Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Renew the Table: The Lord's Supper and Dying Churches

Analysis, even based on hard facts, is a subjective thing. The best example I can think of is sports. Everything a player or team does is measured statistically and then meticulously broken down by analysts to further understand how a team is doing or why a player is performing a certain way. Statistics are facts, but facts often cannot tell us the entire story because we simply cannot measure everything. So analysts fill in the gaps. They look at the data and try to tell us what it means.

I'm going to try to do that right now. And like a sports analyst, I don't have all the data and my interpretation might be flawed or not fully informed. What I'm saying is that this interpretation is subjective. 

Some Statistics
If you've been following my Renew the Table series you'll note that I kicked things off with some statistics regarding how often Southern Baptist Churches celebrate the Lord's Supper. Without rehashing the discussion, I wanted to remind the reader how I looked at this data. While the graph below shows five different answers, I grouped them into basically three: Weekly Partakers (1%), Monthly Partakers (18%), and the Quarterly + Holiday Partakers (80%). (I explain my reasoning in that post.)

Now the reason I highlight this again is because of a graph that I ran across today. I found it on the North American Mission Board's Church Revitalization Conference page. Along with the graph below they say: 

"More than 70 percent of the Southern Baptist churches in North America have plateaued or are declining in number." 

So for starters, I'm thrilled that NAMB is focusing on church revitalization and I pray that their endeavors go a long way for the glory of God and the good of the church. But when I saw their graph it struck me as being eerily similar to the Lord's Supper graph above. NAMB has determined that more than 70% of Southern Baptist Churches have plateaued or are declining, and that only around 10-15% of Southern Baptist Churches are "healthy & multiplying".

First, let me say that I don't necessarily equate Healthy with Multiplying. I may be wrong, but what I think NAMB has in mind here would be more crass sounding than what they labeled their graph. They are saying that 10-15% are living, vigorous churches while the rest are dying. The "At or Near Risk" means "At or Near Death", as in the doors are going to close permanently. Unfortunately there's not more info, but I think we can safely say they've divided it into Living Churches and Dying Churches.

A Correlation?
Now here's where my subjective analysis kicks in. What I see is a correlation between an anemic understanding of the Lord's Supper and a dying church. Let me be clear. I don't think that an anemic understanding of the Lord's Supper is the cause of this, but I think they cannot be disconnected. I'm just calling 'em as I see 'em: 80% of your churches are not celebrating the Lord's Supper regularly and 80% of your churches are dying.

To be sure, we don't have all the information. I would like to see a study that linked the two in order to confirm a correlation. Maybe they could ask a follow up question about the Lord's Supper to all the dying churches? But I think the information we have now is plain enough to at least consider the possibility.

Now again, I don't think that the neglect of the Lord's Supper is the primary cause of this. That's too niche. But it does give me a hunch to what the problem might be. Again it is subjective (and likely offensive) but it's what I see. If your church does not have a sound understanding of the Lord's Supper then, in a real sense, it is likely your church does not have an adequate understanding of worship in general.

The Supper is anemic because Worship is anemic. And when Worship is in decline, so too is the Body. My fear is that many of these churches (knowingly or unknowingly) have severed the Head from the body. Like decapitated chickens, they are still running around kicking up dust without realizing their Head is even gone.

Again, I applaud the efforts of NAMB and I think the aims of church revitalization are noble and should continue. I don't know what they officially think the problem is, but I think the answer lies in renewing a right understanding of worship. Right understanding leads to right practice.

Christ builds his Church, not a preacher or a mission organization, so we should align our efforts with him, and that means the Author of our faith is also the Author of our worship. If the neglect of the Supper isn't the cause, it's at least a dead canary in the mine which should not be ignored. It's a warning that there is a problem. To live you need air, and worship is the air of the Church. Right worship is clear and clean and reinvigorating as a mountain breeze. And worship that rightly understands and administers the Lord's Supper offers an air that carries "the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

For the sake of the Church, renew the Table.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Table


Wood worked
                Metal biting
                Hammer singing
                Dark the staining
Legs strong
                Load uplifting
                Worthy sentries
Words etched
                Ancient, holy
                Deep the cutting
                Silent speaking
Lives long
                Weekly serving
                Friend to sinners
Meal served
                Blood and Body
                Poured out, broken
                Given for you
Eat, Drink
                For remembrance
                Grace for faithful
                Kingdom coming


Wood warped
                Big and bulky
                Holding flowers
                Like a coffin
Face scarred
                Storied scratches
                Hidden beauty
                Now an eyesore
Words etched
                Like a prophet
                In his hometown
                Crying, “Do this!”
Days short
                Ever numbered
                Weekly famine
                Sinners starving
Meal served
                Once a quarter
                If you’re lucky
                Maybe Easter
Eat, Drink
                ‘cause we have to
                Stripped of meaning
                Judgment coming

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Pastor and The Partaker

It’s time once again
It’s special (but boring
The young ones ignoring
The old ones are snoring)
Before we begin
            This is not your rebirth
            It’s dirt just like the earth
            Make sure that you have worth
Rid yourself of sin
It’s not that essential
            It’s inconsequential
Invoke reverential
Get on with it then

I went to my confession booth and told the priest inside,
“Before I sup I must be stripped of all my haughty pride.”

“Then close your eyes, my son,” he said, “and hold them fast and tight
And think upon the sin that swarms within you day and night.
Make sure you plumb the depth of guilt that’s seeped into your soul
And wallow there, and linger long, and you will be made whole.”

“The guilt, I feel!” I said in pain, “The guilt I need removed!
For I have lingered as you said, but I have not improved”
“Then grip the guilt,” the priest replied, “and crush its wicked head.
The triumph over all your guilt gives access to the bread.”

But O! what sorrow struck my heart, I've heard the words before
The logic of the pendulum; the never ceasing war.
Just as the waves upon the rocks will crash and then retreat
So Guilt, then Pride, beat down my soul, then Guilt and Pride repeat

Then I was called out from my booth and from the priest within
Called from my introspective time to cleanse myself from sin
And once again I've failed to find a way to still the tide
That crushes me beneath the waves of surging Guilt and Pride

So now once more I count myself among the fools and fake
Who eat the bread and drink the cup, unworthy to partake.

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.