Because life is a series of edits

Eating (and Experiencing) God

In Church, Theologians on August 10, 2008 at 7:35 pm

“One’s position on the Supper is an accurate index of one’s understanding of the Christian faith as a whole.” The Lord’s Supper by Robert Letham (23)

Previous to embracing Reformed doctrine, I lived a majority of my Christian life with a Zwinglian understanding of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; that is, communion is a memorial – a remembrance – of Christ’s death and resurrection, and little more.

In my small town Methodist church, our congregation’s practice of this same perspective manifested itself in communion once a month, open to everyone regardless of evaluation, and with no warning to anyone as to eating and drinking judgment on oneself. Children of all ages were as readily permitted as adults, and I – as a teenager just come to faith – was given the opportunity multiple times by my well-meaning pastor to not only serve the bread and the cup (in the form of wafers and juice) to the congregants, but also to share anecdotes (which I made up on the spot) of God’s grace and his forgiveness of sin.

Being on staff with a parachurch organization for twelve years did not elevate my (low) view of the sacrament of communion. While I did my best to attend church on Sunday mornings (mostly as part of non-denominational fellowships), there was little doubt my primary ministry was more as part of the organization than of the church; as a result of these blurred ecclesiological lines, I recall a few misuses of communion in the context of ministry – our summer camp staff orientation, or a closing Sunday morning of a conference – none of which I thought twice about, as I had studied and experienced so little of what I now understand to be a more orthodox view of the sacrament.

Deconstructing my past appreciation (or lack thereof) of this means of grace is helpful in recognizing my need now to build a more sound (and meaningful) theology of communion. In the past, I combined the memorial mentality of my youth with my leadership role’s need for team-building and camaraderie; now I recognize that true team-building and camaraderie come not from observing a memorial together, but rather by being united with and ministered to by Christ on his terms, not mine. As Letham writes:

“This (communion) is a sacrament of the church, the body of Christ. It is decisively not to be understood as an individual, private experience…It is corporate first, and individual only within that clearly understood and defined context” (Letham, 42).

But unity is not the only outcome I gain from the Eucharist; a more accurate perspective of God comes as well. As Letham points out:

“Since Christ has gone up to the right hand of God, he cannot, according to his humanity, be physically present here. As a consequence, in the Lord’s Supper, Christ is not brought down to us, but we are lifted up to him” (Letham, 35).

Partaking in communion – preferably on a weekly basis – is a good and constant reminder of the vast ontological difference between God and myself. It’s also a way of acknowledging the difference, both publicly and (hopefully) privately in worship.

Finally, in addition to unity and perspective, I gain greater appreciation for the requisite qualifications of those serving and partaking in communion. Again, Letham rightly stresses the importance that the Word accompanies the sacrament, and that it be through a “minister of the Word properly ordained” (Letham, 50). He also clarifies “definite qualifications for taking the Lord’s Supper” – faith, repentance, and self-examination – as illustrated historically in the forms of baptism, public profession of faith, and active (and orthodox) church membership (Letham, 56).

In sum (and returning to Letham’s opening quote), one’s position on the Supper is indeed an accurate index of one’s understanding of the Christian faith as a whole. I’ve learned much from my past, but have more still to learn about this means of grace from Christ.

How about you?

  1. I have come to many of the same conclusions. I remember having to take communion by the cross at camp. A fellow member of the wilderness staff decided not to take it due to the fact that the person giving it was not ordained. I was intrigued, confused, but fully not educated on the matter.

    I am currently not taking communion….because I think I have a deeper understanding of what communion is. That said, I look forward to returning to the Lord’s table.

    I find myself confused about my feelings toward the parachurch these days. Or perhaps the low view of church in the parachurch. That said, it was a place of tremendous growth for me… It is confusing. What say you?

  2. I share your sentiment with regard to the parachurch, Kara. My experience with The Navigators was very positive, and for any misunderstanding of the finer points of doctrine I hold myself responsible, not them. My time with the Navs was an area of personal growth and practical experience, and I’ve never regretted or doubted their investment in my life, nor (thankfully) have I ever been made to feel I needed to here at seminary (which is to Covenant‘s credit).

    I have more thoughts from a personal perspective, but for now, let me share some bigger picture thinking on the parachurch from Edmund Clowney‘s book, The Church. Clowney was a founder, president, and professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and his is a gracious and balanced approach to the issue.

    “Largely because of liberal control of the mainline denominations, evangelicalism took shape apart from the organized church. Growing parachurch organizations enabled individual Christians to unite for service apart from denominational structures.” (p. 22)

    “The church, shattered by denominational division, dare not label parachurch organizations illegitimate. In part, they are simply activities of church members. In an undivided church, there would be ‘lay’ organizations, under the broad oversight of the government of the church, but not the immediate responsibility of church officers. In part, they represent shared ministries across denominational barriers. That such ministries may be regarded as irregular in denominational polity may reveal more about sectarian assumptions in the polity than about violations of New Testament order.

    Dangerous irregularities arise for both denominational churches and parachurch groups when they ignore their limitations. The limitation of the denomination (more serious than supposed) is that it does not give full expression to the body of Christ, and needs, therefore, the wider relations that parachurch groups help to supply. The limitation of the parachurch group is that it lacks some of the marks of the church. It needs denominations because it does not provide the ordered structure of office, worship, sacrament, and discipline that a denominational church offers. Because such groups are not churches, they do not dismiss members to churches or receive them from churches, and rightly find no difficulty in recruiting members of denominational churches.” (p. 107)

    “All this has been less disastrous than might be supposed. In spite of neglect of the church, the fruit of the Spirit among Christians has found expression in genuine care for one another. Parachurch groups have often accomplished what the Lord designed the church to do, providing nurture and encouraging evangelism. The Navigators, for example, were first organized to bring fellowship to sailors in the American Navy who were cut off from regular church attendance. The movement developed programs of Scripture memorization, Bible study, and personal discipleship that have since been carried over into many churches.

    In publishing this book on the doctrine of the church, InterVarsity Press demonstrates a concern for Christ’s church that goes well beyond its ministry to Christians on campus. Christians active in the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) in Britain and in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) in the United States have experienced spiritual culture shock when they have graduated and taken their places in local congregations. They have missed the support and accountability of small groups in prayer and Bible study, the concerted efforts at evangelism, and the joy of singing psalms of praise together. The shock is less today, however, in part because former campus leaders have brought renewal to the churches.” (p. 110-111).


  3. I think reading these quotes and your comments I have some real thinking and perhaps forgiving to do. We were told we could do better than work in a church or go to seminary. I have great memories of amazing growth with the Navigators, but it seemed like an all or nothing commitment.

    I am glad you left well. I’m not sure that is always the case. I have seen Intervarsity in Asheville be really intentional about connecting their students to local churches.

    One of my favorite things about becoming reformed is the church polity. Jason is tender hearted and not power driven…..but called. So many independent churches and parachurches run like businesses where charisma, control, and ego rule. The plateau form of government does much to protect the congregation and those in leadership.

    I’m included in that charisma and ego trip. I’m not sure I ever tried harder to be accepted than my summers at camp. I was on a mission to be the most fun, cool, exciting Christian…. I often wonder about the girls who were just Godly. How was the experience for them? I was desperate to be asked back, and a lot of that had to do with the growth I saw in my life there….so both the good and the bad.

    Jason wants to know if you have read the Enduring Community…by Brian Habig and Les Newsom?

    You have given Jason and I some great things to talk about over vacation! Thank you Craig.

  4. On the sacrament: it’s truly an exciting topic, and one I’m glad to see you putting some study into. For my part, I’m actually beginning a three-part sermon series on “What is the Lord’s Supper?” starting on Sunday, 8/17. I love the Letham quote; I had forgotten that one from my reading. (Oh, and incidentally, there IS a difference between a Zwinglian memorial and a “remembrance”.)

    On parachurch ministries: having been a part of many, I have seen and tasted their value first-hand. There are such strengths that are offered by some parachurch ministries. I think Clowney really gets to the heart of one of the core struggles that most of the parachurch ministries I’ve been a part of have faced: that they lack some of the marks of the church (namely, sacrament and discipline– though as you aluded to earlier in the post, some have forgotten they lack the former!). If more leaders on both sides of the “parachurch isle” understood this, then many problems would be solved. I think the other core struggle I saw was that many of them have functionally abandoned their stated identities– specifically, they will say their purpose is one thing, but it functionally is another. For example, one ministry I was a part of said that it existed to evangelize unchurched students; however, 95% of the students that were regularly involved were churched. (I realize that the church has a very similar problem, in most cases! That doesn’t make it right for parachurch ministries to fail in the same way.)

  5. Kara, I’ve read Habig and Newsome’s book and thought it was helpful (but not always engagingly written). And I share your appreciation for polity in the PCA, though it drives me crazy at times the way stuff gets stymied. I’ve decided extreme independence and extreme polity are equally problematic; leading without followers is a problem, as is following leaders who don’t lead. There’s got to be a sweet spot somewhere.

    I concur, Ed, that the tendency for parachurch groups is to go beyond its initial foundings, but it’s not hard to understand why when the church has been negligent in areas, as you allude. It will be interesting to see where things go in the next 15-20 years, as ecclesiology may just be the real issue our generation has to figure out.

  6. Why are the simple means of grace not enough for us? Why do we need more, more, more? And why is it when a church lacks in an area, we create a separate form of “church” in the parachurch instead of addressing our weaknesses?

    If we truly took the covenant seriously we wouldn’t be where we are now. Our church, home and school lives are very separate.

    I once asked a pastor I really respected what he thought about drama in a church service… He was very clear. He said he hadn’t studied enough to have a clear opinion of drama, but he did know if he had more time in the service he would spend it doing what the Lord made clear to do in Scripture. Preach the Word, pray, worship in song, communion. Why do we feel like we need to add to Jesus?

  7. Craig –

    I have also been growing a lot in my appreciation for and understanding of communion. I enjoyed what you had to say about it and, like you, found Letham to be very helpful. Have you read Keith Mathison’s “Given For You?” It’s a little more in-depth than Letham and very helpful as well.

    I hope things are going well. I’ll be praying for you guys and for ThirtySomewhere!

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