I received a good question from a friend about yesterday’s post concerning Rachel Held Evans and communion, a question that had to do with how we fence the Table. In order to be able to get at the issues involved, let me remove it entirely from this dispute about RHE so we can grasp the general principles that apply.
First, let me state how we fence the Table and why. In our printed weekly bulletin, we have a separate box with the heading ” May I Come to the Table?” That question is answered affirmatively, provided the reader has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and is not under the discipline of the church.
But this brings up two wild cards — first, there are people out there who have been excommunicated who shouldn’t have been, and there are also a bunch of people who haven’t been who should have. What do we do with them?
With the former, we assume the legitimacy of the discipline, seeking to honor the authority of a sister church. At the same time, we have this person who has come to us for refuge. So we make an effort to contact the disciplining church for information about the discipline, about the trial, etc. If there is something we can do to help our refugee put things right, we would do that. But if the stated clerk for Diotrephes Memorial writes us a snippy little note inviting us to drop dead, and the claim of the refugee is that his fault was having the apostle John over for lunch, then our session would feel free to set aside the discipline, and welcome him to the Table.
With the latter, we are having to deal with the dismal state of the church today. As my father is fond of saying, and I follow him, God takes us from where we are, not from where we should have been. A lot of Christians are making their way through life as battered repaints, and had they come to us from a godly church, they would have been disciplined — for that unjustified divorce, for example. But of course, had they been nurtured in a godly church, maybe the divorce wouldn’t have happened. Often discipline doesn’t happen in churches because the churches themselves are fit subjects for discipline. In receiving such people, we are playing cards with the hand we were dealt. Everything rides on the openness of the people involved to be established in the faith in a sound way.
A complicating factor here is that, in my view, withholding communion from someone from another communion is not just an act of discipline with regard to that person, but in effect can be an act of discipline of the offending communion. This is something I am happy to do depending on how complicit the communion is in the offense, and how flamboyant it is, but I am very wary of cutting off a big branch because of what some twig has been saying.
Now there are two basic occasions for discipline — leprosy of the heart and leprosy of the head — life and doctrine. These would be, respectively, moral failings and doctrinal failings — immorality and heresy. You can drop either one of these failings into the structure outlined above.
The one additional criterion is that the standards concerning doctrinal error are stricter for anyone who is functioning in a teaching role — books, blogs, etc. For this reason, if someone who was a member of our church began publicly teaching feminism (a significant heresy, not a mere ” social” issue), that person would be disciplined. But if a parishioner has been negatively affected by feminism, we would simply teach and shepherd her.
Now here’s where the judgment calls come in, and this is where I part company with one particular conservative approach to fencing the Table. I argue this way, not because I don’t take sin seriously, but because I believe that there is an array of sins out there to take seriously, including the sins committed by disoriented churches as they attempt to discipline properly. There are churches that are so concerned for maintaining the fence around the Table that they have precious few resources left for putting food on the Table. A number have drifted into the mentality of an ecclesiastical North Korea — with a well fed military and a starving populace.
Now I know this is not the error of the vast majority of evangelical churches, which rarely practice church discipline. I grant that. The error of our day is overwhelmingly a lack of discipline. But among those churches which do practice discipline, the error I have described is not uncommon. Those who care about fencing the Table — as I do — can often be far more concerned to not commune the wrong person than they are concerned to offer bread and wine to those who are welcome in the sight of Christ. I would rather go the other way. I want us to guard ourselves against the error we are most likely to fall into.
Grace has a backbone, but grace is not all backbone. The fundamental reality that I want to be obvious at the Table is the invitation to every sinner. Part of the invitation — an essential part — is the invitation to leave all sin behind, to repent, in other words. And that is why I say, every week, “Come, and welcome, to Jesus Christ.”
It is not as though law deals with sin, and grace must be protected from sin by the law. No — what the law was powerless to do, weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, to be a vicarious sin offering. Grace deals with sin much more effectively than the law can on its own. There is a place for law, an honored place, which is why we still discipline. But it must be a subordinate place, and we protect our discipline with grace. We cannot ultimately protect our grace with discipline.
It may seem to some as though I have veered into some kind of zen Presbyterianism here, but I really don’t think so. Only a bloodied Christ can deliver us from sin, which means that the grace of God in Christ is the only possible deliverance from feminism.