Thursday, August 31, 2006

Communion in small groups

I was asked about this last night and surfed to no avail until I uncovered this. It's roughly the answer I gave.

"Lord's Supper in a small group setting?"
Throughout my Christian life I have always been uncomfortable when the Lord's Supper is served outside of the church, say, in a small group setting. I didn't know why until I dealt with the issue further in my RTS studies. Here's why such a practice should be discouraged:

Christ instituted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a sign and seal of the new covenant He established with His church. The church has certain characteristics not found in small group setting. One of the most important is the oversight and rule of the elders. In a small group setting, since there are no elders present, it would be improper to administer the Lord’s Supper because the Lord’s Supper is a method of disciplining the congregation (withholding the Supper is the penultimate step of discipline - excommunication is the ultimate). Serving the Supper apart from the elders severs oneself from the sphere of discipline of the elders.

In summary, the administration of the Supper:

(i) is in the hands of the leadership of the church and,
(ii) accompanies the word, so it is to be administered by a minister.

While administering the Supper in a small group setting would indeed be an "irregular" celebration of the sacrament it would not be an "invalid" one. It would be impossible to argue that in celebrating the Supper in such a setting that there is no communion with Christ, however, it is clearly irregular and should be discouraged.

The same argument holds true for family communion, wedding communion, and church plant communion where the plant does not yet have elders."

My hunch is to say invalid, but it's based on the same argumentation regarding authority and discipline. Those two words are hardly popular in pop evangelical spirituality. The invidual is seen as authoritative in a twisted reading of the priesthood of all believers, and discipline is a bad word!

Barna's recent book Revolution seeks to applaud the entrepreneurial vein of pomo Christianity. He bids good riddance to the church and institutional authority in favour of sacramental understandings of Starbucks and any gathering between two Christians. This means that we need to redouble our efforts and retreat to the Scriptures to "sell" this notion of communion with Christ with his body in covenantal worship not just Christian fellowship.

Let me know if you can improve on these answers anybody.


Gummby said...

No answers, only more questions.

Does it make a difference if:
a) an elder is present?
b) you view the Lord's Supper as an ordinance instead of a sacrament?

pilgrim said...

I agree--but then we've had some discussion on this already...

But it does give me an idea for a committee I'm on...

David said...

You have no idea how well your post fits into an on going conversation some friends and I are having.

Though you and I come from different denominations and backgrounds, one constant is that the Lord's Supper is to be celebrated in public, and presided over by one who is called to ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Thanks for the timely post!

Steve Sensenig said...

(here via Matt Gumm's blog)

Where does this notion of using the Lord's Supper as a method of discipline come from? I don't see it in Scripture. In Matthew 18, it is true that excommunication is the ultimate step of discipline, but withholding the Lord's Supper appears nowhere that I have seen in Scripture.

Additionally, where does this idea come from that the administration of the Supper is "in the hands of the leadership of the church"?

The only references I know of to the Lord's Supper in Scripture are in the Gospels (when Jesus first instituted it, giving very little instruction about it) and in 1 Corinthians 11, when Paul gives a slight bit more detail and talks about it in relation to one's understanding of the body of Christ.

In none of those passages is there any mention of the two main points of authority and discipline as relating to the Lord's Supper.

You concluded with: This means that we need to redouble our efforts and retreat to the Scriptures to "sell" this notion of communion with Christ with his body in covenantal worship not just Christian fellowship.

So, if you "retreat to the Scriptures", what do you find?

steve :)

RevGoT said...

Gummby and Steve,

Good questions. I was going to prepare a full response starting from presuppositions to eldership in the Scriptures, and how the Supper is part of discipling and discipline.

In Titus, an elder is depicted as a steward of Christ. This means that the precious things of Christ's house is to be managed (thus episkopos) by the elders. What is more precious to Christ than the means of grace he has instituted for his people.

Since sacraments are signs and seals given to his covenant people, it means that the original word (words of institution and biblical substantiation) needs to be spoken by one of his pastor-teachers that we never think the sign is ours, or that power is automatically conferred by the mere act. God owns his people and owns the sign and uses his ordained officers to deliver his gifts to his people (Eph. 4).


In the passages where the sinning brother is put out of the fellowship, what is he being put out of? Koinonia and communion are inseperably linked from the OT to the NT. Those outside of the nation of Israel had no part of the meal of salvation until they were circumcised. To treat someone as an unbeliever is to see them in just this way. They have no business at the table because the table is for repentant sinners. The binding and loosing in Matthew 18 is in the context of church discipline. When the sinner is unrepentant the church, through her elders, is to treat them according to their true profession - - they don't love Christ, they love their sin, they hate correction, they don't recognize biblical leadership and authority. Those people have no business taking the Lord's supper since they hate the communion of believers, and heap scorn on Christ who bought the grace of repentance for his people. In this way suspension from the sacraments guards the purity of the church - - false professors are put out, true professors are protected from charlatans, and the peace of the Church is preserved because it is clear what the marks of being in covenant are and what the marks of being out of covenant are. No confusion. There is so much confusion in the evangelical church because no discipline occurs.

On hermeneutical method, you mentioned that you look at those passages where the Lord's Supper is discussed and see no mention of discipline there. This method fails to make the biblical theological connections from all of Scripture. This method is described in Westminster Confession Chapter 1, and a similar statement in London Baptist Confession.

Just for the sake of full disclosure, my theology is summarized in the Westminster Confession, and our practice is outlined in the PCA Book of church order

Nan said...

Not to mention, the necessity or command of practicing communion is never mentioned (only "for as often as you do it...") specifically in scripture yet we still practice it regularly either merely as an ordinance or as a sacrament.
Neither is meeting together on Sundays specifically ordained in scripture and yet by inference we consecrate each Sunday as "The Lord's Day."
We can't use, "Well, I don't see that in a Bible verse..." as a real argument against or for something as there are a great many things that aren't specifically covered in scripture and yet we don't consider (many of) them grey areas because by rightly dividing the word of truth and heeding sound teaching of leaders that are in submission to the word, we can infer all that we need to know for life and godliness.

Scott Armstrong said...

Just passing through the 'Net and saw the comment from the first writer that they recommend no communion at a church plant because elders are not present. My jaw hit the ground! Wait three years, the typical time to particularize? And isn't the church planter an elder who is present and one under authority as well? Isn't it a bit wayward to put church plant worship services in the same sentences as weddings when considering prohibitions on the place of communion? Food for thought to my brothers in Christ...

RevGoT said...


You have a better eye than I do. (My wife accuses me of speed reading. Guilty this time.)

The writer does make a leap there. A church plant is led by an evangelist. In an apostolic way, they are bringing the church where there is none (or none fitting our convictions regarding Scripture, etc.).

Thanks for catching that. I would distance myself from that stand myself. I'm in a frontier presbytery where planters are slogging for years without eldership while babes in Christ grow to maturity needed for leadership.

Thanks for stopping by. I think I've run accross your name on the WEb as well. Are you a PCA planter?


Luke said...

I'm getting a MA at RTS and am thinking of doing my thesis on this topic: small groups (or cell groups) taking communion.

I agree that pastoral/elder oversight is important in the practice of communion, which is why I am approaching this topic with a desire to see Reformed congregations develop a method to still have elder oversight and administration, and yet accomplish this in a small group or setting. Not sure how this will work in the end, but its a working idea.

Here's the original rough proposal I put forward to the RTS faculty. Let me know what you think.

Thesis idea:

One of the goals of this project will be to bring richness and gospel-centered depth to Christian small group experiences by reviving the New Testament practice of the “love feast.” Many church-based small group communities thrive because the leadership knows how to foster an atmosphere of dynamic relationships. However, the focus of many of these groups tends to be on instruction, or the confession or accountability process, and not on Christ or the gospel. By encouraging small groups to make the Lord’s Supper the climax of their small group experience, the dialogical activities of these groups gain a new, gospel-centered orientation, and the small groups begin to have a more Acts 2:42-47 dynamic: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers . . . . And day by day . . . breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.”

Another goal of this project will be to bring a greater richness and integrity to the Lord’s Table. Elders in many Reformed churches desire their congregants to examine themselves before partaking of communion (1 Cor.11:28), and desire to “fence the table” so that no one partakes of the supper in an unworthy manner (v.27). The Socratic teaching, the emphasis on face-to-face prayer and confession, and the smaller span of care found in small group settings are generally more conducive to these ends. The aim would be to combine the Sacrament with many of the healthy relational dynamics that were present at the first Lord’s Supper: table-fellowship (Luke 22:14-16), Socratic teaching (John 13-14), didactic teaching (John 15-16), intimate prayers (John 17), face-to-face servitude (John 13:3-5), modeling (John 13:12-17), expression of anxieties (John 13:21), rebuke (John 13:38), personal exhortation (Luke 22:31-32), and musical worship (Mark 14:26).

The thesis would cover the history of literature about the practice of communion in household settings, deal with potential theological and practical concerns specific to Reformed congregations, and offer a curriculum designed for small group leaders on forming Christ-centered small groups and leading biblically meaningful Lord Supper celebrations.

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