Friday, December 10, 2010

Am I Worthy?

By Todd Matocha*
Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper for the good of the church. Yet, how often are the souls of believers anxious and troubled at the table? Generally speaking, the practice of communion has taken on a negative tone. More time is spent fencing the table than feeding the sheep. How unlike the encouraging view of Calvin who claimed that “souls can gather great assurance and delight from this Sacrament.” [i]  

The Supper is a glorious transaction between the Triune God and his church. The Father promises to give His incarnate Son through the mysterious work of the Spirit. In return, the church is invited to take and eat by faith. 
Bread and wine are fitting signs of this transaction. They represent all that is needful to sustain and nourish the physical body. In a similar way, the flesh and blood of Jesus provide that which is necessary to sustain and nourish the soul. Thus, an analogous relationship exists between the bread and the body of Christ.

It is dangerous to confuse the sign and thing signified, as if no difference exists between the two. This is the problem of Roman Catholicism. However, it is equally dangerous to stress the differences to such a degree that the signs are emptied of meaning. The latter seems to be the dominant view among evangelicals today. Serious questions need to be asked about the view that treats the Supper merely as a time to remember Christ and His death. How does an exercise of the mind help Christians struggling with doubt and sin? Is such a practice consistent with the biblical doctrine of faith and union with Christ? 

A starving man presented with a loaf of bread can remember how good bread tastes and how nourishing it is to his body. However, until he takes and eats that bread, it will profit him nothing. Is it any less true for the Christian? The soul hungering and thirsting for Christ will find little comfort in thinking about the importance of His death. It is one thing to remember that Christ died and quite another to know that I am united to Him in that death. Any view that stresses the importance of a mere mental exercise is inadequate to meet the deep spiritual needs of Christ’s people. 

Calvin realized the danger of emptying the signs of meaning. In Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper he wrote, “All the benefit which we should seek in the Supper is annihilated if Jesus Christ be not there given to us as the substance and foundation of all. That being fixed, we will confess, without doubt, that to deny that a true communication of Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Supper, is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless- an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to.” [ii] In other words, if Christ is not present then we are wasting our time.

The bread and wine are not empty signs. They function as aids to faith, providing the believer with a visible representation of an invisible act of God. This can be illustrated in the baptism of Jesus. As he came up from the water “the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him.”  What is the significance of the dove? Obviously, the Holy Spirit is not a bird. The dove is a sign revealing to the eye a hidden work of God. Just as the dove comes down, so too the Holy Spirit, secretly yet truly, came upon Jesus.

Similarly, as bread and wine are received in the mouth for the nourishment of the body, Christ is received in the heart by faith to nourish the soul. Robert Bruce, successor of John Knox, helpfully communicated this to his congregation at St. Giles: “I do not call them signs because they only represent something. I call them signs because they have the Body and Blood of Christ so conjoined with them. Indeed, so truly is the Body of Christ conjoined with the bread, and the Blood of Christ conjoined with the wine, that as soon as you receive the bread in your mouth, you receive the Body of Christ in your soul, and that by faith.” [iii] The lesson to learn from this is that signs are not empty; they are always accompanied by the truth they signify.[iv]

This high view of the Supper takes the focus away from us and puts it on Jesus Christ Himself as the sole source of salvation. We come to the table, spiritually hungry and malnourished, and receive that true bread from heaven which gives life to the soul. We come full of sin and guilt and receive the one whose blood was shed to cleanse us of all unrighteousness. We come as those dead to the author and giver of life.

Who is worthy to participate in such a glorious feast? The Supper is a visible demonstration of the gospel. Requirements for worthy participation are no different from those of church membership: repentance of sins, faith in Jesus Christ as saviour and baptism. All members of the church who have made a public profession of faith have a right to sit at the table of the Lord. 

When church leaders fence the table, they must not set the bar higher. Every member in good standing should be strongly encouraged to partake. This holds true whether one practices open or closed communion. Fencing the table has two functions, one positive and the other negative. First, it should open the table wide to all of God’s true people, the church. Second, it should close the table to everyone else.

Fencing the table is not a tool to distinguish between the spiritually strong and the spiritually weak within the church. It is not a means of separating the visible church from the invisible church. Nor is it to replace proper church discipline. Calvin warned:
...it will most frequently happen, that sins are not so notorious as to justify proceeding to excommunication; for though the pastor may in his heart judge some man to be unworthy, he has not the power of pronouncing him such, and interdicting him from the Supper, if he cannot prove the unworthiness by an ecclesiastical judgment. In such case we have no other remedy than to pray God that he would more and more deliver his Church from all scandals, and wait for the last day, when the chaff will be completely separated from the good grain. [v]  
In an attempt to purify the church, some may do more harm to weak and frail, yet true, Christians. I am not aware of a single hypocrite who has heeded the words of warning during the communion service and refrained from partaking. However, I know of many “bruised reeds” and “smoking flax” who have been broken and quenched by such misdirected warnings. Shouldn’t we be more willing to accept a Judas at the table, as Jesus did, than deny a Peter? 

Far too often the practice of fencing the table has turned believers within on a vain quest for subjective evidence to prove their worthiness. Have I enough faith in my Saviour? Am I putting to death sin as best I can? Do I love my neighbour as I ought? Such a practice is more fitting for a legalistic Pharisee than a needy sinner (Luke 18:9-14). It is torturing tender consciences.

Biblical self-examination is always consistent with the gospel message. It encourages us to look within to see our sickness and need. However, it never stops there. Next, it forces us out of ourselves to find a remedy, One Who can meet that need. We must never allow self-examination to devolve into morbid introspection. It has a glorious end, to lead us out of ourselves so that we can rest wholly in Christ. 

If we are looking for something within to qualify us for the table, we will always be disappointed. Calvin, in a masterful piece of pastoral counsel wrote: 
Therefore, this is the worthiness — the best and only kind we can bring to God, to offer our vileness and (so to speak) our unworthiness to him so that we may be lifted up by him; to accuse ourselves so that we may be justified by him; moreover, to aspire to that unity which he commends to us in his Supper; and, as he makes all of us one in himself, to desire one soul, one heart, one tongue for all.... How could we, needy and bare of all good, befouled with sins, half-dead, eat the Lord’s body worthily? Rather, we shall think that we, as being poor, come to a kindly giver; as sick, to a physician; as sinners, to the Author of righteousness; finally, as dead, to him who gives us life. We shall think that the worthiness, which is commanded by God, consists chiefly in faith, which reposes all things in Christ, but nothing in ourselves. [vi] 
What about those with doubts and lack of assurance? When considering the role of faith it must be remembered that the presence of faith, not the quantity of faith, is what matters. Even the weakest of faith in Christ is still saving faith. Church leaders should avoid language that suggests that doubt and lack of assurance disqualifies someone from the Table. The Westminster Larger Catechism provides helpful guidance on this particular issue. 
Question 172: May one who doubteth of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation, come to the Lord’s supper?
Answer:  One who doubteth of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation to the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, may have true interest in Christ, though he be not yet assured thereof; and in God’s account hath it, if he be duly affected with the apprehension of the want of it, and unfeignedly desires to be found in Christ, and to depart from iniquity: in which case (because promises are made, and this sacrament is appointed, for the relief even of weak and doubting Christians) he is to bewail his unbelief, and labour to have his doubts resolved; and, so doing, he may and ought to come to the Lord’s supper, that he may be further strengthened.
 If you are a Christian who has refrained from taking the Supper because of doubt or a sense of unworthiness then I would encourage you to rethink your position. To turn away from the sacrament is to turn away Christ. It is tantamount to a rejection of the gospel itself. Surely you would think it absurd for a starving man to refuse food when it is offered. Is it any different when spiritual food is offered to the soul of a weak and needy Christian? 

It is my hope that the church will recover this high and encouraging view of the Lord’s Supper. By feeding on Christ our fears and doubts will be replaced with joy and delight. This is good news indeed. 

_______________________


 [i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1361-62.
 [ii] John Calvin, Treatises on the Sacraments. (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 170.
 [iii] Robert Bruce, The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper. Edited by Thomas F. Torrance. (London: James Clarke & Co. Limited, 1958), 44.

[iv] Central to Calvin's doctrine was the idea that Christ was substantially given, in his flesh and blood, to believers. [Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1996), 203.] It was Christ’s flesh that provided the Christian with spiritual nourishment.  He wrote, “The flesh of Christ is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain that pours into us the life springing forth from the Godhead into itself.  Now who does not see that communion of Christ’s flesh and blood is necessary for all who aspire to heavenly life?” [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1369]  This teaching was indistinguishable from that of his rivals, Lutherans and Roman Catholics.  In a debate with the Lutheran theologian, Tileman Heshusius, Calvin wrote, “He unworthily includes us all in the charge of teaching that the bread is the sign of the absent body, as if I had not long ago distinctly admonished my readers of two kinds of absence, to acquaint them that the body of Christ is indeed absent in respect of place, but that we enjoy a spiritual participation in it, every obstacle from distance being surmounted by his divine energy.  Hence it follows, that our dispute relates neither to presence nor to substantial eating, but only to the mode of both.” [Calvin, Treatises on the Sacraments (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 509-510.] Calvin’s objection to the Lutheran and Roman Catholic doctrine did not concern the real and substantial partaking Christ’s flesh and blood, but rather the mode by which one partook.

Two Christological principles guided Calvin’s thinking. He firmly believed that the Christ with whom we commune is at the right hand of the Father in heaven. Therefore, any teaching about the presence of Christ must not detract from his heavenly glory. Calvin also resisted any teaching about Christ body that was “inappropriate to human nature.” [Calvin, Institutes, 1381-1382.] The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ violated these principles and, therefore, were rejected.

Key to his teaching on the real presence was the work of the Holy Spirit. [“Even a cursory reading of the Institutio reveals that Calvin’s approach to the believer’s union with Christ is tied to two central considerations — the work of the Holy Spirit and the faith of the believer. What is objectively given by the Holy Spirit is subjectively received by faith.” (William B. Evans, Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Eugene Oregon:  Wipf & Stock, 2008), 14).] .Although Christ remained in heaven and the believer on earth, a real participation was possible. Calvin explained, "[As] to our having substantial communion with the flesh of Christ, there is no necessity for any change of place, since, by the secret virtue of the Spirit, he infuses his life into us from heaven.  Distance does not at all prevent Christ from dwelling in us, or us from being one with him, since the efficacy of the Spirit surmounts all natural obstacles.” [Calvin, Treatises, 518-519.] Christ was not to be found locally, in the bread or the wine. Rather, the elements act as signs revealing the secret work of the Spirit. [Calvin, Institutes, 1381.] This teaching is consistent with Paul’s doctrine in Romans 8:9-11 and Ephesians 3:17.
 
 [v] Calvin, Treatises, 181.
 [vi]   Calvin, Institutes, 1419-1420.
_________________________________

*EDITOR'S NOTE: Todd Matocha is pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff, Wales (a member church of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales). This article was first published in the Banner of Truth Magazine, December 2010.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cyber Christianity: The Church of the Future?


By Todd Matocha*
Is an exclusively online church a viable option for Christians? This is a question generating much discussion at the moment. The computer is now a part of our everyday life. Many in our congregations socialize more by sending text messages or commenting on Facebook than in person. Whether we like it or not, online socialization has arrived. How will it affect our churches?

Blogging and Cyberchurch

There is a rapidly growing movement within the Christian community promoting the idea of an exclusively online church. This movement is becoming more organized and influential. In March 2009, a group committed to the development of cyber churches met in London. Among those present were representatives from the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain. Both organizations have already launched their own versions of an online church. However, the push is especially strong within the world of Christian bloggers.

What is a blog? A blog (short for “web log’) is a website that operates like a journal. The host of the site posts short articles, and online visitors can add comments. Blogs encourage conversation and engage participants in dialogue. The heart and soul of the Christian blog is continuous, real time communication, which allows participants freely and actively to discuss various issues relating to the Christian faith.

In his provocatively titled work, “We Know More Than Our Pastors: Why Bloggers are the Vanguard of the Participatory Church,”[i] Tim Bednar sees the increasing popularity of blogging as “an impending sea change for pastors and the church.” He goes on, “We are not just a new kind of Christian or an ‘emerging church’ fad. We are a new kind of preacher, theologian, pundit, apologist and church-goer. The phenomenon of blogging is transforming our expectations of church.”  Bednar’s desire is to see a new community formed to cultivate spiritual development without the limitations of time, buildings and pastors.

Bednar and bloggers who share his convictions want a church shaped by the technological advancements of our age. The primary means of grace, leading to spiritual maturity, is dialogue through blogging. According to Bednar, it is a “new kind of church created by believers transformed by their use of the Internet. Their so-called virtual life is changing them and in turn, they will change the church.”

What is Driving the Demand for Change?

Bednar argues that the invention of the Internet is the basis for this new philosophy. Technological changes necessitate a rethinking of how we do church. Is this really the case? What developments have the Internet brought to the human race that necessitate a departure from the church life of Christians in the past?

Sure, the Internet connects us to a global community and allows instantaneous, real-time communication. Sure, all these benefits are received by the average person; you don’t need to hold a degree in computer science to use the Internet. As a result, we have greater resources and opportunities to spread the Christian message. This is all very positive.

However, the basic forms of communication known to mankind are the same now as they were in any given age: oral, sign and written. These forms were available to Moses, Paul and Calvin. What has changed is the means of communication. Moses communicated the written word on stone tablets, Paul used scrolls, and Calvin promoted reform using printed books. Now we use electronic means/methods to communicate instantaneously and globally. We communicate better, but not differently. We are still using speech, sign and written word.

Although some claim technological advancement as the basis for change, it is difficult to understand why. What is it about electronic means of communication that demand a change in the way we think about the church? The invention of the printing press did not lead the reformers to rethink the church. Instead, it drove them back to the origins of the church. They were not interested in the emergence of a new church but in repentance and reformation in an unfaithful church.

The great need of our day is a return to apostolic ecclesiology. Ignorance about the biblical doctrine of the church, not advancements in technology, it seems, is driving the demand for change.

Desiring a Subhuman Church

Apart from leaving out people who are not, and perhaps never could be, computer literate, one characteristic of the online church is that it restricts physical communion and fellowship. By its very nature, it is devoid of physical, face-to-face interaction. The world of the Internet accommodates a part of us but not the whole man. This is a great weakness.

God created us as body and soul. In Genesis, God reveals that we consist of material (out of dust) and spiritual (breathed life into us) elements. This is basic to the Christian understanding of human nature. Many of those promoting cyberchurch tend to emphasize the spiritual aspect of man to the neglect of the physical.

According to the Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, “Man has a ‘spirit’, but that spirit is psychically organized and must, by virtue of its nature, inhabit a body. It is of the essence of humanity to be corporeal and sentient. Hence, man’s body is first (if not temporally, then logically) formed from the dust of the earth and then the breath of life is breathed into him. He is called ‘Adam’ after the ground from which he is formed.”[ii]  An environment that has no place for the physical is subhuman.

What implications does this doctrine have on the church? Primarily, it dictates how we worship God. Worship involves the whole man, not just the spiritual part. Thus, true worship must be offered to God in body and soul.

This is easily demonstrated in the Old Testament, because worship was connected to a physical location, the temple. However, the New Testament seems to provide for more freedom in worship. Jesus tells us the restrictions of Old Testament worship will be abolished; now we worship the Father in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24). Is Jesus opening the door for spiritual, as opposed to bodily, worship? Is he giving the church liberty to introduce cyberworship?

The reference to worship in spirit is not in opposition to worship in body. It most probably refers to Trinitarian worship. In the New Testament era, we worship God as he is fully revealed as Triune. We worship the Father in the Holy Spirit and in Truth, a term used by John to speak of Jesus.[iii]  Yet, we worship Him as men, whole men, body and soul.

The importance of bodily worship is clear in the New Testament. We continue to worship using the concept of a temple. The temple is no longer in Jerusalem; it is now every believer. To be specific, the temple is the body of every believer. Our body is a “member of Christ” and is the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:15, 19). Paul is speaking of the physical body, not something virtual. The context makes this abundantly clear. He is exhorting the Corinthians to refrain from engaging their bodies in immoral sexual acts because the body is united to Christ. It is this bodily temple in which or by which we worship God.

This is also seen in the “coming together” idea spoken of in the New Testament. Paul speaks of the Corinthians coming together “as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18). He goes on to define this gathering by the terms “in one place” (1 Cor. 11: 20) and “to eat” (1 Cor. 11:20,33). They meet in a physical location to perform a physical act, namely eating the Lord’s Supper. Paul highlights the corporeal nature of the Corinthian church. The New Testament continues to insist upon assembling in person but no longer calls Christians to go to Jerusalem. Now we worship wherever believers are physically gathered.

Denying the Sensual in the Sacraments

Christian worship involves the whole man, body and soul. It also appeals to all the physical senses. The worshipper hears the word sung, prayed, and preached. In addition, Christ gave His people a visible and tangible word. In the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the senses of touch, smell, and sight are engaged. The whole man fully participates.

In the Institutes of the Christian Religion Calvin wrote, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” [book iv, ch. 1. Sect. 9] Does cyberchurch offer this?

It would not be surprising to hear of an online church offering virtual communion, but is that a sacrament administered according to Christ’s institution? Virtual bread and wine benefit us as much as a virtual Christ dying on a virtual cross. The very purpose of the sacraments is that they are physical, tangible and concrete. They are sensual signs that confirm, support and nurture our faith.

This is not to say that the way we understood the church before the invention of the Internet was better. It is not a qualitative distinction. The historic understanding is the only way to view the church. Cyberchurch is not, nor ever can be, a viable option.

Devaluing the Unique Place and Authority of the Local Church and Local Church Elders

Another common feature of the online Christian community is the emphasis on the universal church to the neglect of the local church. Cyberchurches boast of having members from all over the world. One of the distinguishing marks of Bednar’s participatory Church is that Christians belong to multiple congregations. The local church is marginalized; it is all about globalization.

Closely connected to the denial of the local church is an aversion to church authority structures. Bednar wrote, “The dominant theme to emerge from my research is that bloggers value this medium because they can participate without being filtered by church structures, denominational restrictions or even doctrinal impurity. We have grown tired of pastors being the gatekeepers of what is important.” He seems to think that the blogging community values being able to say what they want to whom they want without accountability. This may be the biggest problem facing Christian bloggers, whether they agree with Bednar or not.

New Testament writers speak highly of the local church and local church elders. According to apostolic practice recorded in Acts, churches were set up in cities and towns throughout the Roman world. These local churches were in some way “lacking” until elders were appointed (see Acts 14:21-23; Titus 1:5). Paul speaks of elders as gifts sent by Jesus to protect the church from error and bring the church to spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:11-16). It sounds somewhat similar to what Bednar derogatorily calls gatekeepers.

Jesus Christ cares for His church through duly appointed and ordained elders. This is the teaching of the New Testament. The Apostle Peter exhorts younger people to submit themselves to their local church elders because he views local church elders as Shepherds of the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2 & 5). Bednar’s view of the church directly contradicts apostolic teaching.

Also, the local church is unique in that it creates an environment for spiritual nurture designed for a specific people living in a specific cultural context. The universal church is unable to provide such an intensely personal environment for discipleship. For example, Paul exhorted Titus to appoint elders in the Cretan church who understood Cretan culture. Such men were ideally suited to address the specific needs of that local church. Similarly, Christ addressed the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 2-3) according to their unique strengths and weaknesses. He spoke to them individually, not generally. He spoke to them as unique local churches.

Things to Consider

Opportunities for the church abound in the online world. We should not minimize this. However, we should not allow technological progress to lead to ecclesiological regress. We must learn how to embrace new means of communication in a God-honouring way. How can this be done?

Many of the problems we face in the online Christian community arise because we are not clear in our own minds about the biblical doctrine of the church. Elders and pastors need to teach their congregations about the church. Individual Christians need to study the church. Read through Acts and the apostolic epistles looking for information about the church. You may be surprised how important this doctrine was to the apostles.

If you have a blog, then make it a priority to communicate the glorious doctrine of the church. Let people who visit your site know where you stand and why you think an exclusively online church is unbiblical. Also, communicate the importance of the local church and the necessity for all Christians to belong to a local body of believers.

One of the greatest dangers facing Christian bloggers is the lack of accountability. Remember, blogging is a public forum, not a private conversation. If you blog, inform your elders and welcome their oversight. This is especially relevant for young, technologically savvy Christians. “Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders.” (1 Peter 5:5)

If you are a pastor, you might consider starting a blog in connection with your local church. It could be added to your church website. Why? Many Christians, possibly even some from your church, are being spiritually fed and led by non-ordained men. According to www.blogs4god.com the most popular Christian blogsite is run by a non-ordained man. Fortunately, he has a high view of the church and has placed himself under the authority of his local church elders. However, shouldn’t those who are appointed by the Holy Spirit to teach and preach, those who act as the mouthpiece of Christ, be involved in Christian discipleship wherever it is taking place?

As we grapple with how to make the most of modern technology, let us learn to use electronic means of communication to the benefit and strengthening of Christ’s church.


[i] Tim Bednar, “We Know More Than Our Pastors: Why Bloggers Are the Vanguard of the Participatory Church”, April 22, 2004, http://djchuang.googlepages.com/WeKnowMoreThanOurPastors.pdf (accessed 4 August 2009)
[ii] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol 2, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, page 559.
[iii] For a fuller discussion on this point see Robert Letham on The Holy Trinity, Presbyterian and Reformed, Phillipsburg, NJ, page 415ff and D. A. Carson The Gospel According to John, in The Pillar New Testament Commentary, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Cambridge, UK, page 224ff. 




*EDITOR'S NOTE: Todd Matocha is pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff, Wales (a member church of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales).  This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of Evangelicals Now (UK). Reprinted by permission of the author.