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Posts Tagged ‘Lord’s Supper’

I have a great appreciation for Carl Trueman.  For those who don’t know, Trueman is a theologian and historian who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary.  He also blogs regularly at Reformation21.  He is one of the wittiest and most insightful writers out there, one from whom I’ve learned much.

Part of what I like about Trueman is that he is unabashedly Reformed.  It’s not that I agree with his positions, but I admire the man for the fact that he has strong convictions, doesn’t mind stating them strongly and, it seems, he appreciates when others do the same.  I like people who know where they stand and hold to it firmly, as well as grant you the right to do the same.

Then there I times I shake my head.  Like yesterday, when I was reading this post on an unfortunate incident regarding a church suing a former member.  The context of that post isn’t my concern here (since I agree with Trueman, save for the following points).  But in it he makes a statement I’ve heard/read from him previously: “The church is marked by two things: the word and the sacraments.”

This is, of course, a classic Reformed position, so he’s not stating anything new here.  And since I went to a Reformed seminary, I’m well aware of the arguments in favor of it.  I don’t necessarily disagree with “the word” part of the statement, though Trueman and I might not see eye-to-eye on how it’s carried out.  Most Reformed folks I know would stress the preaching of the word- one guy standing up in the front and the congregation listening, with very little interaction otherwise.  That, to me, is not necessarily bad, in fact, it’s mostly a good thing, but it’s not exactly what the NT writers had in mind.  There was some of that style of preaching, to be sure, but there also seemed to be a bit more interaction happening, too.

Anyway, I find his statement regarding the centrality of the ‘sacraments’ (and the term he uses next, ‘means of grace’) to be the most problematic.  This is the mark of the church?  I’m not sure if a person who has never read the NT before would come away with these two points as the marks of the church.  What about love (Jn 13:35)?  What about obeying the commands of Jesus (Jn 14:23-24)?  What about living lives of faith?  It seems to me that Paul thought faith set the church apart from others.

What about believers helping fellow believers financially, practically, etc?  In fact, that shows up more often in the NT than the Lord’s Supper does.  Why doesn’t that make the Top 2 Marks of the Church?

Or, perhaps even more egregious, how about the fact that the very presence of God who was present at the beginning of creation now dwells in the hearts of his people individually and among his people corporately?  You mean to tell me that someone read the NT and came away thinking that the Holy Spirit is not the mark of the church?  God himself dwells among us!  After all, it is the Spirit’s presence in our corporate worship that ought to make unbelievers “fall down and worship God, exclaiming ‘God is really among you!'” (1 Cor 14:25).  If that isn’t something that marks off the church, I don’t know what is.

I want to be clear.  I’m not down on the so-called ‘sacraments,’ or as I state here, my inner Baptist prefers to use the term ‘ordinance.’  In fact, I’d argue baptism and the Lord’s Supper are undervalued in the modern church.  I’m a proponent of weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper (though I’d stress more ‘supper’ than a cracker and juice).  I have very strong feelings about baptism, not just the mode but also its importance.

But what I think Reformed theology has done in general, and Trueman in particular, is give a good thing too high a place in the life of the church.  It is, in my opinion, very difficult to get from the NT that the two primary marks of the church are the word and sacraments.  The first, as I said, is defensible, depending on how we define it.  The second is a harder case to make.

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I can hardly call this post an RoTM, since, as Danny has noted, I have been decidely delinquent in posting lately.  I have several excuses for this, but rather than take ownership and responsibility for the management of my life, I will follow current social trends and blame somebody else, viz., Danny.  It may not appear obvious, but somehow, I know it’s his fault :)

I wanted to tie off a thought of two on the local church:  When is a church properly called “a church?”  Danny and I have admitted up front that “what church is supposed to look like” is a difficult question to answer, because there are no orders of service in Scripture, nor are there detailed descriptions.  Instead, we have to deduce from Scripture how New Testament churches functioned and what types of things they did.

In my encounters with American Christians, most seem to agree with various aspects of what the local church should look like.  Words like “community,” “Bible teaching,” “service,” “prayer,” and “worship,” dot the conversation, as they should.  We’ve heard (ad nauseum, in my opinion) that the church isn’t a building, that the institution isn’t a necessary component to being Christian (side note:  I wonder if that has anything to do with the strong anti-institutional bias in America?).  Yea and amen.  Indeed, a group of believers who come together regularly to study the Word, pray, worship, serve and love each other can be called a local church, irrespective of their registration with the state as such, what day and time they meet, how often, how long, the existence of paid staff, a building, offices, bylaws, polity, or even a proper name.  Or can it?

I feel that the Sacraments are often left out of this discussion, and I number myself among those guilty of neglecting them when describing the fundamentals of what a local church should be.  The Lord’s Supper and baptism are clearly a part of the early church (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:14-16; 11:17ff), and their practice today ought to be a part of ours.

The reasons are manifold, but most importantly, if we take the early church as the prototype for all churches to come, and the New Testament as the authority on defining what a church is and does, our participation in these Sacraments shows an explicit attempt to continue in those traditions and practices; affirmation and assent to what Christ founded and the apostles continued.

So then, if a group of believers gathers regularly for worship, prayer, community, and Bible teaching, but neglects any attempt practice the Sacraments (n.b., I make no mention here of what Baptism an the Lord’s Supper mean or look like; these are disputed matters for another post), I do not believe that the New Testament would understand said group as a local church.  Is it good?  Can it be blessed?  Is God pleased with it?  Yes, yes and yes.  Is it a church?  I don’t believe it is.

I am aware that many local gatherings may not have much opportunity for baptism, especially if all members have already been baptized.  However, it should be an available practice, and hopefully the group is seeking to reach unbelievers (another clear mark of a church), and will have the opportunity at some point to baptize.

Is this post a major in the minors?  Am I guilty of sweating some nuance of proper nomenclature?  I do not believe I am.   If we love, serve and pray in our church because the pattern is clear in the New Testament, then we should also practice the Sacraments, since they are equally clear.  Not only so, but they are far from burdensome, but a powerful expression of devotion and love to the God we serve.  I never fail to be blessed when I’ve participated (or witnessed) a Sacrament at my local church.  Let us endeavor to keep them in the ongoing conversation of “what church looks like,” lest we rob the local church of these great traditions.

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