From what I hear through the grapevine (I don’t spend a lot of time online), one of my recent sermons has stirred quite a bit of debate and accusation. This is hard for me to hear, especially because my sermon was about Holy Communion—the sacrament that is supposed to bring believers together. Sadly, over the past 500 years it has caused more division in the Church than possibly any other topic. This is no small victory for the enemy. For this reason, I thought it might be wise to explain some of my statements and the reasoning behind them.
In my sermon, I spoke about the importance of Holy Communion, teaching from 1 Cor 11:28-30:
“Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
I confessed to my church that I have not been severe enough in my warning against taking Communion improperly. So often in the evangelical church we let people partake with little to no warning. If we really believe this passage to be true, the consequences for that negligence could be dire. God warns that He strikes people dead for partaking of the elements improperly. If an outsider looked in on a communion service in the average evangelical church, do you think they would see the kind of reverence that befits something so sacred?
As I have meditated on this, I have become more and more convicted that my view of Communion has been far too low for much of my life. Due to the severe warnings in Scripture, we cannot afford to continue on in this way. We need to take time to pray and study deeply, and to repent and make changes where necessary.
In my message, I mentioned that I have been taking a closer look at what it means to “discern the body.” I brought up the fact that for the first 1500 years of Christianity, virtually no one considered communion to be a mere symbol void of Christ’s presence.
Martin Luther who started the Reformation states:
“Who ever read in the scriptures, that ‘my body’ is the same as ‘this is a sign of my body’?... Not one of the Fathers, though so numerous...ever said, “It is only bread and wine”; or, “the body and blood of Christ is not there present.” Surely it is not credible ...that they should never...so much as once, say... “It is bread only” or “the body of Christ is not there,” especially it being of great importance, that men should not be deceived. Certainly in so many Fathers, and in so many writings, the negative might at least be found in one of them had they thought the body and blood of Christ were not really present: but they are all of them unanimous.” (Luther’s Collected Works, Wittenburg Edition, no. &, p. 391)
Even John Calvin, whom some Protestants quote more than Jesus, had a much different understanding of Communion than I held.
Calvin- “We are quickened by the true partaking of him, which he designated by the terms eating and drinking, lest anyone suppose that the life which we obtain from him is obtained by simple knowledge.”
"The rule which the pious ought always to observe is, whenever they see the symbols instituted by the Lord, to think and feel surely persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is also present. For why does the Lord put the symbol of his body into your hands, but just to assure you that you truly partake of him? If this is true let us feel as much assured that the visible sign is given us in seal of an invisible gift as that his body itself is given to us.”
Calvin and Luther (two of the leading voices of the Reformation) had vastly different views of the Eucharist. Both of them, however, held a far more mystical understanding of Communion than I held. Neither of them saw the bread and cup as a mere symbol, but believed in a real presence of Christ in Communion. Luther seemed to have a more mystical approach, yet both believed in His unique presence in the Eucharist. My view of Communion was much lower than theirs. I saw it and taught it as a mere symbol with no real presence of Christ. Those who believe that may be right, but it’s worth considering that your view was not held by any believers for 1500 years. A man named Ulrich Zwingli was the first to popularize that view in the 1500’s.
Over the past few months, I have read about a dozen books on the subject. Though I have learned a lot, I still have not landed on a specific position. I’m not sure when I will land or if I will ever be 100% sure of a view, but the experience of taking Communion with my church body has become more meaningful to me than ever. I did wrestle with the wisdom of speaking about Communion when I hadn’t landed on a position, but I ultimately felt like I was not loving my church well by remaining silent. I believe I have been wrong, so I needed to warn the church and encourage them toward deeper study and prayer.
My questions have resulted in many negative emails and comments from my Reformed friends. On the flip side, I have received much encouragement from Anglican, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox believers.
Some argue that it was negligent of me to enter the pastorate without a careful examination of such an important topic. Shouldn’t I have studied it more carefully rather than just accepting the teachings of my particular seminary? I have two answers to that question:
1. Yes. I want to apologize to anyone who has sat under my teaching and formed a view of the Eucharist based upon my limited understanding. I have sought forgiveness from God and would ask for yours as well.
2. But. As I take time to pray and study, it doesn’t guarantee that I will ever be 100% convinced of one particular view. Like Paul, “I know in part and prophesy in part.” I can’t tell you how many times I have prayed “Lord, please show me the truth.” Please pray that God would have grace on me to show me truth.
Something to keep in mind.... God promises to give grace to the humble and to oppose the proud. You might want to pay attention to the spirit in which people address sacred topics. Intellect is not the only variable in finding truth. Character matters. If God opposes the proud, does it make sense that those who are most proud are the ones that God has graced with truth?
I know this article will cause many more to be written in response. For this reason, I hesitate in even posting this. I could spend the rest of my life going back and forth debating the issue. I doubt this article will bring any more clarity to the actual issue. My hope was only to encourage humility as the discussions continue, and to remind all believers that God wanted Communion to be an experience that brought His children closer to the perfect oneness that He prayed for (John 17). As we discuss, let’s be careful of our words but even more so of our hearts. Just because you disagree with another believer, it doesn’t excuse you from the biblical command to love that brother or sister as Christ loved the Church. Also keep in mind all of the unbelievers who look at our interactions, and the effect that must have on their view of Christ. When there is pride and unkindness in the conversations between people who supposedly believe that the Son of God died on the cross to make us one, it’s bound to have an adverse effect on those we are trying to reach.
Having said all of that, I will be praying about how involved I will be in future public discussions on this topic. While some may genuinely be called to write articles and blog, I have never seen that as my specific calling. In other words, expect me to pray and study but don’t hold your breath waiting for a dissertation from me on the topic.
Last week, I was in a remote village where there was not a single believer in Christ. I can’t tell you how exhilarating it was to explain the Cross to this group of people for the first time. I felt so much peace that I was doing what God created me for. 1 Corinthians 1:17 kept coming to mind “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” During this next season of life, I am going to look for more opportunities to share the simple truths of the gospel with those who have never even heard of Jesus. I appreciate your prayers.
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon