Summary: The idea of God’s people performing ordinances and making covenants with him has been part of man’s worship of God from long before the time of Moses, however, most modern-day churches no longer speak about ordinances and covenants. And the reason why is because it’s been said that after the death of Jesus Christ, the Law of Moses was done away with, including its ritualistic ordinances, such as the practice of circumcision or the sacrificing of animals. Yet, even so, most Christian churches today still teach the necessity of making commitments to Christ and performing religious ceremonies as part of their worship. This article looks at the history of covenants and ordinances and their relevance to us today.
The prophet Isaiah wrote to the people of his day saying, “The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinances, [and] broken the everlasting covenant” (Isaiah 24:5).
The idea of God’s people performing ordinances and making covenants with him has been part of man’s worship of God from long before the time of Moses, and even today there are Christian churches who continue to practice these ancient ceremonies. However, most modern-day churches no longer speak about ordinances and covenants.
One exception to this is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where both of these concepts play an important part of their doctrinal beliefs. Yet, even so, there are Latter-day Saints who don’t fully understand or appreciate the importance of these two aspects of worship and their relationship to one another. Therefore, to gain a better understanding of them we need to look at how they were used anciently.
The apostle Paul explained that “the first covenant [that God made with Israel] had also ordinances of divine service and a worldly sanctuary… which stood only in meats and drinks and diver washings and carnal ordinances” (Hebrews 9:1,10).
The ordinances he is referring to are the ceremonies and rituals that were prescribed in the Law of Moses. These not only included the sacrifices and ritual washings performed in the temple but also the various feasts (Exodus 12:14), meat offerings, (Ezekiel 46:16), and even the food, drink, and manner in which the Jews were to celebrate the Passover (Numbers 9:12).
Some of these ordinances had to be performed by an authorized priest while others could be performed by the individual themselves however, either way, the manner in which the ordinances were to be carried out were specified by God himself. God did not leave it up to man to decide how each ordinance was to be performed or which ordinances were to be practiced.
It has commonly been said that after the death of Jesus Christ, he did away with observing the Law of Moses, and to prove their point they cite how we no long practice the ritual of circumcision or the sacrificing of animals. Therefore, it is likewise said that we no longer need to perform ordinances in the Christian faith because they were part of the old covenant that God made with Israel, which has been done away with and replaced by a new and better covenant that was established on better promises (Hebrews 8:6).
However, the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth saying, “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances as I delivered them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2). What were the ordinances that Paul delivered to them? To answer this question we have to have a proper understanding of what constitutes an ordinance.
The dictionary defines an ordinance as “a religious ceremony or ritual that contain words, gestures, or objects performed in a set, prescribed manner.” Under this definition we can easily see how the various ceremonies prescribed by the Law of Moses were ordinances, however, under this definition baptism is also an ordinance, as is a marriage ceremony, and communion and, in fact, many Christian faiths perform these religious ceremonies using a set of prescribed words and/or gestures.
The problem is that among the various Protestant faiths there is no one way of performing any of these ceremonies. Every faith performs them differently despite claiming that the Bible is their complete and exclusive source of knowledge of what God wants us to do. Furthermore, some Christian faiths perform ordinances that other faiths don’t practice, such as the washing of feet, the wearing of head coverings, purification rites, as well as other religious rituals.
For example, Catholics make the sign of the cross by touching their head, chest, then left and right shoulder. Although they don’t refer to this an ordinance, it is a ritual using gestures performed in a set, prescribed sequence as part of their religious worship. As such it meets the definition of an ordinance. However, no other religious faith practices this ritual which shows that this is not an ordinance that is found in the Bible but is one that has been prescribed by the Catholic church itself.
However, not all ordinances hold the same significance or importance. As such, some are more sacred, holy, and necessary than others. These are referred to as sacraments, while others ordinances are merely traditions, meant to enhance the reverence of worshipping God. For example, in the Catholic church baptism and marriage are considered sacraments while the crossing of one’s self is a tradition. The difference between the two is that one is ordain or prescribed by God while the other is determined by man.
Yet, even here there is no uniformed belief. Some faiths consider baptism to be a sacrament, meaning that it is a necessary ordinance ordained by God, while other faiths feel it is not a sacred rite but merely a voluntary symbolic expression of a person’s acceptance of Christ.
Under the Law of Moses, the sacred ordinances had to be performed by a priest, and from the earliest days of the Catholic church the sacramental rites were likewise always performed by a priest. Even at the time when Martin Luther broke away from the traditions of the Catholic Church, he still understood the need for a priest to perform the most sacred ordinances.
But as the Protestant reformation began to spread, the concept of needing a priest to perform certain rites and rituals began to fade to the point where today many ministers are looked upon as nothing more than preachers of God’s word and someone people can go to with their problems to seek spiritual counsel and advice rather than someone who is uniquely qualified to perform certain ceremonies.
With the spread of so many different religious beliefs about Christ, the idea of following a set of divinely prescribe gestures, words, or objects as part of one’s worship has all but disappeared. As a result, the words that Isaiah spoke back in his day has come true in our day when he said “they have transgressed the laws [of God], changed the ordinances, [and] broken the everlasting covenant.”
Under the Law of Moses, not only was there a clear, God-given mandate of what ordinances were to be performed and exactly how they were to be done but who could become a priest, who couldn’t, and what exactly their duties were. Even within the Catholic church, dating back to the beginning of the second century there were strict rules of who could become a priest, and in both cases, those who were ordained to this office were considered to be authorized agents of God. As such, the ordinances they performed were considered recognized or approved by God. At the same time, it was clearly understood back then that if those same ordinances were performed by someone who was not an authorized priest, God didn’t accept their offerings.
However, even this idea has all but disappeared in today’s ever-changing Protestant movement. Today, anyone can be awarded the title of priest, minister or pastor simply by taking a course in theology from most Christian colleges. It seems that it doesn’t matter what a person believes about the teachings of Jesus Christ, they are naturally thought of or automatically assumed to be an authorized agent of God, and that God will accept any and all ordinances performed by them in his name, even if how they are performed or what is believe about them differs widely from every other “authorized” priest.
Yet the Bible tells us that not even Jesus Christ took upon himself the role of being a priest, but was ordained to this position by God, the Father (Hebrews 5:4,5). In the Law of Moses, it was God who set forth the requirements of who could and couldn’t become a priest. In the New Testament we see it was Christ himself who choose those who would become his apostles (John 154:16; Acts 1:24-26), and it was they who then had the authority to ordain others to become bishops and elders.
From the records we have of the earliest Christian church, it was the authorized bishops who had the authority to ordain other bishops, elders, deacons, and teachers, and the church went to great lengths to make sure that only those who were strictly following the correct doctrines of Christ were ordained as priests. Those who strayed from the faith had their authority revoked, and without having the proper, divinely-appointed authority, it was taught that God didn’t recognize the ordinances that were performed. This has been the pattern God has used throughout his dealings with man.
But why are ordinances so important?
As cited earlier, Paul explained “the first covenant [that God made with Israel] had also ordinances of divine service and a worldly sanctuary” (Hebrews 9:1). Whenever God makes a covenant with man it is always associated with an ordinance. Put another way, when we participate in a sacred ordinance it involves the making of either a stated or implied covenant.
A covenant is a compact, agreement, or sacred and solemn promise made between man and God. Thus, when we perform a sacramental ordinance we are making or renewing a covenant we’ve made with God wherein we promise to do certain things for God and in return God promises to do certain things for us.
For example, the sacrificing of an animal under the Law of Moses was a covenant where the person offering the animal confesses and repents of their sin and in return God agrees to forgive them of their sins. The various feasts, including that of Passover, involved a covenant where people promised to remember what the Lord has done for them and showed their gratitude for his goodness to them. In return God promised to bless them with prosperity and protection.
In the Christian ordinances, baptism is where we repent of our sins and promise to keep God’s commandments, and in return he promises to forgive us of our sins. We renew that promise each time we take the emblems of Christ’s body and blood. The ordinance of marriage that is made in the temples of the Lord is a covenant between a husband, his wife, and the Lord where he promises those who are faithful to him and to the covenants they have made with him to come forth in the morning of the first resurrection and to inherit thrones, dominions, and principalities.
But a covenant or contract is only valid as long as all parties adhere to the terms of the agreement. For example, if someone wants to buy a house, they make an agreement with a bank or lending institution, wherein the financial agency agrees to loan money to someone for the purpose of buying a particular house and the homebuyer agrees to make certain, specified monthly payments to the bank for a certain number of years at a specific rate of interest. But if the homebuyer does not make the payments as agreed upon then their contract with the bank becomes void and the bank has the right to take possession of the house in an effort to recoup the money they lent to the homebuyer.
In the process of making this agreement a contract is signed that stipulates the terms of the agreement and it is signed in the presence of someone who is authorized to represent the bank. Thus, the homebuyer is not directly signing a contract with the owner of the bank but with someone whom the bank owner has allowed to represent them.
In the same way, when we make a solemn promise to the Lord through a sacramental ordinance it has to be performed in the presence of someone who is authorized to officiate for and in behalf of the Lord. Just because someone believes in Jesus Christ doesn’t automatically give them that authority. Such authority has to come from God himself or through one of his officially recognized representatives, not from a college that has been started by some person who has their own idea of what Jesus taught.
This distinction is often lost on people, but perhaps we can better understand this principle by further expanding the illustration of getting a bank loan.
Suppose someone wants to borrow a thousand dollars from a bank and has a friend who works at a particular bank as a teller. They cannot go to their teller friend and expect to enter into a financial arrangement with that bank to borrow a thousand dollars at zero-percent interest to be paid in monthly installments over the next ten years. Even if a contract is drawn up between these two friends wherein both parties agree to the terms of the contract, the bank is not obligated to honor that agreement if it hasn’t been authorized by someone from the bank who has the right to approve loans.
Yet too many people think that just because someone calls themselves a minister of Christ that they automatically have the authority to act in the name of God, and that God will recognize and approve any and all ordinance they perform. And when those ordinances are not performed as God has decreed they are doing the very thing Isaiah complained about when he said “they have transgressed the laws [of God], changed the ordinances, [and] broken the everlasting covenant.”
When we enter into a covenant with God it has to be on his terms, not ours, and it has to be performed according to the manner in which God has proscribed, and it has to be administered by someone who has been authorized to represent Christ. Only in this way can such ordinances legally bind God to any contract we make with heaven. Without following this pattern, any promises we make here without the proper authority and done under the proper terms dictated by heaven cannot be honored by God.
But why does God want us to enter into covenants with him? The simply answer is, for the same reason a company wants to hire employees or colleges want to accept students.
God didn’t create us just for the purpose of having us sing praises to him for all eternity. Rather, his goal is to help us become as righteous as he is, and the way he does that is by involving us in his work. If you will, we are engaged in on-the-job training where our Father in heaven is teaching his sons and daughters how to become more like him from practice as well as through instruction.
The covenants we make are like our pledge to follow God’s training program. They’re the contract we sign promising to help him in his work of saving his children. And each time we partake of one of his sacred ordinances, we are committing ourselves to serving him and doing whatever he asks of us.
Simply believing in Christ without committing ourselves to him and his cause is like signing up to work for someone else and pledging our services to their cause. No matter how sincere a minister, pastor, or priest may be in wanting to serve Christ, if they are not helping him build his kingdom according to the way he has ordained then they are helping someone else build their own kingdom.
For this reason, the ordinances of Christ’s church must be performed according to the manner in which the Lord has prescribed, by someone whom the Lord has authorized to administer them. This has always been the pattern God has used. It’s when we come to better understand the purpose and importance of the ordinances that God has instituted that we come to gain a deeper appreciation for them and their significance in our life.
See related articles at Nature of Covenants