Lecture 8: Pastoral Care and Questions About Communion
I have discovered like you have probably discovered, that when it comes to communion, baptism, the sacraments, people can get pretty emotional. They have some pretty strong opinions. A lot of it goes back to tradition, experiences, things that therefore they associate with these deep, profound spiritual experiences. So there can be sometimes a certain amount of conflict. It comes over questions. I am going to raise some of them here and then we will take a couple of questions.
I. Practical Questions About Communion
A. How often should you do communion?
One of the practical questions is, when should we do communion? Is it really important to do it every time we meet? I don’t know if we need to be legalistic about this. This was my experience for a number of years as a pastor, that communion was something we held as something we did once a month. I have since shifted to seeing it as part and parcel of every time we gather together because when I look in scripture, it seems to say “whenever” or “regularly.” Whether it is 1 Corinthians 11 or Acts 2, or Acts 20:7, it just seems to be that it was part of the service; and I can’t really argue from a theological standpoint that it should not be included in a regular gathering. It seems to be there in scripture.
That said, I don’t necessarily feel it is wrong if some would like to keep it maybe not as frequent. Sometimes the argument might be, we are just trying to guard that it stays special. But that kind of falls apart. Would we use that kind of argumentation for preaching or for music? We say, no, those are in the central part of worship, we sing every time we gather together. No, we hear the Word whenever we gather. Then you could make the point, we should do that with communion.
B. Who can participate?
Here is a huge question that comes up with communion and that is, who can participate? You are familiar with the term, “fencing the table.” In some churches only those who are members in good standing can take communion. Some churches broaden the fence out a little bit to say you don’t have to be a member of this church, but you do need to be walking with the Lord. Some broaden the fence a little bit more and say that if you are a believer, you are welcome to the table. Then there are some fellowships that just tear down the fence and say, you are here this morning, you are all welcome to the table.
So it raises the question, should we disallow the unbelieving and does scripture give us any guidance? Again, people typically will go to 1 Corinthians 11 and talk about people who are drinking judgment to themselves, and certainly if they are unbelieving, they would be doing this. The only problem I think with that argument is that 1 Corinthians 11 is speaking to the saints, to those who are at the table, to the church itself.
I am not sure I can find any place in scripture that says the unbelieving are not allowed to participate. I get it that people are going to say, “It wouldn’t really mean anything to an unbeliever.” It certainly won’t mean as much to an unbeliever as it means to us. But I wonder if maybe not encouraging, but allowing unbelievers to partake of it gives them maybe a moment of pause, especially if we are taking time to reflect, to say, maybe there is something to this thing called Christian faith. Maybe in the symbols themselves they see the power that is there represented by Christ and his body and His blood.
I think communion actually is one of the greatest opportunities to share the Gospel. But I think it also maybe can be a time to allow the unbelieving to really ponder and to partake. It feels a little bit like this: If we refer to it as a supper, then say to the unbelieving, “You’re not allowed to partake of it” would be a little bit like having unbelievers in my home and serving a meal and saying, “Because you’re not part of the family, why don’t you wait out there in the living room.” It would seem more generous, as it were, to say, “This table doesn’t save you, it is a vehicle for grace, for sure, not salvific grace;” though I would not necessarily say it like that, I might totally confuse people. I would nonetheless not preface it by saying, “It’s only for those who believe.” I would say, and I have said, “You are welcome to the table.”
So, who? Again, you’ll have to sort this through. I know that there are a number of my peers who would certainly say, “No, I think I am much more comfortable saying, ‘Those of you who know the Lord Jesus Christ are invited to the table.’” I don’t think that is wrong, but I can’t find that it is necessarily wrong to say either, “You are all welcome to this table.”
C. Wine or grape juice?
Here is another question that raises some debate and that is, wine or juice? I was raised in a Baptist church where we always served juice. I must confess, it always seemed a little bit artificial. Yes, I am aware of the arguments that it can be a stumbling block for people who are alcoholics. I’m not so sure. I wonder if it’s more for some a certain legalistic aversion to alcohol. I wonder actually – I’m just going to throw this out – if there is more power in the wine itself, knowing that it was wine that was served in the early church. That wine, at least for me, has this experience of both bitterness and sweetness, unlike grape juice. I find that when I linger a bit with the cup and I drink, I’m reminded of the bitterness and also the sweetness of the Lord’s death. Again, it is a matter of debate and some churches might only feel it is good to serve grape juice; some might say, we serve wine. In my church we did the simple thing, we allowed people to choose. We made both elements available.
D. Should it be done at home or always at church?
Should it be done at home or just always at church? I think the only case I can find scripturally is that it should be done with the body. The best context is with the saints.
E. Should it always be with the whole corporate body?
I’m going to throw something else out here. Should it always be with the whole corporate gathering. I think it should be something corporate, but I think it can be a great experience in a small group. In fact, we recently did this in our small group because we often gather for a meal before we pray together and look at the Word together. We closed the meal by passing the bread around one more time. Everybody took a nice bit of bread. Then we passed the wine around. People filled their cups. Then we just talked about it together. We shared and we prayed for one another. Then we took the elements in a meal. We do call it The Lord’s Supper. As opposed to something that felt artificial. If I had to think about where The Lord’s Supper seems to be most natural, It is in a gathering of saints around the table at the end of a meal. I think that is very Biblical. It is also really meaningful.
F. Should communion be part of a wedding ceremony?
Here is another question. Probably in all of these I’m already probably getting some people upset with me on some of my positions. Things that – I want to underscore – I have not done them lightly. I’ve tried to think them through over the years.
What about weddings? Communion at weddings. Sometimes when I have worked with couples and we talk about the elements in the service itself, there is sometimes this desire to in a very meaningful spiritual way have communion as a symbol of this new, important fellowship. But I wonder again a little bit about the Biblical place for this. I wonder if when communion is served, it should not be done as something over here while people observe, but it should be done with everyone. If it is done with everyone, I’m not sure a wedding is the context to do it with everyone. I tend to discourage communion at a wedding, just thinking about the nature of what communion is itself. We might be treating it as something it is not.
G. When should it be in the order of service?
There is something else, and that is, before the sermon? After the sermon? As I have already said, I think we should be creative, not bound in a rote way. Sometimes it can be an introduction to the sermon. Sometimes it can flow right out of it.
II. Additional Questions
Those are some questions I’m thinking through when it comes to communion. Maybe you have a couple you would like to raise here, thinking back both of the theology we covered and the methodology.
A. Is making communion open to non-believers similar to the Jews in the Old Testament inviting foreigners to participate in their feasts?
Question: Do you think Biblically there is a parallel in inviting everybody regardless of their place in the faith to take communion with the idea that in the Old Testament the Israelites included foreigners in a lot of their feasts and had them participate in those kinds of things, so even though they weren’t necessarily following the Jewish laws at that time, because they were living in the society they were invited to participate in some of those activities?
Dr. Johnson: I think so. Some may argue that way, but some might then come from another argument and that is, when you think back to the Temple itself, there were sort of restricted places, fences if you will, where some could get to and others could not get to. They might also argue from that, that it again reminds us that we should have certain fencing. It is not that everything flattened in the Old Testament when it came to feasts. Certainly around the Temple anyway there were some walls. Going back to the Old Testament, some might also argue for walls. I don’t know that you could use the Old Testament to argue for or against.
B. Should children be included?
Question: What about kids, involving kids in the process?
Dr. Johnson: We will talk about this with baptism, what age. I think a rule of thumb would be, at least if they understand what they are doing. They might otherwise just think of it as a way to at least eat something before lunch.
Again, I would not think it is necessarily wrong if a parent said, “My five-year-old has not made any spiritual decision yet, but I do not want him to feel ostracized in this moment and actually, I want him to become aware of these elements and what they mean as a way of helping introduce him to Jesus.
I would have no problem as a pastor with a parent who said that, or a parent over here that said, “No, we want our children to know that this is something very special for people who have made a decision for Jesus. When they sometimes ask, ‘Why can’t we partake?’ It is because there is a decision that needs to be made.” That makes a lot of sense too. Biblically I don’t think we can argue one way or the other. I think there can be wisdom in both answers.
C. As a pastor, how do you deal with serving communion to people you know are struggling in their lives?
Question: What do you do as a pastor when you know there are people in the congregation that are really struggling through things and not turning away from them. How do you address that in a corporate way as you are leading communion?
Dr. Johnson: I think that is where you do take enough time in the service itself to invite people to do some self-examination. Again, remind people that this is an opportunity to really take some spiritual inventory.
I remember a man, who was actually the father of one of my kids when I was a youth pastor. He was actually a deacon in the church. He never took communion. I asked Tommy one day, “Tommy, your dad doesn’t take communion. He is a leader in the church.” He had an interesting answer. He said, “Dad doesn’t take communion because he never really feels he is good enough, or he feels like there is probably some sin that gets in the way.” At the time, I must admit, in my spiritual naiveness I thought, that sounds really Godly and really spiritual. Then I thought, what if everybody did that? That would be bizarre, but more, problematic.
I came to realize that if anyone said to me at the end of a service, “Pastor, I didn’t take the elements today because there are just issues of sin.” I would say, “You just missed a great opportunity to get right with God.” In the act itself is a wonderful moment for self-examination, to listen for the Holy Spirit, who might say, “There is this attitude, there is this bitterness, you need to let go” or “there is this thought life that is going on” or “this Internet pornography that you need to stop.”
If we are sensitive at all to the work of the Spirit in our lives, what a great moment to say, “Okay, God, I’m confessing this. I need to repent of this. I am so grateful for forgiveness. By the way, now I am going to celebrate it.” Because it is a celebration of forgiveness.
It is a long answer, but to say in the very act itself, it invites us. But what I want to underscore, going back to 1 Corinthians 11, it is not enough just to think about where I’m at. It is a time that we as a congregation stop to ponder, where are we at? Because I think again the seriousness of 1 Corinthians 11 of drinking judgment to themselves is that they were betraying the act of community. I wonder how many churches are, because they are not thinking corporately, they are just examining individually and may be drinking judgment to themselves. That is a pretty serious statement. I think Paul gives us some incentive to do that because “some sleep,” which is not just talking about an eight-hour rest, but something permanent. Good question.
Anything else on communion?
D. Have you as a pastor ever mentioned an issue that needed to be dealt with corporately?
Question: In light of the community aspect of that, have you ever suggested or made mention of something that you know of that is something that you sense as an issue in the community as being something that needs to be considered in that time?
Dr. Johnson: That is a great question. As I reflect back and think about your question, there are certain seasons in a community when I should have. In fact, I think it would take a certain amount of courage, pastoral courage, but I think it really fits under pastoral care. I wonder if sometimes, especially in a very divisive community, if a pastor said, “Today, as you know, we typically come to the table. But I fear we are going to be drinking judgment to ourselves by the way we are treating each other in this community, so we are not going to partake at the table today until we work at getting things right with one another. When we do and I sense that some of these walls come down and this divisiveness is dealt with and the Spirit of God has really dealt with us, then I think we will be ready.”
I just wonder. I have never been bold enough to do that. But, 33 years later, there are a lot of bolder things I would have done. I think I know of a couple of situations. In my last church, I came in after a long, long pastorate and then as often happens, a very short-term pastor who left in a way that left a lot of ill will, a lot of divisiveness. People were really upset. I wonder what would have happened if I had done something like that.
In fact, I remember, the Spirit of God works this way. One night on this elder board there was a man, I will never forget this. He said, “You know, I think that as a church we have become arrogant.” Because this church, a rather large church, had citywide, even nationwide one of the largest youth ministries of its day. He said, “I think we became arrogant and I think that is when things started to go downhill.” What happened, in an amazing way, I don’t think I have ever seen again. Every single elder, it’s like they were all provoked by the Spirit of God and convicted. Every single one of them around the table, that elder table, got on their knees and they repented and asked God to forgive them of being arrogant and proud, and the church as a whole. I can tell you, everything changed after that.
I think it is a great question because I wonder if there should be a pastoral boldness if he knows and people know that there is division.
I will talk about this more in leadership, but in my church in Holland, I had a church chairman that was dedicated to my destruction, for reasons I will never know. He did this with every pastor. He was determined to destroy my life. In about the third or fourth year there was a congregational meeting and it became a divided place. I had to weather through that. We got through it okay. But looking back now, I think that right around that time period, before we got things sorted out, I think with assertive boldness you can do it in a way that is just pouring guilt on people. You could do it in a really bad way that would leave a lot of bad taste. You could potentially frame communion in a way that it would take a long time for people to get over. I think you have to use pastoral wisdom and judgment. I think if with a broken heart you were to say, “I am doing this because I don’t want us to drink judgment to ourselves and I think that is what we are doing here.”
Paul clearly is saying, “You have to get things right as a community and if not, there are consequences.” So I think if you did it with a heart, back to pastoral care and sensitivity. I have never experienced it, but it could be a powerful, powerful pastoral memory.
Question: Would one way to do that involve like having the elders present something to say that we, corporately as a group of elders, sense that this is something in our church that is really concerning to us and we want to do something in a positive way to deal with these things, so that we can live in a good community, and have them present it?
Dr. Johnson: Possibly. I think what you are bringing out here is that it might be something that before you did it as a pastoral act, you might say, “I think I need to run this by my leaders.” The problem, however, is if a lot of it stems from your leadership, then that would be an elder meeting I would not want to be in. I think you just have to have the boldness of a shepherd, who ultimately is called to lead the church. That might even infuriate some of your elders. But I think again, it is to say, “I do this with a broken heart because if we are all honest, we know we are not where we should be as a church.”
What I might do, what I think would be really helpful, is to come out of a context of say teaching 1 Corinthians 11, so that people don’t attach with just something I thought of, but something that is here.
E. Should communion be on a regular basis?
Question: I did something when I was a pastor, and I have always wondered if it was too extreme, or not. I was always concerned about communion being a meaningless ritual. It was the first Sunday of every month. Things were done the same way every time. So many people just kind of do it. So I checked with the elders, got permission. I instituted a policy that we would not have communion unless I was preaching on something that was in some way relevant to communion. I did not want to be preaching about some topic that is totally irrelevant and then, oh, by the way, we’re going to have communion.
We still had communion eight to twelve times a year, but they never knew when it was going to happen. I had one lady comment who was very unhappy and she said, “But I need communion to purge my soul.” I should not have said, but I said, “Now would be a good time to do that, why do you want to wait until the first?” I know that was incorrect. Was that too much, to make the ritual, not on a regular basis, to make sure I preached on a relevant topic; or should communion be something that just happens on a regular basis, regardless of what else is going on in the church calendar?
Dr. Johnson: I see in scripture in at least early church writings and I see in the New Testament that it seems to be part and parcel of worship. I think we always want to make it available. That is what we did actually in my last church, is that we corporately celebrated it once a month. But the elements were there. We had redesigned, we built a new worship sanctuary that had alcoves. It was sort of taken from a European model. In these alcoves we invited people in our worship service at any time during worship, singing, even preaching, if people felt they needed to go. There was a place for prayer, there were elements over here. People could go and people did, people who felt like they needed to really get right with God.
I think my short answer is to say, I think you could do that. But I would say to people every week, “We are glad you are all here to worship God. We are going to sing. You are going to hear the Word of God. We are not taking communion corporately today, but the elements are always here for you. You may want to come during the service or you might want to come after the service.” There are many times for me as a pastor, just before I preached, I would go and I would just enjoy time at the table while the singing was going on. It was fine.
It is interesting. In the context in which I teach, a lot of it is Gospel-centered preaching, Christ-centered preaching which underscores the point that we should find Christ in every scripture, in every sermon. The Gospel must be preached every time we gather. Of course, now we are starting to get into a whole lot of other issues here. But using it illustratively, if we philosophically look at the sermon, the service that way, then communion would be a natural part.
I would be preaching Genesis and people would say, I was hoping for an altar call and bringing people to Jesus. It would be great to hear the Gospel. I often would say, “I think if you are listening, there is Gospel every time we open the scripture because it is all good news.” Maybe they didn’t hear the plan of salvation every week, which I think was an addendum added on, really going back to frontier services in the 1800s.
I think part of it depends on how you sort that out too. If you feel like you must get to Christ every time in the sermon, or get to the Gospel in the sense of salvation, then it would be hard to say, communion has been set. Of course. If you are not inclined that way, then you might do more something like this.