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.

Reformed vs Southern Baptist: Sacraments & Ordinances

[This is now the third article interacting with a series of posts by Les Puryear (www.lesliepuryear.blogspot.com) in which he compares and contrasts what he considers to be the “traditional” Southern Baptist position and his concept of “Reformed” Baptist.]

With regard to the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, Puryear claims that Reformed Baptists classify those functions of the church as “sacraments” as opposed to the traditional view of them as “ordinances.”

First, there is the lingering problem with the assessment that Reformed Baptist thought is truly what Puryear says it is. Puryear seems to propose that every person with whom he has spoken who claims the mantle “Reformed Baptist” views the Lord’s Supper and Baptism as sacraments. Yet I have not met one who believes this. Rather than reconsidering his characterization of Reformed Baptists, however, Puryear insists that those who claim to be Reformed but who reject the sacramental perspective are not really Reformed, after all, but are merely “Calvinist” Baptists.

Patronization is alive and well, it seems, and one also finds that there are many distinctions without differences, especially in the blogging world.

Second, it is not altogether certain that a thing cannot be both an ordinance AND some sort of platform for grace. That is, it is certainly true that the physical act of being submerged in water is not the mechanism of saving grace to the believer. Baptism is certainly the believer’s outward profession of the inward change that God has wrought in him through Christ. But is it ONLY that?

By disfavoring the term ‘sacrament,’ Baptists reject the sacerdotal baggage that comes with it, nameley, that the ‘sacrament’ of Lord’s Supper and Baptism is necessary for grace. Southern Baptists reject the notion that should a believer miss partaking in a given ‘sacrament,’ that he will in some respect be cut off from gospel privileges.

But to reject the ‘necessary for grace’ view of sacerdotalism does not require us to view Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are bare human acts with no relation to grace.

Would not everyone agree that witnessing Baptism as part of our corporate worship, and in that act being reminded that God is still raising men from death to life through Christ, is somehow ‘gracious’ to the one witnessing it?

And would not everyone agree that participating in the Lord’s supper — and in so doing not only being reminded that the body and blood of Christ were given up for our trangressions and justification, but also ‘participating’ (Gr. ‘koinonia’) in the body and blood (1Co10:16) — is somehow ‘gracious’ to the participant?

Reformed Baptists do not believe that the ordinances convey saving grace. But it is unwise to suggest that neither do they convey any sort of sanctifying grace.

Our Hands are on the Head of the Lamb

“He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. Then he shall kill the bull before the Lord, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting” (Leviticus 1:4-5).

It is no wonder that not many of us relish that portion of our read-the-Bible-in-one-year plan that takes us through Leviticus. How morbidly gory. And this description of sacrificial events is not merely the introduction, after which we get to the ‘good stuff.’

Repeatedly we are told how we are to treat peace offerings, either from the herd or the flock, lamb or goat. We are instructed how to treat offering for unintentional sins, intentional sins, sins of the congregation, sins of leaders. We are instructed how to deal with the uncleanness of childbirth, of nocturnal emissions, of leprosy – even of leprous houses.

And for each of these offenses and offerings, an animal dies. The perpetrator brings his lamb to the priest, lays his hands on its head, and turns it over to the priest for slaughter, its blood spilled and flesh torn.

Over and over, offense after offense, animal after animal God gives us the picture of the guilty laying his hand on an innocent substitute. Over and over, day after day, year after year, the picture of symbolic transfer is played out in the scene of temple life for Israel, and as a result of the magnitude of sin, the bleating of sheep fills the ears and the running of blood is ever before the eyes.

“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Leviticus 17:11).

We no longer have the picture of temple sacrifice in the style of Leviticus. Instead, we have the Lord’s Supper, with its otherwise mundane elements and repeated words “this is my body, this is my blood.” And rather than depicting a repeated event, these pictures themselves are reminders of a single event, an accomplished act, the final Levitical sacrifice.

It is now Christ who is the sacrificial Lamb, led to the slaughter, his blood spilled and body torn. And it is my offense that requires his presence on the altar, my hand placed on his head, my guilt transferred to the one who was innocent.

When we commemorate the Last Supper in Maundy Thursday celebrations, the crucifixion in Good Friday services, when we claim that we have trusted Christ, we are saying to the priest, to our neighbor, to our fellow offender that we have sin for which blood needs to be shed, and that we have placed our hands on the head of the spotless Lamb. We are proclaiming that it should have be us on the cross.

And when we join together for sunrise services on Resurrection Day, we are acknowledging as obsolete the Levitical system which required that once an animal was slaughtered and new offenses committed, new life was required, new blood had to be spilled.

Instead, in the New Covenant, in which “this is my body, this is my blood,” this Lamb is not forever silenced, his heart not forever stopped, because he was Begotten of the Father and was able to bear the punishment for sin in our stead, God providing proof that he was satisfied with the Lamb by raising him from the dead.

It should have been the offender’s own blood in Leviticus, it should have been our own body on the cross, but praise God that it was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.