Frank Viola on Sectarians at the Table

From Frank Viola:

When I was in my early 20s, I had wonderful fellowship with an older brother in Christ who was part of the Plymouth Brethren.

We disagreed on a few doctrines (I didn’t buy into the pretibulational rapture theory, and I believed that God still healed people supernaturally). That aside, we both held to the orthodox creeds of the faith (The Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, etc.) as I still do today.

Never having stepped foot in a Plymouth Brethren chapel, I was interested in visiting his church. So I did. But I was shocked when he told me that I couldn’t partake of the Lord’s Table.

This both surprised and saddened me greatly.

He received me as a brother in Christ, but because I didn’t toe the line on PB doctrine, I wasn’t allowed to partake of the bread and wine with the others in his church.

When I shared my feelings with him — that this action was a flat-out denial that I was part of the Body of Christ — he retracted his position and said I could partake of the Table.

However, his initial sectarian decision left its wound.

I wish I could say that I’ve never met this same sectarian attitude since, but I’d be lying if I did.

I’ve met it a number of times.

The fact is, every devoted Christian will be tested on whether they really believe in the oneness of the Body of Christ or whether they deny it deep in their hearts . . . especially when there is pressure from others to embrace a sectarian spirit and exclude other members of the Body.

Religious pressure is a powerful thing. And it is most often contrary to Jesus Christ.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Jeremy

    We worked with this a lot in India. The areas I’ve been in have been largely trained by Brethren and SBC missionaries who had taught them not to share communion with Catholics or even recognize them as fellow believers. Considering the lack of churches in the areas we visited, there was a lot of Catholics visiting small protestant churches, so that was a bit of a problem. It made us very sad to see a rejection of believers, particularly when they were such a small community to begin with. It took some very hard conversations to get that turned around in a few places.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Well, sectarian and exclusive have almost become pejorative terms for some folks so I will call this ecumenical and non-ecumenical practices of the Lord’s Supper (what some call open or closed communion).

    1. In various denominations, there may be a variety of approaches (even in the same denomination). For example, I can’t tell you how many Missouri Synod Lutherans I have met who have been put off or even left the denomination because even though they typically practice closed communion, if one MSL goes and visits another MSL church or even moves and starts going to another MSL church, they will not serve them communion because they are not a member of that particular local church (how this works is different among various MSL churches). I’ve seen baptism work this way among Baptists as well. I’ve also seen open communion practiced at MSL churches so eucharist practiced may really vary from one MSL church to another although I suspect the norm is closed communion while giving communion to visiting MSL people.

    2. Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches have closed or non-ecumenical eucharist gatherings. There are some EO’s and Catholics who break with this but this is the exception and not the norm and certainly not representative of those respective traditions. I always wondered if the RC church for example decentralized the papacy, recognized other fellowships as “churches” who they came into some kind of working relationship, and recognized Christ in the eucharist of other Christian gatherings, what would happen?

    3. Lastly, I continue to have the priviledge of participating in the Lord’s Supper with Roman Catholics and MSL at Emmaus gatherings. This is at least one place I have experienced the body of Christ truly coming together in ecumenical and non-sectarian ways!

    Shalom!

  • Joe Canner

    This kind of thing is pretty common in the Plymouth Brethren, depending on which branch you are talking about. The one I grew up in was very strict about such things; it didn’t matter whether the visitor was vouched for by a member or not.

    Although I don’t agree with this policy, I would hesitate to call it a “sectarian spirit” because it is not arbitrary nor meant to be divisive, but has a basis in some Biblical proof-texts. In particular, verses like Matt. 18:18 and I Cor 11:27ff are interpreted to mean that the church cannot know what kind of contamination they are inviting in if they have not had a chance to vet the person and the person is not committing to be exclusively part of the fellowship. This includes second- or third-hand (etc.) contamination from contact with sin in other churches. (Think of it like an STD; the only perfect preventative measure is total monogamy.)

    I agree that it can be hurtful, but the motives are pure (no pun intended), albeit perhaps misguided.

  • http://frankviola.org Frank Viola

    Scot, thanks for the shout-out.

    Good observations, Joe. You may want to look at the whole post where I provide excerpts from Watchman Nee’s brilliant letter to certain PB over a similar instance in his day. What’s above was my preface to the letter: http://frankviola.org/2012/05/30/sectarianism/ – the ensuing dialogue in the comments goes into some of what you brought up as well as the difference between open PB and closed PB, which is more drastic on paper in many cases than in reality.

    We’re all susceptible to a sectarian position, attitude, and spirit, of course, and that’s one of the reasons for bringing the topic up. I agree with you that the motive wasn’t evil, but then again, I’ve never seen sectarianism come with insidious motives. Virtually always when a person takes a sectarian posture, they don’t experience themselves as being divisive.

    I don’t think the believers in Corinth who were fracturing into four different groups (sects) around their favorite apostle felt they were being divisive, though Paul pointed out that they were. Anyways, check out Nee’s letter. Parts of it are stunning.

  • Dana Ames

    Well, CGC, if Orthodox are involved in taking or giving communion in any other church, that is a grievous thing, and if a priest is involved he could be removed from the priesthood. The problem is not because Orthodox don’t love people belonging to other confessions (or none) or that they want to exclude anyone. It’s not that other believers are thought of as somehow “less”or that we think God can only meet people in certain ways. Communion is about more than love and inclusion. It’s also about what the Church *is*. It’s about beliefs, and it’s about more than beliefs. It’s about what “the Real Presence” of Christ in the Eucharist actually means.

    This is from the Orthodox Church in America’s web site (Questions section):

    “Orthodox Christianity does not permit its faithful to receive Holy Communion in non-Orthodox communities, whether they be Roman Catholic, Protestant, or whatever. Hence, while Roman Catholicism may extend Eucharistic hospitality to Orthodox Christians, it does not mean that Orthodox Christians are permitted to accept such hospitality.

    “For Orthodox Christians, the Eucharist is a visible sign of unity; to receive the Eucharist in a community to which one does not belong is improper. If one does not accept all that the Church believes and teaches and worships, one cannot make a visible sign of unity with it. **The Eucharist is the result of unity, not the means by which unity is achieved.** While many non-Orthodox see this as a sign that the Orthodox Church excludes non-Orthodox from the Eucharist, in reality the opposite is true. Because a non-Orthodox individual has chosen not to embrace all that Orthodox Christianity holds, the non-Orthodox individual makes it impossible for an Orthodox priest to offer him or her communion. It is not so much a matter of Orthodoxy excluding non-Orthodox as it is the non-Orthodox making it impossible for the Orthodox to offer the Eucharist.” (emphasis added)

    Before I was considering becoming Orthodox, I did not understand this. I did begin to understood even before I became a Catechumen.

    I doubt seriously that the Roman Catholics will make the changes you talk about in your #2…

    Dana

  • CGC

    Hi Dana,
    I appreciate your thoughts here and I am familiar with them since I have even hosted an Eastern Orthodox/Evangelical dialogue. My EO friends and one who can be my priest any day :-) treat me and speak to me like a brother. They also wished the EO/Evangelical event would have been more of a debate to show the differences I presume than the friendly dialogue it turned out to be (which I for one thought was wonderful).

    I also find if there is ever a more ecumenical spirit, even to the point of practice of eucharist fellowship, it is with the Russian Orthodox and not the Greek Orthodox (and yes, there are so many other kinds of Orthodox).

    And I agree there has to be unity on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (and obviously it goes beyond this because it usually goes, there is probably something deficient in your eucharist theology? No! Okay, there is something deficient in your ecclesiology or add in anything else people want to add. The end result is always the same. I remember a friend who said if I could answer ten questions he had sufficently, he would become a Christian. After I answered them, he told me I did answer them but now he had ten more. It just always seens like there is something “more” when people get by the initial “this is why you can’t partake of the eucharist.” And yes, the problem is you (non-orthodox), if you would just convert. All I can say as an ecumenist is, “that seems to be what all sides say as they stay the same and unchanging.” And then you have the RC’s who bend some (they used to not bend) and say, okay, the EO’s are in but the EO’s say, but your still out and so we don’t want your offer.

    Actually, there is not unity achieved even among the EO (in practice or the way of living). I can’t even begin to tell you how many EO’s tell me they have nothing to do with other autophalous’s in their city. You have nominal EO’s in name only who can partake of the eucharist who are not living for Christ and there might be some mature non-EO’s who are living for Christ but can not partake of holy comunion. Some of my EO friends reply, well, in heaven they will be unitied and those on earth not united will be separated (somehow even Jesus it seems would have given the eucharist to Judas but I’m not so sure how many churches would do the same today?). If the church is Jesus, sometimes it does not always best represent him from whatever ecclesial tradition one is coming from.

    Lastly, I agree that I doubt if I see the RC’s make the changes I talked about either (at least not in my life time). I will say, I meet with the EO every month because I know my life is richer by their presence and all they bring to the table that is missing from my table.

    Shalom!

  • Joe Canner

    Frank, thanks for pointing me to the letter; it is interesting indeed, and matches some of my own reactions to things I heard and saw in the PB. I like Nee’s suggestion that we as humans are not qualified to judge matters of the heart and unseen contamination, but that we are only responsible for that which we can see.

    I have always been puzzled by how the Lord’s supper, in and of itself (especially in modern practice), could be the vector of evil associations. While the Lord’s supper is a solemn and significant sacrament, I think this notion invests in it more power than what is warranted by Scripture. If this principle were applied today to eating together in general, it would make a little more sense, because such a meal would imply close fellowship and the potential for sinful or heretical influences.

    (Incidentally, my parents–who are still PB–have expressed concern that they will be censured if certain people find out that they share meals with my sister and her female partner, neither of whom are in any PB fellowship. And, my mother’s sister–also a PB in a different group–has actually voiced this complaint to my parents.)

  • JimB

    The issue of close vs. open communion divided the PB movement almost from the start. Darby wanted to exclude those who did not follow his pre-trib teaching, such as B. F. Newton. The “Exclusive” Brethren have had many subsequent divisions since then, while tending to be tightly organized.

    The “Open” Brethren tend to look back to George Muller (who was also post-trib) and Henry Craik in Bristol. Their refusal to “fence” the table, even from unbaptized believers, was pretty unusual in the 1840s. By definition almost, “Open” assemblies tend to be much more loosely connected with one another. Although, in my city there are half dozen that cooperate in various works.

  • Patrick

    Goodness gracious alive. Did Jesus pray for us to be unified as He and the Father were unified?

    Did He say when we did this the world would KNOW we were His people? YES!

    I could care less what denomination anyone is, if they believe Jesus of Biblical fame is The Son of God, they are welcome in my church and communion because that’s who it’s for. This is why I have come to hate all denominations equally.

  • Dana Ames

    CGC,
    Glad your Orthodox friends treat you so well :)

    I know very well the differences among the jurisdictions, and the problems we Orthodox have with that, and with living a Christ-like life. Simply being eligible to receive the Sacraments doesn’t mean that the Sacraments are “magic”. Unfortunately, some Orthodox view them that way, even when taught differently by responsible priests – which the vast majority are. There are different levels of maturity and Christlikeness among Orthodox, as there are with people in other confessions.

    I have to reiterate, though, that if Orthodox of your acquaintance are having “Eucharistic fellowship” in any other setting than the Orthodox Liturgy, even if the don’t believe what they’re doing involves partaking of the true Body and Blood of Christ, they are acting against Church teaching and are in spiritual danger. It’s a very serious matter; it’s telling a lie, saying that certain things are true that are not true. They can love you and have fellowship with you, without doing that.

    Dana

  • JimB

    BTW — PBs of all stripes almost always insist they are non-denominational :D!

  • http://www.internetmonk.com Chaplain mike

    Those who practice close or closed communion don’t really believe our unity is in Christ but in sound doctrine (Christ as we understand him).

  • Ben Cheney

    Surely that perspective only gets you so far, Chaplain Mike?

    We should have a lot of tolerance for each other, especially around perspectives on secondary matters, for sure. I would personally have no problem (as an “evangelical”) taking communion next to an EO brother. But if I *actually* believed that Christ is a demonic tortilla from Mars who wants to destroy the church, then would you still serve me communion? Obviously that’s a silly example, but my point is that “our unity is in Christ” is a meaningless slogan if you utterly divorce it from “sound doctrine”.

  • CGC

    Hi Dana,
    No, my orthodox friends don’t offer me communion because I understand, the Orthodox tradition says they can not. Actually, some RC’s get upset when I tell them that they know how us protestants feel when the Eastern Orthodox do not allow RC’s to partake of the eucharist. I used to only hear stories of some EO’s and RC’s that break with tradition. I only know stories of EO’s doing this but now I have seen RC’s do this as well (the late Henri Nouwen was especially known for offering the eucharist to Protestants).

    Anyhow, I know there are some good arguments on all sides of this discussion. If people are truly broken over the brokeness of a divided Christendom, then good whatever their ecclesial communion practices. But if people have a sense of triumphalism or think they posses God somehow when if comes to the eucharist, then I think they are gravely mistaken. And I wonder if people have truly understood Paul’s ecumenical concerns in the Corinthian situation? I for one believe there is still new light to shine on our eucharist practices (and I am becoming even more uncomfortable with how some of this is done in my own Protestant heritage).

    When I think of all the confusion on marriage in the church today, I believe some of the early church fathers kept marriage and the eucharist together rather than separate. I sometimes wonder if we need to go back to some of the ancient practices we have lost today? And it is here that all of Christendom need the EO church the most. For those on all sides of ecclesial traditions who are willing to go on the front lines to help struggling Christians out in “Other” ecclesial traditions, I say more power to them!

  • Joe Canner

    JimB #11: Very true. One ex-PB I know likened PB to the “I follow Christ” sect of I Cor. 1:12 (the verse referred to by Frank in #4). Taking pride in being a true Christ-follower is just as sectarian as following Paul, Apollos, or Cephas.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I have a deep wound like this.

    I was attending my aunt’s funeral when the RC Priest gave everyone general absolution so they could partake in the Lord’s supper. My kids were baptized in a Baptist church and my sisters stood in the way of them going to get communion. That was quite troubling to me, let them go at the funeral!

    While I know that is not strictly kosher, neither is the Priest’s granting of general absolution. I hate rules.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I should point out that there were only about 25 of us at the service, and the Priest had been a long time friend of my grandparents family and our extended family. This was a family event.

    I guess I just fall on the side, in times like this, that exceptions should be allowed.

  • Brian Wiele

    This discussion is a perfect example of the silliness of the concept of closed communion. Can you imagine Jesus allowing a few of the twelve to refuse to eat with the rest of them because they disagreed on the interpretation of the meal? He would have chastised them for this just like the other prideful ideas they spouted. See Luke 9 for several examples. It’s only pride that keeps us from eating and drinking with all our brothers and sisters. The same could be said for the laughable concept of “re-baptism”.

  • holdon

    The Plymouth Brethren have failed exactly where their “creed” was so strong. They had a clear vision to steer away from denominationalism (which is the official form of sectarianism), but they themselves fell apart in bickering over minor issues. They failed to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. But I still love their principles and they are biblical.
    It is striking to me that a lot of groups (perhaps all) that have their devise in something peculiar (baptists, anabaptists, pentecostals, orthodox, methodists, reformed, etc.) all seem to fail exactly where their strong points are supposed to be. Take (ana) baptists: they have made baptism to their shibboleth and therefore do not accept those who are dunked as and adult believer. Similar for a lot of pentecostals: if you did not have that second experience or don’t speak in tongues, something is still wrong with you. Similarly, reformed are no longer being reformed a new but all go back to the old reformation back then (when and wherever it was, because there are different kinds of reformed) and they’re proud of it.

    A lot of people don’t seem to know that the word sect (as in sectarianism) is the same word as heresy in the original. And the meaning of heresy (sect) is that people have their preferences, their opinions, their pet peeves. This is what the Apostle condemned a long time ago. It still very much alive and you can see it in all the names of churches around: Calvinists, Arminians, Lutherans, and the reformed, charismatics, baptists, etc… All have their pet peeves and that makes them clique together. That is no forbearance, nor endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit who baptizes all believers into one body.

    Of course there are practical boundaries (there is “in” and “out” the church) based on well exercised discipline. But these boundaries and the discipline become meaningless if there is this sectarianism going on which defines its own shibboleths.

  • Karen Spears Zacharias

    And I thought I was the only one who had visited the Plymouth Brethren. When I first moved to the Northwest I met a gal in Seattle who was a practicing Plymouth Brethren. Having been raised in the Southeast, I was steeped in SBC culture and figured the PB to be one of those wonky cults common to the Northwest. But I liked my friend and her family so I would don the obligatory head covering, borrowed from my girlfriend who had the most extensive hat collection besides the Queen of England, and attended the PB fellowship, where I sat quietly, no easy task for me, mind you.
    Great post, Frank. You are right, of course, sooner or later we are all tested on the Oneness of the Body. Hopefully we all choose love.

  • Luke

    Here in Thailand most non-Christians think “Christian” means protestant and “Catholic” is something else. I’ve often wondered how that came about. (E. Orthodoxy doesn’t have much of a presence here)

  • Karen Spears Zacharias

    Luke: We thought that way in Georgia, too, when I was growing up. In fact, I’m pretty sure some Baptists still think that way.

  • http://profanefaith.com Jon Wymer

    I have a Reformed view on communion, meaning it is more than an anabaptist symbol and less than a Roman Catholic sacrament but God is at work. From my perspective if communion is primarily about unity in Jesus and something God is doing, the heavy heavy emphasis in some circles on fencing the table or actually closing the table does not make sense. I would expect the more fully one believes in sacrament there could be less human control. Where one holds a more symbolic view or the emphasis is actually on common doctrine rather than a common Jesus, there would be more need for control.

  • http://Leadme.org Cal

    Jon: The Anabaptists were not totally united in what communion meant, some were inclined more to the Reformed position, others even Luther. What you’re critiquing is just the “baptist” understanding. Dissenters and Anabaptists denied, however, the Church of Rome had any right to control the grace of God and that their communion and baptism were not in Christ, but in Rome. Hoc est meum corpus is not magic (contra Ambrose).

  • Sherman Nobles

    For many years now it has saddened me that I cannot partake of communion with many of my brothers in Christ because I am not part of their denomination, whether that be with the Roman Catholics or others. And now I find that I cannot even be a member of most denominations because their statement of faith precludes me from doing so for most affirm that one must believe that some are not saved, in effect affirming that Jesus either chooses to not save some or that Jesus fails to save some. I mean, I love God and love people, love the whole body of Christ, have faith in Jesus, but this is not enough for membership in most churches. Rather, they exclude people from their fellowship through adopting a statement of faith that is restrictive, most going well beyond the Nicene and Apostles Creeds in their specificity.

  • http://profanefaith.com Jon Wymer

    Cal, I was really contrasting “symbolic” and “sacramental” views with broad brush strokes. Not trying to make a statement about Anabaptists or assuming all were the same.

  • Dana Ames

    CGC, thanks for the clarification.

    Shalom to you as well-

    Dana

  • Robin

    Everyone had a closed communion…it is just that some people are more honest about it.

    As far as I can tell, the bible knows nothing of (1) Christians who aren’t baptized (2) Christians who aren’t present at the Lord’s table (except those in continual unrepentant sin). Yet most denominations have either (1) a lengthy process for people getting baptized or (2) some type of formality that must occur before baptized people receive communion.

    I grew up Catholic, and even though I was baptized before I believed the gospel, it was still 8 or 9 years before I was “a Christian” (baptized person) and I could take communion.

    Same goes for almost all paedobaptists, people get baptized at birth, and even though the church considers them Chrisitan, makes them wait 9-10 years before it lets them take communion.

    Believer’s baptism Christian face the opposite problem. Even though people have a conversion, they have to jump through hoops in order to get baptized, heck even the early church made people wait up to 1 year before baptism…but then shortly after baptism they take the Lord’s supper.

    Then there is “closed communion” that is more explicit across denominational lines. But (almost) everyone has closed communion, either because they are claiming that some Christians who re baptized have to wait until a certain age before they can receive communion, or because they put stumbling blocks in the way of baptism (and communion as a corollary).


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