Receiving the Table in a Worthy Manner

What does it mean to receive the Lord’s Table in a worthy manner?

This question crops up all the time. At Trinity Church, we celebrate the gospel through the Lord’s Table every time we gather together, so I suppose the frequency of our practice helps raise this concern for a lot of folks.

The question is an important one because, at one level, it’s simply an attempt to understand what Scripture tells us about how we’re to approach communion. In 1 Corinthians 11:27-30, Paul writes, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”

Those words ought to get our attention. Paul intends for us to evaluate with utter seriousness how we and the church are practicing the Lord’s Table. But I think most people hear those words in almost entirely individualistic terms—in a way that borders on legalistic works-righteousness:

  Have I mustered up enough sorrow over my sin?

  Have I sinned intentionally since the last time I took communion?

  Is God pleased with me right now, based on my performance?

  Have I earned my place at the Table? 

We’ve taken very seriously Paul’s call to self-examination, but we’ve lifted his words out of their context so that our self-examination is focused completely on our personal holiness and faithfulness to God. So the Lord’s Table tends to become much less about thanksgiving for the gospel or celebrating God’s steadfast promises or receiving assurance of God’s love toward us, and much more about our own fear and anxiety over our personal moral records.

It doesn’t help that many Christians have grown up taking communion in darkened, silent, somber settings where each person is encouraged to look inward at themselves rather than outward to God and to the family of believers. 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 is repeated, and believers are encouraged to “make sure your heart is in the right place today before sharing the meal.” This practice has trained many of us to dread the Lord’s Table because we’re perpetually unsure of whether we’re worthy to receive it.

This is one of those times when paying attention to what’s going on around a passage really helps us understand what Scripture is teaching. Here’s the larger section, and I’ve underlined some of the key statements. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34,  

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. 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, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 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.

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, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 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.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.

Paul bookends his whole discussion of the Lord’s Table with statements that clarify the real issues in the Corinthian church. Both at the beginning and at the end of this passage, he notes that they are participating in the Lord’s Table in a way that’s encouraging division rather than embodying fellowship. Some refused to wait for others to arrive. Some ate up all of the food while their brothers and sisters went hungry. Some even took so much of the wine that they were getting drunk.

So what’s Paul’s primary concern here? His primary concern is that the church is practicing the Lord’s Table in such a manner that it’s no longer really the Lord’s Table. They’re failing to receive this meal of fellowship with God and the church in recognition of and honor toward other believers. That’s what Paul has in mind when he instructs these Christians to examine themselves and discern the body—they have to examine their hearts to make sure that they’re considering the church, the body of Christ, and participating in the family meal of Christians in a way that promotes peace and unity.

The Lord’s Table is a meal for Christians, so one of the questions we always need to ask is Am I believing the gospel and repenting of sin? If we’re refusing to repent of sin, if we’re rejecting the gospel in our hearts, if we’re rebelling against the idea of communing with God through faith in his Son, then it makes no sense for us to receive a meal that’s all about communion with God and his people. But if we’re trusting his gospel and have been baptized into his body, then we can be confident that his communion meal is intended for us.

Whenever we approach the Table, Paul’s words encourage us to also ask Am I living in fellowship with other believers? To nurse divisions within the body and yet approach the Table in enacted unity is a falsehood. In order to rightly receive the family meal together, we need to make sure that we’re at peace with one another, honoring one another as members of Christ’s body. In a more general sense, Jesus taught in Matthew 5:23-24 that believers ought to reconcile with a brother or sister they’ve offended before offering a gift in worship to God. Often at Trinity, we’ll take a moment before celebrating the Lord’s Table to urge the church with a statement like this: “If there is unresolved conflict in your relationships with the body, or if you’ve sinned against a brother or sister and haven’t yet confessed that and repented to them, go do that now so that you can come together in genuine fellowship to receive the fellowship meal.” That’s one of the simple ways that, as a church, we seek to obey 1 Corinthians 11.

But when you’re tempted to think that going to the Table in a worthy manner means that you need to have done enough in the past week to earn your spot there, remember this: no one has earned a spot at the Table. Only Jesus is worthy to dine with God, but in his obedient life and sacrificial death and glorious resurrection, he purchased your membership in God’s family. In grace, Jesus reserved a place at the family feast for all who trust him. When we break the bread and drink the wine together, God is proclaiming to us that it’s only through Jesus’ work that we get to approach him, belong to him, and be counted righteous in his sight. To make our coming to the Table about our worthiness, then, is a contradiction if ever there was one.

So take the Lord’s Table in repentance. Receive it in thanksgiving. Participate in this sacrament in fellowship with God’s people. And take the Table in the sweet and comforting knowledge that Jesus left this gospel celebration for sinners and that your seat at the table is grounded in Jesus’ perfection, not your own.

What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 9 of 10 - The Church and Government

[Editor's Note: Read part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7, and part 8 of this series.]

We believe that the local church is God’s New Covenant community ruled over by a plurality of elders, given to the church as gifts from the Spirit, who shepherd the church as those accountable to other organically connected churches.

Reformed Christians believe that the church, as the covenant community of God, does not have the authority or the wisdom to devise its own structure and governance. The church is given sacraments that mark off the community from the world, and the church is given leaders by the Holy Spirit to rule over the church under the authority of God’s word.

Plural Elder Leadership

Reformed Christians believe the Bible teaches that local churches are to be governed by a plurality of qualified elders. Elders are to be dedicated to prayer and the ministry of the word and sacrament. In other words, the elders lead the church by preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments and discipline of the church. While the ministry of prayer, word, and sacrament belong to each member and the church community as a whole, it is led, overseen, and carried out by a select group variously called elders, pastors, and overseers in the New Testament.

Deacons hold a second office in the church, but it is not an authoritative office. In the early church, deacons collected offerings, prepared and served the tables, and cared for the poor. So while elders oversee and carry out the ministry of teaching the word, deacons ensure that the logistics of community life are consistent with what is being taught by the elders from the word as they apply it to their local church context.

Qualifications for Elders

The New Testament gives two lists that outline the broad requirements for elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Taken together, there are five basic requirements that must be met for a person to be qualified to be an elder in a local church. First, the person must demonstrate basic Christian character without any obvious character flaws that would draw skepticism upon the gospel and the church. Second, the person must be able to communicate, teach, and defend sound Christian doctrine consistent with the gospel. Third, the person must be a male since God created men and women to fulfill different roles in the home and the church. Fourth, the person must not be a relatively new convert compared to the rest of the congregation so that he is not tempted to conceit and the arrogance that often accompanies those who are new to anything. Fifth, the person must not have a poor reputation with those outside the church due to scandal or immorality such that the credibility of the church and its message would be undercut.

Elder Authority

While church members elect their officers, elders hold authority in the local church. However, this authority is not absolute. Rather, the authority of elders is rooted in God’s authority made known in his word. Elders cannot command obedience to their will (called "magisterial authority"). They can only proclaim God’s will as it is taught in the word and demand obedience to God (called "ministerial authority"). The consciences of men must not ever be bound by the opinions or wisdom of men since God alone is Lord of the conscience. Only he can command obedience, and so elders have authority only insofar as they communicate faithfully the message of Scripture. However, when covenant community members disobey the word of God and harden themselves in sin, elders have the authority to declare a person to be living disobediently, to warn them, rebuke them, and ultimately to withdraw the church’s affirmation of their confession.

Organic Connectionalism

As a covenant community, a local church is not a voluntary association of individuals. The church is the body of Christ, organically connected to one another through the bond created by the Holy Spirit. So also are local churches connected to one another. This organic connection is such that the livelihood of each church is mutually dependent upon the health of the other churches. This organic unity suggests a connectionalism between churches that goes beyond mere monetary partnership in joint efforts to advance the gospel or to perform acts of mercy. Therefore, Reformed Christians believe that local churches must be accountable to and in partnership with other local churches. Therefore, Reformed churches are ruled by elders who have been examined by the elders of other churches and who remain accountable to other church elders both in doctrine and conduct. One aspect of this accountability is the creation of courts that can adjudicate conflicts within or between local churches, whether the conflict is between elders and church members or the elders themselves. Finally, churches partner together to advance the gospel in new regions by pooling their resources and members for church planting efforts.

Reformed Christians believe that God rules his church through his word. He commands, comforts, promises, and sanctifies his people through the preaching and teaching of his word by elders who are given to local churches as groups of men submitted to God with tested character who avoid both dominating others and shrinking back in fear of others. 

[Editor's Note: Read part 10 of this series.]

What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 8 of 10 - The Church and Sacraments

[Editor's Note: Read part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6, and part 7 of this series.]

We believe that the Church is God’s New Covenant community marked by the preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the discipline entailed therein!

The church is a community created by the will of the Father through the work of the Son on the cross, where people believe in him in the power of the Holy Spirit. Wherever God works to create a people for himself, a particular communal life is formed that we can recognize as a church. Reformed Christians believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ produces a distinct covenant people who belong to God and whose life takes a particular shape.

Therefore, the marks of a true church are three: 1) the gospel is rightly preached from Scripture and believed by a community, 2) the sacraments are rightly administered, and 3) church discipline is rightly practiced. A true church exists wherever these marks are present. Each of these marks is wrapped up in the proper practice of the others, and Reformed Christians believe that no church exists wherever these marks are lacking.

The Right Preaching and Hearing of the Gospel

As discussed in a previous post, the church is a covenant community. For all who believe it, the promise of the gospel—forgiveness of sins and new creation through the atoning work of Jesus Christ—ratifies the New Covenant. In other words, when people hear God so as to believe in his promise in Jesus Christ, they become, along with their children, part of God’s covenant people. Those people not only join his church through faith in the gospel, but they are continually given life as the gospel word is proclaimed regularly on the Lord’s Day and throughout the week as Christians share their lives together.

If a community adopts false doctrines and practices that destroy the sound teaching of the gospel such that people are drawn away from faith in Christ, that community can no longer be considered a church of God.

The Right Administration of the Sacraments

Because the church is a covenant community, it is marked out by God given signs and seals of the covenant. In the same way a marriage covenant is signified by the giving and receiving of rings and sealed by the act of sexual intercourse, baptism and the Lord’s Table are signs and seals of the New Covenant community. As signs, they represent to us the work of Christ and his benefits. As seals, they testify to God's faithfulness, assuring us that God will surely do all he has promised. Baptism is the initiatory rite, and the Lord’s Table is an ongoing rite of Christian fellowship.

While Christians debate the exact details of how these sacraments are to be administered (like timing, mode, frequency, etc.) the main issue regarding the right practice of the sacraments involves their meaning. If communities teach and practice that the sacraments confer or infuse grace as though salvation comes through them rather than through faith alone, then the sacraments have been perverted into a system of works and oppose the gospel of grace. So while some Christians baptize infants and others only believers able to give a public profession of faith, while some sprinkle and others immerse, while some celebrate the table weekly and others quarterly, while some use wafers and others a single loaf, these differences do not amount to errors that threaten the right administration of the sacraments. But those who turn the sacraments against the gospel of grace cannot be considered a church. 

Church Discipline

Because the church is a distinct covenant community marked off from the world through the sacraments, discipline is required to faithfully identify who credibly belongs to the church and who does not. Church discipline involves excluding from table fellowship non-Christians and those whose confession of Christ must be questioned. In other words, because the Lord’s Table is an ongoing identification of who is believing in Jesus Christ, it cannot be served to non-Christians or to those claiming to be Christians but living in unrepentant sin. Neither can baptism be applied to those who have no place in the covenant community of Christ. Churches that refuse to apply the marks of the sacraments faithfully cannot meaningfully claim to be true a church.

Jesus did not die merely to forgive the sins of many individuals. He died and rose again to bring a kingdom, and that kingdom is represented and pointed to by the church. Christians are not just saved from their sins but to a new way of life with God’s people. The church cannot be reduced to a location where a pastor preaches and people sing some songs. The church is a community indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thus set apart from the world in the preaching of the gospel, its celebration of the gospel in the sacraments, and its loyalty to the gospel in church discipline.

[Editor's Note: Read part 9 and part 10 of this series.]

Sermon Discussion: Luke 14:25-35 - The Cost of Discipleship

Here are some questions to discuss together in our home groups:

  1. What questions did you have during and after the sermon? Did you have any insights that weren’t mentioned?
  2. How was the sermon outlined?
  3. In our culture, what does it mean to be a “follower”? How can those ideas end up shaping what we think it means to be a follower of Jesus?
  4. What does Jesus say it will cost us to be his disciple? How does he challenge both traditional, family-oriented and modern, individualistic cultures? Is there a cost to following Jesus that you needed to be particularly reminded of?
  5. What do Jesus’ two illustrations communicate? Why is this message so important for both non-believers and believers to hear?
  6. What’s the difference between the “forgiveness-only gospel” and the biblical gospel? How does the biblical gospel help us understand how our discipleship is completely a gift of grace and yet costly for us to pursue? Take some time to consider together how the message of the cross frees us to joyfully pay the cost of discipleship.
  7. What is the main point of Jesus’ parable in verses 34-35? How does it push us to personal repentance?
  8. As we seek to be a church family of salty disciples, why is it important for us to guard to content of our message? Why is it just as important for us to guard the form, flavor, and character of our community life?
  9. How do the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Table) shape both our message and the form of our community? How do they help us count the cost of discipleship together?