Audio INterview between Rev. Carey Nieuwhof and Rev. Tim Keller on how to bring the Gospel to a post-Christian AMerica
May 5, 2020
“Home Communion: Train, Trust, Oversee”
1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
Lately, I have had a lot of conversations with clergy about whether its “okay” to have their members celebrate the Lord’s Supper in their homes.
As is the case with every other theological question, ask five theologians and you’ll get ten answers.
Some clergy are for it, some are dead-set against it and several are uncertain. And that’s okay. It’s to be expected. And along with the various levels of comfort are the warnings about potential dangers that could be unleashed if the Church entrusted the Lord’s Supper to the people of God. The warnings are sincere and the potential dangers are certainly real.
For instance, I hear warnings about “individualism” breaking out. The fear is people will begin to think, “All I need is Jesus. I don’t need the Church.” Or I hear warnings about people throwing off proper oversight and wantonly exposing the Sacrament to abuse. And people could, indeed, fall into those errors.
However, what often gets lost in all the theological philosophizing is what the actual people of God are experiencing when their congregations have trained them and entrusted them with celebrating the Lord’s Supper in their homes.
The stories are often surprising and beautiful.
For instance, turns out those who are actually participating in home communion aren’t becoming wild individualists. Instead, they are telling beautiful stories of discovering a deeper sense of community with their family and a deeper personal connection to the Lord’s Supper. They are reporting a newfound sense of appreciation for their congregation and even for the wider Christian Church (in heaven and on earth). Those who are living alone report the joy of feeling connected again as they participate in the community the Lord’s Supper offers them.
Likewise, turns out those who are actually participating in home communion are not throwing off oversight or becoming wanton abusers of the Sacrament. Instead, they are telling beautiful stories of what it means to take responsibility for properly preparing their families for the Supper. And the pastors are noting a beautiful acceleration in their members’ spiritual growth as they embrace their responsibility for reading the Scriptures with their family, praying, confessing, forgiving, blessing and communing.
So, why are congregations seeing such positive outcomes? As I talk with pastors, elders and members, a common pattern is emerging: Train, Trust, Oversee.
The pastors are training their members in what to do and how to do it. They are providing online teaching, written materials and ongoing opportunities for Q and A. Then they are trusting their members to faithfully put the teachings and preparations into practice resulting in accelerated spiritual growth. Finally, these pastors understand that their calling is to oversee the people of the congregation not take over for them. So, after training and trusting their members, they oversee them by addressing questions and pastoral care issues as they arise. Many pastors are including the elders in helping to provide this oversight. As a result, the pastors and elders are actually reporting MORE interaction with members and therefore MORE personal oversight of households than ever before.
The question of home communion doesn’t have to be an either/or for your congregation. It could be a powerful both/and. As the pandemic passes (eventually), congregations will be able to gather in larger numbers again and celebrate the Word and the Supper together, in person, as a large group. Powerful! AND they could be able to continue enjoying the more intimate setting of home communion with family and friends like Jesus intended. Also powerful!
But, what do I mean by, “Like Jesus intended?”
More Food for Thought
Perhaps another reason for these positive outcomes is that we are inching our way back to what Jesus actually instituted when He gave the Supper: families participating in and celebrating the communal meal of Jesus’ new covenant in their homes.
Let me explain: Matthew, Mark and Luke clearly describe how the Lord instituted His Supper. The context, as you may remember, was the family meal of the Passover. A family meal in the home led by the head of household. In Acts, the first Jewish Christians maintained this practice in Jerusalem (Acts 2:42 and 46). And, of course they would. They had been celebrating communal, covenant means in this way since the Exodus.
By the way, these Jewish roots may also be why Jewish Christians were comfortable with infant baptism. Applying covenant promises to infants had been happening since Abraham and Isaac were given circumcision in Genesis 17.
So, it makes sense that today we would also see the blessings of the Lord’s Supper greatly impact people in the more personal setting of their home. As family, extended family and even neighboring households prepare and participate together in the Lord’s Supper, they are experiencing the deeper relational connection that Jewish Christians enjoyed in Acts 2.
This begs the question: Have we inadvertently been robbing families of a level of engagement and blessing Jesus intended to be experienced in the home – as it had been since the Exodus?
Some point to 1 Corinthians 10-11 to establish the doctrine that the Lord’s Supper is only properly celebrated in the context of a “Church” service with the whole congregation present. However, does a more careful reading of the context of Paul’s teaching reveal something different?
Before There is Corinth there is Jerusalem
We can all agree that before the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in Corinth, it was being celebrated in Jerusalem. Therefore, it is wise to interpret what was happening in Corinth through Jerusalem.
For Jerusalem, their context for understanding communal meals was the Passover. Therefore, their attitudes and training were well suited to embrace the new communal meal Jesus gave. The context was also familiar – at home with family and perhaps one or two other households. So, home-based communal meals had been deeply rooted in the Jerusalem Christians since the days of the Exodus. Corinth did not have such roots. They needed to be corrected. However, Corinth’s abuses of the home-based communal meal do not cancel Jerusalem’s home-based practices. Jerusalem corrects Corinth’s home-based practices.
For Corinth, their context for understanding communal meals was the idol feast. The error of Corinth was that they were falling back into these old attitudes and bad habits when they gathered in someone’s home to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Their previous experiences with idol feasts – including gluttony, drunkenness and personal pleasure – is the context for what Paul is addressing throughout 1 Corinthians 10-11. It is important to note that Paul corrects the Corinthian’s not by producing more rules but by again proclaiming Jesus’ words. Having done that, Paul also points out the consequences they are suffering because they have not remembered the words of Jesus or the purpose of the communal meal.
Paul doesn’t change what Jesus instituted in Jerusalem. Paul uses Jerusalem to correct Corinth. In essence Paul is saying, “When you gather for a communal meal in your homes, remember what Jesus said…”
One Last Question for Consideration: What is the Proper Role of the Clergy?
It is also significant that in 1 Corinthians 10-11 Paul does not set himself up as the gatekeeper to the Lord’s Supper for the Corinthians. He does not put himself or anyone else in the position of judging the faith of the other Corinthians or deciding who should participate and who shouldn’t. Paul proclaims the Lord’s Words, invites participants to believe those Words and honor the pattern of Jewish communal meals. Paul also warns them of the consequences of disregarding Jesus’ Words. As one reads through 1 Corinthians 10-11 with this context in mind, it becomes clear that the actual responsibility for what is believed and how one participates, for better or worse, is left with the hearer.
The pastoral office is established in Scripture in order to oversee the people of God, not take over for the people of God. I believe, over the centuries, the clergy have strayed WAY into "taking over." If, instead, pastors trained and trusted their members to participate in Jesus’ communal meal in their homes, the way He originally instituted it, and then provided oversight, it could be a powerful accelerant to their spiritual engagement, growth and vitality.
Again, celebrating the Lord’s Supper doesn’t have to be either in the homes as families or in the church building as a congregation. It could be a powerful both/and.
I submit that distrusting the people of God to be able to properly administer the Lord’s Supper comes from the clergies’ failure to train the people of God to properly administer the Lord’s Supper. Then, because the people of God are untrained and untrustworthy, the clergy step in to take over. The original and only biblical context for celebrating the Lord’s Supper was families gathered in homes to participate in the communal meal of Jesus’ new covenant (see Matthew, Mark, Luke and 1 Corinthians). If the people of God cannot be trusted to properly administer the Lord’s Supper in their homes because of a lack of training, the solution is not to take the Lord’s Supper out of their hands and homes. The solution is training. Train, trust, oversee. The fruit will quickly be seen.
Rev. Greg Finke
Humbly offered for your consideration by The Rev. Dr. Brad Miller
The Rev. Dr. Brad Miller is an ordained minister in Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ and the Director of ChurchTech Institute.