Babylonian Captivity of the Church

The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

By Robert Schmidt

High sacramental doctrine should make men eager…to provide the sacraments for Christians, and to remove all hindrances which prevent men, anywhere, from using them; but we see those who most glorify the sacraments, glorifying them by external adornment and standing most stoutly for those very things which make the administration of them to Christians in the out-of-the-way corners of the world impossible. –Roland Allen

In 1520 Martin Luther wrote the treatise, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” He wrote this work in Latin for academics and theologians. In it he spoke of the sacraments as weapons the church used to insure its tyranny and control over the lives of Christians. He attacked the sacramental system of the Roman Church, laying bare its hypocrisy and pretense. He showed how the Lord’s Supper was used to get people’s money and did not give the people the solace and comfort for which it was instituted. He said that the Church neglected the grace conveyed in Baptism while foisting on people all manner of works designed to help the selfish interests of churchmen. Of penance, he reiterated his stand against indulgences. The other so-called sacraments of confirmation, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction, he dismissed as non-sacramental. Luther showed that the sacramental system upholding the Roman Church was a farce designed by men for their own greed and comfort. But worse, it was a system that did not give the common Christian the wonderful news of the grace of God in Christ that was the whole purpose of the sacraments.

Christianity has come a long way since 1520. Now there is not one church but hundreds. There is not one pope and curia. Instead we have popes as presidents of denominations, popes as senior pastors, and popes as leaders of Christian movements. Our problems no longer stem from a tyranny of one group of Christians over all others; rather, they come from the tyranny of each Christian group over its own people.

A similarity does exist, however, between our time and that of Luther. It lies in the fact that the sacraments and the doctrines on which they rest are being used for bad purposes. The sacraments are continually used to justify the separation of Christians. They are also used to keep people in line. They are even used to keep income coming in for congregational and denominational coffers. When Christians are asked about the differences between themselves and other Christians, most often the subject relates to the sacraments. Families are split over sacramental issues when a person marries outside of the family denomination. Huge controversies have arisen over baptism. Now some young people are shocking their parents by being baptized again.

With Christians so effectively split by their teachings, so many of which are connected to the sacraments, the devil has been having a field day in this world. The Christian faith, which was meant to unite all people in Christ, now divides them. Where Christians might have worked together for their own good and that of their communities, they have often worked at cross-purposes and rejoiced in one another’s misfortune. Meanwhile, children in the world are starving from lack of food, dying without proper medical facilities, wandering about aimlessly, unaware of God’s great salvation and his desire that everyone knows his great grace and goodness.

It is to help unite all Christians in Christ’s mission that we write this little essay. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, we say that God gave his holy sacraments to unite all Christians and not to divide them.


How is it that the sacraments, which were intended to unite believers, now divide them? Who has done this thing? In the past we blamed the Lutherans, the Anabaptists, the Anglicans, or whomever. But no, we must look deeper than partisan denominations. That way of thinking is part of the problem itself. We have our present-day divisions for simpler reasons. Let us look at them briefly.

First of all, divisions of denominations over the sacraments have happened because western theology has been predominantly influenced by Greek thought. Greek thought differed greatly from Hebrew thought which preceded it. The Hebrew way of thinking was living and dynamic. Things progressed and regressed. Time moved on. In Hebrew, God thought and changed his mind. He repented and forgave. He moved with people in their world of suffering. He sent his Son to be a man. The Hebrews with their concrete way of thinking could keep in tension God’s wrath and compassion. At one time the problem of evil could be attributed to human sinfulness. At another time, in Job, it seemed due to God’s caprice.

Little of this is true in Greek thought. In it, neither God nor history move. Concepts tend to be static in nature. Greek thought, therefore, cannot abide contradiction. It is this or that, one or the other. Rarely do Greek categories permit a both/and. Seldom does one see dynamic growth and the flowering of one concept from another.[1]

Not only is Greek thought fundamentally different from Hebrew thinking, it also contrasts with the modes of thought coming from Asian, African, and Native American cultures. In all of these cultures there is a much greater accommodation of seeming contradictions and a greater appreciation of growth and development. This is why missionaries almost universally report that people of these cultures find the Old Testament far closer to their cultures than doctrinal theology.

It is significant, therefore, that western theological traditions have developed according to Greek rather than Hebrew thought. Furthermore, the rigidity of Greek thought has been carried over into our thinking about the sacraments. Thus we believe either in infant baptism or believer’s baptism. Either the bread and wine is Christ’s body and blood, or it is not. So we fashion our denominations and the rationales for their existence not on what we suppose are the “pillars of God’s truth.” Instead they are built on the brittle logic of Greeks long dead.

The second reason for Christians’ division over the sacraments has happened because of simple “party spirit.” At one point in the Reformation, Luther and Zwingli were brought together at Marburg to discuss the similarities and differences in their respective teachings. They managed to agree on all of the articles except the last one dealing with the Lord’s Supper. Because of the pressures of time, they could not come to an agreement on this one. However, they were optimistic that a solution could be worked out in time. In the months that followed other disputes arose, complicating the issue. Personality clashes developed. Finally, Luther reiterated his statement that Zwinglians were really of a “different spirit.” While Luther’s judgment may have been right for that time and place, to follow that judgment blindly after 400 years is simple party spirit.[2]

More recently, important developments have taken place on sacramental theology in the ecumenical arena. In 1982 the World Council of Churches published a Faith and Order Paper,Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. In that document the concerns of Lutherans as well as those of other denominations were addressed. The document says that the Eucharist meal is the “sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, the sacrament of the real presence. . . Christ’s mode of presence in the sacrament is unique.”[3] In a response to the Faith and Order Paper, the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod commended the document but wondered whether the authors really meant what they said or had the same assumptions that their denomination had in speaking to the issue over the years.[4] Nor did the denomination even hint that they could learn something from other Christians as they spoke of the sacrament. With more and more exacting standards of the denomination, could any document proposed by Christians coming from different backgrounds meet their criteria? Was the real issue theological or a simple “party spirit”?

No wonder Paul condemns such “party spirit” so eloquently in I Corinthians. Party spirit can take any issue, any crisis, and any personality difference and blow it all out of proportion. This, we submit, is also what happened with the teaching concerning the sacraments from the time of the Reformation to the present.

A third reason why Christians have been separated by their divisions over the sacraments is because of their concept of the ministry. In most congregations, people have not been called or authorized publicly to celebrate the sacraments unless they have attended a college or seminary. This is true of both denominational and non-denominational congregations. Most often they are paid and considered to be “professional” church workers. However, this also tends to make of them “controlled” church workers. Control over their actions and teaching come both from their indoctrination and their pay. In order to keep their salaries they must continue with the theological line of their group or the theological expectations of their congregations. Of course, with their previous training that is usually not very difficult.

Through the mechanism of the professional clergy, teachings about the sacraments and their administration have become highly differentiated among denominations and congregations. Do we not expect the priests, pastors, and ministers of a given denomination to teach in accord with their church? Of course we do. In fact we would probably think them disloyal if they did not. Thus our concept of the ministry perpetuates our divisions over the sacraments.

To accentuate the ministry and further emphasize divisions over the sacraments, some denominations make a great fuss over the nature of such ministers. Roman Catholics have difficulty in acknowledging the genuineness of the Lord’s Supper unless celebrated by one of their priests. Anglicans have traditionally dragged their feet in ecumenical discussions because most other Protestants do not have the “Apostolic Succession” that they claim for their clergy. Lutherans will not accept the Eucharist from anyone who has not been properly called. However, this calling is almost universally reserved for those who have completed professional training and are paid for their services.

One way out of this dilemma is to return to the New Testament pattern of ministry. Once again we should say with St. Paul:

A bishop (read elder) need be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil; moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (First Timothy 3:2-7)

In the New Testament pattern of ministry, any house full of Christians can call people to baptize and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Were we to follow this practice today, we might see many of the divisions over the Lord’s Supper begin to abate.

In the administration of the sacraments today, clergy are both the causes and the victims of the responsibilities that have devolved upon them. To protect their status and their salaries, they are expected to keep a tight hold on the administration of the sacraments and the teaching that prepares people for them. In their roles as the gatekeepers of sacraments, they have ample opportunity to influence the faith and morality of their people. In this role they also affect people’s view of salvation, stewardship, and denominational membership. Since they control the gates of church membership, they are also the guilty of perpetuating Christian divisions.

Yet these same clergy are also the sad victims of the system. They are forced, by the expectations of their denominations and people, to do combat with other congregations and denominations for more communicant members. The paid professional clergyman’s job is a weary one. He half-heartedly goes about drumming up members, paying for the church to keep the members happy, and keeping out of trouble. All the while many ministers and priests long for a way to realize the unity of the Body of Christ so that Christians together could do more to comfort aching consciences, to feed the hungry, to help the unemployed, and preach the Gospel of the Kingdom.

We suggest then that 1) Greek thought, 2) party spirit, and 3) current concepts of the ministry are the chief reasons why the sacraments divide so many Christians in our time. We also realize, of course, that serious Biblical and traditional difficulties exist in various denominations’ treatments of the sacraments. Therefore, we will attempt to set forth an understanding of the sacraments and the ministry that will do justice to both the Biblical materials and the understandings that have come to us from various traditions.

Holy Baptism

Biblical Perspective

Why do denominations have so many different teachings on the when, where, and how of baptism? If God was vitally concerned about these issues, should not the Bible have clear and unambiguous passages on each one of them? This would have saved us from the controversies that have plagued Christians down through the centuries. Families have been torn over the questions and what should have been a sacrament of unity has been turned into a sacrament of division.

One of the reasons for the controversies is that the Scriptures are simply not that clear on the when and how of baptism. If we were to find five clear passages that agreed that it was wrong to baptize babies, the case would be made. If seven passages were found that said that we should baptize babies by sprinkling them with water rather than immersing them, we could put the controversy to rest. However, passages like that are not there. As a result, we infer from this and infer from that. We link doctrines in chains so that if any link is broken we have ample excuses to doubt the core faith of others and exclude them from our fellowship. All the while we become more certain of our conclusions and a great deal less humble.

If we put aside our denominational heritage for a moment and slip off with it a bit of Greek thought, we may be able to find some grounds for agreement. Greek thinking would have us imagine that the word “baptism” has one ultimate meaning. It would tell us that baptism refers to one phenomenon. Alas, that picture of baptism simply does not conform to what we read in the Scriptures.

Baptism in the New Testament had its conceptual origins in the ritual washings of Jewish temple piety. Later on it picked up a different nuance when it was used to “cleanse” proselytes who wished to become members of the Jewish faith.[5] For John the Baptizer, baptism was intimately connected with repentance. John’s particular emphasis was that the whole person needed to be clean in the sight of God. Furthermore, simply by claiming to be a descendant of Abraham was not sufficient. Uncleanness was not a matter of dirt on the hands or a boil on a man’s leg. It was rather that the self was unclean and the whole self needed to be washed. In effect, John took an old religious custom and put a burning new meaning within it. His was a baptism of repentance. Selfish wills and motivations needed cleansing. That was why people needed to be baptized (Matthew 3:1-12).

No doubt John practiced immersion in the Jordan River, but immersion was not the point. As Jesus mentioned at the foot washing of Peter, “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over” (John 13:10). The point was rather that a person needed to repent of all the sins in his or her life. It did not matter whether a man had been circumcised or done his temple exercises. The important point was that one’s entire life be that of repentance.

However, the baptism of John was not the baptism. In Acts we see that Apollos only knew the baptism of John, even though we have no record of him being baptized again (Acts 18:24-28). In the next chapter, however, Paul baptizes some disciples who had been baptized in John’s baptism. Paul baptizes them in the name of the Lord Jesus explaining, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance telling people to believe in the one who was to come after him,” that is, Jesus (Acts 19:4). After their baptism, they also received the Holy Spirit, of whom they had not heard.

Thus, there was John’s baptism and “baptism in the name of Jesus.” In the later writing of Matthew, Jesus commissions the disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). If this were all, we could still think of these as variations of the one baptism. However, to complicate our perspective even further and hopelessly destroy our rigid Greek categories, we also read about baptism in the Holy Spirit. The eighth chapter of Acts is illustrative of the almost casual use of baptism in the New Testament church. Phillip preached the good news of the Kingdom of God and baptized people then and there, including the rascal, Simon, the magician. A little while later Peter and John came to Samaria, laid hands on the disciples, and they received the Holy Spirit. These and other instances of receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:16) are spoken of as being “baptized with the Holy Spirit,” as Jesus had said in Acts 1:5. However, in the same chapter the Ethiopian Eunuch was baptized with water but apparently did not receive the gifts of the Spirit.

In the Bible, baptism is an event in the lives of people that changes in both form and meaning. First it was ritual washing. Then it was for repentance, then in the name of Jesus. Later it was in the name of the Trinity. Finally it is used to describe the overt coming of the Holy Spirit to people. Sometimes signs and speaking in tongues accompanied this, at other times they did not. In addition, Jesus uses the term to refer to his suffering and death when he asked, “Are you able . . . to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38). There is even a single mention, though not a command, of being baptized for the dead (First Corinthians 15:29). Baptism has been a flowering plant, growing this way and that, constantly developing with new forms and meaning. Yet there is a slowly coalescing substance.

The substance of the meaning of baptism according to the New Testament was made up of some of the following elements: 1) repentance (Acts 18:4); 2) forgiveness (Acts 2:38; 22:16); 3) mystical union with Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-11); and 4) rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:15). In the Bible, baptism was not one; it was many. It almost had a life of its own. It was restless, changing and dynamic. Its fingers touched people differently, in various ways and at special times. Yet, there was only one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). This was because it was God’s work and not our own; it was because God was working through the water with his word for people’s ultimate good. In its various forms and diversity of meaning, it was totally inclusive, binding diverse people together in one common faith in Jesus Christ.

Historical Perspective

If there were a variety of uses of baptism in the New Testament, the same trend continued in the history of the church. In the church of the first three centuries, baptism took on a meaning it has seldom had since. People would wait to be baptized until they were on the point of death. Baptism at that time was not the initiation into the faith as much as it was the final washing, the preparation for dying. During this time and thereafter, infants were also baptized. As a Christian parallel to the Jewish rite of circumcision, the parents brought the child to be baptized into their faith. Here the faith of the community was emphasized as well as the implicit faith of the child that he would be cared for by God through that loving community.[6] Seen in the light of the teaching on original sin, baptism was declared to be the washing away of inherited sin. Seen in the light of the doctrine of the church, baptism became the rite of initiation into the church. In such “infant baptism” the objective character of the rite was emphasized. It was also a visible, tangible demonstration of the grace of God being mediated through simple water without any merit or worthiness displayed by the infant being baptized.

Then came the Anabaptist (baptize again) emphasis. The Anabaptist position underscored the believer’s decision to become and remain a Christian. As in the New Testament, baptism was once again seen as part of the missionary task of the church as people confronted with the claims of Christ, accepted him by faith and took the plunge in baptism to a new life in Christ. So important was the believer’s own participation in baptism that if the person had been baptized before as an infant, he would be baptized again. The purpose of this was that the individual might better remember and benefit from the observance.

The positions of those advocating infant baptism versus “believer’s baptism” have hardened through the centuries. Denominations have been built around the “believer’s baptism” position. Yet, curiously, the concerns of both sides have been duly incorporated by other ceremonies. Thus, those holding the infant baptism position have sought to emphasize the “decision” aspect of entering the Christian faith through the rite of confirmation. This is the time when a young person declares allegiance to Christ and his will and word. Conversely, those practicing believer’s baptism emphasize the faith of the community into which the child is to be raised through the rite of “dedicating” the child to God.

If we look at baptism and the associated ceremonies in any functional way, we are amazed at the utter similarity of function, though not of action. Children in both cases are dedicated to God in light of the faith of their parents and relatives. Also, in both cases young people commit themselves to their Lord and to the faith. As one looks at the entire action of the Christian in entering into fellowship with God and other Christians through baptism, one can once again say with Paul, “There is one baptism.”

Unfortunately, the chief problem between the positions occurs when either side makes absolute its own position and condemns the other. In the past each group has done this on the basis of the interpretation of some supposedly “clear” passage of the Scriptures proving its point. Those practicing infant baptism have claimed such a passage when they quote John 3:5, “Unless one is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Interpreting water as baptism, this group says that baptism is necessary to salvation. Thus, if children die un-baptized, they risk hellfire.

Nevertheless, when pressed about the “absoluteness” of this interpretation, even the strictest proponents of infant baptism will not go so far as to condemn to hell anyone who has not been baptized. Increasingly, those advocating infant baptism find themselves agreeing with the position that states that while it is right to baptize infants, they are not automatically damned if they are not baptized. Thus, baptism is not absolutely necessary for salvation.[7]8 If those holding to believer’s baptism do not need the comfort of infant baptism, it should not be forced upon them in the name of some overriding necessity.

“Ah, but there is more to it than that!” cry the supporters of infant baptism. There are implications in the baptismal position on the doctrines about man, about grace, about faith, yes, even about Christ. This is true. However, this is not necessarily the fault of a teaching on baptism. For example, those advocating infant baptism have similar disagreements about those same teachings with people of other denominations over those same doctrines. Therefore, agreements on baptism should not be held hostage until agreement is reached on all points of doctrine. Rather, as long as people are speaking about baptism, they should find as much agreement on it as possible.

Those advocating “believer’s baptism” display just as much rigor in arguing their point of view as they claim people should only be baptized after they make a decision for Christ. Here the Biblical example of people being baptized as adults is frequently cited as the “proof” that this is what God intended. However, church history points out that many people throughout the ages, who were baptized as infants, have been exemplary Christians.[8] These Christians never felt the need to be baptized again. They have done as well without adult baptism as did the children of the other party without the benefit of infant baptism.

“You will know them by their fruits,” said Jesus in speaking of the false prophets (Matthew 7:16). The fruits of good works are found both among those practicing infant baptism and those with believer’s baptism. Thus, it is difficult to divide Christians on this issue. There is an issue, however, where the word of God’s judgment must fall. It should directed to all those who use the teachings about baptism or the Lord’s Supper as legitimate reasons why Christians should not be united. This is just a smoke screen behind which church officials, clergy and lay wish to protect their own congregations, denominations, prejudices, and status. Perhaps now is the time for Christians to come together to see that their God-given unity has not been split for doctrinal reasons but from mistaken absolutist attitudes.

Toward a New Use for Baptism

Though the validity of baptism rests with God and his promises, it has little value for our earthly life unless Christians do more with it. Whether baptized as Christians or adults, by sprinkling or immersion, Christians do not remember it enough. The function of baptism that needs to be recovered for our days is its comfort. Luther, in the midst of his despair and anxiety, cried, “But I have been baptized!” God’s covenant with us has been ratified in our baptism and no Christian should ever forget it. Here is an anchor holding us firm in the stormiest days. God will not forget his own.

What a wonderful family gathering it might be to remember one another’s baptism. Why have only one birthday a year when you can have two? Sitting around the supper table or gathering before bedtime, the family reads a Bible story about God’s care for his people, a brief set of baptismal prayers, and a chance for the family to express their love and appreciation for the one who celebrates his or her baptism. It is out of little moments like this that family memories grow and will be treasured throughout life. And like a measured foundation baptism becomes a rock from which to wait out the worst of life’s difficulties.

A second function that needs emphasis is that of using one’s baptism for the strengthening of the Christian life. Both sides of the infant baptism controversy have used Romans 6:1-4 to back up their positions on baptism. Unfortunately, neither side has fully utilized that whole chapter of Romans to explore fully all that baptism means for a new life in Christ. Raised with Christ by baptism, we are new people created to yield our bodies for service to one another rather than service to selfishness and sin. Might the memory of our baptisms also be used as a prayer service for those of us suffering from addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex, and food? As we are raise with Christ through our baptisms, we look to him for strength in battling our slavery to our old lifestyles of addiction and self-gratification.

A third emphasis that both sides should address is that there is only one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Christians should be able to rejoice whenever they learn about a baptism, be it done to an infant or adult, by immersion or sprinkling. Others are being joined to the Body of Christ though baptism. This body is growing, adding to its strength to do more Christian things on earth in the greater realization of the kingdom of God.

Despite these emphases on which most Christian would agree, how might we resolve some problem areas? For example, what does the pastor of a church that believes in infant baptism do when one of his members wants to be baptized again? Let the person be baptized. God will not mind. If that is more meaningful to the person, let him or her do it with a blessing. Likewise, what if a couple in a church that practices only believer’s baptism wants to have their baby baptized? Let them go to a pastor who will do it. Then let them return to their home church. If the child grows up and wants to be baptized again, let him or her do that with another blessing.

What about those who do not believe in “water baptism” but rather the immediate inspiration of the Spirit in the Quaker church or baptism with a flag, as is sometimes practiced by the Salvation Army? Once again, it needs to be said that baptism is for people, it is not for God. For those of us to whom the baptism of water is such a blessing, we say that they have missed that blessing, at least, as we understand it. But that does not mean that they have no faith nor that they do not do good things in life. In fact, the good works of many Quakers and Salvationists have been most admirable.

When all is said and done, baptism is only a beginning. It is not the final seal on a Christian’s life of faith. It is rather the plunge into a life lived as a Christian. It may come after an intelligent commitment to Christ and the Christian life. It may be the initiation into that which is only understood as an individual matures and seeks to live a Christian life in the midst of a most difficult world. In either case it is the one baptism in which God saves his people and renews them that they might live for him.

The Lord’s Supper

Like baptism, the Lord’s Supper continues to be celebrated under a variety of forms. From a High Mass, when a priest lifts high the host, to little cups of grape juice passed around the pews, the Lord’s death is remembered. Tragically, however, there seems to be little if any connection between remembering Christ’s death and resurrection and celebrating that fact with other Christians in the community. Denominations seldom recognize one another’s communion.

Inter-communion, especially among more traditional denominations, is rarely practiced. In some church bodies, like some Lutherans and Roman Catholics, one is not allowed to partake without a thoroughgoing instruction. In some denominations one must be a member of that denomination itself before you are welcome. Ironically, it is in the eating and drinking of what Jesus called his body and blood that Christians, his body in the world, are most divided.

Antecedents of the Lord’s Supper

When Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, there were three important antecedents. The first was the Jewish Passover. For well over a thousand years the Jews had regularly observed that important ceremony. Always a sacrificial lamb was killed, unleavened bread was eaten and the wine was passed. Once again, all participated in the Jews’ release from bondage. This was the night that “we were freed.” In the upper room, as in many rooms in ancient Egypt, the people relived the bitterness of slavery, the fear, the oppression, and the excitement that God would redeem his people. No priest was present; none was necessary. The father and mother of the household led the Passover ritual. Those partaking of the lamb, the bread, and the wine were united by the bonds of family and a common trust forged by the oppression they knew all too well. God was saving them and they were one.

The second antecedent was the ratification of the covenant made between God and his people atop Mt. Sinai. God made an agreement with the people of Israel that he would be their God and they would be his people. In that agreement they would keep his laws and he would lead them into the Promised Land. Covenants like contracts need to be ratified – signed, as it were. But one cannot sign a document with a half million slaves. God told Moses to sacrifice some animals. Then he was to take the blood, sprinkle half on the altar at the mountain and half on the people gathered below. This was the blood of the covenant (Exodus 24:8). This was the ceremony people would remember when they felt alone in the desert or in battle. They would remember that they were God’s people and God would not forsake his own.

How poignant it is that Jesus uses the same phrase in the institution of the Lord’s Supper! Jesus says, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). His blood was the ratification of the new covenant. The next day a new covenant was truly sealed for all people on the cross. All might remember that blood Jesus shed when they partook of the blood of the new covenant. But there is a difference here between the blood of the new covenant and the blood of the old covenant. The newness is in its potential universality. It isn’t just for the people of Israel; it is for all believers, yes, from all church bodies.

A third antecedent is the bread of sacrifice. Not only were animals to be sacrificed in the old covenant, but bread as well. It was to be made from the finest ingredients. A bit was to be burned as a “memorial” portion. It was the bread to remember God’s deliverance of the people in the desert by means of his bread, his manna. More than that, it was a memorial of the covenant itself (Leviticus 2:2-13). The bread was given; part of it was burned and part given to the priests. The rest was taken to an upper room to be eaten by the party. All again would know that they were part of God’s covenant people. In that relationship they could continue to expect food, forgiveness, guidance and grace. It was the relationship that counted, not the sacrifice.

So closely tied to the old, yet opening the door toward the new, Christ instituted his supper. Here was a development beginning with the pattern of the old and suffusing it with new energy and meaning. The words of institution are so restrained, so bare. They are but the seed of an observance that was to grow into a wondrous tree. From this simple meal would come the marvelous variety of theologies, customs, and traditions that we see all around us.

From its antecedents and the words of institution we see that the supper focuses on a number of truths that are held by nearly all Christians everywhere. Like the Passover, we remember that our Lamb, without spot or blemish, has delivered us from the oppression of fear and death. As with the blood of the first covenant, we remember being sealed into God’s people by Christ’s blood. With the bread of sacrifice, we remember God’s providing the miraculous bread to sustain his covenant people as he provides us with all that we need to support this body and life. The new blessing Christ brings to these antecedents in the old covenant is his universal concern. From this time on, all people are potentially members of God’s covenant people. All those who wish to remember Christ’s death may do so as members of his holy people.

The Tree Blossoms

From the seed of Christ’s restrained, spare institution of his supper has grown a wondrous tree of theologies, customs and traditions. Most of it is beautiful, though some is not. The beauty has shown forth in the varied ways men have sought to adore and praise God through remembering in the death of his Son. The ugliness has come when people misused the observance for tyranny, polemic and rationalizing separation and schism. Nevertheless, the beauties and ugliness are two sides of the same coin and must be viewed together. Both the treasures and controversies in the Lord’s Supper have come about in answer to the following questions: 1) What is it? 2) What does it do? 3) What elements should be used? 4) Who should preside? and 5) Who should come?

For some, the substance of bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ. For others, in a wondrous way, they are really present in the body and blood and are received in the eating and drinking. For still others, the bread and wine merely symbolize Christ’s presence. By this time volumes have been written on these differences, identities formed, cultures shaped, and theologies developed. In the unfolding of meaning Christians have learned much. In the Roman Catholic assertion that there is a change in substance (transubstantiation), people are prepared to meet the divine in the Eucharist and elsewhere in life as well. Uncomfortable with the philosophical foundations of that concept, some Roman Catholic theologians are speaking of “Transignification.” They suggest that Christ is present not as much in terms of substance but rather in a “personalist” way.[9]

In the Reformed symbolic remembrance, we are brought back to Christ’s death and its once and for all significance. While not stressing the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in the same way that Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Lutherans and Episcopalians do, they do not believe in Jesus’ absence. As someone once pointed out, no denomination has a doctrine of the “real absence.”[10]

In the intermediate Lutheran and sometimes-Episcopalian view, Christ is really present but in a mysterious way we do not fully understand.[11] Lutherans have said that here we are reminded of the unsearchable ways of God communicating his presence to people through bread and wine in a unique saving event.

Does not the human experience appreciate all of these truths? Are they not found in all Christians at one time or another? How do common people tell each other in a positive way about what happens at the Lord’s Table? Do they not simply say something in general as to how they were helped, that they encountered God in some way? Were theologians and church leaders to listen to the living piety of the faithful instead of seeking ammunition for polemics, and bettering their own position in a denominational organization, Christian unity would have been much better served.

However, even some theologians have been opening the doors of their denominational positions so that others can appreciate the beauties found therein. Church leaders of many denominations are now more comfortable with the term “Eucharist” or the Lord’s Supper as “thanksgiving.”[12] Similarly, following Jesus’ words that he would not drink of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes (Luke 22:18), there has been a new interest in the Lord’s Supper as the “foretaste of the feast to come.”[13] Another accent on the Lord’s Supper that has grown out of ecumenical discussions with the Orthodox communions is a new appreciation of “mystery.”[14] There has also been a new emphasis on the social ramifications of the Eucharist in a world divided by rich and poor. In reference to the Corinthian misuse of the sacrament where the rich humiliated the poor (First Corinthians 11:18-22), the writers of the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry document said, “The Eucharistic celebration… is a constant challenge in the search for appropriate relationships in social, economic and political life.”[15]

The second question is, “What does the Lord’s Supper do?” Those who call it a sacrament believe that it conveys the forgiveness of sins in concrete way. For them, it is like a kiss that binds two people together in a profound but unspoken way. Some believe it to be a new sacrifice for sin, while others see the sacrificial aspect in it as a sacrifice of thanksgiving for what has already been done by Christ.[16] For those who do not call it a sacrament, it is an ordinance of God that is observed because it was commanded. However, in and of itself, it provides no forgiveness.

Ultimately, is this something that must divide the church? Do not all believe that Christ sacrificed his life for our sin? Do not all remember his death for our forgiveness? Forgiveness is available to all that come to the Lord’s Table whether received in that action or remembered in mind. Can this really be the reason why Christians have warred in times past, shed blood, and killed one another’s martyrs?

The third question is, “What elements are to be used?” In former times Roman Catholic lay people received only the bread, while their priests received both bread and wine. While this was based on some elements of “transubstantiation,” by this time more Roman Catholic lay people are receiving both bread and wine. Too bad this could not have happened earlier and avoided the Hussite wars which preceded the Reformation. Prompted by the temperance movement, some use grape juice instead of wine. While obnoxious to some traditionalists, few theologians would argue that Christ’s death could not be observed and remembered in this way. In some parts of Africa, where grape wine is difficult to obtain, some African churches use palm wine. I wonder if God does not smile at this. Do you think God really minds? Is this matter so important that it can divide Christians whom Christ has reconciled to each other through his blood? Is it important in and of itself, or because it is ultimately tied to matters which have little to do with the Lord’s Supper?

The fourth question is, “Who should celebrate or conduct the Lord’s Supper?” Here we see the real reasons for our divisions! They do not have much to do with theology. Indeed, theology is largely a smoke screen. The real differences are those that deal with power and control. In the history of the Christian church we have used the question of who can celebrate the Lord’s Supper to foster a whole series of institutional arrangements that have proved to be divisive, tyrannical, and frustrating to those who wish to see the church go about her mission.

The question of who should preside at the celebration of the Lord’s Table is one of the chief problems in inter-communion today. It is particularly important to Greek and Roman Catholic Churches. It is also an issue with those Protestant Churches with a tradition of priesthood such as the Episcopalians and Swedish Lutherans. What makes this concern so bizarre is that in the pages of the New Testament this was not even mentioned, let alone an issue that might divide the new congregations. Paul simply blessed the early church leaders who were probably part-time elders, and these served as celebrants at the early observances. The notion of having a specially trained, seminary- or university-educated clergy came about at a far later date. Currently it is being insisted upon for far different reasons than the validity of the Lord’s Supper. Regardless of what is being claimed, the disagreement about the Lord’s Supper really serves to guarantee denominational identity and continues the tragic divisions among Christians.

The question of who should preside at the Lord’s Supper is also used to continue the supposed necessity of professional, full-time, ordained clergy and all that gets implied in that institution. In nearly every denomination, people think it is necessary to have such an “ordained” creature around for a legitimate celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This denies the right of the universal priesthood of all believers to choose any fellow believer to administer the sacrament. It also has the effect of tying the church to expensive complex institutions such as seminaries, church buildings, and denominations. These institutions, in turn, have imprisoned the church’s message for far too many years. We should again realize that any small group of Christians can celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a normal part of home life or group living. Furthermore, they can select any of their fellow believers to serve as celebrant. Then the church can spend the majority of its time and resources carrying out a mission to the world rather than to look after its own maintenance and self-aggrandizement.

The selection, training, and placing of those who preside at the Lord’s Supper has also led to the many evils of church control over the spiritual lives of its members. Whole hierarchies of church government have been based upon the assumptions of having a certified celebrant for the Lord’s Supper. At times this control has reached beyond the clergy to the lives of its members. The Medieval Church placed whole regions under a ban that prevented priests from celebrating the Eucharist. Furthermore, this was done not only for religious reasons but for personal and political ones as well. Churches have also used communion as a club to get young people to sit through confirmation and religion classes. In Africa, it has been used to force polygamists to put away extra wives. Through the control exercised by the church over the Lord’s Supper, families have been split in worship, especially when they are made up of a Roman Catholic and a Protestant. What heinous crimes have been committed against people by the churches’ misuse of the Supper Christ instituted for the comfort and unity of humankind.

Nowhere are we told in the New Testament what type of person is necessary to preside at the Lord’s Table. We do not know if they must be ordained or not ordained, male or female, priest or pastor, with apostolic succession or without. All these questions have only become crucial when the Lord’s Supper was used for other purposes than that for which it was instituted. Here we must be “wise as serpents” to look behind the stated reasons for the necessity of having as celebrants, pastors and priests. Then we will see the human fears for institutions and the anxieties for continued support. How foolish this is, when there will continue to be a great need for trained clergy, not to celebrate the Lord’s Supper but to call into existence new groups of Christians who can celebrate it for themselves.

The fifth question is, “Who should come to the Lord’s Supper?” Here the answers given vary greatly. Some denominations and congregations have an open communion policy that welcomes any and all communicants. Others have such a restrictive policy that only people belonging to their denomination, or even congregation, may attend. Some feel that only those should come who can “examine” themselves (First Corinthians 11:28). This leaves out very small children and those uninstructed in the faith. Others believe that no one should come who is living in open and unrepented sin. On the mission fields, all sorts of rules and regulations have been placed upon people before they can come to the Lord’s Supper. Many of these were required to force people into a better Christian life. Once again, “control” became the most important factor.

The problem of who should partake is finally less a matter of standards than it is of who should do the deciding. It is clear that the Lord’s Supper is something special that requires at least recognition of its treasures before the participants can benefit from it. However, it should be up to the worshipping community in any given place to decide who is to be invited. This, of course, assumes that the community gets to know those who wish to come. What a difference between this friendly approach and the dictums, policies, and prohibitions that come from denominations and large congregations that pass over people to come up with a policy.

Some will object and say, “How can you deal personally with individuals when there are hundreds and thousands in a single congregation?” The problem is with the thousands and hundreds in a single congregation, not with letting the local participants decide. Suppose that the congregation of thousands would divide itself into smaller units or families that would get to know each other as individuals? If such a group were persuaded that an individual could and should participate, could not the entire congregation trust their fellow believers within that group? Would not this personalized approach do far more to build Christian community than all of our rules and policies? But some will object again. On the basis of First Corinthians 11:23-24, does not Paul say that some people will come and partake in an unworthy manner and will eat and drink judgment on themselves? As one of the most abused sections of the Scriptures, let us take a closer look at that passage.

Perspective on First Corinthians 10 and 11

Over the centuries, hundreds of books and articles have been written on these chapters. Each word and phrase on the subject of the Lord’s Supper has been poked, prodded, analyzed, and synthesized many times over. This writer has neither the wish nor the space to review all that has been written on this matter in order to come up with yet another conclusion. All that can be done here is to provide a perspective that comes from outside denominational and clerical control. Yet it is only from that position that we might again realize that Jesus gave us his supper to unite Christians rather than to divide them.

In order to understand the context of Paul’s words in First Corinthians 11, we need to go back and get an overview of chapter 10. Paul begins by challenging the false security of the Corinthian Christians. True, they had been baptized, as had their fathers in the Red Sea. True, they ate and drank supernatural food and drink, as had their fathers in the desert. But neither of these actions was a guarantee of God’s pleasure with them. Idolatry, immorality, and grumbling undid whatever miraculous events in which they had taken part. In particular, Paul examines closely the sin of idolatry. In v. 14 and following, Paul admonishes the Corinthians to shun the worship of idols. He argues, “How can one participate in the body and blood of Christ, and at the same time participate in the worship of idols?” The intent of Paul is not to underscore the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine, although that may be inferred. It was rather to separate the participatory worship of Christ and his people from the participation of Christians in pagan worship.

In v. 17, Paul speaks of the unity of Christians when he says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body in Christ, for we partake of that one bread.” Here the “body of Christ” does not refer to the “real presence” of Christ in the bread. Rather, it refers to the whole fellowship of Christians as the body of Christ. Paul uses the phrase in a similar way in Ephesians 4:4, 5:23, and other places. This is emphasized even more in vs. 17 and 18. Even as the people of Israel, who eat the sacrifice, are partners at the altar, so by eating and drinking with Christians at the same table, we become one with them. Yes, there is a separation that must be maintained. However, this is the ritual separation of Christians and non-Christians. It is not to be the separation of Christians from other believers. Paul writes, “I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (First Corinthians 10:20-21). This section in the tenth chapter is important to the understanding of Paul’s comments in chapter eleven because it helps us to realize what Paul meant when he spoke of not discerning “the body of Christ” (First Corinthians 11:29).

In chapter eleven, Paul commends the church for remembering him and maintaining the delivered traditions. However, in the matter of the Lord’s Supper, he does not commend them (v. 17). In the first place, he has heard that there are divisions and factions in the church. This has been a major theme throughout Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He has heard that there were divisions (First Corinthians 1:10). They were divided with respect to the teachers they honored saying, “I belong to Paul, I belong to Apollos” (3:4). They were involved with lawsuits against each other (6:1). They failed to realize that though there were a variety of gifts and service, there was only one Spirit (12:4-5). They gloried in their gifts and failed to see that they were part of the body of Christ (12:12-26).

In chapter 11, these divisions were acutely manifested in the Lord’s Supper. When the people came together, it was not for the better but for the worse (v.17). Even when they came together “in church,” Paul had heard that their divisions were manifest (v. 18). With those factions splitting them up, it really was not to eat the Lord’s Supper (v. 20). When the time comes to eat, each goes ahead with their own meals, and one goes hungry and another gets drunk (v. 21). Paul condemns neither the eating nor drinking but rather the callous disregard of other people’s feelings. The worst part was the humiliation of the poor, who had nothing (v. 22). Paul simply could not commend this behavior.

What an irony that in this context of condemning divisions at the Lord’s Table, denominational interpreters can make the words of Paul stand on their heads. Furthermore, they use the next section of the chapter to prove “closed communion” or that practice of separating Christians on the basis of their denominations. In their efforts, they simply magnify their own factionalism and party spirit to get the text to agree with their sectarian traditions. First, let us look at the words of Paul and then see how they have been twisted to condemn Christian unity at the altar and praise factions and human divisions.

In this section, Paul repeats the words of institution as he had received them. While some denominational traditions such as the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian and Lutherans have made much of the real presence in these words, they have glossed over the more important emphases of the function and meaning of the Supper, “This do in remembrance of me.” In the original setting of the upper room, or of Paul’s recounting that event, the remembrance of Christ was not one doctrine rather than another. Instead it was remembering our Lord. The Scribes and the Pharisees had said of him, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).[17] Paul’s appeal was not to a liturgical formula but to Jesus, who alone could bring forgiveness and fellowship to the poor and sinners.

In v. 26, he focuses on the whole purpose of the Lord’s Supper. “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Thus in eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper they were witnessing to Jesus’ sacrifice to each other and through each other to the world. They were also to continue this witness until Jesus would come back. Here Christians need to step back from their brittle Greek definitions on the substance of communion and concentrate instead on its purpose. Ask a Baptist or a Roman Catholic or a member of the local community church whether they feel they are witnessing to Christ’s death for their forgiveness and they will all agree on its common purpose. Indeed, because we are remembering the love of Christ that unites us despite our sins and our definitions, we are one at the altar. We commune both with our Lord and each other.

In v. 27, Paul concludes, “whoever therefore, eats the bread and drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” Here, “profaning the body and blood of the Lord” referred to the Corinthian practice of not sharing with, or accepting as fellow Christians, those who wished to commune with the Lord and each other. Selfishness, factions, divisions have no place in this Supper. They are the sinful acts that caused Christ to give his body and blood into death. Such divisions, then, make people guilty of profaning Christ’s body and blood.

For this reason people should examine themselves (v. 28). Over the centuries churches have made much of this examination, calling for obligatory confession before going to the Eucharist. Others call for anxious probing of conscience so that people will not go to communion with some unacknowledged sin. While one might excuse such an over-zealous application of this passage in the name of Christian piety, it has too often been used as a vehicle for church control and domination over the hearts and minds of the faithful. Given the context of the Corinthian situation a much simpler interpretation is called for. Let people examine their relations with one another, especially with regard to factions, divisions, and differences between the rich and the poor.

In v. 29, Paul says that whoever eats and drinks without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment upon themselves. What is meant here by the reference to “body”? People who come from traditions that hold to the real presence of Christ in the bread and the cup claim that “discerning the body of Christ” refers to that real presence or, as they say, the “sacramental presence.”[18] While conceding that “body” in v. 29 could refer to the church as well as to the sacramental presence, another writer concludes that both from a traditional “Lutheran” understanding of the passage and his examination of the immediate context, it means the “sacramental presence.”[19] Unfortunately, in his examination of the immediate context, he conveniently overlooks the much wider context of the divisions and factions of the Corinthian church. The reason for this is not hard to find, because these writers seek to defend the closed communion practices of one of the most exclusionary of church bodies, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.[20]

However, the real logic and false application of their position is not apparent until one understands how they defend their exclusion of other Christians from their celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In a revealing footnote one writer says that since the celebration of the Eucharist is a proclamation and proclamation involves confession and confession needs to flow from agreement, therefore people should be in doctrinal agreement before they commune.[21]Here the entire context of the divisions of the rich and poor people of Corinth is ignored. Instead, they insert their own fellowship principles in which Christian fellowship cannot exist without full agreement on all articles of faith. Now on the basis of their interpretation and understanding of the text, parties and factions in the Christian Church should continue to exist, indeed, even flourish with respect to the Lord’s Supper.

This is how one conservative Protestant denomination uses its own interpretation and history to fly in the face of Paul’s whole argument against factions and divisions in Corinth. However, they are not alone. Similar arguments can be found among Roman Catholics, Orthodox Church bodies, and other Protestants. Now the wonderful gift of forgiveness, fellowship, spiritual growth, and the sharing of love in the Lord’s Supper is denied to others because of the very party factions of which Paul was speaking.

On this issue of the Lord’s Supper, communities of Christians are divided into competing congregations; families are split, and the entire Christian Church on earth witnesses to its divisions. In these verses from First Corinthians 10 and 11, Paul is not condemning the church for welcoming the errant brother or sinner or grandmother who comes from a different denomination. All at Corinth were to receive fellowship, forgiveness and comfort in this Communion. Rather, he condemns in no uncertain terms those practicing their “closed communions.” These then are those who are stand judged because they did not discern the Lord’s body either in their fellowship or in their eating and drinking.

Celebrating Diversity in Unity

Throughout the history of the Church, the Lord’s Supper has shown itself to be a growing, developing observance. Never again will it be possible to simply do what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed. Instead, ways and means must be found to appreciate the wonderful flowering of the Lord’s Supper in different ways, in different groups.

Is this so difficult? When we look at the celebration of Christmas, we rejoice that Germans have their distinctive ways of observing the festival, as Mexicans have theirs. Taken together there is a kaleidoscope of color and meaning. Why should this not be possible with the Lord’s Supper? As one experiences the charms of Christmas in another tradition, why not see a new meaning in a different type of celebration of the Lord’s Supper? A person used to one tradition may never feel at home in another’s observance even as they may feel strange in another’s celebration of Christmas. However, in the various ways of celebrating, we see a oneness of spirit even though the customs and insights are different.

However, what if there is a wrong celebration? What if the Lord’s Supper is used tyrannically or divisively? The force that can break down a bad celebration is not a new rule or church control. Rather it is Christian love that moves people to participate in even a bad participation because they do so to receive Christ’s forgiveness and Christian fellowship. Did not Christ love us even when we were not ready for it? Cannot this be our love as well? As Christians present themselves for the Lord’s Supper in different congregations in various church bodies, we will probably see a creative chaos in the communion policies of the churches. That coming chaos, however, should not discourage people from participating in the Lord’s Supper. Rather it should be used to show our growing unity in Christ. Further, this unity will not be of our making but will come from the same Christ who gave us his body and blood for our forgiveness and fellowship. As we receive Christ’s gift of himself, we look forward to eating and drinking with him in the kingdom to come.


[1] Nicolas Berdyaev, The Meaning of History (London: The Centenary Press, 1936), 27-33.

[2] E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), 710-714.

[3] Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper No. 11 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982), 12.

[4] The LCMS Response to the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches to the Text of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Commission on Theology and Church Relations (St. Louis: The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, 1985), 9-13.

[5] Neville Clark, An Approach to the Theology of the Sacraments (London: SCM Press, 1956), 9.

[6] Thomas Droege, Self-Realization and Faith: Beginning and Becoming in Relation to God(Chicago: Lutheran Education Association, 1978), 62.

[7] Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 278-281.

[8] This was the chief argument of Martin Luther in his Large Catechism on the subject of infant baptism. See Theodore Tappert, ed., The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 442-446.

[9] Horton Davies, Bread of Life and Cup of Joy (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), 220-221.

[10] Ibid., 229.

[11] Martin Chemnitz, The Lord’s Supper (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1979), 37-43.

[12] Davies, 17-28. See also Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, 15.

[13] Davies, 84-90.

[14] Ibid., 150-167.

[15] Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, 14.

[16] Paul Empie and T. Austin Murphy, eds., Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue III: The Eucharist as Sacrifice (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1967), 194-198.

[17] Joachim Jeremias draws a sharp contrast between the customs of the Pharisees, who only ate with the righteous, and the custom of Jesus, who ate with the outcasts and sinners. See Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966), 204-205.

[18] In my own denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, several theologians have sought to defend the denomination’s stand on closed communion. See Jeffrey Gibbs, “An Exegetical Case for Close (d) Communion: I Cor. 10:14-22; 11:17-34,” Concordia Journal 21 (April, 1995), 159.

[19] A. Andrew Das, “I Cor. 11:17-34,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 62 (July, 1998), 197-201.

[20] It should be noted that even though “close(d)” communion is advocated by the current leadership of the Synod, many pastors and congregations freely welcome Christians belonging to other denominations to commune at their altars.

[21] Gibbs, “An Exegetical CAse for Close(d) Communion,” 157.

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