Monday, June 6, 2011

What The Word "Biblical" Means


It was a conversation with a pastor of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) that convinced me, years ago, that the word “biblical” is not helpful. It does not foster an open exchange of ideas. In fact, the use of  that one word, and its antonym “unbiblical,” shuts down meaningful conversation. As James McGrath put it:

"I’d much prefer that we jettison the term 'Biblical' in its popular usage, since it is at best meaningless and at worst deceitfully misleading."

The LCMS pastor whom I mentioned, repeatedly and insistently referred to “the biblical practice of close Communion.” Close, or “closed” Communion means that a Missouri Synod pastor will not give Communion to someone who is not known to be in doctrinal agreement with their synod. This practice is based largely on the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29:

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”

According to the LCMS’s interpretation, “discerning the body” means acknowledging the real presence of Christ in the bread of Communion.  My Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) also teaches the real presence of Christ in the elements of Communion, but we have a much more open Communion practice.
In his explanation to the eighth Commandment in the Small Catechism, Martin Luther taught that Christians should explain their neighbors’ actions “in the kindest way.” Following this instruction, I will say that the LCMS policy shows a genuine concern for the Sacrament and for the eternal fate of those who receive it.

I disagree, however, with the idea that the practice of closed Communion is biblical. In fact, I would argue that the idea of closed Communion is the exact opposite of what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote to the church at Corinth. As always, context is key.

It is interesting to note that 1 Corinthians provides the only evidence we have that the Apostle Paul’s churches practiced a form of the Eucharist (Holy Communion). The only reason that Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the Eucharist is that there were problems in the way they practiced it.

1 Corinthians is a high context document. Paul and his first readers shared details of knowledge that are not available to us. It seems clear that their practice of Communion was not identical to the practices of twenty-first century American Lutherans. It would appear that the Corinthian Eucharist took place in the context of a full meal in which the entire community partook. Some of the Corinthians were hogging food and getting drunk while others went hungry (1 Cor. 11:21). This may have reflected the common practice in first century Roman society where a host provided the most honorable guests with the best and most plentiful foods, while “B-list” guests were provided with lesser quantities of inferior food and drink. At any rate, Paul objected, saying that the Corinthian meal was not “the Lord’s Supper.”  (1 Cor. 11:20).

In every other context in which Paul speaks of “the body of Christ,” he means the Church, that is, the assembly of believers (See, e.g. 1 Cor. 12:27). In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, Paul makes a connection between the Eucharistic bread, which Christ called “my body,” and the body of believers who partake of it.

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
I am convinced that when Paul talks about “discerning the body” he is referring to the body of believers. That some Corinthians were selfishly disregarding, disrespecting and  ignoring the needs of other believers at their Eucharistic meal meant that they were, in Paul’s terms, eating and drinking “judgment against themselves.”

The issue in Corinth was not about recognizing the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. It was about some believers failing to recognize other believers as fully members of the Body of Christ which is the Church. At least, that is how I see it. I leave it to you, my reader to decide for yourself whether I am right. But if I am right, then the practice of closed Communion is in fact the opposite of what the Apostle Paul advocated, because in closed Communion one part of the Body of Christ denies access to the Lord’s table to another part of that same Body.

Returning to my original point, the use of the word “biblical” is not helpful. By speaking of the “biblical practice of close Communion” my LCMS interlocutor was claiming for his position a high ground that did not exist. The Bible nowhere says “Thou shalt practice close Communion.” As with anyone who uses the word “biblical” to describe their doctrine or practice, what he meant was “the Bible as I interpret it supports what I say or do.”

And that is not helpful.

Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version. I "borrowed" the graphic from the Facebook page of something called the "Closed Communion Underground Supper Club." I can't vouch for the club or its members, but I like the graphic!

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