Communion with Condemnation

Photo used under creative commons license from flikr user shira gal

Photo used under creative commons license from flikr user shira gal

I was doing some dishes this morning (Jan 2) and listening to the radio. Pittsburgh has an FE (what’s a FE?) talk station, 101.5 WordFM. They play a combination of syndicated shows and local programming. I have a love-hate relationship with this radio station.

I used to love it. I listened to it constantly, going back about 10 years. It’s where I first heard R.C. Sproul. It’s where I first heard John MacArthur (who I really enjoyed listening to at the time… I thought his messages were Christian ones). If I could help it, I never missed a syllable of Marty Minto’s drive-time show (I’d probably gag these days). Alas, things change (mostly my views of the scriptures). I don’t listen to the station much, and when I do I’m usually annoyed at the sub-scriptural teachings on grace, the law-central nature of their “good news” messages, and their willingness to air rank heresies (I recently heard a preacher touting the “Prayer of Jabez”). Yet in all of this, they still bring high levels of production quality and professionalism to their programming, even for the local shows.

One such local show that aired this morning was a message from Orchard Hill Church. The preacher was good with words. It was obvious that he’s well-read in the scriptures. I’m not going to demonize this group; like the FE’s in my life that I know personally, it sounds as though they have a fervent desire to be true to the scriptures and to serve God & neighbor. Yet some things are amiss.

The message was from St. Mark’s Gospel, the Lord’s Supper narrative. The preacher actually drew from several sources concerning the institution of the Lord’s Supper. He taught that the primary purpose of the supper is as a mere memory of Christ’s work. He taught that the elements are symbolic of Jesus’ body, which was broken on the cross. He taught that we ought to examine ourselves, in order that we may refrain from taking the elements if we are unworthy. He also taught some unrelated bits about missional living.

I won’t talk about the last one, and I’ve addressed the first two topics in prior posts.

  1. The Lord’s Supper is not a mere memory of Christ’s work. The scriptures clearly state that it is a participation in the body and blood of Christ (KJV calls it “communion,” which means a deep fellowship; NASB calls it a “sharing” in Christ’s blood & body). We sin against the actual body of Christ if we take it unworthily. I’ve written about this before.
  2. The communion elements cannot be symbols of Christ’s broken body on the cross because Christ’s body was not broken on the cross. If it was, then Jesus was not the messiah, as prophecy states that the Christ’s bones will not be broken (he counts all of them). I’ve also written about this before.

The topic I’ve not expounded upon before concerns the abstinence from the elements. In the radio message this morning, the pastor pointed to the Pauline passages concerning this topic. The logic is simple, and I’ve seen it many times in FE congregations.

First, the pastor points to the scripture: “Examine yourself. If there’s anything you’re holding on to that makes you unworthy, don’t partake because you’ll be bringing judgement upon yourself.” Then there’s an exhortation: “This doesn’t mean just those who haven’t ‘accepted Jesus,’ but it also refers to long-time believers.”

I despise this unscriptural practice. Not that there aren’t people that should abstain from communion, but there is no good gained by this specific implementation of the practice.

This is the embodiment of what I’ve talked about in prior posts: FE’s love to give Law, but little or no Gospel. If ever there was a gift given to us in the writings of the New Testament, it is the words of institution of this sacrament.

…Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the[a]covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

In this sacrament, Jesus comes to serve us sinful people. He gives us his blood, which was poured out for the forgiveness of our sins. But instead, the FE teaching is: “come and partake of these elements that offer you no grace or salvation other than what you yourself are capable of conjuring up inside your own heart and emotions… and don’t take them if you think there’s even a hint of unworthiness in you, because you’ll be damned if you partake unworthily.”

I’ve seen this happen in local FE bodies, and it sickens me. Not the practice of guarding the table, but the theology behind this implementation of the practice. Think this through: we can argue about whether or not anybody is truly ever worthy to commune by the FE definition of “worthy” (and no, we’re not, if we look hard enough), but for the sake of argument and analyzing this theology, let’s allow this premise. This leaves us with 4 classes of people.

  1. Those who are worthy who think they’re worthy and commune.
  2. Those who are unworthy who think they’re worthy and commune.
  3. Those who are unworthy who think they’re unworthy and refuse communion.
  4. Those who are worthy who think they’re unworthy and refuse communion.

If we ignore the first class of people, we’ve got a series of problems to deal with. In case 2, we’ve got people eating and drinking to their own judgement, unwittingly. It might be a small matter to the pastor, who says “Hey, I warned you!” …but it is no small matter to the one who is bringing judgement upon themselves. The scriptures say that they may take sick, or even die. For the cautious among us, this leads directly to class number 4, where people are so fearful of communion that they will refuse the elements.

Class 4 is bad, but class 3 is just as bad. I’ve sat in pews with these people. It hurts to think of it now. Here, you’ve got someone who has heard God’s Law: “You must be worthy to take these elements. Only absolute perfection will do.” The person goes through introspection and sees the sin that they are bound to in the flesh. They see the hardness of their own heart. They know it’s hopeless. They’re unable to be worthy to commune with God. They actually believe the scriptures: they’re fearful of God, knowing they’re unworthy to receive his gifts.

…And then they are refused the only cure for this condition of lostness and hopelessness, the Holy Gospel, and the person goes home left under the condemnation of the Law. The entire purpose of the church has been undone by this theology. The refuge for the sick and dying is instead turned back in to the front lines of war. Rather than being served by Christ in this Gospel sacrament (“This is my body… This is my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins”), the sinner is told to earn the Gospel message for themselves before it can be applied to them. This is not the Gospel of grace. This is not the Gospel of our Lord. This is not the Lord’s Supper.

Instead, consider the Lord’s parable, and give the gifts of eternal life to those who have been humbled!:

13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Indeed, blessed are those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Let’s not try to keep from them what’s rightfully theirs, by intercepting and keeping the gift that the merciful gift-giver has offered.

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