Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How to Handle Difficult Issues Biblically

1 Corinthians 8-10 is an often-neglected bit of the New Testament (except for a few verses in chapter 9, usually read out of context). But actually it provides us with a really helpful pattern for working with difficult issues in the Church.

The problem in Corinth was the issue of meat sacrificed to idols. In first century Corinth, most meat was slaughtered in the context of worship at one or other of the many temples. It was then either served at public feasts, served at guild meals or sold in the meat market. Membership of most trades required being in a guild; they generally met in pagan temples. If you ate meat that had been sacrificed to idols, it was often understood as sharing in the worship of the god to whom it had been sacrificed, just as Communion was seen as sharing in Jesus' sacrifice. The Corinthian church was obviously divided on the issue, and had asked Paul for advice.

So how does Paul handle this difficult situation?

  1. Come up with the best Biblical-theological case on both sides (8:1-7; 10:1-12; 10:14-22). Some people think Paul is contradicting himself here, but actually he's stating the strongest arguments on both sides before coming to a conclusion. So often when we try to have debates now in the church, people only state one point of view and as a result are rejected by the other side. Paul clearly understands both sides, and states both arguments well. The arguments here are Biblical / theological in character - Paul argues from theology and the Shema (8v4-6), from the history of Israel (10v1-11), from the nature of communion (10v16-21).
  2. Recognise that both sides are probably right, and identify the real issue. If both sides are supported by good scriptural arguments, both are probably right. If they look like they contradict each other, we need to see why they don't really. Here, Paul does it by seeing the gap between eating meat and actually participating in the sacrifice, which is an attitude of mind or heart on the part of the worshipper. [It is of course very possible to have bad arguments from Scripture too; I'm not saying those are right.]
  3. Recognise explicitly that many people won't have done all the theology, and will be responding from their gut. Honour them and their consciences (8:7-13). This is again something we often miss today, and in some situations one side's consciences may say not to do something and the other side may say to do it, and it's genuinely hard to honour both, but we should try anyway.
  4. Follow the example of Jesus, who laid down his rights for others, but don't slip into legalism. Maintain the importance of Christian freedom, but let it be trumped by love. As soon as people start talking about their rights, they show they've missed the point. The point of rights for the Christian is that we lay them down for others. That's what Paul means by "follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" in 11v1. Jesus, being in very nature God, laid down his rights for us. Paul, having the right to financial support and to live as he wanted within the "law of Christ", gave those rights up for the sake of those he was ministering to. So we should also give up our rights for the sake of each other, even if that means avoiding offending their over-scrupulous consciences.

A couple of quick applications to current issues in the C of E:

People who talk about women's right to be bishops (for example) don't really understand what it is to live as a Christian, let alone to be a bishop. If women do have that right, they should be willing to lay it down for the sake of their brothers and sisters who would be offended by it. And those brothers and sisters should probably lay down their right not to be offended for the sake of preserving unity and allowing women to serve in the capacity of bishop.

What the homosexuality squabble debate desperately needs is people who are willing to articulate both sides of the Biblical argument and show how they fit together. So often what is produced by both camps is hideously one-sided, and sometimes just ignores important pastoral issues or runs roughshod over the consciences of those who in good conscience disagree, even if they do so without good reasons. Yes, if we disagree with someone, we should seek to persuade them, but we should do so in love - whether love for the knee-jerk homophobes or for the "out and proud" types.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Communion Services in the Early Church

In the early church, there were three main types of service – the agape meal, the synaxis (similar to Service of the Word), and the eucharist (Greek for “thanksgiving”). Over the years, the agape meal largely faded out, and the synaxis and eucharist merged to make the modern Communion Service. In this post, I'll trace very briefly how we got from the Early Church (pre-325) to the modern situation in the Church of England.


The structure of the synaxis was as follows: Greeting, Bible Reading, Sung Worship, Bible Reading, Sermon, Outsiders Leave, Prayers, Dismissal. I've already written about how some of the elements worked, but one development it's worth noting is that the “traditional” pattern of Epistle, Psalm and Gospel readings developed from the earlier practice of one reading at the start of the service, then a time of sung worship (usually using Psalms), then a second reading which was the basis for the sermon. Outsiders were welcome to attend the service, but were expected to leave after the sermon and before the prayers. Catechumens (people who were preparing for baptism) were welcome to stay for the prayers but were expected to leave before the Eucharist, at what is now the Peace.


Dix identifies four key stages in the Eucharist service, which are reflected in the gospels – Jesus took bread (1), he gave thanks (2), he broke it (3) and gave it to the disciples (4).

Offertory - “he took bread”
Originally there was just one loaf (1 Cor 10:17), but in the 100s AD, members of the congregation brought their own bread to church to share, and it was brought forwards at this point, like the wave offering or the grain offering in the OT. People offering their own bread for the Communion came to be seen as symbolic of offering their lives to God and having them transformed; after people started believing that the bread became Jesus during the prayer, it eventually got confused into the idea of us offering Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. To make it clear that we can only offer ourselves to God because of what God has done in giving Jesus as a sacrifice in our place, Cranmer moved the language of offering ourselves to after the Communion. Sometimes (e.g. 1662) the offertory gets confused with the money offering too. (Wafers are a much later innovation, and in my opinion a wrong one.)
Eucharist - “he gave thanks”
A prayer was said over the bread and wine, thanking God. The prayer typically followed the pattern: blessing God, thanks for creation, thanks for redemption, thanks for the new covenant (and our place in it), institution narrative (i.e. the story of the Last Supper), prayer for us as we receive communion, praising God again. Later on, the Sanctus came to replace or be integrated into the Thanksgiving sections. The key phrase in this whole section is Jesus' command to “do this in remembrance of me” - reminding us that we are sharing communion to remember Jesus. The Prayer of Humble Access is descended from the minister's prayer for the people as we receive communion.
Sometimes other prayers were inserted after the Eucharistic Prayer, largely because of the 4th century idea that the prayer of thanksgiving “consecrated” the bread and the wine, and that somehow God was therefore more present then, and so prayer was more likely to be heard. We see remnants of this in the use of the Lord's Prayer in Common Worship Order 1. Sometimes it even went far enough that the prayers during the Synaxis ceased to be used – we don't need two periods of intercession during the service. Of course, originally, the prayers of intercession were in the Synaxis rather than the Eucharist, and I think that's the best place for them.
Fraction - “he broke it”
The bread is broken so that it can be distributed. Originally this may well have used 1 Cor 10:17, but after the church stopped using just one loaf they switched to using words like “God's holy gifts for God's holy people” or “the body of Christ, broken for you.” Sometimes people today use 1 Cor 10:17 "though we are many, we are one body, for we all share in the one bread", but do it without using one loaf. That seems silly to me. In the medieval church, the Fraction came to be seen as the point at which Jesus' body was actually broken, so Cranmer dropped it altogether. 1662 re-introduced it during the Institution Narrative, which is historically odd.
Communion - “he gave it to them”
Distribution of the bread and wine was usually done with the ministers standing, and the people walking between them. Afterwards, there was just a short dismissal and the service ended.

(This is part of an irregular series spinning off Gregory Dix's On the Shape of the Liturgy. The data is almost all from Dix, but I've reworked it in the light of a rather different theology.)

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Prepositions of Salvation

When we're thinking about how God saves us, it's surprisingly important to get our prepositions right. Prepositions are words like “onto” or “under” which describe how two objects are related to each other.

The Bible tells us we are saved:

from sin
Naturally we all suffer from what one author helpfully describes as “the human propensity to f*** things up”. That means that the way things are by nature, we are cut off from God and when it comes to God's plan to sort the universe out and fix what is wrong; we are part of the problem that God will get rid of rather than part of the solution. That is what we are saved from.
by grace
Because the way we are is part of the problem, we can't do anything to earn God's favour. We can't do anything to make him like us, because we just mess everything up. But God loves us as we are, even though he knows what we are like. That's called grace – it's God's undeserved love for us.
of God
It's not grace as some impersonal force in the universe, it's the grace of God. God as revealed in the Bible and in Jesus is not an impersonal force who seeks to make us into better people – he is a person (or three), who seeks to mend us and transform us through our relationship with him.
through faith
We take hold of God's salvation / forgiveness / transformation through faith, which simply means trust. It is trust on the basis of available evidence, but which goes beyond the evidence – just like we do every day. When I turn the steering wheel of my car, I trust that it will cause the car to turn. I have good reason for that trust – it has worked every previous time, but that doesn't guarantee it will work in the future. Nevertheless, I choose to put my faith in the steering column of my car to do its work. In the same way, I trust God to save me, to forgive me, to transform me. And we're saved through faith, not by faith. It isn't something we do to earn anything – it is simply how we take hold of what God has done.
in Christ
It isn't just “faith” in the sense of some generic perception of something beyond ourselves that saves us. It's faith specifically in Christ. It's trusting what Jesus did for us when he died in our place on the cross and rose from the dead to offer new life to all those who trust him.
into Christ
But we're saved “in Christ” in a much deeper sense than that. In a profound sense, when we trust in Jesus, we're united to him so that we receive the blessings which he deserves, we are raised from the dead in his resurrection, and so on. We are saved into Christ, and therefore into his new people, his family the Church.
for works
We aren't saved by what we do. Our faith which takes hold of God's salvation – the fact that we trust in Jesus – shows itself in what we do, but we are saved by the grace of God so that we might do good works, so that we might be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. You don't have to do good works to become a Christian, but those who have already become Christians should do good works.
to the glory of God
the aim of all of it is the glory of God. It's not to make us look good or to feel better than other people. It's so that everyone will see how awesome God is. God the Father wants the world to know how amazing his Son is. God the Son wants the world to see the love of his Father and then transformation that comes from the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit wants us to worship the Father through trusting God the Son.

We see this wonderfully illustrated in passages such as Ephesians 2:4-10 (NIV).

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.