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Drinking Poison Together

The outbreak of serious illness and deaths at a local congregation has now been traced to a bizarre religious ritual that involved the ingestion of food and drink at a series of recent church dinners.  The tragedy has touched a number of families in the church.

Matters were made worse when people from a conservative congregation in another state showed up outside the church this morning carrying signs that read, "This is the judgment of God on the people of this congregation."

A reporter from the major local newspaper asked the church's pastor about this: "We're confident we will get to the bottom of this.  But, I can assure every one of you right here and now that this is simply an accident and no one is to blame."

The pastor got it wrong.  The illnesses and deaths in the church were no accident.  Some people were being regularly poisoned.  And, at least part of the blame points directly at God.
This is exactly what seems to be the case in Corinth.  And the poison some of them are taking each week is called Eucharist.

Paul, in unambiguous terms, tells the believers in Corinth that their Eucharists are poisoning some of them.  Mortally poisoning some of them in fact.  He tells them that the Lord's Supper is "why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died." (1 Cor. 11:30)  But, this is only one of several specific dangers he tells them resides within the bread and the cup.

He also tells them taking the Lord Supper has the potential of
  • Invoking God's jealous anger (1 Cor. 10:22)
  • Making one guilty of sinning against the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 11:27)
  • Eating and drinking the judgment of God upon yourself (1 Cor. 11:29)
    In context, Paul goes on to make it clear this is chastisement, not eternal punishment
What are people doing to evoke such consequences from the Eucharist? In Corinth, at least, Paul focuses on continuing involvement in pagan temple, church divisions, and neglect of the poor. He mentions not "discerning the body," but leave the phrase unexplained. It would be a remarkably narrow literalism, however, that would conclude only three specific situations are covered when he says participants should examine themselves and not take Communion in an unworthy manner. It is true that we are not worthy of Christ's sacrifice, but that is not remotely what Paul is addressing. The Eucharist can be taken by people or in way that result in God's punishment, not blessing.

It difficult to explain how many of the same churches that insist they are Bible-believing largely dismiss or discount these verses.  In Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, for example, Communion is often carried out without an explanation or so much as a word of warning, although it generally does have a nice musical accompaniment.

The whole approach makes it tough not to take communion, even if you might have personal hesitations.  Visitors certainly don't want to look out of place.  But, ready or not, here come the trays and everybody around is doing it and what will people think and so... The truth is many churches do not so much practice Open Communion as it is Compulsory Communion.

By the end of the first century, churches are adamant that it very much does matter who takes communion.

Let no one eat and drink of your Eucharist but those baptized in the name of the Lord; to this, too the saying of the Lord is applicable: "Do not give to dogs what is sacred." (Didache 9:5; AD90-130)

We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [baptism].  (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66; AD150)

There is simply no alternate practice or approach that appears anywhere in church history until the modern era.  It is true that, over time, churches will come to hold different understandings regarding when or how a person a baptized.  But, the possibility of serving Communion to someone unbaptized is completely unthinkable.  It is accurate to point out the New Testament does not actually contain a direct statement on this.  But, it is frankly untenable to suggest their practice would have been different.  And, although it is true the Didache, Ignatius, Justin, Tertullian, Origin, and others are not in the canon of scripture, it is unreasonable to insist that everyone in the second and third century got it wrong.

But, the same lack of instructions or teachings just as much impacts distracted, disinterested, carnal believers who may very well have spent the night before involved in something pretty close to a modern parallel of dining at pagan temples.  With hardly a thought, they take a gulp of judgment and pass the tray on.

So, why have our practices regarding serving the Eucharist, in spite of Paul's warnings, become so lax?  Four reasons seem, at least in large part, to explain it.
  1. The deep commitment many evangelical churches have to being non-sectarian and non-dogmatic makes the idea that Communion include instructions suggesting not everyone present should partake, a nonstarter.  The unchurched visitors are often the key group the Sunday service is conscious of including.  Telling people Communion is only for the baptized, however you leave what baptized might mean undefined, would make a moment in worship sound like we were saying, in effect, "Unchurched people, we know you're out there but this is not for you."
  2. Although it is clear who runs the praise service and who is preaching, it is not altogether clear who actually feels ownership of the Communion service.  Who actually decides if changes are needed?
  3. The congregation doesn't complain.  Most have done it this way for years.  This is not a decision generated by taking a poll of the electorate.
  4. Perhaps the biggest single reason is that many American evangelicals, no matter how much they otherwise believe the Word, fundamentally refuse to think of a physical ceremony like Communion being that dangerous (or that important). This belief is so deeply ingrained in their understanding of Christianity that it almost does not matter what Paul seems to say.  Visible church ceremonies, even ones originating with Jesus and the upper room, must just be symbolic actions and nothing more. Yes, they can read what Paul said. They agree we ought to be doing it better.  But, danger? Judgment?  Okay, maybe we ought to say something every once and awhile.  But, it's not really that big a deal.
If I sound a little frustrated, I confess that may be true.  Baffled might be more accurate. My own experience has generally been that people will sit down and read what Paul write about Communion, acknowledge since it is from the Apostle Paul it certainly must be true, admit their own churches' practices don't line up well with it, and then . . . well, then pretty much not much.  I mean, who really wants to go and make an issue over something that sounds so, excuse the expression, doctrinal?

To be deeply concerned about how Communion is observed and who should be invited to the table should not mark someone as disinterested in church growth or somehow non-evangelical.  To take something in the New Testament seriously should hardly undermine a person's reputation as Bible-believing, even when it impacts something as "liturgical" as Communion.  It isn't high church versus low church.  It is more like asking, "Who has the final say in what we do and how we do it?"

Many church leaders, including me over the years, have invested far more time in discussions with elders as to what standards govern whose wedding can be in a church building than what standards should guide who should share in the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor. 10:16-17) in the church.   As I mentioned in a post related to the issue of same-sex marriage,* distinctly Christian ideas about church weddings don't even exist until well into the Middle Ages.  We tithe every mint and herb and neglect the weightier things.

It is time to ask for a serious review of the New Testament teaching and at least look at the earliest church practices in regard to the Lord's Supper.  It's one thing to blatantly disregard a warning label and drink poison.  It's another to serve it to a church.

* Post that discusses how weddings were not done in the early church: Can a Gay Marriage be a Legal Marriage


Joshua Hoover said...

Amen. I attended non-denominational Evangelical churches most of my life. Communion was always so quaint and with little warning or explanation of its importance. One of the things I appreciate about the Reformed church I attend now is that we partake each week, the explanation and warning about communion is given, and it is not rushed.

Plain Ol' Blaine said...

I am embarrassed that something that is so important to God, is something that evokes such a small amount of pleasure and awe in me. I get passionate about music, teaching, even community, and though communion has been sacred and respected in my mind, I struggle to allow it to shape me in the way I know it should. I'm going to chew on this more Tom, and I hope it helps me start to see to power and beauty of the eucharist. thanks for sharing.

Brendan said...

Early Church leaders aside, the Apostle Paul's complaint seems to be those who getting drunk and gorged at the communion meal and their insensitivity to working-poor of their community.