Monday, October 27, 2014

Renew the Table: Hijacking 'The Fruit of the Vine'

Renew the Table is a series of thoughts and opinions concerning the renewal of the Lord's Supper. For more information please see Goals and Disclaimers

I've already laid out the wonky foundations of why wine was initially removed from worship. I then tried to show why an artificial wine simply isn't good enough as a symbol for the real blood of Christ. As convincing as I think these arguments are, I know that, at least for Baptists, there is one argument that holds more weight than all of this, and it goes like this: “For the Bible tells me so.”

I said a few posts back that it was the Baptist standards of Biblical fidelity and an iron stance on immersion baptism that led me to the conclusion that wine, rather than grape juice, should be served at communion. Baptists take the bible and baptism seriously. The reason they are labeled ‘Baptist’ is because they wouldn't budge an inch on issues like believer’s baptism and baptism by immersion. The reason they can hold so tightly to these doctrines is because they are derived from Scripture. When someone asks why they believe what they believe about baptism, they can pick up the text and say, “Look here.” They've endured persecution for holding such beliefs but because they were tied to the anchor of Scripture and refused to let it go, they weathered the storm.

And so I'm left scratching my head wondering how Baptists, with their noble history of fighting and dying over their Scriptural understanding of baptism, have left the Lord’s Supper by the wayside. The arguments offered for validating water baptism and baptism by immersion are the very arguments they ignore when it comes to wine in the Lord’s Supper. I say this because when asked why I believe we should use wine in the Supper I can pick up the text (just as I can to defend water baptism) and say, “Look here”. So the case for wine in worship swiftly becomes one a little too close for comfort for many Bible believing Baptists. And yet they (among others) still drink grape juice. Why is this the case?

The Fruit of the Vine 
I have pointed out that the 1925 version of the Baptist Message and Faith includes the word ‘wine’ in spite of the practice of using grape juice. The later versions changed ‘wine’ to ‘the fruit of the vine’. The phrase ‘fruit of the vine’ is what we find recorded in Scripture, and so it comes as no surprise that the Baptists would desire to use the phrase. ‘The fruit of the vine’ or ‘the cup’ are unquestionably biblical phrases, and this seems to rectify the practice of grape juice with the biblical command. Is not grape juice derived from the fruit on the vine? Quite so. Problem solved. Let’s pass another resolution on alcohol. On paper it appears that the crisis has been averted.

But what troubles me is this: that this change came about, not in an effort to become more biblical, but simply to ease the Baptist mind. This change from ‘wine’ to ‘fruit of the vine’ has been enacted not necessarily to follow the biblical command, but rather to give a certain kind of biblical justification for using grape juice. The phrase ‘fruit of the vine’ smells more biblical than “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Communion Wine”. It’s an artful dodge that any savvy politician would be impressed with. It avoids the association with the historic cultural influence, it bypasses the initial accusation that it usurps Christ’s command, and it stamps it all with what appears to be the approval of the Spirit inspired Word of God.

But this is hardly how Baptists have approached issues with the other ordinance. Baptists know that the Greek word for baptism includes the idea of submerging and dipping. We see John the Baptist baptizing in a particular place because there was much water there. When Jesus was baptized he “came up out of the water”.  The history of the early church indicates the same understanding and practice. Strengthened with a sound knowledge of the language, the culture, and history, Baptists believe that the plain reading of Scripture indicates that immersion is the correct practice. But the same criteria is avoided or altogether rejected when it comes to interpreting ‘the fruit of the vine’ or ‘the cup’ as wine.

The Gospels, the Epistles, the culture during Christ’s days on earth, the history of the Church; it all points to ‘the fruit of the vine’ being wine. There is no denying the contents of ‘the cup’. To use a substance different than what Christ commanded is one thing, but to use a substance different than what Christ commanded and then justifying it by calling it ‘the fruit of the vine’ is devious, if not outright demonic, for it begs the question, “Did God really say that we should drink wine?” We are playing that wily old tactic of using the words of Christ and giving them a different meaning.

Pumpkin Spice Communion
Here is a question for those churches who wish to maintain that ‘the fruit of the vine’ biblically justifies their use of grape juice: What is stopping you or any other church from using kiwi juice? A kiwi is a fruit that grows on the vine. Using your own biblical definition and usage of ‘the fruit of the vine’, how can you reject kiwi juice being used? In all of God’s wisdom and humor, He deemed that pumpkins should grow on the vine. Why not serve pumpkin juice? Why can’t we commune with a Pumpkin Spice Latte? The moment you begin to use Scripture to tell me why I can’t drink a Pumpkin Spice Latte at the Lord’s Table is the moment your argument for grape juice falls.

This is the third or fourth post that has touched on this issue, so I want to be clear; this isn't about alcohol, it’s about obedience to the Word of God and who has the final say in our worship. Baptists, for all of their noble qualities and biblical resolve, have really dropped the ball here. The fear of man and the traditions of men have robbed the Baptists and other evangelicals of the fullness of their worship.  Removing wine from the Supper dealt a devastating blow to a worship practice that was already on the ropes. The first punch of Memorialism removed Christ’s presence and the Supper was staggering. The second punch, removing the wine, wasn't aimed at alcohol—it was aimed at Christ’s authority. Like children who raid the cookie jar when they think Mom isn't watching, they had the gall (not mixed with wine, mind you) to challenge Christ’s authority because they believed Christ wasn't there. When Christ is away the men will play. 

So the Lord’s Supper is battered and bloody, lying in the ditch, watching Baptists and Evangelicals pass by, probably on their way to an immersion baptism or to the ballot box to vote for another Ken doll Republican. The Good Samaritan parable is so applicable here it is (sadly) almost effortless.

Filling the Void 
I said that Baptist and evangelical worship has been robbed. Is it any surprise that they are looking to fill the void? If you look back from, oh, about that time when the Lord’s Supper was kicked to the backseat (or trunk), and you trace your finger from then to today, you will see a lot of innovations. I remember a few years back reading an article (many articles actually) encouraging churches and worship leaders to engage the whole worshipper and not just their ears. They said that worshippers need to worship with all of their senses; sound, sight, taste, touch, smell. These articles were all recognizing that worship was lacking something, but they never put their finger on it. Stunning visual backdrops for the stage or song slides were suggested. Things like painting and building blocks (Oh, how I wish I was making this up) would allow the worshipper to really express their faith. I have a book on my shelf that recommends hiring a chef to literally cook food in the back of the sanctuary so that people can smell the good food, and then after the service the people can then (yes you guess it…now cringe with me) taste and see that the Lord is good.

These are the kinds of things we resort to when we ignore what Christ has commanded us to do. We feel that something is missing. We are looking for something more. We become mystified and frustrated that worship is not satisfying our needs, all the while the table sits in the corner or some back room, gathering dust and old bulletins.

The removal of wine isn't the sole cause of the neglect of the Table, but it does contribute greatly. This is because the removal of wine is also the usurping of Christ’s authority. When we say that we are obeying Christ by drinking grape juice and calling it ‘the fruit of the vine’ we are really authorizing that which Christ never authorized. The reality is that the stuff in our thimbles is not what Jesus commanded us to drink, whatever we call it.

A Word about the 'Difference of Opinion' 
One might argue that the phrase "the fruit of the vine" wasn't inserted to ease the Baptist mind, but rather to enable Baptists of differing opinions on the subject a phrase that might cover both. In other words you have two groups of baptists, fermented and unfermented, using different liquid elements in the Supper, but using the same Baptist approved phrase in order that cooperative unity might be achieved. Aside from the fact that it still seeks to ease the unfermented-baptist mind, I have two observations before we reach the bottom. 1) This re-wording doesn't unite a division, it only covers it. But like a snow covered crevasse on a mountainside, the fact that you don't see it on the surface doesn't mean it isn't there. To ignore it is as dangerous as claiming it doesn't exist. 2) If indeed the wording was changed, not to appease the grape juice crowd, but to allow a difference of opinion on this subject, then we've opened ourselves up to a fun game of "What other commands of Christ do we have the option to obey?" 

The Last Dregs
I think I’ll cease pounding this wine barrel. There comes a point when a rhythm becomes inaudible simply by being a rhythm. That is to say, there’s only so much I can say about this before it falls on deaf ears. I can’t promise that it won’t come up again but there are other aspects of the Table I’m concerned about. Hopefully these last few posts have been edifying. To be sure, a church that desires to switch from grape juice to wine will certainly meet opposition and more than a few tough questions. Some opposition will be wolves to kill and some will be sheep to love and teach. The ramifications will need to be thought through with wisdom. Things like, “Should children partake of the wine?” are, for many, going to be a tough row to hoe. My hope is that Christ would continually be held up for all to see during the entire process and that love for Him and His people will lead the way.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Renew The Table: A Hill to Die On?

After my last post, some might get the impression that I was charging the down the aisle of the sanctuary full speed atop a donkey like Bacchus, with a grapes in one hand and a sloshing glass in the other saying, “Drink Ye Wine Or Nothing At All!” And in a sense, sure I’ll take that. As the old song goes, I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause. As far as the gospel goes, I’ll accept no substitute, and insofar as I can tell, grape juice is a substitute symbol for the blood of Christ, and the blood of Christ is the life of the gospel.

But is it a hill to die on? Is it a line in the sand? Well, yes and no.

A Hill to Die On
photo via Al Arabiya
Last October four Iranian Christians were sentenced to 80 lashes each for drinking wine in communion. Iran carried out the sentence for two of those four men, whipping them "with extreme violence". An Executive for Christian Solidarity Worldwide said, “The sentences handed down to these members of the Church of Iran effectively criminalise the Christian sacrament of sharing in the Lord's Supper and constitute an unacceptable infringement on the right to practice faith freely and peaceably.” This leads me to ask all sorts of uncomfortable questions. Such as: Who among us in the US would be charged for this crime? Who among us would  willingly put ourselves into a position to be charged for this crime? Who among us would go so far as to risk 80 lashes just for drinking wine in communion? How soon would we switch to grape juice? Or if we are already drinking grape juice, how much more would something like this deter us from using wine? Would your observance of the Lord’s Supper be a criminal offense in Iran?

Look how this goes against our American evangelical sensitivities. These men carried out their Lord’s command in a place that makes the Temperance Movement look like a dog and pony show. How many American churches would have used grape juice over wine in an effort to be relevant to their Muslim neighbors? Or how many would simply just use grape juice for fear of persecution? To many American evangelicals, this persecution looks highly avoidable. These men chose to fear God over man and so they drank wine.

So on one hand, this really is a hill to die on because the gospel is a hill to die on. If the option is between rejecting the Word of God for the laws and scruples of men or embracing the Word of God for 80 lashes and/or scornful looks from blue haired ladies and their nice sons, then give me the latter.

The Enchanted
On the other hand, it’s not a hill to die on. Not yet. This too is gospel. Love covers a multitude of sins, even sins that have tinkered (knowingly or unknowingly) with Christ-ordained worship. For this to become a hill to die on, one must first ascend to the top of the hill, and this is a gradual process. Right now the King of the Hill is everything we've been talking about; Memorialism, Pragmatism, Infrequency, Grape Juice, etc. Most folks are just going with the flow. That’s not okay, but in some sense, it’s not their fault. The Church is not our enemy. The vast majority of our brothers and sisters are under an enchantment. A waking up needs to occur. Like Narnia the Lord’s Supper in the American evangelical church is in a state of Always Winter. Before the snows can melt, before the people can be un-stoned, before the rebels can go public, we need Aslan to be on the move.

In spite of my wine-boasting, I have not once imbibed wine during communion. I would not yet be charged with an Iranian crime. I've never attended a worship service where it was offered to me. Nor have I partaken on a weekly basis. I desire greatly to do so. Like the whole of creation I am waiting with eager longing. But I can see the situation for what it is. The landscape is barren. Were I to align myself only with those who drink wine in communion, I would likely find that to be nearly the only thing we agree on. It’s a weird and lonely world for a vino-baptist.

Perhaps a day will come when God chooses to breathe new life into the evangelical understanding of the Supper and this will become a bigger issue. That’s likely when the line will be drawn. And to be honest, I don’t think wine, in and of itself, will be the line of demarcation. The real issue is a fuller and more complete understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper, of which wine is only a small part.

Right now, at least for me, it’s a time for love with longsuffering and a bit of underground disruption. Like Mr Beaver I’m on the lookout for signs and allies that signify Aslan’s arrival. I’m in no position of authority to bring about a change. I’m just someone on the internet who desires to see Christ magnified to the fullest extent at the Table. If you’re on board with me and have a desire to renew the table I want to ask you to do the same. Let’s love and teach and love and get punched in the mouth and love and teach and love. Let’s fellowship with our brothers and sisters, bearing with one another, eating crackers and drinking grape juice because we desire to be one, and yet let’s not remain satisfied while the Supper remains incomplete. John Newton shares some wisdom,

“I have been thirty years forming my own views; and, in the course of this time, some of my hills have sunk, and some of my valleys have risen: but, how unreasonable within me to expect all this should take place in another person; and that, in the course of a year or two.”

Let’s look for change, but not change overnight. The enchantment needs to be broken. When that happens, when enough people are awake to the reality of the situation, that’s when, for the sake of truth and the gospel, the lines begin to be drawn.

The Enchanters
At the same time, let’s not back down from legalists and their brood. There are those who are enchanted, but there are also those wily sorcerers who enchant. Jesus and the Apostles warn us all over the place about slinkers and stinkers who make their way into the church. Paul tells Timothy that the Spirit warns us about “men who…advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.” Jesus was patient with those who were held captive by the tradition of men, but held back no punches for those who sought to chain them. We see this encounter with the Pharisees in Matthew 7,

“'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;in vain do they worship meYou leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

So there are the Enchanted and the Enchanters. From what I can see, the American evangelical church is chock full of the Enchanted. And for this reason, I refuse to break fellowship with them. With them, I will draw no line. I pray that God reveals His truth among His people and His Table is renewed in a powerful way among the church in America. But I also pray that God steels me to do battle with the Enchanters, those wolves that seek to enslave and feed on the flock, who make the word of God void for the sake of their tradition. They are fewer in number but they crop up like weeds even in the most well tended gardens. God’s word is a sword and thus far, Memorialism and Pragmatism, offer only feign defense. They are easily cut. But as long as they are still infused with the power of the Spirit of the Age (and they are), then they, like the White Witch, remain a formidable obstacle.
Mr Fox and his fellow vino-baptists, pre-stoning

Of course all of this requires discernment, which is why I felt I needed to write this piece in the first place. My goal in this series has simply been to call for the renewal of the Lord’s Supper and the best way I know to do that is to just speak the truth. I understand that I’m in the minority. In this epoch of time I am currently on the losing side. So I can see how some posts might give the impression that the majority is the enemy. That’s not the case and I hope I have shown why. But thankfully, God wants His worship more pure and to a greater degree than we do. Ultimately He will bring about a change in His own time and His own way. Is this a hill to die on? I think the answer must be: yes and not yet. We just need to be faithful. Faithful to love and faithful to fight. Sometimes at the same time.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Renew The Table: Is Grape Juice Good Enough?

Renew the Table is a series of thoughts and opinions concerning the renewal of the Lord's Supper. For more information please see Goals and Disclaimers

We've already established that those who ascribe to Memorialism (knowingly or unknowingly) believe that the only thing that matters regarding the Lord’s Supper is that they obey the command “Do this”. It doesn't really matter how they do it, or how often they do it, just so long as their practice is good enough to meet the bottom line. In an earlier post I said that it was this logic that has allowed such brilliant ideas like substituting the Bread and Wine with Coke and Cookies or Pizza and Pop. I believe it is safe to say that most Grape Juice Memorialists think that Cookies and Coke are going a bit too far. But I have to ask, on what grounds can a Grape Juice Memorialist reject Cookies and Coke as acceptable elements for the Lord’s Supper? As appalling as it sounds, they cannot, with clear conscience and sound reason, appeal to Scripture, because Scripture calls for wine. The only way they can justify grape juice over Coke is because it has been determined that grape juice does a better job than Coke in helping us remember. Grape juice does a better job than Coke for a Memorialist/Pragmatist because it is good enough to meet the bottom line. It gets the job done. Grape juice, by all accounts, has been declared ‘good enough’.

There is a quick reaction one might have with the ‘good enough’ argument. If grape juice is better than Coke, isn't wine better than grape juice? To those who have no abstinence scruples, I’m sure the answer would be, “Of course it is better,” but their pragmatic Memorialism tells them that it just isn't necessary. We don’t need wine, therefore we don’t use wine.

So the next question we need to address is this: Is the bottom line actually good enough? For starters, yes, the bottom line is good enough. It’s just that the bottom line isn't where Memorialists have placed it. Someone else has set the line and standard that we are obligated to meet. Memorialists have not let Christ have the final say, and because of this they allowed the Spirit of the Temperance Age to determine the standard, the bottom line. So the question we ought to care more about is who has set the standard. And added to that, is that standard really necessary? For our purposes specifically; is grape juice good enough to meet the standard? Is wine really necessary? 

The Standard
Bread and wine are the Symbols of Christ’s broken body and poured out blood. In the Supper, in our eating and drinking in faith, we participate in the Reality that they symbolize. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).

Because our eating and drinking is a participating in the Reality of that which is symbolized, this
ought to lead us to look, not only to the symbols themselves, but at Who it was that did the symbolizing. Christ Himself gave us the symbols. He took bread and told us to eat it. He took wine and told us to drink it. These are the symbols that Christ has commanded to be the means by which we participate in the Reality of that which is symbolized. When we diminish the symbol that Christ commanded us to use, we diminish that which it symbolizes. When we neglect the symbol, we neglect what is symbolized.

Gordon T. Smith says, “When we use bread it should look, taste, and feel like bread. The reason, in part, is that the incarnation was real, not an artificial humanity.” Christ commands bread to symbolize His broken body. To serve anything less than real bread, not only disobeys the Lord’s command, but causes a rift between the symbol and that which is symbolized. In the same way, when we use wine it should look, taste, and feel like wine. The reasoning is the same; Christ’s blood was real blood and not artificial blood. What is grape juice but artificial wine? In light of this, to say that grape juice is ‘good enough’ is to say that we desire the form of Christ’s blood but not the fullness thereof. It's like a Hollywood Old West movie set. It looks like the real thing, but when you step through the double doors into the saloon you find yourself on the backside of a propped up wall.

If we do not desire to participate fully in the symbol, then why should it be said of us that we desire to fully participate in the Reality that it symbolizes? Essentially the ultimate desire for grape juice as an element in the Supper indicates that we do not wish to participate in the fullness of the blood of Christ. I’ll make clear straight away that I don’t believe anyone consciously would say such a thing. I believe (and hope!) all Christians desire to participate fully in the blood of Christ. But functionally, when we serve something less than what Christ commanded, when we serve artificial wine, we functionally proclaim an artificial death.

If Christ gave us real bread and real wine to symbolize the reality of his broken body and poured out blood, why would we desire to turn to fake bread or fake wine? What does fake wine functionally symbolize? What do we proclaim with a counterfeit symbol?  

Going Deeper
Knowing all of this, there is a deeper layer to the question: What is preventing us from using wine instead of grape juice? The answers are abundant: because we've always used grape juice; we wouldn't want to offend a weaker brother; our denomination requires us to do so; alcoholism is a real problem in America and we wouldn't want to put a stumbling block in anyone’s way, etc.

But when we apply that deeper layer, we see the question in reality is this: What is preventing us from participating fully in the blood of Christ? Asking the question in this way immediately shines a light on our motives. We feel safer with the previous question. This one reveals that many things we thought were justifiable answers are now only excuses. If we were initially concerned that wine in the Supper would cause our brother to stumble, what are we now saying about Christ who commands wine and who cares more for our brother than we do? Who are we seeking to avoid offending; our brother or Christ? If the answer is both, you are correct, but we don’t accomplish it by negating Christ’s commands.

Do you see how this becomes more than just alcohol? Do you see how this transcends our arguments about Christian liberty? Christ has given us liberty to abstain or partake in everything but the Supper. He commands us to partake in faith at His Table. Christians are slaves to Christ. When we change His commanded symbol to please our scruples we are are not exercising our Christian liberty, we are in a state of rebellion against our Master. Christ is the Author and Perfecter of our faith. When we chose to revise (or ignore) Christ-ordained worship we have set ourselves up to be the Editors and Faultfinders of our faith. We are declaring that the Author made a mistake; the Perfecter is Imperfect.

The Supper is a picture of the Gospel. Who are we to tell the Master Artist that He should have painted it another way? We are like progressive art critics all standing around admiring the beautiful work, arms folded, chins stroked and we muse amongst ourselves, “Yes it is quite splendid, but—and please don’t get me wrong now—this part here, yes, the part with the blood, it is a bit over the top is it not? I mean, for its time it must have been quite effective and served its purpose nicely, but for my taste it’s a bit too, oh, harsh and jarring. Have you seen the rendition at NorthPointeBrook? No? Oh, it’s simply fantastic. It doesn't quite capture the charming rustic quality of the original, but you might say that they've smoothed the edges and toned the color down just enough. It’s subtle, but it makes all the difference in the world. Much more palatable for modern eyes.”

When we tinker with the symbols, we tinker with the picture of the gospel God has given to our senses in worship. When we purposefully lessen the symbol, not only does that lessen what is symbolized, but we lessen the picture of the gospel we proclaim; A picture of the gospel that is given for our good, for our benefit, for our joy, and for the glory of God and the proclamation of the gospel. These are not light matters. J.C. Ryle said, “Nothing can possibly be of small importance which the Lord Jesus Christ ordained and appointed. Our Lord most distinctly commanded His disciples to ‘eat bread’ and ‘drink wine’ in remembrance of Him. What right has any Christian to disobey this commandment?" To say that grape juice is ‘good enough’ is to settle for a picture of the gospel that is incomplete (not false, mind you, but incomplete). To say that wine is unnecessary is to diminish the fullness of that which wine symbolizes; the blood of Christ.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Renew the Table: Foundations of Unfermented Worship

Renew the Table is a series of thoughts and opinions concerning the renewal of the Lord's Supper. For more information please see Goals and Disclaimers

Ironically, I think more than anything else, it has been my Baptist background that has fueled and supported my belief that we should be using wine in communion. Baptists mostly (and at least on paper) take the Bible seriously. And because of this they take that which is found in the Bible seriously. The reason that there is a group called “Baptist” in the first place is because they seek to emulate and live out what the Bible teaches. The most obvious and distinguishing mark of a Baptist is their mode of baptism, this being the full water immersion of confessing believers. Oddly enough, this one belief has been strong enough and distinguishing enough that two (or twenty!) churches can virtually disagree on nearly everything from methodology to theology, and yet if they only agree on this one thing, they will identify themselves as “Baptist”.

So, these two Baptist standards—Biblical fidelity and an iron grip on the mode of baptism—were the two lights that led me to that sweet (or dry) gift that God was pleased to give to man: wine. I said it was ironic because (if you've been living under a rock) Baptists are like, woah, hey, no alcohol! They've been making resolutions and creating church member covenants prohibiting the consumption or sale of alcoholic beverages for the last 180 years or so! It might not be too far off the mark to say that a third distinguishing mark of a Baptist is the requirement of abstaining from wine (and other potentially intoxicating beverages).

To begin with, I think it would be helpful to at least take a look at the historical reasons why most evangelicals use grape juice instead of wine. These historical reasons are all intertwined with the theological and philosophical views that we have already been discussing. Frankly, we could spend a great amount of time exploring this. We could get pretty deep into the history, the Spirit of the Age, the philosophy, the science, the hermeneutics, and on and on, but I really want to stay on topic. My hope is that this summary will suffice to give a picture of what has happened.

A Brief History
As we’ve seen in this series, Memorialism has removed the presence of Christ from the Supper, and when Christ is absent from the table, another seeks to fill his place. To sit in the seat of Christ is to sit in a seat of authority (usurped). I also showed how Memorialism not only leaves the door open for Pragmatism, but encourages Pragmatism to have a say. So it’s not too hard to see how the stage was set for outside influences to impact not only the Church’s historical position on drinking, but specifically the Lord’s Supper.

In the early to mid-1800’s The Second Great Awakening and the Temperance Movement along with it dealt a heavy blow to the Church’s traditional understanding of wine and alcoholic beverages, and specifically for our purposes, the Lord’s Supper. As Memorialism tossed the baby out with the bathwater seeking to correct an error in the Lord’s Supper, Revivalism and the Temperance Movement tossed the baby out with the beer as it sought to correct drunkenness. There is nothing wrong about preaching against drunkenness, but there is much wrong when that preaching denies or goes beyond what Scripture reveals. The problem (as it always is) was the allure of success that feeds pragmatism. The revival preaching during this time leaned heavily on pragmatic methods to produce converts. Taverns and saloons were being closed whenever the revival swept into town, and this became one of the many indicators of success.

In the wake of the Second Great Awakening and the drive towards national Prohibition in the United States, pastors and theologians were producing books and sermons that sought to reinterpret the Scriptures to fit the prevailing belief, that the Bible prohibits the consumption of alcohol in any way. All of a sudden wine in the Bible, at least when found on the lips of holy men, was no longer wine, it was unfermented wine. Apparently, no one, for 1900 years had really understood the Hebrew and Greek words which we translate as wine or strong drink. These writings famously influenced Thomas Bramwell Welch, a Methodist, to develop a method to stop grape juice from fermenting, allowing unfermented grape juice to be distributed on a larger scale. Now it was easier than ever before for a congregation with abstinence scruples to go alcohol free. 

Whether the Temperance Movement was born out of the Second Great Awakening, or whether they both were born out of the progressive, pragmatic, Spirit of the Age, it’s hard to say. The one thing that we know for sure, and the thing that concerns us now, is that the Church pre-19th century drank wine in communion while the Evangelical Church post-19th century drank grape juice. Where Memorialism or Pragmatism prevailed, there was no resistance to the removal of wine and the innovation of unfermented grape juice for the Supper. Where Memorialism prevailed, the removal of wine was embraced.

Grape juice became the staple for evangelicals like the Methodists and the Baptists. The Methodists straight up wrote that unfermented wine was a requirement. In 1916 the Methodists mandated:

…let none but the pure juice of the grape be used in administering the Lord's Supper.

They were more honest than their Baptist brethren. In 1925, almost smack dab in the middle of Prohibition we find this in the Baptist Faith and Message:

…and to the Lord's Supper, in which the members of the church, by the use of bread and wine...

Whether the framers of this confession couldn't bring themselves to part with the Scriptural and historical church practice, or because it was simply an oversight, I don’t know. What we do know however is that, in spite of the confession, most (if not all) Baptists were drinking grape juice. If it was an oversight, the updated 1963 and 2000 versions caught it. They removed the word wine and replaced it with the phrase fruit of the vine. A biblical phrase, to be sure, but a notable change nonetheless. But lest one think that Southern Baptists are friendly to those who use real wine, rest assured; a little Google-Fu revealed that the Southern Baptists have passed over 60 anti-alcohol resolutions in the past 120 years. But this actually highlights the Baptists’ biblical fidelity. They reject alcohol, but couldn't bring themselves to go as far as changing the words found in Scripture, regardless of how they have been interpreted. Noble, but still flawed (as we shall see).

A Bad Foundation
But now that our history lesson is over, I hope we can clearly see what led the Baptists and other evangelicals to abandon wine in the Supper; Memorialism, Pragmatism, Popular Opinion, Revisionism. We need to look this ugly foundation square in the face. All of these factors—look at them for what they are: denying Christ’s presence, denying Christ’s command, usurping Christ’s authority, reinterpreting Christ’s words—have been the fundamental reasons for removing wine from worship. I’m just asking that we take an honest look at it. These are the fundamental reasons wine was removed from worship. This is important to remember because only after the wine was removed did anyone begin to appeal to Scripture (at least the parts that weren't reinterpreted) to keep it out.

Do you have a problem with how all this has come to be? I do. And I question how others, knowing this to be the case, don’t have a problem with it. Wine can be dangerous, but the historic foundations for removing wine from worship are even more dangerous. Nadab and Abihu were killed by God for less! They brought strange fire once; we bring strange wine over and over and over again. (I can’t help but wonder if this might, in some deep way, contribute to infrequent communion.)

So the damage is done. Consciences have been seared. Generations upon generations have swallowed this strange wine. It runs deep like a trench in our national and spiritual history. So it leads one to think; Is it even worth the trouble to try to re-institute it? Is it worth dropping this bomb that has the potential to break up the unity of a church? Shouldn't we just steer clear of such a volatile subject that doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things?

First, the simple fact that it is volatile at all should at least be enough to reveal that it does matter in the grand scheme of things on some scale, no? In regards to whether or not it is worth the trouble, I think we should at least weigh whether or not obeying a direct command of Christ is worth the trouble. And in regards to Church unity, before we dip deeper into that, shouldn't we at least be aware that the onus of division actually rests on those who have steered away from the Christ-given command? Can the majority in the wrong blame the minority in the right for dissolving unity? This isn't an evasion of questions; it is framing the questions in the right way. In some ways, wine really isn't a big deal. There’s not a ton of historical ink spilled about the necessity of wine because no one was in disagreement. The early Church didn't write much about the Trinity until someone tried to mess with it. The Reformers emphasized Faith Alone because it was being rejected. Truth has a funny way of slipping into the background unnoticed when all is well. Only when it is rejected does it make a scene. So in this way, wine is a big deal, not because it’ll get you drunk, but because Christ has had a say in it. My aim in upcoming posts is to try to provide reasons why we ought to return to using wine in the Supper.

Last Call 
For many I realize there are a few roadblocks to overcome before they can accept what I’m saying. For many, alcohol in any amount is sinful. They've been fed this since they were children (and since their grandparents were children) and have the Scriptures to prove it, and even have the “true” Greek interpretations and translations. I know because I've been there. I used to hold those beliefs in an elementary way. I've been to Baptist Bible College and have the teacher’s notes “proving” that Jesus never touched the stuff. I don’t want to turn this into an alcohol debate, but I don’t want anyone to think I’m just writing them off either. I just want to say I've been there and I've studied and wrestled with this on both sides. 

Instead of a lengthy diversion, I’ll simply just offer a resource. It is a fantastic book called God Gave Wine by Kenneth L. Gentry that, in my opinion, simply shuts the door on what Scripture has to say about wine and alcoholic drink. It tackles the real (and weird) arguments offered by those who hold a total abstinence position and uses Scripture to answer and reveal that wine really is a good gift given to us by a good God.

At the end of the day, I don't want to convince anyone that the position I hold is the right one (myself included). What I want is for us to take what Christ said seriously, even if that challenges or overthrows those things we once believed to be solid. If I convince you with a crafty argument, despite your misgivings, then you are still bound. But if the Son sets us free then we are free indeed. Pray with me that He will shake our beliefs about things both small and great, about wine, about the Supper, until nothing but truth is left.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Spina Bifida and the Foretaste of Eternal Glory

Earlier this year I read through the Bible as fast as I could. It was a sprint from Genesis to Revelation. Whenever I’d bump up against something that beckoned me to linger I would jot it down and push on. There were lots of interesting things that came about from this kind of reading, but something that caught me off guard, specifically during my jaunt through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, was that I found myself reacting in frustration and anger. We all know that the Gospels are full of accounts where Jesus is healing the sick and the blind and the lame, but reading in this accelerated way allowed me to see that Jesus was healing people a lot. I mean, he was healing people like a dirty politician wants you to vote, early and often. He was healing so many people that the gospel writers simply couldn’t fit them all into their text. John said that it would take more books than the world could contain just to write down all the miraculous things Jesus did.

Like I said, this isn’t new information. I always have known and believed that Jesus healed the lame and sick, but having my perspective readjusted in this sprint of a read, the healing touch of Christ just simply overwhelmed me. And I found my soul, almost without intention, groaning.

My third child, Arwen, was born with a type of spina bifida called myelomenigocele. There’s a lot of medical jargon that goes along with that, but essentially this means that my daughter’s spine never fully closed in the womb and because of this her spinal cord protruded from her back. This leads to the spinal cord being damaged which causes things like paralysis, lack of sensation, loss of bladder and bowel control. All of these things and more affect my daughter. You can read more about myelomenigocele: here. And for a more detailed look at my daughter’s condition, I will point you to my wife’s excellent blog: here

October is spina bifida awareness month, but my daughter and my family are aware of spina bifida every day. It’s not too far off the mark to say we’re aware of it at minimum every hour. We have had to rewire the way we think and the way we live. Everything goes through the spina bifida filter. A fever isn’t just a fever, it’s an ER visit. A slight bump on her head or back nearly send me into cardiac arrest. I praise God she can walk even though she can’t move her feet or calf muscles. And as she grows those legs are looking thinner. I’m aware of it every time I see her run to catch up to her siblings. Will she be able to keep walking when she grows up? My heart is thumping with dread even as I write.

So I’m reading about Jesus and his healing and my heart is groaning for my daughter. God, you have the power to heal. Just heal her. Christ, heal her. If I could but take everything she suffers with and place it upon me I’d do it in half a heartbeat. I can relate to the parents I read about, bringing their sick kids to Jesus, or travelling from afar just to see if this miracle worker can do what no one else has been able to do. Their concern is my concern, their anguish is my anguish, and their pleas for mercy echo mine. We want the same thing, for our child to be made whole. But the difference is that they got what they asked for and I’m still groaning. Mercy. Please heal her like you healed those people. Why won’t you heal her? My pleas for healing were met with silence against the backdrop of the miraculous. So yeah, there was frustration and anger.

All of a sudden I can see now why folks get duped by those Charismatic phony-baloney TV healer types. Desperation. It is the action of doing whatever it takes to give a child relief. Which makes folks like Benny Hinn and his ilk even more evil than I first thought. Sucking the souls and pocketbooks of those who just want relief and blaming those who aren’t healed on their lack of faith. Sick. Faith healers? More like faith stealers. But even armed with that knowledge I’m still tempted. I have real faith, why isn’t my daughter healed? Who needs a TV preacher? I’m duping myself over here. I’m tempted further, But you healed those people! Why can’t you heal her!? and as soon as the words die on my lips I hear them again in the mouths of the scoffers, “He saved others but he can’t save himself!” Well that’s a jolly crew I’ve latched myself to; Benny Hinn and the Mockers of the dying Christ. Oh help my unbelief!

Praise God for sound theology. By His grace I remember that God is sovereign. That anchor. That unshakeable tree that has taken root in my very being. Without it, who’s to say my frustration and anger and desperation wouldn’t keep me subjected to the kooks? Undergirded by the understanding that God is sovereign, reminded that this world is under a curse and that God has sent Christ to break it, I see my frustration start to crumble and like a smack to the face it hits me that this Sovereign God is aware. God is aware of spina bifida. He’s aware of my daughter. He’s aware of my wife’s stress and heartache. He is aware of my plea.

A word rollicks through my brain. Foretaste. An image of that old sailor-turned-preacher John Newton flashes and I recall that he said a Christian “lives upon the foretastes of eternal glory”. Now that’s a thought to dwell upon.

I look to the Gospels again, on all of those overwhelming accounts of Jesus healing and realize that these accounts are a foretaste. Jesus’ coming to earth was a foretaste of eternal glory. Eternal glory. Where the lion and lamb lay down together. Where the children play near vipers as harmless as puppies. Where deaf ears and blind eyes are opened and mute tongues sing. Where the lame will leap like the deer. Jesus’ healing was a sneak peek. The appetizer course. An overlapping of heaven on earth. His healing was the overflow, the bubble and froth of the Kingdom of God spilling everywhere Jesus stepped. Suddenly that which overwhelmed me became vastly underwhelming. Like the exploding spillover of a champagne bottle this healing lasted only for a few moments, revealing to us that there is more to come. This miraculous healing explosion was a glimpse, a foretaste of what is yet to come. On this thought my anger and frustration fell away and my soul found some relief. Hope. That’s what it was. Hope.

Hope, because one day there will be no more tears. No more pain. No more suffering. No more stress. No more damned spina bifida. Hospital visits and doctor’s stupid opinions and surgeries and finances are going to be removed. Hope, because one day my daughter will experience the touch of the One who makes all things new. She’s going to run laps around her siblings. She’s gonna leap like a deer. And what a sight that will be. How much sweeter will heaven make of all that is bitter on the earth? Our groaning and suffering and sorrow today will be the foundations on which is built a greater joy. Is this not but a reflection of the cross of Christ? Jesus, God Incarnate, the Only Innocent, suffered the greatest injustice, underwent the greatest suffering, wracked with the greatest sorrow, died upon the cross, being mocked at by the scum of the earth, enduring the wrath of his Father for the scum of the earth; did this for the joy that was set before him. The greatest suffering became the greatest joy. For him and for us.

I’m encouraged and strengthened by this hope. To be sure, sorrow is still there. But knowing what is in store it is a sorrow mingled with joy. My daughter still has spina bifida. I still hate it and don’t want her to have it. I still would take it away given the chance. But there is hope. I’m glad there are things like Spina Bifida Awareness Month.  One of the best reasons to be aware of spina bifida, or any other disability, is knowing that one day there will be no need to be aware. Or even better our awareness of spina bifida or any other suffering will serve to augment our joy and the glory of God.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. –St. Paul in his letter to the Romans

Friday, October 10, 2014

Renew the Table: A Pause and the Pragmatic Filter

Renew the Table is a series of thoughts and opinions concerning the renewal of the Lord's Supper. For more information please see Goals and Disclaimers

Before we continue I would like to pause for a brief second and look back along the path we've been marching. This will allow those of you who are just joining to catch up, and those who've been along the whole time a reminder of context. It will also allow me to properly set up the next installment.

Over the last few posts I think it is fair to say that I have sought to somewhat decimate the Memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper. My investigation began with observing the (quite stunning) infrequent practice of the Lord’s Supper among evangelicals and Southern Baptists in particular. I went on to investigate the root cause of a Memorialist view (the absence of Christ in the partaking) and the bad fruits it produces (i.e. infrequent observance). I then put forward my case that Scripture reveals that Christ is in fact present in the Supper and most recently finished up by exposing an often used, but quite flawed, argument for infrequent partaking that sidesteps the issue of whether Christ is present or not.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Even though we dipped into the theological perspective of Memorialism, what we are really dealing with is Functional Memorialism. Regardless of whether you adhere to it or not, you don’t have to fully embrace the theological viewpoint of a Memorialist to functionally act like one. A church might confess the presence of Christ in the Supper on yellowed paper but functionally reject the presence of Christ every quarter. This is because Memorialism offers no resistance to Pragmatism.

In an earlier post I said “the major fruit by which Memorialism devalues the Supper is that Memorialism produces an “it doesn't matter as long as we meet the bottom line” mindset. Christ commanded we do this in remembrance of Him. So long as we do it, that’s all that really matters. The stripped down mentality of Memorialism encourages the least amount of effort. The Lord’s Supper doesn't become a valuable part of worship so much as a box to be checked off. In this way, Memorialism is the prime option for pragmatists.” Elsewhere I have noted what I believe to be true about pragmatism; “When Man deems, in his own estimation, that a thing is no longer practical, necessary, or convenient he will, at all costs, do his best to rid the world of it.”

The offspring (or casualties) of these two “-isms” can be found in worship services across the land. The reason communion is so infrequent is because frequent partaking is 1) impractical 2) unnecessary, or 3) inconvenient. It may be one or all three of these (depending on who deems it so…), as long as we are meeting the bare minimum (do this as a memory) then everything else must pass through the Pragmatism Filter. Simply put, as long as we do it, it doesn't matter how we do it. All of a sudden, everything else is up for grabs. Questions like, “How often should we partake” take a tumble through the filter and we wind up with our answer: “As infrequently as possible”.

"My Body and Blood, simple as 1, 2, 3!" -said Jesus never
Frequency—despite my incessant drumming and/or beating of dead horses—is a relatively easy, mostly gentle topic that not too many people get worked up about. Honestly, I don’t think it would be quite hard to convince a group of Memorialists the benefit of more frequent communion. Of course the point isn't merely more partaking. We want a fuller, robust, and more biblically accurate communion. But on the surface I don’t think there would be a ton of pushback. But there is another casualty of this Pragmatic Memorialism that I think would be quite toxic to attempt to resurrect in many if not most of these churches. This would be the elements themselves. In particular, wine. Stay tuned.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Renew the Table: Does Frequent Observance Devalue the Supper?

Renew the Table is a series of thoughts and opinions concerning the renewal of the Lord's Supper. For more information please see Goals and Disclaimers

In my last post on the Lord’s Supper I put forward that Scripture (as in, not the Pope, not Calvin, or Luther, but Scripture itself, based on 1 Corinthians 10:14-22) reveals that Christ is present in the partaking of the Supper in some way, thus rendering a mere memorialist interpretation of the Supper invalid. This plays into what we have already observed; that the infrequent partaking of the Lord’s Supper is an indicator of how healthy a Church’s worship is. In this case, if it is mere memorialism that is driving our understanding of the Lord’s Supper in such a way that causes us to partake infrequently, then one must conclude that the infrequent partaking of the Lord’s Supper is in fact unhealthy. Infrequent partaking indicates anemic, incomplete worship.

In the last post I tied the presence of Christ to the idea of ‘value’. Infrequent partaking devalues the Supper which in turn devalues our worship. If Christ is present then the Lord’s Supper takes on a certain weightiness. It is a weight heavier than just thoughts about what Jesus did once long ago. That weight, that presence is valuable. But here is where we meet a sizable roadblock for many in our debate against Memorialism. In this post my aim is to expose one of the main arguments I have found given for infrequent partaking.

Valuable Rarity: less is more?
If there is one thing that I learned as a Memorialist, it’s that the Lord’s Supper is extremely valuable. So valuable in fact that it must be reserved as a special occasion. At least this has been my experience as a child and a young man. On the surface, this idea that Memorialists value the Supper appears to defeat my multi-post argument entirely. It seems antithetical to my theory that infrequent partaking devalues the Supper and therefore Christian worship. The Supper, in this case, is observed infrequently precisely because it is so valuable. The idea being that if the Supper were to be observed on a regular basis it would lose its value.

I maintain my objection. I believe this argument to be nothing less than a ploy. A diversion. A wiggly maneuver to justify an unhealthy habit. Let me be quick to say that though I have used words that conjure devious intentions, I don’t believe (or don’t want to believe) that folks who utilize such an argument are disingenuous. I believe that they believe what they are saying is quite true. I believe they are not trying to pull a fast one. They really do believe the Lord’s Supper is valuable. They really do believe that frequent observance would devalue the Supper. This line of thinking needs a term to help us stay afloat. Let’s call this Valuable Rarity. The idea being that the Supper only maintains its value when it remains rare. The value of the Supper then is directly tied to its commonality. Valuable Rarity is undergirded by events like weddings and graduations and birthday parties. We can see that these events maintain their value, their specialness, because they don’t happen every day. If you were to celebrate your birth every day, then the specialness or value of the occasion would begin to wear off. Your actual Day of Birth would be just like any other day.

This idea of Valuable Rarity is interesting because it is pan-theological. Valuable Rarity crosses party lines. Memorialists aren't the only ones who justify infrequent partaking with Valuable Rarity; Transubstantiationists do as well. Or at least they have done so in the past. The Roman Catholic belief of transubstantiation, simply put, is that the physical elements of the bread and wine become the physical body and blood of Jesus Christ. This, for them, is how Christ is present in the Supper. There’s a whole heap of a lot more than that, but it doesn't make my summary any less true. That’s what they believe. I think it’s safe to say that Memorialists and Roman Catholics quickly and sharply disagree with each other regarding the Presence of Christ in the Supper. And yet, the worshippers in the late medieval Roman Catholic Church also infrequently partook of the Supper. They even partook less than Memorialists. Easter was nearly the only time of year a normal Christian would partake. And even then he may have only partaken of the bread.

Elevation of the Eucharist, detail from the Della Rovere Missal
Italy, Rome, ca. 1485–90 (note the onlooking parishioners)
Memorialists and Transubstantiationists both say that they are upholding the value of the Supper by partaking infrequently. Let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking it is as simple as that. They are indeed on opposite sides; however they are holding the same rope. The Medievals feared that their frequent partaking would devalue the Supper because the Supper was, above all things, most holy. Here was the physical body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. How could such unholy people participate in such a holy act of worship? It contained so much value that the parishioners received grace by simply watching the act, gazing upon the elements and seeing the priest partake. Then on a special holy day, such as Easter, after the worshippers have spent weeks fasting and preparing themselves, they would partake. Maybe.

As a side note, I find it interesting to see that the infrequent partaking of the Lord’s Supper in the late Middle Ages parallels the hardening and defining of transubstantiation as official church doctrine. Further evidence that infrequent partaking of the Supper is a symptom of a deeper problem.

Valuable Rarity in both cases, is used as an argument for infrequent partaking, but for vastly (hugely) different theologies. I’ll not deny that it is more complex than I have presented. Because the motivations for rare partaking are different for each party it would be unfair to lump them together as it looks like I have done. In this case, it would be unfair to lump the Roman Catholics with the Memorialists because the Roman Catholics have since abandoned their infrequent partaking. That doesn't necessarily mean that their understanding of the Supper is any better. But it does reveal that they abandoned the idea of Valuable Rarity whereas the Memorialists doubled down on it.

Why Valuable Rarity is False
The reason the Value of the Supper cannot be tied to the Rarity of the Supper is because the Value of the Supper is tied to something else: Jesus Christ. All Christians agree that the Supper is Valuable. If the Value of the Supper is derived from Christ, then we must view the Rarity or Infrequency of the Supper in light of Christ as well. Here’s what I mean: We derive value from the Supper because (1) Christ commands that we observe. (2) We partake of Christ in the Supper; that is when we eat in faith, we participate in his broken body and poured out blood. (3) In the Supper we proclaim Christ’s death until He comes again. I’m sure we could dig up some more reasons, but I believe these are enough to reveal that the Value of the Supper is linked to Christ. So, if these are the reasons the Supper is valuable then what does that reveal about those who think Rarity has a say? In other words, when Rarity is linked to the Value of the Supper, what we are saying is that our observance of Christ’s command is valuable because we infrequently observe the command. Our participation in the body and blood of Christ is valuable because we rarely participate. Our proclamation of Christ’s death is valuable because we rarely proclaim it in such a way. Does this sound right to you? Do you see why it is foolish, if not dangerous, to untie the Value of the Supper from Christ and tie it to Rarity? 

The Value of the Supper is not only derived from Christ, but it is also fulfilled and protected by Christ. In both views, the Medieval and the Memorialist, Value is fulfilled or protected by Rarity. In both cases the eyes have moved away from the sufficiency of Christ to uphold the Value of the Supper among His people. Because the eyes have moved from Christ, both views inevitably lean on what WE must do to uphold the value of the Supper. The Memorialists successfully rooted out Transubstantiationism, but wound up offering the same results. Today, here and now, there are folks with good intentions leaning on the idea of Valuable Rarity, not realizing that it is built on mortal foundations. The reason it sounds good is because it makes sense in the world of economics. We see this everyday with gas prices. The less oil the higher the value. But, Rarity is a value only when a thing is finite. When a thing is infinite, rarity has nothing to say about value. It disappears. And here is where the argument implodes: The Value of a thing is not dependent upon rarity if the thing is infinite.

If given the option, take one and leave the other, to choose between the world’s most rare, most finite, gemstone or the very air that you breathe, which would you choose? You would choose the (vastly abundant) infinite air to breathe. Do you see how your understanding of Value has changed? The value of the air, though free and infinite in normal situations, is immensely more valuable than the rarest of gemstones. This is because the Value of air is tied, not to its Rarity, like the gemstone, but because it is tied to Life itself. The same goes for the Supper. The Value of the Supper is tied to Christ not to Rarity. This is why the argument is a ploy. It’s a subtle trickery, deceiving the very mouths that shout it. And this is why I maintain my objection. Infrequent participation of the Supper is unhealthy for Christians in the same way infrequent breathing is unhealthy for humans.

When we argue that the Lord’s Supper must be infrequently observed to preserve its value, we have said something about the value of Christ. If we argue that the Supper must rarely be observed so it doesn't become a meaningless familiarity, we have said something about our understanding of what it means to be familiar with Christ. It would be like saying we should preserve the value of air by infrequently breathing. We shouldn't breathe so often because it could become a meaningless ritual. All the while missing the point that the value of air isn't based on the rarity in which we breathe it, but the value of air is that it gives life. Would anyone doubt that the infrequent breathers value those times in which they allow themselves to breathe?

This leads to a serious consideration of the very thing Christ commands us to do. Eat and drink! The Supper itself declares to us the necessity. We are to sustain ourselves on Christ just as we sustain ourselves with food and drink. Do we chiefly derive the value of food because it is rare or because it gives life?

Because Christ is infinite, and because Christ is infinitely valuable, the value of the Supper cannot decrease the more we observe. The only way the Supper can decrease in value is when the Supper is about us and not about Christ. And as we have seen, this is what exactly what Memorialism does. When the Supper becomes not simply for us, but about us then the value most assuredly will begin to decrease. I mean, there is only so much remembering that we can actually do. Only so much inward confession we can muster until we start to think about bills or the football game. Only so many times we can eat and drink without it becoming a mindless action. Is it any wonder why these observances are few and far between? A Supper where Christ is emphatically not present is a cheap meal. Memorialism places us in Christ’s seat at the table and we are boring dinner guests. We've set the table according to our own standards; spartan, small, and alcohol free. We are the party poopers. In this case, in our observance of the Supper we come dangerously close to the description in 2 Timothy 3:5: “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” Yikes.

I have heard others adequately argue that the Word of God doesn't lose its value through frequent preaching of it. Amen. Why didn't I just say that from the get go and save us some time? I don’t know, I guess I just wanted to take the scenic route. I wanted to open the clock to see how it ticks. To show folks why it could be dangerous to hold on to something that looks solid. Because while a simple comparison argument might be enough to convince some that the idea of Valuable Rarity of the Supper is false, there is still a large portion of evangelicals (80% in the SBC!) who have either ignored it or have explained it away, and I cannot help but be haunted by the words in 2 Timothy 3:5.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The God Who Laughs

Last night as I was in the midst of taking care of medical needs that my daughter requires, I had a brief moment to reflect over the past few days. It’s been one of those those times where it just seems like everything is either wrong or bad or crazy. A time when you realize that there are no good choices, only less-bad choices. Things that happen beyond our control that affects us nonetheless. Things seemingly within our control that inexplicably and frustratingly slip from our grasp. Had I the ability, in that moment, to wave a magic wand and make things right I would have. In only a few moments of reflecting on the hard things and the bad things and the crazy things, I was immediately assaulted with the question, Why? Why God does my daughter’s body not work and we have to go through this crap every day? Why are there things and people outside of my control that rain down hatred and crazy on my life and the life of my family? Why can’t I just, for once, not be mindlessly calloused when my wife is in need of care and comfort? Why does everything have to be so hard?

It was a brief moment. I really didn't even think through that much detail. It all just kind of hit me at once all blended in together, just an overwhelming feeling of “Why?” And almost as soon as I had mentally voiced my complaint to God I received an answer. The answer was, “Because of the curse.” The answer was just so plain and obvious and so satisfying. Within half a second my entire disposition was readjusted. Why is the sin of others affecting me and my family? Because of the curse. Why does sin so pervade within me that I don’t realize I've sinned until the damage is already done? Because of the curse. Why does my daughter have this disability? Because of the curse. Why are plans and people so easily frustrated? Because of the curse. Why does everything just have to be so hard? Because of the curse.

The puzzle pieces fit and I could make sense of things again. A feeling of relief came over me. The question ‘Why?’ didn't have the overwhelming force and influence over my soul that it once grasped. I realized I my complaint, which felt justified at the moment I said it, was on unsettled ground. Unbelief crept in, disguised as self-pity. The answer I received, “Because of the curse”, gave me solid ground to stand on. I can battle my unbelief from this position.

And then I realized that I had actually heard a voice. The answer “Because of the curse” didn't arise within my soul like an echo from the Holy Spirit, it was literally audible to my ears. I heard it. Writing all of this out now as a step by step process really gives a false impression. All of this—the thoughts, the complaint, the answer, the satisfaction, the readjustment, the strange realization of an audible voice answering the inaudible question of my soul—took place in nearly an instant.

The audible voice I heard did not come from a burning bush. There wasn't an angel dressed in white seated before me. The heavens didn't open. No thunder from the sky. It came from the other room. It wasn't my wife or kids. It was the TV. The kids were watching a show. I sat and listened for a moment. What were they watching? After a few seconds I realized it was Scooby-Doo. Someone had said, “Because of the curse” in reference to some mystery that needed solved. It hit me. Did my soul just receive a satisfying cleanse from a goofy cartoon show about some stoner kid detectives and their dog? Zoinks. They say that God moves in mysterious ways. Apparently He also moves in hilarious ways.

I’m not going to frame this as, “God spoke to me through Scooby-Doo,” even though I might. I certainly believe in the providence of God. I have no qualms believing He is able to answer prayer with a dose of truth, no matter the source of that truth. I don’t believe that God embodied the TV in some supernatural way and spoke through a cartoon character. But I do believe that all truth points to God whether it means to or not. If God so ordained it that Scooby-Doo would be the instrument of answered prayer than who am I to scoff? Just as John Newton believed every interruption was from the Lord, I’ll take it that this perfectly timed line from a cartoon was an act of the providence of God. I cannot deny that in those moments God was at work in my soul, freeing me from fear and unbelief and strengthening me with truth.

I said that apparently God moves in hilarious ways. And why not? Our common idea of God is that He is not funny. He’s grim and somber and looks down on those who laugh. It’s a topic we’re uncomfortable with. For many it seems sacrilegious to claim that God has a sense of humor. I've never seen a conference on The Humor of God. But humor and laughter are good things, holy things. And like all good things and all holy things, they can be abused. Laughter strengthens and emboldens, which is why there are warnings against cruel humor. God does not want us to be strengthened and emboldened in evil things. But the abuse of laughter does not mean we should abolish laughter. Humor is holy because it is from God. Because we desecrate holy things doesn't mean that it originated from the devil. Perversion is from the devil. Humor is from God. Perverted humor is a desecration of a holy thing.

God is an expert at making the wise foolish and the foolish wise. How can humor not be an instrument in bringing this about? It is a holy making-fun-of. Using the foolish things of this world to shame those who are wise in this world is a righteous punchline. He made a donkey speak to and scold a prophet. He made Balaam the bigger of the two jackasses. How can the inventor of time not also be the inventor of comedic timing?

I get the feeling the reason we don’t like to think of God as humorous is because it is too terrifying. The God with the grim furrowed brows has the weight of the world on his shoulders. He is concerned for His Creation in the same way we are concerned over our finances. The God who Laughs has nothing to worry about. He’s carefree. The God who giggles, snickers, chortles, and guffaws exposes our precarious state. We want a God who is distraught over our situation because it validates our worth in our own eyes. We have convinced ourselves that if God worries about what I worry about then that means God cares about me. But what happens if I’m worrying about my sin and bills and pain and ridicule and disease and death and God is laughing!? We get the impression that God doesn’t care.

Jesus and his disciples were on the sea and a major storm blew in. The boat was being swamped by the waves. The disciples were freaking out. They thought they were going to die. They turned to find Jesus and Jesus was…sleeping!? Are you kidding me? Hey Jesus, wake up and do something about this! Don’t you care that we are about to drown here? Mark tells us that they literally said, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” They didn't see Jesus fretting like they were and it really bothered them. Jesus sleeping in the boat shook their souls harder than the waves shook the boat. Their panic stricken plea to Jesus revealed exactly where their faith resided. They wanted similar panic from their Lord to validate their fear, which is tied to their worth. He doesn't care about us enough to even wake up and worry like we are worrying! When they woke Jesus up, he rebuked the wind and waves, but also his disciples. “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”

This is why we are so unnerved at the thought of the God who Laughs. This is why it is hard for us to understand that humor is holy and sanctioned by God. Our faith is exposed and is found wanting. Jesus asked the disciples “why are you afraid?” not because He was unable to conceive why the experience of nearly drowning might be frightening, but he asked to expose their faith. He is telling them, “My sleeping in the midst of a storm ought to be a comfort to you.”  Jesus sleeping in the midst of the storm didn't give them peace. They didn't find rest in the Creator’s resting. In the same way, if God is laughing in the midst of our chaos and we react in rage or we become irritated, we are exposing our own lack of faith. God laughing in the middle of your storm, your pain, your hardship isn't a sign of unconcern or malice. He’s not laughing at you, He’s laughing for you. Rest in His laughter. Find strength in His humor. Hope is beaming from the upturned corners of his lips. What if one of the distraught disciples turned to see Jesus sleeping and in faith found the strength and hope to just lay down next to him? Just as Jesus’ sleeping should have comforted the disciples, the humor of God should comfort you. Your pain and your struggles and your hardship are nothing compared to the hope we have of eternal glory in the presence of God.

As I thought about it, the fact that God provided great strength and assurance and guidance and truth in response to my prayer at just the right moment in a line from Scooby-Doo, I couldn't help but release a breath of laughter through my nose. Contemplating the humor of God in this situation gave me greater faith and hope and a deeper realization that God’s humor and laughter indicates that He has triumphed over the curse. God laughs because the world will one day be remade, because the curse will one day be fully broken, because all my sin will be cleansed, because justice will not be overlooked, because all pain and struggle and hardship will pass away, and because my daughter’s body will one day be made whole.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Renew the Table: Christ is Present in the Supper

Renew the Table is a series of thoughts and opinions concerning the renewal of the Lord's Supper. For more information please see Goals and Disclaimers

In my previous post I put forward the conclusion that the Memorial view devalues the Lord’s Supper. I attempted to reveal that the bad fruit was due to the bad root. I proposed that the reason Memorialism devalues the Supper is because, at its root, it removes the presence of Christ from the Supper. I also said that if Christ is not present, then my accusations of Memorialism are false, for if Christ truly is not present then Memorialism, out of all the historic views, must be the correct one.

I was raised to be a pretty staunch Memorialist. I've been on the inside, so to speak. In many ways, I still am (although now subversively, I guess). As God allowed me to lead and craft worship services the cracks of Memorialism became larger and more revealing to me over the years. This led me to study and explore Church history and Scripture and after time wading through both I came through convinced that Memorialism is inadequate. But the largest hurdle for me was the presence of Christ in the Supper. I felt (and feel) that this is the issue upon which Memorialism stands or falls. As I mentioned in my previous post, the three other historic traditions, the Calvinist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic views all maintain (though in vastly different ways) that Christ is present in the Supper and that some form of grace or benefit is given. From my Memorialist point of view, it was always assumed that if Christ is present in the Supper, no matter how you define it, it was Roman Catholic. If it even smelled like it could lead to something vaguely recognizable as being acceptable in Roman Catholic worship then the automatic, gut reaction, was to run the other direction. This mindset may have initially preserved purity in the Church’s worship, but today it often is used to avoid deeper thinking about things that really are important for the worship of the Church. There is a kind of immaturity of faith that turns tail and runs at every thorny path. The mature meet the challenge head on with the sword of the Word of God to cut through the thorny brambles to go deeper, getting to the heart of the issue.

To be honest, the theologies produced throughout Church history, while providing me with evidence that the Church did in fact believe that Christ was present and that benefits were offered in the Supper, didn't necessarily convince me that it was the case. What really changed my mind was Scripture. And one passage in particular really led the charge.

Prince Phillip getting to the heart of the issue.
"Grab yer Sword, We're Going In" 
Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. They are having idolatry problems. Some have fallen back into idolatry and some are having their consciences troubled when it comes to issues with the idolatry around them. Paul is helping them by teaching them to think right about idolatry. To battle this he appeals to the goodness of God, the freedom of the Christian, love for neighbor, and examples from Scripture. In the midst of this discussion about idolatry he touches upon the Lord’s Supper. (Before we jump in I think it is interesting to at least highlight that the Supper naturally comes to his mind when discussing worship. False worship is being contrasted with right worship. The Supper was deeply rooted to the idea of regular Christian worship. I only say this to expose how the Lord’s Supper is thought of today. At least for Memorialists, the Supper is anything but rooted regular worship.)

In 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 Paul says,

14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? 17 For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. 18 Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? 19 What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? 20 Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons. 22 Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?

First, I should say that I believe the English texts that we have here are good translations of this passage. Often people turn to the Greek words as if they will impart some form of special knowledge that the common English reader will never catch or understand. That’s not what I’m doing here. I believe the English in this passage is adequate to convey the original. So when we look at a few Greek words here, the hope is that they will only augment that which we already see in our own language. It helps us grasp the meaning (a meaning that is already there in plain English) in a clearer way.

I want to begin by looking at the words koinonia, koinonoi, koinonous, metechomen, and metechein. These words all carry with them the idea of an intimate sharing. In English they are often translated as communion, fellowship, partaking, participation, sharing. As we see in the passage above (New King James) verse 16 uses the word communion twice. The ESV renders verse 16 this way: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Communion in the NKJV and Participation in the ESV are used for the same Greek word, koinonia. Koinonoi in verse 18 is translated partakers (NKJV) or participants (ESV). Verse 20 in the NKJV translates the Greek word koinonous as fellowship where the ESV uses the word participants again. Actually a literal translation of both koinonoi and koinonous in verses 18 and 20 might be rendered “fellow-partakers”. In verse 17 the word metechomen is translated as partake in both versions. Again, both versions use the word partake in verse 21 for the word metechein. The NIV translates this as “have a part in”. The Holman Christian Standard translates it as share.

Let’s look at the passage again with the Greek words inserted:

14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the koinonia of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the koinonia of the body of Christ? 17 For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all metechomen of that one bread. 18 Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices koinonoi of the altar? 19 What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? 20 Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have koinonous with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot metechein of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons. 22 Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?

Do you see how thick this passage is with this idea of an intimate sharing, participating, partaking, fellowshipping, communing? We have the same idea coming up six times in this single passage.

Okay, so let’s think about this a bit. If the context of this passage is about idolatry, why does Paul bring up koinonia? The reason he brings up koinonia is because he doesn't want the Corinthians to “have koinonous with demons”. The implication of this actually made me shiver the first time I really thought about it. The loud banging echo reverberating from this is that you can’t have koinonia with nothing! It takes two to tango and this is what Paul is trying to point out. In verse 19 he says that an idol is nothing and the sacrifice to the idol is nothing (When he asks “is it anything?” the inference is, no it isn't anything). But! The reality is that though the idol is nothing, that which lies behind the idol is something, and that something is demons. Therefore, in worshipping idols, in making offerings to idols (things made of wood or stone which are nothing) they are really worshipping and making offerings to a spiritual reality, namely demons. This is why Paul tells them to flee from idolatry!

But do you see how he framed his argument? Do you see what he contrasted this demonic koinonia with? The Lord’s Supper. Paul points to the spiritual reality of demonic koinonia in idol worship and contrasts it with the spiritual reality of koinonia with Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. Something lies behind idol worship and Something lies behind the Lord’s Supper. That Something, that Spiritual Reality is being participated with and in the act of worship.

Let’s go even further. Look at the parallel in verse 21. Paul says, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot metechein of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons.” Paul literally equates the act of drinking with metechein, that is partaking, sharing, to have part in. Meaning drinking the cup is to take part in that Spiritual Reality. This is how the Spiritual Reality is joined with, shared in, be it with Christ or with a demon.

More than a Memorial
Now if Paul was under the assumption that Communion (koinonia) was merely a memorial, then why the warnings? If there is no real communion with demons then why bring up the idea of provoking the Lord to jealousy? Why would Paul use an argument revealing that pagan eating and drinking is a partaking of a demonic reality, that Israelite worship was a partaking of the benefits of the altar, all the while believing that Christian eating and drinking is nothing but a memorial? Paul asks “are we stronger than he?” but if Paul doesn't believe Christ is present in the Supper and yet still gives us this argument then shouldn't we be asking, “Are the demons stronger than He?” There is something more than a remembering happening here.

We see from this passage that a spiritual reality is actually occurring, namely fellowship, partaking, communion with and in the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Christ is the Reality, the Presence that we have koinonia with. We don’t just remember His body and blood, we metechein His body and blood. We see from this passage that the act of the Lord’s Supper, the act of communion, is eating and drinking. No eating, no drinking means no communion with Christ. No participation in His body and blood. If this is not the case, then Paul would be foolish to warn against eating and drinking pagan sacrifices for they are nothing and mean nothing. Paul is saying, “This pagan worship is koinonia with demons.” And at the same time he is saying (v16) “This cup of blessing which we (Christians) bless, this act of worship, it is koinonia with Christ.” There is a reality that lies behind, or within, the action.

A quick rabbit trail for the concerned pope-sniffing Baptist. Is this just a magic formula? Just say hocus pocus and eat and Bingo! you are now participating in the body and blood of Christ? Do the elements have some inherent property that grants auto-communion with Christ upon eating? Some say it is so (which is why you smell something), and they've had to justify it in some interesting ways, but I don’t think they gathered that from this passage. If they did, then they missed the passage that says ‘whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” When we approach the Table, like anything else in worship, in life, we are to come in faith. Faith meets Christ at the Table. Unbelief at the Table only leads to judgment. One might even say that the Supper is a microcosm of the conflicting theologies during the Reformation. Does the work of eating enable you to have faith or does the faith of eating enable you to work? Wait. Where did that rabbit go? We should probably get back to the task at hand.

Yes, but How?
Granted, this passage (and frankly, all the Supper passages) doesn't give us the clear cut, sharp edged, ship shape theology that we modern systematic organizers desire. We want to know how Christ is in the Supper! (Perhaps because it offers the tantalizing promise that it would solve a lot of problems? Surely Satan wouldn't toy with us in that way...). From this passage we can glean that Christ is present spiritually, but beyond that gleaning we begin to strike out on our own path. It may be the right one, it may have some biblical support along the way, but we can’t be quite sure because it hasn't been explicitly revealed to us exactly how. The quest to unveil hidden knowledge such as this is fraught with peril. Our best bet is to stay close to the source.

It is extremely interesting to note that the Early Church didn't fret over the how. They were content to simply obey Christ in eating and drinking when they gathered. If they were curious about the how, they were at least content to leave it a mystery. It was enough that Christ was present in the Supper sustaining those who ate in faith. Christ commanded us to eat His broken flesh and drink His poured out blood, not to reverse engineer the process so we can be a better Christian theologians, or (God forbid!) that we might corner the worship market. I say this not in order to discredit every theory on the basis that they are indeed theories, nor am I saying that the theories are unhelpful. I only say this to reveal that while I may agree or disagree with certain theologies that have been passed down, what I cling to the above all of them is the foundation, the Word of God. And the Christian doctrine of the Lord’s Supper found in the Word of God affirms the presence of Christ in the Supper.

I said that it was on the basis of the presence of Christ in the Supper that Memorialism stands or falls, and I believe this passage knocks it down with one of those skyscraper wrecking ball cranes. Probably some dynamite too. And if that is the case, then a serious and deep reevaluation of the Lord's Supper is needed in many, many, many (many) churches. This is the reason I'm writing in the first place. I can hold these opinions close to my chest, but, right or wrong, I love the Church and want to see Her worship in spirit and truth. I want to see the Supper restored to reflect the beauty I see in the Word of God.

In summation, it was this passage from Paul's epistle to the Corinthians, more than anything else, that convinced me of the reality of Christ’s presence in the Supper and highlighted the inadequacies of mere Memorialism (not to mention the inadequacies of those which believe in the physical presence of Christ in the Supper). Not only that, it added more weight to what I already had concluded, confirming my assumption that the infrequent observance of the Supper is an indicator of how healthy a Church’s worship is. If Christ is present in the Supper then observing the Supper ought to be valuable to our weekly worship. But that leads us to our next bump in the road; a problem that is found in the medieval church as well as the modern. An argument that the Transubstantiationalists and Memorialists alike use to justify their infrequent partaking in worship. It goes something like this: We infrequently observe the Lord’s Supper precisely because it is so valuable. We’ll tackle this in the next post.