Ordinances are a central part of the gospel, yet of late I find myself wondering what exactly they are. Here are some of my preliminary thoughts:
Although there are exceptions, it seems to me that ordinances consist of three elements: covenant, narrative, and authority. Although it is hard to find a covenantal basis in ordinances such as baby naming or blessing the sick, most ordinances involve making covenants of some kind or another with God. Think of the sacrament, baptism, or the endowment ceremony. We are making covenants to follow God’s commandments and he is promising to us certain blessings.
The second element is narrative. Again there are exceptions, but generally speaking ordinances re-enact some story from sacred history, with the participants in the ordinance standing in for characters in the story. In a sense, ordinances are theatrical, but we are the actors in the drama. The endowment is an extreme example of this, but it shows up in other ordinances as well. For example, the sacrament re-enacts the Last Supper, with the congregants as Christ’s disciples. Likewise, baptism re-enacts the early baptisms of Adam and Christ, but also Christ’s death and resurrection.
The third element is authority. It seems to me that this shows up in three ways. First, ordinances must follow a certain pattern. It is not enough that we make up our own set of rituals involving covenants and narrative. Rather, the rituals are given to us from above and participation in them involves conforming with the pattern. My own belief is that this is why we must do ordinances word-perfect. It is not that a priest’s mis-speaking the words of the sacrament prayer somehow renders the ritual ineffective, like a magical spell where the incantation is bumbled. Rather, we try to get the ordinance word perfect precisely because we are not the authors of the ordinance. Secondly, ordinances must be performed by one having authority. Again, it seems to me that this focuses us away from our own authorship of the ritual and emphasizes that we are participating in an order of things that is given to us from heaven. The emphasis on priesthood authority and its identification with divine power also serves to infuse the rituals with divinity. In the ordinances are the powers of godliness made manifest. Finally, ordinances are necessary. They are things that we must do in order to enter into God’s final kingdom. The point being, I take it, that we can only come to God on terms of his authorship rather than ours.
I group all of these things under the heading of authority because I believe that they emphasize that ordinances purport to be what philosophers call exclussionary reasons. One might imagine rituals that could do “just as well,” but the logic of ordinances suggest that this doesn’t matter. Even if — for example — different baptismal words could convey the same meaning, it doesn’t matter. Such words could not baptize someone. The efficacy of the rituals that we imagine is excluded by the logic of form, priesthood, and necessity.
If this trinity of elements is correct, it opens up, I think, an interesting set of questions. Why are covenant and narrative linked? How do we understand the necessity of ordinances? Is the authority of ordinances tied up covenant and narrative? Why? And so on…