Church Discipline and Baptist Love

Repost from the archives...

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. Matthew 18:20

We hear this quoted all the time. The church uses it to solemnize weddings, to invoke worship, to encourage groups of all sorts. It’s even used to validate business meetings where the most spiritual item on the agenda is replacing the air conditioner.

Thus it is no small surprise to most people that Jesus uttered these words in a discourse on church discipline.

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How may I take communion: let me count the ways

English: Communion setting at an Evangelical L...

English: Communion setting at an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America worship service: an open Bible, both unleavened bread and gluten-free wafers, a chalice of wine, and another containing grape juice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I previously wrote about a few things to consider when deciding how to approach communion, specifically with regard to the form of the elements that the congregation uses. While there is no “true” bread to use for Communion, and no “authentic” wine to use in the Lord’s supper, what we choose to use can detract from the worship and remembrance that the ordinance is given to emphasize.

Additionally, it is more than likely that congregations in the time that the New Testament books were written celebrated communion as part of regular meals that they enjoyed together. We don’t do that these days (although it might not hurt to try it), so questions regarding the mechanics of serving the communion elements come to mind. If we are deviating from the norm, which involves serving people in the pews and using wafers, plastic cups, and juice (which I encourage every congregation to do, at least once), then these questions might arise:

Do we use one table and serve everyone there, individually? Do we use a common cup and common loaf? Do we have instruction and prayer for the group, or as people are served?

The possibilities are almost endless regarding how a church decides these issues, and a best practice might be determined only after trying several of them. Here are a few main points of how Covenant Grace Baptist Church is handling communion, at present:

BY FAMILY GROUP — Those receiving communion come, by family group, to the front to be given the elements. Whether singles, couples, or full houses, having people come for communion this way seems to work well, and emphasizes that the family of God is made up not of individuals, but of families, regardles of family size.

TO HEAD OF HOUSE — For those family groups that have a husband/father, the server (not necessarily the pastor!) gives a portion of bread and cup of wine to the head of household, who then distributes them among the believers of his house. This emphasizes the important role of male leadership in the home.

GROUP INSTRUCTION, PRIVATE PRAYER — Instruction by the elder usually precedes taking the communion elements, and sometimes follows. Brief reminders about the symbolism of the bread and wine is given to the family group as it takes them, with prayer for that group following.

WINE & BREAD — We alternate between unleavened bread and wafers, and have them portioned beforehand. We use real wine, but make juice available for those who prefer it.

We have also taken communion seated in smaller groups around a table, passing the wine and bread as they might have done in New Testament times. Occasionally we provide extended times for reflection and repentance.

The point about thinking now about communion elements, and how we serve them, is so that there is little thought about those mechanical matters during communion itself. Our focus during communion should not be that the stale wafer is now stuck in my back molar, or that the juice cup resembles a thimble. Instead, we should focus on what the bread and the wine represent. A little thinking ahead of time will help the congregation do that.

How May I Take Communion: Considering Communion Tools

For the first twenty years of my life, or so, I had no idea that the Lord’s Supper could be celebrated using anything other than plastic thimble-sized cups of grape juice and mass-produced, stale wafer “Chiclets”.

The expansion of my liturgy horizons came when I attended worship with my Episcopalian fraternity brother. I had no idea what that short, padded bench was for (kneeling), and I was sure that eating Communion bread from a common loaf and drinking real wine from a common cup would result in the revocation of my Southern Baptist ID card, should someone important find out about it.

A cursory reading of the New Testament should reveal to believers that Communion in the early church usually occurred regularly, and whenever believers gathered for meals, which was often. It is difficult to imagine a partaking of the elements that didn’t involve a regular glass of wine and regular loaf of bread, things that would have been on hand at most meals. In modern evangelical church practice, there are many reasons that Communion has been relegated to a once-quarterly practice that occurs exclusively in a formal worship service, not many of them good. But in that context, it is easy to see why plastic cups and wafers become the norm — ease of use — despite the fact that few of us would serve these to a guest in our home.

Serving food and drink during worship presents practical difficulties, because we are not usually eating meals during our formal services. The simplest, most efficient way of distributing food and drink to the congregation, under the circumstances, is to use uniform portions and assembly-line delivery: “Chiclet” wafers, thimble drinks, and plate-passing.

Many believers observe, however, that the typical elements of grape juice and wafers, and devices such as disposable plastic cups, seem unsubstantial, somehow. And unsubstantial elements might tend to make the commemoration of the Lord’s Supper unsubstantial, as well.

The typical Communion I grew up with remains standard practice for many Southern Baptist churches. Wafers are distributed to members by passing plates down the pews, and cups of juice are distributed afterward in the same way. Congregants consume the elements separately, usually with some instruction or Scripture reading between. Oddly, the juice and wafers are usually served with nice, impressive, substantial plates and trays. Meaningful Communion can certainly be conducted this way, but I would encourage churches to consider whether there is not, in this traditional method, some incongruity between the serving tools and the elements themselves.

Additionally, congregations that continue to use the typical method should be especially aware of the limitations that traditional elements and methods pose, and be deliberate in planning ways to overcome them.

Many congregations are exploring alternatives to the typical Communion scene that I have described here. Churches are scheduling Communion more frequently, at times other than the formal worship service, and with different forms of the elements and methods of serving them.

Look for my next article, in which I discuss some of these options: “How May I Take Communion: Let Me Count the Ways.”

© 2012 Rob Faircloth

Dying for Ingrates: Jesus at his last supper

In Mark 14:12-31, Jesus is viewed by the larger group of disciples as the father-figure who arranges the Passover celebration for his family.

In commemorating Israel’s escape from Egypt, in which the lamb was slain, its body eaten and its blood smeared above the doorpost, Passover looked back to God’s deliverance of his people, his new covenant and new beginning with them, and looked forward to the time when all things would be reformed and made new.

Jesus reformulated the Passover blessings, announcing that it was no longer the flesh of a lamb what was torn and consumed, but that “this is my body.” He announces that it is no longer the blood of the lamb that covers the family, but that “this is my blood of the covenant.” All this is astounding enough, but even more amazing is the company Jesus keeps as he makes these announcements, all in view of his imminent death and actual sacrifice.

Judas is there, celebrating with the Lamb. Peter is there, celebrating, arguing that he would never reject Jesus when it was he who is recorded as deserting Jesus first. And everyone else there celebrated even as Jesus predicted that they would all fall away.

It was easy to claim fealty in comfortable surroundings: it became much more difficult in the face of angry Roman soldiers and venomous religious leaders, or, in the case of Peter, the prying questions of a servant girl.

Jesus announced his coming sacrifice and celebrated the fact not with perfect followers who deserved his blessings, with those who would betray and desert him. As we receive the Lord’s Supper today, we sit at table as murderers, thieves, adulterers, idolaters…not as those who deserve his blessings.

God demonstrates his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

In receiving the Lord’s Supper today, we commemorate the fact that he received us while we were rebelling against him, and he continues to receive us despite our ongoing fits, tantrums and generally poor behavior.

“new-Calvinism” and Patriotism

They go together like salt and cinammon. Like sugar and herbs. Like death and weeds.

The role of patriotic expressions in Christian worship services is a serious matter, and involves real and significant pitfalls that any bible-believing congregation should consider. In our Sunday worship should we recite the Pledge of Allegiance? Sing the “Battle Hymn”? The Star-Spangled Banner? Recognize those who have served in the U.S. military? Yet frequently the intramural discussion of these matters is acrimonious, to say the least, and in that infamous description, it tends to “generate more heat than light.”

Recent dust-ups about patriotism in worship demonstrate this trend. After reading three articles (if you dare) that address patriotic ‘worship’, ‘new-Calvinism’, and ostensibly improper use of company letterhead, you will be no clearer on what the connection is between the ‘new-Calvinism’ and patriotic ‘worship.’

Baptist 21 apparently re-published a letter sent by Chip Stam, Professor and Director of the Institute for Christian Worship at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). The letter advocated against the use of patriotic music and imagery in Christian worship. In response, Howell Scott published a two-part post. In Part 1 Scott lays a ‘foundation’ from which to address Stam’s argument, which he claims to do in Part 2.

Scott is apparently bothered by the ethics of Stam being identified both as a church music minister and as an official of SBTS. In Part 1 Scott spills much ink addressing letterhead and then concludes with the dramatic question of whether Stam’s letter (or the position he espouses in it) is “indication of the theological/ecclesiological divide within the greater SBC?”

Scott then spends the greater part of his article repeating the tired canard that Calvinism splits churches. In so doing, Scott makes snide and sarcastic comments and repeats unfounded claims against the “new/agressive” Calvinism in such a way that deprives his targets of the grace he claims that they, themselves, lack. Scott’s summary warning to churches seems to be thus: 1. Calvinism is anti-patriotic; 2. Christian worship should be patriotic; 3. you should therefore beware of music ministers coming from Southern. Oh, and because Scott is not “mad about my Calvinistic theology” nor “consistent enough…to be described as truly Reformed” he can cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention (as if others cannot).

The gratuitous condescension looms large.

In Part 2, Scott addresses Stam’s various contentions regarding patriotism in worship. In general, I contend that Scott’s response seems to pass far afield of the point of Stam’s letter, despite the stated intent to meet it head-on. The careful reader can discern that for himself. My concern is for some of Scott’s assumptions, and it is those that I will address here.

First, Scott asserts that patriotism in worship is permissible because we should “show respect” and he cites Romans 12:10, 13:7 and 1 Peter 2:17 as biblical proof. But those passages speak of “honor” and “respect” in ways that relate to patriotism only remotely, if at all. And they certainly do not suggest that the honor to be shown should actually occur in our worship services, and consist of songs and flags and processions befitting the occasion.

Second, Scott says this: “Just because something can be easily confused in a worship setting [referring to patriotism in worship] does not mean that we automatically discard it. I’m quite sure that for many, the cross can be confusing.” I have no doubt that Scott does not mean to say that honoring military men in Sunday worship is as important to the faith as the cross of Christ. But this is the sort of muddled thinking and sloppy writing that characterize many of our discussions with each other, and that the confusion inherent in Stam’s statement itself would not be patently obvious and studiously avoided is incomprehensible.

Third, Scott seems unwilling to discuss the issue of whether Christian believers should incorporate expressions of patriotism in worship without alluding to some nefarious connection with “new-Calvinism.” In his “Final Word” on the matter, Scott infers that the only believers who could possible have concern about patriotism in worship are Calvinist. And, in the course of three posts, he broadened the scope of his disdain from the “new-Calvinist” or “agressive-Calvinist” to the wider “SBC’s Calvinist wing”, and to the wider still “Reformed theology.” Given a bit more blog space, Scott might have gone on to impugn the entire Western church (save Southern Baptist congregations which reject Calvinism and sing “America, the Beautiful” in a flag-studded sanctuary on July 4, ostensibly).

Yet over these three posts Scott utterly fails to show even the slightest connection between Calvinism and anti-patriotism. I am still left wondering why Calvinism was brought into the discussion.

Whether believers should express patriotism in corporate worship is a serious matter, and should be sincerely considered. If other believers raise a concern about the implications of such practice, the simple fact that those who raise it might be “Calvinist” should be of no consequence (whatever “Calvinist” now means — Scott refers to himself as an “inconsistent Calvinist” and others as “more Calvinist”, among other things).

Our inability to hear the valid concerns raised by other believers, and see past whatever soteriological badge we think they wear, does not serve the church well.

Sitting on Stools or Standing in Pulpits

There is quite a bit of recent discussion about the “future” of the Southern Baptist Convention, and whether its icon will be the jeans-wearing, stool-sitting, Message-quoting, Acts29-giving preacher, or the “traditional” suit-wearing, pulpit-occupying, CooperativeProgram-giving preacher.

(See the SBC Voices article on the subject, which cites opinion blogs by both Ed Stetzer and Nathan Finn).

I’m not certain that the Hobson’s choice is an accurate reflection of the state of the Convention. There seems to be a false dichotomy between “traditional” and “hip”, but the discussion raises some interesting questions about the nature of the SBC.

First, in the SBC Voices article, Howell Scott says this about Ed Stetzer: “For those in positions of power within the Convention — who are supposed to be “denominational servants” – to convey such condescension and disdain for ”traditional” Southern Baptist pastors is simply amazing!” Read Stetzer’s article and tell me if you can find a source for Scott’s hysteria other than thin air.

But poorly-aimed attacks on fuzzy and illusory targets are not my primary concern. Two aspects of this article warrant attention.

First, another conclusory statement by Scott deserves a response: “The last of these — cooperation in and through the Cooperative Program — really gets to the heart of the matter about what it means to be a Southern Baptist” [emphasis mine].

Really? Are we certain that we want to ignore, in this context, other important Baptist beliefs? The functional authority of Scripture, regenerate membership, believers’ baptism by immersion, freedom of conscience, and congregational authority are viable contenders for the “what it means to be a Southern Baptist” award.

The Cooperative Program is certainly a laudable effort to concentrate energy and resources toward missions. But we should nevertheless be careful about the level of definitive importance we place on it. Because if the primary aspect of being a Southern Baptist is that we have the best clearing-house for money to be used in a myriad of purposes, then we are not much different than a more efficient Red Cross, or a sanctified United Way.

Second, a comment by Dave Miller raises more questions than it answers:  “You do not have to be a Baptist to be a Christian, but you have to believe basic Baptist doctrine to be Baptist. We need to define those parameters as broadly as possible. Baptism by immersion of believers, priesthood of believers, soul competency, and very little else.”

Admittedly, this is a comment in the stream, and does not reveal Scott’s opinion on the issue, but it reveals the divide about “crucial” Southern Baptist distinctives. Miller’s list, as you see, does not mention the Cooperative Program.

Contrary to Miller’s predicate, “basic Baptist doctrine” is not so easy to define. At one time, basic Bible doctrine would be the Baptist Faith & Message, but many of our non-Southern Baptist friends could agree with most of the BF&M. Miller gets closer to cracking the nut when he ostensibly defines the parameters broadly by limiting those things necessary for one to believe and practice in order to “be Baptist”: believers’ baptism by immersion, the priesthood of believers, and soul competency. When Miller says “very little else,” he politely allows for other things when in fact there is nothing else.

What should be clear is that when we speak of “basic Baptist doctrine” — that which separates us from Presbyterians, or Methodists, or Evangelical Free churches, for instance — we are really speaking of “Baptist distinctives.”

Of Miller’s three “basics”, believers’ baptism by immersion is the easiest. A baptism which follows regeneration and which follows profession of faith is a fairly obvious distinction from those who “baptize” infants, who practice “confirmation” of older members, or who do both for those who desire it.

“Priesthood of believers” and “soul competency” are terms common to many long-time Baptists, but seem to be quickly fading from the collective memory of the average congregation. Even at this point, then, much more clarification is needed before Miller’s suggestion can be properly assessed.

What this debate — as illustrated in the SBC Voices article — demonstrates is that each congregation has wide latitude in determining whether it is “Southern Baptist.” It also reveals the need for much more clarity of thought, so that those churches giving preeminence to CP giving don’t “go Pharisee” on those that don’t.

Reformed vs Southern Baptist: SBC Entities

[This is the seventh article interacting with a series by Les Puryear — www.lesliepuryear.blogspot.com — regarding whether Southern Baptists can be Reformed]

Many in the SBC view unqualified support of the Cooperative Program — typically meaning that each church give “10% of undesignated gifts” to it — as a litmus test for discerning true (SBC) believers. Because the perception is that those who hold a Reformed Baptist perspective reject such support, the conclusion is that it is impossible for one to be both Reformed and Southern Baptist.

Critics complain that Reformed Baptists aren’t exclusive to Cooperative Program giving: that they also support non-SBC entities and agencies, most notably the Acts 29 network, which ‘plants reformed churches.’

But the idea that Southern Baptists must only support official SBC agencies and entities means much more than support for the Cooperative Program. The SBC maintains a publishing arm, LifeWay, which prints a plethora of literature and runs retail outlets to sell it. If the criticism is to be consistent, then Southern Baptists should not purchase non-LifeWay literature or books from a non-SBC press. I remember one local education minister who tried to force all teachers to use only literature from the then “Sunday School Board” — it was, in fact, as absurd as it sounds.

And what about non-SBC charity? Samaritan’s Purse is not an SBC organization, but plenty of SBC congregations fall over themselves to participate in Operation Christmas Child. (I’m not criticizing the enthusiasm; I like OCC…I’m just sayin’) To be consistent, pastors who hold to the same SBC-only mentality would have to tell their congregants not to give money or time or service to anyone but the local SBC church, local SBC association, state SBC agency, or the SBC itself. How likely is that?

Shibboleths are useful to detect outsiders. But even SBC shibboleths are due to be abandoned — that is, the sacred cows tipped and processed for boots and burgers — when they either don’t reflect the essence of the group or actually serve to keep outsiders out.

In the case of the Reformed vs Southern Baptist debate, shibboleths used to characterize Reformed Baptists as outsiders fail on both counts.