The Church of Christ (VII)
We are examining what the Belgic Confession relates to the Christian Church about what the “marks,” “notes,” or “distinguishing characteristics” of Christ’s Church are. The Belgic is doing this for a very spiritual and pastoral reason, namely to give Christians some guidelines regarding what they ought to be looking for as they seek a church home. By way of a quick review, here is what the author included in Article 29 of his confession: “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.”
Last week we outlined what is meant by the “preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel,” so now we’re going to progress to the proper administration of the sacraments and church discipline.
The Pure Administration of the Sacraments
There are few things sacrosanct in the modern Church anymore. Someone sent me a film clip recently of a United (or Untied) Methodist church celebrating what was ostensibly the Lord’s Supper. All the adult recipients were dressed in clown costumes, which, given the United Methodist mindset, was probably appropriate. That debacle gave new meaning to the song Send in the Clowns. There were smiles and laughter all around during that ludicrous display. The female pastor appeared to be enjoying it most of all. There would not have been a complaint if God had zapped them all then and there. The next day’s headlines could have read: “If it weren’t an act of God, it should have been!”
In another unrelated clip I received, a 12-year-old boy was being baptized in a Baptist church. The sacrament was administered and the boy disappeared off camera. As the pastor began to make some concluding comments, the young boy came back into the range of the camera as he performed a cannonball into the baptistery. There was a huge splash, soaking the pastor. The entire church roared in laughter. The pastor was obviously surprised and shaken by the unexpected event and made some nervous impromptu comments, smiling and giggling. As I watched that desecration I was livid. That young boy should have been read the riot act then and there for the manner in which he despised God’s sacrament and made such light and sport of it. Ample time should have been taken, once the pastor regained his composure to explain to all who laughed why this was no laughing matter.
I’ll grant that these are two extreme examples; I’m willing to let them stand as exceptions and not the rule. Nevertheless, the modern Church could most definitely “tighten up” its administration of the sacraments. When de Brès penned these words, he was directing his words primarily against the Roman Catholic Church and to another degree the Remonstrant’s Church as well. The doctrine of transubstantiation is unbiblical and is to be rejected. In other words, de Brès taught that both transubstantiation and the mere “remembrance meal” were not biblical; they were wrong. There’s a novel thought for the 21st century Church: there is such a thing as right and wrong; such a thing as what is pleasing to God and what isn’t.
Several years ago, when I was a pastor in Toronto, Canada, our family had traveled for vacation to the island off the NC coast where my parents lived. After two wonderful weeks of warmth and sunshine, we drove inland to Charlotte, NC, where Sally’s parents lived. We attended church with them on Sunday—it was the Sunday before Resurrection Sunday (otherwise known as Easter). It was an evangelical congregation and the pastor announced that at next Sunday’s service the Lord’s Supper would be served. He went on to say that it really didn’t matter to him if you were Roman Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Pentecostal, or whatever other denomination, he was going to ensure that you would be comfortable and that he intended to make it a meaningful experience for you. I leaned over to my wife and whispered that I wished we could stay over, if for no other reason than I’d like to have seen how he was going to pull it off.
If you don’t know the decided differences between, say, Roman Catholic and Reformed and Presbyterian views on the Lord’s Supper then you are probably a product of public schools and of a “community” church. (Don’t go getting testy! I’m joking—sort of. I’m the product of the public school system, but in the pre-politically correct era.) There are major differences and we should clearly delineate them because those differences are substantive and far-reaching. It is our duty to know those differences and know why we believe what we do.
A Brief Word to My PCA Colleagues
When I first came into the PCA in 1995 our Session at Grace studied the celebration of the Lord’s Supper together. It was an enlightening study, to say the least. One of the tools I used was a study by the Dutch Calvin scholar, W.F. Dankbaar entitled Communion Practices in the Century of the Reformation (Communiegebruiken in de eeuw der Reformatie). Dankbaar chronicled how each of the various Reformed pastors on the continent celebrated the Lord’s Supper with their respective congregations. There was a lot of overlap in the manner of celebration, but there were also differences. That led us to conclude that within the boundaries of Scripture, the Westminster Standards, and our Book of Church Order we were given some latitude, which is a good thing.
We then focused on the elements used in the Holy Meal. Our investigation of Scripture determined that wine was used in the celebration. When we moved from Scripture to the confessional statements we discovered the same thing: wine. Finally, the BCO also prescribed wine. Therefore, we settled in on wine. “But what about those who are allergic to wine or who are alcoholics?” some might ask. Well, when we fence the table of the Lord one of the logistical announcements is that a portion of the tray contains grape juice for those, who for whatever reason, cannot partake of wine, but the remainder is wine. Clearly, it is not a badge of Christianity that we don’t ever drink. At the first Christian Pentecost when Peter and the others were accused of being drunk, he reminded his accusers that it was only 9:00a.m. Note well: he didn’t say, “We don’t drink.” He simply pointed to the fact that it was too early.
But it does seem to me that to be in keeping with what our Lord, the Westminster divines, and the compilers of our BCO were teaching, the emphasis should be on celebrating the Lord’s Supper in the biblically prescribed manner. Could you ever celebrate the Lord’s Supper with a cracker and a soft drink? Well, if that were all you had, then maybe so. But if we have the means to celebrate it as Scripture tells us we should, why would we want to celebrate differently?
Church Discipline: Who Does That Anymore?
This aspect of what de Brès says about church discipline sounds like the Lamisil® commercial. Just as we Americans are intolerant of an athlete’s foot cure that takes longer than two weeks (we really are an instant gratification nation, aren’t we?), we are horrified at any attempt at or notion of church discipline. This is due, in part, (but only in part) to our lack of understanding of the nature and essence of the Church of Jesus Christ. Decades of garbage tend to mount up and block our view of the real deal. One of the unintentional outcomes of the mega-church movement was to aggravate the already rampant individualism in the United States and North America. The net result, therefore, was a joyful anonymity in the masses that met to be entertained each Sunday. The larger the gathering, the higher the degree of anonymity is.
Besides, with the pastor preaching his brand of “feel good” religion, few were ever being convinced of sin and an unbiblical lifestyle. Being one of the faceless attendees in the sea of the audience, both public and secret sins went undisclosed. Then as well as now, pastors shied away from the “s” word: sin. That word was not considered either chic or upbeat. Attendees tended to fall away rather quickly if pastors didn’t accommodate themselves to positive messages. Compromise with biblical truth became the order of the day. Pastors came to understand intuitively what attendees would tolerate and stand for and what would send them flying for the exits and seeking a place that was less offensive and more in keeping with what their consumer mentality demanded. Truth was definitely “out” and positive messages were “in.”
Since few of the “sermonettes” were directed to specific sins and the need to repent from them and be conformed more and more to the image of Christ, mega-church attendees could live like pagans—which many did—and get their spiritual fix on Sunday. That, and the rise of lawsuits in our litigiously obsessed culture, led a number of churches to abandon any attempt at even the simplest forms of church discipline such as a pastor telling an attendee that he or she shouldn’t live in a particular sin or sins. If pastors ever dared to venture into that territory they quickly encountered the “Butt Out” mentality. Therefore, they became spiritually gun shy and, wanting to keep the “numbers” up, turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the sins of their congregation. On the other hand, some didn’t even have a clue what those sins were because the pastors were too aloof and too important to spend time getting to know their congregants by name—which is a daunting task when you’re dealing with large numbers of people. Finally, since these pastors had long since decided not to preach on sin it was a foregone conclusion that they probably wouldn’t have to be dealing with any such circumstances.
One example will suffice here. I came to know about a blatant case of adultery and abandonment involving the wife of a friend of mine. They both attended an evangelical church in the area. I called the senior pastor there and was told by the church secretary that I could just tell her what I wanted. I made it very clear to her that I was not about to tell her, but rather that I would be put through to the senior pastor, who, by the way, had a serious problem going on in his congregation. Attila the Hun was put through. I told the man the problem and his only reply was, “What would you do in a case like this?” I was flabbergasted, but explained as calmly as I could the steps that I thought should be taken.
A few weeks later I saw my friend and he told me what had happened as a result of my call to his pastor. My friend’s wife showed up at church the following Sunday with her new live-in stud and my friend pointed her out to an Elder of the church. He said he would bring the matter to the attention of the pastor. Being good to his word, he conferred with the pastor I spoke to on the phone and came back to my friend with this bit of church discipline: Your wife looks pretty happy; why don’t you look for another church? I’ll bet she was happy! The new stud had just received his order of Enzyte® and she was all smiles. I wonder if his name were Bob?
What was dismal in the mega-church movement regarding church discipline is non-existent in the Emergent chitchat. With all the “pomo” emphasis on tolerance, relativism, the lack of meta-narratives, the positive uses of other religions, and the like, you would insult the Birkenstock label to even hint that a particular type of unbiblical behavior might be censurable. The Emergent deviants have some semblance of appreciation for “community,” which is the opposite of the mega-church, but if the “community” where to exhort you to live a more biblical life you’d be laughed out of Starbucks, the pub, or wherever else “worship” was being held that day.
So it all boils down to this: What is it that you truly are looking for in a church family? Once you’ve answered that question, take some time and answer this one as well: Is what you want what God wants? Are you looking for all the right things or are you looking for all the wrong things? How essential is it to you and for your family (if you have one) that you make the right choice? How crucial is your choice to your own spiritual growth and that of your loved ones? Did you choose your current local church out of convenience rather than because it was the truest church you could find after seriously seeking out and finding a place of true, biblical worship?The Second Helvetic (Swiss) Confession of 1566 chimes in with similar words to what the Belgic Confession summarizes when it says, “…we do not acknowledge every church to be the true Church which vaunts herself so to be; but we teach that to be the true Church indeed in which the marks and tokens of the true Church are to be found.” Sunday is only a few days away. Where will you worship on this Lord’s Day?
 Joel Beeke & Sinclair Ferguson (eds.), Reformed Confession Harmonized, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), p. 192-193. Emphases mine.
 Ibid., 192.
Labels: The Church of Christ