Thursday, March 24, 2011

Admission to Communion

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Admission to Communion:

Q: When visiting a Christian church, who is allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper? Is this the same for all types of churches? If not, what accounts for the differences?

One ancient prerequisite for participation in Communion that is still typically followed by most churches today is that the person has received a Christian Baptism “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The reason for this is that Baptism is the means of initiation into the church. Whether it is a child who is baptized first, then instructed, or an adult who hears the Word and believes it before being baptized, Baptism is the beginning of participation in a Christian congregation.

The age one first participates in the Lord’s Supper varies widely among different types of churches. Some Christians begin allowing children to participate in Communion immediately after Baptism. Others begin later after a brief period of instruction about the meaning of the Sacrament, while others wait until a child has been fully instructed in all doctrines of the faith and gone through the ritual of Confirmation before they begin to participate.

The matter of which may participate in the Lord’s Supper has been a subject of great controversy in recent decades, but this has not always been so. In the earliest years of Christianity, complete doctrinal agreement was a requirement for Christians to join together in Communion, and separation was maintained until they resolved their disagreement.

The Apostle Paul addresses the subject in 1 Corinthians 10-11 and Romans 16:17, and in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructs His followers: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Although Jesus was talking here about the sacrifices of the temple, there is a long history among Christians of also applying this teaching to participation in Communion. Most often, this teaching is applied to those who have a grudge against or an ongoing dispute with a fellow Christian, but it applies equally to Christians who hold different doctrinal positions.

Jesus desires for His Church to experience unity (John 17), but not a unity where Christians agree to disagree about doctrinal questions (Philippians 2:2). Instead, He desires that they come to agreement by submitting themselves wholeheartedly to the teachings of the Bible.

Because of this, it was the almost-universal practice of Christians until the twentieth century to only participate in communion with those with whom they held complete doctrinal agreement. In spite of this, Christians of various denominations today have differing policies regarding who may participate in the Lord’s Supper in their congregations.

Both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have a strict policy of closed communion (meaning that only those from their tradition may commune in their congregations); however, no consistent pattern exists concerning policies among non-Catholic denominations. Different denominations within the same tradition (for example, different types of Lutherans or different types of Presbyterians) may have completely opposite policies regarding communion participation.

Typically, if a church or denomination believes that the Lord’s Supper forgives sins and is really the body and blood of Jesus, and if they believe that Christian doctrine is a matter of divine truth with one correct position, then they often maintain a closed communion policy, where only those with whom they agree doctrinally may participate.

On the other hand, if a church or denomination either believes that doctrine is a matter of human opinion with various correct positions, or if they
believe that Jesus body and blood are only spiritually or symbolically present in the Lord’s Supper and that it does not forgive sins, it is possible that they maintain an open communion policy.

Since the practices regarding communion participation vary so widely among the different denominations, the safest path to take when visiting an unfamiliar church is to arrive a few minutes early and ask the pastor if you would be allowed to participate in that particular congregation.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sacraments and Forgiveness

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the Sacraments and Forgiveness:

Q: Do the sacraments forgive the sins of everyone who participates in them, or only for those who trust in Jesus for salvation? If someone who is not a Christian receives the Lord’s Supper, do they still receive the Body and Blood of Jesus?

These are questions that have been on the minds of Christians for a very long time. Nearly 500 years ago, during the life of Martin Luther, and during the next generation of Christians, these questions were especially being considered carefully by Christian theologians.

In that era, it was being taught by many religious leaders that the sacraments were effective ex opere operato, which means “by the doing of the action.” Essentially, this teaching meant that the sacraments accomplished their work as long as the action itself was performed properly, regardless of the spiritual state of the person receiving the sacrament. The implication of this would be that if a person was Baptized, Confirmed, received Communion, or any of the other Sacraments, it was taught that they did receive grace and forgiveness, even without possessing true faith in Jesus.

The Lutherans, while they agreed that the Sacraments forgive sins and deliver God’s grace, disagreed that it did so ex opere operato. Instead, they taught that the Lord’s Supper only forgave the sins of those who had faith in Jesus, and that Baptism could no longer be said to save a person who had later departed from faith in Jesus.

The Sacraments are vehicles for delivering the grace of God to humans, but they are only effective in doing so for persons who trust in Jesus as their savior. For all others, the sacraments do not forgive sins.

In the particular case of the Lord’s Supper, the Lutherans did teach that everyone who participated in the Lord’s Supper received the real body and blood of Jesus. However, the Lutherans disagreed with the teaching of others of their time in a significant way.

The Lutherans concluded that, while true Christians receive the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of their sins, if a non-Christian or a false Christian were to receive the Lord’s Supper, they would be receiving the body and blood of Jesus as condemnation and judgment against them rather than for their forgiveness and salvation.

Because the body and blood of Jesus become present in the Lord’s Supper by the power of God’s Word, the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood is not dependent on the worthiness of the person receiving it, but while the Bible does teach that the sacraments deliver God’s grace and forgive sins, it is also very clear that without trust in Jesus, they do not accomplish the purpose for which they are intended. Therefore the sacraments do not forgive the sins of everyone who receives them, but only of Christians—that is persons who trust in Jesus alone to forgive them and save them.

Christians are not saved by the Sacraments, as if they were a good work which we could do to please God. Instead, Christians are saved and forgiven through the sacraments, as vehicles through which the grace of God, purchased by Jesus in His crucifixion, are delivered.