Thursday, 17 February 2011

The place of the Lord’s Supper in discipline

The 2009 Conference of the Methodist Church in Ireland directed the Council of Social Responsibility to publish Pastoral Guidelines for the care of those of same sex attraction. The eleventh guideline reads as follows

We affirm our belief that Communion can be a converting ordinance as well as a confirming ordinance and since the Table is the Lord’s Table, then all are welcome to communion.
The first issue that is raised by this statement is to do with Methodism’s understanding that the Lord’s Supper should be open to those who have not yet come to a living faith in Jesus. In the Beliefs of the Methodist Church in Ireland it is stated that, ‘Wesley regarded the Lord’s Supper not just as a means of experiencing the grace of God, but as a means of conversion (a converting ordinance) and so the person presiding often invites “all those who love the Lord or who seek to do so” to share in the sacrament.’ As Lawson points out ‘Wesley rejected the view that only the soundly converted should come to the Holy Communion. He would remember that his own mother had come to the full evangelical experience at the Lord’s Table, and that this was the case with many others.’ However, the belief that those who are not converted can participate in the Communion would seem to jar with the fellowship language the Apostle Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 10:16. Fee comments, ‘there can be little doubt that Paul intends to emphasize the kind of bonding relationship of the worshippers with one another that this meal expresses’; Grudem writes that when ‘Christian’s participate in the Lord’s Supper together they also give a clear sign of their unity with one another’; Prior says that ‘Christians are partners with the Lord and with one another in their central act of communion,’ and Mare explains that in ‘sharing a communion meal Christians show their union with one another.’

Even if it is thought that the Lord’s Table should be open to those who have not yet made a profession of faith it needs to be noted that the condition is set in Methodist Beliefs that they are those who are ‘seeking’ to love the Lord. Lawson says that, ‘Wesley goes on to state that only one thing is necessary for a man rightly to come to the Holy Communion, that is, a sense that he needs forgiveness and the assistance of God’s grace.’ This declaration to be seeking to love the Lord and a desire to experience the assistance of his grace would be very shallow if the person is not willing to address issues of serious public sin in their lives. In The Means of Grace, Wesley states that a person should examine themselves to see whether they really desire to be ‘made conformable to the death of Christ.’ If the Lord’s Supper is to serve as a ‘converting ordinance’ this conversion must be seen as going hand in hand with repentance. Therefore it would be appropriate for those presiding over the Lord’s Supper to anticipate that a person’s participation was an indication that they are seeking to live a life pleasing to God.

Thirdly, the statement that ‘all are welcome to communion’ means that the Lord’s Supper cannot serve as a part of the process of discipline. However, Caswell points out that discipline ‘has traditionally been exercised in connection with the sacraments: the “unworthy” (1 Cor. 11:27) should not take the Lord’s supper …’ Similarly Prior links excommunication with sharing in the Lord’s Supper. Where the Apostle Paul tells members of the church not to eat with someone whose lifestyle is in flagrant contradiction to their profession of faith (1 Cor. 5:11) Morris explains that this ‘will refer primarily to ordinary meals, and not to Holy Communion, though that too would be forbidden.’ Fee goes further writing that at ‘the very least it means that the incestuous man is to be excluded from Christian fellowship meals, including the Lord’s table.’ Caswell writes that excommunication ‘implies that we suspend convivial intercourse with the offender, though not ceasing to pray for their recovery; and though he is excluded from the benefits of the sacraments, he will be encouraged to attend the preaching of the Word.’

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