In the past I have sought your input for special studies that I was preparing, and you always rose to the occasion and flooded my mailbox with your insights. It is truly beneficial to tap into the great spiritual resource of this mailing list, which now reaches close to ten thousand precious souls throughout the world. A great many of you are ministers, elders, deacons, missionaries, authors, college presidents and professors, and you represent the full spectrum of theological perspective: ranging from very conservative to very progressive. Thus, I highly value your input, whether it agrees with my own perspectives or not, and I now seek out that reflective input with respect to the following, which is being increasingly pondered among various congregations in Christendom, especially among those within the Restoration Movement heritage.
We are a society which lives in a world of "sound bytes." Our lives have become so complex, and there are so many demands upon our time and resources, that we have increasingly sought to condense the world about us into smaller portions. That way we can "pack more into" a 24-hour day. Readers' Digest has condensed books, for example, for those who just don't want to invest the time required to "wade through" the whole novel. This thinking seems to be creeping into the church, as well. We want sermons "short and sweet." Any preacher who "prolonged his message until midnight" (Acts 20:7), as did Paul, would likely also be "leaving town at daybreak" (vs. 11), as did Paul. We rarely sing all the verses to our hymns -- "That takes too much time!" We've got to "get them in, and get them out" within an hour. It is also being increasingly suggested throughout the Body of Christ that this "accepting a portion in the place of the whole" is being practiced with regard to such vital matters as baptism and the Lord's Supper. Consider the following email I received yesterday from a doctor in Kentucky:
Is a "crumb and a swallow" to a meal what sprinkling is to immersion? The Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago believes this to be precisely the case. I am told that they evolved from mainly members of Independent Christian Churches. I am not sure if this is true or not, but I do know that many from Independent Christian Churches have gone there to become members and teachers and preachers. At one time they had on their web page, concerning "baptism services," that they "offered" both sprinkling and immersion. The logic behind this (according to the web site) was that if God will accept a person who, in sincerity of heart, observes communion as a small piece of cracker and small sip of juice, instead of a supper, then He will likewise accept a person who is equally sincere but is sprinkled instead of immersed. The Lord looks at the heart, they said. So, they gave new converts a choice. Since then, this web page has been revised, and there is now a statement by the elders that they will now only accept immersion. So, apparently, some turmoil arose over their former position.
At first, I was turned off by this reasoning, and I still cannot say that I could go along with it. This seems to me to be a whittling on God's end of the stick. However, I can't deny the logic that we have diminished the Lord's Supper into something smaller. I am very uncomfortable with allowing a "choice" between sprinkling and immersion. Where I attend, we uphold the standard -- immersion. Yet, I feel terribly inconsistent when I eat the small cracker and drink the tiny amount of juice. I do not feel that God condemns us for having the Lord's Supper like this. So, does He condemn churches who practice a reduced or diminished mode of "baptism"? I agree that analogies do break down at some point, but I have struggled with this particular one for quite some time. Should we allow ourselves and our churches to practice some alternative mode when we know the "correct" mode? I believe with all my heart that God pictured a fellowship meal as the correct setting for the Lord's Supper. That's the FULL picture of what the Lord God intended. A meal in remembrance of Him with a church family. And, I also believe He intended immersion to picture the conversion reality. Both the communion "snack" and sprinkling fall short of that which was intended by God. So, what's a Christian to do who assembles with a church that has a communion "snack" as opposed to a meal? Any thoughts or comments?
Many congregations are beginning to see the apparent inconsistency here in their practice. They will condemn sprinkling (as I believe they should) for being something less than full immersion of the body in water. May a part be substituted for the whole?! Yet, these same brethren will take this meal of remembrance and reduce it to a small crumb from a cracker and a single swallow of grape juice. Is that too not something less than the "pattern" portrayed in Scripture? Where is the "command, example, or necessary inference" for reducing this memorial meal to the "pinch and gulp" of our current tradition? Every example of the Lord's Supper is in the context of a meal. Even the term "supper" used in the expression denotes a "main meal" in the original Greek. Are we not therefore in violation of the "pattern" by our present practice? If our goal is to "restore the NT church," should we not begin by returning to their "pattern" with regard to the Lord's Supper?
Congregations throughout the world -- even congregations of the Churches of Christ -- are beginning to do just that. Is this necessary? Is God really that concerned about the "pattern" concerning this memorial meal? Will God accept our heart-felt observance of present day communion tradition, even though it is far less than the practice of the early church? If the answer to this question is "Yes," then will He accept one's heart-felt observance with regard to other practices where what we practice is less than the example or "pattern" of the original (sprinkling, for example)? These are serious questions, brethren, and they go right to the heart of our traditions and convictions. Many congregations are beginning to think seriously about these matters, and many are beginning to make changes. These changes WILL bring conflict among brethren who do not perceive the WHY behind the change in practice. Perhaps now is the time to begin a responsible and respectful dialogue.
Thus, I am requesting of you -- the readers of these Reflections -- that you share with me your various insights, as well as your concerns, regarding the above. If your congregation is implementing some of these changes, I would like to know how you are going about it, and how it is being received. I would especially like to hear from those conservative brethren who adhere to a strict patternism (many of you are subscribers). I would like to know if you believe our present practice of observing the Lord's Supper is "according to the pattern" of the NT church as revealed in the NT writings. If not, should it be changed? If not, then why should it remain as it is, and, further, are we thereby inconsistent in our condemnation of other practices which are also less than in perfect compliance with "the pattern" of the early church? I will collect the responses from this special request and use them as the basis for a special issue of Reflections dealing with this issue ... to be published in about 4-6 weeks.
I thank you in advance for your input, and I welcome the upcoming dialogue between brethren of differing perspectives as we all seek to challenge our thinking, and to better perceive and practice the will of our Lord God. May our Father richly bless each of you, and may His grace ever rest upon you.