Category Archives: Church Life/Ministry

A Must-Read Paper on the Lord’s Supper

by Matt Pinson

Cory Thompson, pastor of First Free Will Baptist Church of Poteau Oklahoma, presented a well-researched paper on the meaning and participants of the Lord’s Supper entitled, “The Lord’s Supper as Meaningful and Open.” The main use of this paper for Free Will Baptists is his discussion of open communion, a historic, distinctive confessional commitment of Free Will Baptists.

Thompson explains that this has been the main division on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper between Free Will Baptists and Baptists from Calvinistic historical backgrounds (this would include those once-saved, always-saved Baptists who do not subscribe to all five points of Calvinism, but who nonetheless emerge from a denominational background of confessional Calvinism).

Most Baptists have historically held to closed communion, not opening the Lord’s Table to those who have not been properly baptized. Free Will Baptists of the Palmer movement in the South, Freewill Baptists of the Randall movement in the North, and the American General Baptist movement, on the contrary, have practiced open communion, opening the Lord’s Table even to those orthodox believers who have received effusion or aspersion as either infants or adults. This doctrinal development in America is interesting, given that there was no consensus on this question among Baptists in seventeenth-century England, with both General (Arminian) Baptists and Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists having both open and closed communionists in their fellowships.   

Thompson discusses the drift of non-Arminian Baptists toward an open communion stance but explains that this is borne more of theological drift than of doctrinal study and conviction. There is, however, a revival of interest among Baptists in closed communion, owing to that movement’s retrieving their confessional tradition of faith and practice. The drift, however, has not been confined to non-Arminian Baptists or those from closed-communion backgrounds. We have experienced it as well. Thompson states:

The transition of many traditionally closed communion Baptists is likely not due to the exegetical and theological validity of the open communion view, but to the rise of consumerism, pragmatism, tolerance, and liberal drift in the church.  And if the closed communion churches are drifting to open communion, where are traditional open communion churches drifting?  It is not unusual to attend a Communion service where the importance and sacredness of the event is undermined by no discussion of the gospel the elements represent, no call for self-examination, or it is conducted in hurried or cavalier manner. Unfortunately, this scenario is commonly reflected in churches holding the open communion position. The historical significance and theological meaning of open communion is in danger of being lost. The term was once equated with a hospitable orthodoxy, accepting all gospel-centered believers to the Lord’s Table.  Now it is associated with watered-down and liberal theology. With this in mind, it is necessary to articulate a biblical, theological, and meaningful view of open communion in order to preserve the integrity of the Lord’s Table (42).[1]

Thompson presents an engaging, scholarly doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, the best Free Will Baptist presentation, in my opinion, in the past century. He begins with an exegetical treatment of his topic. From the New Testament passages on the Supper, Thompson defends a traditional Baptist understanding that eschews real-presence or sacramental understandings of the practice, but is not a bare memorialism. Thus, the Lord’s Supper richly and beautifully remembers, symbolizes, and reenacts Christ’s substitutionary atonement and its salvific benefits, but it is also a corporate communion of the faithful that proclaims the gospel, “ensures the regular rhythm of repentance and faith,” and focuses on the church’s eschatological hope. Thompson rightly chides recent authors for underemphasizing the communal aspects of the Lord’s Supper. He includes my own writing in this admonition, and he is right: we have been guilty of not emphasizing enough the public, communal aspects of the Eucharist.

One of the most significant features of his exegetical section is his treatment of the “examine yourself” language in 1 Corinthians 11, especially in the context of open communion. “It is wrongly assumed by some open communion advocates,” he argues, “that the call for self-examination is only an individual concern or a person is their sole judge, therefore, no administrator or congregation reserves the right to forbid” (51). But he argues that this is a misinterpretation of the passage. This gets to the heart of the most important part of Thompson’s paper, where he probes the Free Will Baptist open communion view and attempts to reinvest it with its original intent.

Thompson rightly argues that open communion has devolved in much recent practice into an individualistic doctrine that basically says that it is between the individual and God whether or not the individual has a right to participation in the Lord’s Supper, unless he is under church discipline. Even converts who have never been “baptized”[2] under any mode may be permitted to the Table in this view: This is between God and the individual believer, and individual belief and conversion is the only prerequisite for participation.

Thompson argues that this is a move away from the historic view. Rather, the original intent of open communion was to allow orthodox Christians who differed on the doctrine of baptism to commune at the Lord’s Table. The idea was that one’s error on the meaning and mode of baptism should not keep him from being able to commune as a true believer at the Lord’s Table. Thus the import or the slogan “Baptism no bar to the Table” is not saying that it does not matter whether one is baptized or not, but that if one has been “baptized” in a church that does not practice believer’s baptism by immersion, he or she can still be admitted to the Lord’s Supper.

Thompson cites John J. Butler, the foremost theologian of the Randall Movement of Free Baptists in the North. Butler argued that admission to the Lord’s Supper should be limited to those “who are in regular standing in any evangelical church” (58). He averred that “it is the duty of all persons, on obtaining a hope in Christ to become connected with some visible church; if they refuse or neglect to do so, they live in disobedience, and one living in known disobedience cannot be recognized as a Christian” (58). Membership in a local congregation “affords prima facie evidence of Christian character and entitles one holding it to the communion in any evangelical church.” Butler says, “The practice of some in allowing professed converts before uniting with the church . . . is to be condemned.”[3] To be admitted to the Lord’s Supper, one’s membership should be in a congregation that holds “both theoretically and practically the doctrines essential to salvation.”[4]

Thompson also cites the 1834 Randall Treatise, which states: “It is the usual practice of our connection, at the time of communion, to invite all Christians of good standing in any evangelical church, to partake with us; as, in general such persons only are known as true believers.”[5]

(Thompson was researching open communion in the Palmer movement but was unable to include it in the paper in time for his presentation. In subsequent correspondence, I shared with him that the Palmer movement was in agreement with his position. One instance of this that I shared with him was the section on “What Free Will Baptists Believe—and Why” in Thad Harrison and J. M. Barfield’s History of the Free Will Baptists of North Carolina.[6]) As Thompson summarizes, “When the congregation approaches the Lord’s Table the administrator should warn unbelievers not to partake, lead the congregation to self-examination, and invite all Christians who are members in good standing of a gospel-centered church.”

Thompson has presented the Free Will Baptist Church with an outstanding introduction to the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper from a confessional Free Will Baptist vantage point. His primary contribution to the Free Will Baptist conversation is his insistence that, even as we advocate open communion, we need to restore the meaning and significance of this beautiful practice in the worship of the church. Furthermore, we need to question whether individualism has moved us toward a “me and Jesus, we got our own thing going” approach to open communion and move back to the doctrine’s original intent as inviting all Christians in good standing, regardless of their denominational affiliation and thus their doctrine of the meaning and mode of baptism, to the Table of Our Lord. (I think we need to try to persuade Mr. Thompson to writing a doctoral dissertation on this topic.)

Thompson is part of a widespread movement of younger Free Will Baptists who want to engage in “renewal through retrieval” in an attempt to renew and reform the Free Will Baptist Church by retrieving the best of our Sufficiency-of-Scripture-saturated tradition. Every Free Will Baptist minister interested in this vital project should read this paper.  


[1] Page numbers follow the listing in the Symposium Digest.

[2] The reason I place “baptized” in quotation marks is because Baptists believe the Bible teaches that only believer’s baptism by immersion constitutes authentic baptism.

[3] John J.  Butler, “An Examination of the Terms of Admission to the Lord’s Supper,” in The Free Communionist or Unrestricted  Communion of The Lord’s Supper With All True Believers Advocated; And Objections of Restricted Communionsts Considered: In Four Essays (Dover:  Free Will Baptist Connection, 1841), 41-44. Italics added by Thompson. 

[4] Butler, Natural and Revealed Theology, 428. 

[5] 1834 Randall Treatise, 110.

[6] (Ayden, NC: Free Will Baptist Press, 1898), 155-78.

Jeff Blair’s “Cultivating a Culture of Wisdom in the Local Church”: A Response

by Thomas Marberry

At the recent Theological Symposium held on the campus of Randall University in Moore, Oklahoma, Dr. Jeff Blair presented a paper entitled Creating a Culture of Wisdom in the Local Church. This essay was based on his recently-completed D.Min. thesis at Northern Seminary.

Blair begins his analysis by pointing out that many aspects of American culture, including our churches, have become decidedly youth-oriented. Contemporary culture favors new over old, innovation over tradition, revolution over preservation, and zeal over wisdom. Church programs are generally designed to appeal to specific age groups. Children and young people are seldom involved with adults in church programs; many churches even have separate worship services for children and youth. The net result is that church members of different age groups seldom worship together or participate in the same activities.

In this paper, Blair suggests that churches should reconsider this modern youth-oriented approach ministry. He suggests a return to a more biblically-based model which he labels “a culture of wisdom.” In a wisdom culture, the basic values are stability, order, continuity, productivity, and maturity. Much of the material in this essay is drawn from the exegesis of Scriptural passages such as Genesis 1-2, Proverbs 1-9, Matthew 11-13, 1 Corinthians 1-4, Colossians 1, and James. Blair argues that a different approach would provide more opportunities for younger people to spend time with and learn from older members of the congregation. They would do more things together.

Some of the ideas presented in this paper may be difficult for church leaders to hear, but they should be carefully examined and evaluated. Church programs that have been established for several years (including youth programs) should not be radically changed simply for the sake of change. Changes must be developed and implemented wisely and with the support of the congregation. Church leaders need to keep in mind that change does no good unless it puts the church in a better position to share the gospel with its community.

There are several aspects of Blair’s work that make it useful for churches. First and foremost, this essay presents a careful analysis of key Scripture passages that must guide and control the implementation of a program of wisdom. Second, this essay provides information that will assist a church to develop and implement a program of wisdom. Changes should not be made haphazardly; the church needs to develop a workable plan and strategy to implement a program of wisdom.

Third, this essay helps the modern reader to realize how much we can learn from the past. We cannot go back and live in the world of Biblical times, but there are many insights that are of eternal value. Fourth, this analysis stresses the importance of maturity. It emphasizes that the younger members of a congregation can learn much from their parents, grandparents, and the older members of the church.  Fifth, the wisdom model outlined in this essay promotes family solidarity. It suggests that families should worship together, learn together, and serve God together.

This is a paper that should be carefully read and studied by Free Will Baptists. We should always be open to ideas that can help us to minister more effectively in the modern world. A return to the wisdom practices of the Biblical world may help us to do that. There is, however, a word of caution that should be sounded: A culture of wisdom cannot be implemented quickly and easily in a local church; it will require time, effort, planning, and much prayer.

 

Nothing New Under the Sun

Matthew Pinson

When it comes to the big questions, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun. I am often reminded of this when I attend debates between Christians and skeptics of various varieties. For example, several years ago I heard Craig Evans debate Bart Ehrman, the famous evangelical-turned-skeptic who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After hearing Ehrman’s arguments (and later reading them in some of his books and articles), I was really surprised that that was all he had.

Most of his criticisms of the Bible would do more to bring doubts to a child in a Sunday school room than a person who had taken a freshman course in biblical interpretation at a Christian college. I was struck particularly by how many of his concerns were reiterations of things that the church fathers themselves were dealing with 1,700+ years ago. Here I was braced for some new, groundbreaking scientific argument or an argument made possible because of computer technology or some new archaeological discovery. But what I heard was just more rehashing of much of what skeptics of Christianity have been saying for hundreds, yea thousands, of years.

This memory came back to my mind recently when I was reading Carl F. H. Henry’s wonderful little book from the 1940s, Giving a Reason for Our Hope (Boston: W. A. Wilde, 1949). It’s a wonderful little volume on apologetics that is still relevant for today. In answering the question, “The Modern naturalistic version is that God is simply an imagination of ours, so how can we answer that?” Henry replies:

“The arguments which the modern naturalists use against belief in God are not new; strictly speaking, nothing essential has been added to the argument as it existed many centuries ago, in ancient Greek times. The arguments were all in existence when Christianity came into the world. It is not because a man is modern, but because he is a naturalist, that he says God is a figment of the imagination” (16).

This is so true. In the major intellectual questions about Christianity, there is nothing new under the sun. Reading this also brought to my mind not just our contemporary intellectual context, but also our contemporary cultural context. Many evangelical Protestants have developed a “fear of man” and are too intimidated by the rapid cultural changes in our technological, secularizing society.

It seems that we think what we are facing is unique to our time, and thus we have to use methods in our church growth practices that have never before been tried in the history of Christianity. (And it’s not that the apostles and saints and martyrs throughout history couldn’t have tried them, that they didn’t have the resources to try them. It’s just that they chose not to.)

I don’t want to downplay the acute difficulties and unique qualities of modernity and postmodernity. But I think that we need more to see ourselves in a missionary situation to a pagan culture, like the church fathers and missionaries of the Christian tradition, rather than seeing ourselves as being comfortable in a Christian culture and still thinking we can spread the gospel like we used to in that culture. Yet, in the big questions, there is nothing new under the sun. We are not experiencing anything that the early church did not experience, or that various traditional missionaries to pagan cultures did not experience.

I think it’s helpful for us to look at the church fathers, especially prior to the mammoth changes in the fourth century when the church began accommodating pagan culture more and speaking a prophetic word to it less. When we look at the early church, we see it engaging a pagan culture that is similar in profound ways to our own, and we find that they had almost all the resources at their disposal that we currently have. Yet they based their ministry of the gospel on the all-sufficient word, not the methods and gimmicks the secular culture used to draw a crowd.

Every age and society has its unique qualities. Yet because humanity is made in God’s image and is fallen and finite, we find that there is nothing new under the sun. The Holy Scripture that God breathed out more than twenty centuries ago gives us—just as it gave the saints and martyrs who went before us—everything necessary for life and godliness, for building Christ’s church, for extending the kingdom, and for defending the rationality of the Christian gospel in a complex marketplace of ideas.

2017 Symposium Recap: Joshua Colson on Calvin’s View of the Supper

 Matt Pinson

Josh Colson presented a well-written paper at the 2017 Theological Symposium on Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper. The purpose of the paper was to study Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper and make applications to the Protestant debate on the Supper, with special reference to the General/Free Will Baptist tradition.

Colson briefly discussed the main views against which the Reformed churches were reacting. He summarized the Roman Catholic understanding of transubstantiation, which sees the bread and the wine in the Supper as being transformed into the body and blood of Christ when the priest consecrates it at the celebration of the Mass. He also considered the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper, that, although the elements are not transformed into the physical body and blood of Christ, Christ’s body and blood are still really, mysteriously present in the elements.

Colson followed this discussion with a summary of the Zwinglian view of the Lord’s Supper, which is known commonly as the “memorialist” view. He described Zwingli as advancing a view of the Lord’s Supper that emphasizes “this do in remembrance of me” to the exclusion of any consideration of the presence of Christ in the Supper.

The paper then explained Calvin’s view, which differs from all the above views and says that Christ’s body and blood are spiritually present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Colson sees Calvin’s view as a via media (middle way) between Luther’s and Zwingli’s views.

Though the historical summary was helpful, the most thought-provoking part of Colson’s paper was the application section. His comments were particularly applicable for Free Will Baptists since he quoted from some English General Baptist sources that seem to espouse a view of the Lord’s Supper that sounds closer to Calvin’s “spiritual presence” view than to a mere memorialism. Colson rightly quoted John Hammett’s clever statement that often the modern Evangelical and Baptist (mis)understanding of the Lord’s Supper is an over-reaction against “real presence,” resulting in “real absence.”

The application part of Colson’s paper justly brings into question the way many modern Evangelicals have relegated the Lord’s Supper to an unimportant, rote practice that is unceremoniously and often unthoughtfully tacked on to the end of a service occasionally, one that robs the ordinance of its reverential, ritual significance in the life of the church. Colson was effective in making the argument that our Free Will Baptist ancestors approached the celebration of the Lord’s Supper with far more gravity and far more spiritual preparation than many modern Evangelicals.

“This line of thinking,” Colson argued, “has reduced the Supper and the other ordinances of the church to ‘bare’ symbols—a far cry from the traditional Baptistic understanding of the ordinances noted earlier. The key, then, is not to strip the ordinances of their spiritual significance (i.e., explain how Christ is not present); rather, Baptists should state positively how Christ is present in the Supper and the other ordinances which He and His apostles instituted.”

This is, unfortunately, a not-uncommon occurrence. One often hears a sermon before a baptism or before the Lord’s Supper describing what the ordinance is not rather than what the ordinance rightly and powerfully and beautifully is. Colson and others might wish to examine the rich history of “preparatory sermons” which were practiced by Puritans of various types and by Free Will Baptists (including my own ministerial grandfather into the 1980s), which were designed to prepare the congregation for “rightly” eating the Supper of the Lord together. Interestingly, the Puritan minister and poet Edward Taylor turned some of his own prose preparatory sermons into exquisite poetry; such poems reveal a great deal about the significance that was attached to preparation for this regular ritual observance—both by the Puritans generally and by our English General Baptist ancestors also. (I owe these insights to my colleague Darrell Holley.)

While space and topic did not call for it in this paper, in a future study, Colson will no doubt want to probe more deeply the Zwinglian doctrine of the Lord’s Supper—which is certainly more than “bare memorialism.” The key difference between Zwingli (and the early Anabaptists and Baptists that followed his lead) and Calvin was not that the former denied that Christ was spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper. Instead, it was Calvin’s unfortunate sacramentalism that they balked at—the view that the Supper was, in some way, a vehicle of saving grace, as seen, for example, in the Heidelberg Catechism’s statement that in the Supper we are “nourished to everlasting life.” Zwinglians (and Anabaptists and Baptists) have usually avoided this sort of language. Nonetheless, when at their best, they have always wanted to stress that Christ was indeed present in the Supper—indeed, in all of the appointed practices (ordinances) of the church when properly prepared for, when properly observed, and when properly used as obligatory liturgical “dramas” presenting in powerful symbolic form some of the most profound doctrines of the faith.

Mr. Colson has served us very well by forcing us to think deeply about the Lord’s Supper and our practice of it. Prayerful reflection on these matters will no doubt motivate Free Will Baptists to treat the Supper with the awe-filled reverence and dignity and spiritual mystery that historically accompanied the ordinance in our tradition. In this—as in so many other areas—right thinking will lead to right acting, and then right acting will reinforce right thinking. With the right preparation, all the teachings of the Lord for His Church—including the Lord’s Supper—can result in theological instruction and spiritual nourishment. We can begin to see the Supper truly as communion: on the horizontal level, as a communion of Christ’s people together and, on the vertical level, as a communion with the Lord Himself in a spiritually nourishing feast, a feast which compels them to remember the sacrifice of His body and blood, and the spiritual change that sacrifice has wrought in their lives.

Joshua Colson: Calvin’s View of the Supper