Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Communion Is Not for Self-Flagellation

I am currently working on a chapter on the practice of communion in churches (I promise, Tom and Matt, I am chasing that deadline!). I recently found an older expression of a view of communion which I want to counter. Here then is an excerpt from my work at this stage:

J. M. Pendleton in his Baptist Church Manual states, “If ever the tragedy of Calvary should engross the thoughts of the Christian to the exclusion of every other topic, it is when he sits at the table of the Lord.”[1] He draws this conclusion from Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 11:26- “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (ESV). I think Pendleton has improperly applied this verse and the results of such application are widely seen. Very often people do in fact approach the Lord’s table in this way, focusing exclusively on the tragedy of Christ’s death. The sense is that the purpose of this exercise is for us to focus on our sin, to remember afresh the depth of our wickedness and how much this cost God. It is almost as if God is that mother who constantly reminds the family how much she has suffered for everyone and wants to make sure you never forget it! But this most certainly is not the point Paul is making. Pendleton (and others after him) unnecessarily infers the word “tragedy.” Yes, the table proclaims Christ’s death, but not simply- or even primarily- the tragedy of His death. Notice the point is that this is “proclamation.” Elsewhere in the New Testament what is being proclaimed when Christ’s death is in view? It is not tragedy, but hope! It is the fact that the death of Christ has made possible the forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, transference from being enemies of God to being children of God! What is proclaimed is good news, the gospel. We do wrong when our participation in communion is some sort of self-flagellating focus on tragedy. We do not gather to tell God we’re sorry He had to go through this. We are reminded of our sin, and the length to which the love of God went, but the focus is celebrating the grace of God and giving thanks to God for his amazing grace.

Pendleton goes on to say that communion is “a solemn celebration of his atoning death.” Here, I could not agree more. I simply think that the full weight of the word celebration was not allowed in his previous discussion and is often absent in our practice today. The taking of the elements is the tangible proclamation and reminder of the forgiveness of sins. It is one of God’s prescribed means of reminding His people that he has forgiven their sins. So, let us celebrate communion certainly with awe, amazed that God would do this for us, and with deep thanksgiving.

[1] J. M. Pendleton, Baptist Church Manual (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1966), 89.


Andrew said...

Question: do we then exclude the call for contrition (I Cor. 11:27-32) or are you saying that we over-emphasize that part and fail to remember grace and reconciliation in the elements as well?

Ray Van Neste said...

1 Cor 11 tells us not to abuse the table. That reminder is important but, yes, I do think it is often overplayed at the expense of what the Table itself is communicating.

Adam said...

I am very happy that I get to leave my cat-o-nine-tails at home when I partake of the Lord's Supper. Thank goodness Christ paid that penalty for us in advance.

Good post, Dr. Van Neste

Anonymous said...

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