Revising the Practice of the Lord’s Supper at Faith Presbyterian Church No. 1
Tonight we begin a series of Sunday evening studies bearing on the “practice” of the Lord’s Supper. By “practice” I mean the way in which it is observed, the way in which we “do” the Lord’s Supper. You know that churches observe the Lord’s Supper in different ways. We ourselves, in this church, have made several changes to our practice over the years. Now we anticipate making several more and these studies are intended to explain why. We want to perfect our worship of the Lord, not only for his sake, but for our own. We want our practice to facilitate the truest and deepest appreciation and experience of the Lord’s Supper. Practice cannot do that by itself, of course. The heart comes first and the engagement of the heart is the most essential ingredient in any true worship, but the form is not unimportant and can enhance or detract from worship in significant ways. There is certainly an emphasis on proper form in the biblical instruction regarding worship. The high worship of the church on the Sabbath being the great engine of the Christian life, we want and we need to offer it to God in the very best way possible, the most biblical way, the way best suited to foster the true engagement of our hearts and the exercise of our faith, the way most calculated to make of our worship a true offering of ourselves to God and, for us, the experience of his presence and the receiving of his blessings.
Now, as I said, the changes that are in store are only the latest in a series of changes introduced through the years in an effort to perfect the worship we offer to God in this house on the Lord’s Day.
1. Very early on in my pastorate we went to what people would call a more “liturgical” service. I don’t like that description. Everyone has a liturgy. If you do more than one thing in worship (sing, pray, preach, take an offering) and, as you must, put those elements in some order, you have a liturgy. The difference between liturgical churches and non-liturgical churches in the common parlance is, by and large, that the liturgical churches have thought about their order of worship and the others have not. In any case, we went long ago to a service whose order was designed to carry us through the gospel or, in other words, was designed to renew our covenant with God, every Lord’s Day.
2. Early on, as well, we moved the choir from its position behind the pulpit in the front of the church to the balcony. The choir is the voice of the congregation to the Lord not the voice of the Lord to the congregation. It belongs in the congregation not among the means of grace represented at the “east end” of the church. “East end” is a technical liturgical, not geographical designation. It derives from the ancient practice of churches being built on an east-west axis with the pulpit and table at the east end. Now, whatever axis the church is built on, the end where the table and pulpit are found is the east end.
3. Shortly thereafter we changed our hymnal, always a major change for a congregation and, in our case, no exception. We wanted a hymnal that better represented the great tradition of Christian psalm and hymn singing and chose, for that purpose, Trinity Hymnal, then in its first edition.
4. We also introduced the voice of the congregation into corporate petitions in morning worship, replacing what used to be called the “pastoral prayer” and added an emphasis on the corporate “Amen.”
5. Then some 14 years ago we took a great step forward and added kneelers to our pews, so far as we know, the first congregation in the PCA to do so. This was, of course, to enable us to add the kneeling posture to our corporate prayers in worship. At the same time, we put the standing posture into other of our prayers and added the raising of hands at the offering response.
6. Eleven years ago, or so, the sanctuary was completely remodeled, stripped to the studs and its interior rebuilt. The high balcony was added for the use of the choir, windows with liturgical shape were added to let in light and to draw the eye upward, light – whether brilliance or evening candle light – was added in the form of large chandeliers [light and height are both important metaphors for the presence of God and instruments to convey his presence to the soul], a more visually significant pulpit placed in the east end of the church, and the table moved to a more prominent place on the platform from where the worship service could be led. That same remodel dramatically improved the acoustics and so restored the congregation’s voice, a voice that had been muted with acoustical ceiling tile as a result of a fascination with public address systems in the 1950s and early 1960s. In short, our sanctuary became at once less an American evangelical sanctuary, reflecting the liturgical life of a century and a half of American revivalism, and much more a classically Christian house of worship, reflecting the liturgical principles of 2,000 years of Christian worship.
7. When the congregation returned to this sanctuary after the remodel two other significant changes were introduced that we now take for granted. First, the ministers began wearing robes. This was not only the virtually unbroken tradition of Christian worship through 2,000 years, but seemed to be supported by biblical considerations that were transtemporal and transcultural. Second, we began to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. The tradition of Puritan/Presbyterian worship from which this congregation sprang was long accustomed to infrequent communion, perhaps the norm was four times per year. That custom had begun to break down in the 1960s and 1970s and we had moved to a more frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper before this. But it was at this point that we moved to every Sunday celebration, indeed to the practice we now follow of alternating the sacrament from morning to evening on successive Sundays. There continues to be a discussion from time to time as to whether the Lord’s Supper ought always to be held in the morning, the morning services being our most complete services liturgically and those services being attended by the largest number of our members each Sunday. On the other hand, the first Lord’s Supper was held in the evening, the only sacrament expressly mentioned in the NT as to time of day was held in the evening (Acts 20:7), and many Christians prize evening worship precisely because of the spiritual atmosphere created by what Meredith called “the largeness of the evening earth.” As Chesterton put it, “The sensation that the cosmos has all its windows open is very characteristic of evening.” [Finch, Chesterton, 45] And so we have been so far jealous not to lose touch with the experience of evening communion enjoyed through the ages by multitudes of saints.
Now we come to some further refinements, changes, reformations, if you will in our practice of the Lord’s Supper. Before, when changes were made, we learned to be careful to provide a thorough explanation and argument for the changes, not only so that the congregation could rest secure in her confidence that the changes were being made solely in an effort to perfect our worship according to the teaching of the Bible and the wisdom of the Christian ages, but also so that all of us could enter knowledgeably and with enthusiasm into the changes, appreciating what was, by God’s grace, to be sought and found in them. So, prior to the introduction of these changes in practice, we want to explore the reasons for them thoroughly with you. We also want to invite your comments and questions as we proceed. Change can be unsettling. We know that. We want to effect these changes with as little disruption, as little concern as is possible. If there is something you hear that you disagree with, we want you to tell us, tell me or Mr. DeMass, or an elder, and we will discuss your concerns with you. We fully expect that our unity as a congregation will come through this transition to new things unscathed. But the preservation of brotherhood and harmony may require some effort on our part. It usually does. And we intend to make that effort and intend for you to make it as well. We do not want to hear by word of mouth that there is discontentment in some circle in the congregation. We expect that you will come and talk to us about your concerns if you have them. That is what Christians do. So we begin.
The “shape” of our Lord’s Supper – that is, the way in which it is done – is traditional. There is nothing wrong in that per se. No one knows precisely how the Lord’s Supper was observed at Troas, the night the Apostle Paul took the service there. There is a great deal that is traditional in our worship. We sit in pews, not because they had pews in apostolic Christianity but because it has long been thought to be the best way to seat the largest number of worshippers in a sanctuary. We worship at the traditional hour of 11:00 a.m. (though an earlier hour is fast becoming the new tradition in American churches). We accompany singing with an organ and a piano. Neither instrument is mentioned in the Bible, of course. We use a hymnbook. We serve the wine in little plastic cups that sit in trays designed to hold them. The bread and wine are served by elders. And we take the elements seated in pews. No one claims that the Bible teaches us or commands us to do these things. It is simply the practice of our tradition, a favored way to do the things we are commanded to do in the worship of God.
But precisely because traditions are not directly biblical it is important to review them from time to time to verify that they really do serve biblical interests as well as those interests ought to be served. After all, traditions came from somewhere and arose in a certain set of church historical circumstances, and sometimes, upon reflection, it can be seen that those circumstances had an effect on practice that that was not entirely helpful or wholesome.
An excellent example would be the fate of kneeling in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. In the first few generations after the Reformation, Presbyterians knelt for prayer in worship. But in the 16th and 17th centuries there was a controversy in the English Reformed church as to the proper posture for receiving the bread and wine at communion. In Calvin’s Geneva worshippers had knelt at the front rail of the church to receive the elements. But over time it came to be felt by some that kneeling to receive the elements fostered the Roman Catholic idea that those elements, by transubstantiation, had become the body and blood of Christ and, by kneeling, worship was being paid to the bread and wine as now literally the body and blood of Christ himself. So a long and bitter argument ensued, the upshot was that the Puritans ceased to kneel to receive the elements and, in a classic case of the baby going out with the bath-water, stopped kneeling period. And for 400 years Presbyterians have not knelt to pray. Had you asked them why they couldn’t have told you. They might have thought, “Well, Catholics kneel, so we don’t.” But, of course, the Bible tells us to kneel and it isn’t only Catholics who kneel, but Lutherans, and Methodists, and Episcopalians, and so on. In any case, here was a tradition, a tradition deeply enough established that few ever thought about it – that is the danger of traditions – that was born in an overreaction and an obvious mistake and perpetuated by constant repetition up to the present day. If today you suggested in many PCA churches that they should kneel to pray, you would have a fight on your hands. I’m so pleased that we were led to think about that tradition, to find it wanting, and to discard it. Does anyone want to go back to sitting prayers? Posture is a great help to the soul in prayer and gives us the privilege of praying with our entire being, not just our souls.
Now such a rethinking of our Lord Supper traditions has been underway for some time in our Reformed and Presbyterian circles and even more widely. There are many Christians and Christian ministers who are thinking again about the place of the sacrament in the life and worship of God’s people. The first question they asked was whether the Supper should be observed more frequently. The Lord’s Supper had a very small place in worship for a long time – just four times a year in many, many churches – but more and more people have begun to ask if that practice of infrequent communion is biblical.
And many churches have now gone to more frequent communion. A significant number of the churches in our presbytery – and, interestingly, almost all the newer churches, those planted in recent years – observe the sacrament every week and, I suppose, there isn’t a church that doesn’t have communion more often than it did thirty years ago. And what is true in our Presbytery is true across the Presbyterian Church and in American and in many other denominations as well.
But, an interesting thing has happened. The more often the Supper has been taken, inevitably, the more people have thought about it. I myself think that the reason some features of our traditional practice of the Lord’s Supper lasted as long as they did in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition is that, because we celebrated so infrequently, we didn’t think very much or very carefully about the Lord’s Supper. It didn’t frankly seem to be that important to the daily life of Christian people and so didn’t get much of our attention. But, as the Supper came more and more frequently into our worship, as it became a larger and larger part of our weekly life, we couldn’t help but think about it more and more, about how it is done and why we do it as we do and whether this is the best way after all.
If you do something every week you can hardly help but think about it. And the more thinking there has been, the greater has become the pressure to change certain things about the way the Supper has been practiced in our churches. The theology of the Lord’s Supper is not being challenged, though, I think, there is a new appreciation for that theology, an appreciation that I certainly did not have growing up in our churches. There is a new conviction about its usefulness, about how the sacraments work in communicating to us the blessings of the Lord and our salvation and how they embody an entire way of looking at life. That also has contributed to the pressure to change the practice of the Supper. And so has the historical reconnaissance that has accompanied new study of the Lord’s Supper. When one starts thinking again about a Christian practice, the natural thing to do, of course, is to consult Christian history. And when you do that you discover that your way of doing the Lord’s Supper is hardly the only way; it isn’t even the main way in which the Supper has been practiced through the ages. And that, in turn, cannot help but lead you to ask whether our way is as good, as biblical as these other ways.
That pressure has been applied to two matters in particular. The first is the use of grape juice instead of wine and the second is the manner in which the elements are distributed to the congregation. It is about these two matters that I intend to speak over the coming Lord’s Day evenings.
We will look at the Bible in depth on the question of whether wine or grape juice ought to be used in the Supper. And, to be sure that we are considering all sides of the question, I have listened to three tapes on the subject of Christians and wine by John MacArthur. He is a man that we respect and he takes a dim view of the use of wine by Christians. He doesn’t directly address the subject of wine in communion, but it is clear he would not approve and that his church uses grape juice as we always have here. After all, the entire reason, the sole reason why grape juice was introduced for communion use a century or more ago, was so that an alcoholic beverage would not be used in the Lord’s Supper. I am going to interact with Mr. MacArthur’s argument throughout.
Later, when we come to the manner of distribution, we will consider the biblical principles involved as well as the light that church history sheds on the issue.
I hope this series of studies will be helpful in two respects. First, I hope that they will prepare us for the changes to be made and help to make those changes real steps forward in our experience of the Lord’s Supper. Second, I hope that they will serve as an example of how questions, liturgical, ethical, or theological, are to be answered from the Bible.
So pray with me and with your elders that the Lord will grant us light, understanding, a common mind and heart, and a hunger and thirst to draw nearer to him in our worship and to have more from him every time we gather before him on the Lord’s Day and, especially, when we gather at our Savior’s table.