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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.

Worship

The Incarnation: History cum Doxology

Posted by M.Ferris on

THE INCARNATION IS BOTH FACT AND WONDER.

I am not big on Christmas, for all the usual reasons. Commercialization, not a hint of it in Scripture, and the diversion of traditions that too often blunt, rather than enhance our understanding of the incarnation. But as it happens, I am going through Luke’s gospel these days, where we find the most complete narrative of the birth of Jesus. As my perusal coincides with Christmas I am struck by the duality of what Luke records.

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David.  – Luke 1:32.

Jesus is called Son of the Most High. The term Most High is full of significance for the Jews, for it is the designation of God Himself. In Genesis 14:22, in his encounter with Melchizedek, Abram answers that he will not take of the spoils he is offered, for “I have lifted up my hand to YHWH, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth.”  This is the Hebrew ‘elyown, and is also used several times in the Psalms. Not just by David (21:7 “For the King trusts in YHWH, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.”) but also the Sons of Korah (46:4), Asaph (77:10), and anonymously (91:1, 92:1). This title speaks of power and supremacy. The Most High is Possessor of heaven and earth. The link to Luke’s narrative is both theological and (indirectly) linguistic. It is doubtless the case that when the angel spoke the title to Mary, telling her that Jesus would be Son of the Most High, she knew exactly what this meant. The Magnificat reveals a young Jewish woman who was familiar with the promises to the patriarchs, and their importance. As part of that, she would also know that Son of the Most High was a direct ascription of deity to the baby she would bear.  It is further confirmed in verse 35 of the same chapter. “Therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.” The linguistic link is that ‘elyown, when translated in the Septuagint, is rendered as ὕψιστος which is the same Greek word that Luke uses in 1:32. That link, while not inspired, is nonetheless interesting to note.

Here is the answer to Arianism in simplicity and grandeur. Simplicity, because the entrance of God Himself into the world would through an infant. He who called the world into existence would enter it in utter humility. But it is grandeur as well, for He is born not only as Son of God, but he is to inherit the throne of this father David. He is a king, and will rule over the house of Jacob forever. Thus in the person of Christ we have both Son of God, and Son of David, deity and humanity together. When we recognize the incarnation, it is this we identify. Not just the birth of an infant, but the paradox of divine condescension. Others have called it the hypostatic union, which is helpful in the sense of specifying that Jesus is not half God, half man. He is fully God and fully man, yet he is one man in whom these two natures are found. There is no other explanation for Son of God and Son of David.

What Luke has recorded for us is history, but history that is the substance of theology, and should lead us on to doxology. The historical facts of the eternal Son become man should impel us to worship. Since it is biblical history, it is also something to be believed and affirmed. To those who suggest it is not significant how Jesus came into the world, Luke’s record is a rebuke.”When Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me” (Heb 10:5).  His was a body untainted by Adam’s sin, because Adam was not his first father. That aspect of his birth is vital to the salvific value of his death. Being without the sin of Adam goes back to the incarnation. That body was put on the cross, when Jesus did the will of His Father in dying. We should recall this as we think of the birth of Jesus.

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

Worship/Music

We’re Still Treating Worship War Casualties

Posted by M.Ferris on

It’s the music that carries the text, CCM or otherwise.

A recent post on a Christianity Today blog caught my eye because of the topic of music in the Church. This is a well-worn subject, and I can’t say everything I want to here, because it’s too broad (and I’m writing something more extensive), but I’m glad the topic hasn’t simply been dismissed with a hand-wave, as if to say “We’re done with that!” Christians need to keep talking about it. If in the evangelical world we haven’t quite reached resolution, we have in many quarters at least reached a truce, but it has come at a cost. By this I mean many churches have a traditional service and a contemporary service. This is another way of saying we have effected an amicable church split, or perhaps friendly separation may be the better term. Those who feel strongly about one style over the other will always attend that service, and so there are functionally two congregations meeting in the same building, one after the other. This has facilitated peace, but not necessarily unity.

Karl Vaters, the post’s author, makes some good points, and I’m sure that he would agree there is much more to say than his brief article allowed. He begins with the question of whether churches are targeting unbelievers with contemporary music, as a hook to get them into the church. He answers in the negative, and gives some reasons why his church uses the music it does. Some of these are absolutely valid reasons, and as he says, “Every old song used to be a new song.” That is certainly true, and in the Western church, even those who advocate for “traditional” music are using a fairly narrow definition of that. They mean the quasi-popular music that dates back about 200 years or so, running through the mid 20th century. But the history of the church is much longer than that, and tunes that were sung 1000 years ago would sound very strange to our ears today. One can make the case that this music is even more traditional than Western hymns, because it has a much older lineage, but no one sings those tunes because they are culturally foreign to us. I don’t mean the words are foreign, I mean the music itself, and that part of the question gets too little attention.

Vaters makes the point that “There is no such thing as “church music” outside of the lyrical content.” I understand what he means, but I don’t think that statement suffices for everything that’s going in with music. It’s true that one cannot say, “aha, that is a Christian f-sharp”, but it’s also true that music is not created in a vacuum. It is culturally located, and comes with connotations and associations that are sometimes so firmly entrenched that they cannot be dislodged. I am not referring to words and music together, but to the music alone. That is, the notes, rhythms, tempi, harmony, instrumentation – all of the elements that make up music.

The music alone tells a story and colors the words. It doesn’t work the other way around. I’ll give an example. Years ago there was a radio ministry called the Haven Of Rest, (now Haven Today), and the resident musicians were a male quartet. They came and did a concert at Moody Church in Chicago, which I heard over the radio. In a nod to the radio program, the quartet sang four verses of the hymn. “Haven of Rest.” The first verse was sung as one would expect – straight. The second was sung in an operatic or “classical” fashion, as they explained that Chicago was a city with a renowned symphony orchestra. The audience chuckled a bit at this. The third verse was sung in a country and western style, which the audience found quite funny. The final verse was sung in a rap style, and the audience laughter was the strongest of all. Without realizing why, the audience recognized this digression in tone of words and music with each verse. As the music (and its connotations) departed farther away from the text, the satire increased. This effect is what makes the idea of a parody in song at all possible. If the text alone dictates whether a piece of music is Christian or not, then there would be nothing humorous at all in this. I could cite other examples too, (Oliver Sachs Musicophilia is filled with several) and the whole idea of a film soundtrack is based on the idea of music influencing us in ways we may not even realize.

Local churches should at least ask these questions about associations with their music. Traditional or contemporary, it all carries a message apart from the text. People can overcome certain associations, and learn to enjoy and be moved by music that was previously uncomfortable for them, but it may be a formidable effort. Quite often, it’s a youngest common denominator that determines our music, (how many worship leaders are over 40 I wonder?), but the biblical model is that age brings wisdom. Churches that are mono-generational are impoverished. Whether they know it or not, younger Christians desperately need older believers among them. It’s a shame if musical choices prevent that. Am I saying that the older Christians must dictate the type of music in a local church? Not at all, but there is a real need for education, to talk about what happens in music, that is, within us as people. It’s insufficient to take a text, pair it with music we like and say we know have “Christian music.” Does the tune, support or undermine the message of the text? What about the rhythm, meter, and instrumentation? All of these subtly add or subtract from what the text is conveying. Vaters notes, “New Songs give voice to how people express worship today.”
They do indeed, but music – all music – doesn’t simply express, it impresses. It influences us and shapes us, and being aware of that effect is not always appreciated by many who plan worship.