Well of course they are!
It is a settled matter in most church traditions that baptism is carried out under the auspices of the local church by clergy or at least by ordained men. The same holds true of the Lord’s Supper. Designated “the sacraments”, these two activities have been given a special place in the life of the church. Why is that? Yes they are vitally important but are they restricted Scripturally to a ceremony in an officially recognized and defined organization?
Saying that “It is our tradition” does not mean that it is proper and especially does not mean that other expressions are inherently wrong. Does the command and example of the Bible demonstrate to us that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are functions of the local church? Or is it the case that people hear the Gospel in concert with the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, repent of their sins and are baptized. After they are baptized they begin to fellowship in community and joy with other believers and that includes the breaking of bread.
Let’s look first at baptism.
When we are baptized, who are we showing our relationship with? Each other or with Christ? With the Church, the Body of Christ, or a local church organization? Is it not the case that when we are baptized it is into the one body, that is the Body of Christ, and not into a local body? We don’t read that we are baptized into two bodies, the universal/invisible church and the local/visible church. Rather, in Ephesians 4 we read…
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4: 4-6)
Also there is this…
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12: 12-13)
Keep in mind here that 1 Corinthians is addressed to the church in Corinth but has universal application to all Christians everywhere (and I would say for all time as well). I would argue that the Scriptures indicate that baptism is into the one Body and we are members of that same Body, and that therefore baptism into a local church and membership in a local church are extra-Biblical traditions. Baptism is an identification with Christ, with His death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:4). We are all baptized into one body, whether you are baptized as a 12 year old in Topeka or an 80 year old in Tallahassee.
What other examples do we see in Scripture?
Acts 2 is the best example because it has both the breaking of bread and baptism in the earliest days of the church. By earliest days, I mean basically the first day! We read in the latter half of Acts 2…
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2: 37-47)
So what does this tell us? It says that some 3000 men repented of their sins and were baptized. How and by whom we have no idea. Maybe in the river and probably by Peter and the other 11? There was no local church to be baptized into, at least not in the sense that we think of a local church. There were about 120 persons meeting in the upper room of a home (or maybe an inn?), devoting themselves to prayer. That doesn’t really qualify as a local church by our contemporary standards. We read that after these 3000 were baptized, they gathered regularly with other believers, “attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes”. They also had all things in common but defenders of a sacramentalist view rarely espouse that! There are no local churches mentioned.
We also see the example of several baptisms of households where all of the members of a given household believed and were baptized and in none of those accounts does the local church play a role. In Acts 10 we see Cornelius and his household believe and be baptized. Peter was in his house along with some of the other brothers who travelled with him to Caesarea. There is no indication that this was done in conjunction with a local church. In Acts 16 there is Lydia who was baptized along with her household. No mention of a local church. Later in Acts 16 there is the conversion and baptism of the Philippian jailer, and he was baptized the same night: “And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.”(Acts 16: 33) There was no examination by the consistory or new member classes or a vote before the congregation. They believed and were baptized. Acts 18 Crispus is baptized. No mention of the local church.
We see the most detailed description of a person being baptized in Acts 8: 26-39. Um, what church was the Ethiopian eunuch baptized into? The eunuch lived in Ethiopia and was on his way to Jerusalem. No mention from Phillip that the eunuch should find himself a good Bible believing church to become a member of. We don’t know much about him but it seems likely that he went up to Jerusalem and fellowshipped with other Christians there, but then he went home. Perhaps he planted a Baptist church in Ethiopia? Or more likely he went on his way with joy and preached Christ when he got back.
Presumably all of the people who were baptized gathered with other believers afterward. That does not mean that they were baptized by or into a local organization. I don’t think we find the identification of baptism with the “local church” anywhere in Scripture. Maybe I am wrong and I missed something but I don’t see it. That is not to say that we can’t be baptized at a local church by a pastor, but I certainly can’t see where we must do so. I don’t see that it is required and normative, nor do I think that baptism is restricted to a local church organization and can only be performed by an ordained individual. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems that these traditions and restrictions have at their core not the Scripture but Rome. Control baptism as an entry in the local church, mandate membership, blur the distinction between the Church and the local church and you have a pretty effective control mechanism. This control mechanism was used in medieval times by Rome to control monarchs and other wayward individuals and it seems that the form, if not the function, has survived the Reformation and lives on today in evangelical churches.
So what about the Lord’s Supper? Certainly that is a function of the local church, to be presided, administered and protected by those with the proper authority!
In Acts 20:7, we see the words “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread”. Does that imply a formal church meeting? It was on Sunday, so it must be a church meeting! In fact they probably started promptly at 11 AM and finished by noon so everyone could make it to Cracker Barrel. So what if they talked together all night to the point that Eutychus fell out of the window and that afterward they talked with Paul even more and broke bread and ate. Does that sound like the last Lord’s Supper worship service you went to? If you read the account, I am sure Paul did most of the talking but we read that he “Paul talked with them” and “he conversed with them a long while”. At your local church, does anyone but the one administering the Supper speak?
What about 1 Corinthians 11, the most detailed exposition on the celebration of the Supper? That is certainly an intentional, purposeful meal but there is no mention of officiating in a local church, no mention of a particular person overseeing it. It is a meal among the gathered church, not a ceremonial ritual as part of the liturgy of a local church. The only way that a liturgical ritual officiated by clergy can be implied is if you approach the text with that presupposition firmly in hand.
Even when the Lord’s Supper is instituted in the Gospels, on the night when Christ was betrayed, it was an intimate gathering and a full meal with Christ and His disciples.
Many of our brothers seem to take more interest in “fencing the table” to keep people away from the Lord’s Supper than they are in examining the Scriptures and following the form and mode we see there. “Fencing the table” is great sounding Reformed rhetoric and has a great example every good Calvinist has heard about Calvin throwing himself in front of the table to keep the Libertines away, but a great story and a church tradition shouldn’t dictate our practices.
The problem is, yet again, that when we read things like “gathered together” and see references to “breaking bread”, we automatically have a picture in our minds of what that must have looked like based on our contemporary experiences. When we read about baptism, we see in our minds a preacher in waders with a microphone over his head immersing a new believer or a minister in robes sprinkling water on a baby. Our contemporary experiences, the traditions we have seen over and over again in church gatherings, is what is comfortable for us and it is all we know. We read things like 120 people gathering in an upper room and that doesn’t register to us. As I have mentioned before, it is the phenomena of “recency bias”, where what is most fresh in our memories becomes how we view history.
So what are the practical ramifications here? Is a meeting in a home, an intentional and purposeful gathering of believers, where the Lord’s Supper is celebrated an invalid expression of the Lord’s Supper and a meeting in a local church organization valid? Is a father who has Biblically raised up his children who then baptizes his children overstepping his bounds but a pastor in a church who has a cursory knowledge of a child exercising proper authority in baptizing those same children? We read often, especially in reformed circles, about fathers leading their family in family worship and making the home a “little church” but when it comes to the “sacraments”, we have to bow to tradition and abdicate the administration and practice to the duly authorized professionals. My four oldest children have all been baptized and they were all baptized by men in the clergy with only a passing relationship with my kids. That won't happen with the other four. The only prohibition I can sense that prevents small groups of believers from intentionally gathering for the Lord’s Supper or one Christian baptizing another is tradition.
(I am certain that all of this has received better treatment by others already, these are just my ideas that I jotted down.)