Things Neither Commanded Nor Forbidden

Last time I talked about some of the different practices associated with Communion and Baptism. I talked about where God’s promise lies and how that’s where we put our confidence and trust. God connects His promise to a physical element and presents it to us through it. This is the central point of the sacraments and without the grace that comes to us through that physical element, the primary purpose of the sacraments is lost.

If we assume the sacraments will be performed with God’s promise connected to the physical element, then there are a number of other questions we can turn our attention to. Surrounding the sacrament are all of the variations in practice that bear examination. For the most part, these fall into what Luther and others termed “adiaphora.” It’s a fancy word meaning “things God has not commanded nor forbidden.” It covers quite a lot of things. All of them are secondary to the sacraments but that does mean they are entirely unimportant. Neither does it mean they are entirely neutral.

The question last week arose because of a concern over intinction. Since someone communing through intinction is still receiving both bread and wine, we can’t say this method is forbidden. God certainly doesn’t command we commune this way either. The sacraments and liturgy are designed to strengthen our faith and help us grow as disciples and apostles. They help us learn how to be more Christ-like. God’s Word has many things to communicate to us, different themes of salvation and God’s work in the world. Many of these are connected to the sacraments. Distributing the sacraments without an awareness of all of the different ideas attached to them may be doing a disservice to those who receive it. When looking at intinction, for example, one of the ideas God expresses regarding Communion is that of unity. We are brought together and made one through God’s grace. We are made into the body of Christ through His body. We share one cup at His table. To that end, drinking from the common cup helps make this idea much more visible. The same can be said from sharing a common loaf of bread, rather than the use of wafer. (Some will argue that wafer are all cut from a common “loaf” when made, but the congregation does not see that happen. The visual is part of the teaching tool and without people being able to see that first hand the visible reinforcement is lost.)

I also talked last time about immersion versus sprinkling as a baptismal practice. The same holds true here. St. Paul and Luther equate Baptism with death. In Baptism your sin is drowned and dies. In this case, immersion visualizes this baptismal theme much better than sprinkling and might be preferred for that reason. On the other hand, another baptismal theme is that of washing and cleansing. If talked about in those terms, sprinkling or pouring may actually communicate those ideas better, particularly if more than a little bit of water and make an effort to do more than just pat the forehead.

Regarding these kinds of adiaphora, Luther makes a valuable point in his baptismal booklet. The sacraments can have all of these practices and all sorts of flourishes that are used to help emphasize different sacramental themes, such as candles or white robes for Baptism. However, only the sacrament is the sacrament. Everything else is extra. There is only one thing that actually carries the promise. Everything else is designed to reinforce and reveal what God is doing through that sacrament. All of those extras are adiaphora. If the adiaphora isn’t helping, then it isn’t serving the purpose and may actually be harmful. Some adiaphora may work better with a certain congregation than another. Some may not be possible at all, such as trying to do an immersion baptism in an emergency. We take comfort and strength in the promise and know that, in the absence of adiaphora, God is still at work. His promise is sure and certain.

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