How the Lord’s Supper Makes a Local Church
When does a couple actually get married? Is it when they say “I do”? When the minister pronounces them husband and wife? When they consummate the marriage?
There’s a sense in which each of those moments is essential to the formation of a marriage. But each also depends on the others. That’s why, for example, if a marriage is never consummated, there’s a sense in which the couple is not yet fully married. And this distinction carries legal weight; severing such a bond is an annulment, not a divorce.
What on earth does all this have to do with the Lord’s Supper? It seems to me that many Christians think of the Lord’s Supper as an intensified private devotion. I go to church, I hear the Word, I eat the bread and drink the wine, I’m reminded of Christ’s death and the forgiveness of my sins, I go home. Of course, we also associate the Lord’s Supper with the church, at least in the sense that it’s something we do when we “go to church.” For most Christians, though, that’s as far as they go when it comes to putting together the Lord’s Supper and the local church.
But I want to argue that the Lord’s Supper actually plays a crucial role in putting the church together. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper together is an essential step in making a church a church. In a very significant sense, the Lord’s Supper is the moment when a group of Christians become one body. The Lord’s Supper makes many one.
I’m focusing on this idea for two reasons. First, it’s widely neglected among evangelical Christians. I think Paul clearly teaches that the Lord’s Supper binds many into one, as we’ll see in a moment. But too few pastors and churches seem to pick up Paul’s point and let it shape their views of the Lord’s Supper and the church. Second, this point about how the Lord’s Supper constitutes a local church is crucial to many of the practical questions pastors and church will face: who may participate in the Supper? who should lead it? what church-like gatherings are permitted to celebrate it?
In order to think wisely about how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we need this biblical lens fixed firmly in front of our eyes.
HOW THE THE LORD’S SUPPER MAKES MANY ONE
Recall Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:16–17: “The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, 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?” Paul reminds the Corinthians that to eat the bread and drink the cup is to enjoy fellowship with Christ, to experience the benefits of his death.
From this “vertical” fellowship between Christ and believers, Paul then draws a “horizontal” conclusion in verse 17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread.” Paul’s central claim in this verse is that we who are many are one body. And he twice grounds or supports this assertion by referring to our joint participation in the Lord’s Supper: “Because there is one bread . . . for all of us share that one bread.” The fact that Paul repeats his reason twice weighs against seeing the bread as merely representing or picturing the church’s unity. Instead, Paul roots the church’s unity in its celebration of the Lord’s Supper. There is one body because there is one bread.
Paul is saying that the Lord’s Supper actually makes many one. The Lord’s Supper gathers up the “we who are many” and makes us into one body. In other words, the Lord’s Supper constitutes a local church. Of course, Paul’s point is not about the mechanics of bread and eating, as if a larger church that needed more than one loaf to celebrate the Lord’s Supper was no longer one church but many. Instead, Paul uses “one bread” as shorthand for the church’s corporate, all-together celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Paul’s point is that, in the Lord’s Supper, because we all share in fellowship with Christ together, our unity in Christ creates the unified body of the church.
In other words, the Lord’s Supper is the renewing oath-sign of the new covenant. In the Lord’s Supper, we renew our commitment to Christ and each other. And it is this twofold commitment that makes a church a church.
THE LOCAL CHURCH, IN TWO STEPS
God creates a local church in two steps. In the first step, he creates Christians. How? He sends preachers who proclaim Christ (Rom. 10:14–17). He sends his Spirit to enable some who hear to receive and confess Christ (1 Cor. 12:3). He causes his Word to become effective in their lives, granting them new life in Christ (James 1:18). God creates his church by sending his Word and sending his Spirit to make his Word effective. God creates gospel people, people who have been saved through trusting Christ. That’s step one.
When people come to Christ, they become members of his universal body. They are spiritually one with him. But in order to create a church, people have to come not only to Christ but also to each other. They have to come together, and that coming together requires commitment. A local church doesn’t automatically spring into existence whenever two or more Christians are in the same town, or same room. Otherwise, whenever you bumped into a Christian at the grocery store a new church would emerge, and it would dissolve as soon as you walked down another aisle. A church is more than simply “Christians” in the plural. It’s more than the sum of its parts. There has to be something binding people together.
GOSPEL PEOPLE & GOSPEL POLITY
Therefore, in order to create a church, gospel people have to form a gospel polity. A church is born when Christians commit to be a church together. That’s step two. Think back to the example of marriage. A marriage is born when a man and woman commit to be husband and wife. The vow creates the marriage. Similarly, a church is born when a group of Christians commit to one another, to do all that Jesus commanded his churches do together: gather for worship, build up each other in love, bear each other’s burdens, and celebrate baptism and the Lord’s Supper together.
All this is still God’s work, since it’s his saving and empowering work that enables our right response to the gospel, including the right response of committing to one another. God’s work and our work aren’t in competition. We can only come together as Christians because God has first made us Christians. God creates a church by creating Christians, and by enabling those Christians to commit to each other.
BAPTISM & THE LORD’S SUPPER
But how exactly does a group of Christians enact this commitment? The ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper play crucial roles. In baptism, you publicly commit to Christ and his people. Baptism is where faith goes public. It’s how a new believer shows up on the world and the church’s radar as a believer. In other words, baptism marks off a believer from the world. In baptism, the church says to the world, “This one belongs to Jesus!”
In the Lord’s Supper, we renew our commitment to Christ and his people. But, distinct from baptism, the Lord’s Supper is something we all do together. The Lord’s Supper marks off an entire group of Christians as one body, drawing a line between them and the world around them. And by drawing a line between the church and the world, baptism and the Lord’s Supper draw a line around the church. The ordinances make it possible to point to something and say “church” rather than only pointing to many somethings and saying “Christians.”
Imagine one Christian goes to a new city, preaches the gospel, and a handful of people all come to Christ around the same time. This new Christian baptizes each of them. How and when will this handful of baptized Christians become a church? I’d suggest the most basic, most essential answer is: when they celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. Remember that celebrating the Lord’s Supper expresses our commitment to Christ and to each other. To receive Christ’s benefits in the Lord’s Supper is to receive Christ’s people as brothers and sisters. In the Lord’s Supper itself we make the commitment to each other that takes us across the line between “handful of Christians” and “local church.” In the Lord’s Supper itself we come together as one body. As Paul says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).
As a matter of prudence, I think it’s generally wise for churches to clarify what they’re doing when they first constitute as a church through a verbal pledge the members make to each other. In the Congregationalist and Baptist traditions, this is often called a “church covenant,” and is sometimes recited by the whole church each time they celebrate the Lord’s Supper. I think that’s a great practice. But it’s not that our verbal commitment creates the church apart from our joint participation in the Lord’s Supper. Instead, the explicit verbal commitment of a church covenant simply makes explicit what is implicit in the Lord’s Supper. A verbal church covenant aids our understanding, reminding us of exactly what we’re doing when we partake of the bread and wine together.
Again, I think the beginning of a church is a bit like the beginning of a marriage. The analogy is imperfect, as all are, but it gets us pretty far. A marriage is born when a man and woman pronounce vows, a minister or other legal official pronounces them married, and the couple consummates their marriage. The vow “I do” initiates the new relationship, but that new relationship is not confirmed until the husband and wife seal their union physically.
Similarly, a gathering of believers are not a local church until they seal their union with each other through the Lord’s Supper. If a group of believers who meant to be a church never celebrated the Lord’s Supper together, not only would they be disobeying Jesus, but there’s a real sense in which they would not yet be a church. The Lord’s Supper consummates the commitment by which Christians become a church.
How does the Lord’s Supper make a local church? Together with baptism, the Lord’s Supper is how a gospel people form a gospel polity. The Lord’s Supper is how Christians come together, commit to each other, and cross the line from “many” to “one.” In the Lord’s Supper, our fellowship with Christ creates fellowship with each other. The Lord’s Supper makes many one.
There’s a gorgeous simplicity to God’s design for the church. What does it take to make a church? Gospel preaching that creates gospel people who participate in gospel ordinances. The church is the shape into which the gospel and its ordinances form God’s people. Baptism binds one to many, and the Lord’s Supper binds many into one.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper inscribe the gospel into the very shape and structure of the church. What makes many one are the signs of the gospel. When Christians come together to form a church, they aren’t moving beyond the gospel but deeper into it.
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Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from Bobby Jamieson’s new book Understanding the Lord’s Supper, in the Church Basics series (B&H, 2016). Reprinted by permission of B&H.