Church Is for the Church

What is a Sunday morning church service for? As Christians, we meet together on the first day of every week, the day of Christ’s resurrection. We sing songs, hear preaching, and (hopefully) take Communion. But why? What is the purpose and goal of this meeting?

To many people, our gathering together as the Church on Sunday is about evangelism, about reaching the lost. Contemporary, upbeat songs attract them, relevant preaching helps them see the usefulness of Christianity to their lives, and finally we invite them to make their professions of faith and perhaps join our church.

Let me be entirely clear from the outset: trying to reach the lost, or doing the things I just mentioned, is not at all bad. I could never say they are. Nonetheless, I believe that the outreach focus is not the right focus for our weekly meetings. As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time and a place for everything, and, Biblically, our weekly gatherings as the Church are not, I am convinced, for evangelistic purposes, but for, well, the Church itself.

Scripturally, church (the weekly service) is for the Church (the people). It is not about reaching unbelievers, but about building up the Body of Christ. Honestly, it would be difficult to point to a particular proof text for this point, but that’s not because it’s unbiblical, but because it is the basic assumption of all the New Testament letters to the churches. Reading any of the letters makes this clear enough if you’re paying attention, but some passages that draw it into sharper focus might be 1 Corinthians 14, large portions of Ephesians, or the latter chapters of Hebrews.

Acts also shows this pattern. There are two parallel ministries in Acts: the evangelistic ministries which occurred out and about in society, and the gatherings of believers by themselves. There was public preaching to the crowds, and after and apart from that the believers gathered together devoting themselves “to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

In fact, this verse I believe sums up how Church is meant to work. In order to become the people we need to be to reach the world for Christ from Monday to Saturday, we must participate in the right Body-building, sanctifying activities together on Sunday. We learn from the apostles’ teaching how to live the Christian life rightly, so that we please God and win people to the beauty of the Gospel life. In fellowship we encourage and assist one another as fellow believers to spur each other on to good works, to reassure doubts, to share burdens and joys, and to share insights and experiences with our common Savior. By the breaking of bread in Communion, we recall the sacrifice of Christ in the past, enjoy His sustaining power for us in the present, and train ourselves to live in anticipation of the resurrection life which we will share with Him in the future. Finally, our collective prayers invite God’s supernatural power and presence into our life together as the Body of Christ. 

These means of sanctification—preaching, fellowship, sacraments, and prayer—are the essential elements of our weekly gatherings as the Church, in addition to worship, and yet are explicitly believer-oriented. Only believers can “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching” in a productive and transformative way. Only believers can encourage one another with the Gospel, share burdens in Christ, and build each other up with their spiritual gifts. Only believers are permitted to take Communion and so feed on the nourishment of Christ’s body and blood given for us. Only believers have unfettered access to God’s throne of grace for prayer. And only believers know to worship God in spirit and in truth.

The point is fairly simple, then. Our meetings as the Church are meant to be by the Church for the Church. Unbelievers are, of course, welcome. They can come to hear the Gospel, which is always a good thing. We can love them and show them the life of Christ in its beauty. Yet the presence of unbelievers in our meetings is assumed in the New Testament to be occasional and potential rather than normal and intentional (see 1 Cor. 14:23). The basic and important pattern is the gathering of Christians to be Christians.

I again emphasize, though, that this is not at all to say anything against evangelistic outreach towards unbelievers. In fact, I would instead say that the church-for-Church model is an essential part of reaching unbelievers. By concentrating on the strengthening and renewing of our life in Christ together when we meet on Sundays, we can become more and more able to reach the world around us the rest of the week. This is, in fact, exactly what the earliest Christians historically did. They met together early Sunday morning before going to work (as Sunday was a workday for them) for the benefits I mentioned above, and then they set out on their weeks to be the best followers of Christ they could be in the sight of unbelievers. The Lord’s Day was a time to recharge together in the presence of the one Lord, so that by His Spirit they would be empowered to fulfill the Great Commission when they went their separate ways.

I believe we could do well to relearn this approach in modern times. It seems to be more Biblical, and have been more historically effective at producing active Christians, than seeker-sensitive or evangelistic approaches. And in fact, it stands as a challenge to us all specifically in evangelism. It’s harder to be a witness for Christ in our actual, daily lives and reach unbelievers there than to round them up for a Sunday preacher, after all. Maybe if we try we’ll find that the hard way is, as usual, the better.

Church Is for the Church

In Support of Weekly Communion — Part 2

In my last post, I addressed the direct Biblical evidence for weekly Communion as a proper practice of the Church. In this one I want to pick up where I left off and examine the actual theological rationale for having the Supper every week.

Reasons from Theology

So, if we take it that Scripture indicates weekly Communion, and indeed Communion as a central piece of church gathering, then why? What is the reason for coming together weekly to take the Lord’s Supper? What makes the Supper so important?

The Presence of Christ

There are essentially three major theological themes which give Communion its significance. The first is the most discussed in Christian history, and the most central. Basically, the first is that Jesus is there in the Supper in a way He is not always present. When we take the bread and the wine, we—in some way or another—experience Christ’s body and blood given for us. The Church has always believed this, that in the Supper Jesus is present. Now, there has been disagreement about what this means. The Orthodox Church holds a rather ambiguous and mystical belief that the bread and wine become Jesus’ actual body and blood. The Catholic Church teaches with transubstantiation that the bread and wine transform in reality, but not in appearance (to oversimplify), into Christ’s full body and blood, including His divine presence and power. The Lutheran Church simply teaches that they are the body and blood, and that Christ’s body and blood are “in, with, and under” the bread and wine, without detailing how this works. Reformed Churches vary in their beliefs, but John Calvin believed that in the Supper we ascend through the Spirit by faith to Christ’s heavenly presence and are spiritually nourished by His body and blood. Most Baptists believe that Jesus is simply present insomuch as we remember Him in the symbolic action.

However we slice and dice it, the truth remains that Jesus is there in Communion in a way that He is not always there1. So to take the Lord’s Supper frequently, indeed weekly as the Church, is to accept an invitation into the presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If we love Him, is this not what we wish to do?

Heaven Here and Now

The second major theological dimension to the Supper is its role in eschatology. The end times, the final climax, the coming kingdom—all of this from the future comes into the present through Communion today. There are multiple dimensions to even this. On the one hand, this tails off of Jesus’ presence. Right now Jesus is ascended and absent from the world in a real way. In Communion, He is present, anticipating the day when He actually will physically return to earth. This entails not only an anticipation of the return of Jesus Himself, but also the benefits which His return includes.

What benefits do I mean? There are many. There is the benefit of eternal joy and celebration. The use of wine for Christ’s redeeming blood points to this, for God has given wine to make men glad2. When we eat and drink, a basic act of celebration, we rejoice that Christ is coming back, and indeed His coming and kingdom is already present in the Church because of the sacrifice He made.

In fact, what is really happening here is the pre-enactment (rather than reenactment) of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb3, the time when all the redeemed will rejoice and celebrate the return of the Bridegroom for His bride. And if this is the meaning of eating and drinking together as the body of Christ, eagerly awaiting His coming, then we do well to do it often, that we may be sustained in hope and always reminded of our mission and purpose in light of His imminent return.

One Body, One Body

The final major aspect of Communion is the unity of the Church. As we all find ourselves nourished by the one body of Jesus Christ given for us, we are all bound together as His one body in the world. The simplest place to go for this theme is 1 Corinthians 10:14-21. In these verses Paul rebukes some of the Corinthians for participating in feasts to idols, and he does so in contrast with the Lord’s Supper. What he says is revealing:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking as to wise people. Judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread. Look at the people of Israel. Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in what is offered on the altar? What am I saying then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I do say that what they sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to participate with demons! You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot share in the Lord’s table and the table of demons. 

Here Paul teaches clearly that the one bread and one cup we share, sharing in the same body and blood of the same Lord Jesus Christ, bind us together as a single body. It is not called “Communion” for nothing. In Communion we both commune with God through Jesus Christ, and we commune with each other through Jesus Christ. We are made into one body through one Supper.

This is, in fact, is half of the sacramental unity of the Church. All of us who perform baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one Church, bound together by union with Christ. When we participate in these acts, all divisions crumble. Nothing makes one baptized man better than another, nor does anyone do anything more than simply receive God’s gift in Communion. They are greatly equalizers and unifiers. When we share a meal, the Lord’s meal, we become the community of Christ. Is it not usually the case that eating with someone draws you closer to them? Indeed it is, and even more so when what you eat and drink is provided by God to enjoy His Son through His Spirit.

Of course, is Communion is at all about unity, we must do it every time we meet together, for that unity is the basic foundation of meeting together at all. Can two walk together unless they be agreed? By no means! When we gather, then, we must gather in not only the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and prayer, but also in the breaking of bread. Only in this way will we be fitted together as a whole body, of whom Christ is the head.

Conclusion

This has already gone on way longer than I intended. Hopefully I’ve made my point. I believe weekly Communion is Biblical and essential to healthy church life. I hope at least someone is persuaded of this as well. I’ll end with this early Christian prayer:

We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever.
We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever.
Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.

In Support of Weekly Communion — Part 2

In Support of Weekly Communion — Part 1

Unlike most of my Baptist brethren, I believe in having Communion every week. Moreover, I do not merely think it is a good idea. I think it is an essential one. But most of my fellow Baptists have never done this, or seen any reason to, or really ever considered why it is only done rarely (quarterly in most Baptist churches I’ve seen). And all of this applies not only to Baptists, but to their wild Pentecostal cousins and the homeless non-denominationals. Weekly Communion is, I suggest, a vital part of what church should be. Without further ado, I’ll move into why.

Reasons from the Bible

The first relevant text—not counting those when Jesus instituted the Supper before He died, since He said nothing about when, where, or how to observe it then—is Acts 2:42. This is basically the first description of the New Testament Church. After the initial conversion of 3000 people, they become a new community marked by four things. Here’s the verse:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.

Three of these are obvious elements of true church. The teaching of the apostles, Christian fellowship, and prayers certain define and shape what meeting together as a church involves. But what of “the breaking of bread?” What is this about? While some people argue that it is merely a reference to eating together (and it may involve that), traditionally it has been understood as referring to, or at least including (cf. the NLT), the Lord’s Supper. Calvin, for example, comments this:

My reason why I would rather have breaking of bread to be understood of the Lord’s Supper in this place is this, because Luke doth reckon up those things wherein the public estate of the Church is contained. Yea, he expresseth in this place four marks whereby the true and natural face of the Church may be judged. Do we then seek the true Church of Christ? The image thereof is lively depainted and set forth unto us in this place.

In Calvin’s view, “breaking of bread” is a defining element of the true Church and probably what Luke was talking about here. Whenever the Church came together, they participated in all that defines the Church, which includes Communion. 

In addition to 2:42, Acts 20:7 also refers to a church service in which Paul is preaching, but specifies that they “came together to break bread.” If breaking bread is indeed meant to be a Communion reference, as seems likely and was historically believed, then this again suggests Communion is a key part of why churches are to meet at all.

More Biblical reason comes from 1 Corinthians 11. In verses 17-34, Paul gives instructions about the Lord’s Supper. Interestingly, if you pay attention you’ll notice that he seems to assume they do this all the time, and in fact every time that they come together as a church. Pay close attention to 18-20:

For to begin with, I hear that when you come together as a church there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. There must, indeed, be factions among you, so that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore, when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper.

In this passage, Paul speaks of their meeting together as a church, and then rebukes them because they don’t really come to eat the Lord’s Supper! Surely this implies that, when a church comes together, in at least part it should actually be to eat the Supper. This reinforces the “came together to break bread” from Acts 20:7.

Until Next Time

I was originally going to make this all one post, but it turned out to be almost 2000 words, twice the suggested length for reader attention. So I’m splitting it here. The next post will look at the theological rationale for the Biblical practice of weekly Communion. Why should it be done? That’s the question I’ll seek to answer.

In Support of Weekly Communion — Part 1

How to Feel God’s Love in Jesus’ Arms

“I want to feel.” Isn’t that a common desire? I mean particularly for us Christians, especially evangelical Protestants. We want to feel God. Jesus Christ loves us to (literal) death, has brought us full forgiveness, and is our eternal life. Yet we cannot see Him. We cannot touch Him. He is physically away for now, and in the mean time we long to experience that He is still with us as He promised.

Unfortunately, we often find ourselves stuck and frustrated on that point. Unless we go the way of wild youth groups and Charismatic excess, intentionally working ourselves up into emotional frenzy with clever devices of music and social pressure, there’s only so much feeling we can get out of reflecting in our minds on truths about God. It’s just a bit abstract. One of the major methods of devotion is simply prayer and meditating on Scripture, but there’s only so much nourishment we can find in pondering such churchy words as “grace,” “salvation,” “atonement,” or “forgiveness of sins.” In fact, using these words so much often makes them less powerful than they deserve.

There’s another dimension to this. Not only do we want to feel God’s love and presence, but sometimes above all we need to feel His forgiveness and acceptance. When we do wrong, and our conscience beats us down, or when we know we are unworthy and feel ashamed to approach God, there is nothing so necessary to our soul’s health as to feel forgiven. We must experience God’s unconditional acceptance of us who are in His Son. Yet hearing people talk about forgiveness rarely does the trick. Even the best psychologically-devised plans to feeling better won’t always work, nor is it obvious that they even should. We hear about the Holy Spirit living in us, but often don’t feel like that makes any difference on our emotional/psychological state.

So what is the solution? How are we supposed to feel the mercy and grace of a Savior who is, for the moment, ascended to the right hand of the Father instead of present before our eyes? And what does the Spirit do to help beyond those occasional moments of emotional refreshment?

If I am at all on the right track, the answer is relatively simple. We need a hug in Jesus’ arms. And where are His arms? Since His physical body is away for now, we resort to His body by the Spirit.

All of you are Christ’s body, and each one is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:27

See, we are Jesus’ body on earth. The major role of the Holy Spirit is integrating Jesus’ life into our lives. So it is up to us to be Jesus’ love, be Jesus’ forgiveness, be Jesus’ acceptance. Since our Lord isn’t around to give us the hugs we need, we need to give each other those hugs by His Spirit.

Everyone should know that we need our senses to truly experience life and relationships. A compassionate hand on your shoulder, a graciously spoken word, or even just an understanding look can make all the difference. Jesus cannot do any of that for us while He is in heaven, but we can do that for each other, filled with His love by the Spirit He has given us. So when our fellow believers come in our churches, looking to know God’s love, we are called to give it to them with our love. You may not be able to feel grace all the time by reading Ephesians 2 (though it can help!), but how can you avoid feeling God’s kindness when your brothers and sisters in Christ treat you as more important than themselves?

None of this should be a surprise, honestly. Throughout the New Testament, we find commands to have unity, to share our hearts with each other, to show compassion and encouragement and mercy. We are repeatedly called to love one another, and we are told that we are all members of each other as Christ’s body. All of this, we are told, is to be done from the Spirit. Should there be any surprise that this is how we can experience our Savior’s love?

This is especially the case with forgiveness and acceptance. I have seen many times the damage that guilt and shame can do on a conscience, especially a believer’s. So often we feel the weight of our sin and unworthiness. How can we feel forgiven? What tangible proof is there that God accepts us in spite of it all? There is nothing more helpful in this matter than to see God reaching out with His forgiving hand through His children. When we forgive and accept each other, bearing with each other’s faults in patience and love, how can we not see that this is God’s own heart?

I actually want to make a serious practical emphasis of this last point. Too often church is associated with judgment. Even in good and supportive churches, it is hard to escape the feeling, “If I let them see me for who I am, they won’t see me the same ever again. They’ll judge me as someone less than them.” Yet too often the very things we are afraid to let everyone else know that we do are things we all do or have done. So why not drop the charade? Why keep pretending that we’re all doing better than we are? That doesn’t show God’s unconditional acceptance of everyone who believes in His Son. 

What we really need to be doing at church is showing the radical nature of God’s grace revealed in Jesus. We need to be able to look at the man who admits he didn’t pray at all last week, or the boy who confesses to a porn addiction, or the girl who says she gave in to peer pressure and got drunk at a party, and give the same response that overflowed from the heart of Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you.” To be sure, we can’t forget the “Go and sin no more” part, but we can’t expect them to listen to that when they’re too busy protecting themselves from a condemning reaction to their failures. Only when we all commit to truly forgive, and truly accept, and then truly encourage towards holiness, can we all enjoy the benefits of knowing Jesus’ love through His own hugs by His body on earth.

It’s simple, really. If we are Jesus’ body as the Church, then we need to be in the business of making His love, grace, and forgiveness things that you can see, touch, and feel for yourself. Otherwise we’ll all be left wishing and longing to feel the presence of our Life. And if you find yourself needing to know God’s love, find believers who by God’s Spirit actually make it real. If we all do this, maybe Jesus will shine bright enough through us for the whole world to see just what kind of God we serve.

How to Feel God’s Love in Jesus’ Arms