Has there been anything in history comparable to the horrific things reports of abuse, bullying and toxic culture coming from evangelical churches over the past few years? Well, yes there has. Right back in the first century, the mission of the church could have almost been undone by the antics of the Corinthian church.
- There was rivalry and tribalism with church members forming cliques around celebrity leaders (1 Cor 1:11-12)
- There was an unhealthy emphasis on power (1 Corinthians 1:26)
- There was serious sexual immortality that was being tolerated within the church (1 Corinthians 5)
- Supposed brothers in Christ were slandering one another then going to the civil courts in order to enhance their own standing (1 Corinthians 6)
All of this came to a head when the church family gathered together for fellowship, worship and teaching. People were competing to be heard and seeking to show off their spiritual gifts with the result being a cacophony of unintelligible noise and what should have been a meal together with the opportunity to show unity and love for one other whilst remembering Christ’s death and resurrection had become anything but. Paul writes:
“7 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part,[e] 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. “(1 Corinthians 11:7-22).
In fact the state of affairs is dangerous to the point of being deadly.
“29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Corinthians 11:29-30)
How then does Paul respond to this crisis? Well have a look at v 23-26
23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for[f] you. Do this in remembrance of me.”[g] 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Paul sees that what the Corinthian church need most of all is to be pointed to Christ. Notice a few things here. First he reminds his readers that the meal is in fact a meal with Jesus, he is the host who invites us to eat and we are his guests. If we are his guests then we should seek to honour him and to follow his lead in how we interact together. He sets the agenda.
Jesus is more than the host though, he tells us that we are feeding on him, the bread we eat is his body and the cup we drink is his blood. We spend so often, too often explaining what this doesn’t mean. As reformed, protestants it is by now fairly obvious to us that the bread and the wine don’t turn into body and blood in some mystical way. Yet, there is an insistence here and in John 6 that we do feed on Christ. The point I think is this, food eating unites itself to us in order to provide sustenance and strength, we are therefore completely dependent upon it. It’s said that you are what you eat hence the modern fuss about eating healthily. To feed on Christ is to be filled with him by his Spirit, to be dependent upon him for life and strength and to live through him so that we are increasingly Christ like. There is therefore no place for un-Christlike behaviour at the table.
The Communion meal is set between two significant events, we look back to remember Jesus’ death which brings grace and forgiveness but we also look forward “until he comes.” The meal is about hope and expectation. It’s also a reminder that one day Christ will judge and all will be revealed.
The meal therefore is to be eaten in a worthy manner and those taking part are to examine themselves against unworthiness (v28) first and to seek to discern the body (v29) in other words to have a high attitude and concern, seeking to honour not only Christ as the host but one another as his body the Church. The meal should convict us of our unworthiness and dependence upon him.
Here’s a little thought. It is of course possible to participate weekly in the Lord’s Supper without it touching upon us. However, it is much harder to be oblivious of the Holy Spirit’s conviction if it is regularly part of what we do together. Indeed, church discipline if it primarily means that you may not join in communion or participate in members’ decision making is pretty meaningless if communion rarely plays a part in our time together
However, my concern here is not to present a memorial meal as a catch-all solution. What is crucial is all that it represents. First of all, do we think of church primarily as an organisation with an agenda or even as an event with performers. Here in 1 Corinthians, we are reminded that it is primarily about an invitation to eat and meet together with our saviour. This should turn us away from an agenda that is about ambition.
Secondly, we are reminded that being together as his church, gathered around his word, feeding on him should be transformative. We should be looking more and more for Christlikeness in one another. Do we look for this first and foremost – particularly in our leaders.
Thirdly, if we are his body, then how we regard and how we treat one another tells us what we really think about Jesus. I cannot claim to love Christ and hate and seek to harm his body.
Fourthly, church discipline does matter.
Fifthly, grace is meant to be at the centre of our gatherings and our church life. We cannot claim to be grace centred and then impose our own heavy burdens on others.
It is challenging but also encouraging to know that the situation that churches are finding themselves in today isn’t new and nor is it a surprise for God.