Embracing the Elephant—Toward a Fuller Doctrine and Practice of Water Baptism (Part 1 of 3)

blindmenandelephantIt was six men of Indostan // To learning much inclined, // Who went to see the Elephant // (Though all of them were blind), // That each by observation, // Might satisfy his mind.

In this nineteenth century poem, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” John Godfrey Saxe recasts an ancient Hindu tale of six blind men who approach an elephant for the first time. The first man examines the elephant’s side and concludes that an elephant is much like a wall. After handling the tusk, a second blind man decides the elephant resembles a sharp spear. The third man imagines an elephant as a snake after feeling the beast’s writhing trunk. The fourth man explores one of the legs of the elephant and pictures a tree. Fiddling with the huge animal’s floppy ear, the fifth man deduces that the elephant is like a fan waving in the air. Finally, the sixth blind man grabs the tail and concludes that the elephant resembles a short rope. Saxe then ends his humorous but profound poem this way:

And so these men of Indostan // Disputed loud and long, // Each in his own opinion // Exceeding stiff and strong, // Though each was partly in the right, // And all were in the wrong!

When it comes to the church’s doctrine and practice of baptism, we encounter a very similar situation as the fictional blind men of Indostan. Whereas both the New Testament and the early church present a multi-faceted doctrine of baptism, various traditions since that time have reduced baptism to one or maybe two of its aspects. Some reduce the purpose of baptism to a public confession of faith in the Triune God (Matt. 28:19). Others may emphasize the individual’s personal association with the saving death and resurrection of Christ pictured in baptism (Rom. 6:3–4). Another group might point to baptism as an act of repentance, by which a convert turns from a life of sin (Eph. 2:1–10; Col. 2:11–14). A fourth contingent might emphasize the public commitment, pledge, or oath a believer makes at baptism to live according to the new life of faith by the power of the Spirit (1 Pet. 3:21). A fifth party may point to baptism as the rite of initiation into the new covenant community, by which believers officially become members of the church (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27). Finally, some traditions focus on baptism as the church’s official extension of community “forgiveness” based on their repentance from sin (Acts 2:38; 26:18). To each of these emphases we can legitimately respond, “Yes, baptism is that, but it’s not only that.” Like the blind men of Indostan, “each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong.”

It’s my contention that most every tradition of baptism has reduced the doctrine and practice of the sacred rite to one or two things when baptism was really intended to be and accomplish many things all at once. Each teacher or tradition has focused variously on the elephant’s tail, ear, side, leg, trunk, or tusk . . . sometimes even pitting one true and legitimate aspect of Christian baptism against another. In this essay I will begin to explore six facets of the doctrine and practice of baptism as reflected in the New Testament and read in light of the early church’s actual beliefs and practices. Through this study I hope to describe the rite in its fullness, suggesting how we might better embrace all of its facets rather than only one or two of them. The six facets of Christian baptism I will explore, starting with the first two in part one of this essay, are the following:

  1. Baptism as public confession of the Trinitarian Faith (Matt. 28:19)
  2. Baptism as personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3–4)
  3. Baptism as repentance from a life of sin (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11)
  4. Baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life (1 Pet. 3:21)
  5. Baptism as a rite of initiation into the covenant community (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27)
  6. Baptism as a mark of official community forgiveness (Acts 26:18)

1. Baptism as Public Confession of the Trinitarian Faith (Matt. 28:19)

Jesus Christ commanded that believers be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). This Trinitarian baptismal rite became standard in the church from day one. In Antioch between 50 and 70, baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” was clearly prescribed (Didache 7.1), and as we know, Antioch itself became a major hub for Gentile missions. Around A.D. 150, Justin Martyr, describing the church’s general practice of baptism as he knew it, said that “as many as are persuaded and believe that the things we teach and say are true” are then baptized “in the name of God the Father and Master of all, and of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit” (Justin, 1 Apology 61).

Today many traditions treat this triune baptism as a mere formula recited while immersing, pouring, or sprinkling the baptized adult or child. They simply say words such as “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” while applying the water. However, in the descriptions of baptism available to us in the writings of the early church, there is little evidence that Jesus’s command to baptize in the name of the triune God was ever treated as a mere formula. Rather, the evidence suggests that triune baptism actually implied a threefold confession of faith in response to three distinct questions followed by three distinct “immersions” or “pourings.”

The exact language seems to have varied from church to church, but the basic outline remained the same. The one baptizing would say something like, “Do you believe in God the Father and Master of all, who made all things?” The one being baptized would respond, “I believe.” The first immersion (or, in some cases, pouring) followed. Then the baptizer would inquire concerning the second article of the Christian faith: “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, God made flesh, who was born of a virgin, crucified for your sins, rose again from the dead, and ascended to heaven, whence He will come again to judge the living and dead?” The baptized would respond, “I do,” followed by the second washing. Finally, the baptizer asked something like, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets foretold the things about Christ and gives new life?” The respondent would reply, “I do.” The third and final immersion was administered.

The fact is that the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” language was not a formula to be recited but a summary of the faith to be confessed. This helps explain why sometimes in the New Testament the baptism is simply referred to as “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48). It’s not that there were two competing forms of baptism going around in the first century: those baptizing in the name of Jesus only and those baptizing in the name of the Triune God. Rather, the exact wording of the confession of faith varied from person to person and from place to place, but the content was always the same: 1) the God and Father who made all things 2) sent His Son to die for sin, rise again, and ascend to heaven until His return, in order to 3) send the same Holy Spirit who had inspired the Scriptures to indwell the church until the second coming.

Therefore, when Jesus instructed His disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” the implication was that converts were to be instructed concerning basic Christian Trinitarian doctrine—the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and their work in creation, revelation, redemption, and consummation. Confession of faith at baptism, therefore, confirmed the believer’s understanding of and belief in the triune faith. Clearly, this meant that some kind of pre-baptismal instruction was necessary so that when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were mentioned, the baptismal candidate didn’t just stand dumbfounded in the water, wondering what the baptizer was talking about.

True, the farther away from the Jewish synagogue the gospel reached, the more doctrinal instruction would be necessary prior to baptism. Jews and God-fearing Gentiles who already knew the Old Testament well would have been quite clear on their doctrine of God the Father, maker of heaven and earth. They would have known something of the Holy Spirit who had empowered the prophets of old and predicted the coming of the Messiah. In fact, they would have been anticipating the advent of that promised Savior and King. All they lacked was the understanding that Jesus of Nazareth was that Savior, King, and Son of God . . . that He was to die to pay for sin and rise again from the dead . . . and that He was to have two comings rather than one. In short, for Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, who already believed in the Old Testament faith, it wasn’t necessary to provide instruction for the entire biblical creation and redemption narrative . . . just the pieces that were incomplete prior to the advent of the Messiah. However, as the gospel penetrated the un-trained pagan Gentiles, more instruction would have been necessary regarding the Christian story as opposed to their non-Christian worldviews and myths. In fact, when Paul preached to the Gentiles in Athens, he began with the doctrine of God as Creator and Father of all (Acts 17:22–31).

We aren’t sure just how much instruction was given concerning the nature and works of the Triune God prior to baptism. It probably depended on where the unbelievers started out in their knowledge and belief in the one true God. For some it may have been a matter of a few simple assertions to connect the dots. For others it may have involved intense instruction, answering questions and dealing with objections. But whatever pre-baptismal doctrinal instruction occurred, we can be sure that when the new believer entered the water and responded to the questions, “Do you believe in God the Father . . . ? Do you believe in God the Son . . . ? Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit . . . ?” it wasn’t the first time they heard of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

In sum, one New Testament and early church facet of baptism is confession of faith in the triune God (Matt. 28:19). A full-bodied doctrine and practice of baptism must include more than this. But it shouldn’t include less.

2. Baptism as Personal Association with Christ’s Death and Resurrection (Rom. 6:3–4)

In its earliest attested form, the person receiving baptism would be fully immersed in the water (Mark 1:10; Acts 8:38–39). This is, in fact, the basic meaning of the Greek term baptizo, “to immerse.” This full immersion pictured the believer’s association with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Romans 6:3–4 draws this analogy succinctly: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Similarly, in Colossians 2:12 Paul says to the believers, “[You have been] buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”

In this second aspect of water baptism, the focus narrows from the entire Trinitarian creation and redemption narrative to the specific picture of the work of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In this way, baptism becomes itself a wordless confession of faith—our personal association with the death and resurrection of Christ on our behalf. The core events of the gospel itself—Christ’s death for sin and His resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1–5)—are played out before all.

As each believer individually participates in this act of confession, baptism is at its most personal. Through the act of baptism, a believer confesses his personal faith in the saving gospel. The young Christian confesses that Christ’s death paid for her sins and that His resurrection promises her own future resurrection from the dead. One cannot imagine a more personal, humiliating, tangible, and meaningful act as an outward sign of one’s inward convictions. One may certainly say “I do” to the question, “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins and rose from the dead?” But by actually reenacting these saving works before all, the new believer says, “I believe it, but I also apply it personally to myself once and for all.”

To summarize: besides confession of faith in the triune God, a second aspect of New Testament and early church baptism is personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3–4). Yes, a full-bodied doctrine and practice of baptism must include more than this. But it shouldn’t include less.

(NOTE: This series if continued in Part 2 of 3, “Floating with the Elephant”)

“Use Things the Way They’re Meant to Be Used”: Beyond Regs and Norms

I’m hardly the model parent. I have no special training or expertise. I have no success stories (my oldest is just 13). And when I’m coping with my three kids’ day-to-day, hit-and-miss behavior, the fruit of the Spirit often gets juiced. However, over the years I’ve crafted a few “standing orders” that have helped maintain some modicum of control in my family. One of these is pretty simple but all-important in the Svigel household: “Use things the way they’re meant to be used.”

When followed, this rule can lessen the likelihood of accidents and injuries. Here’s how it works: Imagine your six-year-old grabs a five gallon bucket, turns it over, and tries to use it as a stepping stool to reach a bicycle helmet hanging in the garage. Suddenly the rule kicks in: use things the way they were meant to be used. Tragedy avoided. Or your ten-year-old can’t find his pocket knife to whittle bark from a branch. Instead, he grabs a pair of scissors, opens it up as wide as it will go, and starts shaving the twig with one blade: use things the way they are meant to be used.

Let me suggest that this rule of thumb can be applied when making ministry decisions, too. In fact, taking into consideration the intended purposes expressed in the Bible adds another dimension to the age-old debate between the “regulative principle” and the “normative principle.”

 

Regulatives vs. Normatives

For a long time Protestants have debated proper worship from two perspectives: those who adhere to the regulative principle (“Regs”) argue that whatever is not expressly commanded in Scripture is to be prohibited in worship and order. Those who hold to the normative principle (“Norms”) argue that whatever is not prohibited by Scripture is permissible in worship and order.

For example, some proponents of the regulative principle reject the use of musical instruments in worship because the New Testament neither prescribes nor mentions their use. On the other hand, followers of the normative principle would use a growing variety of musical instruments for worship because nothing in the New Testament expressly forbids their use. As another example, Regs tend to practice believer’s baptism exclusively, as this is the practice explicitly seen in the New Testament. Norms may practice infant baptism because nothing in the New Testament clearly prohibits it.

Needless to say, many evangelical churches follow a very broad normative principle, feeling the freedom to employ almost anything in their worship and order as long as it doesn’t violate a clear teaching of Scripture. Usually, then, a strong pragmatic principle tends to steer decisions. So, as an extreme example, if the Bible doesn’t clearly forbid driving motorcycles up and down the aisles and around the stage in order to illustrate the power of the Holy Spirit, then a church is free to ride motorcycles throughout the worship center if it will communicate the point in a memorable (read: entertaining) way. Or, to use a less extreme example, because the New Testament doesn’t clearly prohibit the use of artwork in the sanctuary, we are free to use art, images, multi-media presentations, plays, skits, movies, smoke, lightshows, dance, and other artistic expressions to communicate our message in memorable (!) ways.

Now, both the regulative and normative principles address matters that are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture (though they might be reasonably deduced from Scripture). Regs forbid anything not clearly affirmed; Norms allows things not clearly rejected. Yet what about the use of practices explicitly mentioned in Scripture in ways that are neither clearly condoned nor explicitly condemned? That is, the intended uses of some things are clearly articulated in Scripture, leaving us with clear direction on how they are to be employed, things like prayer, worship, leadership, money, Scripture, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. The question then becomes: if Scripture teaches us clearly that Practice X is to be used for Purpose Y, is it also okay for us to use X for purpose Z? Let me give two examples.

 

Using the Bible the Way It’s Meant to Be Used

Scripture itself clearly sets forth the Bible’s intended uses. Scriptures point us to Jesus Christ (Luke 24:27; John 5:39; Acts 8:35; 18:28; Rom. 1:2; 1 Cor. 15:3–4). It’s to be read publically in church for instruction (1 Tim. 4:13). It also contains the wisdom of God needed to walk in righteousness (Ps. 119:105). In fact, its two main purposes can be summed up by 2 Timothy 3:15–17—“The sacred writings . . . are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” So really the purpose of Scripture is twofold: 1) to point us to a saving knowledge of the person and work of Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:15); and 2) to teach us how to live as children of God (3:16–17). In other words, the explicit purpose of Scripture is to regulate our faith and practice.

But what about other uses of the Bible beyond these two?

Is it right to use the Bible as a guide for dieting—WWJE (What Would Jesus Eat)? Is it okay to also use the Bible as a science textbook? A management manual? A guide for “biblical economics”? A pocketbook for political science? A source of frameable quotes to hang in our bathrooms? Is it right for us to publish special interest study Bibles that focus on only one particular topic in Scripture (whether end times, animals, or apologetics) . . . or to package the presentation for one particular audience (whether moms, dads, leaders, or specific ethnic groups)? If the Bible was meant to point us to Jesus, how badly do we err when we use it to point to other things . . . or to point to us? If the Bible was written to equip believers for every good work, do we err when we use it to justify political opinions, glean dietary advice, or formulate scientific theories?

In short, do we risk doctrinal and practical accident and injury if we deviate from using the Bible the way it’s meant to be used?

 

Using the Lord’s Supper the Way It’s Meant to Be Used

Most evangelical churches know they’re supposed to observe the Lord’s Supper (also called “communion,” “the Lord’s Table,” or “the Eucharist”). And most know that the New Testament spells out clear purposes, confirmed by the early church’s practice. The Lord’s Supper is meant to reflect the “one body” of the gathered church (1 Cor. 10:17; 11:20) rather than a family’s normal meal at home (1 Cor. 11:22, 34). Around the Table, Christ’s disciples gather to dine with the Lord, commemorating His saving death and resurrection and anticipating His personal return (1 Cor. 11:23–26). Practiced properly, this community covenant meal provides spiritual blessing and strengthens faith (1 Cor. 10:16). Both the New Testament and early church confirm that the churches observed the Lord’s Supper every Sunday as part of the weekly gathered worship (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:18–20; see my essay, “Should We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper Every Sunday in Church?”).

Even though we have a sufficient picture of the intended purpose of the Lord’s Supper, what about other uses of the observance of the meal besides these?

Is it right for us to observe the Lord’s Supper at home in our families? On camping trips with friends? Should it be used as an evangelistic tool, presenting the gospel through the meal and asking unbelievers to partake as their first act of faith? Should its intended weekly observance be suspended in favor of an annual feast? What about partaking of the Lord’s Supper as part of our individual, private prayer time and devotion? Or during an “online” service with whatever elements we have at hand—bread and juice, pizza and Coke . . . donuts and coffee? How far from its intended purpose dare we take the Lord’s Supper before we end up out of bounds? If Communion is intended to be an act of covenant renewal among the gathered church as a commemoration of the suffering and death of Christ during corporate worship, do we err when we observe it in ways not intended by the Lord and practiced by His apostles?

In short, do we risk doctrinal and practical accident and injury if we deviate from using the Lord’s Supper the way it’s meant to be used?

 

Use Things the Way They’re Meant to Be Used

The constant tension and occasional conflict between proponents of the regulative principle and adherents of the normative principle will probably endure until the end of the age. Regs forbid things not clearly affirmed in or reasonably deduced from Scripture. Norms allows things not clearly rejected in Scripture. But in the midst of this legitimate debate, we sometimes fold in things for which the Scriptures are very clear regarding their purpose and function. This raises an important question that neither the Regs nor Norms directly address. If the Bible explicitly tells us the way things are meant to be used, on what basis and by what authority do we use them in ways that were unintended?

Of course, this question, too, deserves a fair-minded debate. What are the limits of liturgical freedom beyond the prescribed functions in the New Testament before we’re guilty of offering strange fire before the Lord (Lev. 10:1)? Are we not, then, better off sticking close to the clearly-articulated purposes and intensions of the Bible rather than cleverly, creatively, and perhaps dangerously and rebelliously making our own uses for them?

Maybe we ought to apply my household rule to better manage the household of faith: use things the way they’re meant to be used. I know in my own family this principle makes sense. It prevents things from being broken. It gets things done more efficiently. And it also keeps people safe. Perhaps some of our churches and believers have suffered unintended damage because we have failed to follow a reasonable rule of thumb: use things the way they’re meant to be used.

Selecting the Seven in Acts 6: Biblical Precedence for Congregational Election of Deacons?

The selection of the seven in Acts 6 is often cited as support for congregational nomination or election of church officers, especially deacons. In churches with a congregational church polity, this passage is often produced as precedence for church governance, as it appears that the apostles themselves transferred electoral power to the hands of the entire congregation. I have occasionally heard defenders of a strongly congregational polity point to Acts 6 to support not only the congregation’s right to elect their own deacons, but also to select their elders, hire their pastors, and generally lead their churches by majority rule.

Others, who are more sensitive to the actual context of the passage, have suggested that the text at least provides the biblical basis for making the office of deacon a point of congregational power: that is, deacons should be selected from and by the congregation. If a particular church’s polity then consists only of deacons and a hired pastor, the deaconate functions in a way similar to leaders in a representative republic.

 

A Closer Look at Acts 6

Though sometimes exposited as the proof text for congregational autonomy in the selection of its deacons, a close examination of Acts 6, along with other New Testament texts, suggests that we should be very hesitant to treat this passage as a prescription for leadership selection, including deacons, elders, and pastors. Rather than providing a prescriptive method for congregational election of church leaders, the text provides an example of wise problem-solving in the early church that illustrates some general principles of leadership selection. Yet a careful consideration of this passage reveals facts regarding the selection of the deacons that are often conveniently overlooked by those who want this passage to bolster a strong congregational form of local church government.

So, must a congregation choose its own deacons independent of the leadership of the church? Consider the following eight observations.

Is This Descriptive of Prescriptive? We need to always be cautious about turning descriptive passages into prescriptive principles. In the narrative genre, the purpose of any particular account is not necessarily to prescribe how we are to do something in perpetuity. If that were the case, then why don’t we cast lots to select elders (Acts 1:26)? Unless there is something in the text that clearly says this is prescriptive, unless we see other texts in the New Testament that indicate the practice was universally instituted by the apostles and observed everywhere, then we must be very careful about using these to establish “biblical” mandates.

The Seven Are Not Identified as “Deacons.” Acts 6 does not explicitly identify the selected men as “deacons,” and nowhere else are they later identified as such. In fact, Philip, “one of the seven,” was identified later as an “evangelist” (Acts 21:8). Along with many commentators, including several early church fathers, it is my opinion that we see here the first historical instance of what becomes the task or office of deacon, but it is obviously not Luke’s purpose to clearly identify these men as the “first deacons” in order to establish precedence. If the passage were meant to be taken prescriptively, one
would expect some comment by Luke regarding its association with the office of “deacon.”

An Ad Hoc Task Force, not Standing Board of Leaders. In the setting of Acts 6, the need for the seven men was ad hoc, that is, they were selected to address a specific need that arose due to cultural conflict between two groups in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1). This would set an example of appointing deacons on an “as needed” basis for particular functions in the church—either short or long term. It does not constitute a “board” or “body” of deacons for the sake of governance of a local church.

A Group of Representatives, not the Entire Congregation. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem (that is, the apostles, who were then functioning in a way similar to the “elders” of a local church), were the ones who called together what appear to be representatives from the disgruntled party of Hellenistic Jews. (Some may say this was only an apostolic prerogative, that is, since today’s elders are not apostles, then we cannot take this passage as indicating the relationship between elders, the congregation, and deacons. However, if this is maintained, then neither can a congregation today apply this verse as precedence for selecting their deacons, because we have no living apostles today to approve the selection.)

The Greek text does not clearly indicate that all the thousands of church members in Jerusalem were gathered for this meeting, but “the great number of the disciples,” could be a partitive genitive (the great number from among the disciples), or, more likely in this context, the specific category of “disciples” mentioned earlier in verse 1: the “Hellenistic Jews” who had protested the unfair treatment in verse 1. Note that the deacons selected all have Hellenistic names (Acts 6:5), as it was the Hellenistic widows who were being neglected. This indicates that the “great number of the disciples” was not a full “congregational meeting” with a general democratic process to select representative leaders for the whole church, but a representative ad hoc group assembled to select appropriate men for this particular task.

Then, when the text says this found approval with “the whole great number” (6:5), this is the same term for the same representative group, indicating the number of those who were summoned to help solve the problem, not the thousands of church members in Jerusalem. The Greek adjective pas (“whole”) is always governed by the context to determine what set (universal or particular) is intended. In short, this was not a congregational meeting to select church leaders, but an ad hoc assembly of the legitimately disgruntled Hellenistic Jews for the purpose of solving a particular problem.

Church Leadership Initiated and Confirmed the Selection of the Seven. It should be noted that when the problem of the neglected Hellenistic widows was brought to the attention of the apostles, the leaders themselves initiated the process by which the problem would be solved—the gathering of representatives of the Hellenistic Jews, the delegation of selecting the leaders from among that group, and then the approval of the selection indicated by bringing the seven before the leaders for approval. Please note that the group of Hellenistic Jews did not exercise any authority on their own, but only what was given to them by the leaders of the church. The apostles “summoned” the Hellenistic Jews (6:2), ordered them to select seven men (6:3), and gave the “job description” (6:3), but they reserved the authority to officially “appoint” them to the task (6:3). The reason this task was delegated was the Hellenistic Jews knew their group best (all of the apostles were Aramaic-speaking Jews!), and to select these men would have taken them away from the ministry of the Word (6:4).

The Hellenists Task Was Given by the Leaders. The congregational representatives of the Hellenists, hearing the decision of the church leaders, did not vote on the recommendation in some kind of democratic process. The decision of the apostles was final. Here we have the congregation submitting to the decision of the elders, not vice versa. They received the assignment to select leaders from among them, did so faithfully, and then reported back to the leaders when they had accomplished the task (6:5–6). The phrase “what they said pleased the whole gathering” does not indicate official approval, but simply their pleasure in the wise decision of the leaders (6:5).

Selection of Deacons Received Approval by the Leaders. As a final step in selecting the seven representatives of the Hellenistic Jews to see to the neglected widows, the chosen men were “set before the apostles” (6:6). This demonstrates that the apostles had the final say on who would serve in this capacity, as indicated in their instructions (“we will appoint to this duty,” 6:3). Thus, the apostles laid their hands on the seven and appointed them to serve officially. That this was an official appointment is indicated by the laying on of hands and the later reference to these men as “the seven.” They were not merely volunteers, but actual positions of service in the community, even if limited to a particular area of practical ministry among a particular group within the church (that is, seeing to the needs of the Hellenistic Jewish widows).

This May Apply to Deacons, not Elders. This text at least provides an early example of selecting deacon-like ministers in the first local church. However, it does not give any illustration for the selection of elders, who are the ranking leaders of the church. The examples we have for the selection of elders in the local church suggest that already-established leaders were responsible for the selection and appointment of elders. Thus, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church during their first missionary journey (Acts 14:23). Timothy himself was appointed by a “council of elders” (1 Tim. 4:14). Titus, who served in a similar pastoral role as Timothy, was instructed to “appoint elders” in every town (Titus 1:5). Although we have no clear pattern for the appointment of deacons, the pattern for the appointment of elders indicates that they were selected and approved by already-established leaders, not by congregational nomination or vote.

 

Positive Principles from Acts 6

Even though the selection of the seven in Acts 6 cannot be read as a prescription for congregational power to elect its own leaders, we can glean the following positive principles:

Ad Hoc Deacon Selection. The seven were chosen not to serve on a standing board or committee, but to address specific needs of the church as they arose. This would provide a biblical precedence for selecting ministry assistants on an “as needed” basis. We also know that members of the seven later went on to other things (e.g., Philip, who served as leader of the church in Caesarea). This indicates that the particular task of deacons may have a natural life cycle related to the task as well as to the ministry calling of the individual. Deacon service appears to have been “to the task” and “for the moment,” not as a permanent position or office. However, this does not rule out the possibility that a “standing committee” of rotating deacons might be the wise decision of the church leaders to attend to ongoing needs of the church.

Delegation of Authority. The apostles saw the wisdom in delegating the selection of the best men from that sub-group of Hellenistic Jews in the Jerusalem church. They called together the best people to make the best recommendations. This would provide a biblical precedence for choosing deacons that best fits the specific purpose of service. For example, if the need is somebody to minister among the elderly in the church, wise leaders might gather representatives of the older members of the church to make recommendations for leadership, under the oversight of the elders.

Dependence on Congregational Insight and Advice. The apostles clearly depended on the insights and counsel of members of the congregation who had a particular interest in the problem or challenge. They did not simply make arbitrary or heavy-handed decisions until investigating the matter, hearing from a large representative of those affected, and appointing the best people to deal with the matter—people who were well-respected and qualified according to the congregation itself. This is always a good precedence and reflects wise leadership. It is therefore a good idea for elders in a church to select deacons and other assistants based on broader congregational insight rather than simply arbitrarily appointing leaders to serve in various areas of ministry. A common practice today of electing deacons to a board and then assigning each deacon to oversee an area of ministry that he may not have functioned in prior to the appointment does not reflect this very well.

 

Conclusions from Acts 6

In sum, though Acts 6 does provide an illustration of how the leaders of the Jerusalem church wisely addressed a particular problem through the appointment of the seven, it does not provide a universally-binding prescription for how deacons (and especially elders) were to be selected. Nor is Acts 6 part of any discernible pattern in the New Testament that could contribute to our understanding of the prescribed method of selecting deacons. On the other hand, the selection of elders and other ministers in the New Testament (including missionaries and deacons) seems to have been entrusted to already-established leadership (apostles, other elders, not to the congregation).

Acts 6 does provide one illustration of how the apostles wisely addressed a particular problem, suggesting for us today that specific needs call for a delegation of authority with dependence on the congregation for insight. Any process for selecting deacons in a local church should take this illustration into consideration and strive for the same kind of wise decision-making, avoiding rash appointments.

Acts 6 does not in any way teach or support the idea of congregational church governance as it is commonly practiced today, in which final governing authority rests in the congregation of voting members. All authority in this text begins and ends with the established leadership of the apostles, who were at that time functioning as the elders of the local church in Jerusalem.

No More Microwave Messages, Please

As a kid I loved T.V. dinners—frozen entrees heated and served in flimsy aluminum trays. That was before microwaves, so mom would pop them in the oven for 45 minutes and serve them up on makeshift T.V. trays just in time for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Wonderful World of Disney, or Fantasy Island.

Honestly, it was the thrill of family “T.V. time” that I relished. The meals themselves were, well . . . Salisbury steak doused in salty gravy to hide the fact that the meat suffered from acute freezer burn. Peas and carrots that had the consistency of Styrofoam packing peanuts. Mushed (not mashed) potatoes that approached the consistency of Elmer’s glue. Yes, the T.V. dinners tasted like refried dog food and their very existence lampooned the four food groups, but preparation was painless and the cleanup effortless. Besides, with our eyes and ears fixated on the T.V. screen, we mindlessly consumed the meals with the discriminating palate of garbage disposers.

As I reflect on those T.V. dinners I so enjoyed as a kid, I realize now that they serve as a physical forerunner to a spiritual counterpart in the church of the twenty-first century. Call them Microwave Messages, Instant Homilies, or McSermons. Not consumed by qualified, conscientious, and diligent shepherds of a beloved flock, but devoured by the lazy, the burned out, the distracted, the desperate, the incompetent, the ill-equipped, or the dishonest. Members of that sad sort download these canned sermons from the internet, buy them in a book, or mine them from the repertoires of celebrity preachers. Regardless of how they come by those so-called “ministry tools,” the result is the same: “sermons-to-go” that require no actual biblical, theological, or homiletical expertise and negligible prayer, meditation, reflection, and preparation.

In my mind, buying sermons or preaching somebody else’s sermon is the equivalent of picking up KFC and telling your family you prepared it yourself. Or it’s like stepping into a university classroom and spending the hour reading directly from somebody else’s text book. Or like buying term papers from online vendors to earn your degree. Or maybe like an average Joe donning a white coat and stethoscope and pretending to be a doctor by mimicking characters he saw on T.V. There’s just something creepy about pastors who don’t care enough about their congregations to wrestle with the biblical text, engage with its theological and practical truth, and then craft their messages to address their own churches’ real needs.

Please don’t mishear me. I’m not talking about using illustration helps. Or even quoting from fellow pastors and teachers. I’m not even worried about getting sermon ideas or outlines from others. The seeds of excellent messages can be planted by numerous sources—and cross-pollination from other preachers is healthy. What I mean, though, is when most of the message is drawn directly from another, even if that source is acknowledged. There’s plagiarism and then there’s lack of pastoral responsibility. Neither of them is tolerable for those trained and ordained for the pulpit ministry.

Let me suggest three reasons why McSermons are simply unacceptable for a responsible preaching pastor. In these three reasons, I’m focusing less on the plagiarism problem (which everybody should clearly see) and more on the pastoral problem (which many overlook).

First, canned sermons weren’t written for your church. A preacher’s primary responsibility is to provide spiritual leadership to the particular congregation in his charge. He is not primarily responsible for other churches or for all churches. The pulpit ministry in a local church is most effective when the pastor knows the members of his congregation, understands their spiritual needs, has his finger on their spiritual pulse, and can accurately gauge their doctrinal and practical growth. Only then can the pastor craft a message that applies biblical truth to the church’s specific needs. Let me suggest that a message that had been preached at another church or a sermon template designed to be preached to any church will likely fail to effectively shepherd your church. Popping the cork on bottled sermons might provide a polished presentation and impressive content, but it will always lack sincerity, authenticity, and heart-to-heart exhortation. In the end, the congregation may be foddered, but they may not be nourished. In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul told Timothy, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (ESV). In order to reprove or rebuke, a preacher must know the failings of the flock. In order to exhort, a preacher must understand the areas in need of growth. The authors of canned sermons don’t know your church. They can’t reprove, rebuke, or exhort your flock any more than reading some other parent’s written lecture could discipline your child.

Second, canned sermons turn the preacher into an irrelevant middle man. As far as I can tell, pastors who draw extensively from somebody else’s sermons are simply buying wholesale and selling retail. It won’t take long before the congregation feels a little ripped off. Why should a church listen to a second-rate communicator present the work of a first-rate preacher? Wouldn’t it be more desirable to go straight to the source? Why bother with the middle man? Oh yes, the middle man can provide more personalized service and a pulpit presence, but the message itself comes to the church through a stand-in who parrots somebody else’s words. I’m not surprised when members of the congregation feel their pastor’s messages lack depth, conviction, and passion. And I’m less surprised when church members lose attention because the middle man in the pulpit is mindlessly channeling the thoughts of another. We would do well to mediate on the words of Paul to the young pastor, Timothy, and reflect on how seriously he was expected to take his personal responsibility for that church in Ephesus: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:13–16, ESV). I see no room in Paul’s instructions here for a pastor who neglects his responsibility to exhort and teach, pilfering the content of his messages from a nameless, faceless supplier who has no relationship with the end users.

Third, canned sermons indicate a pastor’s loss of focus and misplaced priorities. The apostle Peter provides great counsel to those responsible for pastoral care: “I exhort the elders among you . . . shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:1–3, ESV). The picture Peter draws is one of church leaders who know their flock because they dwell among them, setting examples and providing oversight by word and deed. A pastor’s primary responsibility is to minster the Word of God to his particular flock with care and diligence. Sadly, the modern image of a pastor as a vision-setter, goal-getter, marketer, C.E.O., or shop-keeper has displaced the biblical image of the shepherd, mentor, and spiritual advisor who leads his flock through personal counsel and corporate preaching. As such, many pastors have been so over-burdened with day to day administrative and management tasks that they have no time for the activities that lead directly to effective sermon preparation—prayer, study, research, meditation, visitation, and preparation. Such pastors are forced to take short-cuts, and sometimes this means either shoddy, shallow messages thrown together on a Saturday afternoon or worse—canned sermons purchased from a Sermons-R-Us service and presented as if they were his own.

If you’ve become a connoisseur of processed, pre-packed messages, stop. Or if you’ve been tempted to snatch a fast-food sermon from a drive-through vendor, don’t. Take your responsibility of pastoral leadership more seriously. Take the time to get the training necessary to fill your workshop with the tools needed to craft sermons from the Word to minister to your world. Then carve out a generous amount of time to pray, study, meditate, and mold messages of both substance and significance.

[Originally posted at www.retrochristianity.com May 19, 2012]

Should We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper Every Sunday in Church?

A monthly, quarterly, or simply “infrequent” observance of the Lord’s Supper (or in some traditions “the Eucharist,” “Communion,” or “the Lord’s Table”) has become generally accepted by many churches. So common is the non-weekly observance that when Bible-believing Christians are confronted with the fact that the earliest churches observed the Lord’s Supper weekly, as instituted by Christ and the apostles, they respond with disbelief, defensiveness, or even resentment. Countless excuses spill from their lips as to why they can’t (or won’t) conform their Sunday worship to the original apostolic model presented in the Bible and clearly seen in the earliest churches founded by the apostles.

Frankly, a lot of confusion, misinformation, bad preaching, and bad teaching have permeated our understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, it’s necessary to revisit the biblical, historical, and theological facts confirming that a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper in the context of the local church’s Sunday worship was the original apostolic practice to be observed in all churches since—including yours and mine. I know this essay is long, and at points it can become somewhat technical. But I promise it will be worth your diligence.

 

Coming Together around the Bread and Cup

Let me begin by setting forth the simple establishment of the Communion service ordained by Christ at the completion of the Last Supper. Though the meal preceding its establishment was a typical Passover Seder, the institution of the bread and wine as the body and blood was a radical modification of the Passover tradition. Christ first “gave thanks” for both the cup and the bread (Matt. 26:26–27; Mark 14:22–23; Luke 22:17–19). The Greek verb “to give thanks” is eucharisteo, the noun form of which is eucharistia. This is the term used in the early church for the Communion service of bread and wine—the “thanksgiving” or Eucharistic observance.

Christ also identified the broken bread with his body and the cup of wine with his blood (Matt. 26:26–28). This is clearly a completely new revelation, not an expected part of the Jewish Passover observance. Therefore, Jesus’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24) refers exclusively to the institution of the bread and wine. In fact, Paul himself narrows the observance to the consecrated bread and wine when he says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). That is, the proclamation, remembrance, and observance are all focused on the bread and wine, not the entire Passover meal.

Of course, neither Jesus nor Paul clearly said anything at this point about the frequency of the observance of the Communion service. Paul used the ambiguous term, “as often as” (1 Cor. 11:25–26). However, this term does not mean “do it whenever you want.” Clearly the Corinthian church already had a set pattern of observing the Lord’s Supper. Paul was therefore building upon that understanding of the frequency of the observance while reminding them that as frequently as they observe Communion, they are proclaiming the Lord’s death. The emphasis was on remembering the purpose of the observance every time they participate in it, not on observing the Lord’s Supper whenever they felt like it.

So, is there a way for us to determine what the apostles actually established as the normative practice of the Lord’s Supper?

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul points out that when the Christians in Corinth “come together,” problems arise (11:17). Paul uses the term “come together,” sunerchomai, in this passage as a term for the official assembling of the local church in Corinth. In verse 18 he says, “When you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.” Also, 1 Cor. 14:26 uses the same term for the official gathered meeting of the church. This confirms that Paul had in mind the weekly gathering of the community to observe the practices he had established during his eighteen-month period of teaching the new Christians several years earlier. Though they had maintained the weekly practice of gathering together as a church, the meeting had become fraught with problems.

When did this gathering together of the church occur? Well, 1 Corinthians 16:1 says, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up.” The idea is that each believer is to contribute something of his or her wealth to a community pot that would later be collected when Paul arrived. The “first day of every week” is, of course, Sunday. The book of Acts also notes that the church of Troas gathered “on the first day of the week . . . to break bread” (Act 20:7). In fact, Paul stayed a full seven days in Troas after his arrival there in order to remain with the disciples during that Sunday. No other day would do.

In any case, the weekly gathering, having been firmly fixed in Judaism as Saturday, naturally continued in the early church, but with an important change. The earliest Christians commemorated the resurrection of Jesus, which occurred on “the first day,” Sunday (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). That this was the pattern established by the apostles themselves when they planted their churches is confirmed in the first century historical document from the church in Antioch, which instructs new churches, “Every Lord’s day, gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions” (Didache 14.1). So early is the Didache (dated by modern Didache scholars now between A.D. 50 and 70) that it gives us a window into the actual practice of the churches established by the apostles themselves. It’s not surprising that we find Ignatius of Antioch some years later faithfully carrying out the instructions of the apostles. He notes that those who have come to Christ from Judaism are “no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death” (Ignatius, Magnesians 9.1).

Therefore we see that our reading of the New Testament documents concerning Sunday worship (the Lord’s day, on which He was raised from the dead, not Saturday), is confirmed by the historical documents that relay the actual practices of the early church. (For more information on Sunday as the original day of Christian worship, see my essay, “Putting the Sabbath to Rest.”)

What were the churches expected to do when they “came together” (sunerchomai) each Sunday? Returning to 1 Corinthians, we see that in conjunction with the “coming together,” they were to celebrate the unity of the body by observing “the Lord’s supper” (1 Cor. 11:17–20)—a mark of unity at which they were utterly failing (11:21). That this “Lord’s supper” was not a fellowship meal is confirmed by the fact that Paul explicitly instructs those with means to “eat at home” (11:34; cf. 11:22). Rather, the “Lord’s supper” observed in the weekly coming together was that observance instituted by Christ “on the night when he was betrayed” (11:23).

 

Was the Lord’s Supper Just a Passover Meal?

Though some have closely tied the institution of the Lord’s Supper to the annual Jewish Passover meal, such a perspective fails to hold up to biblical, theological, and historical scrutiny. Already in 1 Corinthians Paul makes a point that “after supper” Jesus took the cup (1 Cor. 11:25). The Passover supper itself was over. What Jesus instituted came afterwards, was detached from the traditional Passover meal, and involved words and actions that were not part of any traditional Passover Seder. Renowned early church scholar, Everett Fergusson, writes of the account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Gospels: “Mark and Matthew make nothing of the meal setting, except to mention it as the occasion when Jesus gave a special meaning to the bread and the cup. They focus attention on what was important for the continuing practice of the church” (“Lord’s Supper and Love Feast,” Christian Studies 21 [2005–2006]: 28).

Theologically, Christ uses the bread and the cup to point us to the New Covenant. In stark contrast, the Passover meal was an annual hallmark of the Old Covenant. In fact, in the key New Covenant passage in Jeremiah 31, the prophet proclaimed, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” (Jer. 31:31–32 ESV). The mark of remembering the institution of the Old Covenant (redemption from Egypt) was the annual Passover celebration. The mark of remembering the institution of the New Covenant (redemption in Christ’s blood) is the weekly Lord’s Supper, remembering Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection each week as a reflection that Christ has not yet returned (1 Cor. 11:26).

Thus, the difference between Passover and the Lord’s Supper is as different as the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, as different as circumcision and baptism. This is why Paul put the Old Covenant Jewish observances in proper perspective in Colossians 2:16–17—“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (ESV). These shadows of things to come (including the Passover, cf. 1 Cor. 5:7) must never be confused with the realities of Christ’s person and work—remembered through the weekly celebration of the bread and cup.

 

Was the Lord’s Supper the “Love Feast”?

The “love feast” is mentioned only once in the New Testament (Jude 1:12), paralleled in 2 Peter 2:13 with reference to a “feast.” Too often the “love feast” has been understood by modern readers as a “fellowship meal,” like a church potluck, Sunday school picnic, or some other time of “food, folks, and fun.” But the “love feast” held by many in the early church was actually a “charity meal” primarily for the purpose of providing sustenance for the needy members of the congregation—widows, orphans, and the poor. Its inspiration did not come from the Last Supper, but perhaps from the Lord’s miraculous feeding of the hungry in Matt. 14:19 and the early church’s practice of providing for the needy through the voluntary benevolence of the rich (Acts 4:34–35). In some places the love feast was supplemented with or supplanted by a monetary or food offering intended to provide for the poor and needy. On the other hand, the Lord’s Supper was an observance distinct from the love feast. In the Lord’s Supper, bread and wine were ceremonially consumed as a memorial confession of Christ’s person and work, a medium of spiritual fellowship with Christ himself, and a means of covenant renewal among the local church community.

Everett Fergusson writes, “The Lord’s supper and the love feast were two distinct activities—the one a remembrance and proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the other an act of benevolence and fellowship. It took some time before a distinct and fixed terminology prevailed, even as some time passed before the functions were separated in time, but the activities themselves had discreet meanings from the beginning” (Fergusson, “Lord’s Supper and Love Feast,” 35). Similarly, Marcel Metzger, an expert on the history of Christian worship, writes concerning the charity meals, “The community meals were at once a realization and an expression of charity and mutual support, another aspect of communion in one single body. In times of want and famine . . . the demands of mutual help led in all likelihood to the organization of daily meals for the benefit of the needy” (Marcel Metzger, History of the Liturgy: Three Major Stages, trans. Madeleine M. Beaumont [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997], 21–22).

Simply put, the “love feast” is not the same as the Lord’s Supper. Neither is the love feast simply a fellowship meal, like our modern potlucks, or any meal we have with other believers. Rather, when we read the Bible in its historical-theological context, it becomes clear that the “charity meal” was often observed in conjunction with the gathered community as a way for the well-off to provide for the needy. Thus, the modern equivalent of the “charity meal” in our churches is not the Lord’s Supper, a potluck, or a church-wide picnic, but a benevolence offering for the poor.

 

Was the Lord’s Supper Any “Breaking of Bread” with Believers?

Some time ago a young man contacted me with concerns over his church’s apparent teaching and practice of the Lord’s Supper. He reported that the pastor of the church taught that the biblical Lord’s Supper was never intended to hold a special place in church worship. Rather, the Lord’s Supper, he said, was any meal that believers enjoy together. In fact, that pastor boldly asserted that the traditional in-church observance of the Lord’s Supper was a “bastardization” of its original intent (these are his words, not mine!). And he added that he partook of the Lord’s Supper three times a day—whenever he “broke bread” with fellow believers at breakfast, lunch, or dinner!

Sadly, this confusion occurs far too frequently among careless Bible-readers who fail to read the Scriptures in their literary and historical context. The idiom “to break bread” is already used in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 58:7 and Jeremiah 16:7 the authors use the Hebrew word parash, “to divide,” in the sense of “sharing” food with the needy and the mourning. The Septuagint (the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) renders the idiom in Jeremiah 16:7 as “break bread.” By the New Testament, the practice of “breaking bread” in conjunction with a blessing at the beginning of a meal was customary in Judaism, often in the context of “dividing” one’s supply of food with others (Matt. 14:19; 15:36). Thus, when Jesus instituted Communion after the Last Supper, we are told that he “took bread, and after blessing it broke it.”

Everett Fergusson clarifies: “The phrase, ‘break bread,’ referring to a general custom, could refer to beginning a meal or to the specific remembrance of the death of Jesus. The context must decide which is meant in each case” (Fergusson, “Lord’s Supper and Love Feast,” 30). Many careless readers of Scripture (some who should know better!) have read the term “to break bread” as if a) it always means the Lord’s Supper, or b) it always means any meal with others, or c) it has both meanings, so it is a meal with others, which is the Lord’s Supper. This latter error—of which the pastor mentioned earlier was guilty—is akin to the exegetical fallacy D. A. Carson calls “Unwarranted adoption of an expanded semantic field” (Exegetical Fallacies, 2d ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996], 60–61).

The context of each passage must determine the kind of “breaking bread” involved. When Paul was on his way to Rome by ship and he broke bread with others on the vessel (Acts 27:35–36), this was a normal meal; it does not indicate that Paul shared the church’s Lord’s Supper with unbelievers as part of his evangelism! Earlier, in Acts 20, it appears we have both uses of “to break bread”—first as a reference to the Communion meal (Acts 20:7), then later as a common meal (20:11). So, when we see that believers “broke bread” with each other, we cannot automatically assume that the text necessarily means the church’s observance of the Lord’s Supper, Communion, or Eucharist—observed in the context of Sunday worship. Rather, it may be: a) any normal daily meal (Luke 24:30—like our breakfast, lunch, or dinner); b) a joyous fellowship or community meal with believers (Acts 2:47—like our potlucks or banquets); c) a charity meal for the benefit of the poor (Matt. 14:19—like our soup kitchens or charitable food banks); or d) the memorial bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper observed in church (1 Cor. 10:16—the same as our Communion).

The Lord’s Supper, one form of “breaking bread” with believers, was always meant to be an observance in the context of the worshiping church during their Sunday morning gathering (Acts 20:7). By confusing the various distinct uses of the phrase, “to break bread,” with its special use for the Lord’s Supper, some pastors and teachers have misinterpreted the observance of the Lord’s Supper as any every-day meal or as a special potluck meal. This has led some churches to eject the Lord’s Supper from their Sunday morning service altogether, reduce its frequency to special (i.e., “rare”) occasions, or to even offer it to unbelievers. Such practices don’t stand up to honest and informed biblical, theological, and historical scrutiny.

 

Weekly Observance in the Context of the Gathered Church

When we read the Bible in the historical context of the actual beliefs and practices of the earliest Christians, the conclusion is indisputable. All the churches throughout the world, in response to the institution of Christ and the authoritative instructions from His apostles, observed the bread and cup as the body and blood of Christ weekly as part of the Sunday morning worship when the church came together (1 Cor. 11:17–20). Do modern churches, therefore, have the right to alter this identifiable apostolic practice, taught in Scripture, observed in the earliest churches, and maintained for centuries as an immovable part of authentic weekly Sunday worship?

The apostle Paul instructed the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). Paul expected the Corinthian Christians to “maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). Indeed, the teachings of the apostles are “the foundation” of the church, to which all later developments are to conform (1 Cor. 3:10). And we are to avoid and correct the errors of “human tradition” that inevitably creep into the church’s beliefs and practices (Col. 2:8). Judge, therefore, for yourself whether any teacher, preacher, pastor, or theologian has the authority to change the weekly Lord’s Supper observed in the context of the local gathered community. To do so seems to me to deviate from the clearly discernible tradition which Paul “received from the Lord” and “delivered” to the Corinthians—as well as all the churches he planted and in which he labored. This practice is not a mere worn-out tradition of men, but a hand-delivered practice from Christ and His apostles.

Not only did the ancient church take the apostles’ tradition regarding the Lord’s Supper seriously, but Protestant teachers also knew this to be the original teaching of the early church, too. The great reformer, John Calvin, wrote, “We ought always to provide that no meeting of the Church is held without the word, prayer, the dispensation of the Supper, and alms. We may gather from Paul that this was the order observed by the Corinthians, and it is certain that this was the practice many ages after” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.44). The Roman Catholic Church had deteriorated in their practices to a point in which only priests partook of the Sacrament of the Mass daily, giving only the bread to their parishioners and that often only once a year! But by studying the Bible and the early church, the reformers knew this infrequent observance had no resemblance to authentic Christian worship. Instead, the weekly Sunday observance of the Lord’s Supper was intended to be a distinguishing mark of a biblically and historically faithful Protestant congregation.

Fergusson provides a balanced perspective with regard to proper observance of the Lord’s Supper as established by Christ and handed down by the apostles: “The association of the Lord’s supper with the Lord’s day and the association of the day of the resurrection with the day of meeting should not be weakened or broken by another practice. Nor should the significance of the Lord’s supper as a memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus made by the gathered community of disciples be turned to other purposes. To make the Lord’s supper a sacrament that brings a blessing just by doing it [as in Roman Catholicism] says too much about the Lord’s supper. To treat it as a general religious act of personal piety so that it can be taken on other occasions than the assembly of the church [as in many evangelical churches] says too little about the Lord’s supper” (Fergusson, “Lord’s Supper and Love Feast,” 38).

How tragic that so many evangelical churches have drifted in their worship so far from the Bible, the practices of the earliest churches, and the ideals of the reformation!

 

Now for the “Yeah, Buts”

When confronted with the biblical, historical, and theological facts, Bible-believing Christians ought to amend their ways. They should conform their attitudes and actions to the commands of Christ, the mandates of the apostles, and the universal observances of the ancient churches. However, far too many evangelical pastors and teachers respond to these facts with all sorts of excuses for continuing to deviate from the apostolic practice. Over the years, I’ve heard them all. I present seven of the most common excuses, with my own brief responses in italics.

1) “If we observe the Lord’s Supper every week, it will become routine and mundane; a less frequent observance makes it more special.” Response: Then apply this same logic to the sermon, the collection, prayers, or singing. Would a monthly sermon make the message more meaningful? Would a quarterly praise and worship time make the songs more memorable? Would a monthly offering make every penny received that much more precious? On the positive side, I have heard countless testimonies from churches who have opted to obediently observe the Lord’s Supper weekly, saying they would never go back to a monthly or quarterly observance after experiencing the blessings of the weekly table.

2. “If we observe the Lord’s Supper every week, the worship service will be too long!” Response: So maybe you should shorten or cut out some of the activities you do during the worship service that aren’t actually apostolic. Or try re-appropriating time to better balance the elements of worship to include everything the apostles mandated. Most of our typical worship services can be divided at 50% preaching, 30% singing, and maybe 20% for everything else: prayer, offering, announcements, etc. Does this proportion reflect the Bible’s own emphases? Since the facts point to a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper as an essential element of worship, shouldn’t we find a way to give it the space it deserves? Many other churches are able to do this. Why can’t yours?   

3. “Observing the Lord’s Supper every week looks too Catholic!” Response: The question shouldn’t be “How can I best avoid things that look Catholic?” but “How can we best conform to the things Christ and the apostles established?” It should be noted that Protestant reformers themselves—because of the compelling evidence of Scripture and early church practice—favored a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, not because it was Catholic, but because it was Christian. As pointed out above, in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, most people observed the Lord’s Supper rarely (usually only once a year!)  

4. “We can reflect on the person and work of Christ in other ways that are more culturally relevant than the Lord’s Supper.” Response: By what authority do you disobey Christ’s command? By what new revelation do you challenge the authority of the apostles? By what divine wisdom or insight do you place the Lord’s Supper in the category of “optional” observances? Jesus, through the apostles, established the Lord’s Supper as a unique practice that does more than just provide a means of reflecting on Christ. A close reading of 1 Corinthians 10–11 shows that with the observance comes spiritual blessing, a mark of unity in the body, fellowship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, and an act of covenant renewal before God and fellow believers. Also, the many evangelical churches that have restored a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper to their worship have testified to its ”relevance” as a weekly confession of faith that involves all five senses in a way that no other act of worship can. 

5. “Our church has done it quarterly (or monthly) for as long as I can remember. They won’t accept a weekly observance.” Response: Any church can be re-educated and shown the error of its ways. It may take time, study, skill, patience, and perseverance, but it has happened all around the nation. Numerous independent Bible churches, traditional Baptist churches, and other evangelical congregations that had long abandoned weekly observance have recently re-established this ancient practice and wouldn’t consider going back. No generation is immune from doctrinal and practical deterioration. Every church must frequently reevaluate and realign its beliefs and practices to the apostolic standard. A long history of disobedience is no excuse for a future of disobedience.

6. “My pastor [or professor] says you’re wrong. A weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper in the local church worship is not really what the Bible teaches.” Response: I’m sorry to say that your pastor [or professor] is simply reading the Bible outside of its actual historical context. I’m not alone in this. I personally know of no bona fide expert in the history of early Christian worship who would argue against my conclusions. (Oh, but I’m sure there’s one out there, somewhere!) I only know of ill-informed pastors or scholars who are non-experts in this field who argue that the original apostolic church didn’t observe the Lord’s Supper weekly. You see, we can actually look at the earliest churches that were established by the apostles and see that they clearly practiced the Lord’s Supper each Sunday in the gathered community. This isn’t a guessing game. It’s not a matter of some reading the Bible this way, others reading it that way. Being aware of the actual historical context, we will be equipped to read the New Testament descriptions and prescriptions in a clearer light. Sorry to say it, but your pastor or professor is reading into the New Testament what he or she wants to see in light of his or her modern church practices, personal preferences, or professional pride. They are not letting the Bible say what it said in its original first century context.

7. “Our church is too big to celebrate the Lord’s Supper each Sunday during the worship service. It’s a logistical nightmare!” Response: Somehow giant churches still manage to collect money every Sunday, and I’ve never heard anybody complain that it was a logistical nightmare! But even in churches with thousands in attendance, creative ways can be discovered to observe the Lord’s Supper weekly. Perhaps breaking into smaller groups throughout the facility after the sermon for the Communion component . . . or dismissing those who are not spiritually prepared during a brief intermission for preparation, then observing with those who remain . . . or working out a way to more rapidly distribute the elements to participants. Bottom line: if you value the Lord’s Supper as much as you value the collection of money, you can find a way to accommodate a church of thousands. (Also see my essay on problems with certain church ministry models that are not conducive to a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper: “7 Church Ministry Models from Ideal to Awful.”)