Monday, June 12, 2006

The Question

Over the past several years I have run into "the question" ever so often, just infrequently enough to forget it is there. The experience is much like the one I have when I run into my mother-in-law's sliding glass door, her dedication to cleanliness causing me to forget that there is a piece of thick glass between me and the great outdoors. "So how is the controversy in your congregation going?" one pastor friend or another from across the nation asks me when I see them after a long period of time. WHAM! I stand there momentarily stunned, a dumb look on my face, rubbing my forehead, feeling remarkably similar to my encounters with the sliding door. "What controversy?" I'm thinking. Then just like I start to laugh when I see my face print on the glass, a knowing smile comes over me as I realize to what they are referring. Oh, yeah, the wine.

Several years ago some godly members of our church, their consciences bothering them, asked our elders to study whether wine should be used in communion or not. Their reasoning to us was that it seemed to be the temperance movement in the history of our church, rather than an exegetical study of Scripture, had more to do with our denomination's practice of replacing wine with grape juice in the Lord's Supper. Their studied commitment to the practice of having worship regulated by God's Word rather than the traditions of men, combined with a peaceful and forbearing spirit they had consistently displayed, caused us to seriously take up this request.

Over several months we studied, then brought our conclusions to the congregation. We came to believe that the Scriptures and church history do show that wine has been used through the ages in communion. In trying to figure out what to do with our convictions, the elders decided that we did not believe that this had to be a matter where we sought to change the mind of everyone else in the denomination by writing long papers and giving lengthy arguments on the floor of Presbytery or Synod. Since our catechisms and Book of Worship discuss wine in the administration of the Lord's Supper (Curious about that assertion? See the Westminster Confession of Faith here at Chapter 30, Paragraph 3; the Larger Catechism here in Questions 168-170; or the Directory for Worship here at Chapter 3, Paragraph 14.), we believed there was a freedom in our church's documents for the session to decide what would be the wisest course to pursue to maintain the sanctity of the sacrament and the peace of the church.

So we let the congregation know how we had arrived at our convictions, that we would now be using wine, but that we would also provide juice for conscience sake as we understood other beloved brethren in the church did not share our convictions. Though admittedly making a change of this sort has had its awkward moments, the transition in our congregation has been a peaceful one. As we sought to pursue this matter along the principles of conscience given to us in Romans 14, we have experienced the blessing promised there: "the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). Our communion services are sweet times of fellowship and, to be honest, when the communion dish returns to the table with the glasses missing, I would not be able to tell you who has taken which except in the cases where members have talked with me personally about it.

So why do friends ask me "the question"? One dear member of ours, believing this should be a matter decided by the broader church, worked to petition first Presbytery then Synod to rule on the change. Both higher courts, with words of admonition that we have sought to follow, ruled in agreement with our practice. Wine was allowable but juice should be made available. Yet along the way to these rulings, some pretty heated exchanges occurred on the floor that must have become associated in other’s minds with there being a controversy here.

During all those deliberations in the courts of the church, I never said a word as our intention was not and still is not to try to change everyone else’s mind. So why am I bringing this up here? I note that for consideration at this year’s Synod is a paper by a dear brother that I greatly respect but with whom I respectfully disagree seeking the overturning of this ruling. My hope is that Synod will choose to decline looking into this matter further and just allow its earlier ruling to stand. Without commenting on the paper itself, I believe that is the wisest course. Why?

1) Following the 2002 ruling of Synod, a presbytery petitioned Synod to have a study committee on the use of wine in communion. After a great deal of effort and time, this committee came back with an inconclusive report and was dismissed. I do not think further efforts in this area will yield better results.
2) Though we desire unity in our worship practices, complete uniformity is a different matter. For instance, I maintain that the very Word of God that we use in worship is of greater significance than the sacrament that seals that Word. The gospel can be preached without the sacrament, but not without the Word. Yet we trust sessions to decide what version of the Bible they believe to be best for their congregation. Within the parameters of our church documents and rulings, we should allow them the same freedom with the elements of communion.
3) Typically those who are upset with the introduction of wine into communion have been life-long Reformed Presbyterians with deep roots in the abstinence movement. Synod’s 2002 ruling allows those who believe in abstinence to continue its practice without mandating it for everyone else. This decision is consistent with Synod’s removal of abstinence as a requirement for both membership and ordination.

My only comment on the paper itself has only to do with a remark at its beginning that also hit me with a WHAM. I felt like I had run into that door again. The claim was made that some ministers are declining going to certain congregations because of the contents of the cup, and some elders would rather drop the tray than administer certain "fruit of the vine." Please tell me that this is not true. If it is, then maybe our problem is not with the content of the cup, but with the content of that greater vessel we are to use in our love for one another?

3 comments:

Jeff Kessler said...

Thanks for your post and a hearty "Amen".

Jeff Kessler

Alicia said...

I appreciated reading this post. Thanks for your thoughts.

MarkPele said...

Amen on your post, although I struggle with the impacts that the most recent paper mentioned. The WCF seems to be very strong that the church cannot invade liberty of conscience (20:4). That brings up the problem that the broader church cannot rule the conscience of the minister. For example, some ministers who believe grape juice only cannot be forced, against their conscience to preside over communion in a church that practices split-cup. I think the whole debate deserves more careful, loving attention.
My personal opinion (and I know that some disagree on both sides) is that the Bible is purposefully ambiguous. Grape juice or wine is acceptable. I think a split cup is appropriate, because some see the tie between wine and celebration in the OT, while people like me have been raised in an environment (not parents, but church) where wine is considered evil. I drink occasionally, mostly to prove the point that I don't think alcohol is unscriptural, but I find alcohol distasteful and prefer grape juice primarily for that reason.