Churches in Iran: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper
If I were speaking to a room full of Christians concerned for the church in Iran, I tell them: “I intend to make the Lord’s Supper the key focus of my work with the local church.”
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In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg relates a remarkable story of business transformation. In 1987, after years of profit decline, incoming CEO Paul O’Neill formally announced his strategic vision for Alcoa, one of the largest aluminum companies in the world. He stated: “I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.” A disconcerted audience of shareholders asked about profit margins and inventory management. But O’Neill was clear: “If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures.”
One year later, Alcoa posted record profits, and O’Neill used safety as a platform for changing Alcoa’s habits in every aspect of their business performance. Virtually every area of their business was positively impacted in an effort to make the workplace safer.
If I were speaking to a room full of Christians concerned for the church in Iran, I might give a similar speech: “I intend to make the Lord’s Supper the key focus of my work with the local church.”
The Lord’s Supper? What about the number of baptisms or church attendance?
The numbers are indeed impressive. Iranians both inside Iran and abroad are showing great responsiveness to the gospel. Church attendance in some refugee communities can reach as many as 600. Bible distribution efforts inside Iran reveal a hunger for spiritual nourishment from God’s Word.
But numbers don’t tell the whole story. As our team’s training efforts have shifted more intently on planting churches that reflect the character of God, we’ve encountered significant theological deficiencies. And because the Lord’s Supper impacts virtually every aspect of church life, it makes a great teaching tool. Three characteristics in particular are significant with respect to the growth of the Iranian church.
THE LORD’S SUPPER CELEBRATES OUR SUFFERING MESSIAH
First, the Lord’s Supper is a visual reminder that suffering is a critical aspect of our salvation. This indisputable biblical reality, however, is challenged among Iranians who have been misled by the prosperity gospel.
Forty years after the revolution, the Islamic regime hasn’t delivered on its promise to make Iran the “Spotless Society.” So Iranians look to Christianity to fill this spiritual void. Regrettably, their first exposure often comes through personalities on satellite TV and the internet who preach the prosperity gospel—or what Paul calls “another gospel” (Gal. 1:6–7). Many Iranians have taken this false teaching at face value and therefore consider Christianity as a means of escaping economic and societal woes. These sheep need a better understanding of the Christian life in general and the Lord’s Supper in particular. It can function as a wonderful means to countermand these aberrant teachings by reflecting on Christ’s suffering on the cross.
THE LORD’S SUPPER INFORMS THE CHURCH’S SHAPE & STRUCTURE
Second, the Lord’s Supper is a platform for discussing the biblical structure of the church. As I taught on this subject, I asked people, “How many times have you participated in the Lord’s Supper?” Only a few raised their hands. “Why not?” I asked. “The only person who can offer the Lord’s Supper is a pastor,” they replied.
When Iranian Christians say “pastor,” they transport a good deal of conflicting ideas. Some are influenced by the Armenian Apostolic Church, which has had a presence in Iran since the first century. Others are shaped by modern denominations like Presbyterians, Anglicans, or Assemblies of God.
But what these expressions have in common is an assumption about approved systems of clergy selection, training, and governance. When the Iranian government became more hostile to the Christian faith, Armenian churches were allowed to continue their religious practices because they were tied to ethnicity and culture (e.g., worship services were only held in Armenian, not Farsi). In these churches, the authority to administer the Lord’s Supper continues along the same course it has for centuries; in other words, the Supper requires the leadership of a clergyman who is properly tied to the institution. (But this tie to a foreign language explains why Iranian authorities view Protestant churches as a product of Western culture and thus potentially more subversive.)
The onset of persecution forced most churches to grapple with the dynamics of being an underground movement, which included the challenge of fulfilling their institutional responsibilities. Some wanted to replicate the institutionalized aspects in a house church setting, while moving pastoral training and the management of churches to secret locations inside Iran or to safer places like Europe or the United States. But a large number of Muslim converts coupled with unrelenting pressure from the Iranian government made it difficult to keep pace.
As a result, Iranian house church leadership has felt the tension of being convinced that pastoral ministry requires an outside institution’s formal recognition, despite being providentially hindered from receiving it. For many, the way to relieve this tension is to simply jettison biblical mandates like the Lord’s Supper. In their mind, this is an acceptable course of action because they’re without a formal pastor.
THE LORD’S SUPPER TEACHES THE NEED FOR SINCERE UNITY WITHIN THE BODY
But it’s not just ideas about church leadership that are challenged by the Lord’s Supper; it’s also church membership. While baptism is a one-time drama about who is in the kingdom and who isn’t, the Lord’s Supper is a regular and ongoing drama about belongs to the local church and who doesn’t.
All this leads us to a third point: the Lord’s Supper is a reset button for horizontal and vertical relationships. It goes beyond the scope of this article to offer an encompassing definition of the local church―but some of its non-negotiable features are intimately related to the Lord’s Supper.
A local church is confessional in respect to the good news of Jesus Christ: Jesus is the Son of God who died to cancel our sin debt and who was raised for our justification. But a local church is more than just an agreement on a list of doctrines. It’s also an assembly of individuals who are called to follow Jesus together. This unity is of course doctrinal. Yet it’s also ontological (we’re baptized by one Spirit) and behavioral (Christ is made visible to the world by our loving relationships with each other). In other words, in order to take the Lord’s Supper properly, Christians must acknowledge their sins before God and address the health of their relationships before others in the body (1 Cor. 11:18–30). Neither can be ignored.
The Lord’s Supper, then, offers a regular opportunity to hit the reset button with church members. In fact, it’s the regularity that makes it more difficult for sins and offenses to linger too long, and easier to fulfill our Lord’s mandate to show we are Christians by our love for one another.
Some time last year I met with “Shapur,” a church planter living inside Iran who was involved with three new churches in other cities. None of them were practicing the Lord’s Supper because they had no “professional pastor.” Shapur decided he wanted to help them obey the Lord’s command. He went to his pastor, who is formally trained, and asked him to bless the elements and send Shapur out as their church’s representative. After much debate and theological consternation, his pastor did just that.
Such an arrangement isn’t perfect, but for the first time these three churches are regularly observing the Lord’s Supper and learning what it means to be a local expression of the gospel. Slowly, they’re growing in faithfulness and learning what it means to teach disciples all that our Lord has commanded us.