Low Church, High Church, Humble Church, Active Church

Kampen’s recent post about baptism got me thinking about sacraments and ordinances, and how those are conceived of differently within different church traditions. My own Mennonite Brethren tradition, part of the Low Church tradition, has opted for the word “ordinances” to describe the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and treats these rites as being symbolic acts of remembrance. They are practiced first and foremost because Jesus commanded his followers to do so, and are acts of responsive remembrance, and are not effective in and of themselves. Rather, since lasting salvation could not be achieved through the repeated ceremonies and sacrifices prescribed by the Mosaic Law, the death and resurrection of Christ put a final end to the need for such repeated practices as means of God’s grace. Since Jesus’ death and resurrection is understood to be the sole necessary and effective means of grace, all Christian rituals are understood to be not means of grace in and of themselves, but symbols that are part of the church’s submission to the lordship of Christ.

The High Church tradition is perhaps exemplified by Roman Catholicism, with High Church Protestants generally being somewhat less bold in their claims about the effective power of the church. Catholic sacraments are understood definitively to be means of the grace of God, and give grace of themselves. Moreover, the use of sacramentals, most of which were instituted by the church rather than by Jesus, is also understood to help incite a piety in the Christian that itself may obtain the grace of God.

These distinct understandings of sacrament are reflective of how the High and Low traditions perceive the nature of the church. Just as the Roman Catholic Church holds a strong view of the efficacy of the sacraments, it also holds a high view about the nature of the work of the church. The RCC sees itself as the body of Christ on earth, doing the work of God. The church is also a vehicle of continuing revelation, as attested by the authority given to tradition in Catholic doctrine, as well as the notion of the infallibility of the pope’s pronouncements ex cathedra.

Contrariwise, the Low Church more often sees itself as disciples of Christ, emphasizing their subjection to God’s authoritative revelation, generally understood to comprise scripture and Jesus. The Low Church is very suspicious of any doctrines that are grounded in tradition, rather than scripture, and so doctrinal quarrels among Low Church adherents are usually fought in the arena of Biblical exegesis.

In short, the High Church holds a strong view of its own instrumentality in bringing about God’s purposes, whereas the Low Church emphasizes its humility and subjection to God.

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5 comments on “Low Church, High Church, Humble Church, Active Church

  1. Kampen says:

    I definitely find myself on the high church end of what you are describing here. What is an interesting and not conflict free negotiation is that of my high church theological tendencies when I’m immersed in primary texts of Menno Simons, Dirk Phillips, and the Martyr’s Mirror. This is my history and sometimes I agree with it and sometimes I don’t. What that doesn’t, however, call for is a new denomination. (That is a theological pet-peeve of mine).

  2. Kampen says:

    I think what ultimately frames my theological engagement is a commitment to ecumenicism, which is something that runs across differences in Christianity throughout history. Ecumenicism is not pluralism though, as is commonly misunderstood both in theory and practice.

    • Theophilus says:

      I think it’s interesting to see how sacramental theologies (for example) can work at cross-purposes to ecumenicism. The reason Catholics don’t have intercommunion with anyone other than the Orthodox (and even then it’s not full intercommunion as Protestant denominations practice it) is because of their views regarding the nature of the Eucharist. On the Low Church side, the MB’s left the old Mennonite church in Russia because they felt the Lord’s Supper was defiling its godly partakers when it was also shared with the unrepentent.

      • Kampen says:

        One of my issues is actually that low church ordinance theology fails to push all the way through. If the Lord’s Supper is a memorial dinner then it’s up to the individual before God to examine him/herself before the table. I think the GC church generally requires partakers to be baptized, at least my congregation makes a note of that before the words of institution are said.

      • Theophilus says:

        That’s the same as my tradition. I don’t think there’s much daylight between the GC’s and the MB’s nowadays on that issue. But GC’s are historically more reticent to apply the ban – that is, to bar someone from receiving Communion – than other Mennonite denominations. This was intended to be gracious and ecumenical in spirit, but it also opens the door to a very lowest-common-denominator way of determining eligibility for Communion.

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