By Nate Labadorf
My thoughts are still forming concerning the proper practice of the Eucharist. I’m still not settled on how exactly one should administer the Eucharist, if there is an exact way, or if there are a variety of acceptable forms.
So far, I’ve gained clarity concerning the purpose of the Eucharist which I believe can be boiled down to two elements. First (and one that most people get right), it’s to remember the death of Jesus. We “do this in remembrance” of him. One cannot partake of the bread and wine without knowing their significance.
Second (one where we need to probe more), it’s to show communion with Jesus and with each other. Communion with Jesus, I believe, comes in some mystical way. Paul asks the Corinthians,
The answer is obviously yes. Somehow when we partake of the bread and wine, we partake of Christ himself. As the liturgy from the lips of Christ states, “Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you” (1Cor 11:24). I am not willing to say with the Roman Catholic that the bread literally becomes his body. But I’m also not willing to say with the typical baptist that it is mere symbol only. I only conclude it is a mystery of a nature not revealed to man.
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?1 Corinthians 10:16
But from this truth I draw a critique of modern Protestant practice. You see, often when we enter into the Lord’s Table, we are told to introspect ourselves to find any and every sin. This is based on 1 Corinthians 11:27-32. But that passage isn’t talking about introspection concerning all the possible sin in ones life. What it is, in fact, saying is that people need to make sure they are not separating the body of Christ by worldly social class structures. That is the entire point of 1 Corinthians 11.
Now, let me say that repenting of sin and quiet reflection on one’s life is good. But I’m not sure it’s is the point of the Lord’s Table. You see, we are celebrating our union with Christ. This marvelous fact should have us in humble joy. Our prayers should focus on how we have a relationship with Christ. Not on how we are so awful and how we repeatedly hurt our Lord. We should be praying in tremendous gratitude for being his sisters and brothers. The liturgical church has properly retained the name Eucharist which means “Thanksgiving.” And this, my friends, is precisely what we should be doing. It is a time to give thanks and rejoice, and not to wash ourselves with guilt.
And now, let us return to what it means to partake of the table “unworthily.” The context of this reproach is that the Corinthians were splitting the body of Christ so that some were drunk and others were famished. This seems to be a reflection of the custom of that era to invite the rich and honorable guests first to one’s house so that they get the best of the food whereas the poor and least honorable were invited last and given only the crumbs. This practice goes against Paul’s theology found in chapter 10:17 “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” The second communion that we observe is a communion with our fellow Christians.
And here is where I bring most of my criticism against Protestantism in America. We’ve multiplied our transgressions by dividing the body of Christ in more ways than ever before. First, we’ve—I’m lumping all Protestants through American history into the same basket—split along the racial lines. Since before the founding of America, Africans were not allowed to worship with the white folk. Instead, they were given the boot. Even down to the modern era, certain music styles—those styles “with an African beat”—have been rejected not because of some theological error, but because they were from a lower class culture. We still are segregated by churches—you have white churches and black churches. And we have a great deal of hesitation before talking to our sisters and brothers across the tracks. When we partake in communion and have these divisions among us, how is this not hypocrisy? To expand the question: What about the poor and the other socially marginalized Christians? Does our practice show the unity and diversity in Christ or do we seek for an homogenized expression?
Now I know, many churches don’t purposefully make communion all white or all black. It’s a system that we’ve inherited. We don’t intend to divide on class lines, but that’s what we do often enough. For example, one church I attended oversaw a neighborhood church (essentially poor whites and African Americans) and a Hispanic church. They meant well enough, I know. But the three churches never got together to my knowledge. What was communicated even though it wasn’t said was an air of superiority from the upper middle class white church over the other churches. Brothers and sisters, this ought not to be. At the very least, the other churches should join with the white church for communion. They should have these brothers and sisters take the lead in communion so that we showcase the equality of the family of God.
Another area that churches divide the body of Christ is over doctrine. Yes, this is an old complaint. But it is a constant problem. We must have the foundation of Christ in the Gospel (1Cor. 15:1ff). But there comes a point where we split the body of Christ unnecessarily. For example, soteriology rips the church constantly. Brothers and sisters who both love God and their people will lambast those from a different soteriological position. But Paul is very clear that we are not to do so (1Cor. 3) as long as their theology is built on Christ. Moreover, men in the ministry find it impossible to work with others who do not agree with them on this point. Oh, the sad plight of it all!
The doctrinal superiority that results from intolerance convinces the average layman that his church and those associated with it are the last strongholds for God on earth. They have the answers. And all other churches are abjectly apostate or polluted by the world. If a church is candid enough to admit its mistakes, it claims to be the Ephesian church from the book of revelation while everyone else is Sardis (Rev. 3:1).
While all this division may not be under discussion when the Lord’s Table is practiced, the air of division has already filled the lungs of its partakers. And when they partake of the Lord’s Table, they are not showing the unity of the body. Rather, they assume that they alone are the body and the other churches are worthless appendages.
What must we do? How should we undo our division? First, we must fix the system. We must show unity across racial lines. This may take many forms. But it must be taught and practiced. Second, we must show unity across doctrinal lines. The fact is, we agree with most other churches when it comes to most doctrines. Finally, we must destroy any superiority complex that we are prone to develop. We must humbly connect ourselves back to the great church, the invisible church, and realize that we are a small part of a greater plan.
I know of no greater way than through the practice of the Eucharist. To connect to the church through time, adapt into the celebration elements of liturgy which the church has used through its history. Written prayers, hymns, and formulas are available online for one to understand and adapt to modern practice. Careful explanation of the meaning of liturgy should also be adapted when this is incorporated. To connect to the broader church alive today, celebrate the Eucharist with other churches in town who are different than yours in racial, doctrinal, and class make up. There are limits to the bounds of orthodoxy. But make sure your understanding is rooted in the historic tradition of what is orthodox and not in what is a modern, theological fad. To connect the members of your church together, celebrate the Eucharist together over a meal and with joy instead of somberly alone in a pew.
Above all, be mindful—oh, be so very mindful—of the divisions that you proclaim in your church culture. Be so very cautious about criticizing any other person or group because this easily breeds superiority. Be humble, love people, and give those who differ a hearing ear.