POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Planting multiethnic and transcultural churches

IMG_1463.JPG

Planting multiethnic churches is a complex and challenging reality in whatever culture of the earth we might find ourselves. Planting them in the North American context has it's own unique challenges and opportunities.

I am aware that there are many people who advocate reaching people using what is known to missiologists as the homogeneous unit principal or HUP for short. This principal says that it is most effective to reach people evangelistically "in their own tribe." In some contexts, there is great merit to this as you need to speak the same language and share some cultural foundations in order to connect and communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ. Additionally, there are times when mono ethnic churches make sense for various reasons. Freedom to express community identity apart from the hegemony of a dominant culture and first generation immigrant communities come to mind.

However, in many places on the earth, cultures are living in close proximity to one another with people of various ethnic and social backgrounds in the same cities. This is not unlike many of the places in the first century where the gospel took root. So in this essay I have no interest in debating the HUP as it pertains to North American church planting. I am writing for those who have a similar conviction, calling and passion for planting multiethnic and transcultural churches.

In our cultural narrative we have deep roots of racial bigotry, systemic oppression and cultural suspicions between various peoples. We also have the opportunity to live out together the transcultural nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ which creates one new people out of the peoples of the earth. So in desiring to plant churches, my heart and passion was always to plant a multiethnic one where the beauty of gospel reconciliation, justice, love and unity might show off the glory of Jesus Christ.

So here are my assumptions for this essay. First, you have an interest in planting and shaping, transcultural and multiethnic core groups for church planting. By multiethnic I simply mean a diversity of peoples working together in gospel life and mission. By transcultural I mean working to give and receive with one another so that no one must deny their unique cultural flavor. We each give and give ground to create something culturally new and together under one King. My friend, Pastor Lèonce B. Crump Jr. gives a helpful definition for the transcultural nature of the church:

Every human being is endued with the Imago Dei, the image of God, captured in unique cultural and ethnic expressions which embody the full breadth of God’s creative genius, not to be subverted by the ethnic/ cultural identity and preferences of another, but celebrated in creating a fuller expression of our humanity, a woven tapestry of color, culture, and class as God forms a people for Himself from all people.
Lèonce Crump, Renovate: Changing Who You Are by Loving Where You Are (Multnomah, 2016) 112.

Second, as a white guy, I cannot help but write from a particular cultural viewpoint in North America. My only hope is to offer counsel as one who has planted a church with these aims and practices. I have also continually submitted my ideas, bias and perspective to others I respect to grow in empathy and servant leadership.

I do offer this one caveat as I begin. You may be planting in an all Chinese neighborhood or an all-white corn field town or a section of a city that is majority African-American. I get that. Yet to be transcultural means we also look within race/ethne to also live together across economic status, caste, life station and world assigned place. Furthermore, with the density and close proximity of many areas, I still recommend transcultural church planting and by that I mean doing this from day one in the core team.

What follows is a short collection of principles that I think are crucial for building multiethnic core teams for the planting of the gospel in new communities. Ideas which come from Scripture, wisdom and our experience in planting a multiethnic, transcultural congregation in Central New Jersey.

Ground your praxis in the transcultural theology of the Bible

The purpose of Old Testament Israel was to be a light to the nations that God's glory will spread throughout all the earth and that the covenant people would include many peoples. (Isaiah 49:1-6) The fulfillment of this arrives in Jesus the Messiah creating one new man out of Jew and Gentile which we read about in Ephesians chapter 2. The great vision in the book of Revelation is that in the Kingdom there will be some from every tribe and tongue of people on the earth. (Revelation 7:9-12) This is to be accomplished by God sending his people to make disciples of all nations/ethne/peoples. (Matthew 28:18-20) God’s mission is therefore inclusive and our destiny is to be a people who are a worshiping community displaying and declaring the glory of God together in all of our panoramic, diverse beauty as humanity made in the image of God.

You should ground this ministry philosophy in the gospel, not in cultural guilt, paternalism, social theory or various philosophical views of race. We certainly have to take all of these into account related to our own background and experience, but we ground our conviction in the scripture, the grand story of Jesus Christ. Years ago, I heard my friend John Bryson from Fellowship Bible Church in Memphis talk about all the secondary things we will address when we seek to be a multiethnic community of faith. We do this because it is a biblical conviction, but by doing so we also go after consumerism, preference, privilege and all sorts of concerns in discipleship. These are healthy discipleship byproducts of the goal of following the crucified king in his vision to create a transcultural people.

Ground your practice in the theological version of the Bible. It will help sustain you and give a clear apologetic for your practice as you answer any detractors.

Make it a nonnegotiable

To plant this way you must have it be a nonnegotiable for you and I even suggest making this a condition for launch. Cultural momentum is real and it's difficult to overcome once you begin. Probably the most important thing about your church plant is its culture. I used the term flow at Jacob's Well in New Jersey. Your flow is the sum total of all things pertaining to your way of life and being. It encompasses many things, both said and unsaid that are felt and experienced by the community. What your flow is like if you start out as an all Asian church matters. Particularly if you are hoping to be a multiethnic church. If you start out as an all white church, you will have massive momentum in an unstated, thick and often assumed cultural direction. With this vision for your church plant, it must be a nonnegotiable from the beginning. It must and cannot get quickly overwhelmed by other “pragmatic” concerns and opposition.

Specifically seek out partners who share your passion.

The mission of the gospel is not an individualistic enterprise. The Lord always calls together a community to fulfill and live out his purposes. This is particularly important as you seek to plant a multiethnic church. This is a mission and vision that must be shared and held in common by leaders of different backgrounds. If you are a church planter you must pray and specifically seek out like-minded partners for the work. Please remember, this should be intentional but not paternalistic. Tokenism or just desiring people of different skin pigments on the bus is an actual offense to God’s transcultural vision for the church. Your hope and prayer is to do life and mission together, not to simply exist under your cultural vision, habits, bias and preferences. Pray desperation prayers in this direction.

I will never forget meeting my friend Manoj Thomas at a prayer meeting for campus ministers at Rutgers University in 2008. We had not even moved to the state of New Jersey but I was up meeting people and praying and seeking God for insight into the context of our church plant. Manoj was a volunteer with a campus ministry while doing his very full-time work with a large software company. During the meeting, he read from Revelation 7 asking why all these groups had to be separate and why a group on campus couldn't be intentionally inclusive of black, Chinese, Asian Indian, Latino and white. He got on his soapbox a bit and later had to leave the meeting early to get to work. Sensing the Lord's Spirit leading, I literally followed him to the parking lot and said to him point-blank, "I would love to do that with you. I have brochures in my bag about a dream to plant a church community on mission that desires what you were talking about in there. Would you pray about doing that with me?"

Obviously, both he and I had only minimal first impressions of one another from being in the meeting together. We both took a risk and the rest, as they say, is history. The Thomas family was the first family from New Jersey involved with our plant. The Lord had a family with roots from Ireland and another with roots from India together for the gospel. We prayed that God would would send people to help from various backgrounds before we launched anything public in terms of our ministry. Our goal to become indigenous and multiethnic before launching any public gatherings of the church was key because we wanted a different cultural DNA and momentum from the beginning. To plant multiethnic you must be committed to this vision and avoid the panic of desperation of just having warm bodies in the room to help the plant. Pray for the Lord to send the right partners in the gospel, particularly those from a different background than you. This means the planter must spend time with different people when planting the church. Some men do not have the skills, experience or perseverance to do this well. So, if in the current stage of your journey you're not comfortable in cross cultural settings and do not sacrificially love and serve among people, this kind of work and church planting may not be for you. Start by authentically getting to know people and share one another's experience. Perhaps in the future you'll be ready and equipped to plant this kind of work.

Evolving culture/flow forward

Once a church plant does launch and Christ’s mission is being lived together, there are some specific and practical things that can help you maintain and focus on the call to be a transcultural community. These are hyper-practical principles and practices that we found helpful in our work.

First, I counsel you to absolutely avoid children's curriculum that is not representational in it's illustrations. Having a curriculum that is mono-racial in it's presentation visually is not inclusive nor helpful in this work. Thankfully many publishers are more conscious of these things today but there still persist much Christian literature in the west that is lily white. Certainly jettison these white boy Jesus illustrations; they are neither helpful nor historically accurate.

Second, we had the internal legalism that our platform would never be mono-ethnic on Sunday. Between our host, our preacher and our band members, there should never be a singular vision up front. We sought real diversity in cultural background, ethnicity, age and gender. This ought to affect your band tryouts and who are trained to be upfront hosts and speakers. We actually had a complaint that this seemed like affirmative action. My reply was that we were committed to leading this congregation together and our aim was not simply to have a talent show.

Third, when you have videos that are promotional or story oriented, you want to be wise and intentional in your representation.

Fourth, be aware of seasons and holidays and celebrate. Even a casual mention of Bollywood films launching during Diwali in a sermon can display a cultural alertness to other people's yearly rhythms. Our church also intentionally celebrated Black history month in February. During the month, I would do personal research and study on an historical figure who was a follower of Jesus and African-American. Each person in our church would get a copy of the short biography I would write to read and reflect upon and learn from saints who had gone before us. You can find a few of those online here.

Fifth, affirm and establish a plurality of leaders. If you are not reaching out to, developing and empowering those different than you, you may only be engaged in tokenism and how things look rather than submitting to one another and love. In a North American context, this means that white guys need to intentionally choose to follow and submit to people that are different than you. We are not trying to create ethnic factions with representations in leadership but rather leading together as we become one people. This cannot be done alone and without leadership.

Sixth, have open conversations with one another without it being a program. However, if you didn't start out this way you may have to create a program to get people to talk. Seek out mentors to help you avoid being foolish and hurtful to people in your ignorance. We will all make mistakes with each other culturally, but at least try to not be a complete idiot related to other people and cultures. A culture of forgiveness and grace goes a long way as well so model being a good cultural learner and one who asks for forgiveness for his blunders and mistakes. As just one example, I would never post this without having it peer reviewed by trusted friends from other cultural backgrounds. Their influence is found in this essay and it is all the better for it.

Seventh, the lead pastor(s) must be all in. Period. If you are seeking to plant or become a multiethnic, transcultural community and the lead guy is not all in you are asking for pain and frustration in the future for all. The leaders of your church must be unified in this commitment to love and live this way. You must absolutely have each other’s back in these matters particularly when things get difficult. Which brings us to our eighth and final principle.

Eighth, you need to persevere and be ready for the struggle. You must be ready for the opposition that will come as you address specific injustice, racism, prejudice, consumerism and cultural protectionism. You should expect racially insensitive, racially ignorant, and out racist things to be said at times. Even with planting this way from the start, there will be those who will desire to go only so far in their own transformation of their perspectives. Be prepared to have people even leave your church community over discourse related to transcultural ministry. The bottom line is that planting this way can be slower, harder and more financially difficult; please count the costs.

Rejoice, enjoy and celebrate

Finally, the Lord has such a blessing in store for people who begin to love and serve crawl across boundaries that are maintained with such vigilance in the world. I cannot tell you how I have benefited from the experiences, theological insight, wisdom, wit and sense of humor of people from different backgrounds. We begin to see our common humanity and paternity under God our father and rejoice in our similarities as well as our diversity. And brothers and sisters, how about the wonderful feast of friendship, fellowship and food! I will never forget our first international lunch at Jacob's Well. A few people thought it was a meeting to promote missions. Yes, we did have a display on hand of our various global partnerships but the true purpose of the event was to have a party. A party where Indian, Chinese, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Soul food and African fare was on hand. People cooked for one another and came dressed in their typical fashion from their home culture. It was a wonderful day. To be honest, some southern style barbecue ribs made by my Chinese American brother Vince was the best thing I ate that day. My mom and dad both grew up in Memphis, TN so I have strong opinions on what good ribs actually are. My brother even cooks barbeque on a competitive team. So to see my Chinese brother absolutely nail something wonderful from my own background and culture brought a smile to my face. The time of fellowship, of sharing life in common was so rich. I even believe it may just have brought a smile to our Lord as well.

Summary

In summary, to focus on planting transcultural churcheswe must:

  • Make it a personal, theological conviction
  • Make it a nonnegotiable in order to persevere
  • Start this way
  • Lead together
  • Submit to one another
  • Rejoice in the King of kings and Lord of lords who had made all the peoples of the earth and is calling some from every tribe to be a kingdom of priests to declare his glory among the nations forever and ever amen.

May the Lord give us his grace as he builds his church out of the peoples of this world. And if you have the joy and privilege of being one new people together on earth as it will be in heaven; rejoice all the more! 

Resources for Multiethnic and Transcultural Leadership

Note: Each of these works and authors brings a particular perspective, terminology and approach to ministry. Read them for their unique perspective and help as you humbly learn and hope for ministry in a new way.

Thoughts on Missional Innovation

Every so often in history leaders, people, ideas and circumstances come together and dramatic changes take place. Ways of living, perspectives on reality and even our understanding of ourselves are profoundly impacted. We call these convergences of people and ideas, "movements." Every movement displays an interconnected nature as certain ideas coalesce into shared passion and joint action for change. Many times movements are marked by innovation, new ways of thinking and acting as human beings. At times innovations are seen as bursting forth out of nowhere, or as sudden awakenings, yet many historical events build successively into movements. The cumulative action of many leaders and ideas evolve forward or build like a wave crashing upon a seashore with powerful momentum. It is often said that today’s leaders stand on the shoulders of giants; we know this to be true. What is prevalent today was influenced by what came before as the interconnected nature of people and ideas moves us in one direction or another. 

Recently I've been thinking much about some the technological movements of the last 100 years and I've read four books to that end. My undergraduate education was in the science and technology space and I’ve enjoy histories in that area of human work and inquiry. The first work was entitled The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner which focused on the history of Bell Laboratories and its various communication inventions that led into the modern information revolution. The transistor arguably the most important of the technologies that emerged there in the twentieth century. Next up was When Computing Got Personal: A History of the Desktop Computer by Matthew Nicholson, a work on the history of the desktop computer from it's very earliest forms until some of the recent sizes and shapes we see today. After this came Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet  by Katie Hafner. A fascinating read on the invention of this most important of computer networks through the combined efforts of industry, government and academia. I finally, finished up with Moore's Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley's Quiet Revolutionary by Thackray, Brock and Jones. Moore is an unassuming titan of what became our modern Silicon Valley and one of the chief inventors of silicon semi-conductor technology. He was one of the founders of what became the tech juggernaut known as Intel. Incidentally, an Intel chip is currently humming along inside my laptop as I type these words.

In my reading I observed that time and time again there was an interconnection between ideas that lead to innovation. Technology built upon the gains of the past and the previous generation’s hard work, problem solving and creative thinking. The innovation that took place in our technological revolutions was not in any way magic. It took place under certain cultural and structural circumstances that made the movement possible. I will outline a few of these in the final section of this essay below. As I looked at technological innovation I also saw much to be gleaned for the innovation needed in gospel mission in every generation.

What I want to do in this essay is to first look at the necessary restrictions and freedoms for innovation to flourish. I will do this under the header Context for Innovation. From there I want to draw some parallels between technological innovation and missional innovation for church planting movements before closing with a reminder of the type of innovation needed in the church in our time. 

Context for Innovation

It may be surprising but some of the modern technology and correlated free-flowing creations were actually driven by some imposed parameters and restrictions. Physicists and engineers are constantly encountering problems that cause them to think outside of the box precisely because they are working within one. What do I mean? Our scientific work does not bend or break the laws of physics. Our work will either conform to or be defeated by them. Reality shapes and constricts our efforts. Innovative thinking comes to bear in trying new ideas as we necessarily stay within the bounds of the created space-time reality. Learning how things actually work and how they work best is essential for our creation and innovation in technology. So the technologist is not some magician pulling a white iPhone out of her hat, but she is learning how things work within the system she has been given. This does not mean she is a traditionalist who only accepts the answers of the past. Yet she must see many past failures and go forward with things that work as she moves towards new solutions to problems in the future. It is not some terrible requirement to have to conform to the laws of Physics; there is no other way to cross technological hurdles. When a technology does not work because we did not understand the nature of reality, we have simply hit a restriction that sends us quite literally back to the drawing board. The restrictions are no enemy. They help us head off in fresh new directions that may prove more fruitful in the end. 

This brings us to a second necessary parameter for innovation to flourish. The technologist must have the freedom to try new things to solve problems. Otherwise we will be stuck in the past's failures or remain content with the status quo. The technologist simply cannot accept a current technical hurdle as the final defeat but must seek new ways to overcome it. This constant tension between the laws of physics and problem-solving creativity creates the spark of movement that can become a stunning wave of innovation. Both the restrictions and the freedom are necessary interlocutors that create momentum. Failures and success both drive forward the wave. 

The same can be said for the work of the church in every generation. First, there must be a firm anchor and reality to which we conform our efforts. This must be the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed to us by God in history and Scripture. Just as creation itself is no hindrance to technology and science, sound doctrine and theology is no hindrance to missional innovation. We must have rails within which we are faithful, otherwise we won't build anything that actually "works." Without the bounds of revealed truth and the historical verities of our faith we can run the mission aground on the rocks of heresy and false teachings. The truth must be the raw materials with which we move forward in mission. Secondly, we must also grasp the freedom necessary to encounter people in every generation with the gospel. We must contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ to a changing world without denying or changing the laws of our theological “physics”. Yet we must have freedom while engaging with our inherited past, to question whether or not certain practices flow from human traditions (Mark 7:13-23) or from the revealed truth of God. This means there is a “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3), and there are new horizons and new expressions of that faith needed in every generation.

The parallels between technological and missional innovation are not difficult to find. I will close with a look at the process of innovation and its necessary ingredients gleaned from various histories of technology.

Thoughts on Innovation

Innovation comes from passion

Innovation comes from a strong desire to learn and then solve problems. Those who seek new, faithful ways to reach people with the gospel are driven by a similar desire. A desire to engage the problem of a world in need of Jesus and to use all possible, godly means to bring the good news. They are willing to connect with people far from God in various cultural and societal settings because of their love for God and people. It is their passion and love that compels them as they are convinced that Christ died for sinners and communicating this truth is essential. Apologetics and missional thinking help us to overcome the hurdles that prevent thoughtful engagement with people in culture. Missional innovation must be driven by passion: love for God and love for people.

Innovation flows from proper freedom

One of the observations I made in reading about technological innovation is that smart people were given the time, space and funding necessary to do their work. Freedom in research must be funded with exploration and even failure as an aspect of the way forward. In missionary work, space needs to be created in, by and through local churches for similar efforts. Church planting provides the freedom for both faithfulness to gospel truth while engaging in some exploration and experimentation in methodology. Even those who hold to some form of the regulative principle may still maintain space for variation in style within a given culture for gospel life and ministry. Even if you have the conviction that we can only preach, sing psalms, pray and observe the sacraments in a church gathering, how a church goes about such things, language, style, aesthetics, etc. can still be a subject of exploration.  Furthermore, there is a wide open field of ministry through church members, smaller communities, missional groups and parachurch work that can flow with innovation even for highly regulative churches.

Innovation comes from people who dared to try and have some talent

The status quo can trap us. As people, we don't always like change even when change is what we desperately need. There are churches that will demand their own death and extinction rather than change out carpet or switch up musical styles in worship. Church planters are willing to accept the dare of the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus outside of the camp to the lost, beginning new works that might connect the gospel to those far from God and his church. Innovation comes when there are people who take "risks" for the sake of the gospel putting their hearts, souls, mind, strength all in with their God given gifts and talents.  

Finally, innovation comes from systems demanding attention and constant improvement

One of the striking driving forces for technological innovation in the 20th century was the growing complexity of telephone networks. The problems that emerged in expanding and maintaining such a complex network drove innovation because there were so many problems to solve. Necessity, quite literally, was the mother of many inventions. The place where many inventions were made was within the actual telephone system itself. The same might be said of the technology that was invented within the 20th century context of the cold war. There were secret groups of smart, dedicated, well-funded and focused people (see Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed by Ben Rich) meeting serious military problems with life and death implications. Will some Soviet or US military advantage lead to our mutual destruction? Let’s get to work on solving this or that technological hurdle so that no one gets nuked into oblivion. This has striking parallels to our work in church planting. New ideas for the mission must emerge from the necessity of the mission itself. In the middle of the messiness of ministry we must solve problems which arrive from the streams of providence and the shifting of cultures. A world broken with sin and death while facing coming judgment should bring an urgency of action and missional innovation from God’s people.  

Let me conclude with one final thought about "innovation" in and through the church. It is not innovative to simply copy and ape a worldly culture and society. I once heard Nancy Lee DeMoss say that the world is not aching for a "religious version of itself." What did she mean? I think we must see that the lost world around us does not necessarily need a sermon series called "Soulflix" with a perfectly mimicked Netflix logo all the while preaching messages from this or that movie. As fun as this might be, it is neither innovative nor really creative. What we do need are churches that can passionately preach the great gospel truths of the book of Ephesians to people that watch four hours of Netflix a night. That task will require both creativity and innovation in thought. It will require the bounds of the truth and the freedom to innovate in our styles, modes and communication. It will require us to be faithful and daring. It will require prayer and the dynamic leadership of the Holy Spirit in our day. After all, our goal is not simply to innovate in missionary methods for the sake of doing new stuff to make a church seem “cool”. Our goal is to bring people to Jesus through the preaching of the gospel and that means we must care about the methods we use to connect and communicate in THIS or THAT time and place. 

Jacob's Well - Four Years this Weekend

Jacob's Well turns four on Friday. This video rolled out last week sharing a bit of that story. Very thankful for all our friends and JWell family giving their lives in gospel work in New Jersey.  

Should pastors try hard to be uncool?

Note: Much credit to IX Marks, a ministry I love and respect, for the inspiration for this post.  I agree with most of what they wrote...maybe they will agree also with me? I added #7 of my own accord. 

not_cool.png
  1. Being an uncool pastor is not the power of God for salvation—the gospel is. If we think that the success of our evangelistic efforts depends on the communication style we don't care about, we are missing it. We should just flow without any style so we can be sure the only thing that is attractive to anyone are Bible words. We should write them on vellum and keep them in our room. We want to show that our trust is in the power of God’s Word working by God’s Spirit, so we want to be as awkward and uncool as we can be so to be sure about this.
  2. Being disconnected to the culture is a double-edged sword. Though you can be sure you don't look cool, are not compelling, and be ignorant of what people care about, you might still be human enough to be in real relationships with sinners. Just don't be cool about it. Make them read the vellum if they want you to watch movies.
  3. Our desire to be uncool may reflect more pride than we’d like to admit. Let’s say you want to be pure, unaffected by the culture and only have heaven oriented slang, dress and style. Is your desire to cultivate that image driven by a desire to save the lost or a desire for people to like you? Or maybe to have God like you more than he likes cool pastors.
  4. Much pastoral ministry is profoundly cool. Preaching the cross is the power of God to save people is really cool. Moreover, faithfully pleading with others to repent of their sins and be reconciled to God requires a pastor to be earnest and enthusiastic (aka cool) in a way that is utterly at odds with the ironic detachment that being uncool requires. If you define cool as ironic detachment that is not cool.
  5. We must never despise “cool” brothers and sisters in Christ. The more we try to be uncool ourselves, the more we’ll be tempted to look down on Christians who are not like us. Like those who have lots of tattoos.
  6. Being unlike the culture can make it hard for others to see the gospel. The more we understand the world and its definition of “cool,” the less attractive we should find it. In fact, in a society that is increasingly morally and spiritually bankrupt, it may be our identification with people in culture that serves to highlight the gospel. Rather than trying to be uncool, pastors should lead their churches to cultivate a living presence with people in their own culture (to borrow from God's example in the incarnation) that points to a gospel that is genuinely different from what the world believes. It also will have the body of Christ walking among people in every day life. If we are unlike the culture they cannot hear us, see us or understand us...which makes it hard for them to see the gospel.
  7. We should be cool and uncool like Jesus and Paul - Jesus became one of us in this world, in culture, with people in culture, hanging out with cool and uncool, the outcast, the one's with tattoos and no tattoos, loving the lost and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom. We should also be cool and uncool like the apostle who for the sake of the gospel became all things to all people so that by all possible means he might save some. And he knew cool poems that the kids listened to also...which is kinda cool. He also preached the Christ crucified for sinners and the cross as the only grounds for justification by faith...which is really cool.
Many people assume that the best way to reach people is to not be like them at all. Like non earthlings that share no humanity, language, clothing, media and flow with them. So, if pastors don't want to reach cool people, they should try to be uncool. But there are several problems with the idea that pastors should not try to be cool:

 

Artwork with our Mark Series

I have really enjoyed the artwork done by one of our Jacob’s Well members for our series in the gospel of Mark.  There are a few more coming but here are the pieces we have used so far. Many thanks to Adel Steman for her creative work on these. I think my favorite is the healing of the blind with the hand along the man’s face.

The Blessed Virgin and Jesus' Family

The authors of the books of Jude and James are identified in a very interesting way in the New Testament. They seem to be identified as brothers of Jesus himself (Mark 6:1-5, Jude 1:1, Matthew 13:53-58). It might come as a surprise to some, but it appears that Jesus grew up in a family and had siblings. In fact we read this account in the gospel of Matthew.

53And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, 54and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? 55Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas [Jude]? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” 58 And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.

Matthew 13:53-58 ESV

Furthermore, Luke’s gospel contains another account  that describes Jesus mother and brothers coming to look for him in a crowd of people.  The account in Luke 8 reads as follows:

19Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. 20And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” 21But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

Luke 8:19-21 ESV

Paul the apostle spoke of James in Galatians chapter 1:18, 19 as being the “Lord’s brother.” Additionally, the earliest church history written by a man named Eusebius called Jude, the brother of the Lord according to the flesh. (Church History, Book III, Chapter 19). Now this could seem odd for those of us who may have Catholic families, upbringings or friends as the Catholic view is that Mary, Jesus’ mom, was a virgin for life. Now, we don’t have too much space here to cover Mary in detail but let me just say that Protestants seem to give Mary too little props and respect while Catholics tend to go way over the top in the other direction.  What follows will be a few agreements and disagreements Protestants and Roman Catholics have about the blessed virgin.

Some Agreements

Both Protestants and Catholics hold that Mary was the virgin mother of Jesus fulfilling the OT prophesy that the Messiah would be born in just this way (See Matthew 1:18-25; Isaiah 7:14). Additionally, Mary is said to be favored by God with a unique role in history to bear the Son of God in her womb, raise him in her care and unleash Jesus the man into life and ministry (Luke 1:26-38). Finally, Mary in a worshipping response to God known as the magnificat, declares that she will be called blessed by all generations (Luke 1:46-55).  These agreements are clear yet some major disagreements remain in the Christian view of Jesus’ mom.

Remaining Disagreements

First, though the idea of Mary’s of perpetual virginity has a long history in the Catholic church, it has no grounds in Holy Scripture. One reason is that Mary clearly had a husband and we are told in Matthew 1:24,25 that “he took his wife, but knew her (biblical language for sex) not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”  Furthermore, an unconsummated marriage was contrary to the teaching of Scripture (Genesis 2:24,25 and 1 Corinthians 7). Another reason, mentioned above, is that Mary had other children. The context of  Matthew 13 cited above is clearly that of a family. Only a bit of hand waving can make father, mother, brother, sisters actually mean cousins or close relatives and not kids. A second disagreement regarding Mary is that she was sinless and unmarked by original sin. This doctrine, known as the immaculate conception of Mary teaches that Mary was conceived without original sin and did not sin. It was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854 but is not articulated in the Bible. Third, we do not agree that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven upon her death as such teaching is simply speculation without any biblical warrant.

The Scripture presents Mary as a human being like you and me though blessed and chosen by God for a very special role in redemptive history. Yet she is not a co-mediator between us and God as there is only one mediator that of Jesus himself (1 Timothy 2:6) Whether she appears magically upon ham sandwiches, in the clouds or in strange water stains on sides of buildings I’ll leave for you to decide.  I’m agnostic on these matters.

The who shapes the what...short reflection on being and doing

The following diagram was shared during our NT Overview series to describe the importance of the culture of a community and how it lives out its mission. It simply seeks to show the interrelated nature of a community’s culture (and individual character) and its actual flowing out in its mission. 

Our identity as believers and as Christ’s church is foundational. He is our definition and we live our lives in him through the gospel. Who we are has been changed by the gospel both individually and collectively (see Ephesians 1-2) and it is from our union with Jesus that we live out our missional calling together. We are a gospel centered people following Jesus on his mission in the world.

Our actions as believers and as Christ’s church are then transformational in that we are shaped by our daily practices. Whereas our identity is in Christ through the gospel, our choices, decisions and actions need to be shaped by the gospel as well. As we live this out, following Jesus, God’s Spirit bears fruit in us (see all of Galatians 5). This is both active—we work at it. What we do, what we do together, really matters. It is also passive, in that God is doing work in us, on us and through us (see Philippians 2:12, 13). If we do not live out our mission, choose to sow sin in our lives, go AWOL from Jesus’ purposes, it will effect us. We will look less like Jesus, more like the world and be unfruitful and ineffective in gospel work (see 2 Peter 1:3-11) To be a part of a gospel centered, missional community means we shape and share a culture based upon our calling in the world. When we do so our life together takes on a different reality and this in turn has a profound effect on our lives.

In Summary the WHO we are together should determine the WHAT we live together. Then the WHAT we live together continues to shape and transform the WHO we are. We should never deceive ourselves to think that the crew we flow with in life does not matter. In fact, it is indispensible to life and mission. And this, as you can see if you step back and look at the graphic above, creates a smile…at least this what my daughter saw here.

How you flow does matter...

I usually do not engage in what I deem evangelical politics or the evangelical celebrity culture. I find the whole clamoring game to be quite tedious and many times a making of all manner of men the center of our discourse. Our event features this person! Did you hear what he said?!? and her response!?!

Yet as evangelicalism is primarily led by big name pastors and publishing houses, the influence of people sort of wanders around a bit in various loosely affiliated crowds. As such, a local leader who is loving and serving his people must interact with the popular books and influential rock star pastors of the day. Some are good. Some not so much. Recently the bloggers, buzzers and tweeters have been lighting up about the recent video put out by Rob Bell and his coming book. The name Rob Bell even made the trending list of Twitter this weekend. I m sure those who like the buzz liked all of this very much.

The issues at hand are of great importance to the heart of the gospel and the message of the New Testament. It is right for people of faith to be concerned. Personally, I wrote a private note to my friends and leaders at Jacob s Well when all this starting going around. My care is for the understanding of our community and the broader movement of which I feel a part. Realizing I am a Protestant I also realize the spheres for which I am actually responsible. I do not know Rob Bell, never likely to meet him nor I am personally responsible for him or what he teaches. I am responsible if, by the strange realities of American church culture, he becomes a teacher for our people via blogs/books/videos etc. So I am trying to be responsible locally and have my head up and listen.

Others have and will be addressing the substance of Bell’s indirect communication and questioning that arise from his words and the performance in his recent video. What I am concerned about is how confessional evangelicals react to this sort of thing. My thoughts are only offered to my friends to encourage them about how they flow with the doctrines they hold. It matters deeply how we represent the truth to which we rightly hold firm. Some simple observations.

  • Blasting men like Rob Bell with arrogant, harsh, reactionary, alarmist sounding tweets and blogs only reaffirms many people s rejection of the truth that you hold.
  • If you hold true doctrine and hold it like a jackass you may alienate hearers and push many towards the pied pipers of our age.
  • Many of these are simply echoing popular beliefs as they reject historic, biblical, Christian doctrine. The world will joyfully receive the teaching of heretics because many times they simply are sounding off with the current zeitgeist.
  • In my experience, many people who are drawn away to these sorts of “New Christianity” are typically church kids who have witnessed a bunch of junk from those who hold to biblical truth. We need not add to this number.
  • Believe me, I know that simply believing the teaching of Jesus and the apostles will cause people to say you are intolerant, narrow, etc. People did murder Jesus you know. Yet we should let it be the message of the cross and Christ himself that brings the offense. You can hold doctrines that people find offensive without adding to the offense by your own brash and arrogant rubbishing of others.
  • 1 Peter 3 speaks to our offering our defense of the faith with gentleness and respect - I think we need to wear these virtues. Afterall, they look and smell a lot like Jesus.
  • Yes, speak to your people directly about various types of philosophies and errors being peddled today. Yes, speak to the false teachers which are peddling their wares today. Yes, Yes, Yes. Yet do so as a compassionate friend and fellow sojourner. If you are a pastor, lead among your people with the responsibility, humble authority and the courage that you will need.
  • Do I think there is a place for bold, personal confrontation? Absolutely. I do not think Twitter is the place for this. If you need to correct a brother or sister do so personally or by personal correspondence. We all know that the Interwebs can make cowards bold and remove many filters from our words.
  • However, if something is in writing from someone and it is affecting your people of course you should address it. Even if Joe Blow is across the universe. To say you cannot speak to someone s published words (that they are pushing to the whole world) is just silly.
  • I think the prophet and his boldness is ever needed in our day. In preaching the gospel, preaching the cross and preaching Jesus as Savior from sin, death, hell and the right and good wrath of God against evil (yes, even our own). Use your boldness here friends. This will bring you all the sanctified trouble you need.

In the second chapter of the book of Titus the family of faith was encouraged about their manner of life together. Men and women, young and old, slave and free were all encouraged about how they flowed in life together. They were all new Christians, all living life together as a new people in Christ. There is great teaching for us here.

2Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. 3Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, 4and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, 5to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. 6Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. 7Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, 8and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. 9Slaves are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, 10not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.

There is a way of life that adorns the doctrine of God our Savior. What a humbling and shocking reality! There is also a way that serves to graffiti and deface that same doctrine. The doctrine of God is heard from and seen in the lives of Christ s followers today. If you flow like a jerk, you might just be shrouding the gospel and leading people straight to the teaching of nice leaders who may not even be preaching the truth. None of us are or will be perfect in tone, speech or reaction in our world. My failures here are many. Yet we want to repent when we fail one another in with jerkful tones, distracting speech and harsh reactions to those around us.

What you believe matters deeply. How we live with others matters deeply. Let us have the gospel of grace make us people of grace. We cannot just live with our audience being the church/Christian world, we have to hold firm to the word with grace before the world. It is from these grounds which we continue to proclaim the gospel and with deep sobriety. We must find refuge in Jesus from the wrath to come. Hell may not be an empty place but may our hearts pray and work to see that many know that they need not go there. Forgiveness is found in Christ alone. Go preach that message friends and adorn it well.

Don't Fight Authority...

I fight authority, authority always wins – John Cougar Mellencamp – circa 1984

The subject of authority is a bit of a sensitive one in our culture today.  At the dusk of Western Civilization we have brought our individualism and autonomy to its logical conclusion.  Many of us have a profound disrespect and disdain for authority.  Admit it, we do. Yet rightful, God ordained authority is a good gift and necessary for our lives.  No person is an island, no person need to operate without being under a good authority for their lives.  Yet authority is often abused where human beings go on trips of power over one another.  Indeed, Jesus said it this way in Matthew 20:25-28:

25 You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,  27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

So there is a lording over and a servant sort of authority with the latter being both commanded by Jesus and more pleasant to live under. Nobody likes to work for a boss who is a jerk, a little Napoleon with a King Kong sized ego. Yet simply because some authority is abusive does not mean that all authority is bad. In fact, Scripture shows us that good and just authority is the outflow of the plan of God. 

There are many layers of authority surrounding each person all the time. Parents are responsible authorities in the lives of their children; the worldview of MTV notwithstanding. Governments have a God ordained authority in the lives of their citizens; the worldview of the anarchist notwithstanding. Pastors have a responsible authority for those in their care and men have a responsibility for their families.  The latter will cause squirming in both irresponsible, passive men and the women who despise them.   Yet how do all these spheres interact. What follows will only be a brief attempt to theologically state my theological perspective on authority for follows of Jesus. I will proceed according to certain assumptions so I will briefly lay those out so it will be easier to track with me. 

First, I believe that God is the highest authority for all creation and every human being. This is true whether we acknowledge it or not. His authority is then vested at various levels through various institutions – the home, the church, the state.  Second, I believe that the church and state have different realms of responsibility given by God so I support the separation of church and state and oppose theonomy1. Third, I believe the Holy Scriptures are true and binding over all humanity but they are NOT the instrument and code of civil government nor should the worship of Jesus be compulsory, so I also oppose theocracy2.  Fourth, I believe in human conscience in relation to parenting and believe that Moms and Dads to be the primary authority  in raising kids; children are not wards of the state.3 Finally, I believe the church and the individual Christian are bound to conditionally obey all governments under which they are living. In other woods, unless the government is ordering/compelling one to sin, the government should be obeyed.

Authority from the Ground Up

Children and Parents

The Scripture in several places declares an order to the human family in that children are to obey their parents and parents are to love, instruct, teach and discipline their kids. In the 10 commandments we find that God tells us to “honor your mother and father” (See Exodus 20). Additionally, this is restated in the New Testament in Ephesians chapter six: Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Furthermore the same passage encourages fathers to “not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”  This of course echoes the call of Deuteronomy 6 for parents to teach their children to know and follow God. When this responsible authority is abdicated in the home children grow up lonely, insecure and many times turn to alternative “families” such as gangs or other groups to find identity. Additionally, when parents do not both love and discipline children, the kids do not develop respect for authority. As a result kids can be either pressed towards rebellion or live in complete unruliness. Serving in communities with rampant fatherlessness or watching one episode of Super Nanny are sufficient as examples. This unit of the home is then under the care and authority of local churches and its leadership.

Pastors and Churches

Pastors were once held in high regard in our culture but times have changed. First, there is a lack of trust in church leaders who through repeated moral failure or financial scandals have repudiated a respected and holy office. Additionally, today’s church shopping consumer mindset in matters of religion makes the pastor out to be a producer of religious goods and services. If someone does not like the product – be it preaching or instruction, many will just move on to another house of worship or a new religion to suit their purposes. If a pastor tells someone he is acting like an idiot by running around on his wife and to knock it off, the man can simply move on to a man who will not challenge his sinful behavior. Yet it is clear in Scripture that God places his people in churches for their good by giving them spiritual authority. 

Hebrews 13 teaches us this in two ways. First, the pastor/elder is to set a good example: Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7). Second, we are to obey our leaders and submit to their care: Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17).  

It is to be said that churches should give much care in calling their pastors.  Scripture insists that such men be wise, responsible, godly, qualified men (See Titus 1, 1 Timothy 3). Pastors and other Christians in the church should walk together in community so that families are cared for and that parents are instructed and helped lead their homes.  Finally, there is a lost calling not practiced by many cowardly clergy and passive Christians which must also be a part of life together, that of discipline. Frankly put we should call each other to standards of integrity, our marriage vows, loving our kids and doing what is right in our communities.  If someone sees me screwing up I really want to be called to account; this is good and should not be neglected in the church.

The Authority of Government

Followers of Christ and their families are shepherded in the church by qualified pastors/elders, yet Churches also exist in a broader culture under various forms of governing authorities.4  Let us be clear that Scripture is not silent on the believer’s relationship to government.  We are to pray for our leaders and submit to their government.   Two passages of Scripture are quite relevant, 1 Timothy 2:1-3 and Romans 13:1–7. We’ll quote them at length in turn.

1First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.  

1 Timothy 2:1-3

1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. 

Romans 13:1-7

The clear teaching of Scripture is the government is given by God to enact and enforce good conduct in a society. Wrong doing should be punished and the government has been given the sword to hold evil doing at bay. This means that Christians under all manner of governments are called to be good citizens.  Now, a huge rejoinder must be made.  It is also clear that government should not be obeyed when it commands and compels its citizens to do evil and disobey God. There are many examples of this.  The Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1 and the apostle’s civil disobedience when commanded not to share the gospel in Acts 4 are most often cited. When a government is compelling evil, the believer has a duty to do what is right and refuse the unjust law. A modern example would be a doctor refusing to obey a government which might make him to perform abortions. It is my opinion that non violent civil disobedience is the path in such cases and that taking up arms against a government is not advisable unless in self-defense. I will leave that complicated discussion for another time.

Separation of Church and State

Both church and state have been called by God to govern and have authority in the lives of Christians. The church is a body of believers called out by God together as a covenant people by the gospel. As such the highest authority in our lives is the Word of God, the Scriptures. Yet each church is in a realm of state authority as well so the lines of separation must be discussed. Historically, the Roman Catholic Church and the magisterial reformers (Luther, Zwingli and Calvin) held to a unification of church/state. The state was legitimized by God and the church endorsed this legitimacy. Additionally, the state enforced and permitted the establishment of religious authority and unity in a realm. This view had long standing back into Greek and Roman times. A state and its gods were one.  However, this was questioned by many reformers and evaluated in light of Scripture. Did not Jesus teach that the rule of Caesar was different than the rule of God?  Does not a marriage between worldly power and the church have a corrupting influence on both?  Such questions in Western culture led the founders of the American experiment to articulate clearly the relationship between church and state.  It is found in the well known establishment and free exercise clauses of the first amendment of the US Constitution. Here is how it reads: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  

The meaning of this statement is quite clear but the implementation has always been a bit fuzzy. What it means is that there will be no official state religion or church in our country. Additionally, the government will not prohibit law abiding citizens from freely practices their religion. It does not make a religion free zone in any portion of society nor does it create a religion of which all citizens must participate. It means we have freedom of religion – a gracious gift to the people of America. If this is the case and I take this to be a just solution, how are the authorities of church and state established.

The Authority of State – Natural Law

Many thinkers in history, particularly Aristotle, Aquinas and John Locke have taught that there is a law built into human experience which dictates to conscience basic categories of a just society.  I do not have space here but I discussed various types of law briefly here5.  Natural law would be defined in the Christian tradition as follows:

Natural law is the law “written on the heart” (Romans 2:13) – the conscience by which people know Good and Evil – right from wrong. Sin mars this faculty in man, but it remains none the less. These are things that people “Can’t Not Know” – i.e. that Murder is wrong, it flows from the moral nature of God and presses upon people. People suppress this and hold it down in wickedness, many becoming callous as to be seared against God’s witness in conscience. See Romans chapters 1 and 2. This is shared by both regenerate and unregenerate – though our Reformed brothers (and I consider myself part of that team) some times do not like saying that non Christians know right and wrong. Thomists think Natural law is evident to right reason, reformed scholars say that the noetic effects of sin blur, mar, even destroy this capacity in people, though some make room for “common grace insights” i.e. that murder is wrong. Some recent works on Natural Law would be found in the writings of Princeton scholar Robert George and J. Budzizewski of the University of Texas at Austin. 

The state then governs in accord to the law written on the heart expressed in basic morality found in all cultures. The so called “second tablet” of the Ten Commandments is reflective of such basic moral foundations. The natural law is an expression of God’s authority on all peoples and we disobey this moral law to our own peril and destruction.

The Authority of Church – The Word of God

Christians however are called to a higher authority than even the state, the authority of the Word of God.  Scripture is the Supreme Court in all matters of life and teaching for Christian believers.  It is to be obeyed and headed out of love for Jesus Christ who is revealed in this Word.  It reveals the laws of God which demonstrate to us our sinfulness and need of grace.  It reveals the gospel by which we are saved and restored to right relationship with God.  It reveals the mission of the church in the world as the in breaking of the ultimate rule and reign of God in the Kingdom of Heaven.  It reveals that we are citizens of two realms…the Kingdoms of earth and the Kingdom of God.  Scripture instructs us as to when civil disobedience is warranted while simultaneously calling us to submit to just and reasonable laws. In this age church and state are separate spheres of authority with Scripture guiding the church.  When Jesus returns he will set up a perfect divine monarchy with himself as King of Kings.  Aristotle once wrote that the best government would be by a perfect and virtuous ruler.  Yet none of this metal is to be found among the sinful throng of humanity.  In the current state of affairs it has been said that democracy is the best of all bad forms of government.   Yet a day will come when authority will be always good, kind and just.

Conclusion

During our days on earth we are called to love rightful authority and submit joyfully to it as a gift from God.  We are also called to stand against injustice in its various forms.  Parents should embrace responsibility and children should submit to their parents.  Mothers and Fathers should be responsible for their homes and families, pastors should willfully and humbly shepherd the church and all citizens should obey the laws of their lands. None of this will happen in perfection so love must cover a multitude of sins.  The ultimate high treason against authority is humanity’s rebellion against God.  In this case the highest of rulers came to earth as a lowly servant. This servant died to save rogue rebels from the justice they deserve. All of history will one day be wrapped up when that same servant will come back again with full authority to judge the living and the dead. We may bow our knees today in light of his love and grace or face the fury of the wrath to come by persisting in our rebellion. When we realize that we can entrust ourselves to a fully loving, fully good, fully just God – we realize that this is an easy choice to make.  May he reveal this to you by his Spirit and may we find repentance and faith.

Notes

  1. Theonomy is the idea that the laws of the state should be the literal laws of God. Islam practices this and some Christians have advocated for this as well.  As is said, we do not.
  2. Theocracy is seeing God as the head of the civil state and requiring submission to a certain God for all citizens by law. We oppose this because the worship of God should be from a persons heart and from conviction.
  3. The view that people belong to the state is an ancient view prominently on display in Plato’s classic work The Republic.
  4. For more on Christians existing under various forms of government throughout history see my Relating to Caesar, Christians and Governments http://www.powerofchange.org/2009/3/28/relating-to-caesar-christians-and-governments.html
  5. See Christianity and Nation States…Law and a Just Society-http://www.powerofchange.org/2005/5/3/christianity-and-nation-stateslaw-and-a-just-society.html

Historical Understandings of the Lord's Table

Throughout church history Jesus’ people have observed a simple meal that appropriately has various titles.  Some have called it Eucharist, from the Greek term for thanksgiving for Jesus gave thanks when he instituted the meal.1  Others have used the word Communion for in and through this sacrament we commune with the living and risen Christ.  Still others have used the term The Lord’s table for it is here that we eat and receive from Jesus. The record of the early Christians in the book of Acts (Acts 2:42, 20:7) refer to it as the breaking of bread.2 Finally, due to Jesus establishing the meal at the Last Supper, we have called it the Lord’s Supper. I find all of these titles appropriate when their meaning is understood.  As the church has various names for this sacrament it has also had variegated understandings of what transacts at the table. 

In this essay we must have ambitious goals pursued by modest means.  I will first describe in brief four views which followers of Jesus have held in understanding communion.3  I will then explain our doctrinal view at Jacob’s Well and why we land where we do in light of a holistic view of the biblical teaching.  This treatment is constrained by space so please pursue the footnotage for further study and reading.   Now to the four views.

Transubstantiation (Historic voice: Thomas Aquinas  Observed: Roman Catholicism)

The official view of the Roman Catholic church is that the bread and wine actually become the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ when consecrated in the Mass. They are offered as a bloodless propitiatory sacrifice to God for the people gathered in the Mass.4  To understand the view that developed over time in the Roman Catholic Church we must understand a few things.  First, the words of Jesus “this is my body” and “this is my blood” is taken quite literally in that the view teaches the bread and wine must become these things mysteriously as Jesus taught us.  Second, the view became known as transubstantiation over time and was codified as church law at the fourth Lateran council in 1215.  Following this period the philosophical theology of the great doctor of the church St. Thomas Aquinas solidified it in the Catholic mind.

Thomas, following Aristotle, employed a certain philosophical view of matter in order to explain the logical possibility of bread and wine actually being human meat and blood.5 The idea called hylomorphism pervades the thinking of Aristotle and the view teaches that all material things are a combination of matter (stuff) and form (the idea that makes something what it is). In other words, matter has the potential to be all sorts of things, but the form is what makes something actually what it is.  Aristotle also used the additional language substance and accidents to describe things.  The substance is what something is, say bread and wine, and the accidents are things like color, taste, shape, etc. which reflect the reality of that substance. Thomas Aquinas used these categories to describe how bread and wine become flesh and blood in the mass.7 When the items are consecrated by prayer and thanksgiving they substantially change but they accidently remain bread and wine.  So what you really have is Jesus’ flesh and Jesus’ blood though what appears before you tastes, smells and looks like bread and wine. This is all very nice if you believe in this view of matter and find it necessary to explain the Lord’s supper. However, there have been many throughout church history who have objected to the view that the bread/wine becomes the very same flesh and blood as Jesus’ incarnate body. There are both practical and biblical reasons this view has been seen as problematic but this remains the view of the Catholic church today.

Components of the View: Thanksgiving, Remembering, Proclaiming, Participating, Real Body and Blood, A Bloodless Sacrifice of Jesus is repeatedly made in the mass.

Consubstantiation/Sacramental Union (Historic voice: Martin Luther Observed: Lutheranism)

Though not all Lutherans readily accept the label of consubstantiation the view has historically been associated with his theology.  Much of the Protestant view of the Lord’s table has been a reaction to what they saw as excesses in the Catholic Mass and doctrine of transubstantiation.  Those who hold this view reject that the mass is a “bloodless sacrifice” in that the book of Hebrews clearly teaches that Jesus’ sacrifice of his body and blood was a single act that took place historically on the cross.  Furthermore, Luther did not want to say, as did Ulrich Zwingli, that communion was simply a sign and memorial.  One thinks of his now infamous carving of the words “THIS IS MY BODY” into a table when debating the matter with Zwingli at Marburg Castle in 1529.Those holding this view believe that the body and blood are sacramentally unified with the bread and wine but do not become them substantially.  Luther’s words were that the body/blood were with, in and under the elements but I’m not sure anyone really knows what this means. Smile.

Components of the View: Thanksgiving, Remembering, Proclaiming, Participating, the Body and Blood in union with, in and under the elements

Memorialism (Historic voice: Ulrich Zwingli  Observed: Some Baptists, many modern evangelicals, Pentecostals)

Perhaps the most simple view is that of memorialist theology which was represented during the reformation by the Swiss protestant leader Ulrich Zwingli.  The focus in this view is on the phrase in Luke’s gospel and repeated in the first letter to the Corinthians “do this in remembrance of me.”  It avoids trying to make bread become body and wine become blood but some think that this evacuated the presence of Jesus and his work from the sacrament. 

Components of the View: Thanksgiving, Remembering, Proclaiming, Only Symbols, No Real Presence

Spiritual Real Presence (Historic voice: John Calvin Observed: Reformed traditions including Presbyterians and some Baptists.)

(Note: Methodists also hold to a form of real presence but do not clarify their meaning)

The final view rejected both the Lutheran and memorialist views in favor of a real presence of Jesus without the bread/wine becoming material flesh and blood.  It affirms both the remembering and proclamation of the table, situates its observance as the new covenant meal while also affirming that Jesus is present at his table ministering grace to his church through the sacrament. It seeks to be faithful to the panorama of the biblical teaching while neither believing in transubstantiation nor the offering of a bloodless sacrifice in the mass.  Calvin interacts with all of the above views in shaping his doctrine which is laid out in his Institutes of the Christians Religion and in a little essay entitled A Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper.9 This view is close to what we teach and observe at Jacob’s Well.

Components of the View: Thanksgiving, Remembering, Proclaiming, Participating, Jesus present spiritually through the bread and wine.

A Summary of our View at Jacob’s Well

In our doctrine and theology and membership classes we put forth the following view of the Lord’s Table for our members.  We want to be clear on what we think the sacrament is and what it is not.

—————————————

If baptism is the right of entry into the church, the Lord’s Supper is the ordinance of continuing communion with Christ and his church.  The Lord’s Supper (sometimes referred to as the Lord’s Table, Communion, or the Eucharist) was commission by Christ at the Last Supper where he shared bread and the cup with his disciples (Mark 14:22-25, Matthew 26:26-29, Luke 22:17-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).  The Lord’s teaching was two-fold.  First, the bread represents his body, broken for us.  Second, the cup represents the blood of the New Covenant, poured out on our behalf.  Luke’s gospel and the apostle Paul record that we are to eat and drink in remembrance of our Lord.  In contrast to the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation, we hold that the bread and wine do not become different substances in communion.  The bread substantially and accidentally remains bread and the wine substantially and accidentally remains wine. 

However, we do hold there is a real presence of Christ by way of the Holy Spirit at the Lord’s Table.  The Second London Confession states as follows:

Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible Elements in this Ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally, and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified and all the benefits of his death: the Body and Blood of Christ, being then not corporally, or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of Believers, in that Ordinance, as the Elements themselves are to their outward senses.

The 1677/89 London Baptist Confession of Faith

Although the Lord’s Supper is a remembering, a memorial of the broken body and shed blood of Christ, there is in our view a real meeting with Christ at the table that is a nourishing, spiritual, soul-refreshing presence.10

As the Lord’s Supper is the continuing ordinance of the church, it should be practiced regularly.  The Lord’s Table was central to the early church and seems to have been observed weekly (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34) as the church gathered.  Although, I do not think that weekly observance is mandated by this witness of Scripture, or by the practice of the early church, its regularity must be enjoined.   It is a great shame that in many churches, this central rite of the church which demonstrates love and communion with the living Christ is regulated to an afterthought observed just a few times a year.  In this communion we reflect on the Lord’s work in the past and hope for his coming in the future.  In this ordinance, when handled with grace, reverence, and care, there is a powerful proclamation and experience of the gospel of grace.

Finally, our unity as a local church is also expressed in this ordinance as we partake of the bread and cup together. For this purpose I believe that communion should be celebrated when the most members would be present. For most congregations this would be in the primary worship gathering. For these reasons we celebrate communion on a weekly basis as a central part of the worship gatherings of Jacob’s Well.

—————————————

Though this treatment is necessarily brief and incomplete I do pray it is of help in understanding the various historical views of the table and to see the biblical reasons behind our own observance of this blessed gift to the church.  It is a great privilege to come to Jesus together by regularly by observing his table. The amazing grace of the gospel is both known and seen visibly in what Jesus ordained for his church.

Notes

1. The word is, eucaristia which simply means to give thanks and reflects the language which Jesus used when establishing the meal at the Last Supper.

2. Recent scholars Gregg R. Allison, John Polhill, FF Bruce as well as Historical figures JL Dagg Manual of Church Order and John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion have held this view.  Though questioned by some and certainly practiced as part of fellowship meals, this has been the historic view of the meaning of breaking of bread in the book of Acts.

3. For an excellent summary of these see Chapter “The Lord’s Supper” in Packer, J. I. Concise Theology : A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1995.

4. See THE EUCHARIST IN THE ECONOMY OF SALVATION in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church—http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p2s2c1a3.htm#III See sections 1333, 1365, 1367.

5. For a description of Aristotle’s views see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/ and scan down for the header for hylomorphism.

6. This was debated heavily in the late 9th century. The Benedictine abbot Paschasius Radbertus argued for the flesh/blood view in his treatise On the Body and Blood of the Lord and was vigorous opposed by a monk named Ratramnus from the same abbey in a book of the same title.  Further, the nature of the body and blood of Jesus in the sacrament was taken up extensively by all major leaders of the Protestant Reformation.  See Chapter 12 ”The Lord’s Supper” in Gregg R. Allison, The Assembly of “The Way” - The Doctrine of the Church, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, forthcoming)

7. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 75. The change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4075.htm

8. The Marburg Colloquy of 1529 was arranged by the German prince Philipp I of Hesse in attempt to unite the various streams of Protestantism.  Luther and Zwingli failed to agree on the nature of the Eucharist and Philips dream of a fully united Protestantism failed.

9. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Book IV, section 17 and A Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper available online at http://www.the-highway.com/supper1_Calvin.html

10. This phrase is used in the Chapter 10 – “His Soul-Refreshing Presence, The Lord’s Supper in Calvinistic Bpatist Thought and Experience in the ‘Long’ Eighteenth Century” in Anthony R. Cross and Philip E. Thompson, Baptist Sacramentalism, Studies in Baptist History and Thought ; V. 5 (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K. ; Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2003).

Coming to the Lord's Table

Each week at Jacob’s Well we come to the Lord’s Table. We use this time for various gospel purposes in our hearts and lives together. The following are but some broad suggestions for using this time in worship to come to Jesus in the gospel.

Confess and Repent (Mark 1:14, 15; Acts 3:19, 20; 1 John 1:9)

Each week holds temptations and challenges, some which are met in victory others in set back. Confession is the Christian practice by which we agree with God about our sin. God always “knows” we confess to say to him that we agree with his truth about our sin. We need to give our sins to Jesus (confess) and then turn from them back towards restored fellowship with God (repentance). The word repent in the New Testament means to change one’s mind about sin—it is a turning back to God away from the deception and destruction of sin.

Reconnect and Reconcile (Matthew 5:21-24)

Communion is also an occasion to reconcile our relationships with one another.  Jesus taught us that when coming to worship God we should have an urgency in our hearts about being right with one another.  If you are not right with friends, family or your spouse, the Lord’s Table is a time to reflect on making things right.  Who has sinned against you that you need to forgive? Forgive them. Who have you sinned against that you need to ask for forgiveness? Apologize to them and ask them to forgive you.  You can do this at Jacob’s Well during our communion worship time. Grab your wife’s hand and say “I’m sorry, please forgive me” then come to the table together.  Grab a friend and step out in the hallway to pray—then come to the table together. Unity should be seen when we come to the table, not anger and broken relationships in the church.

Reflect and Remember (Luke 22:14-23; 1 Corinthians 11:24-26)

Central to the Lord’s Table is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Before our eyes, in our hands and tasted upon our lips is the truth of Jesus’ death for sin, shed blood to establish new covenant relationship with his people, his resurrection for our justification and his second coming for our eternal hope.  The amazing grace of God in the gospel whereby he forgoes sinners like us, defeats sin, death and the powers of Hell and reconciles us to the father.  Jesus taught us to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) and we must not forget that our time at the table is itself a proclamation of the gospel (1 Corinthians 11:26).

Rejoice and Worship

At Jacob’s Well we intentionally do not rush through our time together at Jesus’ table.  We include opportunity for reflection, to rejoice in the gospel and then sing together out of gratitude in worship.  At times we have been asked should our time of communion be somber and focused on our sins or celebratory and focused on Jesus’ victory over them.  The answer is “Yes!” If we forget our sinful need for the gospel we’ll grow proud and flippant before God.  If we forget the triumph of God’s grace in Jesus Christ over our sins we’ll always be bummed out.  Our counsel is repent, confess and lament if you are in a crusty place of life; just don’t forget that rejoicing in the gospel and celebrating Jesus dispels the dark clouds with blasts of joyous light.

Receive Grace in Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:16; Revelation 3:14-20)

The Scriptures teach us that the bread and cup are an actual participation in the body and blood of Christ; at the Lord’s table there is real communion taking place between Jesus and his church.  Intimate table fellowship with Jesus is promise for this age that will be completely realized in the eternal kingdom.  Therefore, the Lord’s Table is a present foretaste of eternity which breaks into the mundane of the now each week.  At Jacob’s Well we set the table before us so that we might “come to Jesus” and receive mercy, grace and spiritual nourishment by his grace.   He is graciously inviting us to come to him in the gospel and it is the privilege of every believer to repent of sin and enjoy fellowship and communion with Jesus. 

One final reminder

We do not worship the bread and wine as if it becomes Jesus nor do we “sacrifice” Jesus each week when we observe communion. Let us not forget that it is the risen and living Jesus that we worship. It is the risen one who is present with us by his spirit in the bread and cup; we do not worship the elements themselves as if they are Jesus.  To do so would amount to worshipping created elements and not the one to which the elements should lead us.  One theologian of the reformation said this well:

For what is idolatry if it is not to worship the gifts instead of the giver? Here the sin is twofold. The honour robbed from God is transferred to the creature, and God, moreover, is dishonoured by the pollution and profanation of his own goodness, while his holy sacrament is converted into an execrable idol.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4,  Chapter17, Section 36

The bread and the wine are signs not saviors and they should be taken by Christians with joy and worship.  Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin during his time on the earth and we dare not think that communion sacrifices him again and again (See Hebrews 10:1-18). Communion is a seal that connects us deeply together with our Savior and his sacrifice for us and we pray this entry helps you to observe communion as we walk together in the mission of God.