The bread that divides?

A crisis situation like the one we are in at the moment can throw up the occasional bouncer, a theological issue that affects how we do church that we weren’t ready for. These issues can be controversial.  So we want to approach them carefully and with charity. We also need to be ready for the fact that in tense, stressful situations, people may not always express themselves in a charitable way. So as well as charitable meaning that we should assume well of others’ motives it also means we should be willing to forgive.

I’ve set out my views on the question and you can read the posts here. It is my view that churches can and really should be seeking to share communion together during coronavirus and finding ways to overcome the obstacles involved. This puts me in agreement with some brothers and sisters and in disagreement with others. Among those I disagree with are people I respect, friends I know well and teachers I have learnt much from.  It is a risky business to disagree with your teacher but here goes. One person to write is Garry Williams of London Seminary. Garry taught me Church History and Doctrine of God at Oak Hill. He has a top notch brain and a deep concern for the Gospel and for God’s people.  Garry takes a different position to me on communion. I don’t plan getting involved in lots of back and forth on this issue -there are pressing things to be getting on with but I do want to try and interact with Garry.

You can read his article here:

First Order, Second Order …

First of all, Garry observes that this is a second order issue. This means that it does not directly impact on the Gospel, though he notes that sometimes issues around the Lord’s Supper can become first order issues when they impose barriers to faith. However, Garry also insists that just because something is second order does not mean it is unimportant.

“We British evangelicals at least need to get better at classifying something as secondary and yet working hard at thinking about it because we hold that it still matters.”

I agree with Garry, as I mentioned in my earlier articles, things that at first seem trivial can become important and affect our gospel witness if handled badly.  Further, I agree that saying that something isn’t a first order issue doesn’t mean it is unimportant.  We have to make big decisions as a church about some of the things we do in the months ahead. We want to be obedient to God’s Word, pastorally loving to our local church, united with the wider church and a good witness to our neighbours.

It is exactly because we care about these things that a church like ours will take time to wrestle with the issues. This will include discussions between elders, taking lots of time to study Scripture, seeing what others are saying and interacting through healthy debate and discussion. I would encourage those who are taking a different view to people like me to acknowledge that we haven’t just gone off on a pragmatic whim but have taking time to wrestle with these issues. All we ask is that disagreement is on the basis of a careful study of Scripture. I think that we have been careful to present a case from God’s Word. As yet, I’ve not seen that case answered.

Shall we gather?

It is important at this stage as well to talk about burden of proof and innovation. One of the arguments has been that those seeking to continue to share communion are the innovators whilst those stopping communion are holding with the status-quo. However, I would like to challenge that.

The status quo is that God’s people should gather. It is a Biblical imperative. I cannot find any excuse in Scripture for us not to gather. God’s people have gathered during crisis before.  We must surely obey God and not man on this.

Our church has a clause in its trust deed that should we cease to gather and break bread, then the building must be handed over to another organisation. There are no exception clauses because the original benefactor could not envisage a situation where an exception would be needed. God’s people would come together weekly.  Similarly Scripture does not provide an exception.

Now,  the premise of Garry’s argument is that we are not meeting. You can call our zoom and face-book chats anything you like but they are not gatherings of God’s people. The most logically consistent position on this is from Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist and IX Marks fame.  Mark and his fellow elders have said that the church is not gathering and none of the solutions suggested amount to gathering therefore they will not be providing online preaching, teaching or Bible study. The church is a period of fasting/abstinence and therefore this time should provoke longing for when we gather again.

I understand the consistency of the position. However, if he believes that our current efforts do not amount to gathering then he has surely made the wrong call. Gathering as God’s people is so essential that what he should have done was to defy the authorities and insisted that the church met. He could have demonstrated a commitment to the spirit of the State’s desire to keep people safe by planting lots of new churches that could meet outside in small numbers and observed social distance guidelines.  He could have arranged for secret gatherings at night outside the city.  What he should not have done is stop the gathering.

And here’s the thing. I don’t think for one minute that most of the people saying “we cannot do communion” truly believe that we have given up gathering. That is why as far as possible they are trying to replicate a normal Sunday. Tune into their services and you will see that the encourage you to sing along to some songs, maybe with a bit of help from YouTube (just as we have always done at Sunday Night Church). They will preach (some even standing in their usual pulpit), they will pray.  They will probably even give out notices for the week ahead. They may feel it is an adequate gathering, not to their personal taste, something well outside of their comfort zone but they are so clearly seeking to gather God’s people for corporate worship. I think a lot of hyperbole is bei g used as we experience the distress of a horrendous situation.

Turning back to Garry’s article. His central objection to what he calls “cyber-supper” is not just that it is wrong but that it is not possible.

“The heart of the argument against the cyber-‘supper’ is very simple: the Lord’s supper involves a physically gathered church, a group of persons from different households, in an act of physical sharing in one broken loaf of bread and one blessed cup of wine.”

Garry goes on to describe this as a confusion between the spiritual and the physical realm. The Lord’s Supper is a physical act which belongs in the physical realm and is of course linked to spiritual communion but needs the physical element.

I believe this is rooted in a common misunderstanding of what cyber technology is there to do. This happens at both ends of the spectrum. So, for all the people I have seen decrying “Online Church” there are as many who think it is wonderful. For them, the spiritual comes first and the church needs to let go of its emphasis on physical realities. Cyber/online church is seen as a positive opportunity, n equal or even superior experience to our physical experience. 

Meanwhile, the reaction to this by some is to accept the argument that what is being created is a spiritual experience that bypasses physical experience.  So Garry entertains the possibility that:

“Perhaps you may say that we could still celebrate the lord’s supper without the physical togetherness and unity in sign and act because even without them we still share the same underlying spiritual reality.”

He quickly discounts this. However, I think this is to misunderstand the purpose of cyber-technology.  Perhaps our world has become saturated with sci-fi especially of the dystopian kind but we have this picture  in our minds eye of a world where computers, artificial intelligence and robots have supplanted humanity.  However, in reality even AI needs human programming. 

In a fallen world, we are going to experience barriers to the ideal of perfect physical togetherness,  Sometimes this is because of disability. Those of us who have sight or hearing problems can experience significant isolation from gatherings, so we are grateful for technology that has helped us to see and to hear.  Sometimes it is about distance and so there has long been an effort to include video technology to include people in weddings and funerals.

The other night I was invited to a 60th birthday during lockdown. Quite a few people “gathered” to celebrate via Zoom.  Was it perfect and ideal? Of course not. However, we could see and we could hear even if we missed taste and touch. Seeing and hearing are important aspects of physical connection and communication. 

This is crucial. The argument for cyber-supported communion is not that we are replacing physical communion with something different but that we are seeking to physically gather for physical communion to the best of our abilities.

But are we under discipline?

In his article, Garry raises the possibility that God might be disciplining us. In that God uses circumstances and suffering to discipline his beloved children, of course the answer to that is yes. However, to try and second guess a specific disciplinary act without special revelation on the matter seems extremely unhelpful to me.

There are good reasons, in the light of recent scandals, as to why those of us with any leadership responsibilities within conservative evangelicalism might see God’s disciplinary hand at work right now. We need to recognise our failings to spot and to act when we should have been alert to bad things happening. If we were uneasy and yet continued to follow the example and style of those now exposed as abusers, if we continued to promote their books and their methods, then we have cause to stop and reflect. I know that there have been calls from people like Duncan Forbes for repentance for where we have failed to recognise that all are one in Christ Jesus and to allow elitism and a failure to challenge racism and classism head on. I am also aware that if there is discipline and punishment, then godly people will get caught up in it. 

However, it is one thing for us to recognise what God might be saying to us. It is one thing to recognise too that godly and vulnerable people get caught up in the circumstances of discipline. However, it is another to pronounce a judgement, especially when we are so often cushioned from the worst elements of that judgement.  It is another thing to be in a situation where the people who are already most affected, who are suffering the most are those who are the most vulnerable, who are most likely to have suffered from our past failings and are the most hungry for the gathering and to be fed.

I appreciate Garry’s cautious raising of the question but I am concerned that there have been more explicit and less restrained utterances on this, so I intend a further post to respond to this.

Conclusion

Those of us seeking ways to continue sharing communion are not looking for an alternative cyber/spiritual supper but rather are aiming to keep the Lord’s command not to give up on gathering together.

I appreciate that there are brothers and sisters who are deeply distressed because they think that it is impossible to gather meaningfully at the moment. I want to encourage them that it is more possible that maybe they first assumed.

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