Issue #147 -------
September 14, 2004
Every one of us should be ashamed to
be free while his brother is a slave.
Frederick Douglass (1817-1895)
On Friday, August 27, I mailed a Special Request to the readers of these Reflections. I would encourage the readers, especially all new readers, to go back and review the contents of that request (you will find it difficult to fully grasp the significance of this present article if you do not). As expected, I received a flood of responses, for which I sincerely thank you. The insights you shared, and they were quite diverse, were most enlightening. I was greatly encouraged by the depth of discernment and the reflective openness of those who responded. All those who wrote, even those who have been longtime critics, were cordial and respectful in the presentation of their perceptions and preferences. It was the kind of dialogue among disciples about which one often dreams, but rarely discovers. I thank God our Father, and I thank each of you, His children, for that marvelous spirit. It truly makes the journey of spiritual discovery we are all on more enjoyable and productive. Frankly, I believe this is all a result of prayer, both yours and mine. Several of you wrote me, within hours of receiving this special request, to say that this effort at discerning God's will would be uppermost in your prayers. Some of you even shared your written prayers with me, which really touched my heart.
In this current issue of my weekly Reflections I will be presenting the thoughts and concerns of the readers with regard to the issue presented for our consideration. Obviously, I can't include every person's comments, and certainly can't quote the full text of each email, but I shall try to fairly represent each of the positions proffered, which clearly fall into easily defined categories. Throughout the presentation, and especially toward the conclusion, I shall offer my own comments and perspectives (with full recognition that my views carry no more weight than any of yours; we are all merely flawed, finite creatures looking for greater insight into the will of Him who is Infinite). I shall try to avoid any effort to be dogmatic, although I may at times express my own convictions boldly. There are some matters about which I am passionate -- unity and harmony within the One Body being one area -- thus, I beg the indulgence of the readers if I at times appear to be somewhat of a "zealot." As the quote by Frederick Douglass at the top of this article conveys -- it is very difficult for me to fully enjoy my own freedom in Christ when I see so many of my brethren being oppressed by those who would enslave them to a system of law. I have devoted a large portion of my life and energy to helping these beloved brethren find freedom, and that zeal will often visibly permeate my writings.
Apples and Oranges
It has been suggested in certain theological circles that if God will accept a person who, in full sincerity and conviction of heart, observes the Lord's Supper in the traditional manner of taking a piece of cracker and a small sip of juice, instead of celebrating it in the context of a full meal, as most believe was the early church practice, then just perhaps our God will likewise accept a person who is equally sincere in heart in his desire to become a child of God, but who is sprinkled instead of immersed. They reason that both scenarios are really a practice of something lesser than the examples of the New Covenant documents. They further reason that it is the heart God examines, not the preciseness of one's outward ritual.
Some readers believed this was a legitimate comparison, and felt strongly that if God would except something less than the observance of the Lord's Supper after the fashion of the early disciples, then by that same standard God should also not be displeased if some lesser form of baptism was employed than that uniformly practiced by the early church as recorded in the inspired writings. Consider the following remarks:
The vast majority of readers, however, felt there was no legitimate analogy between our present day practice of the Lord's Supper and sprinkling. Yes, on the surface it certainly did sound convincing, but after deeper reflection there were obviously some major differences between the two. Consider the following remarks:
There is no question that both sprinkling and our present day observance of the Lord's Supper are something less than what was observed by the early church (as best we understand their practice in these two areas). Sprinkling is not immersion (they are even two separate words in Greek), nor is a pinch of Matzos or a swallow of Welch's equal to a "meal" ... and in the phrase "Lord's Supper" the Greek word employed is deipnon, which had reference to "the main meal of the day; a formal meal; a feast or banquet," which in first century Palestine was usually held in the evening when the day's work was completed and the whole family could gather together for their "main meal." Please refer to: Reflections #47 -- The Lord's Main Meal. Thus, in some ways, sprinkling is to immersion what a "pinch and a swallow" is to a banquet.
There are some significant problems with pressing the analogy too far, however .... although one can easily perceive why those who practice sprinkling would desire to do so! One problem is that immersion is the prescribed mode itself, whereas a family meal is merely the context within which the Lord's Supper was observed. Yes, there is biblical, as well as extra-biblical, historical evidence that strongly suggests the Lord's Supper was observed in the early years as a part of a larger "love feast" among disciples of Christ. The larger meal, however, was never commanded by the Lord, only the memorial "meal" that occurred within this larger context. Immersion, on the other hand, was specifically commanded, thus any reduction of that specified mode would be a transgression of divine directive. Therefore, in our analogy, we have, with regard to "baptism," fuller expression (immersion) commanded, which would thus exclude the lesser (sprinkling), but with regard to "communion," we have the lesser (if I may use that term) commanded (the Lord's Supper), whereas the larger context (a "love feast"), in which the Lord's Supper occurred, is nowhere commanded. This is a vital distinction.
Nowhere in the NT documents is a "fellowship meal" ever bound upon disciples, nor is there any command for the Lord's Supper to occur within the parameters of such a meal, although we certainly find examples of such a practice. Immersion, however, IS bound. Anything less, therefore, would clearly violate the express command of Scripture. On the other hand, celebrating the Lord's Supper apart from the context of a larger meal might very well violate the example of the early disciples (as best we perceive that example), but it in no way violates the command of our Lord Jesus Christ concerning the communion itself. Therefore, I too must conclude that, although on the surface it appears to be an attractive analogy, this is truly an "apples and oranges" comparison.
Quantity or Quality?
Some obviously feel this is a Quantity issue, whereas others regard it more as a matter of Quality. Is it really about the size of the portions, or is it more about the spirituality of the participants? If the issue is quantity -- then how much is enough to satisfy our God? Just how large or small must the portions of bread and drink be? And who gets to decide? If it must be in the context of a larger meal, what additional food items will be approved? What foods will be regarded as "unauthorized"? Must it be a Passover meal, or will a contemporary Potluck suffice? When we begin to bind something, we more often than not end up IN a bind!! Nevertheless, some readers felt rather strongly that our current practice is too much of a reduction of the elements of the Lord's Supper; the result being: it is almost a "mockery" of the early church practice. Again, this goes to the issue of quantity, as well as the overall context of the observance (a meal).
A Christian brother in Ohio wrote, "Some changes to first century practices will change the essence of that practice. The question in this case is: does taking a pinch of cracker and a thimble of juice, outside of the setting of a meal, change the essence of the observance of the Lord's Supper. Coming from a house-church where the Lord's Supper is normally taken in larger quantities, and in the meal setting, I would say, 'Yes, it does.' Such changes are adulterations of the pure original. I will not pronounce them as sinful, but I will say that the original is much better than an adulteration. I don't like watered-down Coke, and I don't like watered-down Lord's Supper either!" A good brother in Texas has this perspective -- "When we went from simple Christianity to the complex, complicated 'Churchianity' at the advent of Romanism, we got completely away from the 'NT pattern.' Anything we do today in these organized, institutional 'churches' (including the Churches of Christ) is a compromise, to some extent, away from the early days of Christianity. How do we get back there? I don't know! There is so much power and money in our 'churches' today that it would seem to be very unlikely we ever will. However, a start would be to go back to the pattern of 1 Cor. 11:17ff in home-settings and groups."
A reader from "across the pond," who lives in England, said, "My thought is this -- ten minutes or twenty to 'do' the Lord's Supper seems more like a ritual than what it could be. If, at a family gathering, we all gathered to 'do' a bite and swallow of a meal, and only one bite and swallow, I would feel cheated somehow. Eating together serves a purpose. A TRUE Lord's Supper, therefore, would be one where all are regarded with love and thoughtfulness, and at the same time where all can enjoy the fellowship of a meal in common with our brothers and sisters AND with Jesus. I wonder if this is possible? I hope so!!" A Non-Institutional preacher in North Carolina wrote, "I have taught on several occasions about the importance of the Lord's Supper being a fellowship 'meal.' That it was intended to be a special meal that we share together. I think we sometimes lose the spirit of this koinonia meal by reducing it to a sacrament, pinching a piece of bread and taking a sip of juice. Even the way our pews are arranged may detract from the intended spirit."
A reader in Tennessee gave this observation: "I don't believe there is any doubt that the Lord's Supper was part of a regular meal in the early church, and that sharing a meal is still the best way of observing the Lord's Supper. Perhaps the Supper should be observed in smaller groups. A Sunday night meal would be an ideal time for groups to have a meal, discuss their faith, give testimony to what the Lord is doing in their lives, and celebrate the Lord's Supper." A noted leader from a major university in Texas had this to say -- "We have largely lost the intended symbolism of the Supper, I feel, with our use of matzos and individual containers. Our One Cup brethren may have maintained more of that symbolism, but with too much contentiousness and patternistic legalism. What is the answer? Probably nothing short of house churches where a real meal (or at least eating and drinking) can be experienced." A brother in Nevada declared, "To 'restore' NT methodology will mean 'restoring' NT assembly practices: daily in homes in small groups around the supper table. However, I see NO possibility of such 'restoration' within our tradition."
There is obviously some degree of frustration among some within our fellowship over what is perceived to be a far too abbreviated observance of the Lord's Supper; abbreviated in comparison with what is perceived to be the "pattern" of the apostolic church. There is also a plea clearly heard here for more meaningful fellowship with brothers and sisters in the family of God. Staring at the back of another's head while rushing through a "pinch and sip" ritual is leaving some people famished spiritually. There is a clear cry here for spiritual relevance. On the other hand, it must be quickly acknowledged that some are apparently being fed spiritually by our present practice, and many of them are not pleased with the efforts of others to bring change to the observance of the Lord's Supper with which they are comfortable.
A minister friend here in New Mexico summed it up succinctly -- "A 'pinch and sip' is still Bread and Wine!" Several readers pointed out that nowhere did the Lord command that the Lord's Supper be observed in the context of a larger meal. They admit it would not be sinful to do so, and they admit that this was apparently the example of the early church, BUT it was nowhere commanded, thus is NOT binding! Indeed, they declare that Jesus, in instituting the Lord's Supper, used merely a broken piece from a loaf and a portion of a cup of wine ... thus, a "pinch and sip." A reader in North Carolina stated it this way, "It was a piece torn from a bit of bread and a drink from a cup that was what Jesus set as the remembrance, not the whole meal." A minister in Georgia wrote, "Jesus took a loaf and 'broke' it, passing the pieces to His disciples. It's hard to make a whole meal out of a piece of a loaf. Likewise, He took a cup and told the disciples to 'divide' it among themselves. If my understanding of that is correct, then not one of them had a whole cupful, but only a portion. Since we are not told how big the pieces of bread were, or how much was in each cup, then I see no problem with the small portions that we use."
It is my conviction that if we will pause to really listen to both sides of this issue (setting aside the extremist, militant positions in both "camps") we will hear much the same concern --- it is a plea for Quality. Whether the Lord's Supper is served in large portions or small, in a home or a church building, in a small group or an assembly of thousands, God's people hunger and thirst for spiritual relevance!! Frankly, I think this can be found in all of these settings ... or, in none of them ... depending on the hearts of the participants. The Lord's Supper is a feast of faith, something the disciples in Corinth lost sight of, and thus incurred the rebuke of Paul in 1 Cor. 11. Paul was not condemning their eating a meal together, nor was he condemning the observance of the Lord's Supper within the context of such a meal. What he condemned was their godless spirit as they came together in this setting. The quality of their observance had deteriorated, and they had become concerned only with quantity. They were so focused on themselves, instead of others ... upon the physical, rather than the spiritual ... that they were making a mockery of both the "Agape Feast" and the Lord's Supper. The corrective action urged was a heart change, NOT dropping the meal or the association of the Lord's Supper with it. Indeed, 1 Cor. 11:33 clearly suggests this meal would continue! What must NOT continue was their abuse of it. As a reader in California so astutely observed, "Paul's objection was not that the communion was in conjunction with a meal, but rather with the boorish and shameful behavior of the members relative to that meal."
With regard to recapturing a quality observance of the Lord's Supper today, regardless of its contextual setting, notice the following remarks of several of the subscribers to these Reflections:
Perhaps one of the best statements pertaining to quality of observance came from an elderly brother in Texas, whose late grandfather was one of the founders of Abilene Christian University. He spoke of several changes in the church, including the change in how we partake of the elements. "A lot of changes have taken place over the centuries, and this is just one example. Today we pass the bread in a tray that is already broken. Did Jesus do that? No, He blessed the bread and then broke it. However, today, when I take the bread and grape juice, my mind is centered on my Lord and the suffering He went through for my sake. My mind is not on what I am going to do this afternoon or what I did yesterday or anything else ... it is just on Jesus on that cross! Even as I write these words, tears come to my eyes, and it is hard to type through them! To me, the Lord's Supper is a spiritual thing!"
Brethren, the Lord's Supper is a spiritual feast. This being the case, the quantity of bread and wine is truly insignificant. It is all about spiritual Quality, not about physical Quantity. To fuss and fight over the size of the portions is to totally miss the point of the Lord's Supper, and, in essence, is to repeat the error of the early Corinthians. When your heart is wrong, your focus shifts from Jesus to juice; from Christ to crackers! When we "think on things above," we will soon cease striving over things of this earth.
Are We Cheating Ourselves?
Is it a sin to observe the Lord's Supper apart from the context of a larger meal of fellowship? No, I do not believe it is. There is nothing in the NT writings that declares such a "separate and apart" observance to be sinful. Nor is there anything that would lead one to view as sinful or inappropriate the observance of the Lord's Supper in the context of such a meal. Does the size of the portions consumed matter? No. These elements are representative of greater truths and realities; they are not the realities themselves. There is absolutely NO command anywhere in the NT Scriptures pertaining to size of portions or the context of the observance. There are examples from which some might choose to draw assumptions, but examples, and assumptions drawn by men from them, are NOT binding as law upon the Body of Christ.
The more relevant question seems to be this --- are we perhaps "cheating ourselves," or short-changing ourselves, by not observing the Lord's Supper in the context of a larger meal of loving fellowship? Obviously, the early disciples saw some benefit to such a meal; one within the context of which the Lord's Supper was observed. Indeed, it was not until hundreds of years later that the Lord's Supper and the "Agape Feast" were separated from one another, and this was done by some of the early Councils of the Roman Catholic Church. That separation endured for centuries, and was carried over into most of Protestantism. I would refer the readers at this point to my study of the history of Lord's Supper practice and teaching over the past almost 2000 years in Reflections #114 for verification of the above connection between the Lord's Supper and the "Agape Feast." Thus, as can be easily verified from the historical record, our practice today is largely the result of Roman Catholic decree and Tradition. Nevertheless, I see nothing wrong in perpetuating that tradition, if that is the desire of a congregation of believers. But, in doing so are we missing something?! Many of the readers believe that to be the case.
A dear brother, who is a citizen of Edinburgh, Scotland, writes that he, his family, and their brethren in Christ, meet to observe the Lord's Supper in a house church, and they seek to make this time very spiritually meaningful. He stated, "We enjoy a meal together and partake of the Lord's Supper as part of this meal, ideally the bread and fruit of the vine forming a natural part of the meal. We then spend the rest of the day together, sometimes lingering until midnight, and anyone can bring up any subject or passage of Scripture they want to share or discuss. We even use your Reflections frequently to start us off. We spend time together as family." This brother went on to say, later in his letter to me, "I am convinced in my own mind that Jesus, when He instituted the meal, intended for His followers to come together and share a meal regularly to remember Christ's sacrifice, and to remember that we are all united in His body and should love each other no matter our differences. I also agree, however, that we would not be condemned for curtailing the meal as many do in their practice today. I just feel it means that we miss out on a blessing, and that it may be indicative of a lack of love and commitment to each other as God's family."
A dear friend who lives in Missouri lamented that too many today have seemingly lost sight of the spiritual feast that can be experienced in sharing a meal together with loved ones ... especially loved ones in the family of God. She wrote, "I personally believe that most today, especially here in the United States, have lost the meaning many once understood when they sat down to eat together. It meant something! It was not just food. It was fellowship. A blessing! A coming together! A sharing of self. I think it would be wonderful if we could partake of such a meal today. Cherishing the time together, and with our Lord. Where I was raised I was taught these deeper things concerning food; a meal. It did not matter if it were a morsel or a ten course meal ... it meant something when you were invited to another's table, and when they were invited to yours. It is sad to me that such teaching and understanding has been lost."
The Bible is filled with examples of beloved brethren eating together. These were very special occasions, and it was about far more than mere food. It was a time of spiritual sharing. This was in part what the Passover meal was about. I believe it was also what the Lord's Supper, at least ideally, was intended by the Savior to be. It will be repeated one day at the great Marriage Supper/Feast of the Lamb. I can assure you, there will be no "chips and sips" on that day! It will be a feast divine.
Are we missing something by our current traditional practice? I believe we are! Is our current way of observing the Lord's Supper sinful? No, I do not believe it is. After all, this is a heartfelt remembrance of what Jesus did for us, and that can occur in one's heart regardless of the size of the portions consumed, and regardless of the surroundings in which that observance occurs. Nevertheless, it seems to me that we are experiencing far less from this time "around the Table" than we could be. What holds us back from this greater blessing? In a word --- Tradition. Our present practice has become so entrenched that it would create chaos, confusion and schism, in many places, to change it. Indeed, some become upset when it is even discussed, much less implemented. Thus, in a great many cases, to "keep the peace" among those comfortable with their tradition, we forfeit greater spiritual blessings that could be ours. How sad!
The size of the portions consumed in our observance of the Lord's Supper, as well as the setting in which this observance occurs, are nowhere prescribed in Scripture. This leads me to believe that these are not matters that ultimately impact one's salvation. Whether I eat a chip from a cracker or consume an entire loaf does not alter the appreciation in my heart for the gift of Christ on a cross. Whether I drink the wine from a thimble or a goblet in no way diminishes my love for the Lamb whose shed blood I remember as I partake of "the cup." I can feast spiritually with my brethren regardless of the setting in which these elements are consumed. Whether in a church building or a home, whether in a large group or a small group, whether with a meal or without .... my Lord and His sacrifice are still remembered in my heart.
On the other hand, what a joy it is when we can share a meal together as FAMILY. How wonderful to sit down at a table with beloved brethren and share the joys, as well as the challenges, of the past week, and the hopes and expectations for the week to come. Family time is precious time! We live in a "fast food" society. We "grab a quick bite," and then "have to run!" It is a "gulp and go" time in history. And we are not the better for it! How much more blessed we would all be if we could pause together as the family of our Father, and take the time to share a meal together, and, as we do so, take some of the bread and wine employed in that meal and remember the One who made our union a reality. That was the intent, I believe, of our Lord when He established this meal. It was also the practice, I believe, of the early church, until it was banned by the Councils of the Roman Catholic Church.
Yet, I would never BIND such a practice upon my brethren. Why? Because it was never bound by my Lord upon His people. After all, our Lord examines our hearts as we remember Him through our eating of these elements. If, in our hearts, our focus is upon Him, and upon our unity with those for whom He died, then our practice is approved regardless of the content or the context of the observance. Thus, it is my conviction that one may acceptably observe this memorial meal in many different ways, in many different settings, and according to many different traditions. The ONLY thing our Lord has specifically prescribed ... the ONLY thing ... is that we take bread and cup, and Remember Him!
Those who seek to create LAW governing the externals of this meal, and who then seek to bind such self-made law upon their brethren, totally miss the point of the Lord's Supper. We must learn to be accepting of the personal preferences and convictions of others; we must accept one another, even when we differ. Yes, this is "Unity in Diversity" ... and, brethren, that is the only kind there is!! The alternative is feuding factions and squabbling sectarians. A dear sister in Christ from Georgia wrote, "I just hope that those who do want meals at this time will not condemn those who do not ... and vice versa!" Amen!! And yet, this condemnation of those with differing convictions is happening among the people of God, on all sides of the issue ... and it is shameful. A minister in New York observed, "I am starting to see among some of my most non-patternistic brothers a sudden call for strict adherence to their pattern of having the Lord's Supper within a fellowship meal. I've been told that the conservative churches that have not embraced the idea of the Lord's Supper being an actual meal are guilty of being 'disobedient.' I have a serious concern that we may be on the verge of binding where the Lord has not. I have to say, if it were not so sad, it would almost be funny!" Yes, patternistic, legalistic thinking is no respecter of persons ... it can claim victims on both ends of the theological spectrum. How ironic that some "liberals" are now turning "legalistic."
Brethren, our Lord Jesus has left us a wonderful time of remembrance. What a shame that men have for centuries turned this meal into little more than a "food fight" at the supper table! I believe our Father deserves better than this from His children. The solution is in our focus; when we get our eyes off the physical, and onto the spiritual, such matters as when, where, and with what will pale in comparison to: Who and why! May God hasten that day of spiritual enlightenment.
From a Reader in Ohio:
My husband and I read your Reflections regularly and with great pleasure. We are both from southern Non-Institutional Churches of Christ and are currently worshiping with an Independent Christian Church here in Ohio. We appreciate more than we can express your thought-provoking writings, calling Christians to examine their traditions in light of Scripture. Your articles are both scholarly and well-written (user friendly). Recently, one of my Baptist friends emailed me, asking me to share my understanding of Church of Christ teaching on Christmas celebrations. He and his wife wanted to understand "our view," so as not to offend one of their Church of Christ co-workers. I emailed him a response, which was somewhat difficult to do considering that conviction and preference on that topic varies greatly within the various "flavors" of the Church of Christ. But, I felt that my email was thoughtful and helpful. When I showed my husband what I had written, he chuckled and asked, "Who do you think you are, Al Maxine?!" Thanks for your diligent service! Many of us are encouraged by your work and example.
From a Reader in Missouri:
God bless you, Brother Maxey. Your response to the Baptist pastor was well done and enlightening. I have forwarded this to several co-workers who consider themselves Baptist and Pentecostal. I pray they read this with an open mind and heart. Again, God bless you!
From a Minister in Florida:
Brother Maxey, I have a sign in my office that reads: "It's called THINKING -- You should try it sometime." I have enjoyed reading your articles; they always make me think! May God bless you!
From a Reader in Scotland:
When I showed my wife a copy of your last email to us, she just gushed, "Al Maxey used my name!" I'm seriously thinking of having a study with her on the First Commandment!! Anyway, thanks for your comments ... it's encouraging to know someone out there actually thinks the same way we do. It's pretty lonely here in Scotland just now. In fact, it got me to thinking -- one of my favorite parts of your Reflections is the Readers' Replies section. Their thoughts and suggestions are very encouraging. Is there any way we could get in touch with each other if we so desired? Some sort of Internet forum or message board or discussion group? I think that would be cool, but I have no idea of the time or resources it would involve. It's just a thought.
From a Reader in Texas:
Al, Enclosed is a check for fifty dollars. Beginning this month I am going to be sending a check each month to help defray some of your cost for Reflections. You do a wonderful work, and you are appreciated by so many of us!
From a Reader in Tennessee:
Brother Al, As a Southern Baptist, from the Memphis area, I certainly hope your readers don't consider David Martin a typical Baptist preacher. I was very disappointed in his unloving attitude toward you and the Church of Christ. Although we have our theological differences, we have a lot more in common than most people would think. His web site ought to tell you something -- I refer you to his article: "THE NIV: SATAN'S BIBLE." This is an off-the-wall Baptist Church that does not represent the majority of the Baptist faith. As you so graciously said, David Martin is in need of our prayers. I applaud your Berean efforts in opposing the many legalists and patternists of your persuasion. Have you ever thought about nailing your 95 Reflections (plus) to the door of the Memphis School of Preaching? I perceive you to be the Martin Luther of the Churches of Christ. As you are aware, we Baptists have our own legalists to be concerned about. Your brother in Christ!
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