The failure of the majority side to provide grounds for its committee recommendation was telling. The overture marshaled an impressive list of arguments: biblical (Jesus’ Eucharistic words), theological (the sacrificial meaning of the separation of the body and blood), historical (two Western church councils and the uniform practice of Reformed Protestantism), and constitutional (the language of the Book of Church Order). The case was airtight. No rebuttal of these arguments was attempted, save that of adiaphora, indifference.
The Reformed principle requires that we worship “according to Scripture.” The Last Supper was a meal, a covenantal meal, with two distinct sacramental actions. Consequently, our administration of the Supper must mirror Jesus’ own. Though some of the particulars of mealtime customs may differ from culture to culture, we are to get as close as is practical to the original, while distinguishing what is important from what is indifferent.
“Tradition” is not a bad word. The Apostle Paul urges us to “maintain the traditions” (1 Corinthians 11:2; cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6). Among the benefits of belonging to a denomination is that we don’t have to reinvent the liturgical wheel every generation. Our spiritual fathers and mothers have worked through a number of issues for us, and the Fifth Commandment would have us honor their work. They grappled with grape juice, with remaining in the pews, with multiple cups, with leavened and unleavened bread, and concluded that the churches have latitude when it comes to these questions. What they never approved of was intinction. They could not regard it as a matter of indifference, though the practice was known.
Among the characteristics of the apostolic is a high regard for the catholicity of the church. The Apostle Paul makes regular appeal to the uniform practice of the churches to which he expected rogue congregations to conform. When regulating the central elements of worship (e.g., praying, singing, preaching, and the administration of the Lord’s Supper), he appeals not merely to his apostolic authority, but to the practice of all the churches (1 Corinthians 10-14). “We have no other practice,” he says, “nor have the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16; cf. 1:2; 4:17; 14:33; Philippians 4:9; 2 Timothy 2:1; 3:14). Substantial uniformity in worship is a biblical ideal. Conformity with the church of the past and with fellow churches in the present is a laudable goal.
The motivation for introducing what can only be considered a novelty in the Reformed church appears to be pragmatic. The desire to administer Communion weekly, coupled with the press of time, prompts the quest for a quicker means of distribution. Here, again, our heritage counsels different priorities. The Reformed church has always encouraged careful observance over frequent. Presbyterians and Puritans developed periodic Communion seasons because depth and intensity were considered vital in ways that weekly Communion was not. Attempts to alter established practices in order to rush the administration of the Lord’s Supper are, from the perspective of Reformed Protestantism, both theologically and pastorally dubious.
Terry Johnson is senior pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga.