Category Archives

7 Articles

The Church/Reformation

Nominal Christianity and the Reformation Legacy

Posted by M.Ferris on
Reconciliation comes not when we accept ourselves as we are, but when we accept the sacrifice of Christ in our place.

On this 500th Reformation Day, and leading up to it, there has been a plethora of commentary on the divisions that remain in the Church
. These have typically focused on the Rome-Protestant divide, but there is another divide, just as tragic, perhaps even more so. That is those churches and believers who trace their heritage to the Reformation, but who have abandoned that lineage of truth.
They have not done so because they want to pursue greater unity with Rome, but rather because they have diluted the truth of Scripture.
This includes various mainline denominations who have steadily moved away from doctrinal imperatives. Attractional Christianity is not what I have in mind here, but nominalism. There are churches that maintain a veneer of truth, but whose raison d’etre represents social action, or relational support. The gospel absolutely impacts our relationships, and it calls us to action, but if we have redefined it to be primarily about the horizontal relationships rather than the vertical, we have left apostolic ground.
The gospel impacts our relationships with people because it redefines our relationship with God. No longer at enmity with him, we are at peace with him when we are in Christ. Without that peace, we are still under his wrath. But peace with God requires the sacrifice of Christ and the blood he shed that purchased our salvation. Without the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, his divinity, his death, and resurrection, we have nothing. We are of all men most pitiable. And the pity is, that many nominal Christians have either forgotten or have never known that a gospel without these truths is no gospel at all. The Reformation heritage is that these are vital truths.
 
One of the more common convictions to be jettisoned in nominalism is that our sin separates us from God. By emphasizing that we need to love and accept ourselves as God has created us, we dismiss his assessment that although we are created in his image, we are separated from him by our sin. Reconciliation comes not when we accept ourselves as we are, but when we accept the sacrifice of Christ in our place. that our sin has separated us from a holy God. He does not wink at sin nor write it off. He has paid for our sin in the death of His Son, and when we acknowledge this, and that my sin put Jesus on the cross, we uphold the gospel. The sacrifice of Christ and sin go together. If sin is not odious, an offense to God’s holiness, but instead just something of a human limitation, we dismiss the necessity of the cross.
There are many more areas where the mainline denominations have departed from biblical foundations, but sin is a big one.
 
These groups haven’t abandoned the Reformation heritage for a stricter authority, or a church hierarchy. They haven’t rallied around a magisterium, but they have just as surely left biblical authority behind. We should pray for their restoration (or in many cases, conversion) as much as we pray for the healing of other breaches.
 
Bible/The Church

Bible Answer Man: Wrong Number

Posted by M.Ferris on

The recent conversion of Hank Hanegraaf to Orthodoxy has caused a stir in evangelical circles, but only because of Hanegraaf’s prior ministry. As the so-called “Bible Answer Man” one would think he of all people would base his views and teaching on the Scriptures. Perhaps not. The reasons for such conversions still fall into the same sort of categories that Scot McKnight wrote about in From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic.  The fact that it’s Orthodoxy rather than Catholicism in Hanegraaf’s case doesn’t really affect these reasons. In almost all such cases, there is always an insistence that “nothing has changed” in core beliefs. And indeed Hanegraaf made this statement. But clearly, something has changed, because he wasn’t content to stay where he was, but rather take the step of joining the Orthodox Church. Hanegraaf’s comments indicate he felt there was a lack of experience in his faith that left him wanting more. He pitches it as an embrace of life rather than merely truth. He doesn’t claim that joining the church is his conversion to Christ, (nor do I doubt he is a true believer), but if you have Jesus, he is the way the truth and the life, and therefore, you have all you need already.

It’s good to remember a few things with such cases, things that always seem to be factors. These are the common motivations behind conversion to sacramental traditions.

A desire to connect with the historical roots of Christianity. That’s a worthy and good desire, but it can’t be found in Orthodoxy. When we look at the Orthodox Church, we don’t find the church of the apostles but the church of late antiquity. The structure of a hierarchical church, with priests, bishops over priests, and archbishops and metropolitans mirrors the Roman empire, but it isn’t found in the pages of the New Testament. Nor do we find the doctrine of the apostles in the Orthodox church. Veneration of Mary, and icons are clearly extrabiblical traditions that find no place in biblical Christianity. The point was humorously made by the Babylon Bee, noting that Hanegraaf would be rebranding himself as the “Apostolic Tradition Man.” And this is where Hanegraaf and all who make such a move aren’t always forthright in their statements. They may believe they lose nothing, but only gain in such a migration, but they can’t maintain the position of Sola Scriptura and remain in their new home. Believers should most certainly connect with history, but the New Testament writings are the historical documents that comprise Christian authority, not the writings of late antiquity. If you base your faith upon the Scriptures alone, you are certainly connected with history – and with the living word of God.

A move away from the Scriptures as supreme authority. Hanegraaf would no doubt vociferously disagree with that. On his radio show, he quoted the well-known aphorism; “In essentials unity, in non-essentials, diversity, in all things charity.” But, significantly, he didn’t cite any Scripture as to why he made this move. Within Orthodoxy, there is a reliance on tradition, the consensus of the Fathers, as an equal authority alongside Scripture. But as Jaroslav Pelikan pointed out,

“Such an exhortation as ‘let us reverently hold fast to the confession of the fathers’ seemed to assume, by its use of ‘confession’ in the singular and of ‘fathers’ in the plural, that there was readily available a patristic consensus on the doctrines with which the fathers had dealt in previous controversy and on the doctrines over which debate had not yet arisen – but was about to arise. When it did arise, the existence of such a patristic consensus became problematic.”[1]

It’s fine to speak of fathers in the plural, but we also have to speak of “confessions” in the plural too, because the fathers don’t always agree. Tradition, in other words, is shifting sand, unreliable as a basis for truth. It’s impossible to hold to both Scripture as supreme authority and tradition as supreme authority. That remains a fundamental difference between the Orthodox view of authority and the evangelical view. The seven ecumenical councils are canonical for the Orthodox. But the councils aren’t Scripture, and as G.L. Prestige wrote, “The Gospels afford a collection of material for theological construction; the creed puts forward inferences and conclusions based on that material. The one represents the evidence, the other the verdict. And be that verdict ever so correct, the fact remains that it was the evidence, and not the formal verdict which was once deposited to the saints.”[2] In the Orthodox view, the conclusions are moved into the evidence column.

Elevating Experience over Scripture. It’s exceedingly common to find people expressing dissatisfaction with evangelical worship. And indeed, much of it is vapid. But the appeal of Orthodoxy is sensual, i.e., involving the senses. Smells and bells as it’s been called. At the heart of this type of thinking is the principle of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. Or, as the church prays, the church believes. Attributed to Prosper of Aquitaine in the fifth century, the formulation states that how the Church worships governs what the Church teaches. In other words, liturgy is the wellspring of doctrine. But that is to invert things. Our experience of worship can never inform our doctrine. Rather, our doctrine dictates how we worship. If our feelings, our experience prescribe what our beliefs are, we open ourselves to all manner of falsehood.

Many people look to Hanegraaf for answers, and therefore he has a huge responsibility. It was interesting that in the days following his announcement, a caller asked if he could explain the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Hanegraaf gave a few examples of the magisterium vs. the oral and written deposit of truth (evangelicals reject any oral tradition as equal to the Bible), but at the end of his answer, he oddly backpedalled somewhat from his ability to speak on such things. “I don’t consider myself an expert, I’ve only been studying this for two or three years… so having only spent a mere two and half or three years on this subject I am not the expert. There are people that are far more adept at talking about these things than I am. But I am learning and at some point the treasure chest will be part of my heart and soul, and I’ll be able to communicate with a whole lot more instruction.” That’s an odd stance for the Answer Man.

Christians should not look to their fellow believer’s experience as any kind of rule or guide for what we believe. Scripture must test all things. Even how previous generations interpreted Scripture is not an authority. I can learn from them, to be sure. But quite often I learn they were wrong. In this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we’ve been reminded of that anew. This, apparently, is something the Bible Answer Man has forgotten.

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 21.

[2] G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (London, SPCK, 1968), p. 3.

The Church/Reformation

When Reform Brings Schism

Posted by M.Ferris on

 Hus at the Council of ConstanceIn this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I think it’s important to revisit certain truths, not only doctrinal, but historical as well. I’ve written previously about the idea of the Reformation being over. That is, in the view of some, the level of agreement between former ecclesiastical foes is now so small that we can put the Reformation behind us and join together. That is a non-starter, in my view, not because I have anything against unity, but because there is still a chasm between the fundamental definition of salvation between Protestants and others. Salvation is doubtless the most important difference,  but there are also other important doctrines such as the definition of the Church, the person and work of Christ, where there remain wide divergences between evangelicals and sacramental traditions.
But there is the historical as well. One sometimes hears that prior to the Reformation, though there were certainly problems in the Church, there wasn’t the kind of division that the Reformation brought. But that is not historically accurate. Long before the Reformation there were deep divisions in the Church, or perhaps it’s better to say, Churches.

   A major fissure was caused by the “filioque” clause. If you’re not familiar with this issue, it came about due to the addition of a clause to the Nicene creed, to say that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the the father and the son (filioque). The decision to add that to the creed, (putatively at the Council of Toledo in 589) was made without consultation with other bishops, specifically those of the East. The Eastern churches greeted this as a heresy and a doctrinal innovation that could not stand. The issue festered for centuries, amid (truly!) Byzantine politics, with bishops and patriarchs trading anathemas back and forth. The added clause was formally accepted by Rome in 1014. Forty years later in 1054, the “Great Schism” officially came about. This pre-Reformation separation of East and West continues to the current day.

   A couple of hundred years after that, the Western Church (aka Roman Catholic) had its own schism. This was due to nothing doctrinal, but all political. There came a time when there were three simultaneous popes. If the Church sets up a system where one man sits atop the org chart, then having three CEOs makes it difficult to know who’s in charge. That schism was officially ended at the Council of Constance in 1414-1418. But, notably, one of the decrees the Council published was this: “All persons of whatever rank or dignity, even a Pope, are bound to obey it in matters relating to faith and the end of the schism and the general reformation of the Church of God in head and members.” In other words, the Council issued a papal takedown, and demanded that pontiffs obey conciliar decrees as the highest law of the Church. The schism was formally healed, (and future popes more or less ignored the outcome) but the ideas of conciliarism never really went away. This, too, had nothing to do with the Reformation. One need only look to very recent history to see that all is not well in the Roman Catholic Church. There is consternation among many about the current pope and where he may be taking the Church.

   These examples from history represent the fact that the roots of division may not be doctrinal at all, and are quite often political. Both underlying causes can (and have) resulted in division. In a sense, the Reformation can be seen as just one more example of the Church dividing itself, but with important differences. The doctrinal matters surrounding the Reformation put divisions based on political differences into their proper perspective. They were most often the result of pride and selfish ambition. The Reformers held the gospel itself in highest esteem, and that is why they spoke out as they did. What the previous divisions had in common was that they assumed that the highest authority was the Church itself. As some have said, they operated on the principle of sola ecclesia. The Reformation of course came about due to different principles; that the Church was subject to Scripture. The Word of God is over the people of God. This was needed reform in a Church that had lost its way. When a division such as the Reformation became inevitably necessary, we should remember that there are some things worth fighting for. Paul makes it fairly clear at the start of the Galatian epistle that the integrity of the gospel message is one of those things.

The next time someone shakes their head in dismay over the divisions the Reformation caused, remember too that it represents a great recovery of truth, and that legacy is still one worth standing up for.

The Church

Why you should banish the word “layman” from your vocabulary.

Posted by M.Ferris on

Clergymen One sometimes hears the phrase “in layman’s terms…“ followed by a description of some process or situation to explain to the untrained exactly what is going on. There are certainly times where I want a trained professional performing some task. The guy who replaces my water heater, or the one who took out my gall bladder – I don’t want someone with no credentials doing that work. But that sort of thinking can be problematic when brought into the church. It can (and did) lead to a caste system within the body of Christ, a spiritual hierarchy where some are the privileged few, others are deemed lesser in ability, and in extreme cases, even in their standing before God. There are two main areas where caution needs to be exercised:

Thinking that pastoral training equates to privilege or ability. I am not at all denigrating training, but it’s really critical to understand that if you are a leader in a local church, your training doesn’t set you apart from your congregation. This is not a new problem. The development of this can be traced historically and in parallel to the Roman Empire. Earlier Christians such as Cyprian had a background in civil service that they imported into the Church. Stuart Hall notes that “a bureaucracy parallel to that by which the Empire was run, managing dossiers of letters and documents had grown up, and for Cyprian only those recognized in the system belong to it. His own training in public affairs made him take this for granted.”[1] W.H.C. Frend also comments, “the clerical career had become designed to rank pari passu with the grades of the imperial civil service, just as bishoprics were becoming coterminous with civil boundaries.”[2] What this demonstrates is that thinking about leadership in the church was influenced if not dominated by governmental structures, and those structures from a state that opposed the Lordship of Jesus.

When we turn to the New Testament, however, there’s a very different model of leadership presented, and it is absent of officialdom or of hierarchy. The qualifications for those in leadership are related to character, and these emphasize humility, knowledge of Christian doctrine, and conformity to Christ. Evangelical churches don’t model themselves on government (they shouldn’t anyway), but they have certainly looked to the corporate world for how to do things. This can be brought into the church in subtle and seemingly innocuous ways. For example, stressing leadership skills or organizational effectiveness, at the expense of these other issues of life. And if you are a leader, how you exercise those skills can make all the difference. This is what Peter refers to, I think, when he cautions fellow elders not to lord it over the flock. (1. Pet. 5:3). Training may help you and your congregation in many ways, but one thing it should not do is convince you that you are the only one equipped to do a job. And, our sinful hearts being what they are, it is far too easy for someone in leadership to take umbrage at opposition, or to feel their turf is being encroached upon. Insert your story here of a case where a local church was blown up because of leaders becoming heavy-handed. We all have them, and it’s so important for those in ministry to remember that what leadership brings is not added qualification for ministry, but added responsibility.

Making a distinction between clergy and laity.

The word “lay” comes from the Greek λαός (laos) for “people.” But any kind of distinction between the “called” (κλῆρος=clergy) and the laity is completely unfounded in the New Testament. Paul refers to all believers by this title, when he says to the Romans, “among whom are you also the called of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:6). The effects of a sharp distinction between pastor and people have been harmful to the body of Christ. Every single Christian is a priest to God, and on an equal standing before him. Training or vocation does not influence this at all. “There is no clergy-laity distinction. All are called of God. The ‘secret call’ of the preacher or pastor does not make him or her more called than the carpenter.”[3] When we use terms like clergy and laity, we are drawing a distinction foreign to the New Testament, one which encourages the kind of caste system which finds no place in the body of Christ. We are in fact undermining the kind of Church God is building. I am thankful that when our pastor greets newcomers from the front, he states his name and says, “I am one of the pastors here.” The implications of that are profound. He is not putting himself forth as lead pastor or senior pastor, but one of the shepherds. And that is an encouragement to the rest of us that the body is to build itself up in love. That a pastor supports his family and earns a living through giving himself wholly to the work of the Lord is not in conflict with this in any way. We should honor and respect those who do so, but it is the responsibility of the whole church to seek the welfare of the whole church.

That some are appointed to leadership in a local congregation is absolutely right, but that leadership is decidedly non-clerical. Alexander Strauch well summarizes the ethos of this. “It is a simple but profound fact that no clergy-laity dichotomy appears in the New Testament. Paul, the great church planter, taught that there is a wide divergence of gifts and services among the brethren, but no sacred clergy. In his many greetings to fellow workers and helpers, Paul never greets anyone as a clergyman or a layman. The more one comprehends Paul’s teaching on the gospel and body of Christ, the more one realizes the falsehood of the clergy-laity division. In fact, the very concept of a small, professional, ministerial body that is vested with superior rights and privileges over the sacraments and the Word, and is alone qualified to ‘minister’ would be unthinkable to the inspired writers of Scripture. Such a concept is foreign to the New Testament writers, who taught that the whole body of Christ is ministerial, saintly, and priestly.”[4]

If you a Christian but are not serving in full-time ministry, remember that you are every bit as much a priest as anyone. You are sealed with the Spirit of God, and you are a worshipper. You too, have the responsibility to study to show yourself approved, rightly handling God’s word. You, too, have the responsibility to build up the body of Christ, to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Eph. 4:15-16).

 

[1] Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church,(Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1991), p. 90.

[2] W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1965), p. 238.

[3] R. Paul Stevens, Liberating the Laity: Equipping All the Saints for Ministry (Dowers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1985), p. 29.

[4] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership (Littleton, Co., Lewis & Roth, 1988), p. 257.

Worship/The Church

What should corporate worship look like?

Posted by M.Ferris on

A couple of years prior to becoming a christian (and while still attending a mainline, liturgical church), I remember asking myself, “Where do the robes come from?” I had been reading the New Testament, and it struck me that I didn’t find anything there about pastors wearing special garments or vestments. The answer is tradition. When we approach the question of worship, the things we do when we gather corporately, tradition has assumed immense importance. One of the chief reason for this may be that the New Testament is in many areas non-specific about what is done, and and how it is done. Into this perceived void, tradition purports to offer the guidance we need to organize corporate worship.

When we examine the New Testament, there we find only two ordinances, or sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And there is plenty of argument about the form and meaning of just these two. But the other conspicuous absence is any form of order of worship, any liturgy of any kind. What did the first Christian gatherings look like? How were they organized? We can’t say with certainty, though a few things can be drawn from the record in Acts.

1) It is likely that gatherings were on Sunday evenings, because Sunday was a work day. Acts 20 has Paul speaking late into the evening.

2) When the church gathered for worship each Lord’s day, the Lord’s Supper was a part of what they did. It has become tradition in protestantism to celebrate the Lord’s Supper monthly in many churches, but an honest look at the biblical record shows this practice doesn’t rest on anything there. I am not commenting on the meaning behind the Supper, but only on the frequency. However, the frequency can inform a bit of our understanding that remembering the Lord’s death was not something tacked on to the end of their meetings, rather it was a vital and central feature of the gathered church.

3) Any kind of ‘order of worship’ is very difficult if not impossible to discern. The evidence is simply too thin to say what the first gatherings of Christians looked like in terms of details.

The point in all of this is to say while we don’t have detail, we do have major elements and principles. Acts 2:42 is a key verse for this. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  Instruction in the apostle’s doctrine is still an important part of a christian gathering. Indeed, the careful exposition of scripture is vital to growth in the knowledge of God. Secondly, they were devoted to fellowship, to sharing together. Fellowship means sharing together, and the thing Christians have in common is that they all belong to Christ. There can’t be fellowship if this isn’t the case. It also argues against the idea that one doesn’t need to gather with other believers corporately to be a christian. Indeed, you don’t have to be in a crowd to accept Christ, to enter into new life in Him. But having become a believer, you do need to join with others. It is the apostolic model and admonition to not forsake the assembling of yourselves together. Breaking of bread was quite likely a meal that the believers took together, which at some point included the bread and wine taken in remembrance of Jesus’ death. In Acts 20:7 we read that “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day..”  Here, too, one gets the impression that the Lord’s Supper was always a part of the weekly gathering of the church. Finally, they prayed. In Acts 2:42, it is in the plural, which likely means that they were offering the customary Jewish prayers in the temple, but it is also clear that Acts is a transitional book. The apostles themselves take some time to fully move away from the patterns and habits of their Jewish life. Later, in the epistles, it is obvious that prayer is encouraged, commanded, and valuable in the life of the church.

At the distance of some 20 centuries, when we look at our own gatherings for worship, many of these look very different than what we read in Acts. Is this to be expected? Are we to understand that with the passage of time it is only natural that things should change, develop and evolve? That there has been change is evident, but the question to ask is, is that change legitimate? This becomes particularly important when the changes are imperious to the point of displacing what we clearly find in the New Testament. Paul F. Bradshaw’s The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship makes interesting contributions to this question. I assume Mr. Bradshaw is a Roman Catholic, (though it is not stated in his book), due to his faculty position at Notre Dame University, but if he is not, no matter – his book is a fair-minded and nonpartisan presentation of the early evidence for various rites and liturgies. The most interesting part to me is chapter 3, “Ten principles for interpreting early christian liturgical evidence.” Bradshaw puts forth guidelines that are as much cautionary as anything. A sampling:

1. What is most common is not necessarily most ancient, and what is least common is not necessarily least ancient.
3. Authoritative statements are not always genuinely authoritative.
5. When a variety of explanation is advanced for the origin of a liturgical custom, its true source has almost certainly been forgotten.
6. Ancient church orders are not what they seem.

The Gershwin brothers may provide the most apt paraphrase of what Bradshaw posits with early liturgical sources: “It ain’t necessarily so.”

This becomes important when faced with authoritative sounding statements about what the church “has always” believed or practiced. Bradshaw’s caveats remind us what an elusive task it is to find the true source of some practice.  But the other point is this: Secondary sources, sub-apostolic documents are just that; they are not Scripture, and therefore they may provide some descriptive value, but they do not provide prescriptive (or proscriptive) information on how Christian worship is done. For example, the Didache presents a brief outline of how the Lord’s Supper is to be done. Departing from other evidence, it has the giving of thanks for the cup before that for the bread. I have never heard of, nor witnessed a communion celebration where the cup was passed before the bread. Despite the early date of the Didache, no one follows this outline.

When a gathering of Christians assembles for worship, the essential elements of what Acts 2:42 outlines should be present, but beyond this, it isn’t necessary to have any sort of liturgical uniformity or homogeneity. Differences in culture find expression in the body of Christ, and corporate worship is one of the chief places where such differences appear. This is not disunity or problematic. Indeed, what is problematic is when local Christian gatherings are forced to conform to some imposed formula that finds no basis in scripture.

Bible/The Church

It’s Not Just Strength of Belief That Matters

Posted by M.Ferris on

THE SUBSTANCE OF DOCTRINE IS VITAL

It isn’t news that mainline Protestant congregations are numerically shrinking, but once again, research confirms that it’s the underlying theology of these churches that is the reason for the lack of growth. I say once again, because these observations are not new. the Barna Group has on several occasions highlighted this. Ross Douthat’s 2012 book, Bad Religion also profiled this trend. Further evidence of this is found David Millard Haskell’s opinion piece in the Dallas Morning News, Why Conservative Churches Grow and Liberal Churches Shrink.  But it is opinion supported by research.

Haskell and his colleagues did survey-based research on the beliefs of congregants in the various types of churches, and the results are not surprising to theological conservatives: doctrine matters. What you believe changes behavior, it influences your life, and causes you to live differently.  He notes:

We found, without exception, the clergy and congregants of the growing mainline Protestant churches held more firmly to traditional Christian beliefs, such as the belief Jesus rose physically from the grave and that God answers prayer. The clergy of the growing churches were the most theologically conservative and the declining church clergy the least. 

The research was greeted unenthusiastically by those on the theological left, as they pushed back on the notion that content of belief was determinative. They suggest, rather, that strength of belief is what is important. Looked at solely from the standpoint of church growth, however, the implications of this are clear. If you believe that conversion is a non-essential, you will not be particularly concerned to preach a gospel of Jesus as the only way of salvation. Conservatives preach this gospel. but, “half the clergy at the declining churches held the opposite conviction, believing it is not desirable to convert non-Christians.”

The conclusions to draw from this are not that church growth is the end goal, and that is why treating the Bible as God’s actual words is important. Rather, those who take this view are focusing on transcendent and eternal truths, things that matter beyond this life. If one focuses only on a gospel of social justice or political action, the more effective place to do that is within a political party. In some cases it seems that mainline churches have become just that – political action committees with a side of well-being by sharing these convictions with others. But what is conspicuously absent is a measure of truth.

It is a frequently repeated canard that theological conservatives care only about the spiritual, and do nothing to address the pressing physical needs of humanity. This is simply not true. Faith-based ministries abound that do just these things, provide food, clothing, medical attention, and the gospel. It is also the case that strength of faith is tied to charitable amounts. The reason for this is because the object of faith for committed Christians is the Son of God.

Paul said it bluntly to the Corinthian church: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” In other words, to disbelieve this central truth of Christianity, while at the same time being part of a church is an exercise in futility. Conversely, an affirmation of the resurrection is a truth that matters, not only for all the implications of this life, but for the one to come. “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Worship/The Church

The Primacy of the Lord’s Supper in the Local Church

Posted by M.Ferris on

“As often as you eat this bread” should not mean as seldom.

The subject of the Lord’s Supper, (or Communion) is a large topic, and has engendered controversy and differing views through many centuries. In what follows, I do not propose any sort of exhaustive look at the subject, but rather to look at the Lord’s Supper with the specific question of how often it should be celebrated, and why. Within evangelical congregations, either “low-church” or even in those where worship is more formal, it is common that the Lord’s Supper is held at the most monthly, and in some cases, quarterly. In a few places it may be as infrequently as once a year. Some discussion of what the Lord’s Supper means will be necessary, but it is not my intention to examine all the many views on what it signifies, and how various Christian traditions have interpreted it. We can, however, say that the frequency or infrequency of its celebration does say something about the meaning of the Supper, or at least how Christians regard its importance in their worship lives.

Liturgical historian James F. White says, “The eucharist is usually not the most important service for most Protestants, at least not in terms of frequency. Most Protestant worship, historically and at present, has not made the eucharist its central service. When the eurcharist is celebrated, it is often tacked on to the end (or beginning) of the usual Sunday service.”[1] I am looking at it from an evangelical Protestant perspective, and while I will look at history to see how the Lord’s Supper was regarded in various ages, and how the evangelical church has arrived at the current state, what previous generations believed is not any sort of binding authority on how the Christian now views the Lord’s Supper. The New Testament itself is the sole authority for the Lord’s Supper.

The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament

The New Testament puts forth two ordinances; baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The first is a one-time event, and not to be repeated, as it symbolizes something that itself happens but once – the new birth. The second, the Lord’s Supper, is to be celebrated repeatedly, but with what frequency should it be done? My purpose is to show that having the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day is the pattern set forth in the New Testament. When we turn to the New Testament, the teaching on the Lord’s Supper falls into two categories: narrative and didactic. In the synoptic gospels Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper in the upper room, during the Passover meal with his disciples. Matthew 26:26-30 records the scene in the upper room.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”  And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Mark’s gospels records substantially the same thing:

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.  And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:22-25).

Luke’s gospel follows the same basic outline, but with the additional detail of Jesus telling the disciples this is to be done in remembrance of him.

And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him.  And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”  And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.  For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

John’s gospel contains no parallel institution of the Lord’s Supper by Jesus. Some have assigned Eucharistic meaning to Jesus’ discourse in chapter 6, where Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”   (John 6:53-54). But it is by no means clear that Jesus is hear speaking of what would later be known as the Lord’s Supper. Donald Guthrie comments on the “difficulties in treating the words as an allusion to the Lord’s Supper.”[2] “The word sarx (flesh) is used instead of sōma (body), and this must be regarded as a significant difference. There is no mention of the eating of Jesus’s flesh in the synoptic accounts of institution (or in Paul’s). The words must bear a symbolic meaning, since they are connected with heavenly bread. (6:58). The difference in wording between sarx and sōma should introduce a caution against too readily assuming that John is simply giving his own version of the words of institution.”[3] Earlier in the chapter, Jesus tells his hearers, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He thus links coming to him with eating, and believing in him to drinking. Eating and drinking are presented as metaphors of receiving Jesus by faith. John’s gospel is replete with such metaphors. Jesus likens himself to a door and a vine as well, but no one assumes these to be other than pictures of spiritual truth.

The synoptic gospels, then, are the only narrative passages that present the Lord’s Supper to us. They contain but few details on the how or why of the ordinance, and nothing explicit on the when. One other passage from Acts provides some insight at least into the nascent practices of the earliest Jerusalem community. The apostle Peter preaches with boldness to his Jewish brethren in Acts 2, resulting in three thousand being saved on that single day. Following this, we see some of what they did.

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 2:42-47).

Most scholars view the term “breaking of bread” to include a common fellowship meal, which culminated in the Lord’s Supper. Alford says “The Holy Communion was at first, and for some time, till abuses put an end to the practice, inseparably connected with the ἀγάπαι, or love-feasts, of the Christians and unknown as a separate ordinance.”[4] Whatever it says about the joining of a fellowship meal with the Lord’s Supper, Acts 2 speaks of the frequency of the practice. Indeed, verse 46 indicates this was a daily custom. We should also note the transitional nature of the book of Acts. At many points, the apostle’s expectations had to catch up with what God was doing – extending the gospel offer to Gentiles is the plainest evidence of an unforeseen direction by Holy Spirit. Moreover, the identity of these first disciples as Jews is also plain. Their attendance at the Temple as well as keeping the Jewish hours of prayers indicates they viewed their faith in Jesus as in no way a repudiation of their Jewish faith or ancestry. Rather, as Peter said to his fellow Israelites:  “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36).

            This has led some to conclude that because of the disciple’s Jewish identity, the origins of the Lord’s Supper are found in the Jewish Passover feast, and that Jewish custom plays a very large part in a proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Much research and scholarship has been devoted to this question, but it is beyond my purview to enter into that enquiry in detail. Liturgical historian Paul Bradshaw comments, “Whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover meal has been a topic of great debate. Some scholars accept as genuine the claim made in the synoptic gospels that it was indeed a Passover meal, and regard the different chronology of the Fourth Gospel (which situates the Supper on the day before the Passover) as an adjustment made by the Evangelist for a theological purpose – so that the death of Jesus would coincide with the very time that the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple.”[5] Closely identifying the Lord’s Supper with the Passover means that some draw conclusions about its frequency. James D.G. Dunn says “In the absence of any firmer data probably the best explanation is that the Lord’s Supper was initially an annual celebration – the Christian equivalent of the Passover: the first Christians were Jews after all.”[6] (I will have more to say about whether this connection and timing is warranted by the scriptural record.)

Turning to the didactic passages, we have only 1 Corinthians 10 and 11.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul is keen to correct the many problems he has learned the local congregation is suffering from. In chapter 10, he admonishes the believers about their responsibility to flee from idolatry, and to eschew any actions that would cause others to stumble. An important, abiding principle in the chapter is that the Lord’s Supper is a statement of our membership in and participation in the body of Christ. “The Lord’s Supper brings Christians into fellowship with one another on the highest plane of their lives. The communion is communion with one another in Christ. So that great scholar, W.G. Rutherford, translates I Cor.x. 16, 17, thus: ‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not thereby we have communion with each other in the blood of Christ? The loaf which we break, is it not that whereby we have communion with each other in the body of Christ? As the loaf is one loaf, so we the many partakers are one body; for we share, all of us, in the one loaf, from which the portion of each is broken.’”[7]

In other words, our commonality in the body of Christ is declared when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Our participation together as members of Christ, our membership in the one body is proclaimed when we celebrate it. Ralph Martin expands on this. “The fellowship has a horizontal as well as a vertical reference. As we are knit with an unseen yet present Lord at His Table, so we are united with His people. This is the meaning of 1 Corinthians x, 17 (R.V. marg.): ‘Seeing that there is one bread, we, who are many, are one body; for we all partake of the one loaf.’ There is one loaf (Paul is saying) which is broken so that all who are present may have a share. But, he goes on, this common participation in a single loaf now joins you together as the spiritual counterpart of the one loaf. You are the body of Christ, the Church…”[8] We again find no mention of the frequency of the Supper, but it seems that the vehemence of Paul’s words indicate this was not a rarity within the congregation.

When we turn to chapter 11, we find the only full-scale teaching in the epistles on how the Lord’s Supper is practiced. Yet it too comes in the midst of corrective teaching by the apostle. Paul begins by chastening them.

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. (1 Cor. 11:17).

He is clearly displeased with the reports he has received about their disorderly worship. But he goes on to say,

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. (1 Cor. 11:18-20).

Paul ascribes their disorder to those times when they come together as a church. Here, then, is an indication that the Christians of Corinth were gathering regularly, and as we know from Acts 20:7, (“On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread”), this was the first day of the week, Sunday. Concerning this, F.F. Bruce notes “The reference to the meeting for the breaking of bread on ‘the first day of the week’ is the earliest text we have from which it may be inferred with reasonable certainty that Christians regularly came together for worship on that day.”[9] It makes sense as well that the Acts 20 meeting occurs in the evening, for “the first day was a regular work day for Romans: Christians met together that day as work allowed, either early or late.”[10] If Dunn’s contention that the Lord’s Supper was only an annual celebration initially has any merit, it clearly did not remain so for long.

It is evident that the reason Paul writes as he does to the church is precisely because this was not uncommon or only annual behavior, but rather every time they came together as a gathering of believers. From the Acts 2 passage as well, where the sharing of meals was occurring daily, it makes no sense that these earliest disciples began with a daily celebration but moved to an annual one because of their Jewish heritage. Bradshaw believes the wrangling over how closely the Lord’s Supper should be associated with the Passover is to be immaterial. “The question of whether the Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal is not particularly crucial. Even if it were a Passover meal, no exclusively paschal practices seem to have been retained in the primitive Church’s Eucharistic celebrations; and even if it were not a Passover meal, it still took place within a Passover atmosphere and context.”[11]

Ralph Martin agrees that with Jesus’ institution of the Supper, “it does seem clear that Paschal ideas were in His mind as He sat with the Twelve. The early Church looked back to this meal and its symbolism as portraying Him as the true Passover (1 Corinthians v, 7,8).[12] All manner of symbolism comes with the identification of Christ as our Passover. The Israelites were saved by being “under the blood”, as Christians are redeemed by the blood of Christ. The Passover lamb had to be without blemish, as was Jesus himself. We are redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Pet. 1:19). In other words, the sign of the Passover lamb is that it pictures Christ himself and his sacrifice on our behalf. It is unnecessary, and adds nothing, to insist that the Lord’s Supper is a continuation of the Passover, because for the believer the Passover is not an end in itself, but rather a marker of the person and work of Christ. It is symbol, but Christ is the substance.

Returning to 1 Corinthians 11, it is clear that the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper in a way that was both inconsiderate to fellow believers, and incongruous with how those who belong to the one body of Christ should behave. It is likely that some fellowship meal was part of this early celebration of the Supper, “For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” (v. 21-22). Rich and poor are gathered together, yet in the church these class distinctions should not be emphasized – quite the contrary – and Paul was angry that those who had more were shaming those with less. This was not the way for believers to conduct themselves toward fellow members of the body.

In the following section, Paul rehearses the institution of the Lord’s Supper, saying that he has received it from the Lord. He includes the phrase found only in Luke “This do in remembrance of me.” Since Luke traveled with Paul, one wonders whether Paul is quoting Luke’s gospel here, as he evidently does with Luke 10:7 (“The laborer is worthy of his wages”) in 1 Tim 5:18. The important thing to note is that the apostle is underscoring the Lord’s Supper as remembrance of Jesus; who he is and what he has done. This is one of the chief reasons in favor of a weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It is an act that is centered on the Lord Jesus. He is the one who has brought us light and life and should we not remember him with greater frequency in this act, rather than less? Do we honor him more by an infrequent remembrance of him through the Supper? There are some acts that grow in importance as we do them more, and honoring the Lord through this remembrance is surely such an act.

The final verse of the paragraph brings out another aspect of the Supper: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (v. 25). Here, too, the word “often” speaks of the frequency rather than the irregularity of the Lord’s Supper. The apostle’s assumption is that whenever they gathered together each Sunday, the Supper was part of the gathering. Whether it is in Acts or here in 1 Corinthians, the testimony of the New Testament is that Christians were gathered on the first day of the week to worship together, and when they did so, partaking of the Supper was a part of that.

The second half of the verse carries a very important purpose in the Lord’s Supper, in that it functions as a kind of gospel preaching; a proclamation of the saving death of Jesus and all that it means. That this preaching is to those who are already born-again in no way lessens the importance of it. On the contrary, David was speaking to his own heart when he said “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” (Ps. 103:2). Believers need to remind themselves of the atonement and all that Jesus suffered in order to bring us to God. This is no secondary doctrine, but is of first priority to the believer. Quite often in the Protestant celebration of the Lord’s Supper, these verses from 1 Corinthians 11 are read out as an invocation before the bread and wine are distributed. But congregations need not be restricted to these verses alone. These types and pictures just noted from the Old Testament speak to us of Christ’s death, and the book of Psalms and the prophets as well are filled with messianic references that also help to “proclaim the Lord’s death.”

Beginning with Genesis 3:15 and the ‘proto-evangelium’ of the serpent bruising the hell of the woman’s seed, the death of Christ is put forth in the earliest pages of scripture as a prophetic certainty. The Passover lamb, as we have seen, typifies Jesus in his death. He is the burnt offering of Leviticus 1, giving himself wholly and completely to do his father’s will. He is the grain offering, “a pleasing aroma to the Lord”, (Lev. 2) finding its counterpart in Ephesians 5:2, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. ” He is the peace offering (Lev 3) who is our peace, having reconciled us through the cross. (Eph. 2:14-15). He is the sin offering (Lev 4), who, for our sake was made to be sin who knew no sin. (2 Cor. 5:21). This is but to scratch the surface of what the scriptures present to us as all that the Lord Jesus suffered and endured on our behalf to accomplish our redemption. As Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote, “The death of Christ is neither incidental, accidental, nor fortuitous. It is the central truth of the Bible, and the central fact of the universe.”[13] Recalling these truths, and proclaiming them to one another is a primary purpose – indeed privilege – of the Lord’s Supper. Shall we think about these things less by our infrequent celebration of it?

The final clause of 1 Cor. 11: 25 is also important. We proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes. There is an eschatological element to the Lord’s Supper that we often forget. The promise of the New Testament is that Jesus will return in glory. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus tells the disciples that he will not again eat of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes. He points forward to that time when he will return. We do indeed proclaim his death during this age of grace, an age when people may call upon him to be saved, but we look ahead to that time when the kingdom will made visible upon the earth. “Until He comes (1 Corinthians xi, 26) unmistakably points to the future. The Gospel ordinance belongs to the Church age which will run its course until the inbreaking of the final Kingdom. The Table bids the Church look to that day when the Kingdom will be fully consummated; and our invocation of Marana tha (Our Lord, come!) as a prayer for the end and the establishment of the Kingdom came naturally to find a place in the Communion services of the Early Church.”[14] The Lord’s Supper is a perennial celebration for the church to observe, but it is also a feast that points forward to the hope of Jesus return, to his manifestation as king. Not only will those who trust him acknowledge his kingship, but every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that He is Lord.

The Lord’s Supper in History

In the many centuries since the post-apostolic era, the way in which the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper changed profoundly. I will have space to survey only a brief amount of evidence. Even in these early centuries, we see innovation in the way the Supper was regarded. Hippolytus writes

“Frequency of communion among the laity declined after the fourth century, such that the Synod of Agde (506) decreed the minimum communion to be the aforementioned three occasions: Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas.”[15] This decrease in frequency of communion had occurred hand in hand with an increase in the prestige of the clerical class.

In the high middle ages, we witness a divination of the Eucharist itself, and those who serve at the altar are of a separate order entirely from those who hear the mass. “Church authorities determined that a properly ordained priest was the only person who could make Christ present in the Mass. The Eucharistic celebration that emerged form these centuries, then, tended to transform the Mass into a spectacle performed by the priest for the laity whose participation in the sacrament took place through devotions other than those of the liturgy itself.”[16] It is not without significance that a priest says mass, while the laity hear mass.

Prior to the Reformation itself, there were those who called for the people to once again receive the Eucharist in both kinds. The cup was long denied to the laity, and was only allowed to priests. The term utraquist (“in both kinds”) designates the belief that Christians should receive both the bread and wine during the Eucharist. Jan Hus, the Czech priest and martyr was most associated with this view.

When we reach the time of the Reformation, the Mass and the Eucharist had strayed very far afield of the New Testament simplicity. Because of this, some Reformers sought to purge popular belief of any of the practices struck them as superstitious.

“Four walls and a sermon” was all that John Calvin (1509-1564), the paradigmatic Reformed theologian, had required of the worship service. By reading scripture, individuals might receive divine revelation directly, without the intervention of a priest or the sacramental system.”[17] The restoration of the authority of the Bible was doubtless the motivation for the four walls and a sermon. In the liturgical apparatus, built up over long centuries, devoted to relics, veneration of saints, and Eucharistic adoration, the preaching and teaching of the Scriptures had suffered greatly. Yet Calvin himself was not one who diminished the importance of the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, he argued with the city fathers of Geneva for a weekly celebration. The conclusion is that due to their wariness over any medieval superstition, and their desire to restore the Scriptures to their rightful place, some of the Reformers diminished the Lord’s Supper to a degree that swung to the other extreme. They were satisfied with an infrequent celebration of the Supper, even if it did not accord with the New Testament pattern.

Evangelicals need to recover the primacy of the Lord’s Supper in its biblical context. Too many view it as an ancillary event in our worship, rather than a proclamation of Jesus death, which is the center of the gospel. Regarding it so need not, and should not lead one into a sacramental view. It is possible to hold to the importance of the Supper without lapsing into mystagogy or falsehood. There is blessing in doing what the Lord commanded us, remembering him as he asked us, and in proclaiming his death until he comes.

[1] James F. White, Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), p. 14.

[2] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p. 729.

[3] Guthrie, p. 729-730.

[4] Henry Alford, The Greek New Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1980), p.29.

[5] Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy (New York, Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 48.

[6] James D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity, 2nd ed. (London, SCM Press, 1990), p. 163.

[7] J.W. Hunkin, “The Origin of Eucharist Doctrine” in The Evangelical Doctrine of Holy Communion, A.J. MacDonald, ed. (Cambridge, W. Heffer & Sons, Ltd., 1930), p. 23

[8] Ralph P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964), p. 123.

[9] F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1988), p. 384.

[10] Craig Harline, Sunday: A History of the Day from Babylon to the Super Bowl (New York, Doubleday, 2007), p. 8.

[11] Bradshaw, p. 51.

[12] Martin, p. 113.

[13] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 4 (Dallas, Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), p. 10.

[14] Martin, p. 128.

[15] Ian Christopher Levy, “The Eucharist and Canon Law in the High Middle Ages,” in A Companion to the Eucharist in the Middle Ages, Ian Christopher Levy, Gary Macy, Kristen Van Ausdall , eds. (Leiden, Brill, 2012), p. 407.

[16] Gary Macy, “Theology of the Eucharist in the High Middle Ages”, in A Companion to the Eucharist in the Middle Ages, Ian Christopher Levy, Gary Macy, Kristen Van Ausdall , eds. (Leiden, Brill, 2012), p. 365-366.

[17] Conrad L. Donakowski, “The Age of Revolutions” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, Geoffrey Wainright, Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, eds. (Oxford:New York, Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 361-363