In the conservative sector of the Mennonite Church one will hear teaching about the seven ordinances. This is in a large degree because the Mennonite church published Daniel Kauffman’s Doctrines of the Bible in 1928, and this doctrinal study highlighted seven ordinances. Daniel gave this teaching in this way:
“There is a difference of opinion as to the number of Christian ordinances, intended as such, that ought to be kept by Christian people. Many of the churches recognize but two—baptism and communion—classifying them as sacraments —others include a few more. Without entering into a discussion, at this time, as to which ones should be recognized as ordinances, we will name seven ordinances which we believe to have been instituted by divine authority, and which we mean to discuss at greater length in succeeding chapters...”1
A careful reading of this statement will reveal that Daniel did not teach there were only seven ordinances. He said, “...we will name seven ordinances which we believe to have been instituted by divine authority...” To the knowledge of this author we are not told why these seven have been singled out.
According to many historical sources, the Mennonite church has taught that there are two or three ordinances for most of its existence; baptism, communion and in some cases, feet washing. The main controversy through the years was not on the number of ordinances, but whether these practices should be recognized as ordinances or as sacraments. Anabaptists have contended vigorously that keeping outward practices never accomplishes a mystical inner or grace experience. They also vigorously believed these teachings were commands that needed to be observed literally, not simply in a figurative manner. This history is another discussion. For our discussion we want to focus on the number of ordinances in the New Testament church. Are there seven ordinances? Only seven? Might there be other equally important commandments that are essential for the New Testament church to observe?
In 1274 AD, at the Council of Lyons, the Roman Catholic Church decreed that there are seven sacraments. This “discovery” was made more than a thousand years after the birth of the New Testament Church. In the decree that came from the Council of Lyons there is no argument given for the number seven, only that there are seven. Some of these seven sacraments seem to parallel our ordinances and others are quite different. The seven sacraments listed were: Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.
The Church of the Brethren, for many years a sister peace church to the Mennonites, also taught seven ordinances. However this fellowship has identified still other ordinances, choosing to recognize the love feast and ordination as ordinances, rather than the Christian woman’s veiling and marriage as Mennonites have. They reason that an ordinance consists of practices performed in assembly or as the body of Christ and not characterized by individual obedience.
From Daniel Kauffman’s statement “...we will name seven ordinances which we believe to have been instituted by divine authority...” as conservative Mennonites we have moved to much stronger statements. In the booklet used in many of the instruction classes in the Pilgrim Mennonite Conference titled Instructions for Christian Living and Church Membership,” we read the following statement, “God has given seven ordinances to the church...” Perhaps a large percentage of our conference membership in particular and the larger Old Mennonite Church have come to accept that there are seven ordinances, no more and no less.
There are some questions we should ponder. Is there some blessing in only recognizing seven of the New Testament distinctive directives? Might there be other commands which are earthly symbols with heavenly significance? Are there other practices which must be done in the context of the Christian church and by definition cannot be scripturally observed as individuals?
In this writing we will identify some facts about New Testament commandments as the Bible teaches them. Some commands are great commands and some are of lesser import. Jesus himself said, “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:19). Also in response to the question as to which was the greatest commandment, Jesus replied, “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mt 22:37-39). These two most important commandments come from the Old Testament and now have become a part of the New Testament dispensation. They are not considered ordinances. They would however supersede all the ordinances. Indeed, if we keep these commands, keeping all the other ordinances will not be a problem. If we do not keep these commands, keeping all the seven ordinances will profit us nothing.
Similarly, there are sins that are not unto death and there are sins unto death according to 1 John 5:16. There are sins which should not once be named among us (Eph 5:3), which would bring eternal damnation (1 Cor 6:9, Gal 5:21) and consequently should bring immediate church censure. There are other sins which may be covered by the power of Christian charity (1 Peter 4:8). Through this we learn it is proper to evaluate commandments and place them in distinctive classes. The Mennonite Church has been right to hold some “ordinances” up for special attention.
Let us consider another Biblical commandment truth.
There are some commandments that can be kept only in the context of a Christian assembly and others that are strictly of a personal nature. Most of our “seven” ordinances are kept in the context of the church assembly. Communion and feet washing are done in assembly; baptism, the Christian salutation, and anointing with oil are things we cannot do for ourselves or by ourselves.
Beyond these ordinances, we have a number of Bible commands which we cannot do by ourselves or for ourselves. Consider the following examples.
Assembling for services. “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Heb 10:25). This verse also includes a second command.
Exhorting one another. Exhortation is also known as preaching. The New Testament reveals God has especially chosen the preaching of the cross as His method of bringing conviction into men’s hearts.
Giving to the needs of the brotherhood. “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come” (1Co 16:2).
Submission. “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (Eph 5:21). “Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing” (Php 3:16).
Excommunication. “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1Co 5:4-5).
Ordination. “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery” (1Ti 4:14).
Congregational singing. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col 3:16).
Congregational praying. “But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost” (Jude 1:20), along with “And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying” (Ac 12:12).
Are these commands important? Absolutely! Each one was given by Holy Spirit inspiration. Perhaps they are not on the same plain as loving God with all of our heart. That is an individual issue. However, as a body functions through many operations, these other commands assist us in keeping the most important commandment(s). These commands are crucial in preserving a Bride for Christ, the Church on earth. They help us maintain identity with Christ in an age motivated by entertainment and a self-centered focus.
Do any of these ordinances involve earthly symbolisms that carry and portray heavenly meaning? Without doubt! Each of these practices brings some form of heavenly significance. For example; Jesus promised “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). How often have we felt His presence in the hush and reverence of our sacred gatherings? There is much more involved in these activities than the mere earthly activity. There is something far different from sports fans gathering for a ball game, or even when we gather together for a business seminar related to our occupation.
Do these ordinances have an earthly form that brings heavenly grace? It is not too difficult to trace the heavenly grace that is given through the observance of each earthly commandment. For example, through preaching, the secrets of the sinner’s hearts are exposed (1 Cor 14:25). Saints are given “edification, exhortation and comfort” (1 Cor 14:3). This is clear evidence of Holy Spirit grace which goes far beyond the work of men.
How many of these ordinances may be abandoned and our church assemblies still be truly Christian? To abandon any of these commandments forsakes a key element of Christian worship. God has designed each one for a purpose. As His children, we have no interest to forsake any key element of Christianity. We understand that when churches choose to forsake scriptural church discipline as outlined in 1 Cor 5, “many” in the congregation become weak and sickly (1 Cor 11) and the effectiveness of the entire congregation is compromised. Sin moves in and the fear of God moves out. Subtly, the church ceases to be the body of Christ and becomes a mere human organization. “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1Co 5:4-5). The intent to exercise Scriptural discipline on the sinner brings “the power of our Lord Jesus Christ...” Conversely, would it not also be true that abandoning this ordinance would forfeit the “power of our Lord Jesus Christ”?
Are the seven ordinances really more important than these ordinances? This question deserves sincere consideration. We desire to maintain respect for each of the commands that the church has historically chosen to consider as ordinances. If labeling seven ordinances has caused us to neglect other New Testament commands, we are in serious trouble. It is like trying to decide which of the four tires on one’s automobile is the most important. When one is flat or the wheel has fallen off, the rest are placed in serious jeopardy. They all rise or fall together. However, it is more likely that when one finds seven ordinances, he will also consciously or subconsciously look for and take seriously the other commandments as well. Whether these commands direct his personal choices, or guide him in church life, each commandment is a well spring of eternal life. “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him. He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.”
In conclusion. Let us praise God for a church fellowship where obedience to God is considered a vital part of Christian living. Let us diligently search for and obey all the commandments that direct us in our personal lives. Let us keep the seven ordinances that have been historically highlighted by the Old Mennonite church of America. Let us also honor and obey the other ordinances of the New Testament that are an integral part of disciplined church life. This will bring honor to the One who deserves our fidelity and devotion.
~ Myerstown, PA
1Doctrines of the Bible, pages 301-381