Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Feeding the Children and a Return to Weekly Communion

One of the ways Christian churches in the Evangelical and Reformed traditions fail to follow the biblical pattern of worship is through their practice of the Lord's Supper.  The giving of the Supper is infrequent, even though the evidence of the New Testament is that the Supper was received weekly. This is more than a mere theoretical problem.  It deprives the household of God the bread our Lord promises to give (see Matthew 24:45-46 and Luke 12:42-43).

Denominational rules and traditions prevent churches from returning to the pattern Jesus gave us of teaching and a meal.  By tying the administration of the Supper to the pastor, it becomes impossible to ensure the Supper is received each Lord's Day for the blessing and strengthening of the people.  If the pastor is sick or the congregation does not have a pastor, then believers are not able to receive this means of grace and life from their Lord.

Mark Thompson writes of the inconsistency and unbiblical nature of the restriction of the administration of the Supper to the pastor, when he writes:

By virtue of ordination, the presbyter [pastor] is given a special authority which is necessary if the Lord’s Supper is to be authentic. The presbyter [pastor] or ‘priest’ stands in a special relation to God, able to stand before God on behalf of the people and before the people on behalf of God. When such arguments are mounted, it is hard to avoid a
sacerdotal view of the presbyterate [pastorate], an idea which undermines the unique priesthood of Christ and both the singularity and finality of his sacrifice on the cross. It is also hard to avoid the suggestion that this activity lies at the heart of presbyteral [pastoral] ministry. When others are permitted to share in every other form of ministry exercised by the presbyter [pastor] (preaching, pastoral care, parish administration, leading services and even baptism) but are prohibited from administering the Lord’s Supper, the conclusion seems obvious that this is the distinguishing mark of presbyteral [pastoral] ministry: this is the essence of what it means to be ordained. Yet in the New Testament the ministry of the presbyter [pastor] or elder is not in essence liturgical but pastoral. The end result of an insistence on this prohibition, then, is confusion, or even distortion, of the biblical pattern of ministry. (1)

By unbiblically tying the Supper to one person in the congregation, we deprive ourselves of the meal Jesus instituted for our strengthening and blessing.  We become like those Jesus spoke against, who raised their human traditions above the Word of God.  Instead of following our Lord's authoritative pattern of teaching and a meal/sign, we do our own unbiblical thing.  Thompson writes:

It is abundantly clear that in both the New Testament contexts in which the Lord’s Supper is mentioned (Luke 22 and 1 Corinthians 11) it is a congregational activity rather than a priestly activity. The validity of the Lord’s Supper does not depend on the person administering it but on the attitude of those participating in it towards each other and towards the atoning death of Jesus which is its proper focus. The proclamation of the gospel which Paul envisages as the meaning of the meal shared by the Corinthians, is a proclamation by the congregation, not just by the individual who is leading the prayers and distributing the loaf and the cup. A similar point is made in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, which insist that the efficacy of the sacrament depends not on the worthiness or otherwise of the minister but on ‘Christ’s institution and promise’ (Article 26).
This biblical focus is compromised by our preoccupation with the identity of the one who administers the Supper (or with the precise words spoken or actions performed at the right moment). Things about which the New Testament says little or nothing become central in our practice and the more important things fade into the background. The insistence on only presbyters administering the Supper runs the risk of changing the character of the Supper, from being a corporate act of remembrance in which the critical factor is the attitude and focus of the participants in the light of Christ’s promise, to being something done for or on behalf of the congregation by a particular person with distinctive qualifications and authority. It becomes an exercise in priestly ministry rather than an opportunity for all present to testify again of the mercy of Christ in which we trust for a full and complete salvation. The focus turns from the heart and mind of the recipients to the words and actions of the one administering. At this level too, the absolute prohibition of all but the ordained presbyter administering the Supper brings in its wake confusion and distortion.

Returning to the biblical pattern of Word and meal promises blessing and growth to our churches.  It holds the promise of democratizing ministry.  Part of the reason for the failure of churches to evangelize and grow is that churches have restricted the ministry to the pastor.  The only way to return to the weekly pattern of Word and meal in our churches is to take the administration out of the hands of the pastor.  His role is to supervise and oversee the church (including the Supper), making sure it is taught and fed.  By restricting the Supper to himself, he actually causes the children to go hungry.  Let us start to feed them once again.

May the Lord have mercy on us and return his meal to us on a regular basis. Amen.

(1) Both quotes from Mark Thompson's article in the book The Lord's Supper in Human Hands.

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