Mailbag #10—Lord’s Supper in Nursing Home; Christians Dating a Non-Christian; Role of Small Group Leaders; New Pastor in Need of Help

Mailbag
07.31.2015

Lord’s Supper in Nursing Home »
Christians Dating a Non-Christian »
Role of Small Group Leaders »
New Pastor in Need of Help »

Dear 9Marks,

I lead a small group in worship at a nursing home. They can’t go to church. I am all the church they get now. What about communion for them?

—Mike, North Carolina

Mike,

We get some version of this question often. I assume you are asking about members of your church who are unable to attend? This is a topic on which your friends at 9Marks actually disagree. Mark Dever and Bobby Jamieson take one position, I take the other. And let me admit up front, their position is theologically tidier. Bobby has ably argued in his new book, Going Public, that the Lord’s Supper is part of what constitutes the church as a church, which I agree with entirely. Still, we come to different conclusions. In light of these different perspectives, I asked Mark D. to dictate his answer to me, so that I could offer you both our answers.

Here is Mark Dever’s answer to your question:

It’s a wonderful thing to remember those who are separated from us, especially by disability or age. Prayers, Scripture reading, visits, and encouragements of many kinds properly express Christ’s love and ours for such a brother or sister. But what about “taking them the Lord’s Supper”? No, I don’t think you can serve the Lord’s Supper to one person alone any more than you can baptize an infant. It’s outside the definition of what the Lord Supper is by its very nature. In my mind, therefore, this question is comparable to the question of how we should think about baptizing someone unable to be baptized. In the case of both the person in the nursing home and the person who is unable to be baptized, their inability morally excuses them from the command. It’s the nature of the Lord’s Supper to be an expression of the unity of a congregation (1 Cor. 10:17). While all members of a congregation may never be present, the public meeting should be one of which all members are welcome and most members usually are present. Someone’s inability to assemble with the congregation—we trust then—will be accompanied by God’s special provision for them during their trials or extended absence.”

In other words—this is Jonathan summing up Mark and Bobby’s position now—the Lord’s Supper is not just an individual activity, it’s a corporate activity. It’s how the church both declares Christ’s death and affirms one another as the body of Christ. It’s not a super-charged quiet time or special moment between you and Jesus. Yes, it’s between you and Jesus, but it’s also between you and Jesus’ people, the church. So there’s a sense in which taking the Lord’s Supper alone is like saying your wedding vows without your spouse-to-be. It’s “outside the definition of what the Lord’s Supper is by its very nature,” to use Mark’s language.

Here is my answer to your question: 

Now, I completely affirm this theological explanation of the Supper. (You really should read Bobby’s chapter on the Supper in Going Public as well as his short book on the Supper coming out early 2016.) The Lord’s Supper speaks both vertically and horizontally. The Supper is a corporate word. It constitutes the church. And therefore I would say that the Supper should almost always be served in the gathering of the church. Don’t serve it in your wedding ceremonies. Don’t serve it around the family dinner table. Don’t serve it at summer camp.

But, yes, I do think you can serve the Supper to a member who is physically unable to attend. Notice that I included the italicized word “almost” several sentences ago. That word is the difference between me and Mark and Bobby here. In short, I think that the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch allows us to make exceptions in how we conduct the ordinances in exceptional circumstances. To be clear, the Ethiopian’s baptism, occurring as it does outside the conduct of a gathered church, is not normative. It does not set the pattern of what we should ordinarily do. It’s exceptional because there was no church in his land. Still, that text gives us license to baptize outside the context of a church only when necessary, like on a frontier mission’s setting. So, I propose, it does with the Lord’s Supper and someone who is unable to attend a church. On the day a church serves itself the Supper, I can see it sending a small group of representatives to the nursing home to extend that same corporate word of affirmation to the individual: “You are part of us, as we are covenantally united together in Christ.”

The principle here is the same as the principle for the idea of gathering. Gathering, too, is a necessary part of what makes a church a church and a member a member. But if we are willing to continue calling someone a member who never gathers with the church because they are physically unable to meet with our or any other church, it seems to me that we can extend to them that symbol of membership, the Supper.

Two pastoral caveats to mention: First, I don’t think it’s necessary for a church to do this, but, if a person asks for it, I think that a church can. Second, you should make sure your “shut-ins” understand that they will not receive any extra transfusion of special or sanctifying grace by receiving the Supper. That’s not what the Supper does.

There you are, Mike: two perspectives to think through. I pray God gives you wisdom.

Dear 9Marks,

There’s a young lady who recently started attending our church, about one month now. No one really knows her, yet and we are hoping that we can continue to get to know her better and minister to her. She professes to be a Christian but is dating a non-Christian. What are the principles and factors to consider when approaching her to teach her about this matter and her need for obedience to the Word? How much of it is determined based on the relationship we have with her, if she’s a member, how many times she’s been to our church, the actual sin, etc.?

—Allen, California

Allen,

To begin with, I probably would not let her become a member of the church so long as she is dating the non-Christian. But that doesn’t mean you don’t befriend her or minister to her in various ways.

Generally speaking, I don’t think we should admit people to membership who are living in unrepentant sin (sin they knowingly refuse to let go of). Jesus tells us to repent and follow him. That’s the basic price of “admission.” Think of the rich young ruler who kept all the law but wouldn’t sell everything and follow. Or think of the man who wanted to first bury his father (get his worldly affairs in a settled state) before following Jesus. In each case, Jesus told the person to go away. They said they wanted to follow, but they came with terms that they expected Jesus to accommodate. They wanted to remain kings themselves, which means they didn’t really mean to follow. So, what do we do with a person who refuses to heed what the Bible says about joining ourselves to non-Christians (e.g. 1 Cor. 7:39; 2 Cor. 6:14)? I understand this woman is only dating and not marrying, but I understand dating to be a movement toward marriage. And for that reason, how she decides to handle this dating relationship is a test of repentance.

Assuming she says she wants to become a church member, I’d tell her that you’re going to pause on that and wait to see how she handles this relationship in light of the New Testament’s clear commands. Ironically, her request to join the church gives you a clear opportunity to have this tough conversation.

If she doesn’t try to join the church, but just wants to hang around, then, yes, at some point I may have that conversation with her, but I don’t understand myself to have the same responsibility for non-members. Insofar as they haven’t joined the church, they haven’t invited me to speak into their lives in the same way. Now, if I’m sitting with her at lunch, and we’re talking about her life, yes, I might challenge her on this point. But there is a bigger context here that’s crucial for you to see: my church practices meaningful membership, which means we’re not going to let her get involved in ministry, or feel like she’s a part of the church, or think that we affirm her as a Christian, as an attending non-member. And it’s precisely for people like this we do this. When our churches treat members and long-term attending non-members in the same way, we deprive ourselves of any pastoral leverage in their lives. To treat non-members like members is like saying, “You don’t have to sell everything and follow Jesus. And go ahead and bury your Father. Jesus is happy to have you here.” And in so doing we fail to call them to repentance. We fail to give them an opportunity to discover whether or not they are really Christians. How horrible!

Bottom line: call her to repentance as a condition of membership; love and befriend her either way; but don’t treat her like a “Christian” or an insider until she demonstrates the fruit in keeping with repentance.

Dear 9Marks,

I am in leadership at my church, and they strongly emphasizes the importance of small groups, which I think are vital. However, our lead pastor and small group director often refer to small group leaders as “shepherds” and “the primary spiritual leadership” over the small group members. Something seems off about that and I have voiced concerns on placing the “primary” emphasis on small group leaders rather than the elders of the church, seeing how the pastoral epistles seem to place primary shepherding emphasis on the elders. Is it correct to call small group leaders the primary shepherds of those they are leading? What role should small groups and small group leaders play in the church and how do the relate and differ from elders in the church?

—Marc, Nebraska

Marc,

The Bible does treat the elders as the church’s shepherds or “pastors” (e.g. 1 Peter 5:1-5; Eph. 4:11). Notice the idea of eldering and shepherding/pastoring (to pastor is to shepherd) are used interchangeably. Therefore I think it’s potentially confusing to refer to the small group leaders as the “primary spiritual leadership” over the small group members. Now, maybe by “primary” they mean the small group leader is the first line of defense (or is it offense?!)—and that’s certainly fine. You can do things that way. Certainly more people in the church can shepherd (verb) than just the shepherds (noun). In fact, every member of the church should be doing some shepherding. But two qualifications here: first, small group leaders should always be elder or elder-like individuals. So you should not make a person a small group leader if they are not “able to teach” or “above reproach.” Second, it should be clear to any small group leaders that they serve under the broader oversight and shepherding care of the elders or pastors.

Now, you may or may not have the ability to change the way the leadership presently speaks about these things. I do think it would be fine for you to have a conversation with the leadership about this, but it’s not a hill I’d die on.

Dear 9Marks,

What are the first three tasks (or more) a lead pastor should do at a new church?I would especially love to hear your thoughts on this pastor being a first time pastor right out of seminary stepping into a church. Thanks.

—Donald, South Carolina

Donald,

Start with reading Bob Johnson’s excellent article here, as well as this 9Marks Journal devoted to young pastors. Whether you’re coming straight from seminary or from another church, your first task is to prepare excellent sermons. Don’t let anything get in the way of that. Second, pray, pray, and pray. Oh my goodness you should pray. And then finally, make sure you’re loving people by getting to know them, sharing meals with them, and asking them questions, especially questions about their spiritual backgrounds and progress in the faith. I’ve said elsewhere that you should love the church more than it’s health. Finally, be very careful about making changes, especially in the first year.

Oh, and here’s one more bonus assignment: we actually did a conference earlier this year called First Five Years for pastors in your situation. All of the talks are up on YouTube and can be watched here.