Podcast: Are We Undervaluing the Lord’s Supper? (Tim Chester)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
The Significance of the Bread and Wine
In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Tim Chester, author of Truth We Can Touch How Baptism and Communion Shape Our Lives, discusses the Lord's Supper, explaining why he thinks many evangelical churches undervalue communion, the significance of the fact that Jesus gave us the physical elements of bread and wine, and what it means when we say that Christ is present in our celebration of the Lord's supper.
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Topics Addressed in This Interview
- Do Protestants Underemphasize the Lord’s Supper?
- The Importance of the Physical Elements
- Eating and Drinking in an Unworthy Manner
- Should We Be Eating a Full Meal?
- Christ’s Presence at the Table
- What Should We Be Thinking about at the Table?
- Does an Elder or Pastor Need to Be Present?
- Discomfort with the Word ‘Sacramental’
- Can We Overemphasize Communion?
Truth We Can Touch
A theological exploration of how baptism and Communion shape our lives together as God’s people, explaining how the physical water, bread, and wine embody the promises, grace, and presence of Christ.
Do Protestants Underemphasize the Lord’s Supper?
For many of us our experience as Protestant Evangelicals is that the Lord's Supper can be somewhat of an enigma. We might be in churches where it's practiced once a month, maybe a couple times a month, maybe less. Sometimes it's hard to know what to do with it. We may not really be sure what's going on, or why it's significant, and it's–as you talk about in your book–if it were to be left out of the church’s regular rhythm for six months or a year, we might not even notice. Why do you think it is that Protestant Evangelicals often underemphasize the Lord's Supper?
I think that's right. I do think we undervalue it. We're not quite sure we know what to do with it. In fact I was talking to a woman in my congregation who was expressing exactly that sentiment and found it almost embarrassing because she wasn't quite sure what she was supposed to do as she took bread and wine. I think there are a couple of reasons and they both have a bit of history. One is that we still live in the shadow of the big debates that took place around the Reformation in the 16th century that then kind of got revived in the 19th century, particularly here in the UK. But I think it was more widely with the rise of Anglo-Catholicism–a kind of Protestant version of Catholicism–where there was this kind of debate over what the sacraments really represented and what they stood for. And ever since then what we've tended to do as Protestants is to define our position over against the Catholic position, over against transubstantiation, over against a kind of re-enactment of Christ's sacrifice. And so we're very clear on what we don't think about the sacraments. But I find again and again that when I'm hearing people talk about them they're not sure what they do mean. So we've got the negative worked out, but because we've been so focused on that we get very nervous about trying to state positively what's going on both in baptism and communion.
I think the other factor that's going on is that we are children of the Enlightenment–this big intellectual movement that took place across the world in the 18th and 19th centuries that really is still with us and still shapes our modern world. It began iconically with René Descartes saying, "I think, therefore I am." Whatever else is going on at that moment, one of the key things is that the action is taking place in the mind. And ever since we think that what has meaning is what takes place in the mind–what I think and the way I assess what's going on around me. And then we get these physical objects–bread, wine, and water–and we're not quite sure what to do with them. And that's why I say in the book I think we would be a bit more comfortable–many of us as Evangelicals–if Jesus had said, "Say this in remembrance of me". Or even better, "Think this in remembrance of me. Here's something for you to think about." But he doesn't. He gives us physical objects–bread and wine–and I think that's very significant.
The Importance of the Physical Elements
Explain that. Why are those physical objects and the physical acts of eating and drinking those things so valuable to us?
In many ways the book began with my attempt to try and answer that question. I think there are many ways of answering it, but here's a simple and powerful one. In my relationship with my wife–I'm a married man–I tell my wife that I love her. And that's an important part of our relationship. But I also hold her hand. I also give her a hug. I also kiss her. And those, too, are really important ways in which my love for her is communicated. If I only told her that I loved her and never touched her, then that would be a strange relationship. As indeed it would be if it was the other way round–if I touched her but never communicated with words my love for her. And I think what's going on in communion is Christ is communicating his love for us. He does that every time the Gospel is preached, as the promises of the Gospel are heard again. But because we are weak, fragile people–we're not just sort of brains in a box kind of thing, we're embodied people–he also communicates his love for us in these physical ways. And so that's why bread and wine are, in a sense, the touch of Christ. They're one of the ways, in addition to the preached Word, in which he communicates his love, and his presence, and His grace to us.
Eating and Drinking in an Unworthy Manner
One of the most interesting passages that we encounter when we are looking for communion in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul warns us against participating in communion in an unworthy manner. I want to read what he writes there and then get your thoughts on it. He writes,
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Corinthians 11:27-30)
My first question is what does it mean in this passage to "eat and drink in an unworthy manner"?
I think it's important to look at the wider context and the wider context is that the Corinthian church, as they gather to celebrate the Lord's Supper, they're doing so in a way that rather than expressing the unity that we have in Christ, which is something that is to be celebrated–not just celebrated, but actually reinforced by the shared meal that we have together–in the previous chapter Paul has said, "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." (1 Corinthians 10:17) So the very act of sharing together in communion reinforces the fact that we are one body. However, in Corinth the opposite is happening. So a little bit earlier he says, "no doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval." (1 Corinthians 11:19) I think there he's being ironic. I think the wealthy Corinthians, the sort of elite Corinthians in worldly terms, and the kind of social hierarchies of this world are saying, "We can't just eat with riffraff in this sort of way with the lower classes. There have to be differences." This is how society works. Meals are a very powerful way of expressing inclusion. But equally, they're a very powerful way of expressing exclusion–of kind of maintaining and reinforcing social hierarchies.
And so these elite Corinthians–the sort of upper class, wealthy Corinthians–say, "Well, there have to be differences among us. We can't just eat with the hoi polloi." And Paul, I think, is being ironic. He's kind of turning that on its head and saying, "You're right. Differences are revealed when you take the Lord's Supper, but not the ones you think. Actually, the real differences between those who understand the Gospel and those who don't understand the Gospel." And so I think when he talks about "eating in an unworthy manner", what he has in mind is sharing the Lord's Supper in a way that does not show regard to your brothers and sisters in Christ. And so I think actually in verse 29 when he says "those who eat and drink without disturbing the body of Christ", he's talking there not about the physical body, but actually the church body. If you're eating it in a way that ignores the wider church body, then you're not expressing what the Lord's Supper is supposed to express, which is the reconciliation that we have with God through the death of Christ, but also with one another. So you're proclaiming one thing in the act of taking the Lord's Supper, but actually the way you're doing it is saying something else. And those are at variance with one another. So I think that's what he means by that. The big point there is that the Lord's Supper reinforces and expresses not just unity with God in Christ, but also with one another. It's a communal, corporate meal that's actually integral to our life as a Christian community.
Should We Be Eating a Full Meal?
That passage in particular—in that broader context like you described—can sometimes even feel foreign to us in our own experience of communion because we don't share a meal typically. Maybe sometimes you do. Some churches might share a common meal and do communion at the meal a couple times a year. But that's definitely not the norm in my experience for communion. Do you think we lose anything by not having that full meal and is that the Biblical model that we should be striving towards? Or is it okay to just have these small little thimble fulls of wine and small little crackers?
It's a good question. In one sense in the book I've tried to steer away from "And this is how you should celebrate communion", because I do want the focus to be on really understanding what they mean and how they shape our lives as Christians rather than sort of a kind of a rule book of "this is what you should do and this is what you shouldn't do." I think that's the really important thing. However, we normally celebrate it in the context of a meal. We do love meals in our particular church and I think it's a great context to do it because communion is not just about a piece of bread and a cup of wine. It's about those things eaten and drunk in the context of a community, in the context of faith. I think that's the point Paul is making in chapter 10 where he says in one sense what you eat or drink is neither here nor there. There's nothing magic in the bread or the wine. But actually, in the context of a community it becomes this expression of communion with Christ. He is the host. That's where he talks about it as the Lord's table because the Lord Jesus is hosting us in this moment. And he's contrasting that with participating in pagan ceremonies where again, the meat in one sense is neither here nor there. Paul's quite happy to eat it the next day. But if you're actually participating in the ceremony in that kind of broader context, then actually Paul says that's a participation with demons. So the positive point for us is that in this wider context, which I think is helpfully inclusive, we're actually expressing our unity with Christ. We're eating in his presence, enjoying his presence through the Spirit; but also our unity and our love for one another. And I think in that context it becomes a very powerful experience that reinforces our union with Christ and our unity with one another.
Christ’s Presence at the Table
Even within Protestant circles there can be disagreement and sometimes even debate about how exactly Christ is present. And often the discussion centers on that idea of Christ's presence at the Lord's table. How would you see his presence manifested in the elements?
I think Christ is present and I think he's present by his spirit. That's the classic Reformed position. I think the center for my argument, from a biblical perspective, is 1 Corinthians 8, 9, and 10. If you trace the argument that Paul's making there you find the presenting issue is meat offered to idols and what should be done about that. And clearly some in the Corinthian church think that it's okay because it's just meat, and others think it's not okay because it's been offered to idols. And you can kind of see how both groups might come to that position. It seems clear that Paul thinks eating the meat is okay because it's just meat, nothing magic happens to it. Although a big concern that comes out, particularly in chapter 9, is that these two different groups treat one another with love and respect. But then in chapter 10 it takes an interesting turn because in chapter 10 is where he says but I don't want you to take part in pagan ceremonies. If you do that then you're participating with demons. And in one sense you want to go, "Well, hang on a minute, Paul. A moment ago you said eating meat offered to idols was nothing. So why suddenly the big fuss?"
The point is because it's not just about this thing that you put in your mouth. It's about the context in which it takes place. And so eating meat that's been offered to idols is fine if you're doing it the next day around your meal table. But if actually you're doing it in the context of a pagan ceremony, that's another issue. In that situation you're participating with demons. And to reinforce that point Paul then parallels that to the Lord's Supper. He says when you take the Lord's Supper you are participating in Christ. And so in other words, we are experiencing Christ's presence not in the bread and the wine–as in the Roman Catholic position–but in this context of a wider meal offered in faith, with words of explanation, with prayers offered, Christ is present by his spirit. He's not physically present because he still has a body. He's ascended bodily into heaven. But he's present spiritually–literally by the Spirit–and that's why Paul can then describe it as taking place at the Lord's table. Christ, as it were, is hosting us here. And so I think it's really important that we say that. I think we're so nervous about the dangers of heading off into a kind of Catholic position that I think there's a danger that we miss this wonderful truth that is designed in such a way that we expect to see Christ is with us. Of course, Jesus says that he is with us "I will be with you to the very ends of the earth." But communion is designed to be a real, tangible, and special way for us to see that Christ is present in communion. And I remember Sinclair Ferguson once said that as the bread and the wine are passed around we ought to think of the person who passes us or holds out the bread to us as doing so on behalf of Christ. So it's actually Christ himself who is offering the bread as this kind of token of his presence and his love for us.
What Should We Be Thinking About at the Table?
That's a beautiful image and it does help to answer the question that many of us have struggled with and I wonder if you could offer some practical guidance or suggestions to the Christian sitting in the pew and communion has just begun and the elements are being passed out and they're sitting there wondering, What am I supposed to be thinking about? What am I supposed to be doing right now? There's often a time of prayer and people might not always know, Should I be thinking about Jesus's broken body and shed blood? Should I be feeling sorry for my sin? Should I be feeling grateful for his sacrifice? What practical guidance would you offer to the person wondering those things?
In terms of the practicalities of it, in one sense the main thing we get is Christ himself. And so I think there are two answers to your question. One could be to start with thinking, What is my need at the moment? And how is it that Christ meets that need? And how is it that bread and wine kind of embody and communicate that to me? And that means that sometimes there might be a sorrowing for sin, but then other times it might be quite joyous. This meal that we share is also an anticipation of the great messianic banquet–this eternal banquet–where we will eat a meal in God's presence in the New Creation. There are so many notes or moods that one can have in a communion service because it's representing such a rich idea. So that would be one thing; what's my need? How does Christ meet that need? And how do I receive that? How do the bread and wine embody that for me?
The other thing would be to be led by whoever is leading the communion service. I guess in most churches it's not just a sort of cold liturgy that's rattled through, but someone is guiding our thoughts. Why not be led by that? If you're a person who is involved in leading communion, then I really want to encourage you to just explore and think through the richness of this theme and to hit different notes on different occasions. Sometimes it will be about embodying a promise, sometimes it will be about a sorrowing for sin, sometimes it will be about a marveling at the price that Christ paid for our salvation. Sometimes it will be looking forward to that New Creation, and many, many more. But as someone who is participating, let that be what guides your thoughts. And again, be thinking about how is it that the bread and wine embody this for me?
Does an Elder or Pastor Need to be Present?
So you've talked a lot about the context for communion and why that's so important for understanding what's actually happening–that this is done with the body of other believers, in the context of a church, with other Christians. And I think one question that sometimes people have is whether or not it's appropriate to celebrate communion, to take the elements, outside of the context of a church's` worship service, or worship gathering, or maybe even outside of any formal church context–maybe just with a small group of Christian friends in your home, or people will go to the Holy Land sometimes and celebrate communion in certain special places there. I wonder what your thoughts are on that and even is it appropriate to celebrate communion without a pastor or an elder present as well? How would you respond to those types of questions?
I think probably top of my list would be to be guided by the policy and practice of your local church. Churches will take a different view on this and I think part of belonging to a church is submitting to the way it conducts itself and respecting that and not being autonomous. So that would be my first thing. Personally, I think it is perfectly legitimate for communion to be conducted without a pastor. But a lot of the kind of rubrics of different liturgies and different constitutions do emphasize the importance of doing it in an orderly way, in a reverent way. And that's why I think churches or denominations have said it must be conducted by a pastor. Often that's not so much because they don't think that other people can do it, but they just want to create a context in which they ensure that it is done in an appropriate way, which I fully respect.
Another question is should you do it at a conference when you have a number of Christians from different churches gathered together? Again, personally I'm comfortable with that. I think it's also appropriate to do it in smaller groups if that is done under the authority and direction of the church leaders. Again, it's not being done in a kind of autonomous way, but as an expression of the life of the church. And I think that's the key thing. It is a local church ordinance. It is something that belongs to the local church. For example, if you have a small group ministry, it might be that a local church is happy for communion to be celebrated in the smaller groups as an expression of this unity that Christians have together. I don't think you have to ensure that everyone is there all the time. But again, it's being done as an expression of that local church rather than as something that's in defiance of it, or separate from it, or outside of it, because I think that's not right. It is something that belongs to the church. And actually it's an integral way of expressing belonging to a church and sadly, in some situations, of expressing exclusion from the church.
Excommunication essentially means ex-communion-ing people. You're excluding them from communion. That's in 1 Corinthians 5. That is how excommunication is expressed–in not eating with somebody. And that's because, on the positive side, communion is this expression of our belonging to one another. And so in that sense, it is very clearly a church ordinance.
Discomfort with the Word ‘Sacramental’
So you've used the word "sacramental" a couple of times and I wonder what would you say to the person listening right now who, in listening to the whole conversation, does feel a little uncomfortable. They feel a little bit unsure of words like "sacramental", worried about where it all might lead. What would you say to that person specifically?
We could talk about where the word "sacrament" comes from. It sort of has a slightly complicated history. Personally, I'm not too worried about it. Though I have good friends who it does make them twitchy. So that's fine. I don't want to frustrate them any more than is necessary. I'll tell you one thing that I find. I've been working on this issue for about 10 years and so this book has been a slow burn as I've really sort of mulled this over and what I found is the more I looked into it–and I was brought up in the kind of context where anything sacramental was viewed as slightly suspicious as if this might sort of send you off to Rome–but as I've looked into what the Reformers said, what the Puritans said–our great forebears in the faith–they had a great love and commitment to the Lord's Supper and to baptism. They saw these things as really important. They were unapologetic. They didn't seem to suffer from the same kind of neurosis and angst that we do. They saw them as really important and they were unafraid to speak of Christ present in the Communion table. What I found as I delved into this is that rather than taking me away from my Reformed Evangelical roots, it was pushing me back into it. So I don't know if that reassures people, but I guess an even more important thought is these are gifts Christ has given to his church. So unless you think Christ got it wrong or Christ's emphasis is wrong, then we can press into baptism and communion without fear because these are Christ's gifts to his people.
Can We Overemphasize Communion?
So we've talked a lot about the fact that many Evangelicals, in your opinion, underemphasize the Lord's Supper. Is it possible to overemphasize it? And if so, what might that look like?
That's a good question. I don't know the answer. Is it possible to overemphasize the Word of God? I don't think so. There might be ways of doing it that are unhealthy and I think that might be my answer. There are ways of emphasizing the sacraments that I think are unhelpful. And certainly, I don't want the sacraments to the exclusion of the Word. It's Word and sacrament together, the two great marks of the church. And actually the together is really where I think there's real power where actually the Word is being embodied in the sacrament, the sacrament is explained by the Word. And not just in some kind of theoretical sense, but week by week as you preach–and whether you take communion immediately afterward, or in a separate meeting, or however you organize it–if you're making the link between that, then in the shared life of God's people there as they are being fed by this Word, it's then being reinforced in the bread and the wine. Or perhaps in that Word, you're doing as Paul so often does in his writings–and Peter–pointing people back to their baptism and to the identity that they have as baptized people, then I think there's real power in Word and sacrament going together in that way. So I'm not worried about people overemphasizing the sacraments. I share all the traditional concerns about emphasizing them in a wrong way and misunderstanding what they're about. But don't let that fear make it a no-go area. Instead let's think a little bit about what the bread, wine, and water symbolize and signify for us so that actually we understand the riches that are offered to us by Christ as his gifts, not just sort of offered 2,000 years ago when he commissioned the first apostles; but week by week, he is offering himself–a kind of embodied, reinforced experience of his promises, and his grace, and his love, and his presence to us week by week. And I think that is something to treasure and to relish.
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