, who believed that they are not mere symbols but also effective offerings of God's grace.

With regard to baptism, the most significant divide among Protestants is still between those who practice infant baptism and those who practice adult baptism. Both sides argue that their view best exemplifies the Protestant principle of "justification by faith." Those who practice adult baptism say that if people too young to confess their faith are baptized the ritual becomes some sort of magical rite. Those who baptize infants say that if one must confess one's faith to be baptized then salvation has become a human work rather than a gift from God. Most Protestants do not follow the practice, common in Roman Catholicism, of naming Godparents or sponsors for the baptized child. Following Zwingli's argument that baptism signifies membership in the Church community, one often sees in Protestant churches the entire congregation stand to signal their commitment to help raise the child in the community of the faithful.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries one of the great moral programs of many Protestant churches was to reduce alcoholism. In the wake of the modernism controversies in the early 20th century, many conservative churches set themselves off from the rest of society through strict moral codes, forbidding all alcohol (as well as smoking, card-playing, dancing, movies, etc.). One result of this history is that many Protestant churches began celebrating the Lord's Supper using grape juice instead of wine. Some also pass out small individual cups, rather than drinking out of a common cup. There is some disagreement about whether Jesus and the disciples drank from a common cup at the Last Supper, but the practice of individual cups is more directly a result of 20th-century reforms of hygiene. Some churches use unleavened bread in the ritual, believing the Last Supper was a Jewish Passover seder, which would have required Jesus to be eating unleavened bread. Others follow Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin in arguing that too much concern over what kind of bread to use misses the point of the ritual.

Contemporary ways of celebrating the Lord's Supper also tend to reflect theological debates of the reformers. Some churches continue the practice of having participants come forward and kneel at a rail at the front of the sanctuary to receive the elements (bread and wine). Reformed churches in particular have rejected this practice, arguing that it comes too close to the Catholic belief that the priest acts as intermediary between God and the participant. Instead they distribute the elements to participants who remain in their pews. Traditionally, participation in the Lord's Supper was restricted to believers; whatever the theological nuances, all agreed that its celebration was an act of faith in God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Conservative Protestants retain this practice. Today, however, some liberal Protestants  offer communion to any who wish to partake, thus making the rite less a personal and communal experience of faith and more an act of inclusivity and outreach.

Study Questions:
1.     How do Protestant sacraments differ from Catholic sacraments?
2.     How has baptism replaced the significance of circumcision?
3.     How did the Lord's Supper divide the Protestant Church? Describe the position of each of the three Protestant reformers.
4.     Why is the grape juice used in communion tied to social activism?

Back to Religion Library