I will be the first to say pragmatism is not an inherently sinful concept. The answer to the question “What works?” enables society to accomplish many things. Though there is no doubt pragmatism can benefit humanity, it shouldn’t be so easily translated into our church worship services.
Unfortunately, the prevailing philosophy of worship, at least practically speaking, is pragmatism. Services are built around means to subjective ends. What makes the people happy, what is most entertaining, what is logistically feasible, etc., are all valid discussions to have, but in our context, these conversations have led to an usurping of biblical precedence.
Rather than placing biblical prescription before all else, we have shifted away from God’s instructions in order to follow our various answers to the question, “What works?”
It is my purpose, in this article, to first suggest we re-order our priorities; and second, to consider Paul’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-34.
Re-Ordering Our Priorities
This section will be brief because I only want to present a short, yet effective (in my opinion), argument for the priority of Scripture in our worship. If Scripture is sufficient for our worship, if it is the ultimate standard for faith and practice, then we ought not deviate from what it has to say about items such as baptism or the Lord’s Supper.
2 Timothy 3:16-17, a verse often parroted by myself and others, says this, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” We learn first that all Scripture is God-breathed. Second, we learn that all Scripture, being God-breathed, is advantageous for a number of reasons, including the correct ordering of our practice as is implied by teaching, correction, and training in righteousness. Third, reading on to v. 17, we learn that this is sufficient for the equipment of God’s people. It says, “so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
In other words, Scripture is the sufficient instrument to make the Christian adequate in the service of the Kingdom. Moreover, the word for “work” (ergon) could also be translated as “deed” or “labor.” This extends to every aspect of our lives as Christians, and the Lord’s Supper is no exception. Therefore, Scripture, and what it has to say about the nature of the Lord’s Supper, ought to be made priority. We ought to ask the question of “How should this work?” before we ask the question, “What do we think works?”
Paul’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper
There are two primary sources for the Lord’s Supper in Scripture. The first would be Jesus’ words, while the second would be Paul’s words. Here, we are not meaning to neglect the words of Jesus for the sake of concentrating on Paul alone. Paul draws directly from Jesus and elucidates His words in a fuller sense in 1 Corinthians 11:23-34. He writes this:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.
So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment. The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.
For our purposes, I have highlighted the relevant sections of the text. You will notice, first, that Paul (along with Jesus) always separates the elements, the wine following the bread in a distinct manner. I want to suggest that intinction, being one example, fails to honor this clear teaching of the Bible. This may seem picky, but let’s be consistent. As Baptists, we follow the text to a tee when it comes to baptism. We shouldn’t exclude the Lord’s Supper from the same kind of treatment.
Second, note the seriousness by which Paul treats this ordinance. If taken in an unworthy manner, the people of God will be chastised by their heavenly Father. That is why, Paul says, members of the 1st century church were becoming ill and even dying. I do not believe this happens to people who profane the ordinance today. However, I do believe that those who profane the ordinance are storing up judgment for themselves if they do not repent of their offenses against the body and blood of Christ (v. 27). The reason people were instantly judged in the 1st century is because the Spirit was making a point that, to profane this ordinance is a big deal. Much like Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying to the Spirit (Acts 5:1-10), so too were early participants in the Supper judged for their negligence.
Third, I want to draw your attention to Paul’s apparent distinction between the Lord’s Supper and your garden-variety meal at home. In the final paragraph, Paul concludes his doctrinal exposition of Christ’s words by separating the eating of the Lord’s Supper and the eating of a supper to satisfy bodily hunger. In other words, if a person is hungry, they can eat that kind of meal at home. The meal to be shared among the brethren, is not the same thing as lunch or dinner. In my view, this should prevent some churches from confusing dinner with the Lord’s Supper, which is a popular practice among some house-model churches.
Our priority ought to be the written Word of God when it comes to the Lord’s Supper, not pragmatism. Moreover, Paul is very clear when he lays out the doctrine of the Supper. First, following Jesus, Paul separates the elements (i.e. the bread is taken before the wine). Second, he draws attention to the importance of the ordinance by citing God’s judgment upon those who profane the Supper. Third, Paul concludes by distinguishing between the Lord’s Supper and any other kind of supper (e.g. lunch or dinner). This makes for a clear understanding of how we ought to come together around the table of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.