Mailbag #66: Is Preaching Necessary on the Mission Field? . . . Is “Closed Communion” Biblical?

Mailbag
10.27.2017

Is preaching required in missionary contexts, or do Bible studies suffice? »
“Closed communion” seems exclusive and arrogant. Is it in the Bible? »

Dear 9Marks,

I am a newly appointed missionary and am wrestling with the necessity of preaching in the church context. It’s a fad right now to do inductive style teaching in lieu of preaching in house churches. I brought up the imperative to preach from 2 Timothy 4:2 and the response was that Timothy was likely a missionary and the preaching here is evangelism, not Western-style pulpit ministry. Further, it’s not “practical” and as easily reproducible.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the necessity of monological (for lack of better words) preaching as a transcultural imperative.

Thanks for your time,

—Dave

Dear Dave,

I sent your question to Zane Pratt who serves as the Vice President for Training for the SBC’s International Mission Board. I assumed (rightly, he tells me) that he’s encountered this before. He tells me it has become the party line in some places, in part because people are looking for a ministry program that’s quickly reproducible. Here’s what Pratt said:

This is a great question, and it shows the intersection between missions strategy, our understanding of the church, and our interpretation of Scripture. In the example you’ve been told, missions strategy is in the driver’s seat. The controlling concern is the desire to see churches reproduce quickly. That in turn leads to a desire to remove any feature of church life that might take time to develop—like having pastors who are able to preach. This requires redefining the function of Bible teaching in the church to something that anyone can do immediately after conversion, like leading a Bible discussion. Finally, in order to warrant this conclusion from Scripture, it becomes necessary to rule out proclamation-type verses in the New Testament from having application to the internal life of the church. Does such a procedure stand up to scrutiny?

Zane Pratt, IMB

There are two Greek word groups under consideration here. One is kerygma and its related verb forms, and the other is didache and its related verb forms. The first of these is often best translated as “proclamation,” and it is often used in the New Testament to refer to the proclamation of the gospel to the world—hence, to evangelistic preaching. In fact, 2 Timothy 4:2 begins with this word. The second word is usually translated as teaching. However, the line between these words is by no means solid. For example, the verbal form of kerygma is used in both Acts 15:21 and Romans 2:21 to refer to ordinary instruction and preaching in the synagogue. In the case of 2 Timothy 4:2, the explanatory context uses the word didache—teaching—to describe what kind of proclamation is in mind. This verse does in fact connect proclamation or preaching with the teaching that goes on in the church.

Of equal importance is the complete absence in the New Testament of any examples of inductive Bible study as the central teaching event in the church. Following the examples of Jesus, the synagogue, and the apostles (see, for example, Paul in Troas in Acts 20), the normal form of teaching would have been preaching or proclamation by one teacher. That is not to say that some form of discussion is out of order. It can be very useful. However, the normal pattern of teaching in the church from the earliest days of New Testament church life has been centered on preaching. Training pastors/elders/overseers to preach is a necessary part of healthy church formation, and the legitimate desire to see the gospel spread as quickly as possible does not negate that obligation.

Thank you, Zane. So helpful.

I remember encountering similar ideas in the Emergent Church movement about a decade ago. Therefore, I responded to the trend in my book Reverberation. When Moody suggested republishing Reverberation as Word-Centered Church last year, I assumed the conversation mostly had died, so I cut out the section on dialogical preaching. Apparently, it has now shown up in missionary circles! So, here’s what I wrote in Reverberation:

A number of writers have been promoting dialogical preaching lately. Such preaching focuses on the back and forth nature of dialogue, but places this conversation into the preaching event. It’s said to be particularly appropriate in these postmodern days since no one believes anymore that “one man has all the answers.” Dialogues give every member of the community an opportunity to express him or herself and offer a perspective on God’s Word. . . .

No doubt, group conversations about God’s Word, as in inductive Bible studies, can be rich and sweet. It is encouraging to hear the young and old, mature and immature, testify to their experience of God’s grace through the biblical text being discussed.

At the same time, God has gifted some—not all—to be pastors and teachers and given them as gifts to his church (Eph. 4:7–13). And he means to particularly bless and grow his church through them.

The pattern throughout Scripture is for a man—a judge, a prophet, an apostle, a preacher—to speak authoritatively on behalf of God: “Thus says the Lord. . .” The speaker’s authority does not derive from himself; it derives from the Word. It’s tied to his faithful presentation of it. The congregation, on the other hand, learns what it means to submit to God by submitting to his authoritative Word as it’s preached. The goal isn’t to exchange perspectives, but to hear what God says. Every Christian (including the preacher) must understand that first and foremost we live under God’s authoritative Word. This reality is best demonstrated and practiced through the preaching event, a place where we learn to sit quietly and listen. The preacher, if he has been faithful, has been sitting quietly and listening all week!

I pray something Zane or I have offered is helpful to you.

Dear 9Marks,

I just found out that the church I am a part of practices closed communion. (“Closed communion” is the practice of restricting the Lord’s Supper to members of a particular local church and only that church.) Could you give me Bible references that speak about this issue? It feels very exclusive and arrogant to exclude even close friends who I know have embraced the gospel and are walking with the Lord. I would appreciate any Bible passages that speak either for or against this idea.

—Amy

Dear Amy,

If I may, first a word or correction, then of consolation, and finally of counsel. The correction: you shouldn’t assume people are being arrogant because they are trying to obey the Bible as they understand it. Now, I don’t agree with this particular view of the Lord’s Supper either, but I assume that the church and its leaders are doing their best to obey and submit themselves to God.

I do find it’s somewhat common to criticize as arrogant people with strong opinions about what the Bible teaches. And certainly, such people might be arrogant. But they might also might be the humblest of all, because they put aside their own opinions or popularity, and submit themselves to God. I’ve known people in both camps. For our part, let’s do our best to give people the benefit of the doubt, particularly when it comes to the motives of their hearts.

Now the word of consolation: I agree with you that closed communion mistakenly excludes people from the Lord’s Supper who should not be excluded. But let me start with what this position gets right. The Lord’s Supper is not an individual Christian ordinance, but a church ordinance. It marks off the church from the world. Listen to Paul: “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17). We are shown to be one body when we partake of the one loaf. The Supper is a church revealing meal. He then practically concludes, “When you gather to eat, you should all eat together” (11:33).

This is why the Supper is for the gathered church. It’s for church members. It reveals who the church members are. And this much the closed communion position gets right.

Yet there is another principle we need to remember: the universal church is bigger than just our church. Therefore, it’s the practice of my own church to open the Table to members of other churches. Throughout the New Testament we see examples of churches working together, such as John’s commendation of Gaius for receiving the missionaries he sent (3 John 5–8). What’s more, we see John condemning Diostrephes because he won’t welcome other believers (3 John 9). When we open the Table to members of other churches, therefore, we demonstrate a rightful welcome to the larger body of Christ. So you’ll hear our pastors say something like, “If you’re a baptized member of another gospel-preaching church, then you’re welcome to receive the Lord’s Table here.”

Finally, my counsel. What do you do in your position? First, respect your own church and its leaders. Assume they have good reasons for their position. And, who knows, maybe they’re right and we’re wrong. I think it would be fine for you to have a conversation with the leaders about this issue, and even to present a different view. But I would only do this once, and then I would leave it alone. If you stay in the church, do so only if you can be content to leave the topic alone. Don’t be a source of division. If you feel like you cannot remain in the church because of its position here, that’s fine. But do your best to leave humbly, graciously, and with as little wake behind you as possible.

I pray this is useful. Thanks for your thoughtfulness and care.