In my previous blog entry I stated that MCC’s bylaws refer to baptism as a sacrament. But what does that mean?
When the New Testament was written, its authors referred to the mustēria or "mysteries" of God — thoughts and plans that are beyond human understanding unless God reaches out and gives us the gift of understanding and participation.*
Tertullian was the first theologian of the Western church to render the Greek mustērion as sacramentum, a word that originally referred to the oath of loyalty given by a soldier or a vow to fulfill a promise. As James White has pointed out, the Western translation lacks the cosmic dimension of the divine gift coming from God to humanity (181). Yet in spite of its less-than-adequate origins, time and tradition have vested the word sacrament with fuller meaning.
From a theological perspective, St. Augustine defined sacrament as an outward sign of an inward grace, perhaps capturing the intent of mustērion as a gift received from God.
Liturgically speaking, sacraments consist of physical acts and pronouncements declaring gifts from God. (For example the ecumenical movement suggests that baptism is performed using water and in the name of the Trinity.)
But what makes baptism sacramental is the belief that through this act God confers new life in Christ and freedom from sin to the baptisand. Many Christian traditions subscribe to this belief: Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Methodism and the Reformed Tradition to name some of the major ones.
However, not all Christians believe that baptism imparts a special spiritual gift from God. Beginning with Ulrich Zwingli, some Christians have believed that baptism is a sign of incorporation in the Church analogous to circumcision in Judaism, but without any spiritual effect on the recipient.
Other Christians such as evangelical Protestants, Baptists, Anabaptists, Pentecostals and Charismatics, building on Zwingli’s denial of a sacramental value, refer to baptism as an ordinance — an outward act expressing faith. In this view there is no sacramental value in baptism. Rather it is the first act of serious discipleship in the way of Jesus Christ. (Later on we’ll see that this idea has implications for the question who may be baptized.
As of 2007 MCC estimated that 80% of its membership came from either evangelical Protestant (including Pentecostal) or Roman Catholic backgrounds (Wilson 4). If we stop and think, this raises the question:
What does it mean for MCC to call baptism a sacrament when the majority of its members come from traditions that hold opposing beliefs on the matter?
Though this debate has been alive for 500 years, it still remains unresolved in the Church at large. Further, an informal survey of any MCC congregation would most likely show that the majority of our members have no idea how to define a sacrament, much less hold any opinion regarding the sacramental nature of baptism.
This is the first of several interesting questions that arise from the diversity of beliefs among our members. Stay tuned for more…
White, James F. Introduction to Christian Worship. 3rd Edition. Nashville: Abingdon, 2001.
Wilson, Nancy. "The Moderator’s Report to General Conference." 3 July 2007. Metropolitan Community Churches. 17 June 2009 <http://mccchurch.org/events/gc2007/business/modrpteng.pdf>.