February 18, 2009
The Body Broken for Who?
Theologian J. I. Packer on restricting the Lord's Supper
Late in 2008, theologian J. I. Packer sat down with a few CTI editors to talk theology. Here's what Dr. Packer had to say when the conversation ranged to Communion.
Do you believe that access to the Lord's Table should be restricted, and if so, how does the church do that in a way that's inoffensive?
Yes, I believe access should be restricted at two points. First, the folk who come to share the Lord's Supper with the congregation should be people who have shown that they can discern the Lord's body. In other words, they understand what the Communion service is all about: Christ crucified for us.
The second point of restriction is when individuals in the congregation are known to be living in sin. If the attempt has been made to wean them away from sin according to the rules of Matthew 18, and it's failed, then the text says, "Let him be to you as a heathen and a publican," a tax collector, someone beyond the pale. The pastor, with the backing of those who were trying to wean the person away, should say, "Don't come to the Lord's Table. If you come, the bread and wine will not be served to you. I shall see to that."
Churches that don't have a stated pastor - old-fashioned brethren assemblies and gatherings of that kind - must make their own rules as to how that warning gets communicated. If it's a church where the elements are passed down the rows, the elders must be alerted to the fact that this chap is sitting in church, brazen, expecting to receive the Lord's Supper. It's their business to escort him out.
Now, there's got to be agreement amongst the congregational leaders as to what constitutes a serious offense. You wouldn't exert this kind of discipline for people who, shall I say, play Bingo when the congregation can't regard the playing of Bingo as a particularly godly activity. But again, amongst evangelicals I would expect that in most churches, but perhaps not all, it would be recognized that a gay partnership is contrary to the authority of Scripture.
Why do we do this at all? Well, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 that when you come together to eat the Lord's Supper, you must come as those who discern the body, and while this has been disputed, I think that discerning the body means what the church has always thought it meant; that is, it's not discerning the responsibilities of fellowship within the congregation, the spiritual body of Christ. It's discerning that the sacramental action of giving and receiving the bread and the wine points to the physical body of Christ, crucified for us.
But whichever interpretation you think is right, Paul does call for discipline of those not discerning the body. If the person won't accept the rebuke of the church, and you think that the body is the congregation, then they're still not discerning the body, and the authority of Christ through his body.
You can't avoid offending the offender. But I think the procedure I've described keeps the offense to the congregation down to the minimum.
What about when you have a non-Christian visiting the church, just investigating the claims? How would you handle that case?
A common practice is to make an announcement before Communion that we welcome at the Lord's Table any visitors who are in good standing as members of their own congregation. That means they have been baptized, are making a credible profession of faith now, and have no major offense in their life. They're currently under discipline from their own congregation.
This interview originally appeared on Off the Agenda.