Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Discipline and the Lord's Supper - Some thoughts

As mentioned previously, I found recent discussion about exclusion from the Lord's Supper as a means of discipline very interesting. Recently, my church heard a series of sermons on the Sacraments (available here) which provoked a lot of thought.

My biggest surprise was in reading again what Paul says of communion in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. In particular, Paul's words at the end of chapter 11:
"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world."
Several things are interesting here.
  1. This is a warning to Christians. This is a warning about the way Christians should share the Lord's Supper together. If there is a message for unbelievers here, it is by implication only.
  2. Unworthy eating and drinking leads to judgement; but this judgement is not the judgement of condemnation. Rather it is discipline, sometimes in the form of sickness or physical death, "so that we may not be condemned!"
  3. Unworthy eating and drinking is about sharing communion "without discerning the body," which the context helps us see has to do with care for fellow brothers and sisters (see vv.17-22). It does not mean "taking communion while there is sin in your life."
It seems to me that (a) there is no clear message here about whether or not unbelievers should receive communion; and (b) there is no clear word here about when or if someone should be denied communion because of sin in their life. To be sure, there is a link between sin and "discerning the body": failing to discern the body is a particular sin. Yet we cannot view "unworthy eating" as eating when there is sin in your life. This is not what Paul is talking about, and if we're honest, who could then eat in a worthy manner?

What about 1 Corinthians 10? Do we get anywhere there?

The key point in this passage (esp. vv.14-22) is that sharing in the Lord's Supper is something. It is not that the bread or wine is anything in itself (see v.19), but drinking the cup and partaking of the table is a sharing in the body and blood of Christ. The act is something, something that means it cannot go along with partaking of the table of demons. "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons... Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?"

There is a clear assumption here and in chapter 11 that it is Christians who share in the Lord's Supper. However, it seems to me that the question of whether unbelievers might share communion is simply not addressed. To be sure, there will be consequences if they are simultaneously partaking of the table of the Lord and the table of demons, or if they are not discerning the body. Yet for the unbeliever, who comes in ignorance, can we really assume these consequences will be negative?

Likewise it appears to me that the question of sin and discipline and exclusion from communion is more complicated than we might have thought. There seems to be no indication whatsoever that there should be any judgement done other than self judgement (11:31). Have we made a mistake in linking sharing in communion too closely with church membership, so that to "expel the immoral brother" (5:13), we have to exclude them from the Lord's Supper and so, perhaps, deny its basic character as a meal of grace?


Anonymous said...
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byron smith said...

I hope you didn't bother to read that first comment Erro. Cut and paste comments are like spam.

As for your post - very interesting: what then does expulsion of the immoral brother or sister look like?

AndrewE said...

I don't know. The church has to have discipline. It has to take holiness seriously. Yet I wonder if we've made a mistake in making the Lord's Supper the means by which we do this. I suspect we need to pay attention to what the church in Corinth looked like. What sort of a community was it? How open?

Unfortunately, I doubt we have clear answers on these questions.

Matthew Moffitt said...

Thanks for an interestin post Erro.

Do you mind if I ask what do you think church membership should be based on?

Jonathan said...

I agree that having the Lord's Supper as "the means of church discipline" isn't right, but surely the expulsion wasn't simply about some sort of formal membership.

It is clear that the only judgement Paul talks about it self-judgment and the discipline of God and that the context is that of care for brothers and sisters, but the immediate context of your quote is the fact that whenever we eat and drink it we proclaim the Lord's death. There is grace in the meal only because of the grace that is Jesus' death.

To partake in an unworthy manner is a sin against that grace. Does this only apply to believers?

Apart from that, what makes a meal the "Lord's Supper"? Since they were not eating it, there is a clear distinction between it and "other meals" in this passage, if nowhere else, but I'm not sure I recognise the ceremonies of today in Paul's writing.

Martin Kemp said...

Thanks for the Biblical reflections. Your points about self judgment are useful.

However, it is precisely because the supper is something that we would do well to continue to be very concerned about administering the supper to those not in relationship with God or those consciously persisting in sin. Calvin saw it as a pastoral responsibility:

It [the Lord's Supper] is turned into a deadly poison for all those whose faith it does not nourish and strengthen... (Inst. 4.17.40)

According to Calvin, what is gained by allowing people to poison themselves?

Of course, if you think that the LS has the ability to bring sinners into salvation, then that's a different story. (Personally I think this is a dangerous path upon which to proceed.)

I'd like to make a plea that we define what we mean when we call the LS a meal of grace. Grace which offers forgiveness through ingestion of the elements? No thanks, that's Roman Catholicism. Grace which is
bestowed upon all who come with no discernment by those administrating? No...that's cheep grace. Grace which nourishes the beliver through the one sacrifice for sin? That's what Calvin landed on, and I think it's a view worth understanding. Sure its a product of doctrinal reasoning and not a simple reading of Scripture, but it's a reading which does justice to what is presented in the texts. It also happens to be a view which leads to an understanding of the LS as a meal for Christians (faith comes first before participation, as the participation is a rememberence of something you have already believed and accepted), and as something which should therefore have some sense of exclusivity about it.

But again, I would like a clear definition of what is meant by a meal of grace. What is the grace enjoyed by those partaking?


AndrewE said...

Thanks folks, particularly Jonathan and Marty, for some helpful thoughts. I think I agree with most of what you have said. Let me be clear: I am not saying there are no consequences for unbelievers taking communion. I just don't think we get a lot of clarity on what they are. Calvin's comment about making the LS a deadly poison can only be based on 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. But it seems to me that this is not the only conclusion you could draw from these chapters, mainly because the judgement on the one who eats unworthily is precisely so that she will not be condemned!

In answer to the question about what I mean by "meal of grace": I think the Lord's Supper is a sharing in the death of Jesus. With further reflection, I suspect we should continue to discourage unbelievers from taking communion. But God is free. He is "stronger than we." And I am reluctant to assume I know what the consequences will be for one who, perhaps in ignorance and with genuine curiosity, shares the bread and wine with believers.

For me, the crucial question is Matt's: what does church membership look like and how does it relate to the sacraments. Paul's point in chapters 5 and 6, especially 5:6-8, is that the church must defend its character and purity, because Christ, our paschal lamb, has already been sacrificed. What this looks like for a church whose membership is not carefully defined and not especially meaningful, and which opens its doors and receives visitors every Sunday is, I think, a question requiring further reflection.

Ants said...

What this looks like for a church whose membership is not carefully defined and not especially meaningful

I have wondered for a while - what does church membership look like now?

As far as I have experienced - the emphasis on membership within my own church has only to do with a vote once a year at the Vestry meeting. Other than that, the unity of the church has been emphasised around Christ.

Has membership simply been a process for understanding those people you don't know?

Anonymous said...

Helpful thoughts A.
Surely on one level the reason we all come to the Lord's Supper is precisely because we are acknowledging our own sinfulness and helplessness, our own unworthiness without Jesus, and our need for his body and blood. If we come to the Lord's Supper as we are, weary and worn, then what exactly is it to come to the table in a 'worthy' manner? Acknowledging one's need for the body and blood?
Also, aside from the LS question, surely since the Church is a body, membership in the truest sense is relational, with Christ and one another. Perhaps lots of things we use to try and define / express this relational reality of church membership will always be inadequete.

AndrewE said...

I agree. I think membership is relational. But it needs to be relational in such a way that someone can be "cast out" and "restored". I think it would be a mistake to think of it as relational in an individualistic sense (You are my friend, I am his friend, etc.) There is a corporateness to church life which means the whole community can make decisions and the whole community can relate to individuals (like in Matthew 18).

I think you're right about worthiness, although as I said, the context makes clear that the worthiness Paul is talking about has to do with the way we treat the rest of the church.

Matthew Moffitt said...

Hey Andrew,

just a general question I thought of yesterday in the shower. Given that everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs at the Lord's table, should someone from a Protestant tradition take part in the Mass?

Jonathan said...

After a sermon on 1 Cor 5 last night, I have even more conflicting opinions on some of these issues than before.

As for discouraging unbelievers from taking part in the Lord's Supper, perhaps explicit discouragement is not the main question. If it were really clear that what we are doing is proclaiming the Lord's death and all that that means, and that we eat and drink for this purpose (and in a manner worthy of this), would someone without belief want to join in?

This sort of thinking affects how I address Matt's question above. Apart from the issue of offending others, we probably should join in anything that we think is right, but if it is clearly treated in a way that we belief would be wrong, should we join it?

Anonymous said...

Just to jump back for a moment to chuches/pastors who exclude individuals from the LS: The rationale (as you've mentioned) involves a kind of paternalism that simply grates me.

The other danger I see in exclusion comes down to a temptation to judge a person's worthiness, which is tantamount (in my assessment) to placing oneself in the Judge's position. The whole thing makes me uncomfortable.

AndrewE said...

Yes, thanks anonymous. I think I can sympathise with much of what you're saying. We should feel uneasy about judging at all in the light of Matthew 7:1; but in the light of Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5-6 I believe we are also called to, with fear and trembling, occasionally enter into judgement as a community.

Jonathan, thanks for helpful thoughts. I think you're right about basically wanting to commend things to people and appeal to their sense of right.

Matt, I'm not sure how to answer your question, although I'm glad you think about such edifying things in the shower.