One of the challenges that has repeatedly been hurled toward those within the One Body who are perceived to be the dreaded "Change Agents" has to do with what may or may not be included on the Lord's Table during the observance of the Lord's Supper. The "slippery slope" strategy, which is little more than a fear tactic thinly disguised, maintains that if the "liberals" aren't silenced and stymied we shall all soon be forced to embrace all manner of "horrors" in our worship and practice. For example, notice two emails I received from those of this mindset:
The above questions and assertions are really far more complex than on the surface they may appear to be. The querists further seek to link convictions in one area to excesses in another, a very common ploy of those who are "law bound" and who seek to instill fear in the hearts and minds of their disciples through such prejudicial and unreasonable tactics. To adequately respond to these challenges one must know a bit of biblical and historical background concerning the observance of the Lord's Supper. Thus, if the readers will patiently bear with me, I shall attempt to lay the foundation for a rational response to the above inquiries.
In the early days of the Lord's church the manner in which the saints expressed themselves in worship to their God was much different than it is today. Few students of church history will argue with that fact. We often hear the claim by some that they have "restored" NT Christianity, and that their practice today is virtually the same in every detail as that of the first century church. This simply is not true, as most insightful students and scholars are aware. Our culture and customs today become an integral part of our worship experience just as theirs in the first century became a part of their worshipful expression. Yes, we both do indeed observe this memorial feast we call "The Lord's Supper," but the way in which we today observe it might appear very foreign to a first century disciple if he were to be transported across time and space to our modern assemblies. And yet the spirit of the observance, hopefully, is identical. We partake of the elements which Jesus Himself used when He instituted this memorial --- the unleavened bread, which is a fitting representation of His body, and the fruit of the vine, which is a fitting representation of His shed blood. We also remember His death in this meal, His sacrifice, and His great love for us. We cherish this "feast divine" as a time not only of remembrance, but also as a proclamation of His return for us and as a sign of our unity and oneness in Him.
There are so many spiritual realities in the Lord's Supper which remain constant across the years, transcending the boundaries of culture and tradition and society, whether primitive or modern. Many of the external practices associated with the observance of this feast, however, have changed ... and in some cases have changed dramatically. These changes, however, are not bad or sinful in themselves; they are just different! I doubt, for example, that they had gold or silver trays in the first century with disposable plastic cups, each holding a single swallow of Welch's grape juice (UNfermented, of course). They probably didn't buy their unleavened bread at the supermarket in pretty boxes with nice, neat perforated portions for ease of breaking. They probably didn't have eight (the number may vary without sin!!) men standing formally behind a table in formal attire waiting for a signal from the Lord's Supper leader to pass the trays to an auditorium filled with weekly spectators facing a stage. Etc. Etc. Would they have sung a song while the elements were being passed? Would they have read a passage of Scripture? Would they have taken a collection "separate and apart" from the Lord's Supper, but at the same time "as a matter of convenience?"
In the first century the Lord's Supper was associated very closely with the disciples' home life. Indeed, it began by being celebrated in the homes of the saints (possibly even daily at first), where friends and family and fellow believers would come together to study about the Lord and His teachings, to have fellowship and prayer, and to remember what He did for them via this spiritual "breaking of bread." This was a very informal setting. A family affair.
The Lord's Supper was also observed in connection with a common meal --- known as the "agape feast." This love feast (what some might call a fellowship meal ... and which is referred to in the NT several times) was a time when the saints could enjoy not only one another's company, but could "break bread together." The breaking of bread together (the eating of a meal together) was a very important part of life to those in that culture and in that time. It meant far more to them than it typically does to us today. The Lord's spiritual meal (the Lord's Supper) and the common meal were both characterized as a "breaking of bread." These times gathered around a table were very significant.
During this meal which they ate together with gladness in their hearts and love for one another --- this unity meal; love feast .... or perhaps just after this meal .... the disciples would take some of the bread and wine from their table (food which had been part of the meal itself) and they would consume it in memory of the Lord's sacrifice for them. This made their meal even more meaningful and solemn! Was there other food still on the table when they took these elements and observed the Lord's Supper? Yes, there undoubtedly was. In fact, when the Lord instituted the Lord's Supper He did so at the table where they had just eaten the Passover meal. Thus, there would have been quite a bit of additional types of food on the "Lord's table" as they observed this new special memorial feast together. Did Jesus insist that all other food items be removed from sight so that they wouldn't be sinning? Of course not! Such a thought would not even have entered their minds (kind of sad that it does enter ours!). Even a reading of 1 Cor. 11 clearly demonstrates that the Lord's Supper in the church in Corinth was still, many years later, being celebrated as part of a larger "love feast." This was their common practice in the early years.
However, over time problems began to arise with this "love feast" (as 1 Cor. 11 also demonstrates). Sadly, the spiritual nature of the meal was increasingly lost to the saints, and abuses crept in. They were no longer celebrating the LORD's Supper (as Paul points out, to their shame, in vs. 20), instead all spiritual focus had been lost; they were just stuffing their faces and showing no regard for one another. They were indeed going through the motions of observing the Lord's Supper, but their HEARTS were far from Him. Thus, they worshiped Him in vain! In reality it had ceased being HIS supper when they lost sight of HIM, even though they still observed the outward form. In time, the love feast was done away with altogether. In fact, in later history it was even outlawed. You can read about all this in the many historical documents which I have placed on my home page in my in-depth Study of the Lord's Supper throughout history. I think you will find it interesting.
By the time the Lord's Supper comes to us today, there is no meal associated with it. That aspect of its observance in the early church had died out ... and that is a real tragedy!! The only "food" items on the "table" are the bread and the wine. This was an attempt, and a somewhat understandable one in light of the horrid abuses, to make the memorial meal more meaningful, dignified and special. Some might call this an "innovation" due to the fact that this is NOT how it was observed in the early church, yet it is not the external detail of the meal which is truly the focus, but rather what is happening in the participants' hearts! Technically, our current practice IS an innovation --- that is, if you really want to get technical about it. The NORM in the early church would have been having other food on the table. That was just the way it was customarily observed. That is NOT the way it is observed today, though. Thankfully, our Lord is not concerned with an exact restoring of every minute detail of some elusive "pattern" (or we would ALL be in big trouble on a host of practices), but rather with the restoring of the spirit and focus of these events. Thus, our current methodology (even though far removed from the practice of the early church, as any knowledgeable student will tell you) is not wrong in itself. Different does NOT equate to demonic! The Lord is just as much honored in our current practice and methodology as He was in theirs. With God, the nature of the heart is the focus, not the nature of the table top!!!!
I realize I've taken a long route to get around to the questions posed to me, but I felt it was important to establish in our minds the practice of the early church. It has a bearing on the questions. In our assemblies today, it would be extremely disruptive, confusing, and divisive (given the nature of our current custom) to place hamburgers and Coca-Cola on the Lord's table in a Sunday morning worship assembly of a local Church of Christ congregation. There would be absolutely no practical or logical purpose for doing this in our present day culture, given our current tradition of observing the Lord's Supper. It would only serve to shock and distress most people. It would be a divisive act. Our present practice is so far removed from that of the first century church (where the Lord's Supper WAS observed at a table where other food was likely present) that to make a change of that magnitude in one of our assemblies would simply NOT be beneficial to those present. Indeed, it would be detrimental. Paul urged us to avoid doing those things (even things which in and of themselves may NOT be wrong) which if done would not edify and strengthen and encourage the Body of Christ. A good principle to follow, I think.
Hamburgers and Coca-Cola on the Lord's Table in a present day worship assembly in our country would be out of place, out of character with our tradition and custom, and would serve no practical purpose whatsoever. It would only shock and divide and disrupt. Thus, it should be avoided at all cost.
However, let me offer you the following scenario. This actually happened to us, by the way, and I know of other Christians who have experienced similar scenarios. Several of us went camping one weekend; all of us were members of the One Body. We just did what the Lord suggested --- got away by ourselves and enjoyed some R & R. That Sunday morning we finished up an early lunch and then, as we sat at our various picnic tables, we sang several spiritual hymns, prayed together, studied together from the Word, and then took the emblems for the Lord's Supper, which were also on the table, and shared this memorial feast together. We did this as we sat at our picnic tables; tables which contained not only the "bread & wine" but also leftovers of the meal we had previously enjoyed together as brothers and sisters in Christ. And, yes, there were hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, beans, chips, soft drinks, etc. These items were also on the table as we observed this special spiritual memorial to our Lord.
Was this sinful? If so, HOW?! Was the mere presence of these other items on a picnic table somehow an abomination to our God? Was He so distracted by the sight of a half eaten hot dog that He couldn't concentrate on the devotion within our hearts?! In point of fact, our camp site observance was probably a lot closer to the actual "pattern" of the early church than anything we do in our church buildings today. The early disciples also remembered their Lord as they sat around a table during or after a common meal ... just like Jesus and His disciples did when our Lord instituted this memorial meal.
Thus, my response to the above questions must be two-fold. NO, I don't believe it is a sin to observe the Lord's Supper with other food items on the same table. My second response is: YES, I believe it can be sinful to observe the Lord's Supper with other food items on the same table. Is this Confusing?!! Is it Contradictory?!! Not really. The difference lies in the setting in which the Lord's Supper is observed, the context, and the attitudes of the participants. In our worship assemblies, as they are presently practiced, other food items on the Lord's table would be utterly out of place and serve no practical purpose!! God has stated that He wants things done orderly and decently when we come together to worship Him, and such an addition to our PRESENT PRACTICE within a modern assembly of a Church of Christ congregation on a Sunday morning would clearly be "out of order" and out of character. It would cause great confusion, disruption, and certainly division. It would FOR THIS REASON be wrong!! Thus, I would oppose anyone who tried to do it, as I would oppose anything that would lead to division.
However, if the setting was different --- if a group was camping, for example, or if a family was having a reunion in a home or at a resort and the members decided to all worship together that Lord's day as a family and to share a common meal together and to then observe the Lord's Supper as they assembled themselves around their table(s), then I see no problem whatsoever with other food items being on the table at the same time. The setting, then, would determine the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the practice.
In all of this what is the Lord really looking for? Some of His people (especially those rigid religionists who are wedded to LAW) might be obsessed unnecessarily with the many details of a practice, fuming and fussing and fighting over every little tedious tenet of their tradition. The Lord, however, is looking INWARD. He is examining the heart as we observe this precious feast. I think we will all discover one day that the number of cups, whether the juice is fermented or not, whether bread is baked by members or purchased from the store, whether other food is present on the table, whether we observe the Lord's Supper in the context of a meal, whether we're in a church building or a picnic site, whether or not we sing a hymn as the emblems are passed among us, etc., etc., etc., will have been matters of NO CONSEQUENCE to our Lord. Oh, how our "food fights" at the table must grieve our Father!!!!
I'm reminded of what Bro. Karl Kallus once said to me when we were living in Germany back in the early 80's. I was the preacher for the American congregation in Kaiserslautern, Germany and Karl was the preacher for the German congregation which met in the same building. Our Bible class had been studying the Lord's Supper on Sunday mornings and we had gotten side-tracked with a heated discussion on whether the fruit of the vine should be fermented or UNfermented. What was the "pattern?" Which of the two was "sinful?" Out of curiosity, I went to Karl and asked him what the practice was in the Churches of Christ in Germany. Which did they use? He looked at me, and with a smile and a shake of his head he said, "Some of us use one and some of us use the other. It makes no difference to us. Only you Americans would fight over something so stupid!!!" My face is still burning with shame from that rebuke. Those words were forever burned into my mind! I'll never forget them. HE WAS RIGHT! We fuss and fight and fragment the fellowship over the most outlandish things! We ought to be ashamed!
We partake of the elements He Himself utilized, and which He characterized as appropriate and fitting emblems. And we do it for the reasons He has given in His Word (or, at least, I hope we are doing so!! ... He has certainly informed us of what those reasons are). The REAL observance of the Lord's Supper, of course, takes place in our hearts and minds. THIS is where our Lord focuses HIS attention during worship .... if only more of His saints would do the same!!!
From a Reader in Missouri:
I have just finished reading Reflections #47 on the Lord's Supper, and as usual you bring up some interesting points. It's amazing how legalistic many have become. Al, I just wanted to know if you have read Come To The Table by John Mark Hicks. If you haven't, consider it. I think he gives some great insight on the Lord's Supper. I highly recommend his book. I talked to Rubel Shelly at LAX as we were both waiting for our plane to go home from the Pepperdine Lectureship. I am now reading his book The Jesus Proposal which is another interesting book, and one for which he will catch a lot of flak from the church "watchdogs," I'm sure. Keep up the good work, Al. You have certainly found a niche in ministry and you're doing a wonderful service to so many people in our fellowship and beyond.
From an Army Lt.Col. in Virginia:
I was so inspired by your study of Revelation --- Reflections #45. That message was shared with me by a subscriber in my office. Please add me to your mailing list for Reflections.
From a Reader in Kentucky:
Al, I was surfing the Internet tonight, and checking out the latest from the ultra-legalists at Watchman Magazine, and noticed that someone on that site stated that the now deceased Homer Hailey had a new book out in print. Here is a statement from that site: "Despite his error, Hailey has enjoyed a good reputation among some brethren. Interestingly, he continues to be defended by many, who refuse to label him as a false teacher. Also interesting is the fact that he has had a book published posthumously that denies the Bible teaching concerning the eternal condemnation of the wicked. This new book indicates another subject where Hailey leads others astray with this teaching of error."
Al, this is the first I have heard of this coming from Homer Hailey. I have not had as much time to focus on this issue as I would like, but think we may have traditionally mistaught this most important subject, and I find myself in agreement with you. I suppose the Non-Institutionals are having a great problem with this new book by Homer since they basically worship many of his commentaries, especially the one on Revelation. Did you know about this book from Homer?
From a Reader in (Unknown):
If I ever saw an example of how ridiculous the CENI (command, example, necessary inference) rule is (which I was raised and grounded under), this is it. Mercy me, the "logic" of Mr. Lueth's thinking -- Reflections #47 -- not only floors me, but scares me as well. It is no small wonder those of us in the Church of Christ will never be united in what we believe the Bible teaches. I hope Mr. Lueth is not a preacher!
From a Reader in Texas:
I appreciate you so much and hope you will truly take care of questions from readers only as you have time. Your work on Reflections goes to the multitudes, and though you may feel the "need" to respond quickly to readers, there is always a need to rest. You are truly a blessing to so many, and I will pray that your ministry through Reflections will fill the Internet with the Word of God. You are a wonderful inspiration to me for study and I have spent close to 20 hours with my Bible and your writings in the last 3 days. The Word of God has been constantly on my mind since meeting you and I think my summer time will pass much too quickly as I am led to a much closer relationship with Christ because of you.
From a Reader in West Virginia:
Al, With regard to Reflections #47, what a sad thing for us to divide over what was intended to unite us. We stand at the foot of the cross, with the blood of Christ dripping in the dust, and instead of being awed by the love of a God so concerned about His lost sheep, we waste time straining gnats. Add this one to your list of "lows" in interpretation and understanding about the Supper -- Lifters or Leavers. The argument arose from a disagreement over leaving the cover on the fruit of the vine until after the prayer or lifting it off prior to the prayer. Yes, it split the fellowship of those believers!!
In recent years I have come to view arguments about timing, procedure, frequency and other details as meaningless. In my mind, the Supper is a gift, not a command. It is a gift from a Savior who wants to remind us of what is important and of how much He loves us. How we miss the point when we argue, for example, about singing during the passing of the elements. When is it ever the "wrong time" to sing praise to God? How ironic it is to observe the customary practice of most churches today, as members sit silently, isolated from any unity of the family, being totally individualistic in the sharing of a meal. If anyone behaved in this manner at any other meal they would be considered quite rude. I believe "thinking of yourself alone" was the problem in Corinth! We have so much to learn. Keep Teaching, Al.
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