Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Livestream Communion?

I was surprised to recently learn of a confessional Presbyterian church which has encouraged its members to come up with their own communion elements and take them at home as part of live-streamed services. During "these uncertain times" we have seen many unusual things, and it did not surprise me as much to see other denominations debating live-streamed communion. But Presbyterians hold to a confession of faith which says that the minister should give the bread and wine "to none who are not then present in the congregation" (WCF 29.3).

Not only does this practice seem to clearly conflict with our confession of faith, but I think it also departs from the directions for the Lord's supper we find in Scripture. The Lord's supper is a shared meal, to be eaten together. In it, the church partakes of one food.

Biblical Principles

1. When Christ instituted this supper (e.g. Matt. 26:26-29), after giving thanks and blessing the bread and wine, he took the bread and wine and gave them to the disciples who were gathered together in the upper room. They ate and drank of the same bread and wine, given to them by Christ. 

2. When the apostles and the early church observed the Lord's supper according to Christ's institution, they did so in the gatherings of the church. They gathered to eat it (Acts 20:7). When Paul spoke of the Lord's supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, he uses the word for "come together" five times. He even spoke of how they came together "at the same place" (11:20 NET). One of the Corinthians' problems was that they did not treat the Lord's supper as a meal for the church, but rather as an individual meal. "For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk" (11:21). "So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another" (11:33).

3. In 1 Corinthians 10, we are taught that the bread and wine are a participation in the body and blood of Christ, and thereby a bond of union with each other. "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (10:17). The fact that the church partakes together of the same meal is important. This shared meal with the visible church is a sign and seal of our communion with each other in Christ - it makes our communion visible.

4. In 1 Corinthians 5, we are taught that the church should not eat with one who bears the name of brother who persists in manifest immorality. Not only does this imply that the church should eat with each other, but it also means that the elders of the church ought to have oversight of who eats with the church. 

Problems with Livestream Communion 

1. In a livestream service, the people are not assembled in one place. They do worship together. They do hear the same preaching and pray the same prayers. But they are not assembled together. They are not sitting with the rest of the congregation, nor can they even see the rest of the congregation in most cases. 

2. Though you can send words through a livestream, you cannot send food through it. The minister is appointed to give the bread and wine to the people after giving thanks and blessing it as Christ did. The people are to receive it. When members produce their own elements, they do not receive the elements given by the minister. 

3. Another consequence of this practice is that the congregation does not receive bread and wine from the same source. This takes away much of the symbolism of a shared meal with "one bread." 

4. When the Lord's supper is practiced by livestream, the elders loose substantial oversight. They loose oversight of what people use as elements. More importantly, they loose oversight of who partakes. Those who are excommunicated or not yet admitted to the table can partake freely and anonymously.


This may seem like an insignificant issue, especially in the times in which we live. Certainly there are bigger issues. But this one is important if we believe that the second commandment requires "the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his Word" (WSC Q. 50).

While we are in unusual times, the situation of a church's assembly being suspended is not much different from the situation of those confined to their home or a hospital for physical reasons. Some of God's ordinances are sometimes providentially interrupted for an individual (Ps. 42:1-4) or a people (Joel 1:13, Lam. 2:6). Yet, Reformed churches have always pointed to other appointed means to help those who are hindered from assembling, rather than risk distorting this ordinance. A home bound person can rely on other means of growth, such as reading God's word, prayer, sermons (written, recorded, live-streamed), as well as the visits of the elders and the saints and their prayers and words of encouragement. If necessary, pastors have sometimes come with others to the bedside and held a small church service there and administered communion. This is in fact what some churches have begun doing if unable to restore larger gatherings, holding multiple smaller services and/or the members taking turns coming in person. Another nearby PCA church is distributing communion at the end of their livestream service at the curb to people in their cars, the members partaking while parked with fellow members. Obviously not ideal, but I think it basically meets the biblical principles above.

That said, I understand and appreciate the difficulty churches find themselves in when they resort to livestream communion. It is a good desire to want to partake of the Lord's supper frequently. While our church was able to resume its gatherings a few weeks ago, other churches have decided to remain at a distance, and this increases the pressure to do something about the Lord's supper. I want to note the issue and the departure from our confessional standards (and, I believe, from Scripture), but these are brothers in Christ who are trying to navigate unusual circumstances. 

So may God continue to show his mercy upon us so that more churches may be able to gather soon without the threat of danger. May he restore and purify his ordinances and bless his people through them. And may he work through his preached word, which is not bound, that it may be fruitful and fill the earth with the children of God. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Future and Christ's Return

In 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, the apostle Paul gives a concise overview of the future.

First, Paul says that because Christ rose from the dead, those who belong to him will also rise from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20-22). This is the primary point of the chapter. The resurrection of Christ is fundamental to the gospel, and it necessarily implies our resurrection, so that to deny our future resurrection is to a deny Christ's resurrection and therefore the gospel. His resurrection showed that he had gained power over death by atoning for our sins by his death. Just as Christ rose from the dead, so all who belong to him will also rise from the dead. Not only do the souls of believers go to be with Christ when we die, but their bodies will be raised, glorified, and reunited with their souls at the resurrection.

Second, Paul says that death is the last enemy Christ destroys (1 Cor. 15:23, 26). Our resurrection comes in the culmination of his conquest when he returns. This is contrary to the idea of a rapture which takes place before tribulation, a millennial kingdom, and a final struggle with Satan. The resurrection described here (and in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) is when the last enemy to be destroyed - death - is destroyed. After that time, there will be no more enemies to be destroyed. And as John 5:28-29 says, Christ resurrects his people unto life at the same time as he resurrects the rest to condemnation. When Christ comes, he will raise the dead, judge all men, and welcome his people to eternal glory with him in the new heavens and new earth.

Third, Paul says that between Christ's resurrection and our resurrection he sits in heaven and reigns, putting his enemies under his feet (1 Cor. 15:24-25). He alludes here to Psalm 110 which describes the reign of the ascended Messiah at the Father's right hand as a time of conquest. By his word and Spirit, Jesus subdues our hearts so that we willingly offer ourselves to his service, having been redeemed by him from bondage. By his word and Spirit he equips us to wage war with him against the spiritual forces of evil. By his sovereign authority he protects his church and overthrows his enemies. Though his people will suffering persecution, yet the gates of hell will not prevail against them. Rather, Christ will preserve and extend his church and destroy those who persecute the apple of his eye (or mercifully convert them, as he converted Paul). While this age is one of perpetual struggle, it is not one of perpetual defeat.

Fourth, Paul says this whole process aims at establishing God's dominion over all things (1 Cor. 15:24, 27-28). Originally God was to rule the world through Adam. But in Adam the world rebelled, aligned itself with the evil one, and became subject to death. So Christ was sent as the last Adam to restore God's dominion over the earth and to fill it with his people. By his death for our sins and his resurrection from the grave, he secured the power to accomplish this task. He is now exercising this power and it shall culminate at his return with the redemption of our bodies and the release of this creation from its bondage to corruption (Rom. 8:18-23).

Therefore we should fix our minds on things above, on the reality of the reigning Christ. He is even now pouring out the benefits of his death and resurrection by his word and Spirit and accomplishing the conquest of this rebellious world. Though we and all creation groan under our present sufferings and the present reality of death, these groans are birth pains which shall be followed by resurrection life and victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Hope for the Future Increase of the Church

Last Sunday I preached on Isaiah 66:7-14, a prophecy of God's restoration of his church which portrays the church as a mother who would miraculously give birth to abundant children who would be nursed and cared for by her. Here I wanted to share John Calvin's comment on verse eight of this passage. Even though the church may seem nearly barren for a time, God shall in time make his church fruitful through the gospel, even as Calvin observed during the time of the Reformation.
"Who has heard such a thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?
For as soon as Zion was in labor
she brought forth her children."
(Isaiah 66:8)
John Calvin:
"He extols the greatness of the thing of which he has spoken; for he means that there shall be a wonderful and 'unheard of' restoration of the Church; so that believers shall not judge of it from the order of nature, but from the grace of God; for when men reflect upon it: they think that it is like a dream, as the Psalmist says (Psalm 126:1). He does not mean that the Church shall be restored perfectly and in a moment; for the advancement of this restoration is great and long-continued, and is even slow in the estimation of the flesh; but he shews that even the beginning of it exceeds all the capacity of the human understanding. And yet he does not speak hyperbolically; for we often see that the Church brings forth, which previously did not appear to be pregnant. Nay more, when she is thought to be barren, she is rendered fruitful by the preaching of the gospel; so that we greatly admire the event, when it has happened, which formerly we reckoned to be altogether incredible. 
"These things were fulfilled in some measure, when the people returned from Babylon; but a far brighter testimony was given in the gospel, by the publication of which a diversified and numerous offspring was immediately brought forth. In our own times, have we not seen the fulfillment of this prophecy? How many children has the Church brought forth during the last thirty years, in which the gospel has been preached? Has not the Lord his people, at the present day, in vast numbers, throughout the whole world? Nothing, therefore, has been here foretold that is not clearly seen." (

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Salvation and Mother Church

This past Sunday, I preached a sermon entitled "Mother Church" on Isaiah 66:7-14. In that passage, God describes the church as a fruitful, beloved, and blessed mother. You can listen to the sermon here or watch it here. As I point out in the sermon, the church is also described as a mother in other passages, like Isaiah 54 and Galatians 4:21-31. This biblical image for the church has been used throughout church history by men like Cyprian (200-258), and John Calvin (1509-1564) echoed his comments when he wrote of the church:
“What God has thus joined, let not man put asunder: to those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother … [A]s it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels. For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for ...” - John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (4.1.1, 4)
Beautiful words, but also strong words, especially that last sentence. He goes on to explain it by discussing Isaiah 37:32, Joel 2:32, Ezekiel 13:9, and Psalm 106:4-5. And Calvin was not alone in speaking so strongly of the visible church. Consider these statements from the confession of the continental Reformed churches and the confession of the British Reformed churches: 
"We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it..."
- Belgic Confession of Faith, 28 (1561) 
"The visible church ... is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation."
-Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.2 (1646)
Why would a Protestant say that there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside the visible church? Watch the video below to find out! I give four biblical reasons why there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside the visible church. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Describing Manhood and Womanhood

I once had a professor, very good in other respects, who told me that men and women were different but that we cannot (and should not) say how they are different beyond obvious biological differences. Any attempt to do so was, in his thinking, an unwarranted generalization, certainly one unwarranted by the Bible. This was in reaction, I believe, to the concept of biblical manhood and womanhood promoted by people like John Piper and Wanye Grudem. I found my professor's position unconvincing.

It was interesting that another professor at the same school strongly emphasized the importance of the fact that we are embodied beings. He taught that our bodies are essential to us. We are material beings who have been given life. This has implications for gender differences. I remember him making a point that LGBT advocates have been able to promote a low view of the body because many Christians already viewed humans as essentially souls. Looking back at my notes from his class, I find this note: "More work needs to be done on the content of gender differences. (We had quite a bit of discussion in the second half of class.)" 

Indeed, the physical differences between men and women can be too easily minimized, as if they didn't make much of a difference apart from reproduction. But God has made us in wisdom, intricately and purposefully designing men and women differently. Not only did he give them different responsibilities, but he gave them different physical designs to match those responsibilities. These differences are ingrained in our natures, not restricted to roles we play in certain contexts. 

Allan C. Carlson describes the traditional family as the "natural family" because it is not merely traditional, but rooted in nature (see his books, The Natural Family: A Manifesto and The Natural Family Where It Belongs). Men and women are designed to create the natural family and to build society in conformity to it, but our society continually suppresses and rebels against this design in the name of the unnatural ideology of egalitarian individualism. 

So contrary to what my professor taught, I believe the Bible teaches that men and women are different and that these differences are not a total mystery. The fundamental differences are taught in the biblical account of the creation and naming of man and woman (see Genesis 1-5). They can be found in other parts of Scripture. Furthermore, they can be observed in nature. The Bible treats this knowledge as common sense. When it says that a particular army became like women (Jer. 50:37, 51:30, Is. 19:16), it assumes you know this is not a compliment. When it asks if a woman can forget her nursing child or fail to show compassion on the son of her womb (Is. 49:15), it assumes you know that this is a rhetorical question. 

One passage where some of the characteristic strengths of men and women are described is 1 Thessalonians 2. There the apostle Paul compared himself, Silas, and Timothy to a mother and a father. This does show that men can and should have virtues like gentleness that are more characteristic of women, just as the whole congregation can be exhorted to "act like men" in 1 Corinthians 16:13, that is, to be courageous. But at the same time, it affirms that men and women have unique gifts and strengthens which particularly equip them for their place in life.
"But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us." (1 Thessalonians 2:7–8)
A woman is uniquely designed be nurturing and tender. She is designed to compassionately share her self with her children. She carries them in her womb and even after giving birth keeps them alive with her body, giving them milk. A mother best exemplifies what it looks like to be gentle and affectionately desirous of someone. And while not all women become mothers, all women have the nature of mothers, engrained as it is into their embodied existence. And therefore this sacrificial care, personal affection, and gentleness is characteristic of femininity in general. 
"For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory." (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12)
A man is designed to rule and to lead others to accomplish the mission. Note the words Paul uses. "Exhort" - a father calls his children to act. "Encourage" - a father motivates his children and gives them confidence. Without this, children get provoked to anger. "Charge" - a father entrusts responsibility to his children and holds them accountable. To see an example of what this fatherly exhortation looks like, read Paul's second epistle to Timothy. While a mother is best equipped to nurture and comfort a child, a father is best equipped to correct and direct the child unto maturity. Both of these elements are important for a child's upbringing. And again, while not all men become fathers (Paul, for example), all men have the nature of fathers. 

More could be said. If you are interested in more in this vein, you might listen to C.R. Wiley's talk "Toxic Matriarchy" here or read one of his books, Man of the House and The Household and the War for the Cosmos. I think this topic is particularly an important point for millennial men like myself. While older generations of men might have been more prone to be overly distant, workaholic, or harsh, my sense is that millennial men tend to turn away from these faults and are prone to become overly informal, lazy, or soft. While we should be accessible and loving, we must not neglect the fact that we are particularly designed to have gravitas and bear authority so that we might lead others onward.

While 1 Thessalonians 2 does not encapsulate everything about manhood and womanhood, it assumes a knowledge of gender distinctions which our culture is hesitant to admit. Our culture is hesitant to affirm that there is a natural order at all - this impinges on my freedom to be what I want. Instead, all these distinctions must be explained as mere social constructs, which can and should be challenged. But if a design deeper than a social construct undergirds traditional gender distinctions, then it would be wiser to make peace with the Creator and begin to learn how to live in the world he designed.