Thursday, February 28, 2013

Can non-members take Communion?

…And should they?

I was recently asked by a fellow pastor for my opinion on this topic. He commented (regarding our denomination's polity about who may be admitted to the table of the Lord's Supper), "BCO 58.4 offers us the option of inviting members of a gospel-believing church to participate in the Supper or the option of closed communion. After fencing the table do the elders have a further responsibility to withhold the sacrament from people they know are not members anywhere? Why or why not?"

This is a GREAT question. What do we do with people who have never bothered to join the local church? Should they be permitted to take Communion?

Here's what I said: The BCO structures it the way it does so that Sessions will have the option of choosing for themselves, according to their own convictions (or one could say, so that Sessions would be FORCED to choose for themselves). Most PCA churches have opted (actively or passively) for open Communion, though even this takes different forms.

In my own practice, I almost always say something to the effect of, "this Sacrament is not only for members of ___ church, but for all believers in Christ. Therefore, if you are a member in good standing of a Bible-believing church, we bid you to come and dine."

Now, in my previous congregation, this declaration actually was used of the Holy Spirit to bring conviction to one regular attender's heart, who was not a member anywhere. She came and asked whether she could, in good conscience, take the Sacrament — and I told her that I didn't see any reason why she couldn't/shouldn't join the church and soothe her conscience! So she did, before the next time we served Communion (which we did monthly there).

I know that many will argue that 1 Corinthians 11's warnings about "discerning the body" are the basis by which we should demand an active profession of faith from communicants, i.e., why we shouldn't offer paedocommunion, etc. However, the best exegesis I've seen on that passage actually takes it another direction (based, at least in part, on context): that it isn't about discerning the body of Christ in the elements — understanding His sacrifice on our behalf — as much as discerning the body of Christ in the communion of the saints. In other words, when we take Communion without a clear awareness of the local church and its life together, we are in danger of eating and drinking judgment on ourselves.

Thus, I believe that Elders DO have a responsibility, when the know people are not members, to urge them to rectify that (by offering a profession of faith for membership) in order to protect them from judgment. This serves them well, too, in that their profession of faith is tested and verified by the local church, and not just a matter of their own opinion — and thus, they will know objectively that they are rightly partaking of the Sacrament that is clearly intended to be taken by those who are in union with Christ.

Beyond that, though, I wouldn't go further. The above would, on its face, be a good argument in favor of close or closed Communion, but I stop short of advocating that because:
  1. we inevitably have frequent visitors who are, indeed, members in good standing of a Bible-believing church — and we should rejoice in the fellowship that we share in Communion;
  2. we've generally done a very poor job (for several generations now) of teaching more comprehensively about the primacy and implications of church membership, and to get to the point where close Communion is appropriate (in light of the above) demands a better and more comprehensive high view of membership — both in our own congregations and in all/most others;
  3. the circumstance you describe — where Elders know for sure that there are people taking Communion who are not members anywhere — assumes a relationship between those people and the Elders, or at least one Elder; in which case, there is already the context for the sort of conversation I described to take place.

[That's the end of my response to my friend.]

How should we approach it, then? Are we to conclude that, because our culture has eschewed a high view of the local church, Paul's warnings no longer are in effect? No — but we should approach it more comprehensively, teaching the importance of the local church and the implications of membership (or lack of it). We should approach it more pastorally, exercising concern for "weaker brothers" who don't (yet) see the emphasis that Scripture places on the local church. And we should approach it relationally, working in an organic way to come alongside one another to urge the vitality of healthy church life — and thereby avoiding the pitfalls of formalistic, legislative approaches to such problems.

Monday, February 25, 2013

On Dependence and Christ

[From Pastor Ed… 2/24]

"When Christ became a man, was He really dependent on God?"

In the last week, three different people from our congregation have asked me this same question (or some variation of it). Some of the members of our church are studying Paul Miller's excellent book, A Praying Life, and Miller addresses this topic within the first few chapters. His take on it is striking and, well, startling to some, because it declares a kind and degree of dependence that we often do not associate with Jesus.

In chapter 5, "Spending Time with Your Father," Miller asks the question, why did Jesus need to pray? He offers three reasons, and the third is apparently a sticky one for many of us! Miller's third reason for why Jesus needed to pray is: His limited humanity.

Wait — what? How could Jesus, who was fully God, be limited? That's probably the thought that immediately runs through your head (like it did mine the first time I read this book). We don't think of Jesus this way, because we have been taught well what heresy it is to believe that Jesus was not fully God! Jesus must have been God — otherwise He could not have accomplished all that He did, right? Right — and to believe that Jesus was not divine is called "Arianism" (not to be confused with the racial theory Aryanism) which was denounced as heresy at the Council of Nicaea. This is why the Nicene Creed has so many phrases like "fully God," "begotten, not made," and "being of one substance with the Father."

We're not helped by the fact that those who tend to lean in a more liberal direction, theologically, prefer to focus on the humanity of Christ. Because we get a bit squeamish about dipping our toe in waters usually inhabited by theological liberals, we find it easier just to focus on the deity of Christ.

But even as Jesus was God, He was just as much man! The Nicene Creed affirms not only "fully God" but also "fully man." And in His humanity Jesus takes our form, including our dependence. This is a challenge to us; one reason is that we wrestle to think of Jesus in the way that the Bible talks about Him in His humanity. When Christ took on flesh, He also took on our dependence on God and our susceptibility to sin and brokenness. "Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2:6-7).

When Scripture says that Jesus was "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3), we think that "acquainted" means something like how we use it: when we are acquainted with someone, we may have met them a few times, but we don't know them well. But the Hebrew word we've translated "acquainted" is a form of the verb yadah, "to know," which is also used to talk about knowing skills, as in a musician who knows his instrument; about knowing good and evil, as in what the Tree of Knowledge imparted to us; and even knowing God, involving our intellect, worship, obedience, and devotion. This was the degree to which Jesus was acquainted with our grief.

When Jesus wept, it wasn't to put on a show. When Jesus was tempted, it wasn't any different from the temptations we face. When Jesus wrestled with the difficulty of God's calling and will for Him to die on the cross, it was no mere show of piety. Jesus fully and really experienced all of the suffering, pain, frustration, struggle, temptation, anger, and grief that we do. Hebrews 4:15 declares this: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."

Aha — and now we are finally getting at the bigger reason why we struggle with this: we find it all but impossible to wrap our minds around the possibility that Jesus knew the same temptations, struggles, grief — the same humanity — that we know, as intimately as we know it, and yet He did not sin. Because if we're honest with ourselves, we can't imagine living our own lives, even for a day, without sinning.

Yet He did. And as a result of this, four things emerge as truths that ought to be precious to us:
  • Our view of Jesus' righteousness goes way up! When we begin to grasp just how real Christ's humanity was, the righteousness that He maintained in spite of it soars to new heights. Such righteousness is almost incomprehensible to us!
  • A spotlight is shown on our own sin. We have to realize that where Christ is in His righteousness, and where we are in our lack of it, are quite far from one another. In the presence of true purity and holiness, the soiled and tainted lives that we inhabit are more clearly seen by comparison.
  • The righteousness that Christ gained becomes ours! Far from being left in the misery of our sin's reality, we are lifted out of it and cleansed of our sin, and then — glory of glories! — we are given the very righteousness of Christ that we marvel at His capacity to obtain. Just as our sin becomes His sin, through the imputation of the cross His righteousness becomes OUR righteousness — and when God looks on us, He sees us clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
  • Our dependence on God — and God's dependability — becomes more real. When we see how Christ, in dependence upon the Father, was able to face all of His very real and true humanity and do so without sin, then we also learn how WE might find victory over sin in dependence on God. As Christ overcame, so we can also overcome temptation and sin.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What's the deal with written prayers?

[From Pastor Ed… 2/10 and 2/17]

One of the topics that I've noticed has come up somewhat regularly in the last several months is that of "written" prayers. Are they unbiblical? Are they good for us? Are we allowed to use them in worship? How about outside of worship?

It's interesting to me that this would come up recently, because (from what I have been told) written, prepared prayers have been used by Dove Mountain Church in worship from the very start: at very least, our corporate prayer of Confession of Sin has always been a written prayer. During the time when DMC was without a pastor, I understand that the Ruling Elders would regularly close the worship service with a "closing prayer" wherein they essentially took a word of Benediction and converted it, so to speak, into a prayer — which I suppose amounts to another kind of written prayer. Likewise, the Pastoral Prayers that we have are, if not fully written out, at least "scripted" insofar as they are based on a prepared list and (at least some of the time) the one praying has made extensive notes on how and what he shall pray for this list.

So why has it come up more recently? I think there are two reasons: first, we've begun to use more of them, especially adding them into our Prayer of Thanksgiving at the beginning of the Communion celebration, and also for our Prayer of Consecration immediately following Communion. This increase in prominence and use has necessarily drawn attention to our use of written prayers. Secondly (and perhaps more significantly in some people's minds), some of the written prayers we use for our Prayer of Thanksgiving are very similar to prayers that are also used in other Christian traditions, most notably the Roman Catholic tradition.

I suppose it is understandable that the second reason raises serious concerns for some. In many church traditions — and, frankly, especially in many of those that our people grew up in — anything to do with the Roman Catholic Church is considered caustic and dangerous. For others who grew up Roman Catholic, anything that echoes that tradition in any way may stir up memories and feelings that are challenging and perhaps distracting to worship. So it makes sense that artifacts that "feel" Roman Catholic are polarizing, fairly or unfairly.

Nevertheless, one of the great identities of the church is that we are "catholic" — not in the denominational sense, so much as in the sense that the word means "universal". Which is why we make use of some of the same prayers as Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans: all of us are drawing on a tradition that is deeper than any of the various expressions of denominational identity for the last 500 years. That particular prayer is called the Sursum Corda which means (in Latin), "Lift up your hearts" — so called because that phrase is one of the opening lines. The content of that prayer is almost entirely taken from Scripture, either as direct quotes or as paraphrase.

And that leads us to the question, "are written prayers biblical?" The answer, unequivocally, is YES! In fact, between the Lord's Prayer and the 150 psalms (which were something like a Book of Common Prayer for the Old Testament church, the people of Israel), it would be difficult to make a case that there is no example of written prayers in the Bible.

Which is not to say that every written prayer that we use, or that is "out there" in some form (including in books like the Book of Common Prayer and the more Presbyterian-oriented Book of Common Worship) is a direct quote or paraphrase of Scripture, though many are. But it does show that written prayers are not unbiblical in principle.

Are they good for us? Are we allowed to use them in worship? Well, first consider that the alternative is what we might call impromptu prayer or, at best, extemporaneous prayer. In other words, we pray whatever comes to mind with little or no guidance. Sometimes this can go very well; at other times, not so much. Most of us have probably been in circumstances where someone is praying aloud, in public, and they either a) prays with many words, but saying very little; b) prays the same thing over and over, or c) prays something inaccurate, inappropriate, or even unbiblical! (Or some combination of these three.)

On the other hand, prepared prayers give the "pray-er" a freedom to devote himself to the act of prayer, because he doesn't need to concentrate on the content of his prayers. In the context of a corporate prayer, it allows the congregation to participate in praying aloud, rather than leaving all of the vocal praying to the leader. And — as I alluded to before — it also enables us to embrace historically-significant prayers and texts that connect us with the wider church.

Can we use written prayers in other contexts besides worship? Absolutely. Some have found that written prayers and prayer books introduce a discipline of praying in new (to them) and different ways than the methods that they learned previously. Sometimes we feel stuck in a "rut" of prayer, and written prayers may in those times introduce us to new directions of prayer that help us get unstuck. At other times, some have said that circumstances — perhaps especially difficult and trying times — are so challenging that they find they cannot pray on their own; in such times, written prayers can be a guide and friend, leading us back to Christ when we feel distant from Him.

Over the years, I've used a variety of collections of written prayers in my own devotional life, I believe to very helpful effect. Early on, I learned that many hymnals contain (usually toward the back) a sort of miniature version of the books of "common prayer" or "common worship" mentioned earlier; these can, of course, be used devotionally for private prayer (as can the hymns themselves!). While in college, I was also introduced to a beautiful collection of puritan prayers called The Valley of Vision. I have used the daily offices printed on the Book of Common Prayer, as well as collections such as Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours set. There are others, too, as well as books such as Eugene Peterson's Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer and Stanley Jaki's Praying the Psalms: a Commentayr which are helpful in learning to use the psalter for personal (and corporate) prayer, and Phillip Graham Ryken's When You Pray: Making the Lord's Prayer Your Own for deepening our use of the prayer Jesus taught His disciples.