Sunday, May 22, 2016

Calling an Audible

Some call it the Lord’s Supper or the Lord’s Table. Some refer to it as Communion, Holy Communion or the Eucharist. Some call it the Breaking of Bread. Some call it the Worship Service. And some would argue that not all these terms refer to precisely the same thing.

I agree, actually, but it’s not my purpose to set out all such similarities and differences in a single blog post. My point is that, different as they may be, all these overlapping practices (rightly or wrongly) draw their scriptural authority from the words of the Lord Jesus to his disciples at their last Passover supper and the things he did there.

Let’s concede this: whatever we call it, none of us celebrate it precisely the way it was celebrated in the early church, and it’s quite possible that even in the first century there was little consistency from one local church to another in the way it was practiced.

Convictions and Practices

Today, various Christian churches give different priority to the actual sharing of bread and wine. They differ wildly in the amount of time they devote to the occasion, how they go about observing it and how often they do so. Some don’t do it at all. Some do it annually, seeing it as the direct linear descendant of the annual Jewish Passover. Some do it bi-monthly, some do it monthly and some do it weekly. Some tack communion on to the end of an existing meeting, while others celebrate it as a separate event. All may be wrong, but not all can be right. I trust all make such decisions before God and not before men.

It should be pointed out that while there are good, biblical reasons to give the Lord’s Supper a high priority and to celebrate it on a weekly basis, these reasons are drawn from New Testament example and from applying spiritual principles rather than from direct commands of Christ or the apostles. They are deduced, rather than clearly stated.

Why leave even a shred of ambiguity when the Lord could easily have laid down a simple rule? I suspect, as with certain kinds of sacrifice in the Old Testament, in this matter the Lord is only interested in receiving from his people the expression of their hearts and mouths that they bring willingly, rather than out of duty, habit, competition or coercion.

Audible Participation

Not only are frequency and mode of celebration at issue within Christendom but also the question of audible participation. While much has been written and taught about who may share in the common bread and wine and each church has its own convictions and practices in that respect, less has been written about the subject of who may be permitted to participate audibly.

Those who come from churches with a strong and unbiblical tradition of making clergy/laity distinctions tend to assume that only an officially recognized priest or minister may do so. Those who understand that all believers are a holy priesthood and all believers ought to minister to one another are less restrictive. While there is a growing general tendency in modern churches to allow the audible participation of women in their gatherings, such a practice cannot be supported from the New Testament.

So despite the evidence of the spirit of the age at work in the churches, let’s take it as read that it’s Christian men who bear primary responsibility for participating audibly, whether it takes the form of expressing worship, teaching, leading in prayer or leading in a hymn. This was evidently the regular practice of the church in Corinth, and the apostle Paul does not discourage it.

Inaudible Participation

I should add here — recognizing that it may not be an acceptable statement in some quarters — that I do not believe that simply because men are given opportunity in scripture to participate audibly in such a gathering that they should be pressured to do so.

Why? Consider the following:
  1. Leading the people of God audibly is only one of many ways of expressing our part in the New Testament priesthood. All believers are to engage in some aspects of the priestly role, but all believers do not offer the same spiritual sacrifices in the same way. Some offer praise, some “do good and share”. The sacrifice of a deliberately transformed life is no less important than the sacrifice of one’s lips; in fact, I’d argue the latter without the former is not God’s intent for his people.
  2. Inaudible worship is just as precious to the Lord as audible worship. Arguably the most remarkable acts of worship in the New Testament were performed by women, and were all but completely silent (I do not count weeping as audible participation).
  3. Offerings are to be in keeping with what the offerer is able to offer. In Israel, some had the means to offer a goat or a lamb, others did not. Provision was made in the law that those who had less could offer less. What one could afford was determined by the offeror before God, not by the priests or by anyone else. Those genuinely less capable of leading in public worship should not be coerced to engage in it out of guilt.
  4. When we gather, it is as Christian to give way to others as it is to assert ourselves publicly, perhaps more so. While it is important that we offer what we are able, it is equally important to give way when others have something to say. It may be far more profitable than what we had in mind.
I am convinced that while we should encourage others to exercise their freedom in Christ in worship, weighing young men down with an inordinate sense of obligation to participate audibly simply because they were born male is unprofitable, both for the church and for the spiritual development of the young men in question.

More on this tomorrow.


  1. To me, as a Catholic, this is a bit curious. Such separation or distinction between sexes concerning church service participation does not exist (any longer) in the Catholic service. We have equal participation in the mass for men and woman. There are male and female readers and lectors, altar servers and Eucharistic Ministers. Both male and female fully participate in communal prayer during mass and in song (if so inclined). The only distinction made is for priests and deacons, who are male (and believe me there are many woman trying hard to have that changed as well).

    My wife and I have attended many Protestant services (of many different denominations) as part of our church's ecumenical outreach and because of baptism, weddings, funerals of Protestant friends. I wonder if a Protestant should not also attend a Catholic mass once in a while to become familiar with the differences in worship service. Just as we were welcomed, so would they be.

  2. Thanks for the invite. I've never been to a Catholic mass, but I've been to a Catholic wedding and two Catholic funerals, so I have some (very general) idea about your order of service and how it compares.

    As have probably seen in your visits to Protestant churches, women participate fully in communal prayer and singing too and have always done so. I've noticed that some Protestant churches also make use of the ladies to pass the bread and wine, as nothing in scripture forbids such service (which may be a similar function to your altar servers or Eucharistic Ministers, perhaps? I don't know enough about your regular mass to say ...). I've also seen women delivery missionary reports and make announcements from the pulpit. And of course Protestant women are often missionaries, witnesses, door-knockers, Sunday School teachers, teachers of other women and much more with the full support of their churches.

    I would be remiss if I didn't note that some Protestant churches have fully capitulated to demands for "equality" and ordain women, etc. There is no united Protestant voice on this issue, among others. But those of us who have not shifted our position from that of the church generally throughout the last two millennia note that it's really only with respect to authoritative public teaching in church that the New Testament makes a distinction between the roles of men and women in church. The apostle Paul says:

    "Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet." (1 Timothy 2:11-12)

    So I recognize that it's done differently in many places, for reasons both practical and having to do with one's view of authority (that is to say, does a church refer only to the Bible for all decisions about faith and practice, or does it look to denominational traditions, the writings of church fathers or other sources for answers to its questions).

    But since I'm coming from a sola scriptura perspective, you will understand that even a single unequivocal statement like Paul's to Timothy is quite sufficient for me.