Mailbag #9—Lord’s Supper in Small Groups; Elder Disqualified by Unbelieving Wife; Immersion Necessary for Baptism?
It has become very trendy to take communion divorced from the congregational body. I have seen it done where the individual is exalted by creating a special extra service that sets a mood and forces people to be alone and reflect. It has also become popular to take it in small groups and in family units (husband and wife at home, etc.). I have felt very uncomfortable with these practices being separated from the church as a whole but have found it difficult to articulate a healthy and full response to the matter. Would you allow for private communion and the like?
No, I wouldn’t encourage private communion, or communion at home, or communion at camp, or communion in a wedding, or anything that sets the individual experience against the corporate significance of the act.
Each of these examples place the activity of the Supper into the wrong setting, like saying the American pledge of allegiance in a wedding ceremony, or singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in a church service. Wrong action for the occasion.
Listen to this: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16-17). The Lord’s Supper is a corporate and church activity. It is where the many become one, as Bobby Jamieson (following Paul in verse 17) puts it in his upcoming book Going Public. The Lord’s Supper is the mechanism Jesus gave to his gathered people for declaring his death until he comes, and for affirming one another’s shared profession in the faith.
Remember how he tells the Corinthians, “when you come together to eat [the Supper], wait for one another (1 Cor. 11:33)”? Why does he say “wait for one another”? Imagine saying your wedding vows without both spouses, or saying a team cheer all by yourself, or signing a business contract and not showing it to anyone. It’s just not what the vows, the cheer, and the contract are for. Even if there is an educative element in doing these things privately, it misses the point of the thing itself. The Lord’s Supper is a family meal.
But not only that, it’s a citizen’s meal for citizens of Christ’s kingdom. It is an authorized act, and Jesus means for it to accomplish accountability purposes for the church on earth. It marks off the church on earth, and says who the church is. So think back to the Old Testament. How did you know who God’s people were? How were they made visible? Among the Patriarchs, through circumcision. In the kingdom of Israel, through Sabbath keeping and eventually living in the land. Okay, now, how do you mark off a kingdom with no land? How do you exercise “passport patrol” among the citizen’s of Christ’s landless kingdom? How do you make the invisible people of the New Covenant visible? Answer: through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is your initiating oath sign for the new covenant, and the Lord’s Supper is your on-going oath sign (again: Jamieson’s Going Public). This is why Jesus authorizes local churches to exercise the keys whenever they gather as two or three or three thousand in his name. It’s in the corporate gathering of the church where we affirm one another as citizens of the kingdom, not just in any random collection of Christians.
Bottom line: Christians today tend to treat the Lord’s Supper as a private mystical act between themselves and Jesus, or at least as a matter of self-expression, as when used in a wedding ceremony (“we’re taking this to say we’re Christians”). I’m fine with self-expression. Let’s preserve that. But now let’s add to it the corporate element as well: “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Declare that the many become one. Praise God!
Would you consider appointing a man to serve as an elder who has an unbelieving wife? In this case the man meets all the biblical qualifications but I don’t want to create undue pressure at home with increased church responsibility. Would this be unwise?
Formally, I don’t think Scripture forbids you from appointing such a man. Prudentially, I think you need to be very cautious, even to the point of sometimes saying no, for the reason you stated regarding undue pressure and for other reasons.
Formally, Scripture requires a man to have one wife and to manage his household well. It also requires a man’s children to be “believing and not open to the charge of debauchery and insubordination” (Titus 1:6), which I understand to mean faithful and obedient. And certainly the same thing would need to apply to the unbelieving wife. Not only would you not want her actively working against his ministry or hinder his hospitality, you would want her to be a “good wife,” and for them to have a “good marriage,” just like you expect those kids to be relatively “good kids,” even if they are not Christians.
Prudentially, I’m still somewhat reluctant because I’m thinking of the example his marriage to a non-Christan will set for singles in the church who are anxious to get married. I don’t want anything to communicate to them, “Hey, this marriage to a non-Christian thing isn’t so bad. Look at elder Bob. It can work out. They have a good marriage. Why can’t I marry this really nice non-Christian guy?” Obviously, this is in tension with the last point! So, yes, you want to worry about undue pressure on him as well as on her, lest she be hindered from coming to the faith; and you want to consider the example that’s being set.
Ultimately, I can imagine a set of circumstances where I would encourage someone to be an elder with a non-Christian wife (a young man in a Muslim village in Afghanistan becomes a Christian; a dozen others come to faith as well, in part through his ministry in their lives; they want to make him one of two elders). But I think you’d want to move very slowly.
I’m a pastor in a Baptist church. The practice of our denomination is to only accept those into membership who have been baptized upon profession of faith, by immersion. There are many people in our region who grew up in Mennonite churches and have been baptized as believers but by another mode (pouring or sprinkling). Some of these people attend our church and want to become members, but their consciences are troubled by the idea of having to be “re-baptized” by immersion in order to join our church.
Though I believe that immersion is biblical, and that only immersion should be taught and practiced, I think we should receive these people into membership without requiring a re-baptism. Not to do so seems wrong, because it not only minimizes the importance of church membership (many of these people are functionally members, having attended our church for years), it also undermines our union in Christ. It seems to me that it also makes too much of the mode of baptism and too little of the meaning of baptism.
Still, I find it challenging to make a biblical case for my view. Any thoughts?
—Jonathan, Winnipeg, Canada
Let’s leave my personal convictions out of it. But I’ll lay out some terms for the argument. The question you want to ask is, is the mode of baptism (immersion, effusion, sprinkling) part of a baptism’s essence? Part of what makes it a true baptism? If so, then, yes, you must baptize people who were sprinkled or poured on, even as believers. They haven’t been baptized.
That, for instance, is how my church would treat someone who says they were “baptized” as an infant. We believe that being a professing believer is part of the essence of baptism. It makes a baptism true, not false. So we wouldn’t re-baptize them. We’d say, “You’ve never been baptized, so we need to baptize you as a matter of obedience.”
But true/false isn’t your only possibility. There’s also a distinction between regular/irregular. A broken ankle is still an ankle. So some would argue that mode is not of the essence of a true baptism, like a person being a believer is of the essence. It’s merely a rule for how a baptism should be done. In other words, this position holds that a believer who has been, say, sprinkled has been truly baptized, it was just an irregular baptism—that is, not according to the regula or rule of Scripture. The rule of Scripture is to immerse, which is why that’s what you practice. But you would, as a pastoral concession, accept an irregular baptism (at least in this line of thinking) because it’s still a true baptism. Am I making sense?
The point is, you need to decide if mode makes the baptism “false” or simply “irregular.” More broadly, what is essential for a baptism to be a baptism? And here is where the lexical conversation comes in. Baptizo means “immerse,” but it doesn’t only mean immerse. It can also be translated “wash.” Plus, some would argue that the earliest believers were willing to use the term baptize in the context of pouring (see the Didache). And since usage ultimately determines meaning, the earliest users of the term allowed for a more flexible usage than insisting it only means immersion. Others, however, insist that it only means immerse (see, for instance, J. L. Dagg’s Manual of Church Order).
As I said, those are some of the terms in the conversation. I leave you to it, and pray God would give you wisdom according to his Word!