by Cecil Hook
THIS LESSON SCARES ME
If a lesson does not raise eyebrows, it is likely to droop eyelids. Many of mine have left me and others with the drooping eyes. This lesson, however, raises my eyebrows. In fact, it scares me. I think that it will bring some shock to you also if I can hold your attention through some necessary contextual background. So please hang on.
Paul dealt with several problems among the Corinthian saints in his first letter to them. The thematic issue of the letter is the disintegration of the unity of the body.
Those who “were called into the fellowship of his Son” were becoming factional (1:9- 17). Instead of speaking/saying the same thing in saying “I am of Christ,” they were speaking diversely in identifying themselves with factional leaders. Paul, Apollos, and Cephas were not the party leaders, though Paul used the names of those innocent men in a literary device to give the guilty ones opportunity to correct their conduct with the least loss of face (4:6f). Later, although Paul never names those impenitent leaders, he does speak of them as “false apostles, deceitful workers” in his second Corinthian epistle (11:13f).
In the third chapter, Paul deals with the disciples’ carnality as was in evidence because of their jealousy, strife, and factionalism (3:1-3). They, as a body, were God’s temple and any one who would destroy the unity of that body would be destroying the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit (3:16f). That’s not referring to suicide or cigarette smoking. That’s talking about polarizing God’s people! This is already a bit scary, isn’t it?
Paul would have none to be “inflated with pride as you patronize one and flout the other” (4:6 NEB).
After dealing with other problems and misunderstandings, Paul returns to his theme of unity (10:16-22). Since the communion is the participation in the body and the blood of Christ, it becomes a symbol of unity of the communicants. “We are one bread/loaf.” One can visualize Paul holding the unbroken bread before the assembly and saying with deep feeling, “We are one loaf.”
Here is where factionalism showed itself in all its ugliness. One group would not wait for the others. The parties disdained each other in the love feast and communion. Their participation was for the worse, not for the better (11:17-22). Paul shamed them, “… there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” The genuine disciples would be conspicuous by their lack of party alignment. Because their eating together had become a demonstration of factional loyalty, it could not really be called the Lord’s Supper; it became their own sectarian supper.
The remainder of chapter 11 is familiar to all, but let’s look at some of the expressions used. Here are the one loaf and one cup which depict the one body and its life-blood. Whoever eats or drinks it in an unworthy manner is guilty of profaning the body and blood. The unworthy manner or unworthily describes the action rather than the person. In action, they were factional. What should have been participation by all was limited by each group to those approved within the group. They were eating and drinking without “discerning the body” — without discerning the oneness, the unity of the body. Without respecting the unity of the body, they were eating and drinking condemnation to themselves.
This interpretation of the meaning of unworthily is not the traditional one, but is it not in harmony with the wider context which includes Chapters 12, 13, and 14?
These thoughts send a shudder through my soul as I recall the many distinctions, factions, and divisions that have plagued our people. It is true that, even though there were factions in congregations, we have usually communed together as long as we were in the same building. But after separating in different localities, what communion that has been maintained has been no more than a patronizing tolerance toward those on the right and an utter disdain for those on the left.
For many years I taught with an innocent smugness that we did not believe in “closed communion.” Anyone who attends may judge himself and decide on his participation. So far, so good — as long as it is our building, our service, our Lord’s Supper. But will I go to their building, their service, their Lord’s Table? Now I begin to make all kinds of rationalizations as to why I should not do so. I justify my factionalism. I refuse to discern the oneness of the body. By this, my participation/communion/ fellowship in my own setting becomes an expression and reinforcement of factional loyalty. When it is not my loyal group, I suddenly come to believe in closed communion.
That scares me! How can we be in communion/fellowship with one who is not of the Church of Christ when he comes to our service and then deny that fellowship at all other times? If we accept him on his self-examination at the Lord’s Table, why can’t we accept him on that basis at all times?
When I become the judge of another brother to exclude him, I disregard Paul’s warning, “Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Those disciples in Corinth misunderstood and disagreed on some important doctrinal matters, but Paul made that no basis to justify refusal of communion with each other and for dividing the one body. Do we have issues of greater vitality than circumcision, eating of meats, observance of days, and those differences in the Corinthian church? Paul would not let the saints judge each other on such matters. Read Romans 14 again.
We try to sweep this troublesome problem under the rug by meeting in separate assemblies so that we can be with our approved groups without admitting that the body is divided, but we are still sectarian exclusivists in mind and practice.
The turning point in the thinking of Thomas and Alexander Campbell was over the problem of their Presbyterian factions refusing to commune with other Presbyterians. Thomas reached his decision in America while Alexander reached his independently in Scotland. So they began their efforts to restore the unity of the disciples in the different factions. It is ironic that the movement that started in rejection of closed communion should become entrapped by it again.
Yes, this scares me! And it depresses me deeply because I have shared the guilt of my people.
As I commune now, however, I not only think of the atonement of Christ, but also of my communing/sharing/fellowship with Christ and all persons on earth who have received His grace. I am free from judging them. We are one body — one bread/loaf — which can allow for no factional loyalties.